God’s Monkey

‘the blindness, the absolute darkness’

For the music of Sylvian/Fripp there would be a move away from the vocalist’s long-standing studio partner. Steve Nye had been involved as producer, engineer or mixer from Japan’s Tin Drum, throughout Sylvian’s trio of solo albums and onto Rain Tree Crow’s eponymous release in 1991. ‘I had a desire to go into another sonic area,’ explained the singer. ‘I love the warmth and beauty of the tones that Steve gets. Steve also used to give me a lot of feedback on the way I arranged things. But as I have continued to develop, it just seemed natural to move away. We’d exhausted our relationship to some degree. We might work together again, but for now I enjoy working with different engineers and co-producers.’

As sessions started at Dreamland studios in Woodstock, New York, things were still in a state of flux. ‘When Robert and I were working together in the initial stages in the studio there were no clearly defined roles as to who was doing what exactly in terms of the production, the direction, and whatever,’ Sylvian remembered. However, the artists’ preferred ways of working meant that things settled into place ‘as time went on. Because Robert is, you could say, from the old school in that he likes to go into the studio and basically put down a performance to tape very very quickly. A series of first or second takes, third takes, and that will be it, you know. Whereas I like to work more laboriously, I like to look at all the different possibilities, work with the sound of the instruments involved until I think I have the best out of that particular instrument, or the most appropriate sound for that instrument, in that context, and so forth.

‘Robert doesn’t have the patience to sit around in the studio and really get involved in all of that. And also I was working with computers with David Bottrill, working on rhythms and so on and this takes time. So Robert would spend less and less time in the studio and it worked out that he would come in in the morning, it would be his time in the morning, he would perform a solo or whatever…David and myself would then edit his performance if it was necessary and then continue to work throughout the day on different aspects of the recording. And in the evening Robert would come in and listen to what had been done, add another contribution, and so on.

‘So, in effect, he handed over the reins of production to David and myself at that point in the proceedings. This was during the first month of recording. During the latter stages, Robert wasn’t able to be in the studio a lot of the time because he had other commitments. So, I was basically working alone with David Bottrill in the latter stages of the recording and for the mixing itself.’

Bottrill had been hired for the project as lead engineer. His earliest experiences of the studio environment had been at Grant Avenue Studios, Ontario, then owned by Bob and Daniel Lanois. ‘The first session I was involved in at an assisting capacity was Brian Eno and Dan doing the Apollo soundtrack,’ marvels Bottrill. ‘That was a major influence in how I was to work ever since.’ Soon he would also work there on Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land.

The Lanois brothers sold the studio but David remained there for a number of years. In 1986, Daniel re-connected with Bottrill to ask him to fly to England to assist in the recording of what would become Peter Gabriel’s classic album So. ‘When it was finished in 1986 Dan went back to Hamilton in Canada, so I had a choice – come with him or stay in England. Joni Mitchell was recording an album [Chalkmark in a Rainstorm] at Peter’s place and help was required, so I stayed. I stayed working for Peter, doing B-sides and reworking things, plus of course helping with the new studio.’ (DB, 1989)

The ‘new studio’ was Real World in Box, Wiltshire, where Bottrill played a key role in its design as a conducive space for artists to explore their creativity, kitted out with state-of-the-art recording equipment. One of the first fruits of this new setting was Peter Gabriel’s Passion (1989), gloriously spirited music developed from his soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. The album features indigenous musicians from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Real World’s recording environment, coupled with Bottrill’s approach and engineering expertise, helped to capture the vitality of their performances. From here, Bottrill was the technical mastermind behind Gabriel’s meticulous and complex sessions for the album Us, released in 1992. ‘It was possibly the most intense three years of my life to date, and encompassed some of the most involved recording sessions I have ever experienced. It was the culmination of my career with Peter.’

Bottrill seemed ideally placed to be the technical mind behind The First Day. His work with Gabriel required an attention to detail that was well matched to Sylvian’s sensibilities. In addition, Bottrill’s programming skills, showcased on Us, would become critical when a fortnight into the sessions there was a sudden change in the band line-up. Jerry Marotta was one of two new faces amidst the core musicians brought together for the album. Along with Fripp and Gunn he had been involved in rehearsals at nearby Applehead studios before the band commenced recording at Dreamland. Sylvian regarded him as a ‘fine musician’ but found his approach somewhat domineering. There was a clash, and Marotta would take no further part.

