Steve Jansen: Quiet Life Through Quiet Windows
*this blog includes an affiliate link
When a band splits, it’s a little easier to see what one member brings to the table unless, that is, the band is JAPAN; a bunch of musicians as multi-faceted as their very existence. Drummer Steve Jansen’s history and output is no less complex.
Indeed he is much much more than just a master of the kit and is also a competent producer, mixer, engineer, poet and photographer. I’ve avoided a Jansen blog for some time because when you think of his discography it’s a body of work almost as imposing as Eno’s!
So how to approach it? Do I mention his catalogue with Richard Barbieri (after all there is rather a lot of it), how about The Dolphin Brothers? What about PULSE X PULSE (his collaboration with Yukihiro Takahashi) and then there’s the recent band effort Exit North.
Not forgetting live and session work (Icehouse, Propaganda, H, Annie Lennox) or oddities like Music for a Dying Star and Swimming in Qualia. Or do I just opt for the output that is entirely his own?
You see what I mean? I don’t want to marginalise someone with over 40 years in music (as well as photography) to a couple of solo records starting in 2007. Likewise I don’t especially want to write about Japan or the fact he is the singer’s brother.
Both are well documented and hence not much of a revelation to me or you, the reader. Instead I’ll do what I’ve done with John Foxx, Perry Blake and Tim Bowness (all of whom have collaborated with SJ) and present a personal perspective and a playlist.
But even then it’s difficult to know where to begin. It may have been Icehouse that alerted me. I knew the name, I just couldn’t place it; where had I seen or heard of this Steve Jansen guy? The answer was the same rock encyclopaedia that had introduced Foxx and Japan.
Over the course of writing this blog, I got to play some of my old favourites as well as catch up with the newer material. Betsu-Ni still has a joyful charm to it, Stay Close still sounds like an Orientally Girls on Film, Ringing the Bell Backwards still sounds like something from one of those moody interludes in Miami Vice and there were some surprises. So where do we begin? In the eighties of course.
RINGING THE BELL BACKWARDS
March 30, 1989. After much procrastination I finally took the plunge and bought Japan’s Tin Drum. Soon after I had albums by David Sylvian, Mick Karn and The Dolphin Brothers (there wouldn’t be a solo Jansen record for a very long time). The latter came in October (though the album Catch the Fall came out in July 1987 and had completely sailed past my station without my even noticing as did their debut Worlds in a Small Room).
Both summer and winter are relevant to The Dolphin Brothers as it’s one of those albums where the songs seem out of sorts with each other; the title track’s intro and outro has a spring like quality i.e. everything is fresh and new which is a good way to herald in a new work while the middle conveys the doom and gloom of winter.
Tracks 2, 3 and 4 all bear the hallmark of a surefire summer (especially sultry on Love That You Need). The second side is back to winter for the most part, so on vinyl Shining is apt for the first side and My Winter for the second.
Coming in to Japan’s musical realm at the end of the eighties was very good timing as they had reformed and would have been recording Rain Tree Crow as I got to grips with the albums I’d missed. In the gatefold for Oil on Canvas are individual portraits and Jansen resembles an artier version of my own mother!
He’s still relatively youthful on the cover of Stay Close – his first collaboration with Yukihiro Takahashi and on Catch the Fall but a change was in the air.
CROSSING THE BORDER
For Stories Across Borders, the names are expanded from Jansen/Barbieri to the fuller Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri and this time things are bit more moody in both the music and the portraiture.
Gone was the boy Jansen, he was now visually assured with stubble but more important was his growth as a musician. This was not pop, this was something in line with Michael Nyman’s music for cinema. The Night Gives Birth, The Insomniac’s Bed, each evoking the night as a central character.
Thus Lumen, taken from the Latin for light, sits within an otherwise nocturnal framework. For that reason it’s a little out of context and breaks up the continuity a bit. That said it’s a beautifully crafted piece fusing the obscure with contemporary touches like the drop beat (in vogue at the time).
Nocturnal Sightseeing is credited to Barbieri yet Jansen’s clattering percussion, neat cymbal work and chimes (which may be on a synth) make it essential listening. It’s astonishing to think Jansen no longer regards Borders as technically very good which shows the professional tenacity he has since attained.
