Songs From Four Strings
His idiosyncratic style of fretless bass playing inspired a generation, but now the ex-Japan man is playing sessions, writing his own music, and programming his own synths.
His meandering fretless playing inspired a generation of bass guitarists. Now Mick Karn is back in the limelight with a new album and an impending live jazz tour. What lessons has he learned in all this time?
"BY THE TIME I got a proper bass I could already play - my enthusiasm enabled me to play. I really think that if your enthusiasm is strong enough it will carry you through. If you start with the worst, then you can only go up."
So says Mick Karn, once the enigmatic bass player with Japan, veteran of a long series of collaborative projects, and now eager to talk about his impending second solo venture - an album entitled Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters, after an etching by Goya. The record marks Karn's reunion with Japan frontman David Sylvian in the form of the LP's two vocal cuts, one of which, 'Buoy', is currently on single release.
But let's go back to 1982, when the record-buying public was waiting patiently for an indication of Sylvian's post-Japan intentions. Oddly, it was Karn who first struck out on his own, with a solo single and accompanying LP - respectively 'Sensitive' and Titles. Titles also featured Japan's drummer and keyboard player - Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri - and guitarist David Rhodes (who had previously toured with Japan), while 'Sensitive' found Karn taking the role of singer as well as keyboard player and bass guitarist.
As it turned out, neither the single nor the album attracted much attention from the public at large, but became popular with musicians - a situation that had arisen from Japan's own twilight existence between those of teen idols and innovative musicians. Which does Karn consider himself to have been?
"I think a bit of both. I thought of myself as a pop star because of my role in the band. We agreed when we started that there had to be a frontman at concerts and that fell to me, so it was very difficult to think of myself as just a musician when I was doing all the prancing around on stage. But then, when people first start to take you seriously as musicians, you get this real grudge - 'well, what's been wrong with us all the other years?'
"I think Virgin originally focused on me because it looked as if I was ready to carry on after Japan", he continues. "But there was a lot of pressure from them and from my management steering me toward being a pop idol, a singer and frontman. I went along with it for a couple of months before I realised what I was getting myself into. I don't enjoy singing. That wasn't what I wanted to do, so I spent about two years trying to break away from my contracts with Virgin and my management. That was probably the worst time in my life."
A collaboration with Bauhaus singer Pete Murphy followed in 1984. The project was christened Dali's Car, but it was a promising combination of talents that never attained the success intended by the artists and predicted by the critics. A year earlier, a single with Midge Ure titled 'After a Fashion' had been met with greater enthusiasm all round.
"'After a Fashion' was made because I got on really well with Midge", Karn recalls. "But we intended Dali's Car to be a long-term project. I wanted to tour and hopefully be successful because we'd been around for a few years and people had got used to our names. Pete didn't want to tour and it seemed to defeat the object and, as time went on, we found that we both wanted to do completely different things with the project. Eventually it seemed more sensible for us to go our separate ways - it was really very disappointing so I thought I'd take a break and concentrate on what I wanted to do. 'I didn't realise it at the time, but my attitude was quite an angry one at not having been accepted before. I suppose half the blame for its failure must rest on my shoulders because I wouldn't compromise - it had to be exactly how I wanted it to be - and that's why there are no solos, no highs and lows: it flows in a steady stream. That was intentional - I wanted it to be completely different to the format people found acceptable in a record. As it happens I find it quite unacceptable myself now, but I can still listen to Titles quite easily."
So MICK KARN went through a period of self-study, and his name remained notably absent from record-release listings, concert programmes and even studio schedules for some time. Last year, though, Karn decided the time was right for another solo LP, only to find himself without a recording contract for the home market.
"I had talks with Virgin and offered to finance the album myself as long as they reimbursed me once I gave them the finished product. I think they saw I was serious when I said I was ready to put the money up myself, so they put the money up instead.
"It's been a long haul but here I am. It wasn't until I went around and looked at what the other record companies had to offer that I realised what a lot Virgin had - there really are some bad ones out there."
With the exception of 'Buoy' and 'When Love Walks In', Dreams of Reason... is an entirely instrumental album. It employs the percussive talents of Steve Jansen alongside the harmonica of Paul Jones, the brass playing of Derek Willen and the vocal input of two choirs.
"The first step I took was to get together with David on one of the tracks. We were both incredibly nervous when we got to the studio because we hadn't been in a studio for longer than we hadn't seen each other! But it went incredibly smoothly and turned out really well, because we both wanted to work together again.
