The band Japan, whose other members included bassist Mick Karn, guitarist Rob Dean, keyboardist Richard Barbieri and Sylvian's brother Steve Jansen as drummer, began as a group of friends. As youngsters they played music as a means of escape, playing Sylvian's two-chord numbers – sometimes with Karn as the front man, sometimes with Sylvian at the fore. A fan of New York Dolls, Sylvian adopted his stage name from Sylvain Sylvain, while his brother took Jansen from David Johansen.
They christened themselves Japan in 1974, signed a recording contract with Hansa, and became an alternative glam rock outfit in the mould of David Bowie, T.Rex, and The New York Dolls. Over a period of a few years their music became more sophisticated, drawing initially on the art rock stylings of Roxy Music. Their visual image also evolved and, although they had worn make-up since their creation in the mid-1970s, the band was unintentionally tagged with the New Romantic label in the early 1980s. The band themselves disputed any connection with the New Romantic movement, and Sylvian stated: "I don't like to be associated with them. The attitudes are so very different." Of Japan's fashion sense, Sylvian said: "For them [New Romantics], fancy dress is a costume. But ours is a way of life. We look and dress this way every day." In an October 1981 interview, at the pinnacle of the New Romantic movement in mainstream pop music, Sylvian commented "There's a period going past at the moment that may make us look as though we're in fashion."
Japan released five studio albums between March 1978 and November 1981. In 1980, the band signed with Virgin Records, where Sylvian remained as a recording artist for the next twenty years. The band suffered from personal and creative clashes, particularly between Sylvian and Karn, with tensions springing from Sylvian's relationship with Yuka Fujii, a photographer, artist and designer, and Karn's former girlfriend. Fujii quickly became an influential figure in Sylvian's life. She was the first person to introduce Sylvian seriously to jazz, which in turn inspired him to follow musical avenues not otherwise open to him. She also encouraged Sylvian to incorporate spiritual discipline into his daily routine. Throughout his solo career, Fujii maintained a large role in the design of artwork for his albums. Japan played their final concerts in December 1982 before dissolving.
In 1982, Sylvian released his first solo collaborative effort with Ryuichi Sakamoto, entitled "Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music". He also worked with Sakamoto on the UK Top 20 song "Forbidden Colours" for the 1983 Nagisa Oshima film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Sakamoto's first contribution to Sylvian's work though was as co-writer of "Taking Islands in Africa" on the Japan-album Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980).
Sylvian's debut solo album, Brilliant Trees (1984) included contributions from Ryuichi Sakamoto, trumpeter Jon Hassell, and former Can bassist Holger Czukay. It featured the UK Top 20 single Red Guitar.
In 1985, Sylvian released an instrumental EP Words with the Shaman, in collaboration with Jansen, Hassell and Czukay, a recording that, when re-released the same year as full-length album Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities, included the addition of Sylvian's "Steel Cathedrals", the soundtrack to his video release of the same name.
The next release was the two-record set Gone to Earth (1986), which featured one record of atmospheric vocal tracks and a second record consisting of ambient instrumentals. The album contained significant contributions from noted guitarists Bill Nelson, formerly of Be-Bop Deluxe, and Robert Fripp of King Crimson, and a rhythm section comprising Steve Jansen of Japan on drums and Ian Maidman of Penguin Cafe Orchestra on bass.
Secrets of the Beehive (1987) made greater use of acoustic instruments and was musically oriented towards sombre, emotive ballads laced with shimmering string arrangements by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Brian Gascoigne. The album yielded one of Sylvian's most well-received songs, "Orpheus", and was later followed by his first live outing as a solo artist, 1988's 80-day world tour "In Praise of Shamans", featuring Robbie Aceto, Richard Barbieri, Mark Isham, Steve Jansen, Ian Maidman and David Torn.
Never one to conform to commercial expectations, Sylvian then collaborated with Holger Czukay. Plight and Premonition, issued in 1988, and Flux and Mutability, recorded and released the following year, also included contributions from Can members Jaki Liebezeit and Michael Karoli.
Virgin decided to close out the 1980s with the release of Weatherbox, an elaborate boxed-set compilation consisting of Sylvian's four previous solo albums.
