Photo by Virginia Turbett.

Ghost Image
Fan Library, July 1982. p. 34-39.

To cast fresh illumination on the subject of Mr. Sylvian is no easy task, for it is always he who naturally occupies the spotlight. Most of his interviewers (and there have been a few) tend to try the profile angle, to probe beneath that icy-cool exterior, but rarely do their results penetrate further than he wants, so well-equipped and practiced is he at being The Spokesman.

The real David is something known only to his close friends (ie the band), for he shuns the rigours of the music business and leads a largely solitary private life, his unsociability lending him an elusive, enigmatic quality. He will doubtless remain, for a while to come, an object of fascination for the press to goad, scorn or praise, to be the object of opinion often based purely on the way he looks.

For if it isn't the true Sylvian self that scribes are trying to uncover, then The Image is tried for size -- discussed, dissected, displayed or destroyed until David winds himself up in contradictory knots about it. But then, over the years, he has gone through more changes than a hyperactive chameleon.

The Early Days


The image which he claims comes instinctively causes more comment than his music. His shaggy bond locks and parchment pallor skin invite accusations of effeteness and narcissism. He is neither. Whether mistaken for a transvestite or a Scandinavian sylph, underneath he remains unassuming, affable, but shy.


It is only after, "Quiet Life," that his current, understated style emerges -- the, "Quentin Crisp," look, sleek in well-cut suits, waistcoats, bow-ties and immaculate bouffant courtesy of Mane Line. He accentuates his delicate bone structure with expertly (self) applied highlights that give him that Bowiesque hint of asexuality -- he seems curiously neuter, untouched/untouchable, very mysterious. He possess a steely self-discipline, never touching alcohol, never indulging in anything more shocking than cigarettes.

In Japan, he doesn't enjoy the role of teen idol, quietly remaining aloof in the hysteria that surrounds him. One journalist's observation hits the nail on the head: "David says relatively little but radiates the aura of a man totally in charge of his own destiny, a man watching his masterplan slowly falling into place."

He takes a pride in his appearance when it is deemed unpopular to labour over it, and he is made to answer for it.

"It's not an image," he stresses, "this is the way I am. It requires no effort for me to look like this because it's in my nature to want to. I woldn't expect to dress in any other way...until I find it boring, then I'll change."

"The way I look is just and extension of the way I think, it's just another form of self-expression. People look at me and think I must be an extrovert, someone who's in love with the idea of being a glamourous star. But I've never felt like that, never, this is just me, my normal self."

Being a vision of cool elegance in powder blue, he says, is as natural to him as jeans and t-shirts to others. He assumes with ease the guise of romantic crooner in the Ferry tradition, but unlike Brian, there is no trace of self-parody. Sylvian is in deadly earnest -- his total lack of humour when dealing with his music is seen as a definite flaw.

He denounces those who would dare to let his appearance mar their experience of Japan's music:

"I don't think I'd want to reach the sort of people who'd let my appearance put them off my music. It's something I've had to live with. You're just born the way you look. I might've got this reaction even if I didn't wear make-up or dress the way I do."

Me, myself, I. But it is demanded of him.


As his music goes through changes, so does he. After, "Polaroids," and its attendant traumas, he puts less emphasis on sartorial quality, still sporting the odd St. Laurent scarf but mixing it with bargain bin leathers. The hair and make-up are still in place, but he professes to not worry about his looks fading:

"Why worry? Young faces are so bland. A face with lots of lines, experience, that's far more interesting."

Those outside the Japan Circle feel they can't really communicate with him, that the gaps in conversations say more about him than the maze of contradictions thrown up by his comments. "I'm always introverted," he says, "but the public can see the real me -- it's in the music. I don't hide anything, it's all on those records."

But still the analysis goes on. One live review remarks: "Sylvian remains the greatest enigma. An image, not a man -- ersatz soul, and a romance you feel he's never actually experienced."

But David's not the intense, humorless character that some of his interviews may lead people to expect. Introspective, certainly, but with a gentle wit and easy going manner -- when he's feeling relaxed about his work.

He's never been one to enjoy life on the road, unless he is in Japan, the country he is becoming more and more influenced by and fond of. He enjoys the stress of travel, and the new stimuli picked up from it. But touring the UK is, for him, a different matter:

"I don't take live shows that seriously, not until I do something I'm really happy with, but I think it's just going through the motions...I really would like to spend all my time in the studios. I really don't like touring, you feel you're wasting something, projects aren't being carried through.

I love traveling, but the touring aspect of being in a band I find totally boring. I'd just like to walk from studio to studio. I love playing live but I don't like performing, because I don't see myself as a performer. I don't think I have anything to give in that sense."

