David Rhodes Archive
Bamboo Interview (Part 1)

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From Bamboo Magazine, Issue 7 (fanzine for the group ' Japan ')


"A Special August Evening Interview" by Debi Zornes & Howard Sawyer

If you were fortunate enough to witness Japan 's 'VISIONS OF CHINA' tour in the Winter of '81, you may have noticed the guitarist in place of Rob Dean and wondered who it was. . .

On your way home, whilst flicking through your tour programme, you might have seen his face, and his name.  His name is. . .

DAVID RHODES opens the door, smiles and extends his hand and welcomes us in.  He's dressed very casually in dark blue sweatshirt trousers and top and sports a luminous reflector that cyclists wear, although it's only on this sunny Saturday evening in August.  Rhodes has been out on his bike, he's just got back.

The hall is what one would expect for a ground floor flat in South London , but when our host opens the double doors to his living room it's a different story. . .for it's a room of great beauty.

Both walls and ceiling are a tasteful shade of magnolia, windows partially hidden by matte black wooden blinds -a high bookcase full of volumes (the ammunition of Rhodes ' armoury of knowledge).  Close by in the alcove is a small TV, sat simply on the floor, alone.  A rolled futon (Japanese mattress) and a rail of clothes fill a corner on the right hand side of the room.  The rest of the 20 foot square room contains four evenly spaced items: a black moulded two seater couch, an immaculate old-fashioned grocers boy bike on a stand and a smoked glass table with black wooden folding chairs.The last object is David's personal 'torture machine'.  A see-saw contraption from which he hangs upside down.  He's only too willing to demonstrate, telling an astonished BAMBOO that it "straightens the spine"! "Would you like to have a go?" asks the human bat, his hair inches from the polished floorboards. "No thanks David, we'll take your word for it. . ."


The living room leads into the kitchen which in turn leads into David's own small recording studio.  The whole place is really quite breathtaking and we spend the first 15 minutes trying to absorb our surroundings and chatting generally about the day's events, weightlifting, London Marathon and other exhausting subjects!

Earl Grey tea is served as we make ourselves comfortable at the table and we begin to interview the amazing David Rhodes. . .

B -A lot of our readers never saw Japan live and some only picked up on the band in 1982+, so obviously, although some will remember you, there will be quite a number of people who will think "Who is David Rhodes?"  So could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Rhodes throws his head back and laughs.  It's going to be one of 'those' interviews. . .

D -Well, I play guitar. . .

B -You're a professional musician?

D -Yeah, that was actually the first time I went touring with a band, other than the one I'd been in about a year before.  I'd done a few sessions between leaving that group and working with Japan .

B -Who were the group you were with?

D -I won't tell you that!! (laughter)

B -Was it a well-known group?

D -No -we sold about 500 records!!

Laughs all round.  We told you it was one of 'those' interviews.

D -We spent a lot of the record company's money and they thought 'this is a bad investment.'

B -Were you born in London and where did you grow up?

D -I was born in South London , actually, like all the other guys, I was born in Dulwich and grew up there.  I went to art school -I started at St. Martins then went up to Leeds but I have a good address up there, No. 13 Providence Avenue!  I just didn't like the city, the atmosphere, but I've been back a couple of times and I quite like it now, I think it's gotten a lot lighter.  It was very 'doomy' but I think that was the feeling of a lot of young people at the time, just after the punk thing -or just during.  Everyone's now aware of the major problems of the world, but also more pragmatic about getting on and trying to achieve things in what they do.

B -Do you come from a musical background?

D -Ah, my father played ukulele just like George Formby (laughs).

B -Professionally?

D -No -he once, I gather, played in place of Formby, because Formby couldn't get to the gig, but he never got paid for it.

B -That's quite impressive -to fill George Formby's shoes. . .

D -Yeah, well, he had that technique.

B -Formby was big at the time, I mean, he was massive!

(We all have a good laugh at this!)

D -Yeah, massive -all 5 foot 2 inches of him!

B -How did you begin in the music world?

D -It was actually in my last year at art school, I'd finished doing sculpture and in the last year I felt very fed up with the music scene because it was either very old-fashioned groups or punk things.  There seemed to be nothing sensitive or atmospheric going on, and a keyboard player and myself and a couple of tape machines used to do performances -sort of 'stack-up' sounds.  That was about 1979. . .I think that's right, I can't remember.

B -I was just thinking, Japan had long hair in '79.

D -Yeah, I had a Trotsky beard!  It hung down my chest -funny the things that people do.

B -Do you regret your beard with hindsight?

"No!!"shrieks Rhodes , his eyes smiling.

D -I mean it was just one of those things I did -you've got to try some things -because I used to think of myself very much as a craftsman, chip at stone -make things out of wood -but that's clap-trap.  So we did that and got fed up because no one came to see us.  I remember doing four nights at a theatre and in all twenty-four people came to see us.

B -Over the four nights?

D -Yeah, I remember because one night we took the audience out for a drink!