FLYING THE NEST: BEYOND RAIN TREE CROW
Although guest musicians enhance The Dolphin Brothers, Rain Tree Crow and Mick Karn’s albums it seemed Jansen, Barbieri and Karn were slow to embrace work with outsiders but this too changed during the nineties, in Jansen’s case working with big name artists from Annie Lennox to unknowns like Perry Blake.
One album and one single were issued from Rain Tree Crow an album which saw Jansen play anything from Moroccan clay drum (New Moon at Red Deer Wallow) to ceramic drum (Red Earth) to organ and the more standard marimba and tambourine. He says of single Blackwater that it didn’t need drums as it somewhat disrupted the gentle timbre of the song but Jansen providing pitter-patter didn’t harm it in my opinion.
I wrote about Cock Robin being real people and that would certainly apply to Messrs J B and K, regular guys who happen to make and be successful at music. After the tiring process of making the Rain Tree Crow album JBK took the unusual decision to support the fledgling No-Man doing radio sessions in ’92 and guesting on their 1993 album Loveblows and Lovecries as well as the 21 minute Heaven Taste.
I bought the first of the Medium label series Beginning to Melt on its release. Being from the Newport area and living there at the time, Jansen’s contribution March of the Innocents was of interest (Newport was the scene of a Chartist Rising for those that don’t know). So March of the Innocents seemed somewhat apt but alas, it was an off day at the office for Jansen on this occasion (at least he was human after all).
The expansive ocean of the title track showed them moving toward longer composition while Robby Aceto’s Human Age exudes a moody canvas comfortable enough for the guys to sit in as does Mick Karn’s brilliant Shipwrecks and Richard Barbieri’s Orange Asylum.
CRIES AND VISTAS
The following year found Flame; it might say Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness on the cover but with Jansen’s involvement on six of the eight tracks it’s more or less Jansen/Barbieri/Bowness. Factor in Karn’s presence and it’s almost Japan with Bowness on vocal duties. Musically it’s a more mannered Dolphin Brothers. Very English, only this time the summer is missing. It’s a good record for three seasons.
Trash Talk for example is the morning fog on the common and the spangly synth which bookends the track is pure Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! Feel on the other hand feels like something discarded from Propaganda’s A Secret Wish and given a make over by Bowness, a pretty synth coda by Barbieri and Jansen on synth-bass!
When Stone to Flesh appeared for some reason I didn’t purchase. That fell to Changing Hands on moving to London at the end of the nineties, a full decade after first hearing Tin Drum. This work is fantastic and next to Stories Across Borders their strongest offering together with Japanese DJ Nobukazu Takemura. While the guys had been going to Japan since their late teens I lost out and to this day have never been there.
Suntrap in the Sea is pleasant and another lengthy composition; a little too on the meandering side. The second is the super sexy Subtle Bodies. I remember playing it to a friend in London’s Earls Court and he said it sounded like music for a fashion show catwalk! Then there’s The Children Gathering Around the Lake which evokes a holiday memory from Portugal or Brazil.
If the late artist Howard Hodgkin was painting it, he may have called it When Did We Go to Portugal? Or Remember Portugal? The summer-haze of an imagined Portuguese idyll dissolves into an icy eastern European winter garden for Memory and Listening (in my mind it’s Prague but it could be Budapest or any others in that region). The ghost of Japan (the group) alive and well on its Barbieri imbued coda.
CHECKING THE PULSE
Jansen and co’s musical niceties were the perfect anecdote for a diabolical nineties! A cultural car crash especially as we Brits are renowned for innovation in pushing music forward. One of the artists I did like was Olive whose first album Extra Virgin featured the vocals of one Ruth-Ann Boyle.
While she never got the call from Jansen, the similar larynx of Zoe Niblett did and it’s her vocal on Wave that is a particular highlight of PULSE X PULSE (another studio project with Takahashi).
London in 1999, I was now a pretty big supporter of No-Man and went to the 12 Bar Club for an intimate show by singer Tim Bowness. It was there that Steve himself showed up and I momentarily got to chat with him handing him a flyer for my year old publishing effort equivocal (then associated with the collective). He liked my design and said he’d check it out. A big honour for little old me, then in my late 20s and having achieved nothing to what he had in his early 20s.
Around the same time I was getting wind of another singer from Ireland called Perry Blake whose first album was doing the press and promo rounds in the UK. His second Still Life was released in ’99 and guess who’s drumming on it? It eventually ends up in my collection via a store in French Paris (detailed in my Perry blog).
