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Ask any bassist who their favourite bass players are and they will probably include Mick Karn. In fact, many of them will have taken up bass as a career solely due to his unique style of playing. Recently referred to in Japan as ‘ the God of bass guitar ‘, his influence within music is undisputed, changing the way bass is heard as well as played for generations to come.
The history :
Mick Karn emigrated to London as a Greek Cypriot when he was 3 years old and from an early age was looking for ways to express himself. He began with the chromatic mouth organ at the age of 7 and then the violin when 11, both lasted just 3 years before he was offered the chance to take up the bassoon with the school orchestra and later chosen as a member of the London School Symphony Orchestra.
Mick explained: “It looked as if musicians were enjoying themselves and I was intrigued by their ability to escape into another world but frustrated with my own attempts to join in, However, it was only a matter of time before I found the right instrument and direction to aim for, purely by chance. The truth is I bluffed my way into the orchestra. I never learnt to read music and played purely by ear, so was always very nervous about being heard in case of mistakes. Although it worked wonders with my memory for retaining music, I can’t remember even one day that I actually enjoyed playing, until in front of an audience at the first LSSO concert”.
It was directly after this concert, which was broadcast on Radio 4, that the bassoon was stolen from him on the way home. His school refused to buy him another, and in anger at their decision, bought a bass guitar for £5 from a school friend,. And so ended Mick’s career in classical music, with the first step being taken towards becoming one of the world’s leading bass players. Mick had finally found what he’d been looking for, a way to enjoy playing an instrument without being told how to.
By this time, he had already made friends with like-minded teenagers David Sylvian and younger brother, Steve Jansen who were coincidentally both learning their own instruments, David an acoustic guitar and Steve, bongos. It seemed a natural progression that David move on to an electric guitar, and if Steve were then to progress to drums, they could form a band together and escape the confines of south London. That was the plan and a month later they performed for the first time as Japan on June 1st 1974 when Mick was 15.
Over the next two years, they each concentrated on developing their own styles, rehearsing their own music together every day. Mick preferred not to listen to other players but rather to approach the bass as a new instrument, calling on what he had learnt from previous experience with the violin and bassoon. MK: “I wanted to be able to slide and bend notes as I’d learnt to do with the violin and so decided to take all the frets off the bass guitar. I also began playing bass directly after the bassoon which, although a bass instrument, often plays lead melodies, both of these factors were major influences in shaping the way I play. I couldn’t help but feel that bass players were always hidden somewhere in the background whereas I was determined to be heard”.
Mick bumped into Richard Barbieri one morning (another school friend) who he invited to one of their daily rehearsals. Richard instantly wanted to join the band. MK: “We needed a keyboard player and weren’t too worried that Richard had no experience with music because more importantly, he had a steady job working at a bank, and so became our main source of income for the band’s equipment. It’s amazing to think we had so much belief in what we were doing and no doubts at all that we would succeed. It wasn’t long before Richard discovered synthesizers and was able to contribute in his own equally unique way”.
Japan were now a four piece and ready to advertise for another guitarist (Rob Dean) and management, which led on to their first record contract with Ariola/Hansa in 1977 and subsequently, their first album release. Punk rock was at it’s peak and as a reaction to it, Japan decided to not be seen as part of the fashion and so went in the opposite direction, creating their own look with long dyed hair and make up. Tours in Europe and the U.S. saw them playing to hostile audience, they were not well received, with the exception of one territory, Japan, where they instantly became the number one foreign act and remain to this day a lasting influence, both musically and visually.
Things began to change for them elsewhere. By the time of their third album release Quiet Life in 1979, punk was no longer dominant and Japan’s sound had altered drastically. Mick brought saxophones and clarinets into the arrangements, and there seemed to be a string of lookalike/soundalike bands emerging in the U.K: Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, ABC, to name but a few. Japan were heralded as innovators of a new sound and era in music, the New Romantics. For Japan, this simply meant it was time to, once again, move on leaving the others behind.
No-one could have foreseen the direction they would take with their fifth album Tin Drum in 1981, a blend of Chinese pop music with their own distinctive mood making it a truly outstanding and original work. Nor could anyone have predicted it would be Japan’s last studio album. Japan were always ahead of their time. Their first hit single “Quiet Life” was recorded 3 years before it reached the charts and they sold far more albums once they had split up, than when they were together.
By now, Mick Karn had most certainly been heard and released his first solo album Titles on Virgin in 1982. His unique style had musicians from all types of genres wanting his contribution to their own work, from Jeff Beck to Gary Numan. That same year, he was chosen by Pete Townshend to be part of a supergroup to perform for Prince Charles and Lady Diana in celebration of their engagement. It was to be the first Prince’s Trust Gala performance. Pete Townshend explained to the press that Mick was by far the best bassist in the U.K. and so the obvious choice. MK: “I don’t know about being the best, I still can’t read music so I’m certainly not technically the best, I don’t even know what the notes are on a bass. Sometimes I’m told I can’t play that note with this chord, to which I reply: well, why not if it sounds good? The best? No, but having never heard anyone play in a similar way, I’d certainly consider perhaps being the most original!” Mick left a marked impression at the event, which later led onto collaborative work with Midge Ure and recordings with Kate Bush (Sensual World and Aerial) and Joan Armatrading (Hearts and Flowers and Square the Circle).
Mick had also surprised the art world by holding his first sculpture exhibition in 1981 to outstanding critical acclaim, with many reviews and features in columns and magazines not usually frequented by musicians. Proving himself as an accomplished artist with his often disturbing works of art, he has held 5 exhibitions in London, Japan and Italy.