"Then I found the recording wasn't going the way I wanted and I didn't know what to do, so I decided to ask Steve to help me out with the production."
The eight tracks that make up the LP vary wildly in style. 'Land' is moody and introspective, harking back to the indefinable oriental synth patches and whining fretless bass guitar that characterised Japan post-Obscure Alternatives, while 'Answer' is overtly classical in feel, with the Bury Church Classical Choir and the John Williams Music Ensemble being layered over a heavy rhythm track.
Mick Karn pleads ignorance when faced with the finer points of technology, yet all the synth programming and playing on the new album is his own work - even if he's had a little help from a friend...
"There was a lot of pressure, steering me toward being a pop idol. I went along with it for a couple of months before I realised what I was getting into: I don't enjoy singing."
"If I'm having real trouble Rich (Barbieri) will help me out", Karn admits. "He's very good at getting the sounds that I need. I usually work from a sound that I have in my head, something that will create an atmosphere or a feeling.
"I hate things that are all synthesisers: they're great when they're sparse and they're doing their job properly, but for filling in holes I find it much easier to use a clarinet or saxophone. Then if they don't work I may turn to something else.
"I find programming most difficult in the studio, where it seems to degenerate into another language. I often choose the engineer I work with to be somebody I know will understand what I'm trying to say when I'm explaining a sound, because I usually use terms that aren't very technical, but more atmospheric."
FOLLOWING JAPAN TRADITION, Karn's main synthesiser is an ageing Oberheim OBX poly, which he has supplemented with Akai samplers for this album.
"I used an Akai S900 sampler which I found very good, and also an Akai X7000 that Steve had just brought back from Japan. If I need any other keyboards in the studio I usually just hire them in."
And the trusted Oberheim also plays an essential part in Karn's current approach to songwriting...
"Mostly I write on a keyboard or the bass: I find those form the most stable base. If the keyboard's not a piano then it'll be the OBX, which I've had for a long, long time and which I'm very attached to. I find that very nice to write with. I've got a Fostex eight-track setup at home that I first put my ideas on to, then I start all over again when I get into the studio - my demos are usually such bad quality there's no choice anyway - but it's the idea that's the important part. I've made that mistake before, where you spend so much time making it right at home that it's impossible to recreate in the studio.
"The way I work is to get the basis of the track down with bass, drums and keyboards, and then to use them in little sections. I like to think my approach to composition is quite classical, but maybe that's overstating the case. I approached the first album from a spontaneous point of view because playing was all I was used to within the framework of Japan. But to write something in that way doesn't necessarily work. My writing now is very much a process of discarding things that don't quite make it. Because of that, this album has taken about two years - on and off - to write.
"If I look back on the way I used to record I realise I was always in a hurry; I hated spending too long on any one thing. With the first album I gave myself a deadline of a month to record and mix it because I couldn't bear being in the studio for too long. That's the way I felt I wanted to work.
"I suppose I've changed in that respect. Now I'm willing to give things as much time as they actually need. Looking back, I used to work like a stab in the eye - this is what I'm about, this is the way I play bass. Now it's a little more relaxed; I'm not so much interested in writing and playing for other people. I'm not trying to do anything spectacular with the bass anymore. It's a lot less self-indulgent, even though it sounds as if it should be more self-indulgent.
"One of the things I've done over the last two years is teach myself to write music. I wanted to change the way that I write, and I thought that was the best way to go about it. Now I find it actually helps me with chord structures when I'm writing.
"I wrote the words for 'Answer', then scored them out. I didn't know if it was going to work until the choir were there with their sheet music. It was so good to find out I could do it, so I went on to write out some more parts for a trumpet. That's about as far as I've got with it at the moment but I'd like to take it further - I suppose the ultimate is to score for a whole orchestra. I still feel I approach the writing in an experimental way, so this is really only a beginning.
"I find it quite time-consuming to write ideas out, so while the ideas are flowing, I find it's better to get them onto tape. I also find that the instrument I'm writing on dictates what the track will sound like, even though I often don't want it to. I might write on a piano, hoping to change it to an electric instrument later on, but often I get so used to the sound of the piano that the rest of the track will build around it."
IDIOSYNCRATIC HE MAY have been, but outside of his own projects, Mick Karn has also found himself in demand for playing sessions - not because he has the usual session player's virtues of speed and versatility, but because producers reckoned his individual, moaning fretless bass playing would sell records...
