The first fruits of David Sylvian’s collaboration with Burnt Friedman were heard on a 2005 three track vinyl ep entitled Out in The Sticks, in a line-up that also headlined ex-CAN drummer and past collaborator, Jaki Liebezeit. Sylvian appeared on only one of the cuts, contributing vocals to the original version of ‘The Librarian’ (see here for a discussion with Burnt themed around that track).
There was another piece on the ep that would soon sound much more familiar to fans of Friedman/Jansen/Sylvian in their incarnation as Nine Horses. As ‘The Librarian’ fades from sight, bright acoustic guitar chords herald ‘182/9’. Later we would recognise this as the unmistakable theme to ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’. Tim Motzer’s guitar work is integral to the sprightly tempo and buoyant feel of that Nine Horses track. Indeed, his musical invention earned the only writing credit on the album outside the core trio.
So how did the versatile guitarist from Philadelphia wind up working with Burnt and Jaki, based on the other side of the Atlantic? ‘I met Burnt at Popkomm 2001 in Cologne,’ Tim told me, ‘an international showcase for new artists, while I was there performing with poet Ursula Rucker. He came up to me, and initially thought I was Horst Weidenmüller, the CEO of K7 Records, Ursula’s label at the time. Once I explained that I played with Ursula the night before, he said he had seen and enjoyed our set. I knew his work, and I asked him if he would be interested in collaborating sometime. We stayed in touch.’
The thought of working together might have remained just a positive intention, but, ‘the next time I was in Cologne touring with Ursula, he came to our show at Stadtgarten, and backstage told me that now it was a good time to collaborate, and Jaki would be a part of the recordings.’ As a fan of both artists, Tim was enthralled at the prospect.
‘It was such exciting news! I was familiar with and really enjoyed Burnt’s work with Flanger [which was also what piqued the interest of David Sylvian and Steve Jansen] and the first Friedman/Liebezeit Secret Rhythms album. I am a huge fan of CAN and Jaki’s amazing drumming. The fact that he was working together with Burnt was very exciting to me. I enjoyed their rhythmic language and was thrilled about the chance of contributing sonically. Their particular creative process is based on the architecture of odd-time rhythmic grooves, and it remains very original. I felt that I understood what it might need guitar-wise.’
With Friedman and Liebezeit concocting their unfamiliar beats in another space and time, what was Tim seeking to bring to the tracks? ‘Colour, sonic texture, solo lines, funky riffs, sublime chords, and soul! The tracks arrived with drums and minimal keyboards, and dub basslines, so it was a wide-open canvas to interpretation. Through improvising and recording lots of ideas and takes, I was able to find some solid material that I was eager to share with Burnt. In total, I responded to nine tracks. ‘182/9′ was one of them.’
The contributions of other members of Burnt and Jaki’s musical circle were laid down separately to Tim’s guitar work. ‘I don’t recall Hayden Chisholm or Joseph Suchy being on these initial takes.’
From my own conversations with Burnt it’s clear that he and Jaki sparked off one another when working on the grooves. I saw Tim play live at Ronnie Scott’s in London last year with fellow guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and drummer Gintas Janusonis as Bandit65, and it was so evident in that performance that the band members were responding to one another in the very moment of improvisation. The creative process must surely be very different when responding alone in the home-studio to a file that has been sent electronically and is “fixed”, thereby calling for interaction with sounds that don’t in turn respond to your own playing?
‘It is very different remotely,’ Tim explains, ‘but I have a few ways to try to make it feel spontaneous in the studio. When I work remotely on music collaboration, I really try to play/record initially without listening too much. I aim to play like we are all improvising together all the way down the track, and try to find some special things that way. The take has to be “on,” in the sense that you are totally in it. I’m also improvising with different guitars and effects to see what flavour the song responds to. Many times, the song itself implies a way in: a particular guitar or riff, for instance. I try different things to see what really works’
On ‘182/9’, Tim’s guitar ranges from those airy chords to a blues-tinged solo line and even shades of Spain. Given the range of sounds in his personal repertoire, including loops and processed textures, how did he settle on the right vibe for the music? ‘As I recall, the track suggested acoustic guitar to me. It unfolded naturally. I reached for the acoustic and started to find those particular suspended chords right away, reacting to the bassline in the song. It built from there. As I worked on the song, I added layers of melodic acoustic guitar lines, solo bits, and octave parts. It’s an organic process, and from all of my experience touring and improvising and years of playing, I think I make quick decisions to find the heart of the song.’