‘I had to fill in as the rhythm section when their drummer was sacked halfway through,’ was how Bottrill saw it. ‘I’d try a bunch of different patterns and loops until they liked what they heard!’ The evolution of his role from engineer to programmer led to a musician’s credit across the album. Bottrill’s contribution extended further to a co-write credit for both ‘God’s Monkey’ and ‘Darshan’, where his role as stand-in rhythm-maker was essential to shaping the tracks we hear. Such was his importance to the Sylvian/Fripp project, The First Day would be Bottrill’s first full album taking the producer’s credit, alongside Sylvian.

Sylvian pronounced himself happy with how things worked out. ‘We made the best of things using drum loops supplied by the recording engineer David Bottrill. In fact one of the better pieces ‘God’s Monkey’ was created this way.’ (1998)

‘I can’t remember much more than that Bottrill had a Roland sampler in his rack, with a Korg A2 for treatments and Performer and a Mac for sequencing. He had recorded some of Jerry’s improvisations whilst he was tuning up on DAT, edited them in the Roland and came up with this fantastic groove.’ It was that groove that would form the basis of ‘God’s Monkey’, guitar lines from Fripp and Sylvian – and the Chapman Stick of Trey Gunn – sparking off in all directions with manic riffs and keening cries.

The second newcomer to Sylvian’s cast of collaborators was percussionist Marc Anderson, one of a circle of musicians that Sylvian had come to know in his new home, Minneapolis. ‘It was through the local music scene,’ Marc told me. ‘I think he had befriended a bass player named Jim Anton that I worked with in the Twin Cities.’ Jim appears on a couple of the tracks that Sylvian recorded with Ingrid Chavez at their Minneapolis attic home-studio, songs which they shared with friends as Little Girls with 99 Lives. By the time The First Day was being made, Marc had been playing for over a decade with guitarist Steve Tibbetts who would contribute to the Dead Bees on a Cake sessions as the decade wore on.

Sylvian called Marc up to invite him along. ‘I was involved in the Dreamland sessions only,’ he explains. ‘I don’t recall exactly but I think I was there for three days. The studio and surroundings were lovely, an old renovated church in Woodstock. The large main room had been colonised by Robert and his guitar tech. They were making loops on some new device and I think he had already done all of his tracks. As I recall, the control room was a bit smallish and sort of long with a modest sized sound room adjacent where I did all of my tracks.

Dreamland Studio, formerly St. John’s church, built in 1896

‘As I remember, everything was kind of mid-stage. There were rhythm section tracks on everything and at least scratch vocals. I think all of Robert’s parts were done. David Bottrill was engineering which was a thrill for me. I think he had just completed the Us sessions with Peter Gabriel so he was full of tricks and ideas for stacking percussion – some of which we experimented with.’

By the time Marc arrived, Marotta had already departed. ‘Nobody filled me in on what was going with Jerry or his tracks. As I recall there was some discussion about some or all of the drum-set tracks needing to be redone…’

The routine of the days that Sylvian described was by now established. ‘My only real interaction with Robert, other than seeing him in the main room with headphones on working on guitar loops (which I don’t think were necessarily for the record) was at dinner once or twice. Trey was around and we had met before when Tibbetts and I had done a show in Bellingham WA: his band opened for us. But there was really no musical interaction with anyone. I was laying tracks on things already recorded and at least when I was tracking there was no other live tracking going on.

‘I didn’t participate in any of the arrangement ideas or sort of group development of the pieces,’ Marc remembers. ‘I was alone and playing to tracks. As I recall they were Jerry’s tracks but I’m not sure about that, nor am I clear if and which tracks might have gotten redone after my tracks were down.’ For Sylvian, these one-to-one sessions were an essential phase in developing the music. ‘The pieces that were written specifically for the album, in the studio, were based around drum samples and loops of one kind or another, then Robert, Trey, myself, and Marc Anderson would go out and improvise with these loops and rhythms and develop the pieces from that stage onwards.’

‘As far as I could tell by this short and sort of isolated experience that might be fair characterisation of David’s style,’ says Marc.

Dreamland studio in more recent times, the main recording space, window to the control room and doors to the space where Marc’s percussion parts were recorded

The songs built on the framework of Bottrill’s rhythm programming, ‘God’s Monkey’ and ‘Darshan’, were where Anderson’s input was the greatest. ‘Those were really the two pieces I was particularly involved in. ‘God’s Monkey’ was the piece I remember spending a lot of time on trying various things and David Bottrill was really involved as was David Sylvian. I can’t really remember or pick out from the track all the things we threw in but I can hear a frame drum of mine prominently in the track – sort of filling in the spaces around the set pattern.’ The hand-held instrument is prominent after about 10 secs of the introduction and is a lovely detail to pick out. ‘I think this is the piece we tried a trick Bottrill had learned or developed working on Us – on looping stacked parts to create a layered loop with multiple phase cycles happening on top of each other. I remember distinctly developing a triangle loop that way.