Around the time of, "Art of Parties," he appears to be moving back towards his roots -- Motown was the music most played in the Batt household. He discusses some of his influences:

"Whatever music you're brought up on, you always get back to it. I always thought we were very lucky to pick up on black music first -- most people of or age picked up on the glam rock thing, Bolan and all. We like that too, but because black music came first, that's what we resort to."

Photo by Fin Costello.

The mood musak angle still fascinates him, though:

"I was influenced an awful lot by Satie, but I've milked him dry after, 'Nightporter.' People like Satie and Warhol influenced me a lot, but I don't really like their art that much, just the ideas behind it. I adopt their ideas and apply it to my work. Somehow their ideas don't work out quite right, So i do it my way, to make up for the fact they didn't do it right!

It's the same with classical music -- there's something I still want to do with it. I don't really like it, there's just certain aspects which I do like, so I'd like to do a piece of classical music which I've always wanted to hear but has never been written."

He is becoming more interested in solo projects as he is perfecting his studio techniques. After, "Polaroids," he says:

"There's lots of things I'd like to do, but I won't waste a Japan album doing it. I'll do it probably as a solo project, which I haven't been able to do up to now because of time and because companies haven't been interested.

There are albums I want to do with just musak, orchestrated musak, maybe just a track a side but as much as I want to do that I won't do it with Japan, simply because Japan is a responsibility to me. Every time a Japan LP is released it's got to be something worth listening to."

Following, "Tin Drum," he is looking even more low-key. he's taken to wearing spectacles, and in his casual anoraks looks neat but still languid. With his too-clever-by-half grin, he proclaims:

"My appearance is done basically for myself. It's got less and less important over the years until now. It started when I was young, like everybody else, I was identity searching. But now my dress is totally functional. It feels great now, getting up in the morning and just putting on practical clothes, practical to the way I live, the way I am. I used to always say in interviews that clothes are important, but I suppose I've gone back on that a little; the more your confidence grows the less you rely on clothes."

"A while ago I was getting really hung up about my appearance. But the more time it took up, worrying about it, looking in the mirror, the more I realised that it was completely irrelevant. Instead of, 'working towards,' an appearance I now do the opposite. And it's so pleasing! The music's so much stronger with it!"

Interviewers still find Sylvian's lucid polish unnerving, but some see it simply akin to the gloss on his lips. But it is difficult to rationalise anything about David -- even he is finding it so:

"More recently, in my lyrics and in my life, I've found it harder to put something together that I am totally happy with or to rationalise anything. 'Ghosts,' is the only track on the album that at all comes together musically or lyrically. I find it difficult to put a sentence together, I'm not sure what I'm saying. Each time I say something I'm thinking is that right? Do I mean that? Or is it the first thing that came into my head? A sense of doubt hangs over everything I do nowadays, although my reason for doing things is very strong."

He speaks of his seemingly cloistered lifestyle: "My way of life isn't affected by the social climate I'm living in. All I need is a room to retreat to. Maybe I'm affected by the people though. Maybe...All I need is a room and I could live in any country. I'm not very sociable. It just so happens that my current room is in Kensington."

"I'm really not sure what my role in this society is. Whenever people say oh, you're a performer / artiste / entertainer, none of those seem in the slightest bit true to me. I'm not sure therefore where I stand in peoples eyes, because I rarely ever meet the fact the only time I ever go out and meet people is abroad. I suppose, like everyone else, I take England for granted."

Many read, "Tin Drum," to be Sylvian's statement on socialism, but he likes to keep politics out of his music:

"I've never liked political songs per se. But I have always liked what I'll call, ' open music,' where the listener is left to make his own mind up, put his own clues in, where ultimately it is left up to the listener. It makes for a more personal music -- you literally relate it closer to yourself."

"Not that I want in any sense to be a, 'voice of the year.' I don't think for various reasons anything like that exists any more. My idea is that music isn't for that purpose. It's that simple."


He still weaves curiously in and out of interviews as the King of Contradiction -- but those contradictions are sincere. The success of, 'Ghosts,' gives him deep pleasure and highlights his self-assurance.

He exudes a quiet, deep rooted confidence and the almost zen-like inner calm of a man who knows he is at his best and that his public agrees. He now possesses a similar spiritual quality to the Japanese musicians he's working with. We spoke recently about him and his future plans...

Fan Library: How did you come to work with Riuichi Sakamoto?

Sylvian: "After we did, 'Polaroids,' me and Riu were sort of planning to do an album together. It was arranged twice and cancelled twice because of my commitments to Japan. Akiko Yano was going to do her album in November, around the time we finished, 'Tin Drum,' and Mick and Steve couldn't do it, so she delayed doing it till January. I knew Riu was coming over then so I said shall we do a single, it if goes well later in the year we could do an album if we get the chance."