There was no hint at this stage that a vocal might be part of the mix. ‘I thought the recordings I was doing with Jaki and Burnt would only end up as a Secret Rhythms album, so I was looking at the tracks as purely instrumental. But interestingly, I did think of David Sylvian a few times while I was tracking. Something in the spirit of the music I was working on evoked David’s aesthetic. You can imagine how I felt afterwards when Burnt told me David would be collaborating on the material!’
Tim’s admiration for Friedman and Liebezeit was matched by his regard for the singer and his past recordings. ‘I’ve been a fan of David’s work since the mid ’80s. In fact, if there was one artist that I would have wanted to work with, it was David. So it was very serendipitous. Brilliant Trees, Secrets of the Beehive, and Gone to Earth were albums that I initially heard and loved; I also remember having Alchemy, An Index of Possibilities on cassette. Much later on, Dead Bees on a Cake became one of my favourite albums and still is. I saw David perform in Philadelphia at the Theatre of the Living Arts and at New York City’s Town Hall – with Ryuichi Sakamoto joining – on the Everything and Nothing tour in 2001. I must say also that through David’s work I was introduced to many of my other favourite musicians — Jon Hassell, David Torn, and Kenny Wheeler, among many others. He also widened my awareness of ECM Recording artists.
‘Burnt let me know that he had met up with David in Cologne to discuss collaborating. David responded to all the tracks, and eventually Burnt mixed them all, which at the time, included Jaki on drums. Upon hearing the mixes, I discovered that my guitar melodies and chords were an integral structural and harmonic part of ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’.’
We know that Burnt’s original mixes were later much changed as Sylvian fleshed out the instrumentation and then integrated the material with songs that he and his brother had been working on for a proposed joint album. This development meant Jaki’s drum patterns giving way to Steve Jansen’s. So, somewhere, unheard by us, there must be a version of ‘The Day..’ with Sylvian on vocals and Jaki on drums? ‘Yes,’ confirms Tim, ‘there are two versions, and I like them both!’
Following on the tails of the Nine Horses album came Secret Rhythms 2, the project which Tim thought he was contributing to originally. The opening track ‘Sikkerhed’ (the Danish word for ‘security’) is another reworking of these musical themes. It’s a radically different arrangement from ‘182/9’, with an extended introduction before Tim’s guitar enters and Jaki drumming a different pattern. It’s interesting that distinct elements of the music for ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’ can be identified on each of ‘182/9’ and ‘Sikkerhed’. Played in sequence, it’s a trio of tracks that give insight into the development of musical ideas over time and between friends.
In many ways Tim’s contribution to Nine Horses exemplified the working methods employed for the project. Burnt Friedman never played in the same space with Jansen & Sylvian during Snow Borne Sorrow’s creation. ‘Nearly all the material on this album was created through file sharing,’ explained Sylvian during an appearance on BBC Radio 3 in the UK. Maybe this was even preferable to a live session. ‘What happens when you receive a file from another artist’, he continued, ‘is that you are able to respond in a very personal way, without the pressures of time. In a sense, as somebody said recently, this work comes into your space, into your private space, and you respond with the same level of commitment as you do to your own work. Which isn’t always the case when you’re working in the studio under the pressures of time, and under the gaze of other artists that are involved with the project.. ..Very often an artist will present you with many different options, because there aren’t strict guidelines as to what to play, and so they’ll give you a variety of different options to choose from.’
Tim did later get to play live with Burnt and Jaki. ‘In 2007, I was invited to come to Cologne to record with them and play a festival in Austria. I spent a week at Burnt’s studio in Cologne and recorded what became ‘130-09’ on Secret Rhythms 5 at nonplace studio. Later we rehearsed with Jaki at his studio, Stollwerk 404. That following weekend, we travelled to the Jazz Saalfelden Festival in the Austrian Alps, where we played a concert as part of an incredible festival programme.. ..It was an amazing day to say the least.’
Not so with Sylvian. ‘But David and I have been in touch by email and even old-fashioned mail over the years. At one point, he reached out for the chord voicings for ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’ for an upcoming tour. In fact, I recently watched a YouTube video of him performing the song during The World is Everything tour, 1 October 2007, in Eindhoven, Netherlands. I really enjoyed seeing that after all of these years.’ A rare occasion when they were physically in the same place at the same time was when Tim travelled to Norway for the Punkt Festival in 2011.