D -So then we put together a band and wrote songs and we were actually using backing tapes, which was quite odd, quite a rock band thing.  We could never find a bass player, so I used to put the bass bits down on tapes.  Then, a bit after that, the Human League and OMD broke, so it was quite strange that we were doing the same things but not in such a 'poppy' area.  Then that band folded and I went into retirement for about eight months.

B -What did you do during retirement?

D -Signed on!  (laughs)  Lived off my girlfriend. . .got very, very depressed, shaved my head. . .everything.  I thought I'd write some songs -but they were all really 'doomy'. . .and then the Japan tour manager, Nick Huckle, rang up -goodness knows how he got my number!!  He said did I fancy playing -actually I'd just split up with my girlfriend, so everything in my life that could go wrong had gone wrong.  Then I got that, and I hardly knew any of the material, I knew the singles.  I thought 'The Art of Parties' was brilliant, I still think that's a lovely guitar riff.

B -Strange for them to pick you. . .I don't mean that in any detrimental way, but you hadn't been around much.

D -Well, I'd just worked on Peter Gabriel's third LP, so that would be why.  It was very good for me -got me out of my trough.

B -Do you remember the first time you met them all?

D -Yeah, it was at Air Studios.  I just went up and we said 'Hello,' they said 'Do you want to do it?' and I said 'Yeah.'

B -What happened next?

D -They gave me a whole bunch of tapes and sent me home -"Learn these!"

B -Did you hit it off straight away?

D -Yeah, it was fine!

B -What were your first impressions of all of them -individually?

Rhodes laughs again and waves a finger at us.

D -That's a bit too personal!  You can't get that kind of thing!!  No -I liked them.  Then, when it became real, playing in a room, rehearsing, it became much more interesting.  Playing music is a real pleasure and when you get four people or whatever in a room making a lot of noise and it sounds good, everyone kind of grins y'know and says "Mmm!  S'alright!"  In a way I always wondered if I was a bit too neat for what they wanted.

B -In what way?

D -Well, not wild enough -in the way, say, Masami was, a lot of Adrian Bellowisms, a lot of noise, and again Rob had always been a noisy player.  It was a kind of odd tour, going round England at the time of year.  One of the high spots was going to a Turkish bath with Mick -I'd never done that before, and we went on to do the show, y'know those skuttles he does everywhere -well that evening he was just standing still -drained -he'd got so hot!!  Actually, the first show that we did, I was playing. . .what did we open with?

B - Canton .

D -Yeah, nice little opener -what after that?

B -Next it was 'Swing' and then 'Polaroids' then 'Alien.'

D -Anyhow, on 'Alien' or whatever, Mick darted across the stage and I'd never seen it!  Right -and I couldn't think what was going on and I thought "Wow!These guys are weird!"  It was quite unique!

We are all laughing and giggling now. Rhodes offers more tea and pours from a small teapot, stirring the sugar vigorously.

B -So do you still keep in touch with them?

D -Well, I just rang up Rich a couple of times a while ago.  I was trying to get him a little bit interested in a project I was working on, but I think he was expecting to be working on the album with Steve.

B -Which project was that?

D -Um -(laughs) -maybe you shouldn't write this bit?

B -We won't print it. . .

D -Right, yeah, so, cut this bit about Rich and this band I'm going to tell you about. . .

D -I think it's a great shame for Rich, this waiting.  He's so talented.  After doing the tour I did a couple of tracks on an Akiko album when Rich was over there producing and David sang on a track 'Goodnight,' so I did a couple of tracks on that.  I also did a track on Mick's LP 'Titles.'  It was quite a nice little song, ' Trust Me. '

B -Do you still follow their careers now?

D -Yeah, I listen to what comes out.

B -What did you think of 'Brilliant Trees'?

D -I really liked it.  There were a couple of bits on it I thought could've been more exciting -like there could've been even more contrast.  I think the second side is very beautiful.

B -What's your favourite track?

D -The second to last track -'Backwaters'.

B -Strange, because most people seem to prefer the title track.  It has a Jon Hassel feel to it.

D -Oh, that's Hassel being Hassel.  I mean, what he does is so. . .special.

B -He's done quite a lot of work with Eno, hasn't he?

D -Yeah, it's quite interesting.  The guy I've been working with this year on Gabriel's fifth album, the guy producing is Dan Lanois and they got Jon to play on a bit of Peter's last album 'Birdy'.  But Dan, he's a very special person, too. . .I wasn't at the studio then.

B -They're all a very close-knit bunch.

D -Dan was saying that the last Harold Budd album ' Pearl ' was maybe some of the best recording he's ever done.  But Harold works in a very odd way, he goes and plays piano at the studio and then leaves and lets Eno and Dan to all the treatments.  Quite a novel way of working, and then they are done they just send him a tape.

B -That's a bit like Nelson and Takahashi.  The tape of the percussion was mailed over and the LP was written around it.

