David Sylvian

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David Sylvian
David Sylvian, November 1982
David Sylvian, November 1982
Background information
Birth nameDavid Alan Batt
Born (1958-02-23) 23 February 1958 (age 63)
OriginBeckenham, England
InstrumentsVoice, guitars, keyboards
Years active1974–present
LabelsVirgin, Samadhisound
Associated actsJapan, Nine Horses, Robert Fripp, Rain Tree Crow, Ryuichi Sakamoto

David Sylvian (born David Alan Batt, 23 February 1958) is an English singer-songwriter and musician who came to prominence in the late 1970s as frontman and principal songwriter of the band Japan. The band's androgynous look and increasingly electronic sound made them an important influence on the UK's early-1980s New Romantic scene.[5] Following their break-up, Sylvian embarked on a solo career with his debut album Brilliant Trees (1984). His solo work has been described by AllMusic as "far-ranging and esoteric", and has included collaborations with artists such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Robert Fripp, Holger Czukay, Jon Hassell, Bill Nelson and Fennesz.[7] While his recordings of the 1980s and 1990s were a mixture of pop, jazz fusion, and avant-garde experimentalism mixed with ambient, his more recent compositions have drawn increasingly on musical minimalism and free improvisation.


Early years[edit]

David Sylvian was born 23 February 1958 as David Alan Batt in Beckenham, Kent. He grew up in nearby Lewisham, South London in a working-class home. His father Bernard was a plasterer by trade, his mother Sheila a housewife. He had an older sister and a younger brother, Steve. Sylvian later said he never enjoyed his childhood, mainly because of the environment of mid-sixties Lewisham. As an escape and emotional release from his discomfort he found an interest in music via his sister, who brought Motown and soul records to the home. He attended Catford Boys School where he became friends with Anthony Michaelides, later known as Mick Karn. When David got an acoustic guitar and his brother a drum kit as Christmas presents from their father, the trio began to play music together.[8]

1970s–early 1980s: Japan[edit]

Japan in Toronto, 24 November 1979

The band Japan, whose other members included bassist Mick Karn, guitarist Rob Dean, keyboardist Richard Barbieri and Sylvian's brother Steve as drummer, began as a group of friends. As youngsters they played music as a means of escape, playing Sylvian's two-chord numbers – sometimes with Karn as the frontman, sometimes with Sylvian at the fore. A fan of the New York Dolls, Sylvian adopted his stage name from Sylvain Sylvain, while his brother took Jansen from David Johansen.[9]

They christened themselves Japan in 1974, signed a recording contract with Hansa, and became an alternative glam rock outfit in the mould of David Bowie, T. Rex, and the New York Dolls. Over a period of a few years, their music became more sophisticated, drawing initially on the art rock stylings of Roxy Music. Their visual image also evolved and, although they had worn make-up since their creation in the mid-1970s, the band was unintentionally tagged with the New Romantic label in the early 1980s. The band themselves disputed any connection with the New Romantic movement, and Sylvian stated: "I don't like to be associated with them. The attitudes are so very different." Of Japan's fashion sense, Sylvian said: "For them [New Romantics], fancy dress is a costume. But ours is a way of life. We look and dress this way every day."[10] In an October 1981 interview, at the pinnacle of the New Romantic movement in mainstream pop music, Sylvian commented: "There's a period going past at the moment that may make us look as though we're in fashion."[11]

Japan released five studio albums between March 1978 and November 1981. In 1980, the band signed with Virgin Records, where Sylvian remained as a recording artist for the next twenty years. The band suffered from personal and creative clashes, particularly between Sylvian and Karn, with tensions springing from Sylvian's relationship with Yuka Fujii, a photographer, artist, and designer, and Karn's former girlfriend.[12] Fujii quickly became an influential figure in Sylvian's life. She was the first person to introduce Sylvian seriously to jazz, which in turn inspired him to follow musical avenues not otherwise open to him.[13] She also encouraged Sylvian to incorporate spiritual discipline into his daily routine. Throughout his solo career, Fujii maintained a large role in the design of artwork for his albums.[13] Japan played their final concerts in December 1982 before dissolving.

1980s–1990s: Solo career[edit]

In 1982, Sylvian released his first solo collaborative effort with Ryuichi Sakamoto, entitled "Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music". He also worked with Sakamoto on the UK Top 20 song "Forbidden Colours" for the 1983 Nagisa Oshima film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Sakamoto's first contribution to Sylvian's work, though, had been as co-writer of "Taking Islands in Africa" on the Japan album Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980).