‘The thing I remember about ‘Darshan’ is that was not fully developed yet when I was there – just a long ass groove with some crazy guitar sh*t and it reminded me a little bit of something from Miles Davis and the Jack Johnson record.

‘I loved working with David. He was a good guy, creative and easy to work with. The whole thing for me was a very pleasant and charming experience. I was honoured to be involved and I left feeling happy about the process.

‘I think the record is over all quite good – fresh and has depth. I think it’s also a bit uneven and doesn’t fully hold together as an album but there is some really good music on it. I’m proud to have been included and was happy during and after the sessions.’

Marc Anderson, photograph by Rebecca Pavlenko

Sylvian has described the progression experienced across The First Day as one out of confusion and into light. ‘God’s Monkey’ sets the scene, it’s as if birth is equivalent to being flung into the abyss.

‘One push
You fall in
Born in darkness’

Reality is harsh, marked by isolation and separation from a distant heaven.

‘Built on shame
And hurting

Filled with silence and
Stars
Stars
Stars’

The chorus refrain urges the listener to find a foothold and start the rise towards the light.

‘Find the ladder
Climb the ladder
To God’s Monkey’

‘I guess I used my relationship with Robert to explore a different dimension in my writing,’ Sylvian later reflected. ‘I was surfacing from what had been an enormously difficult time in my life and I needed to find the means of expressing myself in both music and lyrics when dealing with such heavy subject matter…I believed and still believe in the underlying power and omniscience of divine love. The problem at that time was that despite my belief I had a hard time experiencing that love and could only approach it intellectually through the recollection of past experience. I attempted to express the anger, rage and impotence I felt at that time. The blindness, the absolute darkness.’ (1998)

‘No songs to sing
That I believe in’

‘Can’t breathe the air
It’s too thin
This far from heaven’

The image of ‘God’s Monkey’ may refer to the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman who symbolises the positive qualities of faith and devotion through loyal service. Mata Amritanandamayi’s description eloquently expresses why he might be considered to be ‘God’s Monkey’. ‘In Hanuman, the great devotee of Lord Rama, one can find a beautiful blending of both masculine and feminine qualities. He did everything in the name of Rama, his beloved Lord, and he took no credit for anything. Even though Hanuman succeeded in doing very difficult tasks, he was never proud of any of his feats. On the contrary, he remained the humble and obedient servant of his master, Lord Rama. “Not by my power and strength, but by Lord Rama’s grace,” was always Hanuman’s attitude.’ (2021)

Certainly Sylvian and Chavez held a fascination for Hanuman around this time, as witnessed in the opening words of ‘Kall’ which leads straight into ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ on the originally-distributed version of Little Girls with 99 Lives. Sylvian’s lyric, spoken by Chavez, commences:

‘I’m sitting, waiting, repeating his name
When the embers and ashes of an open fire
Blaze into life
And Hanuman comes, takes my hand
His daughter, child, mother, wife
This is no rebirth
Beyond anything my mind can understand
There’s all the love in the world here’

The experience is ‘to be born of out darkness’. Hanuman as the paragon of faithful service and helper to the aspiring devotee.

When Sylvian selected a playlist of tracks for iTunes in 2009 he included a track from Steve Tibbetts’ ECM album The Fall of us All. Released within months of The First Day in March 1994, Tibbett’s Indo-tinged guitar scorches across complex ethnic percussion patterns from Marc Anderson and Jim Anton’s bass. Sylvian chose ‘Dzogchen Punks’, which pits Anderson’s rhythms against similarly forthright guitar as on The First Day. Sylvian’s accompanying note: ‘Put this track on in the car, turn it up and feel the road open out in front of you.’

‘God’s Monkey’

Marc Anderson – percussion; David Bottrill – drum programming; Robert Fripp – guitar; Trey Gunn – stick; David Sylvian – guitar, keyboards, vocals. 

Contains samples of Jerry Marotta – drums, percussion.

Music by David Sylvian, Robert Fripp, Trey Gunn and David Bottrill. Lyrics by David Sylvian.

Produced by David Sylvian & David Bottrill. From The First Day by David Sylvian & Robert Fripp, Virgin, 1993.

