Anthony Reynolds was the front-man of the band Jack, one of the real treasures of the old Too Pure Records label. He's also an author, and his new book, Cries and Whispers 1983-1991 looks at the solo careers of the members of Japan. Seeing as how I came in on Gone To Earth from David Sylvian in 1986 and worked my way backward to Japan, and forward through a succession of solo releases from Sylvian, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri, and Steve Jansen, this book is something I was eager to see. I have the eBook version and I can tell you just from reading that that it's an impressive piece of work.
Before you run off and order Cries and Whispers 1983-1991 here, I urge you to read this interview I recently conducted with Anthony Reynolds. For anyone else who's a fan of this material, the book is sure to be of appeal, as is this brief interview with the author.
Glenn, kenixfan: What made you interested in Japan? Were you a fan of the band when they were still active?I want to thank Anthony Reynolds for his time today, and urge you to order his new album, A Painter's Life, here, and play some of his music via the Bandcamp link below.
ANTHONY REYNOLDS: I was aware of Japan before I got into them but I was 11 when they split up and I wasn’t a fan then. I think I was into Madness and comics in 1982 both of which were much more visible and available in Wales. Japan were kind of mysterious, rarely on TV, so it seemed certainly not particularly popular where I lived. They were probably seen as a bit ‘elitist’ if i think back, a bit rarefied for the working class environment I lived in. But in time that became part of their appeal to me. In fact, I had friends who had big brothers who had the most exotic collections of something called "12 inches"! What were these strange, beautiful objects? I remember vividly flipping through such a collection and getting to the 12" of "Ghosts" and the big brother saying in his strong Cardiff accent, "That’s a bloody good song that is". That really stayed with me. How a song like that could infiltrate the deepest recesses of the ghetto... Eventually, in 1985 my cousin gave me a tape of Tin Drum. I was listening to the likes of the Thompson Twins, Nik Kershaw, and Howard Jones at the time as I was 14, and they suddenly seemed like cartoons next to Japan.
Glenn, kenixfan: It might not be a popular opinion, and I may be saying this because I really followed these musicians’ work quite a bit during the era covered in the book, but I’ve always felt that Japan was the rare band where the individual solo projects were far more interesting, innovative, and risky than the music made in the original band. What do you think about that idea?
ANTHONY REYNOLDS: Japan were a band and as such there were compromises to be made despite what Sylvian may have tried to dictate. All that talent and ego in one room...! So by default, the solo works may have been allowed to be a bit more unedited, a bit more indulgent. And also, those solo works -- especially Mick Karn’s Titles album -- were in some part a reaction to being in Japan. So I guess by default those solo works would seem more personal, or interesting and ‘risky’... But I actually prefer the boundaries that are inherent in a band such as Japan. I think constraints and boundaries can sometimes -- especially in pop music -- work to the music’s advantage. And someone may be a great instrumentalist when part of a group but when left alone, their work can lack focus. When I hear some of the ex-members' of Japan’s solo work, especially the instrumental stuff, it sometimes sounds to me less like true instrumental music but more like music without a singer. If I imagine Sylvian singing it, it becomes much more palatable and complete. Similarly, when I saw Sylvian do his "Slow Fire" tour in 1995, which was just him with guitar and piano, I felt it wore a bit thin after a while, and I missed the band arrangements. But as I say, this may be just my taste and I still haven’t worked out where taste comes from...
Glenn, kenixfan: Cries and Whispers 1983-1991 does a good job at balancing things, necessarily shedding a bright light on David Sylvian’s solo career while not neglecting the many efforts made by Mick Karn and Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri as solo artists. Was that an easy thing to do, given how prolific Sylvian was following the dissolution of Japan?
ANTHONY REYNOLDS: Cries and Whispers 1983-1991 isn’t a biography of Sylvian; it’s an account of what all the ex-members of Japan did when that group split up. That was my remit. As a writer and researcher I have a particular tenacity and a fondness for trying to shine a light into dark musical corners. I get pleasure from focusing on the most obscure release or live appearance. If you think of just one day in the life of your subject, and if you could get enough detail on just that day, how it would be a book in itself. Of course, that’s easier said than done and, in real terms, because Sylvian’s albums were more popular, there is more press available on them, so it was hard to write as much about Jansen and Barbieri’s Worlds in a Small Room as it was about Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees. But my starting point, my approach, was to treat both equally.
I feel that just as much effort went into Karn’s Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters as it did into Gone To Earth. It’s just that the former wasn’t as popular as the latter. But that’s almost irrelevant to me as I’m writing primarily about the work and how it was conceived and made, and not how it was received by the public. So, no, attempting to cover all releases wasn’t an issue for me in terms of attitude, just in finding enough material.
Glenn, kenixfan: Having written about Japan more than once now, how do you, as a fan, feel about Rain Tree Crow, the "reunion" album from 1991? Perhaps unfairly marketed at the time as a "Japan reunion record", it feels stronger to me when viewed as a one-off that doesn’t attempt to be a Japan record; it sounds a bit like any number of projects from each member, only they’re all together this time.
ANTHONY REYNOLDS: The Rain Tree Crow album is tied to a period of my life. As I said earlier, I was too young to appreciate Japan first time around, but by 1991, being 19 I was more ‘awake’ and was buying the NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds, every week. So I was able to actively ‘take part’ in its release at the time, checking chart positions, listening to radio interviews, and so on...all the joys of being a fan! Rain Tree Crow was a worthy effort but it always felt a bit unfinished to me, the sound of a band finding their feet again. Unlike Sylvian's stuff, I wasn’t very taken with the instrumental pieces on it so in this regard it feels uneven... Also, Mick seems to be absenting himself from his playing almost, and I wanted to hear more of his ‘flamboyance’. It’s as if he’s treading on eggshells which, if you read the book you’ll see that he was in a way. It has some gorgeous, fully realized pieces on it for sure, like "Pocket Full of Change", but other tracks just never did much for me.
Cries and Whispers 1983-1991 is up for order now here.
[Photo of David Sylvian by Tony Barratt; Photo of Barbieri and Jansen by Tim Goodyer]