Sylvian's debut solo album, Brilliant Trees (1984), included contributions from (amongst others) Sakamoto, trumpeter Jon Hassell and former Can bassist Holger Czukay. It featured the UK Top 20 single "Red Guitar".

In 1985, Sylvian released an instrumental EP Words with the Shaman, in collaboration with Jansen, Hassell, and Czukay—a recording that, when re-released the same year as full-length album Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities, included the addition of Sylvian's "Steel Cathedrals", the soundtrack to his video release of the same name.

The next release was the two-record set Gone to Earth (1986), which featured one record of atmospheric vocal tracks and a second record consisting of ambient instrumentals. The album contained significant contributions from noted guitarists Bill Nelson (formerly of Be-Bop Deluxe) and Robert Fripp (of King Crimson), and a rhythm section comprising Steve Jansen of Japan on drums and Ian Maidman of Penguin Cafe Orchestra on bass.[14]

Secrets of the Beehive (1987) made greater use of acoustic instruments and was musically oriented towards sombre, emotive ballads laced with string arrangements by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Brian Gascoigne. The album yielded one of Sylvian's most well-received songs, "Orpheus", and was later followed by his first live outing as a solo artist, in a 80-day world tour "In Praise of Shamans", March to June 1988. Featuring Robbie Aceto, Richard Barbieri, Mark Isham, Steve Jansen, Ian Maidman and David Torn.[15] There were no songs from Sylvians former band Japan in the setlist.

Following Secrets of the Beehive, Sylvian underwent an extended period of depression and undertook analysis as a way of coming to terms with facts in his childhood upbringing, and his restless search for a spiritual creed to which he could adhere. Ultimately he left behind his Christian roots and via explorations of widely varied philosophies ranging from the writings of Gurdjieff to Gnosticism to Zen Buddhism, all of which left its traces in his lyrics and music, he settled on Buddhism as his primary spiritual path.

Never one to conform to commercial expectations, Sylvian then collaborated with Holger Czukay. Plight and Premonition, issued in 1988, and Flux and Mutability, recorded and released the following year, also included contributions from Can members Jaki Liebezeit and Michael Karoli.

Virgin decided to close out the 1980s with the release of Weatherbox, an elaborate boxed-set compilation consisting of Sylvian's four previous solo albums and designed by Russell Mills. Concurrent with Weatherbox, Sylvian released the non-album single "Pop Song."

In 1990, Sylvian collaborated with artists Russell Mills and Ian Walton on the elaborate multi-media installation using sculpture, sound, and light titled Ember Glance – The Permanence of Memory. The exhibition was staged at the temporary museum 'Space FGO-Soko' on Tokyo Bay, Shinagawa, Tokyo.[16]

1991-1994: Rain Tree Crow and Robert Fripp[edit]

The members of Japan came together once more, as Rain Tree Crow, after a 9-year hiatus. The majority of the material was written as a result of group improvisations, with no pre-rehearsals. This approach to writing was an integral element to the whole project, and in many ways it was the reason for the collaboration. The Rain Tree Crow project had initially been conceived as a long term album deal, with Sylvian's insistence that the name Japan would not be used in conjunction with its promotion. But the recording went over budget and Virgin refused to put in any more money unless the name Japan could be used. The resulting deadlock was resolved by Sylvian's decision to personally finance the mixing of the album. However, the group were no longer to reform, and the album was released as a one-off.[17]

In 1992, while working on the Sakamoto single "Heartbeat", Sylvian met Ingrid Chavez, a singer and actress who had been a member of Prince's inner circle. The same year the couple married and moved to Minneapolis.[18]

Sylvian first thought of collaborating with guitarist Robert Fripp in 1986, but, characteristically, it took them a while to manage it. They only began to improvise and write as a duo at the end of 1991.