"I hate things that are all synthesisers: they're great when they're doing their job properly, but for filling in holes I find it easier to use a clarinet or saxophone."
"I will always remember a session I did with Robert Palmer", he recalls. "It was for a French singer but the tracks had been recorded in America, so I went over there and laid my tracks down. But I'd played a little bit out of tune here and there - I wasn't really following their structure, but playing against it. Robert liked it so much that rather than have me do it again, he made the others change their parts. I'm afraid I wasn't very popular with the other musicians."
Yet far from increasing his confidence as a musician, Karn's session experience has been of dubious value - partly because it makes him nervous, and partly because it's resulted in a host of bandwagon-hoppers imitating his style.
"I find sessions nerve-racking. I'm quite a nervous person when it comes to working with strange people, I prefer to know that I get on well enough with them before I'm able to go in and play.
"And I hate to sound pompous but, when I listen to bass sounds now, I can hear my style on TV, on records, everywhere. It really pleases me, but it makes it difficult for me to know where to go now with my bass. A lot of the playing I hear is so good it would sound almost as if I was trying to copy it. I'd rather not compete, so my playing has taken a turn towards simpler things.
"On the new album I've tried to simplify everything and, to me, it sounds more confident. I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone any more, but I do miss the bass being completely up front. I hope the next album will be more of a compromise between this and the old Japan style.
"One of my biggest regrets, listening to old Japan material, is that because I was a 'known' bass player people would say: 'right, bass, let's see what we can do!', and did all sorts of things to it. Now I wish I'd kept it dead straight. The bass is like the drums: they sound best as a basis sounding just as they should sound.
"I think what really changed my attitude was working with Steve Nye (producer). He once spent two days doing the bassline for one track, which I hated, but it really made me listen to things differently."
LONG, LONG BEFORE that, a young Mick Karn began his musical career... playing mouth organ in school assembly.
"Yeah, there were three of us", he grins. "We'd be given the music to take home and learn but I could never read it, so I'd rush in the next morning and ask one of the others to play me the piece, then I'd learn it by ear. When it came to the bassoon later on, I found that I still had the same approach - I honestly couldn't do it until I heard someone else play it for me. After six months of playing the bassoon I auditioned for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra - and got in!
"The way I think all that has surfaced in my bass playing is to show me you don't have to read music, it can all be done with a tune in your head."
That approach stood Karn in good stead - he went on to learn saxophone, which still makes the odd appearance on his solo material - until Japan was formed, and he found himself without a standard "rock" instrument that he could play properly. Then again, maybe that was simply a blessing in disguise...
"When we first started Japan we did it in such a naive way. We said: 'OK, we need a keyboard player - Mick, you play keyboards'. So I tried it for a couple of weeks but I couldn't handle it. I even tried being a vocalist for a couple of days, but in the end I found the bass. To start with I was quite upset that I'd ended up playing an instrument that's usually put in the background and forgotten, so I wanted to make it different and make it stand out. I feel pleased that I achieved that with it."
Yet as a bass guitarist Karn's first playing responsibility was (and continues to be) to the creation of the rhythm track. And in the absence of the co-operation of a live drummer for writing material, a drum machine would seem the obvious alternative - it's an area Karn agrees is overdue for an update.
"Drum patterns are the most important thing in the world. Even when I'm writing on keyboards, the rhythm tells me how the track's going to turn out. I've got a very old Roland TR606 that I use at the moment but I've got to get something else. Part of the reason I still stick to that and the OBX is that I can't afford to go out and buy the things I'd like to be able to break away from the old ways. Maybe next year when the album goes well..."
Looking back on his time with Japan Karn regrets there wasn't a further studio album, "to find out the direction we'd have taken after Tin Drum".
Looking forward, there's an exhibition of his sculpture (a parallel and sometimes all-consuming interest) set for Turin later in the year. But before that, it should be back to music and a tour of Germany with David Torn, Mark Isham and Bill Bruford playing modern jazz. Karn turned down the opportunity of recording with the same outfit due to his reservations about session work, and was subsequently replaced by Chapman Stick virtuoso Tony Levin. Now, however, he has decided to make his first live appearance in four years with them.
"It's the first time Mick's played jazz", confided one Virgin press officer over a glass of wine. "We're very excited about it".
And so you should be.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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