Bass player Mick Karn, boundary-pushing bassist and member of the group Japan, passed away on January 4th, after a battle with cancer. Karn was born in Cyprus, but emigrated to England with his family at the age of 3. By age 7, he played mouth organ, and by 11 was playing violin. At 14 he took up the bassoon, eventually landing a position with the London School Symphony Orchestra — he claimed he bluffed his way in, as he never learned to read music and played by ear and memory. His classical career ended when his bassoon was stolen and the school refused to replace it. He purchased a bass guitar, connected with David Sylvain and co-founded Japan. In 1977 the group landed a record contract. Though the group faced hostile audiences in the punk era, they were (and remain) a huge hit in Japan, releasing a number of albums, each exploring new musical territory.
His first solo album was released in 1982, and he began collaborating with a wide range of musicians, including Midge Ure, Kate Bush, and Joan Armatrading, as well as working as a sideman. The ’80s also saw successful projects with David Torn, Mark Isham, Bill Bruford, and Terry Bozzio. He continued releasing solo projects as well as projects with other musicians for the rest of his career.
He was known as a groundbreaking musician who was always exploring the wide range of musical styles and approaches that were available, prefering not to copy other bass players but rather to find his own path. He is quoted on his website as saying, “I wanted to be able to slide and bend notes as I’d learnt to do with the violin and so decided to take all the frets off the bass guitar. I also began playing bass directly after the bassoon which, although a bass instrument, often plays lead melodies, both of these factors were major influences in shaping the way I play. I couldn’t help but feel that bass players were always hidden somewhere in the background whereas I was determined to be heard.”