Fripp had encouraged Sylvian to return to the live-stage, a place he admitted he did not found comfortable (‘Sylvian didn't like being the centre of attention’). The pair's concerts were, like Sylvian's work in the studio, largely improvised. On the few dates they undertook in Japan and Italy in 1992, they had no idea when they walked out into the lights what might happen, even what time they would finish their night's labour. ‘It could lead to a very brief performance,’ Sylvian said. ‘It was all over after 45 minutes one night.’ Another evening Sylvian found himself confronted with his past. He felt moved to play an acoustic version of ‘Ghosts’, Japan's biggest hit. ‘It was the first time I’ve touched it since 1983,’ he said. ‘It was quite nice because it somehow satisfied the expectation of the audience that I should play something from my song- book’[19]

Sylvian said in 2006: "It was the trio work that we did first, only in Europe, Trey Gunn, Robert Fripp and myself, that was the eyeopener. We had some material which was kind of knocked up one week before we went on the road, and so it was very unstable, and just sitting there on stage with these guys and just trying to keep a hold of it was fascinating. There were periods in the evening when I was doing nothing, and I was just absorbed in what Robert was doing. And I began to realize that it was a comfortable place to be. I enjoy this environment. Up until that point it was all about reproducing the songs and presenting them in such-and-such way. But this was different, and this began to interest me, and it opened up my eyes to the pleasures of performing."[20]

Fripp and Sylvian then recorded the album The First Day released in July 1993. Something of a departure for Sylvian, the album melded Sylvian's philosophical lyrics to funk workouts and aggressive rock stylings very much in the mould of Fripp's King Crimson. To capitalise on the album's success, the musicians went back out on the road in the autumn of 1993. A live recording, called Damage and released in 1994, was culled from the final shows of the tour.

Sylvian and Fripp's final collaboration was the installation Redemption – Approaching Silence. The exhibition was held at the P3 Art and Environment centre in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and ran from 30 August to 18 September 1994. The accompanying music was composed by Sylvian, with text written and recited by Fripp.

1995-1999: Slow Fire Tour and Dead Bees on a Cake[edit]

In the autumn of 1995, Sylvian undertook a one-man solo tour which he called 'Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective', with dates in Italy, Germany, Japan, Belgium, Holland, England, and North America.[21]

A period of relative musical inactivity followed, during which Sylvian and Ingrid Chavez moved from Minneapolis to the Napa Valley. Chavez had given birth to two daughters, Ameera-Daya (born 1993) and Isobel (born 1997), and pursued her interest in photography and music.

In 1999, Sylvian released Dead Bees on a Cake, his first solo album proper since Secrets of the Beehive 12 years earlier. The album gathered together the most eclectic influences of all his recordings, ranging from soul music to jazz fusion to blues to Eastern-inflected spiritual chants, and most of the songs' lyrics reflected the now 41-year-old Sylvian's inner peace resulting from his marriage, family, and beliefs. Guest musicians included long-time friend Ryuichi Sakamoto, classically trained tabla player Talvin Singh, avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot, jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and contemporary jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. In 2010, Sylvian said, "Since the early '80s I've been interested in deconstructing the familiar forms of popular song, in retaining the structure but removing the pillars of support. My work continually returns to this question: how much of the framework can you remove while still being able to identify what is, after all, a familiar form?"[22]

2000 to 2009: Samadhi Sound[edit]

Following Dead Bees, Sylvian released 2 compilation albums on Virgin Records, a two-disc retrospective, Everything and Nothing (2000), and an instrumental collection, Camphor (2002). Both albums contained previously released material, some remixes, and several new or previously unreleased tracks which Sylvian finished especially for the projects. Combined, the retrospective releases effectively marked a full stop on Sylvians association with Virgin, the split coming at the beginning of 2001.

Sakamoto wanted some English lyrics to his project Zero Landmine, and he asked his friend Sylvian to write a simple tender lyric that could be sung by children. Included on the release were various versions of the song, one being a Sylvian vocal with just the backing of Sakamotos piano.[23]

In the period of 24 September to 27 October 2001, David Sylvian performed live with a band, featuring Steve Jansen, Matt Cooper, Timothy Young and Keith Lowe, in several European and Japanese cities. In May 2002, Sylvian toured in the US and Canada.

Sylvian and Chavez had now moved to New Hampshire, but the couple were divorced in 2003.

After Sylvian had left Virgin Records he launched his own independent label, Samadhi Sound. He released the album Blemish. Blemish included contributions from Christian Fennesz and Derek Bailey. Sylvian used a different approach with this album. He has said about his process, "With Blemish I started each day in the studio with a very simple improvisation on guitar. Once recorded, I'd listen back and use cues from the improv—the dynamic and so on—to dictate the structure of the piece. I'd write lyrics and melody on the spot, and would follow that up with the recording of the vocal itself."[22]

Sylvian also recorded the EP World Citizen with Sakamoto, which was released in Japan in October 2003, and in Europe April 2004.

In the period of 23 September 2003 to 27 April 2004 Sylvian toured in Europe and in Japan, featuring Steve Jansen with visuals by Masakatsu Takagi.

