In discussion with Luke Solomon about “Snow Borne Sorrow” by Nine Horses (2005).
How did you come across “Snow Borne Sorrow”? Was it out of a longtime fondness for David Sylvian’s work?
First and foremost, I am a huge fan, probably since the age of 11. “Snow Borne Sorrow” I was actually turned on to by one of my oldest and closest friends. It was only a couple of weeks after release.
Why did you decide to discuss this album, and not another one of his many remarkable records? What makes this so special to you?
There are records and there are records. That’s my philosophy. I’ll elaborate. We all know the classics, there are lists of those everywhere. But I believe in personal classics. This to me, is music that happens along at a poignant time in your life. The stars are aligned, and bang, it’s like a spark, and epiphany. A moment that can be deemed as a marker. “Oh, that was the Snow Borne Sorrow time.” Or something. That was the “Snow Borne Sorrow part” of my life.
How would you describe “Snow Borne Sorrow”, also in comparison to other music Sylvian was involved with?
More than anything, on first listen it was the sound and the maturity of his voice. I listened to it recently on an 8000 pound pair of speakers, and I was blown away by the detail. Incredible. And then there are the songs, the subject matter, the arrangements. I could go on.
Apparently Sylvian went through a hard time when “Snow Borne Sorrow” was published. He got divorced, he was shocked with the post-9/11 chaos, all topics that are lingering through the lyrics and the overall sad mood of the album. Yet “Snow Borne Sorrow” was not as dark, minimal and experimental as his solo album “Blemish” or later albums. Is this as accessible and pop as he would still get? Was this a last shot at doing something in the vein of popular songs of his like “Ink In The Well” or “Ghosts”, or is this a different approach?
I think it was probably a combo over everybody’s input. I think Steve Jansen had a major influence over the sound of the album. It really shows on “Slope”, which I think he made around the same time. The words are sad for sure. But the music is uplifting in a weird and twisted way.
Nine Horses was conceived as a studio project of Sylvian, his brother Steve Jansen, and Bernd Friedmann. Jansen and Friedmann are prolific artists themselves, but in the end the project was mostly regarded as a solo show of Sylvian with a fine match of collaborators. Do you think this is fair? After all the music was mainly written by Friedmann for example, and I think his style really seeps through the tracks. The same goes for Jansen, who was apparently closely involved with the music, too. Would this album sound different without them?
As I said in the previous question. For me, this was about the three of them. I never perceived this as a solo album. And a pox on those that do. They need to look at the “collaborators” body of work. Equally as impressive.
Are you also a fan of Friedmann’s and Jansen’s solo work? I thought that the music of “Snow Borne Sorrow” rings of Friedmann’s work with Jaki Liebezeit on the “Secret Rhythms” albums, for example.
Not so much Burnt Friedman, although I do appreciate his music , but Steve Jansen, yes. “Songs Across Borders” is probably one of my all time favourite albums and “Slope” was brilliant. I am not aware of “Secret Rhythms”. I am now.
As Sylvian likes collaborations very much, another important part of the album’s are the guest vocalists and musicians, like Arve Henriksen on trumpet, Ryuichi Sakamoto on piano and Stina Nordenham on vocals. I think their contributions are very subtle, yet they really add up to the whole listening experience. How do you rate the personnel on “Snow Borne Sorrow” and their performances?
I think Stina is the perfect accompaniment to David’s voice. I love the subtlety of the arrangements. They are very Quincy Jones. The odd cello here, the odd horn there. No over kill or showing off. It’s what makes it so special.
Sylvian has also guested on records by Friedmann and Sakamoto in particular. Would you say that those musicans sound different in the context of a work under Sylvian’s helm, as opposed to Sylvian lending his voice to their own music?
Honestly, and I am not sure how he has managed it, but no matter what he sings on, the record becomes this single entity. Aside from early Japan, there is always a sound that has been shaped from his early work with Ryuichi. I think that was their blueprint that kind of evolved into something more spectacular. But you can’t deny his voice is like no other and that’s where it becomes its own thing.
Hearing the songs of “Snow Borne Sorrow” at first I couldn’t help to be drawn to Sylvian’s voice again. It is really very distinctive, and I think it even became more charismatic over the years. Does his style of performing run the risk of overshadowing the accompanying music, or is the music on “Snow Borne Sorrow” strong enough to make up a bigger picture?
I love how his voice was recorded on this album. I think years and years of singing, recording and knowledge were almost made for this moment. Which microphone, space of mind, place to record, etc, etc. It lends to the music perfectly.
It is interesting how someone so decidedly reclusive and introvert still comes across as a very present performer. Is this a paradox?
I don’t think so. I think this is what makes a great artist. Someone who can be shrouded in mystery, not really gives away themselves in public, yet speaks volumes in music. I love that. It shows that he is very much in the now for exactly that reason. You just don’t know.
Do you think the way Sylvian is combining his voice and lyrics is his very own, or do you see him in the tradition of other performers before him? Is he an archetype for the loner individualist pursuing his own vision of music?
I think vocally, the only person I could compare him to would be Bowie. That’s not to say they sound the same. I just think they view their voice as instrument that makes noises. I could probably imagine that he doesn’t like the sound of his own voice. I am just guessing here. Once you realise that your voice does something original and different, and you are able to visualize that in music, the rest is a given. You will be original by rule of thumb.
Although the production process was supposedly determined by sharing parts between the members of Nine Horses, “Snow Borne Sorrow” sounds very cohesive. On his latest album “Manafon” Sylvian seemed to have lost interest in that and preferred to base the music on improvisation, to very mixed reviews. Are there limits as to what he can do musically? Does a concept like the one on “Snow Borne Sorrow” suit him better? Does he need a certain kind of song structure to work?
I think that he needs Steve Jansen, and Steve Jansen needs him, in order to break boundaries and move foward, yes. But, I also love the fact that he doesn’t really care. He just experiments, and what will be, will be. To be in that position as an artist, is what I aspire to.
Apart from being sort of proto-new romantic with Japan, especially with the Moroder produced phase, and a few collaborations with Sakamoto, Sylvian is not necessarily associated with club music. Did he have an impact on the history of electronic dance music and what became of it nonetheless?
For me, yes. But I am weird. I have friends within the dance music community that just don’t get him at all. I have friends that adore him equally. Whether he has inspired dance music, I don’t know, I don’t think so. But his individuality has inspired dance music artist, for sure. I would like to think that I am single-handedly responsible for a large amount of SBS sales amongst the DJ Producer community in Chicago.
The music you produce and play as DJ is mostly of a different kind as “Snow Borne Sorrow”. Is this the type of music you like to listen to if you need a break from that? Do you have a soft spot for this kind of melancholic music?
As a producer, I don’t think it is. I follow the same ideology. I would never make sound a like music, but I am inspired by sounds and production. Nine Horses have had a massive influence on my new album. The textures, arrangement and sound overall. As a DJ, I play weird electronic music, I just don’t get booked to do it. I have done a lot of mixes for radio shows. It’s not an escape at all, it’s very much a part of my make up.
Could you imagine producing something in the vein of this album yourself? Or maybe even a collaboration with Sylvian, if he would be interested?
I couldn’t collaborate although I have thought of it. But, I am not big on famous artist collaborations. I find them to be a bit of a cop out. I have been working with a host of Chicago musicians and a friend, Timothy Shumaker, under the name of “This Modern Dance”. This is heavily influenced.