Populating Polytown: Mapping the Spiritual Nineties and the Geography of Sound
THE GEOGRAPHY OF SOUND
Not all nineties music was Brit-pop and grunge. The early to middle years saw many artists renew what their forefathers in the late sixties had tried to do; alert the masses to an age of hope and optimism, thus spawning a common new age spiritualist thread on recordings from Seal’s début to Wendy and Lisa’s ‘Eroica’ to Rain Tree Crow and Sylvian/Fripp’s ‘The First Day.’
Even Kenny Loggins was in with his earthly observations on 1991’s ‘Leap of Faith’ while Toni Childs did similar with her ‘House of Hope’ – the same year and ‘The Woman’s Boat’ a few years later.
While Seal and Loggins trod more commercial territories, others had already left the highway for the dirt tracks and terrain of the American desert, or other worldly terrain altogether. Enter ‘Rain Tree Crow’ led by David Sylvian whose own collaborative effort with Robert Fripp would follow.
Born out of sessions recorded in Woodstock in America’s north east, The First Day traversed the canyons of world chaos before ending in the spiritual calm of Fripp’s soundscape Bringing Down The Light (at least on the version released to compact disc).
In an act of supreme synchronicity, one of Sylvian’s former colleagues would find a similar canvas to play with, having finally found some direction with Bestial Cluster on which he worked with familiar collaborators Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri alongside guitarist David Torn.
Mick Karn had, being part of both Japan and Rain Tree Crow, been quite used to producing work describing the landscapes of the Orient and on his solo work anywhere from the Middle East (Language of Ritual) and India (Saviour, Are You With Me?) to Africa (Tribal Dawn).
Bestial Cluster featured work which did not give mention to specific regions by name though went some way to evoking smoky Turkish markets to Bavaria in winter, while echoes of Latin America were bought to life via the infectiously catchy bassline of Saday, Maday.
Japan’s personnel may have found it difficult to connect with each other, which made their musical and intellectual stimulus all the more fascinating! They were operating simultaneously but in different circles.
THE ROAD TO POLYTOWN
Together with Torn and drummer Terry Bozzio, Karn would venture on an altogether more treacherous journey, on what would become one of the decade’s most intriguing recordings. Polytown is not a place, or perhaps it is.
To me, it lies somewhere in central Asia, maybe somewhere between Kazakhstan and Xi’an, Mongolia or Russia’s remote hinterlands. Wherever it is, you can be sure it won’t be an easy ride to get there and if anyone lives there at all, they may be people you don’t want to meet! *If you are travelling to some of these places, you’re going to need travel insurance, and for that try Staysure (affiliate link).
This is not to say Polytown doesn’t have its moments of pastoral serenity (Open Letter to the Heart of Diaphora and Red Sleep) though one gets the impression that it’s mostly a place of savage brutality; in landscape, weather and in its population.
It is in many respects an earth album mirroring the dog eat dog culture we encounter on a daily basis tied to a disturbing dystopia. A barren wilderness or lawless metropolis where abduction is commonplace and perhaps a recreational sport for its citizens!
Despite all of that, it may be wrong to assume that buried within its harsh terrain, Polytown doesn’t have its beating carnivorous heart in optimism. While Wendy and Lisa wore theirs on their sleeves ‘ideally we could be free, why wait for heaven?’
Torn, Karn and Bozzio’s nouveau progressive blasts say it instrumentally in the albums middle ground ‘Warrior Horsemen of the Spirit Thundering Over Hills of Doubt to a Place of Hope.’ But it is the kind of hope that may currently inhabit Afghanistan or Iraq.
Although its people long for peace and more stability, it’s a long way in the distance. Polytown was not yet a place you’d like to find yourself. ‘Snail Hair Dune’ seems to be leading somewhere but ultimately nowhere.
The listener is still bathed in this unforgiving gloom, a constant dusk much like Sylvian/Fripp’s Darshan; we are kneeling on a road praying for something better amid the dark light, dust and heat. Perhaps something that may never come.
The instrumentation covered by the trio helps shape the interior mood of the record and conjures up the landscapes aforementioned; from tiny piano to bass clarinet, from Greek voice to dumbek and throaty French horn imitations, the sound careens from dreamy to off putting! A good example of the latter is the concluding aural assault ‘City of the Dead’ featuring an array of percussive textures, bells, chains and dida (Chinese horn).
So fact or fiction, Polytown remains an astounding piece of work but what led to its birth in the first place? The idea for these three scientists of sound to collaborate first reared its head at the tail end of the eighties with Karn initially signed up to play with Torn on his much admired Cloud About Mercury album.