Simultaneously Sylvian had started a project with Jansen and Berndt Friedman called Nine Horses. They released the album Snow Borne Sorrow in October 2005.

David Sylvian took to the road once again 17 September to 30 October 2007 for 'The World Is Everything' tour. A tour of Europe, Hong Kong and Japan, featuring Steve Jansen, Keith Lowe, and Takuma Watanabe.[24] A fusion of styles, including jazz and electronica, the tour enabled Sylvian to perform music from the Nine Horses project, as well as various selections from his back catalogue. Steve Jansen also released his solo album Slope 2007, with two tracks co-written by Sylvian: "Ballad of a Dead Man" (a duet with singer Joan Wasser), and "Playground Martyrs".

A new solo album entitled Manafon was released on 14 September 2009 in two editions – a regular CD/digipak edition and a twin boxset deluxe edition with two books that include the CD and a DVD featuring the film 'Amplified Gesture'. Manafon featured contributions from leading figures in electroacoustic improvisation such as saxophonist Evan Parker, multi-instrumentalist Otomo Yoshihide, laptop + guitarist Christian Fennesz, Polwechsel's double bassist Werner Dafeldecker and cellist Michael Moser, sinewaves specialist Sachiko M and AMM alumni guitarist Keith Rowe, percussionist Eddie Prévost and pianist John Tilbury. In 2010, Sylvian talked about Manafon, and said:

"What happened with Manafon was that the work abandoned me. As I was writing and developing the material, the spirit holding all these disparate elements together just left me. I sat stunned for a moment and then realised: It's over; this is as far as it goes…In a sense, I'd been steadily working my way toward Manafon since I was a young man listening to Stockhausen and dabbling in deconstructing the pop song. Having said that, I don't think we only develop as artists practising in our chosen fields. For me, that meant an exploration of intuitive states via meditation and other related disciplines which, the more I witnessed free-improv players at work, appeared to be crucially important to enable a being there in the moment, a sustained alertness and receptivity."[22]

2010 to present[edit]

In 2010, Sylvian released a compilation disc of his collaborative works with musicians over the last 10 years – Sleepwalkers includes songs with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tweaker, Nine Horses, Steve Jansen, Christian Fennesz and Arve Henriksen. Also included are a few new songs such as "Sleepwalkers" which is co-written with drummer Martin Brandlmayr of Radian and Polwechsel.

In 2011, the double disc Died in the Wool was released as variations on the 2009 release Manafon with the addition of six new pieces, including collaborations with composer Dai Fujikura, producers Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, and a roster of contemporary musicians and improvisers. For the first time, a stereo mix of the audio installation "When We Return You Won't Recognise Us" is available on CD, pairing a group of improvisers – John Butcher, Arve Henriksen, Günter Müller, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Eddie Prévost – with a string sextet directed by Fujikura.

Also in 2011, Sylvian acted as the artist in residence at the Punkt Festival in Norway. In addition to curating the events of the festival, Sylvian performed both compositions from the Holger Czukay-collaborated album Plight & Premonition, backed by John Tilbury, Jan Bang, Phillip Jeck, Eivind Aarset, Erik Honoré, and Arve Henriksen. The positive reception led to the decision to tour throughout Europe in 2012. The Implausible Beauty tour was due to feature a line-up of musicians including Jan Bang, guitarist Eivind Aarset, pianist Sebastian Lexer, cellist Hildur Gudnadottir and trumpeter Gunnar Halle. The tour was cancelled in late January 2012 due to an injury Sylvian sustained.[25]

In 2013, Sylvian released Do You Know Me Now?, a one-time pressing released with a re-mastered version of "Where's Your Gravity?"[26]

In 2014, Sylvian released There's a Light That Enters Houses with No Other House in Sight, a long-form composition with contributions from Christian Fennesz and John Tilbury and featuring spoken word by American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Franz Wright of excerpts from Wright's own Kindertotenwald.[27][28]

In 2015, Sylvian released Playing The Schoolhouse with Confront Recordings in two limited editions. The release, a 15-minute long composition, was composed based on improvisations by Sylvian and Jan Bang – with contributions by Otomo Yoshihide and Toshimaru Nakamura – and was recorded in a schoolhouse in Norway.[29][30] Sylvian collaborated again with Confront Recordings in 2017, with Mark Wastell (who runs Confront Recordings) and Rhodri Davies for the first release of the Confront Core Series, There Is No Love. The long-form composition was created with previously recorded materials, and features text from Bernard-Marie Koltès's In the Solitude of Cotton Fields.[31]

Personal life[edit]

Sylvian still lives in the woods of southern New Hampshire in the former site of an ashram, doing most of his work in the barn that contains his home recording studio.