BROTHERS IN SONG, BROTHERS IN SOUND
For Jansen the latter nineties and early 2000’s were a very busy time both musically and spiritually reuniting with his brother (both on record and the stage) and becoming a father for (as far as I know) the first time. 2001 sees one of his strongest performances on No-Man’s Returning Jesus album.
Just check out his jaw-dropping jazz solo between 3:10 – 4:17 on Lighthouse. Further still (if that isn’t enough) Jansen’s familiar and almost trademark deft touches embellish the choral imbued balladry of album closer All That You Are.
As a footnote to this paragraph JBK issued a live album Playing in a Room With People and that concludes with Jansen’s Types of Ambiguity which is cute (the closing piano notes), stately (the first verse) and hauntingly eerie. I often imagine it with Nick Drake’s Black Eyed Dog being sung over the top of Jansen’s music which ironically would suit it more than the jolly ditty accompanying Drake’s original.
SUITED AND BOOTED FOR SORROW
Returning to London after a brief spell in New Zealand, the Nine Horses album arrives. Stranger still the local Antipodean bible TNT magazine is listing it (I may have been instrumental in this as they seldom covered anything Japan related).
Anyway, it called the record Sylvian’s most commercial outing in years. To me it is his Tin Machine (check the press shots). But wait, is this not derogative to Jansen and Burnt Friedman? – Nine Horses is a band project NOT a Sylvian one.
From my promo copy at the time, the first thing to leap out was Darkest Birds followed by Atom and Cell as it’s so unusual in its subject matter (the homeless) and for its usage of backing singers. I mistook the former as a Jansen comp but it’s actually the title track, Snow Borne Sorrow, that’s credited to him.
In 2007 after a solid three decades in the business, Jansen delivered his very first solo album, Slope (the last of the Japan muso’s to do so – not including Rob Dean). To my mind the music is a little like Micheal Brook’s Cobalt Blue; a soundtrack to a film yet to be made. In the opening Grip, the evocative December Train – maybe a trip through arid terrain (Jansen is a big fan of the American desert).
But it’s the somewhat ominously titled Conversation Over that wins out for me. Considering its name the slow blossoming ballad is simply rapturous! It wouldn’t seem out of place on Jon Hassell’s Last Night The Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Street – it’s that good!
Speaking of titles, there are some which have a ‘Jansen stamp’ on them; Life’s Like That, Give Yourself a Name, Short of One Dimension. These cast an air of cool but at the same time can seem sarcastic, tough or some might say arrogant (mean and moody, rough and ready).
Then there are others that would lend themselves to the cinematic or literary world; Gap of Cloud, Memory of an Imagined Place, Remains of a Fragile Illusion, A Way of Disappearing, Memory Without Consequence, Empty Orchestra and Map of Falling.
It was while based in China that I heard Exit North (the track), Captured and Now He Dreams for the first time. The latter bearing some sort of resemblance to mid nineties band Deep Forest yet it’s Jansen’s mesmerising play on mood and the shuffling rhythm structure that make it his own. It’s since been reissued as a stand alone track via his bandcamp page.
In my Tim Bowness blog, I mention losing touch with his output and this would also ring true for Jansen’s string of releases in recent years. Both have been astutely prolific and my observation of Tender Extinction is simply the distinguished work of (as the man himself often says) a consummate professional.
Much stronger for me than Slope. Mending a Secret is my fave purely because of its dynamics – a forward moving pulse offset by a metronomic side to side motion from 2:23 and again on 3:36, though it’s difficult to mend a secret from his layered and treated vocal line.
The final track And Birds Sing All Night contains for me a vocal not dissimilar to Howard Jones lower vocal tunings (that is to say the first couple of lines before Jones vocal adds extra bite). For my mentioning this thought on social media I was pooh-poohed out of the building. But check it out for yourself. Elegy from Jones sophomore album Dream Into Action is the song I had in mind.
Not my fave by a long shot but if you have an open and non prejudiced mind rather than a stark denial that nothing can possibly match a former member of Japan then you should see what I’m hinting at. This is not the first time Jansen has reminded me of Jones, The Dolphin Brothers Second Sight also carries an air of HoJo in its bridge and chorus.