Fan Library: Did you actually work on Akiko's album, or is that just Steve and Mick?

Sylvian: "I sang a duet on it which lasts about a minute and a half! It was fun to do."

Fan Library: What sort of thing have you done with Riuichi -- is it very different to Japan?

Sylvian: "It's hard to describe. It is a cross between what he's been doing and what I've been doing. Steve's on it as well, he's helped me a lot, 'cos we started recording and Riu had six days before he had to go back. For the first two or three days we were writing material in the studio, so we didn't get a lot done other than constructing the song, the remaining three days were taken up with putting down as may parts of his as we could. I've been finishing it off.

It's been really interesting, but really slow -- I'm a really slow worker. We were a bit unsure of what we were doing -- we hadn't talked about it, we just turned up on the day and started. It took much longer just to put one thing down, it's changed a lot since I've been working on it, I hope he likes it!"

Fan Library: How did you first get into Japanese music?

Sylvian: "I bought a YMO album before I met any of them. I'd been to Japan, and just heard the name so I bought the album then. It started from that. A fan in Japan sent me a tape of Akiko's stuff and I didn't know they were connected in any way -- I'd been listening to that tape for such a long time before I realised they were together.

The only thing I listen to now in contemporary music comes from Japan. I don't listen to very much from England, and nothing from America. I would imagine that other people would start looking elsewhere as well. If you're sitting around waiting to hear something new, it's best to try something you've never tried before."

Photo by Fin Costello.

Fan Library: Have you been to Japan recently?

Sylvian: "I haven't been back since this time last year. I'm dying to go back, in fact. I haven't put living there out of my mind. The way things at the moment keep me here, but as soon as I get the chance I will do that."

Fan Library: Have you plans to tour there again?

Sylvian: "We plan to tour in January next year. It'll be interesting to do that actually, because the audience has changed, more so than the last time. This album has been acclaimed more than the others -- people said nice things about them, but the public didn't pick up on it, they thought we were still for the tenage girls. This album has picked up hardly any bad reviews. I was surprised, 'cos I was a bit worried abou the type of music that we did."

Fan Library: Are the next things you write going to have that Oriental feel and influence about them?

Sylvian: "I don't know. This single obviously has, but...I want to do something very different. I'm sort of losing interest, not in the Japanese influence, but the lyrical and more obvious musical side of it. At the moment I'm much more interested in the arrangements we did on, 'Tin drum,' and I just want to do something different with my lyrics.

I haven't make up my mind what I'm going to do next after the single you see. If it is to plan a solo album, then I'm not sure I'll follow along the same lines as a computer-typpe music, or keyboard music. There's a couple of things I'd like to do, ways I'd like to take it. I might just take a clean cut and do something totally different."

Fan Library: You haven' t changed your image lately -- is it still something you feel terribly aware of?

Sylvian: "No, I just like to be able to survive as my own personality that would be able to reach the public, instead of dressing in a certain way that would attract people's attention to then find out about the person behind it. I'd like to be able to break down all the pretensions that build up between performer and audience -- there's so much in between, so much you can build up yourself and so much that the audience will automatically build up for you."

Fan Library: But many people still see you as fairly mysterious. You don't go out and meet people because you wouldn't want to, so there must still be a barrier between you and them.

Sylvian: "That's something that people are going to build up anyway, because if I do an interview it's normally about the work I'm doing as opposed to my private life. So they will build up myths about that. Even so, half the songs, the lyrics are based on myself, and are more of an insight into me, just by listening to the songs I write. I guess not many people would bother to do that -- I'd prefer it if they didn't really, it would probably spoil the enjoyment, the wouldn't relate it to themselves, so much. Bu the music would have more of my character in it than anybody else's. The fact that the others are more public than I am sort of makes up for it."

Fan Library: I suppose your songs are enough to make people understand what sort of person you are?

Sylvian: "In interviews you can give an insight into why you're doing what you're doing, but the other day I was asked to expand on the feelings behind, 'Ghosts,' but I couldn't see the point. Whatever I do can only detract from the reason I wrote it, and the words I put down were the most simplistic, the bare essentials. If I complicate it by explaining, it becomes meaningless, and I think people wouldn't want to know.

It's the same as finding out about musicians. The moment you have too much information on a person, you become bored by them, even if you're not bored by the music. You don't listen to the song anymore, you're listening to the personality of the person singing. That's another reason why I don't make myself to publicly available."

Fan Library: Do you think you now transcend fashion?

Sylvian: Mmmm. But I have done for a while.


Whatever he may deem to look like, david will doubtless continue to live in his Kensington room, or outside buildings in Japan or Thailand, or inhabiting his favourite cocoon-like environment, the studio. Wherever he is, it'll be a long time before he stops ensuring that no one ceases to be fascinated by him.

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