Mick Karn - Biography
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
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.
In 2006 Mick released a lively 4 track EP called 'Love's Glove'.
This release was in fact just a taster to the new buoyant upbeat
2007 release 'Three Part Species that incorporates Mick's innovative
bass playing with some superb songwriting.Unusually a single was
released from the album, 'Of & About', with an alternative
A-side of 'All You Have'. The title track employing hip-hop rhythms,
evangelical choirs, jazz riffs and catchy vocals, all wound together
with a melodic, and at times, capricious yet logical bass line.
'Japan & Self Existence', Mick's autobiography, was self
published on www.lulu.com. A personal insight into the life as
a musician and artist spanning more than 30 years. The book takes
us into the world of Japan, from the band's formation during school
to the truth behind their split at the height of their fame, including
the reformation in later years for the Rain Tree Crow project
and subsequent very public fallout. It's full of observations
on life in general and the difficulties in maintaining a solo
career, childhood memories that reveal a complex psychological
background, and key relationships that have had a marked influence
on a body of work spanning 30 years.
2009 saw the release of what would become Mick's final solo album,
The Concrete Twin. An instrumental album that demands attention.
The 10 tracks are dense, at times overpowering, and laced with
a sense of symphonic overtures that surface unexpectedly through
the Jazz, Swing and Drum and Bass textures.
Plans to tour had to be put to one side when Mick was diagnosed
with the advanced stages of cancer at the end of May 2010.
The MK Appeal Fund was established to help pay for medical costs
and support the family at this time. They moved back to London
from Cyprus at the end of June where it was hoped Mick would begin
treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital.
His final work has yet to be released and was a collaboration
with Peter Murphy as Dalis Car 2. The duo were reunited in a studio
in Oxford at the end of September to begin work and four tracks
were completed over the ensuing month's - a slow process due to
Mick's declining health. The EP will be released in 2011.
Sadly Mick lost his fight to cancer and passed away peacefully
at his home in Chelsea, surrounded by close friends and family,
at 4.30pm on Tuesday 4th January 2011.
His funeral took place in the afternoon of Monday 17th January.
The private ceremony in West London was attended by friends and
family. A day of immense sadness but also a celebration of the
life of an extremely unique man who was dearly loved and will
be deeply missed.