We've all heard the one about being in big brother's shadow...but Steven Jansen (née Batt) doesn't worry about stepping to one side of the limelight. His strength lies in more low-key areas.
He's a remarkably modest fellow who perhaps fails to realise the extent to which he's responsible for shaping the backbone of Japan's sound. Richard remembers that Steve was the one to pick up on his chosen instrument better than anyone else and considers him to be the only "real" musician in the band. David refers to him as his "hands" and the drums Steve plays as the basis of his songwriting.
Steve was always the one smouldering in the background: arguably the prettiest of the bunch, he'd be the strong, silent mediator (along with Rich) between the opposite extremes of Karn and Sylvian. But he also fits the picture of the typical, dedicated drummer, uncomfortable unless he's crouched behind a kit, nowhere to put hands that are itching for a quick paradiddle.
I spoke to him about the view of past, present and future from the rearguard and, of course, about the man himself. He gave what might be termed as , "textbook answers," some of the time, explaining things perhaps not quite as adroitly (or controversially) as his brother might, but he came over as a good-natured, co-operative chap, erring like his brother on the side of shyness.
The Early Days:
Having left school with Dave and Mick, Steve made the arbitrary choice to play drums alongside Mick's five-quid bass. At the start, he played along to Dave's songs and had no external references or ability to copy style.
Jansen: "I don't remember being consciously influenced by anyone outside the band. I didn't spend years listening to big-name drummers before I got my first kit. What happened was that on one particular day I knew I was getting a drumkit the next, so I just sat down and listened to the drumming on one particular record."
That record may have well have been by a particularly soulful white American duo...
Jansen: "When I learned to play I was listening to people like Hall & Oates, and I still like that sort of music now. That type of drumming sounds very session-muscianish at the the moment, but at the time it didn't. The technique those people used -- very Americanised -- influenced me in the early days, because everyone said the rhythm section sounded American. But I lost that after a while, it became very boring."
During the initial quiet period of intense rehearsal, Steve shared that strong motivation they needed to pull through.
Jansen: "Yeah, it could have been a complete flop! We didn't get much encouragement from our parents either, because we were putting aside our, 'prospects,' for something nobody except us believed in the outcome of. We must've had real naivety -- without it we'd never had started."
He spent the Hansa days pouting equally as well as Dave or Mick, but they'd garner the most attention. Only the occasional observer noticed his developing skills, even that he might be the, "best-looking man ever to sit behind a drumkit." One such commentator described him as, "an early Presley-lookalike behind a sulky quiff!" Question and Answer time duly began...with some surprises.
Fan Library: Does Steve regret the amount of press lavished on David compared to himself and the others?
Jansen: " No, it's obvious that would happen, it's expected. A band have to have a focal point otherwise it becomes faceless. It just happened that Dave took on that role. Everybody the band has their own character, their own things at the side."
Fan Library: But that's never come across in the past, it's all been Dave...
Jansen: "Yeah, I know. But personally, between us, we know what we're capable of."
Fan Library: Don't you wish that had come across to the public?
Jansen: "No, it will do...I don't worry about it. It was just the way the PRs worked, the way it will always happen. Dave don't agree with the ways he's be promoted, but then it worked, it helped. It's what the PR wanted, that's what they got."
Fan Library: So you're happy to go along with that sort of publicity?
Jansen: "No, we wouldn't do that now, don't need to. Everybody just does what they're interested in, and if the public pick up on it, so much the better."
Fan Library: Now people have acknowledge that there is a degree of sophistication behind the image?
Jansen: "At the beginning, the image did take over, 'cos it was the first thing you were confronted with. It was over the top, it took away any seriousness we might've intended. That's why there's no reference to it now, 'cos the music is much more upfront, stronger."
Fan Library: You must now have an ever-increasing standard of recording.
Jansen: "It seems to take more and more time -- I thought it would be quicker, but we're always looking for getting more out of it. I've been working with Dave on this thing for Riuichi, and it's taken three weeks -- for a single, it shouldn't be allowed, but that's the way it's been because of the way we work now.
We don't just go in the studio and put down the first thing that sounds good, we listen to it and make sure it's going to stay sounding good, which you can't do in an hour, you have to live with it, which isn't cheap. But that's the way we get results."
Fan Library: Obviously Dave's had an important role in songwriting, but is it difficult to cope with him being the dominant in the studio?
Jansen: "That was never important because each person through their role is equally as important as the songwriter, so it never became a big deal, the fact he was actually writing the songs. He doesn't order everybody around, what he does is to give a general direction to most of the stuff we're doing -- some of it he doesn't. Stuff like, 'Art of Parties,' he didn't have a direction for, but mostly he knows the basic idea of what he wants, then he leaves it up to us. It starts from me and Mick, to bring the song together from the roots. So there's no dicatorship, it's not like that at all."
Fan Library: How did you first start getting interested in Japanese music?
Jansen: "The first band I got into were YMO -- we met Riuichi the first time in Japan when he did an interview with us for a magazine he was writing for, and we knew of his music then. That's really where the interest stemmed from, that's when he did the work on, 'Polaroids,' and it grew from there. The traditional side of it came more last year, we began to listen to that a lot more."
Fan Library: And now the Japanese seem to be taking your music seriously.
Jansen: "Yes. The work we've got lately -- with some of the top bands in Japan -- shows the recognition is there, which is one of the best things to have happened."
Fan Library: Obviously what you're doing now is going to make more people listen to Japanese music.