In 1990, Sylvian collaborated with artists Russell Mills and Ian Walton on the elaborate multi-media installation using sculpture, sound and light titled Ember Glance – The Permanence of Memory. The exhibition was staged at the temporary museum 'Space FGO-Soko' on Tokyo Bay, Shinagawa, Tokyo.
Also in 1990, Sylvian reunited with the former members of Japan for a new project. Unlike their past work, Sylvian decided to use methods of improvisation like those he explored in his work with Holger Czukay.
Ingrid Chavez, an artist signed to Prince's Paisley Park Records, sent Sylvian a copy of her first album. He liked what he heard and thought her voice would fit well with some material that both Ryuichi Sakamoto and he were working on for a new Sakamoto release. Chavez and Sylvian quickly developed a bond and decided to travel together throughout the UK and the US, where they eventually settled after marrying in 1992 (they divorced twelve years later).
In the early 1990s, guitarist Robert Fripp invited Sylvian to sing with progressive rock stalwarts King Crimson. Sylvian declined the invitation, but he and Fripp recorded the album The First Day released in July 1993. Something of a departure for Sylvian, the album melded Sylvian's philosophical lyrics to funk workouts and aggressive rock stylings very much in the mould of Fripp's King Crimson. To capitalise on the album's success, the musicians went back out on the road in the autumn of 1993. A live recording, called Damage and released in 1994, was culled from the final shows of the tour.
Sylvian and Fripp's final collaboration was the installation Redemption – Approaching Silence. The exhibition was held at the P3 Art and Environment centre in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and ran from 30 August to 18 September 1994. The accompanying music was composed by Sylvian, with text written and recited by Fripp.
In the late summer of 1995, Sylvian undertook a one-man solo tour which he called 'Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective'.
A period of relative musical inactivity followed, during which Sylvian and Ingrid Chavez moved from Minnesota to the Napa Valley. Chavez had given birth to two daughters, Ameera-Daya (born 1993) and Isobel (born 1997), and pursued her interest in photography and music. Sylvian and Chavez are now divorced.
In 1999, Sylvian released Dead Bees on a Cake, his first solo album proper since Secrets of the Beehive twelve years earlier. The disc gathered together the most eclectic influences of all his recordings, ranging from soul music to jazz fusion to blues to Eastern-inflected spiritual chants, and most of the songs' lyrics reflected the now 41-year-old Sylvian's inner peace resulting from his marriage, family, and beliefs. Guest musicians included long-time friend Ryuichi Sakamoto, classically trained tabla player Talvin Singh, avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot, jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and contemporary jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. In 2010 Sylvian said, "Since the early '80s I've been interested in deconstructing the familiar forms of popular song, in retaining the structure but removing the pillars of support. My work continually returns to this question: how much of the framework can you remove while still being able to identify what is, after all, a familiar form?"
Following Dead Bees, Sylvian released a pair of compilation albums through Virgin, a two-disc retrospective, Everything and Nothing, and an instrumental collection, Camphor. Both albums contained previously released material, some remixes, and several new or previously unreleased tracks which Sylvian finished especially for the projects.
Sylvian parted ways with Virgin and launched his own independent label, Samadhi Sound. He released the album Blemish. A fusion of styles, including jazz and electronica, the tour enabled Sylvian to perform music from the Nine Horses project, as well as various selections from his back catalogue. Blemish included contributions from Christian Fennesz and Derek Bailey. Sylvian used a different approach with this album. He has said about his process, "With Blemish I started each day in the studio with a very simple improvisation on guitar. Once recorded, I'd listen back and use cues from the improv—the dynamic and so on—to dictate the structure of the piece. I'd write lyrics and melody on the spot, and would follow that up with the recording of the vocal itself."