In August 2018 in the Uncut magazine Sylvian said about his future: "I’m not currently thinking about a future in the arts. To quote Sarah Kendzior from her book The View From Flyover Country, "This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don’t actually like it."[32]





  1. ^ Harvell, Jess. "Review: Sleepwalkers – David Sylvian". Pitchfork Media. Retrieved 19 August 2016.
  2. ^ a b Hegarty, Paul; Halliwell, Martin (2011), Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN 978-0-8264-2332-0
  3. ^ "The Cure's Robert Smith, David Sylvian, and other New-Wave icons in bizarre Japanese Manga". Post-punk.com. 29 January 2018.
  4. ^ "The History of Rock Music: David Sylvian".
  5. ^ a b Tago Mago > Review, AllMusic, retrieved 16 June 2010
  6. ^ Mason, Stewart. "Japan – "Taking Islands in Africa"". AllMusic. Retrieved 10 July 2017.
  7. ^ Jason Ankeny. "David Sylvian – Biography – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 12 January 2015.
  8. ^ Martin Power David Sylvian: The Last Romantic Omnibus Press 2012, chapter 1
  9. ^ Jansen, Steve. "Answer to question regarding Jansen and Sylvian name origin". Sleepyard. Tumblr. Archived from the original on 12 October 2016.
  10. ^ "Rolling Stone Random Notes", The Tuscaloosa News, Tuscaloosa, AL, p. 6, 17 July 1981
  11. ^ Rimmer, Dave (October 1981). "Japanese Boys (an interview with David Sylvian and Mick Karn)". Smash Hits. Vol. 3 no. 22. EMAP Metro. pp. 42–43.
  12. ^ "YUKA FUJII Gallery". Netcomuk.co.uk. Retrieved 12 January 2015.
  13. ^ a b Power, Martin (1998). The Last Romantic. Omnibus Press. p. 72.
  14. ^ Scott Bultman. "Gone to Earth". AllMusic.
  15. ^ "David Sylvian: Live Performances". davidsylvian.com.
  16. ^ [1] Archived 15 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Article by Nigel Humberstone (SOUND ON SOUND magazine, June ’91)
  18. ^ Swensson, Andrea. "Interview: Ingrid Chavez on her friendship with Prince and working with him as Paisley Park opened its doors". thecurrent.org. Retrieved 11 July 2020.
  19. ^ It can't be him (The Independent, June 1993) JIM WHITE
  20. ^ "Pitchforkmedia". 31 December 2020.
  21. ^ Slowfire – A Personal Retrospective 1995, Tour Program
  22. ^ a b c "David Sylvian by Keith Rowe". Bomb Magazine. Retrieved 12 January 2015.
  23. ^ E. Young, Christopher. On the Periphery.
  24. ^ "Live". 31 December 2020.
  25. ^ "David Sylvian Tour Dates in March / April Postponed". Davidsylvian.com. Retrieved 12 January 2015.
  26. ^ "Do You Know Me Now?". Retrieved 2 July 2017.
  27. ^ "David Sylvian: Information". Retrieved 2 July 2017.
  28. ^ "Franz Wright". Retrieved 2 July 2017.
  29. ^ "David Sylvian: Playing the Schoohouse". Retrieved 2 July 2017.
  30. ^ "Playing the Schoolhouse". Retrieved 2 July 2017.
  31. ^ "Rhodri Davies/David Sylvian/Mark Wastell – There Is No Love". Retrieved 2 July 2017.
  32. ^ "Uncut". 31 December 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Martin Power. David Sylvian: the Last Romantic. London: Omnibus Press, 1988.
  • Christopher E. Young. On the Periphery: David Sylvian – A Biography; The Solo Years, London, Malin Publishing, 2015.
  • Anthony J Reynolds. "Japan: A Foreign Place (The Biography 1974–1984)". Burning Shed Publishing, 2015
  • Leonardo Vittorio Arena. David Sylvian as a Philosopher: A Foray into Postmodern Rock. Mimesis International (MIM Edizioni Srl), 2016.
  • Yuka Fujii. Like Planets. Osmosis UK and Opium Arts & Eyesencia, 2018. ISBN 978-0-9509550-4-9.

External links[edit]