DJ David Jensen interviewed David Sylvian on a number of occasions in the early ’80s for his evening show on BBC Radio One. By the time Gone to Earth was approaching release, Jensen had moved on to a rival station, Capital Radio, so it was there that the pair would reunite to discuss what the new album might promise. Judging by what he had read in Virgin’s press release, Jensen predicted that ‘it’s sufficiently different from your last albums to again surprise a lot of people.’ Sylvian was more measured in response, ‘In a way for me it’s an extension of a lot of the work I did on Brilliant Trees, so I wouldn’t say it was extremely diverse in nature – but there should be a few surprises on there.’
It was a theme he expanded on in other interviews, ‘It’s just like a summing up. It’s something I have to do. I couldn’t just leave Brilliant Trees as it was and say, “Oh well, that’s the end of that avenue; that’s explored.” For me Brilliant Trees is a better album because I was fishing in the dark, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I have to go through the process of following the avenues that I’ve found interesting – even if it’s against my own will. I still have to do it. It’s something I had to get out of my system.’
‘This is like a conclusion. It’s the finishing of a period. It started with Brilliant Trees, it went through Words with the Shaman, Steel Cathedrals and it finishes – I hope – here. So, I see it very, very closely knit together. It could be released as a boxed set with something like Brilliant Trees on it. It would have a continuity which I believe exists throughout the work, a natural maturing, a growing up if you like.’
‘Before the Bullfight’ is one of the trilogy of new songs first composed after the release of Sylvian’s debut solo album, along with ‘Laughter and Forgetting‘ and ‘Wave‘, and there are evident threads bearing witness that it is woven from similar cloth.
Describing how the track was developed, it’s fascinating to learn that rather than being guitar or keyboard led, it was the drums that provided the starting point for this composition. ‘The ideas were put straight onto tape. I got a certain sound on a rhythm machine, then worked with just the drum sound. I then played around with chord shapes and recorded everything onto tape before I had any idea of what was coming next. Then I worked out the vocal to the chord shapes and I kept building, adding more guitar parts and so on.’
As Sylvian progressed to recording the piece, the rhythm was again the foundation. ‘When I got into the studio I put down a click-track and a chord sequence and played the demo to my brother, Steve Jansen, who plays drums. I spent a day just doing the drums.’ Jansen recalled his approach to capturing just the right sound, the size of the room allowing an expansive feel: ‘The “bull’s” weight is represented by the heavy, sluggish pattern. The mic positions would have been pretty standard but with the mix relying more on the ambience mics than usual. I’m not sure where we recorded this track because we moved between Jam studios (off the Seven Sisters Road in North London), Eel Pie studios (Pete Townsend’s by Twickenham Bridge) and also down at The Manor in Oxfordshire. The largest room was at Jam Studios so possibly it was recorded there.’ (2015)
Sylvian: ‘Then one by one I brought in the people who I wanted to play on the track. This was a simple piece of music and most of the recording involved me working on the atmospherics, which were the synthesisers, and then bringing in Bill Nelson to do the guitars.’ Beside Sylvian, Jansen and Nelson, only two other performers appear: Richard Barbieri expertly enhancing the atmosphere and Kenny Wheeler bringing exuberant flugelhorn.
In the ensuing years Sylvian has expressed some discontent with the recorded rhythm sections of both ‘Wave’ and ‘River Man’ from Gone to Earth. But not so with ‘Before the Bullfight’ which, along with ‘Weathered Wall’ from Brilliant Trees, he recently identified as ‘exceptions’ which closely resembled his original intentions (2021). Indeed, ‘Weathered Wall’ was a reference point for his use of drums to anchor songs on the follow-up album, as heard for the full nine-minute-plus duration of ‘…Bullfight’.
‘I think I first tried to do it with ‘Weathered Wall’ on Brilliant Trees. I felt it was too easy for me to fall into something that was completely atmospheric, just drifting by, and I wanted something that would not allow the listener to fall into that too easily. I know a lot of people – friends that I’ve played it to when I was recording – say, “Oh, but why do you use that big snare drum, big bass drum,” or whatever. It’s because I didn’t want people to be lulled into that false sense of security and just sweep through it without listening to it.
‘I wanted something to keep their attention and at the same time drift into the atmosphere that it was creating as well. I feel that that is important in my songwriting. But in a way because recording is a frozen moment, just as a photograph or a painting…I picture things in the same way. I’m trying to create with sound a landscape, a particular mood, something I feel very strongly about in a particular piece of music. Trying to create that so that it doesn’t change…When the person starts to listen to it, they are immediately drawn into something of their own, of a similar nature, and that doesn’t change.