Jansen: "I hope it does, because they deserve it. I don't know why it is, but people will dismiss Japanese music as just a copy of Western music, which a lot of it is, but they should realise there's a lot of interesting things coming from there. I don't know whether it would come and go in a flash here, or whether it would stay, but personally I think that it's the only interesting thing around a the moment, for me anyway. There's nothing much coming from American these days, and there's very little over here."
Fan Library: Is that all you listen to?
Jansen: "Yeah, basically, in a word! It's a bit biased really. Can't help it though! I can't explain it very well -- maybe going there and experiencing it has a lot to do with it. But then again, the general public can't do that can they? I've tried before to say why I like it, but I can't. It's ridiculous really.
I think musically, YMO are probably the most outstanding, but as far as songwriting goes, I think Akiko Yano's the best, that's why it was so nice to help on her album, because I've like her for about a year and a half. The fact that I'm actually playing behind her voice means a hell of a lot."
Fan Library: Are you going to be doing anything else with other Japanese musicians?
Jansen: "I've been asked -- I don't know if it'll come off -- but Yukihiro Takahashi (YMO's drummer) is doing a solo tour of Japan, in which he wants to be upfront singing. He's asked me to play his drums for him which I'd be glad to do, it would be an honour. That will be in June if it happens."
Fan Library: How much has he influenced your style of playing?
Jansen: "I've always admired him since the Sadistic Mika Band, years ago, and he struck me then as being a really good drummer. Then when I heard he'd worked with YMO I was convinced. He has influence me -- he's about the only influence I can pick out. I don't know if he knows it -- he probably does! It's his simplicity that gets me, 'cos I've been heading in that direction for awhile. You go through that stage where you begin, you want to learn more complicated things but you can't, 'cos you're not good enough, then when you are, you want to get simple again. It's the way he does it."
Fan Library: Is it the technique of playing simply but still having the knowledge behind you to do it?
Jansen: "Yeah. It's a case of it's not what you play, it's the way that you play it, really."
Fan Library: Was your technique completely self-taught?
Jansen: "You know, to this day, when I'm tuning a kit, I don't really know what I'm doing. I become really conscious of people watching me do it because I'm sure I'm not doing it right! The thing is, I always imagine all young bands in England are self-taught and maybe that's why England has a more creative music scene. In other places, people seem to worry about sticking to the rules too much."
Fan Library: Japan's current sound is heavily rhythm-based. Where do you see your percussion heading next?
Jansen: For me a whole area that we've only just touched on is the use of tapes. With electronic kits I think you'd be stuck with just one feel, whereas using tapes, playing along with rhythm tracks, you can create incredible highs and lows. As far as drums go, I'm definitely more into the acoustic side, even to the extent of going back to African percussion."
Fan Library: How long do you think you'll be heading in this kind of Oriental direction?
Jansen: "I'm sure there will be different things cropping up, it's hard to say because when you're into one thing you can't see another. I'm not heavily into it -- I appreciate it and I will experiment in that area, but none of us will dive into it, overwork it, because we don't do that."
Fan Library: What's been the high point of the whole five years?
Jansen: "I personally enjoy touring, I prefer it to working in the studio because i like being active, I like working, physically, so for me touring is the best thing. My favourite tours were the one before last in Britain and the last Japanese tour, they were probably the highest points -- that's probably when I have the most fun anyway. I find being on the road is the most relaxing time, because you know what you're doing, you know what you've got to do. Whereas the studio is mental!"
Fan Library: How did you start getting into photography?
Jansen: "About a year ago, I think constantly being in front of a camera triggered it off. There were people with ideas, telling me to do this and that, it became very tedious, so I felt that I wanted to be on the other side, try it for a while. I don't feel I've achieved anything yet, photography-wise, it's just an interest that can work in conjunction with the band, 'cos it will help if there's someone in the band willing to do it, so I'm lucky in that respect."
Fan Library: Have you only taken pictures of the band (as on the sleeve of 'Art of Parties') or all kinds of things?
Jansen: "I've done other things as well, various portraits, of just strangers. I can't do it so much in England, I feel a bit stupid doing it here, but when I'm abroad I like to walk the streets and catch people."
Fan Library: Did you just pick up a camera and start taking pictures?
Jansen: "Yeah, no technical background at all. Definitely not. I think that's a bit of a drawback sometimes, I found that musically as well. Obviously it helps so far as working properly, the basics, but that's all you need to know. I can't spend as much time on it as I'd like to. Hopefully in the future I'll be able to do something I'm really pleased with."
Fan Library: Any other directions you're planning to branch out into?
Jansen: " Well, something I discovered about myself, that's always been there but I never really used it, and that's writing poetry. Well, it's not poetry, just words really. I've often just written things, and people have told me it's good, I should do more of it, but I've never really done it. Mick's exhibition was the first time I did something properly. I'm not that confident about it yet, but I shall work on it."
Fan Library: What did you do for Mick?
Jansen: "It was for his programme. In conjunction with his sculptures. He told me the meaning behind each one, and asked if I could write lines for each, which was a bid difficult because I can only write when I feel inspired, feeling a certain way one day. Doing it on demand about a certain subject was hard, so some didn't relate that well."
Fan Library: Would it ever turn into lyrics?
Jansen: "I don't know, I doubt it, I don't think it would work with music. It's no the classic way of writing, 'cos again, I'm not trained to do that, so it's just things in my head that I don't say, and people don't expect me to say, 'cos I'm not the sort of person that does. And they're surprised when they see it."
Drummer as sensitive artiste? Men, it can be done.