A long-life shelter

David Sylvian is coming for a concert in Hong Kong later this month. My admiration for him goes for more than twenty years, since he was in Japan, a band that he formed with his brother when he was sixteen. It might be there that I got more aware of China, I was less than a teenager myself, with songs like Visions of China, Canton and Cantonese Boy that, still today, I hear with much pleasure. At that time he was my Marco Polo who brought me some of the mysticism of the orient.
We'll keep you updated of Sylvian's news along this month.
For now we have the first part of an interview given to Jason Cowley, a journalist and literary critic, who was published in the Observer on April 2005. Enjoy.

JASON COWLEY: Why did you set up your own label?
I had become increasingly frustrated with Virgin [to whom he had been attached since 1980, first as part of Japan and then as a solo artist]. There was enthusiasm for my work from one or two people in the higher echelons of the company but there was no carry through. They were happy to get the albums but they wouldn't know what to do with them. In the end, I felt that they really couldn't care less if I produced any new work or not. What they wanted from me were compilations, which is what I ended up doing for about a year and a half. In truth, I agreed to do the compilations thinking they might let me back in the studio at some point. I was contractually obliged to put together a compilation but I managed to put them off and keep producing new work, which interested me more. So I went through the motions of producing compilations, as well as a re-mix of a live album, but it was a bad period. I felt creatively stifled. I was dying to start over again, but there was no support from the company. We finally managed to part ways with Virgin, and that was a release, on both sides. I’d just moved from California to New Hampshire and started to build my own studio complex there, trying to become more self-sufficient. I knew with the way the industry was moving that it wasn't really going to be supportive of the kind of work I wanted to produce. I thought the best thing to do was to become as self-sufficient as possible and start from there, and see how things developed. It took about a year to build the studio. My brother [Steve Jansen] came over, and lived with me for about a year with his family. We started writing together…

But then something happened. You stopped writing with Steve and took time out to make Blemish, perhaps the boldest and most uncompromising album you have ever made. Tell me a little about what led to the creation of Blemish?

Blemish took only six weeks to make. I knew it would be described in the industry as a difficult album, which is why I decided to put it out over the internet. I thought: we’ll create a website, we’ll put it out without any distribution, and those people who are interested will find it. But the first reviews that appeared were so promising – they generated an awful lot of interest. From there, distributors came on board and wanted to be a part of it, and so the notion of a label began to grow. In truth, we were struggling to keep up with everything that was happening. But it was a gratifying struggle, because we were able to do deals on our own terms, and things were just evolving beautifully. At the end of this period we had a label, we had distribution, and everything seemed to be set up for the future. It’s now very gratifying to have a label and to be able to offer a platform to artists we admire, such as Harold Budd.

I was impressed and moved by Budd’s release on Samadhisound, Avalon Sutra. He has said it is to be his final album – and these pieces of music, so fragile and full of longing, convey a sense of last things, of an artist coming to the end of something. When did you first hear them?

DS: Amazingly, I first heard the album in 2001, when I tried to help Harold find a deal for that album. Everyone turned it down. I finally met Harold for the first time in 2003 in LA, and offered to put out the album on our label. I think that period of refusal of some of his best work may have had something to do with his desire to call it quits at this point in time.

JC: How does it feel no longer to be with a major label? Is it liberation or loss?
When I was in Japan, Simon [Napier-Bell, the band’s manager], would talk to me endlessly about what we were capable of and what we could achieve, as if I should automatically want to pursue the same goals as him. A wit and raconteur, he enjoyed nothing more than attempting to extract large sums of money from record companies…. He could charm his way out of the most difficult situations. I had to find another, less commercial way of working, which was why during the recording of Tin Drum [Japan’s fifth and final album] we kept Simon as far away from the studio as possible. Simon wished for me to see the industry through his eyes. He manipulated because manipulation was more entertaining from his perspective than a more passive (he would argue less creative) form of management and while this was quite an education, once I’d been given room to breathe, to gauge the situation, to size up the music business for myself, I realised that I could make it work for me in ways devoid of cynicism and crass exploitation, and that there were potentially greater returns in establishing relationships in the industry based on trust (I had a particularly long standing and productive relationship with Simon Draper at Virgin lasting almost two decades, a rare thing in music industry in the late 20th century) rather than taking the money and running. From the 1980s onward I never spoke of compromise and consequently compromise was never asked of me. [...]


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