It may be perhaps surprising to learn that one-time JAPAN sound designer and synth technician Richard Barbieri has only released three solo albums.
However, Barbieri was always preferred the collaborative process, be it with Messrs Sylvian, Karn and Jansen, Steve Hogarth of MARILLION or as a member of PORCUPINE TREE.
But since JAPAN disbanded in 1982, he has composed and recorded a large amount of material that until recently has remained unreleased.
So the five volume ‘Variants’ series has gathered together new compositions, improvisations, live performances and re-workings of older material; “It presents a chance to put together disparate pieces of music from past and current works that wouldn’t fit easily with new album plans or concepts but which I feel deserved a release.” said Barbieri in October 2017 when the first volume was issued.
With ‘Variants.5’ having come out in the Autumn and now a double vinyl edition combining ‘Variants.1’ and ‘Variants.2’ about to be released on KScope, it continues a renaissance that has taken place in the career of Richard Barbieri since his 2017 album ‘Planets + Persona’, one that has seen him invited to join TANGERINE DREAM on stage in London, as well as playing solo concerts abroad and touring as part of LUSTANS LAKEJER in Sweden.
Bright and layered, ‘Showered In White Light’ starts ‘Variants.5’ and is almost flutey in texture.
With manipulated voice samples of regular collaborator Lisen Rylander Löve throughout the track, the building percussive tension mutates into something quite dramatic.
Performed recently with Steven Wilson at one of the PORCUPINE TREE leader’s solo Royal Albert Hall concerts, ‘New Soul 2018’ is a sparse electronic piano piece that originated as a PORCUPINE TREE improvisation initiation bookended by a thunderstorm recorded during the RAIN TREE CROW album sessions in the South of France.
Embroiled in shimmers and harmonics, ‘Run Lola’ was inspired by THE BAYS, a group that have never released a record or rehearsed, who Barbieri improvised with to showings of the film ‘Run Lola Run’. Its delicate sweeps are laced with trumpet from Luca Calabrese and reversed violin by Gill Morley, but as the hypnotic bass sequence permeates over ten minutes like classic TANGERINE DREAM, it makes for a trance inducing moment, especially as the abstract voices of Lisen Rylander Löve drop in.
‘Unholy Live 2017’ captures the original recording’s initial airy ambience although this is offset by more unsettling voices through Lisen Rylander Löve’s Soviet submarine microphone before a deep synth bass rumble, Löve’s soprano sax and Barbieri’s pulsating sequence kick in. The concluding ‘Shut Down’ is a drone piece and possibly a sign of things to come from Barbieri. Constructed during recuperation following an operation using a compact mini analogue modular set up by his bedside, it is sinister in tone and bereft of any true melody.
But the series started with ‘Variants.1’ beginning with ‘Hybrid’, a noirish track derived from the ‘Planets + Persona’ sessions and a live variation on spacey avant jazz of ‘New Found Land’ where Barbieri amusingly credits himself with “bad timing”. Melancholically piano shaped, ‘Only Passing Through’ was poignantly titled, a reflection of life in the wider context of generations. Still very much into his vintage Roland System 700 Laboratory Series, ‘Spacing Of Strands’ was based on a step sequence improvisation where the analogue module was triggered by an Arturia Beat Step Pro Sequencer.
Interestingly on ‘Variants.1’, Barbieri revisited his JAPAN days with a 2009 solo interpretation of ‘The Experience Of Swimming’, his composition which was on the B-side of ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ single from 1980, now boosted with some new counter melodic enhancement. The piece reappeared as a longer live rework on ‘Variants.4’ recorded at the St Margaret’s of Anitioch Church in Liverpool featuring a different intro, sax , trumpet, percussive loops and a coda improvisation based on ‘Nightporter’.
Indeed on ‘Variants.3’, other JAPAN related material was unveiled. The marvellous ‘Ballerina’ while new, harked back to 1982 when Barbieri was approached to commission music for the Ballet Rambert following the end of JAPAN. The resultant music was suitably ghostly with ethnic overtones and subtle electro-percussive textures offered a ringing ambience as gentle cascading sequences circled.
