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Mick Karn: Fretless Sculptor

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Bassist John Taylor of Duran Duran describes fretless bassist Mick Karn as "one of the great visual and sound stylists of the late-70s/early-80s." It's safe to say that without the British band Japan, featuring David Sylvian on vocals, Steve Jansen on drums, Richard Barbieri on keyboards, and Mick Karn on fretless bass, Taylor would have been stuck in another career entirely since Japan's influence on Duran Duran and dozens of other British and American new wave bands was as pervasive and profound as one can imagine. Sadly, Karn--real name Antony Michaelides--passed away January 4, 2011 after a battle with cancer. Fretless bassists as well as lovers of 80's music and fashion are in mourning. But Mick Karn was much more than a clothes-horse with a healthy relationship with his feminine side. Completely self-taught as a bassist without ever knowing how to read or notate music, he developed a completely unique approach to playing bass in a pop context. After Japan broke up in 1982, Karn released several solo and collaborative recordings including projects with decidedly non-pop musicians including jazz/new age trumpeter Mark Isham and uber drummers Terry Bozzio and Bill Bruford. His 2009 solo album The Concrete Twin on which he plays all instruments except drums is a wonderfully unclassifiable collection of instrumental cinema. Sadly, a tour to promote that recording would not come to pass.

Karn's early biography is archetypal: A young boy, born in 1958, leaves the country of his birth (Cyprus, Greece) for a new land with a new language (London, England). In an effort to find some means for expression of his inner turmoil, he decides he must play a musical instrument. For Karn, his axe of choice would be the bassoon, which he clung to and played for about a year, even going so far as to audition for and get the position of bassoonist with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra--quite an accomplishment considering he had disguised the fact that he could not read music. His hero's journey continued in a predictable fashion: No one recognized him for his truly innate musical talent. He continued faking his way through orchestral literature until his bassoon got stolen, seriously pissing off his parents who refused (and were unable anyway) to buy him a replacement instrument. Somehow, the young Karn scrounged up enough money to buy--in defiance of his classical pedigree--an electric bass. He formed a band with fellow nerds brothers Steve and David "the most beautiful man in pop" Blatt, prog-rock and Yes freak Richard Barbieri on keyboards and Rob Dean on guitar.

Like Karn, the rest of the members of Japan were self-taught as musicians, emulating the most superficial aspects of their heroes (Alice Cooper, T. Rex, David Bowie) before quickly and startlingly evolving into one of the most original bands in England in the late 70's and early 80's.

Japan, Sometimes I Feel So Low, from "Obscure Alternatives"

David Sylvian describes Japan's first two albums--Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives--as "massive mistakes." However, fans of Karn and company pretty much love these records. Why hate on yourself as a teenager with braces, ill-fitting clothes, and a funny haircut? And why hate on a group of working class kids from South London trying their best to sound like an unholy marriage of The New York Dolls and The Sex Pistols? Karn is nearly unrecognizable both visually and musically in this context, although his gift for grooving hard with drummer Jansen can be heard loud and clear on these early tracks. Karn said that in Japan's first recording session, he and Jansen were "horrified" when an engineer told them that they were "very tight" (meaning their bass and drum playing were interlocking to create strong groove). Still new to the world of music and its vernacular, they had no idea what on earth he was talking about.

Although the initial records tanked in the U.K. and U.S., Japan became huge in - you guessed it - Japan! So money, a better manager with a love for boys in make-up (T. Rex's former manager Simon Napier-Bell) and some creative freedom arrived quickly, and Karn and company would "run with it."

There's a point in an artist's life where they inadvertently stumble upon a device, action and/or source of inspiration that will point them in a totally new and life-changing creative direction. Pablo Picasso took a long, hard look at masks from Africa. John Cage fastened a variety of objects on the strings inside a grand piano. And Karn, during the recording of Japan's second album, pulled out the frets on his bass in order to facilitate the almost Middle Eastern "hiccups, slides and smears" that he was hearing in his head. British new wave (before it was new wave) would never be the same. Scales that evoked Turkish and Greek music, along with rhythms that owed much to great Motown singers like Stevie Wonder, found their way into Karn's playing. Japan graduated to pop stardom in the UK playing music that was "pop" on the surface, but as experimental as one can get in such a context.

Japan, Quiet Life from the album "Quiet Life."

Three critically acclaimed albums followed, Quiet Life, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and Tin Drum. On Gentlemen... and Tin Drum musical lines are passed around between the bass, drums, keyboards, and vocals as if the quartet (guitarist Dean left before Tin Drum) was a single exotic instrument. Karn and Jansen's interlocked chromatic bass and drum patterns interspersed with bursts of percussive and processed noise would heavily influence recordings by Gary Numan, Peter Murphy, Midge Ure, Spandau Ballet, and the aforementioned Duran Duran (Nick Rhodes included Tin Drum on a top-ten list of his favorite recordings - right after Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps!). Sylvian's detached, almost jazz-like phrasing was a perfect foil for Karn's wild, fretless playing. Perhaps not surprisingly, Karn admits that during the time he was with Japan, there was "a certain pressure to calm down my playing."

Japan, Still Life In Mobile Homes, from the album "Tin Drum"

Tensions between Karn and Sylvian came to a head after Tin Drum and just before the release of their 1983 live album Oil On Canvas, Japan called it a day. After the break up, Karn almost immediately went on to release his first solo album Titles and play as a session bassist for a many incredible musicians, including Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush, Kim Wilde, Yello, Midge Ure, and Gary Numan. In spite of his relative lack of knowledge about traditional music theory, he was able to hang and play with some luminaries in the world of progressive rock, new age, and jazz, including several bands led by avant-jazz guitarist David Torn. Torn calls Karn "one of the few honest voices on his instrument" and throughout their collaborations guided him through some of the musical challenges of playing outside of the context of Japan (Karn never learned to read or write music). Karn said that in the pop world he was considered "a bit risque" as a musician, whereas in the jazz world he was perceived as the opposite, i.e. a pop star.

Perhaps just as surprising as Karn's development as a musician is his growth and emergence as a sculptor. Post-Japan, Karn went back to school to study art and worked in a foundry to learn how to cast sculptures. He rarely showed his work but when he did, it was well received by critics and audiences. Karn described sculpting as "Something I do for myself...not something I'm determined to do career-wise..." and throughout his life pondered the symbiotic relationship between sculpting and making music.

Karn was an individualist as well as a collaborator whose journey from Top of the Pops to the outer fringes of experimental music will resonate with any artist not in the game for fame or money, but instead to find a means for self-expression and self-discovery. And perhaps after digging into Karn's music, seeking out other similarly innovative musicians and supporting their work will become another part of Karn's legacy. (Along with the expected and well deserved props from John Taylor.)

A selection of tracks from Karn's solo projects are available for free download on Mick Karn's official website.

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