The Extinct Suite is billed as his third album (though I’d say it’s a variation on a theme) and as such should have had similar artwork to TE. The first 20 minutes are slow and sombre like a dark grey morning slowly unfolding. Jansen is skilful as ever but alas it’s a bit too gloomy or saccharine sweet for me. It gets better from the 21 minute mark with the Mending a Secret/Simple Day segue.
Captured is also rather pretty on here and makes me yearn to play the original with renewed ears. I suppose in a way Extinct Suite mirrors Jansen’s life; if you can survive the first 20 minutes (metaphorically speaking 20 years of south London) you should be ok. There’s a Bond film twist in the tail as Jansen brings in a percussive element for most of its final moments which on a film soundtrack would cover the credits.
THE PAINTER AND THE PAINTED
Corridor’s 48 minutes are kind of to Jansen what Steel Cathedrals is to his brother. Bolstering his ambient portfolio, with three main components; the first of which recalls the warm yet desolate air of No-Man’s Together We’re Stranger.
The second and for me the winning card, from 12-29 minutes especially conjures up David Hockney’s 1983 photo montage Walking in the Zen Garden at the Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto which will no doubt please his Japanese audience as well as international admirers.
The final 15 minutes incorporating the STER material create a very different mood and in a sense return the listener back to the first. It’s all very accomplished and was intended for use in a gallery setting accompanying Steve’s own exhibition Through a Quiet Window – talk about being the painter and the painted.
The music world is beset with potholes and curve balls much like life itself. The most common problem for creators of Jansen’s calibre to overcome is art v commerce. But having done that by self releasing via ‘bandcamp’ he creates another; that of artist v audience.
What happens if one of your favoured artists (in this case SJ) who is a perfectly good singer – and with the best intentions for the material – decides to expand on his own limitations by selecting another one? And what if that singer isn’t doing it for you? And there lies the problem with EXIT NORTH.
The artwork is good, the music is good but why Thomas Feiner? That’s not to say he isn’t a good vocalist he’s just operating in a sphere outside my comfort zone, a little like Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance who I’m also not keen on with the filigree falsetto of recent Bryan Ferry. So the surprise victor from this clutch of releases is Corridor which like Jan Bang and Erik Honoré’s Uncommon Deities I wasn’t expecting to like.
Just from the title alone, Neither Present Nor Absent suggests a state of dreamtime (Robert Fripp’s Dark Water would be a nice companion) and its four tracks are very much an album of half measures. The first two are bright yet desolate, the latter two are (for me) better.
To an extent more music for films that never were. Blue Nest evensong ambience echoes Memory and Listening from Changing Hands with its gentle sax which opens up to a burst of Orientalism toward the five minute mark. Jansen is a merchant of beauty; I refer to his music and general artistry here BUT…
It’s safe to say, aside his creative duties, he is also an extremely handsome man. In terms of style and finesse (even approaching 60) he’s right up there with Pierce Brosnan and could have probably been a male model if he’d wanted to be.
That however might have jarred with his personal character as a predominantly modest, introspective and private individual (though paradoxically he’s been more than accommodating with fans questions via his Sleepyard channel this past decade).
VAULT OF GLOBAL MUSIC: CULTURAL COLLABORATIONS
Culturally speaking he goes beyond music, mixing and engineering, most notably as a photographer (showing in Canada, Japan, and the UK). And if music is the language of the world we can again look to Jansen who has over the years worked with artists from…
Japan (the country)(Ryuichi Sakamoto, Masami Tsuchiya and Yukihiro Takahashi), Australia (Iva Davies), Italy (Alice, Claudio Chianura, Nicola Alesini and Andreoni Pier Luigi), Ireland (Perry Blake), Norway (Anja Garbarek), Sweden (Thomas Feiner, Ulf Jansson, Charles Storm), Germany (Claudia Brucken), Greece (Vault of Blossomed Ropes), Portugal (Susana Felix), Lebanon (Maiya Hershey) and of course the UK (No-Man, John Foxx, oh and that other guy, you know the one )
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Meanwhile, stay tuned with things here at Kulture Kiosk via THE ATLAS or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world.