A new solo album entitled Manafon was released on 14 September 2009 in two editions – a regular CD/digipak edition and a twin boxset deluxe edition with two books that include the CD and a DVD featuring the film 'Amplified Gesture'. Manafon features contributions from leading figures in electroacoustic improvisation such as saxophonist Evan Parker, multi-instrumentalist Otomo Yoshihide, laptop + guitarist Christian Fennesz, Polwechsel's double bassist Werner Dafeldecker and cellist Michael Moser, sinewaves specialist Sachiko M and AMM alumni guitarist Keith Rowe, percussionist Eddie Prévost and pianist John Tilbury. In 2010, Sylvian talked about Manafon, and said:
"What happened with Manafon was that the work abandoned me. As I was writing and developing the material, the spirit holding all these disparate elements together just left me. I sat stunned for a moment and then realised: It's over; this is as far as it goes…In a sense, I'd been steadily working my way toward Manafon since I was a young man listening to Stockhausen and dabbling in deconstructing the pop song. Having said that, I don't think we only develop as artists practising in our chosen fields. For me that meant an exploration of intuitive states via meditation and other related disciplines which, the more I witnessed free-improv players at work, appeared to be crucially important to enable a being there in the moment, a sustained alertness and receptivity."
In 2010 Sylvian released a compilation disc of his collaborative works with musicians over the last 10 years – Sleepwalkers includes songs with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tweaker, Nine Horses, Steve Jansen, Christian Fennesz and Arve Henriksen. Also included are a few new songs such as Sleepwalkers which is co-written with drummer Martin Brandlmayr of Radian and Polwechsel.
In 2011, the double disc Died in the Wool was released as variations on the 2009 release Manafon with the addition of six new pieces, including collaborations with composer Dai Fujikura, producers Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, and a roster of contemporary musicians and improvisers. For the first time, a stereo mix of the audio installation "When We Return You Won't Recognise Us" is available on CD, pairing a group of improvisers – John Butcher, Arve Henriksen, Günter Müller, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Eddie Prévost – with a string sextet directed by Fujikura.
Also in 2011, Sylvian acted as the artist in residence at the Punkt Festival in Norway. In addition to curating the events of the festival, Sylvian performed both compositions from the Holger Czukay-collaborated album Plight & Premonition, backed by John Tilbury, Jan Bang, Phillip Jeck, Eivind Aarset, Erik Honoré, and Arve Henriksen. The positive reception led to the decision to tour throughout Europe in 2012. The Implausible Beauty tour was due to feature a lineup of musicians including Jan Bang, guitarist Eivind Aarset, pianist Sebastian Lexer, cellist Hildur Gudnadottir and trumpeter Gunnar Halle. The tour was cancelled in late January 2012 due to Sylvian's poor health.
In 2013, Sylvian released Do You Know Me Now?, a one-time pressing released with a re-mastered version of "Where's Your Gravity?"
In 2014, Sylvian released There's a Light That Enters Houses with No Other House in Sight, a long-form composition with contributions from Christian Fennesz and John Tilbury and featuring spoken word by American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Franz Wright of excerpts from Wright's own Kindertotenwald.
In 2015, Sylvian released Playing The Schoolhouse with Confront Recordings in two limited editions. The release, a fifteen minute composition, was composed based on improvisations by Sylvian and Jan Bang - with contributions by Otomo Yoshihide and Toshimaru Nakamura - and was recorded in a schoolhouse in Norway. Sylvian would collaborate again with Confront Recordings in 2017, in effort with Mark Wastell (who runs Confront Recordings) and Rhodri Davies for the first release of the Confront Core Series, There Is No Love. The long-form composition was created with previously recorded materials, and features text from Bernard-Marie Koltès's In the Solitude of Cotton Fields.Adolescent Sex (1978)
Obscure Alternatives (1978)