‘I find it very difficult to listen to music that starts off with one mood and then changes completely, turns the whole thing around, and becomes very abstract or whatever once it’s drawn you into one kind of world. I want to stay in that world, I want to explore it. I want my imagination to go away and not be dictated to by the music. And I try not to dictate with my music. I try to let the listener feel free about following their own train of thought while listening, and just really give clues if you like – keys.’
It’s an approach that is reflected in both music and lyrics. Whilst on the press round to promote Gone to Earth, Sylvian was asked specifically about the words to this track. ‘Sometimes it’s hard to grasp your meaning – do you ever consider that a dilemma?’ enquired his interviewer. The song’s creator explained his approach: ‘I try not to make the lyrics too abstract. It’s very easy to become very abstract if you’re talking about things relating to spiritual awareness or religion in a broader sense. It’s very easy to… the lyrics can become very “pie in the sky” type lyrics. I try to steer away from that. I try to keep it very down to earth.
‘What I try to do is to write lyrics that work on a couple of levels. ‘Before the Bullfight’ is a good example. ‘Before the Bullfight’ you could say is about taking on the problems that arise in life, a willingness to go through life accepting whatever comes your way. And at the same time it has to do with the duality of man, the battle between the animal nature of man and the spiritual nature of man. So that’s one example of how I approach the lyric writing. I do the same with love songs, I try to use the man/woman relationship to relate to something higher as well. ‘Brilliant Trees‘ is a good example of that, I think…probably the most successful song I’ve written in that way. It works on a man/woman level and it works on a much higher level, it has this spiritual quality to it.’
As ‘…Bullfight’ starts, in an image reminiscent of the inspiration for the title of his previous album, we are transported to a majestic scene in nature which at the same time instils awe through its grandeur and turns the observer’s mind to introspection.
‘I hear your voice
Way down inside
A whispering sea of towering trees
But no reply
A silence so rare
And more than I can stand
Sweeps like a flood through life’s flesh and blood
And steals away with its heart’
‘Something needs to be provoked inside. If we’re talking about things that appeal to you as a sense of beauty, it must go deeper than just a visual or a physical thing. It has to become an emotional experience. An example would be to be in a beautiful landscape. If you just see the landscape and you see, “oh, that’s beautiful,” that’s just one aspect. But if you feel the power or you feel a unity, that’s a much higher level of experience, I think. And that’s what I try to put over. It’s not just painting a landscape, it’s painting an emotional experience…The more I become more spiritually self-aware, I feel I’ve had stronger experiences in the world around me. So, before I was the kind of person that would stand in a landscape and just see the beauty, and not feel the power or the unity. Now I can feel it. It’s a big, big difference.’
Sylvian touches a poetic height in his expression of personal experience through the metaphor of warfare and his description of the environments in which we can spend our days:
‘If I’m losing you
Then there’s nothing more than I can say
The fighting is on and battles are won
Or thrown away
But if I could live
Safe and sound
In God-given fields or mountains of steel
Then here I’d stay ’til you’d gone’
There is confession in the line that follows, a flash of self-awareness perhaps that he had been declaring his inspirations openly within his song-titles and lyrics – too openly he would later admit.
‘Guilty of stealing every thought I own’
‘That seems to suggest a doubt that you have anything original to contribute,’ it was observed. Sylvian’s response: ‘In a lot of ways I think that musically and in every other way everything that you produce is just the intersection of what you’ve perceived. But there’s a line at the end, “When all’s forgiven every fault’s my own”. Your faults, I believe are the only things you learn from.’
Interviewer: ‘You mean making a mistake in your copying of something is your only element of originality?’
Sylvian: ‘Yes, that’s something that Cocteau said which I liked very much. I forget which book he was talking about of his, but he said in writing it he was trying to copy this other book. He said he failed totally and that was what he ended up with. That’s a good example of originality, trying to copy something else and failing miserably.’
For me there is something unduly modest in the assertion that Sylvian’s creativity is simply derivative of the work of others. Of course, there are evident points of reference and the voices of other performers are drawn in to express the heart of a composition. But the uniqueness comes from the sensibility with which these elements are woven together, creating something truly memorable. The songwriting is at the core.
‘I think my strength lies in songwriting. With words,’ he would say at this time. ‘I mean I love playing with words. And to me my natural instinct is immediately to write something down lyrically. If I’m inspired by anything it’s very rare that I will run to the keyboard and begin to play something. It will always be words that come to mind.’