In the end Karn’s inhibitions about working with others he deemed more skilful led to him retracting with Tony Levin taking his place. He did however tour the project. Polytown had no prior concept, though the remote location of the studio did lend itself as a kind of determiner to the direction the record would take. Secondary to this was the limited time allotted to record and mix.
POLYTOWN THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Polytown was recorded in three weeks across June and July 1993 at Vermont’s long since defunct White Crow Audio – then owned by photographer and author Todd R. Lockwood – himself a pioneering adventurer and bastion of the arts landscape for the common man founding The Brautigan Library; America’s only library for unpublished manuscripts (for American writers only as far as I know).
The trio elected to self-produce while Bruce Calder recorded and mixed. The recordings were then mastered by Bob Ludwig; a character synonymous with so many records, I often visualise him in a room with columns of CDs rising from the floor like citadels, some covered in cobwebs – his job never ending and never done. I asked Lockwood for his recollections about the project.
When did you first hear of Polytown?
I hadn’t heard of Polytown until they came to record with us. I was familiar with David Torn and Terry Bozzio. If memory serves, Polytown was conceived as a “supergroup,” bringing together three extraordinarily talented musicians for a one-time album collaboration and tour. German record label CMP Records made it happen.
Why did they choose White Crow to record?
The White Crow connection likely came from the project’s freelance recording engineer, Bruce Calder. It was a very tight industry; engineers and producers often shared studio recommendations. Bruce likely heard about White Crow from another engineer or producer.
White Crow was one of last significant analog recording studios on the East Coast. It was the second studio in the U.S. to offer 48-tracks of Dolby SR (the first being the Grateful Dead’s studio in California). Dolby SR allowed analog tape to match the dynamic range of digital, while retaining the analog tape compression beloved by electric guitar players.
Polytown is a superb demonstration of Dolby SR’s dynamic capabilities. White Crow also featured a 1980-vintage Neve recording console, noted for its warm articulate sound, as well as Studer tape machines.
What was the bands work ethic?
The seeds for some of the songs came spontaneously while hanging out in the lounge between takes. Bozzio would start tapping out a complex rhythm on the table, and Torn would begin singing a melody on top of it. Then Karn would add some counterpoint.
Once it began to feel centered, the three of them would sprint into the studio and start putting it down. What was really breathtaking about this was the level of their musicianship. They were so musically fluent, they didn’t have to stop and plan. These recordings are essentially real-time conversations.
Were you involved in the band discussions or did you merely own the studio? I can imagine with your background you got on very well with them.
My role at the studio was mostly managerial, although I did engineer and produce a number of projects myself. One of my dreams in creating White Crow was to provide an environment where all sorts of creative media could converge. When bands recorded there, it wasn’t just about music. It was about art and life.
The studio was decorated with black & white photographs, not of music business types, but instead of creative people of all sorts. Twenty years prior to this, I purchased a portfolio of original Richard Avedon portraits, including Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and Ezra Pound, among others. They hung throughout the studio, though most visitors assumed they were just posters. I also had some of my own photographs on display, vestiges of my early photography career.
I recall getting into some very interesting conversations with Terry Bozzio about life, art and media. He is clearly an inquisitive individual. All three of these guys were a pleasure to be around. The vibe was always very optimistic. They seemed to love the challenge that this project brought them.
Does White Crow still exist?
White Crow closed about a year and a half after Polytown was recorded. We’d been operating at that level for ten years and recorded a number of notable artists, including Phish, Dinosaur Jr., Alice Cooper, and Odetta.
Changes in recording technology in the mid-1990’s made it increasingly difficult to maintain a large scale studio. At the same time, record companies began reducing their budgets for album projects. The writing was on the wall. I have fond memories of the many artists we served and possibly inspired.
CONCEPTUALISING POLYTOWN AS PLACE
Populated in three weeks.
Rivers of warm sand like snakes coil around Polytown often flooding into larger reptiles.
Polytown is not just about the music. Central to its place in the cultural sphere is its design, which takes it beyond the realm of recorded music and gives it much more depth. Polytown was now a place you could touch in the physical dimension, albeit by way of a shiny digipak – the name then given to CDs housed in glossy folding panels.
This came via Stylorogue guru Rob O’Connor (Tears For Fears, Simple Minds) who had worked with Karn on Bestial Cluster. O’Connor’s team came up with 27 concepts, all of which were duly rejected by the band, save for some initial ideas which remained central to the initial thought process and would eventually go some way toward the finished artwork.