Recorded at Dreamland Studios, Woodstock, N.Y., and Kingsway Studios, New Orleans. Mixed at Electric Lady Studios, New York, N.Y.
December ’92 to March ’93

Lyrics © samadhisound publishing

Grateful thanks to Marc Anderson for sharing his recollections of the sessions. All quotes from David Sylvian are from interviews in 1993/4 unless otherwise stated. David Bottrill quotes are from 2000 unless indicated. Full sources and acknowledgments can be found here.

The featured image is © Guido Harari photographer, taken March 1993 in Milan

Download links: ‘God’s Monkey’ (iTunes); ‘Dzogchen Punks’ (iTunes)

Physical media links: The First Day (burningshed) (Amazon)

‘We had to find a way of working together in the studio that would be compatible. I think what we ended up with was music that did have the finer details, but at the same time, had these performances that were very inspired and off-the-cuff. They were there-and-then.’ David Sylvian, 1993


10 thoughts on “God’s Monkey”

  1. Ah, it’s so interesting to read! Thank you so much for a wonderful writing! I was really looking forward to an article about this song

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This might explain why I never liked the record. Just think of what this record could have been if David had gotten his emotions in check and had the real drummer playing the parts. Why wouldn’t they just give Marotta playing credits 🙂 Instead we get slice and diced loops followed by Mastellatos apelike agitations on the live recordings. I honestly haven’t played this record in years.

    The production of ‘The First Day’ was a huge miss for me. I thought Damage (fripps ver) better reflects the spirit of the works, in spite of Mastellatos hammerings.

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  3. Marotta was apparently allowed to dominate the sessions and as he was Fripp’s ‘guest’ Sylvian waited for Fripp to rein him in. Marotta rarely stayed with one pattern but changed every time they went for a take. Sylvian, frustrated and at Fripp’s suggestion, left the session for two weeks so that Fripp could record the rhythm tracks. When he returned nothing of significance had been achieved and Marotta was gone. Sylvian didn’t ask to produce the record. In fact, he’s stated he had no desire to make a record at all at this point in his life. As Sylvian pointed out ‘It’s amazing that anything came out of those sessions at all’. (If there’s an indication of which of the live mixes is preferred consider this, Fripp did a deal with Virgin in which he now owns The First Day in its entirety and Sylvian’s mix of Damage, not his own). Again, this arrogance and supposition that resounds regarding Sylvian’s actions. It’s obvious he was saddled with a record that was supposed to be an even two hander that turned out to be anything but. As a result the live album is superior. The two tracks on The first Day that are clearly attributable to Sylvian are God’s Monkey in which he and Gunn pull the track together with Sylvian not Fripp playing 90% of the guitar lines along with Gunn’s solo interventions. And Jean the Birdman which Sylvian wrote post RTC prior to joining the first outing of the Sylvian Fripp Gunn trio.

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    1. Thank you for the comment. The difficulties encountered in these sessions seem to have been the catalyst for the creation of ‘God’s Monkey’, yet for me the song shows something of why ‘The First Day’ has a place in Sylvian’s catalogue. There’s a blend of detail in the production and energy in the performances that appeals to this listener. Jerry Marotta was to take part in the first rehearsals for the new King Crimson line-up at Applehead Studios in January 1994. I don’t know if it was a case of history repeating itself, but Marotta left the line-up after only a few hours of rehearsal and two drummers were instead invited in for the project, Pat Mastelotto and Bill Bruford.

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  4. Interesting read as always. I have to say that The First Day is not an album that I play very often these days,. As much as I loved the album at the time, only Firepower has survived in my memory. I always assumed that the main rhythm parts were Jerry Marotta’s, not just samples of his playing; he’s after all the only musician credited for ‘drums’ on the album. I’m sure I had read somewhere that something had gone amiss between DS and Jerry Marotta which is a shame as I greatly admire JM as a drummer who himself is/was a great admirer of Steve Jansen’s playing. I know there’s a certain stubbornness about him and he has a strong personality which also wore out his friendship with Gabriel after many years in his band. It would have been interesting to hear Marotta’s version of the events. Also another interesting thing is that Marotta is the manager of Dreamland studio so it must have been an awkward situation to get ‘fired’ within your own studio 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Renaud. When ‘The First Day’ was recorded, Dreamland was run by Joel Bluestein. The studio closed in 2005 due to the challenging economy and changing trends in studio use. It was 2008 when Jerry Marotta became involved in the management of the studio, re-opening it with Joel and they run it to this day.

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