And on a earthy cassette recorded timepiece recalling Brian Eno’s ‘2/2’ when the ‘1979 Rehearsal Room’ was quiet, Barbieri happily programmed and played away… also on ‘Variants.3’ and uptempo by Barbieri’s standards, ‘Vibra’ featuring the fretless bass of Percy Jones and violin by Gill Morley recalled Ryuichi Sakamoto, while with a drum machine assisted backbone and jazzier overtones, ‘Dahlia’ saw the development of another PORCUPINE TREE track written with Steven Wilson.
Containing mostly live recordings including a one-off live improvisation piece ‘Antioch’ and an extended version of ‘Hypnotek’ with an introduction echoing Jon Hassell, the highlight of ‘Variants.2’ was the lengthy ‘Frozen Hearts Of Hollywood’, a composition with orchestration potential inspired by the soundtrack of the film ‘Chinatown’ which starred Faye Dunaway.
The progressive nocturnal electronica of ‘Broken Codes’ opened ‘Variants.4’, inspired by Barbieri’s memories of listening to a transistor radio in bed as a teenager deep into the night, while largely piano based, the soothing ‘Snow Bed’ allowed room for trumpet and synths too. The appropriately titled ‘Slink’ featuring dissonant piano by Fredrik Hermansson was according to Barbieri “an oddball piece of music” came before ‘Orphan 5’, a pretty tune with a four chord progression sketched during the JAPAN days featuring the haunting monologue of Sophie Worthen.
One track that would have been an interesting inclusion is Barbieri’s live rendition of PORCUPINE TREE’s ‘Idiot Prayer’ which often finishes his shows
But over five volumes, ‘Variants’ is a fascinating journey into the thoughtful creativity of Richard Barbieri. There is a lot of music to get through, but free of artistic restrictions and concepts as to what constitutes an album, the beauty of the ‘Variants’ series is as the concept title suggests, the variation, the range of colours, textures and atmospheres emanating from one artist. And that’s how things should be.
Supporting the release of his third solo album ‘Planets + Persona’, RICHARD BARBIERI presented an intimate live show that covered many facets of his recording career from JAPAN to PORCUPINE TREE.
While Barbieri’s rig featured the expected all mod cons like a MacBook, controllers and a Roland V-Synth, the set-up also included his beloved Sequential Prophet 5 and Roland System 700 Lab Series.
Accompanied by the versatile Swedish musician Lisen Rylander Löve on saxophone, percussion and voice manipulations, the pair began sedately with ‘Night Of The Hunter – (3) Innocence Lost’ from ‘Planets & Persona’.
Utilising a wide cinematic spectrum of electronic and organic colours, the show started in earnest with the sleazy rhythmic adventure of ‘Solar Sea’. The track’s atonal jazz feel with its spacey momentum saw Löve screeching into a Cold War vintage Russian Army microphone, while drowning her eerie larynx with a variety of gadgets. With a warping System 700 bass, it was part avant techno and part ambient as Barbieri moved across his four keyboards to provide texture and atmosphere.
Löve left the stage for Barbieri to perform alone in the evening’s first big surprise. After a series of improvised sweeps and shimmers, the iconic metallic cascade of JAPAN’s ‘Ghosts’
Barbieri handled the familiar detuned percussive blips on his Prophet 5 before playing the haunting string tones on the V-Synth as a drum loop kicked in. “Oh, I didn’t expect that much applause!” responded the Catford boy after the crowd roared with approval at the end.
Next, the rumbling sub-bass squelches of ‘Medication Time’ from Barbieri’s debut solo long player ‘Things Buried’ shook the fittings of the venue which was built in 1863. As elements of TANGERINE DREAM filled the room, there was yet another surprise when the melancholic electric piano motif from the JAPAN cover of THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ appeared at various intervals.
Löve returned for ‘Unholy’ with the widescreen vibe countered by unsettling Nordic voice samples, before being followed by the spacey avant jazz of ‘New Found Land’ which was originally written by Barbieri for PORCUPINE TREE.
During this sequence of music, Löve added a kalimba to her repertoire which enhanced the electro- acoustic balance with an authentic ethnic touch.
Closing the main part of the show with ‘Hypnotek’ from Barbieri’s second album ‘Stranger Inside’, the rolling bass sequences, spy drama piano and muted Fourth World tension came together with a musicality that was like a masterclass in instrumental music… MG, please take note!
To rapturous cheers, Barbieri returned for an encore and with the self-deprecating humour he had displayed throughout the evening, he joked: “I didn’t want to wait too long, in case it died down”.