The front cover features a collage effect of anything from snakeskin to sandpaper to an excerpt of Asia (India, Nepal, Myanmar etc) taken from a Russian atlas (the snake skin and maps were art directed by Karn and Torn).
Further indications of Asia are given weight by the appearance of three wheeled tuk-tuk vehicles common in places like Thailand with a five pointed star emblazoned over the top. Its political landscape may be totalitarian while its geography lie central to many rivers or riverbeds which are prone to flooding.
The term to being populated in three weeks obviously refers to it being recorded in that time but what of three wheels, three skins and three syllables? Do these refer to the trio that made Polytown? Surely three mad professors would have been more suitable or was it too cumbersome? Who wrote the prose? There were so many questions adding to the overall mystique of the project.
The disc itself also alludes to Sylvian/Fripp’s First Day although this may be because O’Connor is an admirer of Vaughan Oliver (the designer who handled that album). Polytown is made up of a rusty red with a slither of turquoise green on its left side perhaps in honour of the more subtle pieces like ‘Bandaged by Dreams’ while The First Day has orange and dark green in almost equal measures.
Bearing in mind the brute force of much of the record, Polytown is given an unusually light typeface while the band member names have a much tougher looking type in keeping with the music. It is also I believe the same type utilised on both Karn’s Bestial Cluster and The Tooth Mother. O’Connor also produced the artwork for Karn’s Collectors Edition CD.
3 SKINS: THE SUM OF ITS PART
David Torn was born in Amityville, New York in May 1953 so was 40 when he worked on Polytown. This was quite an achievement in that the previous year he had been diagnosed with a life threatening brain tumour; the consequent surgery left him deaf in one ear.
I first became aware of his name on what is considered David Sylvian’s masterpiece ‘Secrets of the Beehive.’ Torn also guested on the corresponding tour ‘In Praise of Shamans.’ He has also worked with anyone from Bowie to Madonna and perhaps less surprisingly has scored many films.
Mick Karn’s entry point to the world was via a Cypriot summer, July 1958 to be precise. Relocating to east London he met and eventually formed the band Japan with school friends David Sylvian, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri. When they separated in the early eighties, Karn had already issued his first solo album ‘Titles.’
This was followed by Dalis’ Car, and by a second solo record ‘Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters.’ Sessions with Kate Bush and Joan Armatrading bridged solo outings which were few and far between, a seven year lapse was ended by Bestial Cluster thus beginning his association with Torn. In terms of releases, the mid-nineties was his most prolific period. Karn died from cancer in 2011.
Terry Bozzio is the oldest of the trio; born in San Francisco, December 1950 and despite his considerable credentials is the only member I had no prior knowledge of. In short, he was a member of Frank Zapper’s band and left to form Missing Persons with Zapper alumni Warren Cuccurullo (later of Duran Duran) and ironically leaves to tour with Duran’s Andy Taylor as Cuccurullo replaces Taylor in Duran.
Rock politics aside, Bozzio remains a renowned and sought after sticksman recording, touring and appearing with a multitude of musicians and drum clinics globally.
Polytown (CMP CD 1006) was issued in 1994. CMP is now part of Silva Screen Records.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Thanks also to YOU for reading here. Should anyone be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, please contact me for a FREE Overview PDF. Meanwhile, stay tuned with Kulture Kiosk via The Atlas or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world. Original posted in May 2014. Playlist and credits follow…
Big Wheels in Shanty Town (from Rain Tree Crow) – Rain Tree Crow
Red Earth (as summertime ends)(from Red Tree Crow) – Rain Tree Crow
Saday, Maday (from Bestial Cluster) – Mick Karn
Open Letter to the Heart of Diaphora (from Polytown) – David Torn/Mick Karn/Terry Bozzio
Red Sleep (from Polytown) – David Torn/Mick Karn/Terry Bozzio
Why Wait for Heaven (from Eroica) – Wendy and Lisa
Warrior Horsemen of the Spirit Thundering Over Hills of Doubt to a Place of Hope (from Polytown) – David Torn/Mick Karn/Terry Bozzio
Snail Hair Dune (from Polytown) – David Torn/Mick Karn/Terry Bozzio
Darshan (from The First Day) – David Sylvian & Robert Fripp
Bandaged by Dreams (from Polytown) – David Torn/Mick Karn/Terry Bozzio
My thanks to Todd Lockwood who contributed his insight into this unique album.
Photo credits: Photo of Karn/Bozzio and Torn and White Crow studio by and courtesy of Todd R. Lockwood. Image copyright remains with him. Album cover images by Rob O’Connor sourced from Discogs website. Copyright with the artists and designers in question.