It seems that there were certain aspects of being in a band that David Sylvian felt liberated from after Japan split up, but there were others that he missed almost immediately when setting out as a solo artist.
In 1986, just after the release of his second solo album Gone to Earth, he explained that his desire for musicians from a jazz background to perform on his records ‘came out of the frustration of working within a band like Japan which was studio-bound. Nothing was improvised except in rehearsals when you are putting the track together. Going into the studio everything was well prepared and you really knew what you were doing, and it was only a matter of sound you were working with. So, when Japan split up I wanted to get into something that had a bit more life to it, a bit more spontaneity to it.’
However, speaking in the very same interview about his methods for putting a track together as a solo artist, he says, ‘Well it’s changed since Japan split up obviously. The luxury of working with a band and just going in with the rough idea for a song, like a piano line or vocal melody and a guitar line, and just getting them to jam along until something gels is something I really miss, because that doesn’t exist for me now.’
Here lies a key dichotomy. Sylvian was released from a familiar way of working with a known group of musicians, free now to explore new musical avenues beyond their particular skills and experience. However, his musical path was drawing him more towards co-creating material with others through improvisation as opposed to individual composition. Now absent was a context for developing pieces with musicians who understood each other well and could therefore coax something special from one another.
Sylvian was eager to write in the studio, both instrumental work – the first collaboration with Holger Czukay having then been recently recorded (see ‘Plight’) – and also for the vocal projects. ‘I like writing in the studio if the conditions are right. I find that at least one piece of music on an album to be written in the studio is a very inspiring thing to do. Because it conjures up all the creative energy that it takes to write a piece, and that really helps you to finish the rest of the album and keeps things on a good level of creativity.’ (DS, 1986)
Perhaps then it wasn’t so surprising that late in the same decade that Japan split up they found themselves back together exploring fresh approaches to making music. Sylvian was asked about the project of getting back with his former bandmates, just before they entered the studio once again: ‘Yeah, that’s happening next month. Again, it was the idea of being in a position where I could improvise with people. I started thinking about getting a group of musicians together with whom I could improvise, put together a kind of band that I could bring together at certain periods, maybe for live performance or recording. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt, well, there’s a group of musicians there who would understand very well what I would want to do. And so I spoke to them all and everyone was so enthusiastic about it – we thought, “ok, let’s give it a try”.’ (DS, 1989)
Working with Richard Barbieri, Steve Jansen and Mick Karn, despite the differences that had caused Japan to practically implode, seemed to provide a stable enough unit from which to explore improvisation in a band context. ‘We are going in with absolutely no material written. We have not played together, the four of us, since we broke up, and we won’t play until we are in the studio. So it’s going to be strange, but I think quite exciting to be working together in that respect. We never really did improvise, we never did. Rehearsals were always working on written material that I brought into rehearsal. So we never really have played together freely in this way. So it will be a different kind of relationship. Which is why we are not using the old name and trying to cash in on that. The whole thing will come out under a different name. It feels like a different group.’ Knowing how relationships would once again fracture in the very late stages of the project, Sylvian’s next words are somewhat poignant: ‘The politics or whatever are completely different within it. It’s going to be totally open and totally democratic… We hope.’
The good intentions from all members going into the project were undoubtedly sincere and there was a certain freedom for them all in knowing that the band wouldn’t be the only format for their future musical output. ‘I think it’s that freedom that it’s not the “be and end all”. It’s something, it’s a side project, but something interesting may come out of it. I mean everybody’s totally devoted to it for the period we are together. The enthusiasm going into it is great, it really feels good to be working with people in that way, collaborating again with that kind of “sharing the experience” instead of…taking the whole thing on your own shoulders and seeing it through.’ (DS, 1989)
There was also a commitment to the concept of developing the material in the studio, and a resolve to stick to this way of working even if it didn’t immediately ‘fly’. ‘We are determined not to be put off by a month of playing together and nothing happening. We are not going to go off and write material and come back and give that a try, we really do want to make this improvised situation happen… It may take a while because we haven’t been together for so long, we haven’t played together, to find ground that we all feel, “well, yes, this it; this is where we are going.” Because I do think that we have different musical interests, and it may take a while to sort all that out. We’ve spoken about it…but it remains vague because there is only so much you can say. Richard and I are individually programming sounds into synths, and I guess that once this is brought into a room together it will start creating environments, you know; the sounds will immediately suggest things and take us off in to certain directions, and we’ll just play it by ear and see what happens.’
David’s excitement on the eve of the project is infectious and everything seemed to be set up to create the right environment for the musical magic to happen. There would also be another party to help the process along: ‘We’ve got Michael Brook who is going to be co-producing it with us. Again, his enthusiasm has been really good and it’s always useful to have that person there. Another set of ears to sort of pull out something that maybe we don’t hear as we are playing together, and say, “well there’s something there, we should follow that.” And as a musician, obviously.’