He treated the appreciative crowd with a superb electronic adaptation of PORCUPINE TREE’s ‘Idiot Prayer’. With the new arrangement at times sounding like SIMPLE MINDS’ ‘Love Song’, it was a fabulously energetic conclusion to proceedings.
Unafraid to delve into his glorious history, RICHARD BARBIERI ably showed why he is one of the most inventive synthesizer technicians that the UK has ever produced.
His modest, down-to-earth demeanour with a willingness to stay in the background has perhaps stopped him from being better known, but the music he produces today is still wonderfully intriguing and deserves further investigation.
Synth maestro Richard Barbieri releases his most sonically expansive album yet in ‘Planets + Persona’.
But despite a recording career of nearly 40 years, which began as a member the innovative art muzak combo JAPAN, ‘Planets + Persona’ is only Barbieri’s third solo work.
Over the intervening years, he has worked with his former band mates in various guises, Steve Hogarth of MARILLION and most notably, prog rockers PORCUPINE TREE. ‘Planets + Persona’ comprises of seven lengthy instrumentals which while primarily electronic in nature, encompass organic tones and voice manipulation.
Indeed, Steve Hogarth, Barbieri’s wife Suzanne and Swedish musician Lisen Rylander Löve are among the vocalists who have been morphed into these new sounds. In an interview with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK, Richard Barbieri said of this ethos of innovation: “I layered up these voices that had quite interesting close harmonies so I manipulated them, put them into a sampler and further synthesized it… you know it’s real voices but it sounds slightly weird”.
Opening track ‘Solar Sea’ is a sleazy rhythmic excursion into another world. Using System 700 bass, the track’s atonal jazz feel is then augmented by the haunting voice manipulations of Lisen Rylander Löve; these warping noises are offset by soothing brass inflections and live drumming. Followed by the spacey avant jazz of ‘New Found Land’ which was originally written by Barbieri for PORCUPINE TREE, this one is probably the most melodically framed piece on the album, ideal for those who are perhaps a bit more cautious about sub-seven minute instrumental work.
The three movement ‘Night Of The Hunter’ begins sparsely with ‘(1) Summer’; cascading harps run in before some beautifully picked acoustic six string from Christian Saggese accompanied by Barbieri’s gentle orchestrations. However after those brighter beginnings, ‘(2) Shake Hands With Danger’ is much starker and sombre with the title’s announcer sample creeping in over the building percussive tension. The mood then subsides and on ‘(3) Innocence Lost’, sweeping synths, cacophonies of sax and a drum loop take things to their natural conclusion.
‘Interstellar Medium’ is the only piece that Barbieri performs totally solo on ‘Planets + Persona’ and here, he utilises the detuned pentatonic sound design that he pioneered on JAPAN’s ‘Tin Drum’ as well as more eerie manipulated voicing; it’s well-titled as it does what it says on the tin.
Meanwhile, the beautiful tinkling ambience of ‘Unholy’ is countered by unsettling Nordic voices before a deep synth bass rumble and acoustic guitars change the mood completely, aided by Löve’s soprano sax. As the album heads towards the final straight, ‘Shafts Of Light’ uses largely conventional instrumentation to achieve its icy atmospheric aims, featuring some lovely trumpet from Luca Calabrese.
Closing with the magnificence of ‘Solar Storm’, this is practically a full band jam with the legendary Percy Jones on bass and Kjell Severinsson on drums, while the ever versatile Löve blasts in with her sax. It’s all held together marvellously by Barbieri’s programming of bass and ethnic chimes, while what appears to be a guitar solo is anything but. As Jones solos with his fretless in the middle section over a mass of electronic sequences, it recalls why he was such a key influence on the late Mick Karn; JAPAN and ENO fans will love this!
‘Planets + Persona’ is not a one-paced ambient record, the variations in structure and tempo make this an enticing musical adventure outside of the conventional song format. Coupled with a sonic accessibility, this makes for a perfect mid-evening album of aural escapism.
As Barbieri himself put it: “‘Planets + Persona’ is more cinematic, it’s a wide spectrum of sounds so if I was a painter, you could say I’m using more colours”.
RICHARD BARBIERI appears at Exeter Phoenix on Thursday 16th March and London Hoxton Hall on Tuesday 28th March 2017. He will also perform as part of The Seventh Wave Festival of Electronic Music in Birmingham on Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th March 2017.