Quiet Life (1979)
Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980)
Tin Drum (1981)
Rain Tree Crow same line-up as Japan (1991)
Brilliant Trees (1984)
Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities (1985)
Gone to Earth (1986)
Secrets of the Beehive (1987)
Dead Bees on a Cake (1999)
When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima (2007)
There's a Light That Enters Houses with No Other House in Sight (2014)
with Ryuichi Sakamoto: Bamboo Houses (Single) (Virgin, 1982)
with Ryuichi Sakamoto: Forbidden Colours (Single/EP) (Virgin, 1983)
with Holger Czukay: Plight & Premonition (Virgin, 1988)
with Holger Czukay: Flux and Mutability (Virgin, 1989)
with Russell Mills: Ember Glance: The Permanence of Memory (Virgin, 1991)
with Robert Fripp: The First Day (Virgin, 1993)
with Robert Fripp: Damage (Virgin, 1994)
with Ryuichi Sakamoto: World Citizen (EP) (Samadhi Sound, 2003)
Nine Horses (with Steve Jansen and Burnt Friedman): Snow Borne Sorrow (Samadhi Sound, 2005)
Nine Horses: Money for All (EP) (Samadhi Sound, 2007)
with Jan Bang, Erik Honoré, Arve Henriksen and Sidsel Endresen: Uncommon Deities (Samadhisound, 2012)
with Stephan Mathieu: Wandermüde (album) (Samadhi Sound, 2013)
with Jan Bang, Otomo Yoshihide, Toshimaru Nakamura : Playing the schoolhouse (SamadhiSound, 2015)
with Rhodri Davies, Mark Wastell : There is no love (Confront Recordings, 2017)
Approaching Silence (1999)
Everything and Nothing (2000)
Camphor (27 May 2002)
A Victim of Stars 1982–2012 (2012)
Darshan (Single) (Virgin, 1993)
The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter (Samadhi Sound, 2003)
Died in the Wool – Manafon Variations (Samadhi Sound, 2011)
This is an incomplete list."Good Night" on Ai Ga Nakucha Ne by Akiko Yano (1982)
"Forbidden Colours" on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto (1983)
"Living on the Front Line" on Mad Mix II by Sandii & The Sunsetz & David Sylvian (1983)
"p:Machinery" on A Secret Wish by Propaganda (1985)
"Some Small Hope" on Hope in a Darkened Heart by Virginia Astley (1986)
"Perfect Day" on "Life in Mirrors" by Masami Tsuchiya (1987)
"Buoy" and "When Love Walks In" on Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters by Mick Karn (1987)
"Heartbeat (Returning to the Womb)" and "Cloud #9" on Heartbeat by Ryuichi Sakamoto (1991)
"To a Reason" and "Victim of Stars" on Sahara Blue by Hector Zazou (1992)
"Come Morning", "The Golden Way" and "Maya" on Marco Polo by Nicola Alesini & Pier Luigi Andreoni (1995)
"Ti ho aspettato (I Have Waited for You)" on L'albero pazzo by Andrea Chimenti (1995)
"How Safe Is Deep?" on Undark:Strange Familiar by Russell Mills (1996)
"Salvation" on Discord by Ryuichi Sakamoto (1998)
"Rooms of Sixteen Shimmers" on Pearl and Umbra by Russell Mills (1999)
"Forbidden Colours" on Cinemage by Ryuichi Sakamoto (2000)
"Zero Landmine" on Zero Landmine by No More Landmine featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto and Various Artists (2001)
"Sugarfuel" on Bold by Readymade FC (2001)
"Linoleum" on The Attraction to All Things Uncertain by Tweaker (2001)
"World Citizen (I Won't Be Disappointed)" on Chasm by Ryuichi Sakamoto (2004)
"Transit" on Venice by Fennesz (2004)
"Pure Genius" on 2 a.m. Wakeup Call by Tweaker (2004)
"Late Night Shopping (remix)" by Fennesz (2004)
"Exit / Delete" on Coieda by Takagi Masakatsu (2004)
"Messenger" on Equus by Blonde Redhead (2004)
"For the Love of Life (Ending Theme Full Version)" on Monster – Original Soundtrack (2004)
"The Librarian" on Out in the Sticks and Secret Rhythms 2 by Burnt Friedman & Jaki Liebezeit (2005)
"A Fire in the Forest" (Remix) on Babilonia by Readymade FC (2005)
"Matière pensante" on Quadri + Chromies by Hector Zazou (2005)
"Angels" on Crime Scenes by Punkt (2006)
"Playground Martyrs" and "Ballad of a Deadman" on Slope by Steve Jansen (2007)
"Honor Wishes" and "No Question" (Japanese edition only) on To Survive by Joan as Police Woman (2008)
"Before and Afterlife" and "Thermal" on Cartography by Arve Henriksen (2008)
"Jacqueline" on The Believer, the 2009 Music Issue (2009)
"Little Girls With 99 Lives" (as producer) by Ingrid Chavez. (2010)
"Modern Interior" at Kizunaworld.org – David Sylvian & Jan Bang (2011)
"Nothing Is Happening Everywhere" on Night Within by Land (2012)
"Async" on Life,life by Ryuichi Sakamoto (2017)