In the 12 years separating his last two solo albums, 1987’s “Secrets of the Beehive” and 1999’s “Dead Bees on a Cake,” David Sylvian went through an unexplained personal crisis, found true love, experienced a spiritual awakening and rediscovered himself and his muse.
Now he’s gladly revisiting his career, including his years fronting the New Romantic-pioneering group Japan, with “Everything and Nothing,” an absorbing two-disc collection he prefers to call “an overview” rather than a best-of.
“Initially, everybody was opposed to this notion,” he said recently, “particularly of rerecording the older material and remixing that, but the seeds of that we’re put to rest pretty quickly. The first piece I was given to work on was ‘Weathered Wall,’ so I re-performed it, mixed it and sent it back to Virgin and I said, ‘This is the approach, what do you think?’ and there was an immediate turnaround of opinion at that point. Everybody gave me the go-ahead.”
Virgin may just be happy to hear from Sylvian, period. He put his solo career to the side after “Secrets of the Beehive” and buried himself in a variety of arty works, among them two instrumental albums with Holger Czukay, a brief reunion with the other members of Japan under the name Rain Tree Crow and an album with Robert Fripp (1993’s “The First Day”).
“(Virgin) knew what I was up to,” Sylvian said, “and they gave me the go-ahead for these collaborative works I was involved in. Then there was the big changeover in the company during the period in the early ’90s, so a lot of the people I knew had left the company. I’ve been with them so long, sometimes I wonder if they know I’m still there, that I’ve become part of the wallpaper.
“There was a desire to stretch myself as a writer after completing the ‘Beehive’ album. There was a pretty awful period of crisis, you could call it, to do with my private life, with relationships, that just sent me in a downward spiral, and I found it very difficult to focus on writing at all. I felt that at that point it was better to throw myself into the collaborative work to see how I would respond to these projects. I was hoping that through the stimulation from these other artists that I would recognize something of what I was living through. It was very difficult for me to be objective about what I was experiencing; I felt quite incapacitated for a number of years.”
It all changed when he met Chavez. The vocalist-poet, then signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label, was invited to join Sylvian and guitarist Bill Frisell to record a track for composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, a longtime Sylvian collaborator.
Two and a half months later, they were married and lived in Minneapolis for four years, before moving to Sonoma, Calif.
“I was beginning to come out of it around the time Robert (Fripp) contacted me to start working together,” Sylvian said, “and once I met Ingrid, things became a lot clearer. Me moving to the states, us having children (now ages 3 and 7), meeting spiritual teachers, that was a really uplifting period, in total contrast to the years preceding it.”
Brimming again with confidence, Sylvian – ever the perfectionist – spared no details for the reflective “Dead Bees on a Cake.” Several old friends provided help, such as Frisell, Kenny Wheeler and Steve Jansen, along with new friends Marc Ribot (guitar) and Talvin Singh.
Despite Sylvian’s long absence between solo efforts, his fans didn’t forget him. “I Surrender,” the first single off his comeback album, cracked the U.K. Top 40 in March 1999, the fifth of his career.
“It was a nice surprise,” Sylvian said. “If you’re away that long, you just don’t know who’s out there and who’s interested and still listening. It was wonderful to have the response I had to the album.”
In the precarious musical industry, where everyone’s job seems to be on the line from day to day, Sylvian’s 20-year association with Virgin is an anomaly. But even Sylvian knows nothing lasts forever.
“I’m open to the possibility (of leaving Virgin),” he said. “I realize there’s a lot of changes going on in the industry, in general, not just at Virgin. And I look at the people working at a company like Virgin and see a great deal of insecurity among the staff that even people higher up the ladder of authority have trouble making decisions by themselves because they will be held responsible for them and therefore the positions they hold aren’t stable. That feeds all the way down the line to the poor old artist, clinging on to their contracts wondering when they’ll be given an opportunity to make another album or be dropped.”
If he moves on, no matter where he goes, Sylvian says he would like to gain control of his recordings. For two decades, Virgin has owned the rights.
“That was an industry standard back 20 years ago,” he said, “but also the manager that I had at the time was on his way out and really put a contract together that suited himself, that he would walk away with a lump sum of money and I’d be tied to a lifelong contract with Virgin Records. He jumped ship once he pulled that little stunt off. I’ve been very fortunate over the years that I’ve worked with people at Virgin where they were able to amend the contract and they gave me more and more freedom and more control. I’ve very grateful for that.
“I’ve been given this platform to work from for 20 years. There are a lot of people I know, good friends and wonderful musicians, who haven’t been blessed with that opportunity. Regardless of what the circumstances have been over the years, I can grumble about this or that, but I really do appreciate having the platform that I’ve had.”
There’s a world of possibilities ahead, Sylvian says, and now it’s just a matter of laying the groundwork, such as building a studio at his new home in New Hampshire.
“I just long to get back to writing and recording some new material,” he said. “I’d like to undertake a number of projects simultaneously and nurture them along over the next year or so, one of which would be a solo album. I’d also like to produce an album, a collective of sorts, moving on from the Rain Tree Crow project and surrounding myself with a group of like-minded people and see what we could come together in the studio.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “A Beatles single, ‘Ticket to Ride.’ It’s funny, we didn’t have much music playing in the house when we were young. My parents weren’t into music much, and there was no radio. There was this old wireless that my dad would attempt to repair about once a year. It would run for 24 hours and it would be out again. During that 24-hour period, I remember the Beatles singles being played. That song would come on every 15 minutes, and I was totally knocked out by that sound. The Beatles made a massive cultural impact; even living in suburban London, it trickled down to us. We were real aware of their presence and the excitement that surrounded them.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “I think it was a David Bowie concert back in ’73 at Elscourt in London. I was about 13 years old. The show was a bit of a shambles, actually, because I remember there was this massive rush to the front of the stage and the show got held up somewhat, but it was wonderfully theatrical and colorful and the music was glorious.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “I don’t know the last one I bought, but I saw Ryuichi (Sakamoto) in New York and he handed me a whole pile of his recent recordings that weren’t released in the states. That’s what I’ve been listening to. It’s wonderful.”
BWF (before we forget): Keep up to date on David Sylvian on the Web @ www.trophies.org. … The David Sylvian album discography – “Brilliant Trees” (Virgin, 1984); “Gone to Earth” (1986); “Secrets of the Beehive” (1987); “Dead Bees on a Cake” (1999); “Everything and Nothing” (2000).
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