Pictures in words, juxtaposing now the unfathomable vastness and power of the ocean, dwarfing humanity, with an unpretentious observation about how wet sand sticks to our fingers, a simple human interaction with water as one of the vital elements underpinning life (fire, earth and water being themes across Gone to Earth):
‘As time’s come to show
I’m told nothing more than I should know
A ship on the sea that threatens to leave
But never goes
This island of blue
Where life clings to your hands
Like water and sand
Will lose its way when you’re gone’
It’s entirely conceivable that the central image of the bullfight was inspired by Picasso. His painting Guernica (1937) prompted Sylvian to write ‘The Ink in the Well’ for Brilliant Trees and features images of both a bull and a horse, motifs used extensively by the artist. At times the bull is a representation of the artist’s alter ego, echoing Sylvian’s words about a layer of meaning in his song relating to the struggle between man’s animal and spiritual nature. At others, the figure is a representation of unrivalled power – the bull in Guernica said to represent the unerring rise of fascism – or it is the Minotaur, the mythical half-bull half-human beast. Earlier in the 1930’s Picasso painted a series of bullfight pictures depicting the moment when the bull is pitted against the picador’s horse, sometimes the bull is the victor, at other times the horse and rider overcome. It is certainly true that Picasso saw in the bullfight a ritual laden with symbolism and as innate to the Spanish as attending morning Mass, and that Sylvian was a keen admirer of the artist’s work. He would confide that the evocative titles for the instrumentals on disc two of Gone to Earth followed Picasso’s lead in how he named his cubist paintings.
‘Say a prayer for my release
When every hope in the world is asleep
And my strength will return
To fight the bullfight’
I love the fact that the song is not simply entitled ‘The Bullfight’, but instead the name attributed is a phrase that never appears in the lyric – ‘Before the Bullfight’. It emphasises that another conflict always lies in front of us, that no encounter will lead to ultimate victory.
‘Every word’s sunk in deep
Like the blades of a knife through my heart
But my strength will return
To fight the bullfight’
The cultural reference finds expression in the musical arrangement too. Someone once remarked to Sylvian that they detected the shadow of jazz legend Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain (first released in 1960) when listening to Brilliant Trees. ‘That was certainly a reference point,’ confessed Sylvian, ‘in fact perhaps ‘Before the Bullfight’ has something more to do with Sketches of Spain in a more obvious way. I was listening to that kind of music and that album in particular during those periods.
‘I find you relate to things that have an affinity to something already within your character, so it can enhance something that is already there and bring it out in a clearer, more defined way, and maybe listening to that kind of music has helped me. It definitely has.’
‘Solea’ from Sketches of Spain was written by the album’s arranger and conductor, Gil Evans, and is a particular favourite of mine. The album’s sleeve-notes describe it as ‘a basic form of flamenco…an Andalusian version of “soledad” (loneliness).’ Here Miles Davis’ flugelhorn soars in flourishes that were surely a precursor to Kenny Wheeler’s playing on ‘Before the Bullfight’, where it mingles with the bejewelled shimmer of Bill Nelson’s exquisitely restrained guitar throughout the song. This was Nelson’s first appearance for Sylvian and on an album that features Robert Fripp and Phil Palmer elsewhere, here Bill alone is in the spotlight taking all the solo parts. It’s a scintillating performance, ‘Before the Bullfight’ being to disc one what ‘Answered Prayers’ is to disc two.
David Toop, having freshly heard Gone to Earth, commented to its creator, ‘The mood is generally quite melancholic, often very nostalgic, but in a very acceptable way. I tend to think of somebody like Miles Davis, who always reverts back to that air of melancholy. Which I feel I like.’
‘I enjoy that in music,’ Sylvian confirmed, ‘and it always seems to be a sign – especially when I meet the people that created the music – a sign that somebody is always searching within themselves. They tend to be very introspective people. I think that’s why I get on with them quite well. Because I’m very much that way. I spend a lot of time alone, and I spend a lot of time thinking about the spiritual nature of things, which I think is essential, especially in the kind of music I’m producing. It’s essential in any person, but it’s essential in creating the kind of music I’m creating, essential in people that come into the studio to work with me, that they can respond to that…
‘It’s very important to me to feel that from music. I think music…enables the listener to reflect upon themselves. Most good art does that, I think. Or maybe that is the definition of art, that it does turn you in on yourself and you look at yourself in a certain way that maybe you hadn’t done before. It puts you in contact with a part of yourself that you are not normally in contact with, or you are not aware that you are in contact with.’
‘Before the Bullfight’
Music and lyrics by David Sylvian
Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye, from Gone to Earth, Virgin, 1986
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
Recorded in London and Oxfordshire 1985-6
All David Sylvian quotes are from interviews in 1986/87 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
The featured image is from the 2003 cd re-release digipack of Gone to Earth, photograph by Yuka Fujii
‘If I was to pick a track from this album I would pick ‘Before the Bullfight’, I think it’s the strongest track on there and my first experience working with Bill Nelson I believe…The mood of this track is very powerful…It was a development in a way from the track ‘Nostalgia’ from Brilliant Trees and it was just taken a little further, and it’s a little darker maybe, but as I say, the most successful track for me on the album.’ David Sylvian, 1993