January 6, 2011


Mick Karn was best-known for his innovative fretless bass playing in the band, Japan, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The group formed with glam-rock aspirations, but quickly evolved into a unique blend of world music, jazz, pop, and experimental soundscapes that set them apart from others in the so-called New Romantic movement. Globe-trotting and multi-talented, the group became an inspiration of fashion and aesthetics that still echo among artists. Mick Karn brought his talents as a multi-instrumentalist to Japan, adding saxophone and clarinet to his fluid bass riffs in their recordings and performances. He went on to record many projects over the past twenty-five years with fellow Japan members, David Sylvian, Richard Barbieri (Porcupine Tree), Steve Jansen, and with music icons Gary Numan, Kate Bush, Joan Armatrading, and Peter Murphy (Bauhaus). Mick also exhibited his work as a sculptor.

I got in touch with Karn, Barbieri, and Jansen in the early 1990s after I moved back to the States from a number of years living in northern Japan. The trio had set up their own label, Medium Productions, and I sent them a batch of my current Photographs in hopes that we might collaborate in some way. The guys got back to me through their associate, Debi Zornes. They really liked some of the abstract experiments I was doing with a special process of partial split-toning. This was pre-digital, of course. At the time, however, inspiration led me into using the technique to create Buddha images rather than abstractions. Our creative timing wasn't in sync, but I relish the idea of collaborating still. Sadly, a key member of this special group of artists, Mick Karn, passed away on January 4th at the age of 52 after a battle with cancer. My best wishes and love to his family and friends. I dedicate one of my Buddha images (below) to Mick. I think this photograph would have appealed to his sculptor-side. There are links on the Sylvian and Jansen websites if readers would like to make a donation to support Mick's family. Additional information can be found at the websites of Mick Karn, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, and Richard Barbieri. Mick Karn obituary at the Guardian here. Mick Karn portrait above copyright by Steve Jansen. Buddha image below copyright by Jason Whiton.

My introduction to Mick Karn was a documentary made about Japan's tour in support of their Tin Drum album, Oil on Canvas. My friend Miki and I went to a coffee shop after a screening at a German film festival at Iwate University. I must admit, my thoughts going in were all about my beautiful companion. But as soon as we sat down, my attention became fixed to the big-screen TV across the room. Mick Karn, dressed in a Fab slender suit, seemed to be floating all over the stage (was he standing on casters?). These incredible, burbling sounds came from his bass- it was like nothing I had heard before. This was not your typical guitar-centered music. In fact, the peak of Japan's output was primarily built on foundations of bass and keyboard, rather than guitar. The sound appealed to me for it's cinematic quality. And over the lush atmosphere, the unforgettable sound of David Sylvian's lyrics. I unfortunately lost touch with Miki over the years, but the sound and inspiration of Mick and the guys continues to burn bright. Here are some video clips from Oil on Canvas.


  1. I too was very saddened to hear that Mick Karn had passed away.

    A good friend at undergraduate school at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana put on Oil On Canvas on this turntable ( yes, I am dating myself here.)

    It was then I was bitten by the Japan bug, and always enjoyed their sound.

    My favorite song was Swing from the Oil on Canvas album.

    RIP Mick...

  2. wait- that was me. i went to earlham :)


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