Music: Notes from a quiet life

David Sylvian isn't exactly prolific: he last produced a solo album 12 years ago. But the former Japan singer is not so much a musician as a master stylist. And that takes longer.
Have you ever tried resequencing your CDs? You can programme The Individualism of Gil Evans to sound like the original Verve vinyl, or invent an alternative sequence to Sergeant Pepper. (There's nothing doing with Prince's Lovesexy, however, because he sneakily mastered the album as one continuous track.) And now, after a few moments of faff, you can get two quite different David Sylvian albums for the price of one. Programme Dead Bees on a Cake to run 2-3-5-7-10-11-13-14 and you get an eclectic, loose, creative music album, with the guitarists Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. Programme it to run 1-4-6-7-8-9-12 and you get a smooth easy-listening album, ideal for playing at low volume when the guys drop round for some macrobiotic nosh and a chat about child-care problems.

It's not as schizophrenic as you may think. The dominant timbre of Dead Bees, from the soft "Wanderlust" to the Miles-ish jam of "All of my Mother's Names" is the Rhodes electric piano, which binds the album's dinner jazz to the downtown grunge. The jazz influence goes surprisingly deep, and sets Sylvian apart from most studio-based singer-songwriters.

Yet he is not the most prolific of recording artists. If you were in infant school when he released his last solo album (in 1987), you would now be old enough to drive. Older readers may remember Sylvian's group Japan, a quartet with far more make-up and musicianship than was strictly necessary in 1982, the year that they had their biggest hit - "Ghosts", from Tin Drum - and disbanded. Three solo albums - Brilliant Trees, Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive - followed, plus several collaborations with people such as Robert Fripp, Holger Czukay and the illustrator Russell Mills (on Undark). In person, Sylvian is courteous and intelligent, keen to make musical discoveries and, you sense, quite fastidious. His accent has an Anglo-American burr, but his manner seems wholly British.

He seems not so much a musician, as a stylist. A stylist with good taste - like Sinatra, or that guy in The Blue Nile. When David Toop put together the compilation Crooning on Venus (which included the title track of Sylvian's Brilliant Trees), the phrase could have been coined for Sylvian alone. But who else knows how to use the jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler on a pop song? David Sylvian always goes straight to the top, whether it's Holger Czukay, Talvin Singh, Wheeler, Frisell or Ribot.

"I thought - why not go straight to the source?" says Sylvian. " Nobody turned me down. Perhaps a certain naivety worked to my advantage. Everybody was open and willing to give it a go, so that became a way of working.

The most pervasive musician on Dead Bees, besides Sylvian, is Ryuichi Sakamoto, the former Yellow Magic Orchestra keyboard player who first collaborated with Sylvian when he sang on Forbidden Colours, the vocal version of Sakamoto's theme for the film Merry Christmas, Mr Laurence. Sakamoto is becoming known as the master collaborator, recently turning in impressive performances with Arto Lindsay and Vinicius Canturia

"Ryuichi has a wealth of knowledge of music of all genres," says Sylvian. "He's one of the few people who can apply that knowledge [clicks fingers] like that. You can be sitting in a room with him, working out an arrangement and say `elements of Debussy would be nice', and suddenly there they are; and then say, `not Debussy, Bill Evans', and there it is. That's very rare, and it all has his signature."

Though the project began with Sakamoto as a co-producer, Dead Bees has taken so long, and been through so many transformations, that Sylvian has ended up producing it himself, running up a huge studio bill. After the money ran out he mixed the album (with the engineer Dave Kent) in a barn studio in California. You sense that this is a make-or-break album for Sylvian.

"The financial pressures are very real. I've never been in as much debt as I now find myself. We had to make major sacrifices, but I've had Ingrid [Chavez, his wife, a poet and musician] supporting me all the way along. She's insulated me, to some degree, from the pressures so that I could continue working without thinking `I've got to finish this week or else'." Did he, I ask, ever go through the thing of wanting world domination? "Yeah. That hasn't changed," he laughs. "The whole point of creating the work is communication, so you want... as many people to hear it as possible. But I enjoy my anonymity - I really am reluctant to give that up."

When I mentioned that he had a reputation for working slowly he raised his voice for the only time during our long conversation. "It's not always my fault! There were so many obstacles..." Sylvian lists a series of technical and logistical nightmares that bedevilled the recording project. Did he ever have dark days when he thought the album might never come out, I wondered.

"With this one, yeah... there's good and bad in that. There were times when I just felt utterly defeated and there were times when I became so fascinated with what was going on in my life in other areas, I thought, I could leave this behind." Was he not tempted to make a whole album entirely by himself? "No. I really enjoy the collaborative process, that level of engagement with other musicians and the richness they can bring to a small corner of a composition just through their proficiency and their intensity. Marc Ribot, for example. In just one afternoon I got a great body of work, and his involvement enriched the project."

Nevertheless, Sylvian has embraced the sample-based approach that dominates music-making in the late Nineties. "Midnight Sun", based around a grainy John Lee Hooker loop, is one of the best tracks on the album. "The sample becomes something of a collaborator," says Sylvian, "it takes you in a direction that you might not otherwise choose. At first I didn't really see any advantage in pursuing a blues piece, but suddenly the idea of a hybrid formed in my mind: the loop, which has a certain quality because it was recorded in the Fifties - Ribot's guitar is perfectly complementary to that; then the Gil Evans-style brass arrangement; then my voice and the subject matter."

"Pollen Path" uses a sample of the funky Sonata No 5 from John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, and even the super-smooth single "I Surrender" uses a Mahavishnu Orchestra sample.

"Godman", which has some of the mad pan-tonality and groove of an Eighties Prince track (not to mention the reference to "dead bees on a cake"), features a "dirty loop" by Steve Jansen, Sylvian's brother, who played drums in Japan. Sylvian is characteristically enthusiastic about Jansen's musicality: "He worked out how to play drums without any kit. He would sit down and get the co-ordination right between hands and feet - with nothing, absolutely nothing. And when he got his first drum kit he could play it! He was the only natural musician in Japan - well, Mick [Karn] has a natural ability as well, but Steve's focus was so natural - to play drums. He creates this wonderful architectural framework for a piece of music, really composes the patterns, and he has timing like nobody I've ever known."

Sylvian is on his own now, a solo artist rather than a bandleader. He regards himself as a composer who sings, a non-musician still somewhat in awe of "competent" musicians. His vocals, the final brushstrokes on his complex canvases - are not so much performances as intimate gestures, recorded in solitude in a makeshift studio without producer, engineer or other musicians to break the spell. The lyrics are full of self-examination, with lines such as: "I opened up the pathway of the heart" and "I stand too close to see the sleight of hand/ how she found this child inside the frightened man", not to mention baffling images such as "the embers of a drowning man".

Sylvian listens widely. "I don't discover work through the radio or TV, so it's just a matter of walking into stores and making connections between names and producers, or just enjoying the packaging enough to pick it up and take it home." He is less interested in reading about music. "There are the occasional exceptions. I read the Miles Davis autobiography and will occasionally read about other jazz musicians, or maybe Glen Gould. There's a complex character behind the work, and you wanna know more." When I ask him what he thought of the biography (David Sylvian: The Last Romantic by Martin Power, Omnibus Press) he keeps his voice low and his expression remains impassive.

"I haven't seen it. I was aware that somebody was writing it. The next I heard was that it was out. I don't want to go back over my past in any form. I don't want it written about. I have no interest in reading what people write about me because I don't want it to affect what I do."

So I can write what I like, I suggest. "You can write whatever you like," he laughs.

`Dead Bees on a Cake' is released by Virgin on Monday