Richard Barbieri is the synthesizer technician who first found fame as a member of JAPAN.
Along with Catford Boys School pals David Sylvian, Mick Karn and Steve Jansen plus Hackney born guitarist Rob Dean, the quintet found fame in the country of Japan itself with their unusual hybrid glam funk rock.
As an untrained keyboardist, Barbieri didn’t come into his own until he immersed himself into the brave new world of synths.
His interest coincided with JAPAN’s change of direction into the more mannered, artful style as showcased on their third album ‘Quiet Life’ released in late 1979. However, the band were dropped by their label Ariola Hansa, but they had revealed their true potential and were quickly snapped up by Virgin Records.
As Barbieri grew more confident with his aural sculpting, JAPAN headed towards a more electronic sound with their final two albums ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’. Despite their success and a run of 6 successive Top 40 singles in 1982, all was not well within the camp. Although JAPAN split, Barbieri stayed on good terms with all of his bandmates, working with them on their solo ventures and in various combinations under the monikers of THE DOLPHIN BROTHERS, RAIN TREE CROW and JBK.
In more recent years, Barbieri has been a member of prog rockers PORCUPINE TREE but with the band currently in hiatus, the veteran sound designer is about to unleash a brand new solo album entitled ‘Planets + Persona’.
Richard Barbieri kindly took time out to chat about his upcoming opus and career, as well as expressing some frank views about Spotify and the current generation’s attitude to music consumption…
You’re releasing your third solo album ‘Planets + Persona’, how would you describe it?
It’s probably the most expansive sounding album I’ve made. Sonically, I’ve used a lot performers and acoustic instruments to mix with the electronics. With previous albums, I tended to work at home with a laptop and software, but the more you work alone, the more it seems to have just one sound. ‘Planets + Persona’ is more cinematic, it’s a wide spectrum of sounds so if I was a painter, you could say I’m using more colours.
You’ve been with PORCUPINE TREE for many years now, why did you feel the time was right for another solo work?
It’s been quite a while! I’m not that prolific, a solo album seems to come out every 6 or 7 years! *laughs*
I never really know when I’m going to do one, it’s just when the time feels right. If I tried to write and record all the time, I think the quality would suffer so I know inside when it’s right. I felt quite inspired and things moved along pretty quickly really. So I decided to put more money into this and travel around to work with lots of different musicians and make it a real kind of experience as well.
Which do you feel are the pivotal tracks on ‘Planets + Persona’?
I’m happy with them all, but I would say my favourite is the first track ‘Solar Sea’, it encompasses everything I wanted to do with this album. There’s my obvious love of electronics and analogue synthesis, but it came from a weird rhythm that I constructed out of various samples and machines. I’d call it a sleazy rhythm, it feels good but there’s something slightly jarring in there and this set me off on this pattern. I worked everything around it using a lot of bass from the System 700 and wrote these jazzy chord progressions over the top which is quite unlike me, but I liked the atonal feel and I built that up with trumpets and saxophones.
Then it goes into sections where this musician I’m working with Lisen Rylander Löve does live vocals, but she’s manipulating the voice in real time, so it’s a vocal performance but she’s not actually using words, it’s vowels and noises with pitch shifting, warping and delaying. She has this table full of gadgets and uses what looks like an old Russian Army microphone for that lo-fi sound! When I worked with her a couple of years ago, I was so impressed that I wanted to work with her again.
‘New Found Land’ is like spacey avant jazz, how did that come together?
That’s the oldest track of all of them, I originally wrote it for PORCUPINE TREE, but as there was nothing happening with the group, I thought I would develop it myself.
I would say it’s the most accessible track on the album, probably the most melodic and maybe what people would expect of me.
There’s a guy I work with, Steve Hogarth and I used his vocals from another project we’d been working on.
I layered up these voices that had quite interesting close harmonies so I manipulated them, put them into a sampler and further synthesized it, so I ended up with a choir patch from his voices. That was the backdrop to the whole thing and I started to write these chord progressions. It’s a bit like 10CC ‘I’m Not In Love’ where you know it’s not a Mellotron or string machine or a choir or anything, you know it’s real voices but it sounds slightly weird.
You’ve hit on something there… there’s a deep choir sound that doubles with the ARP Solina on ‘Despair’ from the ‘Quiet Life’ album; how did you get that sound, was it a synth or a Mellotron?