D -'Chimera' -that's a good album.

B -How did you rate Japan as a band?

D -I thought 'Tin Drum' was a wonderful album.  Very bold -very "Here it is, this is what we do."  In a way it's one of the most complete records you can hear.  I don't think there is a spare track on it.  Because I didn't know the other albums before it -just odd songs and I thought they were a lot more patchy at that time.  I thought they were good but they didn't often achieve the heights, but then people take ages to develop.  I thought 'Tin Drum' was the peak, it exploited everybody's playing.

B -What was that Mick said about his regret that they split up?

D -That they weren't able to go to the next stage. . .

B -To see what would happen after that.

D -Yeah!  It would've been interesting.

B -But maybe you could go on forever?

D -Yeah, maybe go on forever and not achieve that same wholeness.  But I think it's quite interesting looking at Talking Heads and the way they've moved through doing extended songs, just grooves and rhythms and back to doing quite strict songs.

B -Which style do you prefer?

D -I was lying in the bath thinking about that this morning.  I think there are lovely, lovely songs on the second album.  I think 'Remain in Light' -some of that is just amazing.  There's one song, I can't remember which, but the bass line goes "Ba-do-do-do-do. . .ba-do-do-do."  A few notes, just wonderful, I think that's special.

B -I think 'Tin Drum' all carried on in one vein.

D -Yeah, and I think that's impressive. . .I don't know, what do you feel?

B -It sounds cruel, but I thought 'Tin Drum' was a bit of a cliche. . .because of a group that was so involved in the Orient with a name like Japan . . .and it took an oriental style of music. . .I couldn't believe that they had such success selling that kind of music.

D -Yeah, it was odd.

B -I think I didn't expect it, that kind of sound.

D -Yeah, I'm sure being 'into' the band as you were, it could've been difficult.  But that was really my introduction.

B -What did you think of 'Ghosts'?

D -I thought it was great.

B -Strange live. . .actually powerful live.

D -The best version, I think, was the one we did on 'Whistle Test' with Ryuchi -he's great.

B -He's got a brilliant style.

D -Mm -just a very fine musician.

B -He's done work with Dolby.

D -Has he?!

B -A single, 'Fieldwork'.

D -He's got a brilliant sense of harmony.  I think of him as a very real musician.

Rhodes looks at us and his eyes twinkle.

D -Please help yourself to a biscuit.

Avoiding the embarrassment of making crumbs and talking with ones mouth full, we decline and press on.  No respite for Mr. Rhodes.

B -What in your opinion were their important qualities and contributions to music?

Rhodes leans back and laughs, his laugh running up and down the scale.  This makes us giggle.  Now he pauses and speaks again.

D -I think the most interesting thing about them was in their last period.  Their whole presentation and handling, like of what they did, the music, the whole poses and style of selling it.  Dealing with the press and whatever.  As a band, that whole presentation was good -that whole style was good. . .it's difficult to know about music because you can trace things back.  I think there were some good things with rhythms in 'Tin Drum', but. . .um. . .yeah, that's a tricky question.  Pinpointing what one person gives to music is -pretty near impossible because they've nearly always stolen it from someone else.  I think that's what pop music, or rock music, is all about.  It's a pool of ideas and maybe you grab a little bit of an idea and treat it a little bit differently to someone else.  Things are always changing because people approach the same problem slightly differently and that's where the creativity is.  There's also the quality of calm that was there in the supposedly "heavy" or rhythmic tracks.

Rhodes nibbles on a biscuit and changes the subject.

D -Y'know, I was always disappointed I didn't manage to go with them over there.

B -Mm -they did a tour in late '80 and again in early '81.

D -'Cos Rob must have left just after that.

B -Yeah, 'The Art of Parties' was the first single he wasn't involved in.

D -I met him for the first time six months ago.

B -How did you meet him?

D -Bumped into him at a rehearsal room, when he was working with 'Illustrated Man' because I know Hugo, the drummer.  Then we went out and got drunk at a Mexican restaurant!  (General laughter.)  It was great!

B -I don't think I can imagine Rob drunk!

D -Well, I'm not sure I can remember him drunk, but I was!!  So everybody else looked that way!

B -What's your favourite Japan track?

D -I think most probably 'Art of Parties'.  I just love the rhythm.  There's a nice double thing on the bass, going away from the bass drum.  It was lovely to take, what was then, a very black feel on the guitar, Chic were very big at the time, it was like somebody playing a Nile Rodgers guitar part but a white boy doing it.  It doesn't have the grooves that Rodgers or Chic get yet it still has its own very specific power, and again with Steve's drumming, the patterns he builds, rather than just doing a normal dance beat.

B -Like he does with Propaganda?

D -(Laughing, Rhodes replies) A man's got to earn a living!!

(The second and final part of this interview will appear here next month.)

Thanks go to Craig Jennings for generously providing us with a copy of this wonderful interview!


Copyright 2004-2012 Stacey Drucker & David Rhodes