I’ve often felt a tension between the cheery feel of the music and the bitter taste of some of the lyrics:
‘Let me tell you about a friend
She contends she will always love me
It’s this ability to lie and deceive
That has lost me completely’
Where the melodies are care-free, the words seem care-worn and downright acerbic…
‘If you look at her sideways
She will curse you out’
Earlier in the album the emphasis is on global nation-to-nation politics, but in a sequence with the title track ‘Snow Borne Sorrow’, Sylvian returns to his personal life. He explained how his approach to this subject matter changed for ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’: ‘It’s kind of light-hearted. I’d been through relationship issues, the break-up of a marriage and I’d focused on a lot of the negative emotions that surfaced during that break-up on the album Blemish.. ..And when it came to working on this album I just distilled all of the elements of what was there in the album Blemish and just turned it into Blemish-light, you know this kind of this pop song, and was able to look at it in a far more humorous way and playful way.’
There’s a flippant, dark humour in the resignation expressed:
‘I could remind her of the facts
Make her calm down and relax
But why bother?’
‘I’m optimistically inclined
Given time she’ll change her mind
And there is perhaps a reference to the mini-album Little Girls with 99 Lives which he recorded with Ingrid and circulated amongst friends…
‘That little girl she wants to leave me
That little girl wants something more’
‘Again, it was a piece that Burnt sent to me,’ Sylvian recalled, ‘and it had a Bacharach kind of feel to it, so it lent itself to that kind of playful love song, if you will.’
Back in the early ’80s I remember David appearing on one of those radio shows where fans were invited to submit questions by post beforehand. Queries would mostly be about forthcoming releases or prospects for a tour, but occasionally a more philosophical enquiry would be made. On this occasion David was asked to describe a day that changed the course of his life. Sylvian thought for a moment and then outright rejected the idea that a single day could have such an impact. The lyrics of the ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’, if only rhetorically, imply that such a day did transpire for him. His spiritual journey of the ’90s was motivated by a joint quest with Ingrid, a path that led the family across the States and then to settle in a former ashram in New Hampshire. Early in the 2000s, as he was later to write, ‘life’s desires tore us apart’ and the calm bliss of Dead Bees on a Cake was brought crashing down to earth. For all the playfulness, the sense of loss is palpable.
‘Today’s the day the earth stole heaven’
A final reflection on Snow Borne Sorrow from Tim Motzer. ‘It’s still one of my favourite albums, and not just because I played on it. It’s quite an amazing collaboration, and a great cast of characters on the album, like an epic film. It will always remain dear to my heart. I met some wonderful musicians as part of working on Nine Horses, including Theo Travis. We’ve since become friends and collaborated on multiple albums for my label 1k Recordings.. ..I’ve been grateful to collaborate with a number of extraordinary artists over the years, including David, Jaki, and Burnt.’
‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’
Hayden Chisholm – clarinet, saxophone; Burnt Friedman – programming, editing, MS 20 synthesiser, vocoder; Morton Grønvad – vibraphone; Thomas Hass – saxophone; Steve Jansen – drums, percussion, keyboards; Keith Lowe – bass guitar; Tim Motzer – acoustic guitar; Joseph Suchy – electric guitar; David Sylvian – keyboards, vocals; Tommy Blaize & Beverlei Brown – backing vocals
Music by Burnt Friedman & Tim Motzer. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced and arranged by David Sylvian & Burnt Friedman. From Snow Borne Sorrow by Nine Horses, Samadhisound, 2005.
Mixed by David Sylvian with Steve Jansen and Burnt Friedman
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
Tim Motzer recorded at 1k recording studio, Philadelphia, USA
Footnote: Burnt has revealed that the heritage of ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’ can be traced back even further than ‘182/9’. The 2003 album Can’t Cool by Burnt Friedman and The Nu Dub Players includes the track ‘Designer Groove’. This piece contains the first experimentation with these musical themes.
My thanks to Tim Motzer for his generous contribution to this article and for permission to use the photograph of him performing at Ardmore Music Hall. Do check out Tim’s 1k Recordings bandcamp page and www.timmotzer.com.
All quotes from David Sylvian are from 2005. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
The featured image is ‘Us Two Sitting’ by Wes Mills (1995), as featured on the Snow Borne Sorrow artwork.
‘It’s an oddly disembodied band. I’m not sure what constitutes a band in this day and age. We’ve never sat in a room and played music together as a trio. In fact, Burnt and I have never physically performed together. I’m not sure how important this is, but at the same time I’m not trying to sell Nine Horses as a band. It is a collaborative project between three musicians who work under the name Nine Horses!!’ David Sylvian, 2005