There were Mellotrons at Air Studios where we did the album, and one was THE BEATLES’ Mellotron because it was Paul McCartney’s studio, he was there all the time and there was always their gear around. It could have been from that, but there was a choir setting on the Solina and that was really nice…
That solves a mystery then… Percy Jones plays on ‘Solar Storm’ from the new album and he was a key influence on all of you in JAPAN, particularly Mick Karn. What was it like to work with him?
It was brilliant, he’s a bit of a hero to me. We used to listen to that Brian Eno album ‘Another Green World’, the rhythm section of him and Phil Collins is just amazing. I’d never really heard bass played like that before, it was something different. With Eno’s synths and everything, it was such a great combination.
I’d always wanted to work with him but when you have him on a track, you have to accept he’s just going to go crazy and do his thing! He’s not the person to have if you want a particular arrangement but I knew there was space for him to be himself. I had a feeling it would work really nicely and there’s a middle section where there’s all these sequences going on. He’s soloing against them and I really liked that.
Photo by Steve Jansen
There is a wide instrumental palette on the album, but vintage analogue synthesizers are still your primary source of expression. Which particular ones have retained the most affection for you?
I’m using the ones I’ve always used… I haven’t got a vast collection, I’ve just hung onto the ones that have been the most useful to me and cover all bases. I’ve got the Roland System 700 semi-modular, and it’s the Laboratory Series so that’s the main console with three oscillators; you can patch as well so you can go either way.
I’ve been using that since 1978 and I bought that from Rod Argent’s Keyboards in Denmark Street, London. I use it a lot for effects, bass and spacey stuff. Then there’s the Prophet 5 which I’ve been using since the 80s, I’ve never found anything that sounds as lush, warm and beautiful. And there’s the Micromoog…
…was that your first synth?
Yes, I’m still using it! *laughs*
It’s incredible, it stays in tune, it’s wonderful. I find it’s more flexible than a Minimoog. Because of the routing, there’s a lot more to it than you think. You’re limited because you’ve really only got one oscillator, although you have a doubling effect where you can have an octave below or above. But there’s so many ways that you can route the modulations. Through the modulation, you’ve got sample and hold, oscillator and filter combined, noise and you can route these things all together.
Photo by Yuka Fujii
Do you go with Eno’s notion that you are identified by the limitations of your instrument, but that then challenges you more to take the instrument further?
Yes, one of the big problems today is these massive libraries that you have with software synths, and it’s too much! You can get lost… when you’re in a creative mode, you just want to get these things down, you don’t want to search through 100 different versions of a bass synth because by the time you get to the 99th one, you’ve forgotten what you wanted to do in the first place!
Even on JAPAN’s ‘Tin Drum’ album which was quite an adventure in programming, we more or less only used two synths, the Prophet 5 and the Oberheim OBX.
I noticed on your keyboard rack, you don’t appear to have the OBX anymore?
I don’t… I don’t know what’s happened to it! *laughs*
I lent it to Mick Karn who used it on his album… it’s funny to think but in those days, you didn’t feel so precious about this gear because it was just the technology of its time. Now, I would do anything to find out where it is! To get one now would cost me about £7000 – £8000 probably!
Jump forward to ‘Gentleman Take Polaroids’ and you’d purchased the Oberheim OBX and Prophet 5 while also using the Jupiter 4, ARP Omni and Polymoog. Bearing in mind how costly somewhere like Air Studios was, was there ever enough time to explore the synths that were hired in, as opposed to the ones that you owned?
Some was hired and some was just there. The studios used to be pretty well equipped in those days. It was weird that album, ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ was where the set-up was in transition; on ‘Quiet Life’, I had a very basic set-up that I stayed with and afterwards on ‘Tin Drum’ as well.
But here, we were using whatever came to hand. I did get quite into the Polymoog which I never owned, but used and enjoyed a lot. Sometimes in my mind, I think I’ve played something when I haven’t, like I imagined there was a Yamaha CS80 there, but I don’t think there was!
You also had the Oberheim Mini-Sequencer, what was that like as it’s not as widely known as say, the ARP Sequencer?
