“I made a point of never listening to Jaco until I was forced to in 1995!” Mick Karn: an interview with Japan’s fallen bass hero

1st MAY: Mick Karn from Japan posed with his bass guitar sitting on the floor of Basing Street Studios in West London in May 1982. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)
(Image credit: Fin Costello/Getty Images)

Born Andonis Michaelides in Cyprus in 1958, Mick Karn was one of a wave of influential bass players who dominated the British post-punk landscape. His band, Japan, were inspirational as well as commercially successful: you can detect elements of their aesthetic and sound in much bigger acts such as Duran Duran, for example. But few bass players sounded anything like Karn, with his subterranean fretless rumbles and deft fills providing a slithery tectonic foundation for songs such as Ghosts and Gentlemen Take Polaroids.  

Although Karn wasn’t destined for a long career, his output was prodigious. He recorded 10 solo albums and EPs between 1982 and 2009, and he played on two key albums with Gary Numan, Dance (1981) and I, Assassin (1982). He also played on the short-lived Dali’s Car project with Bauhaus singer Pete Murphy, and on several collaborations with experimental musicians including David Torn, Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree, Frank Zappa’s drummer Terry Bozzio, and his fellow Japan members Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri.

But Karn’s best-known work remains the six studio albums which Japan – and their later incarnation Rain Tree Crow – recorded from 1978 to 1991. To this day those LPs provide an experience that takes years to unpack. His was a fully-rounded vision, as his sculpture and paintings illustrate, and his work has aged well in the intervening years – despite his own opinion on that subject.

Although this enigmatic musician left us too early, succumbing to cancer in 2011 at the age of 52, you could profitably spend a lifetime listening to his music: this interview, conducted in 2004, offers a rare insight. Karn’s 2009 autobiography, Japan And Self Existence, is also recommended for anyone who wants to understand his ideas.

There are some pretty dark atmospheres on your new album, More Better Different

“If you consider this CD to be dark, I suggest you listen to my previous album Each Eye A Path, which focuses on personal upheavals and distressing periods of my life. This album, for me, is probably the most positive and bright I’ve written since Titles in 1982. As music is a form of self-expression, it can only be a reflection of a state of mind while composing or recording.”

Your music requires an investment of time to understand fully. Will people put in that time, do you think?
“That has never been the motivation for me. I can only hope that I successfully translate my feelings into a medium that can be understood. It’s an added reward, if in the process, I’m lucky enough to have enough people who enjoy it for their own personal reasons.”

Do you compose on bass?
“No, never. I would have to call that a bass solo, something I don’t particularly enjoy doing or listening to. I compose with drums and a few chords. I tend to look at the bass guitar in much the same way as a vocalist might a lead vocal, and I think the overall composition would suffer if the other parts were only there as a backing or an afterthought.”

Do you generally record the bass parts first or last?
“Sometimes the bass parts can act as an indication to what may be possible when the piece is finished, and so partly recorded early on, but it’s usually the last instrument to be added.”

Which is your preferred bass?
“Definitely the Wal I use on every recording and tour, probably for sentimental reasons as well as feeling comfortable with its weight and strings that only get changed when broken.”

And amps?
“I don’t really have a favourite. I shouldn’t be saying that as I’m sponsored by Trace Elliot, who kindly let me use their latest models when and where I need them. I’m not very fussy about amps and, on the rare occasion that I may suddenly decide to use one for recording, I borrow whatever the studio may have lying around, which tend to be guitar amps.”

What effects do you use?
“Nothing in particular, just whatever may be at my disposal. Digital effects from the computer, or just double-tracking the clean bass.”

What is it about the fretless bass which appeals to you?
“The obvious answer would be its low frequencies. I enjoy being able to feel what I play.”

It’s an obvious question perhaps, but was Jaco Pastorius an influence?
“I made a point of never listening to Jaco until I was forced into it by my record label in 1995, so I wouldn’t include him as an influence. Jaco seems to be the only player people use as a comparison to anyone who plays fretless bass, regardless of style. I fail to understand how anyone can compare his outstanding technical ability with my inability to read music, or even play simple scales! I never actually practice unless it’s to remember how I played something in preparation for a tour, and I only play when I have to record the bass.” 

So did any bass players influence you?

“I was listening to Stanley Clarke, who was a big influence when I first began to play, particularly School Days. Apart from him, any of the 70s pop I was a fan of only made me want do something different with the bass and be heard.”

How does Japan’s music stand up nowadays, in your opinion?
“Overall, I think it sounds quite dated apart from the odd track here and there. The parts that stand out for me are Richard Barbieri’s unique sounds and the combined rhythm section. Steve Jansen and I always worked as a team and pushed each other to discover our capabilities, even on Japan’s early albums.”

Was the Dali’s Car project with Pete Murphy a memorable experience?
“Yes, it was. I had to complete the album alone and still consider it to be my second solo album. Pete Murphy was very difficult to work with and disowned the album before it was completed, hence the inclusion of instrumental tracks. It wasn’t a very enjoyable project, but tension can sometimes have a positive effect on the creative process, and I think that stands out in places.”

What advice about bass playing can you give us?

“Forget what anyone else is doing – and find your own individual voice.”

For more information, visit the Mick Karn website

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Joel McIver

Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.