PLAYLIST (this could be a long one)
Talking Drum (from Tin Drum and Exorcising Ghosts) – Japan
Sons of Pioneers (from Tin Drum and Exorcising Ghosts) – Japan
Rice Music (from Rice Music) – Masami Tsuchiya
Tribal Dawn (from Titles) – Mick Karn
Voices Raised in Welcome, Hands Held in Prayer (from Oil on Canvas) – Japan
Red Guitar (from Brilliant Trees) – David Sylvian
Words with the Shaman (Songs from the Treetops)(from Words with the Shaman EP) – David Sylvian *co-write with Jon Hassell and Jansen
Distant Fire (from Worlds in a Small Room) – Jansen/Barbieri
Zen-Gun (from Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia) – Ryuichi Sakamoto
Betsu-Ni (from Stay Close) – Steve Jansen and Yukihiro Takahashi
No Promises (from Measure for Measure) – Icehouse
Second Sight (from Catch the Fall) – The Dolphin Brothers
Catch the Fall (from Catch the Fall) – The Dolphin Brothers
Land (from Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters) – Mick Karn *Jansen the writer and co-producer
When Love Walks In (from Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters) – Mick Karn
Red Earth (as summertime ends)(from Rain Tree Crow) – Rain Tree Crow
Cries and Whispers (from Rain Tree Crow) – Rain Tree Crow
Lumen (from Stories Across Borders) – Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri
Nocturnal Sightseeing (from Stories Across Borders) – Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri
Always (from Love and a Million Other Things) – Claudia Brucken
Beautiful and Cruel (from Loveblows and Lovecries) – No-Man
Beginning to Melt (from Beginning to Melt) – JBK
Bestial Cluster (from Bestial Cluster) – Mick Karn
The Drowning Dream (from Bestial Cluster) – Mick Karn
Song of Love and Everything (from Flame) – Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness
Trash Talk (from Flame) – Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness
Feel (from Flame) – Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness
Subtle Bodies (from Changing Hands) – Jansen/Barbieri/Takemura
Wave (from PULSE X PULSE) – PULSE X PULSE (Jansen/Takahashi)
Ocean Song (from Radio Sessions 1992-96) – No-Man
War in France (from Still Life) – Perry Blake
Still Lives (from Still Life) – Perry Blake
Krishna Blue (from Dead Bees on a Cake) – David Sylvian
Cafe Europa (from Dead Bees on a Cake) – David Sylvian
The Shallow Pool (from ism) – JBK
Found in a Shell of Murmurs (from ism) – JBK
Venus Monkey (from Each Eye a Path) – Mick Karn
Now He Dreams (from Montage – Sounds of Flavour 01) – Steve Jansen
Lighthouse (from Returning Jesus) – No-Man
All That You Are (from Returning Jesus) – No-Man
Types of Ambiguity (from Playing in a Room with People) – JBK
Spin the Context (from Smiling and Waving) – Anja Garbarek
Atom and Cell (from Snow Borne Sorrow) – Nine Horses
Snow Borne Sorrow (from Snow Borne Sorrow) – Nine Horses
December Train (from Slope) – Steve Jansen
Conversation Over (from Slope) – Steve Jansen
Last Night The Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Street (from Last Night The Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Street) – Jon Hassell
A Secret Life (edit) (from A Secret Life) – John Foxx/Steve D’Agostino/Steve Jansen
Mending a Secret (from Tender Extinction) – Steve Jansen
Simple Day (from Tender Extinction) – Steve Jansen
And Birds Sing at Night (from Tender Extinction) – Howard Jones …just kidding
Corridor (from Corridor) – Steve Jansen
Blue Nest (from Neither Present Nor Absent) – Maiya Hershey and Steve Jansen
Memory and Listening (from Changing Hands) – Jansen/Barbieri/Takemura
Record Covers from discogs except…
In Praise of Shamans tour programme – unknown photographer
Dolphin Brothers shots by Sheila Rock
Oil on Canvas portrait by Anton Corbijn
Rain Tree Crow portrait by The Douglas Brothers retouched by KH
Stories Across Borders portrait by The Douglas Brothers retouched by KH
Flame album cover retouched by KH
PULSE X PULSE images retouched by KH
Equivocal flyer from my personal archive
Nine Horses Snow Borne Sorrow retouched by KH
Nine Horses press shot by Kevin Westenberg
Jansen portrait shot – unknown photographer
David Hockney Zen Garden image from Artnet
Exit North album cover retouched by KH
Neither Present Nor Absent artwork by Maiya Hershey
The ‘Expressions’ poster is a replica using Jansen’s original image, typesetting by KH
Through a Quiet Window image from The Flood Gallery, London.