The next project was to be a trio with vocalist Pete Murphy (Bauhaus) and drummer Paul Lawford. Dali’s Car released The Waking Hour in 1984, with all instrumentation written and played by Mick, an experiment in stripping music down to it’s bare minimum, whilst retaining a strong mood and Middle Eastern flavour. MK: “Middle Eastern music, predominantly Turkish, has been a big influence on my writing. My mother listened to it a lot when I was young, not a popular choice for a Greek Cypriot, and often in secret, so I grew up believing there was something mysterious about it. It’s clearly there in every solo project, together with my other two great musical loves, classical and funk/soul music”.
1987 saw Mick’s 2nd solo release Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters. Relying heavily on his classical beginnings, using woodwind and brass more extensively as well as harmonica, accordion and even choirs to complete it’s haunting themes, as well as Steve Jansen on drums and in the producer’s chair. Truly a step away from the expected rock genre and into a field of it’s own.
By now, Mick’s bass guitar had reached the world of Jazz and the next few years saw him working with some remarkable players. Ground breaking guitarist David Torn was to be the first to have him touring North America and Germany accompanied by trumpeter Mark Isham and drummer Bill Brufford (Yes, King Crimson). David and Mick instantly became best friends and put this down to the fact that they never actually talk about music! MK: “I learnt so much from David, for example how to prepare for a tour with only 2 days rehearsal, in other words, how to improvise, I remember we mainly talked about shoes in between the playing and I also learnt that Jazz needn’t be made up of endless solos, which had always held me back from listening to it”. Mick is also featured on David Torn’s album Door X. Mark Isham was to later put together his own dream band for a tour of the USA with both David and Mick present, together with drummer Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa, Missing Persons). The seeds had been sown for a band they would later form together, Polytown. Mick also guested on Mark Isham’s album Castalia.
There then came another surprise decision and a sojourn from solo work as Japan reformed for a one off album under the new name of Rain Tree Crow in 1991. The recording held no reference at all to where Japan had left off, but rather showed a distinct maturity amongst the members. Mick decided to play an unfamiliar five string bass to differentiate his playing from the style listeners had become accustomed to, and in some cases left the bass out altogether, concentrating on bass clarinet as the lead instrument.
Through the associations he’d made within the Jazz world, Mick recorded his next album Bestial Cluster in 1993 for German Jazz label CMP and soon became their top selling artist. Co-produced with David Torn, who also played the guitars, Steve Jansen on drums and Richard Barbieri on Keyboards, a Bestial Cluster tour with the same line-up of Europe and dates in Japan followed. The album included a host of world famous Jazz musicians from the label to complete the recording. MK: “I’ve never been a big fan of jazz, but it seemed a shame to not use some of the talent from CMP for my own recording. It was the first time for them to be involved in anything other than Jazz and with no information about keys or chord structures from me, led on to some great results. Just for the record, having never heard him play before, it was the head of CMP records who bought me a Jaco Pastorius CD”.
CMP also signed Polytown to their label. The album Polytown was written recorded and mixed in three weeks and released in 1994. A staggering feat for any group of musicians, improvised, heavy and far from Jazz. Often disturbing and not the easiest of sounds on the ear but soon to become a cult experience after a sell out tour of North America.
Mick recorded another album for CMP in 1995 – The Tooth Mother, this time without support of other musicians from the label. The drums were provided by Gavin Harrison, guitars by David Torn and Natasha Atlas on Middle Eastern vocals. This was to be Mick’s most ethnic CD to date and, curiously, also his most funky, drawing on both of those early influences to enhance the ever present dark moods. Drum & bass artist Mieko Shimizu joined Mick and Gavin on keyboards with Tim Garland on saxophones for a tour of Italy, along with guitarist Masami Tsuchiya who previously guested on Japan’s farewell tour and live album.
Mick’s work with Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri went from strength to strength, forming their own record label Medium Productions as an outlet for collaborative work independent of limitations set by major labels. Forming their own unit JBK, they recorded several CDs together (Beginning To Melt, Seed, _ism ) including a live recording (Playing in a Room With People) taken from some rare shows in Tokyo and London with Theo Travis on flutes and saxophones and Natacha Atlas on vocals. Included on Mick”s discography for Medium is a collaboration with Japanese Drum and Bass artist Yoshihiro Hanno, Liquid Glass released in 1998. Needless to say, an unusual mix but easily accessible to the listener.
Indeed, Mick’s next solo recording was to be for the Medium Productions label in 2000 and took a distinct step away from the last two CMP albums. MK: “Although I think Jazz is a natural progression for many musicians, ie: the more you learn about music, the more complex it tends to become, I wanted to go the opposite way, to simplify my writing, to let it come from within without too much forethought”. Each Eye a Path was to be Mick’s most introspective and personal of albums, drawing on troubled past experiences as it’s source of inspiration. However, he was delighted to see the response from fellow musicians lead to an eventual remix album in 2002 entitled: Each Path a Remix, the contributors being Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Torn, Richard Barbieri, Paul Wong and Claudio Chianuro.
Mick then shifted gear again, this time towards what can only be described as instrumental pop. More Better Different was released in 2004 by Invisible Hands Music and reviews certainly agree with the sentiments in the title. A treat for anyone looking for the unusual surprise within familiar settings.
This year Mick released a EP called Love’s Glove and will soon be releasing his 7th solo studio recording as well as planning his own extensive tour for 2006.