I’ve always loved the instrumental ‘Red Earth (as summertime ends)’ because it seems to capture what the reunited musicians hoped to achieve in their new set-up. A polished piece, for sure, but one that emerged from those improvised experiments in the studio. Drums and percussion are distinctive and rhythms intricately structured – yet this is light years from Tin Drum. Those synthesiser sounds meticulously prepared by Messrs Barbieri and Sylvian are as unique as in Japan, yet conjuring another musical landscape completely. Mick’s bass is less flamboyant than his earlier trademark rubbery-riffs, yet there is a moment where his fretless subtly leads the melody. Space continues to be an important element in the mix, if not as stark as in the Chinese-influenced compositions of their earlier incarnation.
The creation of the piece speaks to a common purpose and equality of role. Steve Jansen: ‘This was where we all set up and played percussion. I was playing ceramic drums, Mick was on tabla and Dave was on some Indian drum. We all just jammed and realised we’d got a feel going’ (1991). Oh, how I love the sound of the ethnic drums on this track; so evocative and real.
This was surely the alchemy for which they were all searching. Richard Barbieri reflected on ‘Red Earth…’ at the time of release, ‘it was all live even though it sounds quite arranged and has a subtle orchestra arrangement built around it.’ The piece includes Phil Palmer’s gorgeous acoustic guitar response which is reminiscent of his masterful contribution to ‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels‘ from Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive. In 2021 I had the opportunity to encourage Phil to re-listen to the track, a rare occurrence for him given his prodigious recorded output. His response to hearing the ‘nylon string solo’? ‘I must say, it’s rather lovely.’
Whilst Michael Brook did not stay on throughout the production of the album as originally intended, he is present as part of the percussion jam on bass conga.
Recently I’ve been listening again to the 1999 album _ism by Jansen, Barbieri & Karn, especially the instrumental tracks. It seems to me that these come from the same well-spring of inspiration as Rain Tree Crow, a further exploration of the ideals of that project between three of the four members. In an interview reproduced in their Medium newsletter in 2000, Steve Jansen explained the creative approach: ‘We usually work with new ideas directly to multi-track with the expectation that it will be the master recording. We don’t like to do demo pieces first. There are any number of ways that a track may come to fruition, typically though (as with the _ism album) the three of us would “jam” for hours. What happens is that we delve into less familiar areas of our own performance or style of musicianship and (hopefully) tap into something worthwhile. The more years we spend being musicians, the more important it becomes to discard our trappings and therefore, when we get the opportunity, we like to explore.’
Much later, Steve was asked explicitly how closely the approach for _ism mirrored Rain Tree Crow. ‘It wasn’t too dissimilar in that we improvised ideas together until we hit upon something that we felt showed promise. We started the project in a residential studio too, as with RTC, and were similarly isolated from civilisation for a number of weeks, although for nothing like as long. A significant budgetary difference though, RTC cost a quarter of a million and still wasn’t enough. _ism cost a mere fraction of that.’ (2016)
‘Found in a Shell of Murmurs’ features understated bass from Mick and the unique personality of his clarinet playing. Steve’s acoustic percussion reminds me of ‘Red Earth…’ and Richard’s keyboard textures are as engrossing as ever. The instrumental even manages to capture snatches of piano performed by all three musicians. Flutes are played by Clive Bell, later a collaborator with David Sylvian on ‘When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima’.
Incorporating such tracks into my Vista playlist creates a kind of expanded Rain Tree Crow experience, an extension to what is a highlight in all of their careers to date.
‘Red Earth (as summertime ends)’
Richard Barbieri – synthesisers; Michael Brook – bass conga; Brian Gascoigne – orchestration; Steve Jansen – ceramic drums, percussion; Mick Karn – bass, tabla; Phil Palmer – acoustic guitar; David Sylvian – slide guitar, synthesisers, Indian drum
Music by Rain Tree Crow.
Produced by Rain Tree Crow. From Rain Tree Crow by Rain Tree Crow, Virgin, 1991.
Engineered by Pat McCarthy. Mixed by David Sylvian and Steve Nye at Olympic Studios, London.
Computer programming by Steve Jansen. Keyboard programming by Richard Barbieri and David Sylvian.
Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
Download link: ‘Red Earth (as summertime ends)’ (iTunes)
Physical media: Rain Tree Crow (Amazon)
‘I think we all have good things to say about this album. All of my favourite albums across my career seem to be when a new sound or direction is achieved. Rain Tree Crow was released ten years on from Tin Drum and had a completely different approach and feel. Everything was more organic and earthy sounding. The arrangements were opened up and quite experimental. Nearly all aspects were improvised in the studio. It was very enjoyable and fun to make.’ Richard Barbieri, 2017
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