Photo by Fin Costello
It was what I was recommended when I got the System 700, because I wasn’t getting the giant version with the Roland sequencers. It was pretty hard getting the right bits of gear to talk to each other in terms of control voltage, there all’s kind of problems but this combination worked perfectly with the System 700. I’ve struggled to find anything that ever worked as well with it.
I understand it had a limited number of steps and wasn’t the full 16?
No, it was just 8! Each control had separate tunings for CV1 and CV2, so you could make nice counter-melodies and harmonies. It was fairly limited although when I listen to it now on things like ‘Quiet life’ and ‘Methods Of Dance’, it sounds pretty good.
On ‘Tin Drum’, you employed a policy of keeping things minimal by primarily using only the OBX and Prophet 5? What were the artistic challenges for you there?
The music was heading into being more minimal and things connected together like a jigsaw. So it was very much ‘question and answer’ melodies and riffs. In rehearsals, which was where most of the stuff was written and arranged, David Sylvian and I would just have one or two keyboards each.
But in rehearsals, you couldn’t record anything so in effect, you were making just one overdub. It influenced the way it went, but we had the discipline to keep things sparse. Space in very important in music, it’s as vital as the event. That album had a separation to it, people were playing in a sequence and you can hear the definition in everything.
Yes, ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ was quite woolly sounding while ‘Tin Drum’ is very sharp…
It is very sharp and quite cold sounding I’d admit, but it’s precise. And ‘Polaroids’ is more woolly and warm.
I understand that on ‘Ghosts’, that cascading metallic sound in the intro was programmed by you and triggered using just one key?
That’s something I’ve tended to do from the very beginning… my introduction to music was basically trying to find ways of creating something without having to play too much! *laughs*
Not being a technically gifted player, the keys were of less importance to me than the actual controls. What I tried to do was to make more events happen from one note than playing 200 notes. The prime example to that is the intro to ‘Ghosts’ because it’s just one triggered note on the System 700, but I’d programmed in this evolving series of movements with filters, LFOs and pitch frequency oscillation. I’ve never been able to quite get that sound again, but it caused havoc for the engineer because there were lots of peaks and it was quite difficult to record.
There’s a really mad cascading synth thing at the very end of ‘Television’ from ‘Adolescent Sex’ too…
Yes, it’s on the Micromoog… it’s basically sample and hold where the pitch is going haywire! *laughs*
Photo by Fin Costello
If there had been a sixth JAPAN album recorded and released in 1984, how do you think it might have sounded?
That’s interesting, that’s a good question, I’ve never been asked that. Obviously, enough time had passed for RAIN TREE CROW that we went in a completely different direction. But if we’d recorded something maybe a year or two after ‘Tin Drum’, I don’t think the change would have been as drastic.
When I heard the David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto single ‘Bamboo Houses’ / ‘Bamboo Music’, to me that sounded like JAPAN without me and Mick, it was more computerised. I think we might have sounded like that possibly. And then there was a really nice single David did called ‘Pop Song’ which was using the extrapolated tunings on the Roland D-50 where you can widen out the octave or bring the octave in, you can get some really interesting scaling going. We started messed around with something like that on ‘Tin Drum’.
You mention the D-50, how did you find the digital and sampling revolution that followed after ‘Tin Drum’?
Of course, you get into it. It’s something of the time and it’s exciting, so you want to try these things. I think I’m lucky because the D-50 was one of the best, I never warmed to the Yamaha DX7 because it was too cumbersome with all those layers and layers of menus on a tiny little screen. I had the programmer with the D-50 which really helped. I think it’s amazing with nice analogue tones on the waveforms, I used it on so much. In later years, I was using a JV-2080 and the Roland V–Synth, they’re great. I think I’ve made the right choices.
Your own early self-compositions for JAPAN like ‘A Foreign Place’, ‘The Experience Of Swimming’ and ‘Temple Of Dawn’ indicated you had a more ambient, textural approach. Was that where your interest lay rather than conventional pop?
Yes, in JAPAN we weren’t really listening much to the current stuff at the time. What we were mainly listening to was either very ambient music, or world music and I think you can hear that come on things like ‘Tin Drum’. Ethnic music was of interest to us because of the tunings and the strange sounds of the instruments. We always loved this sense of space in music.
We used to listen to a lot of Chinese orchestral music which had a very unison sound with lots of octaves all playing the same line and a very dominant melody. We also listened to a lot of Japanese, Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern music as well… this was instead of THE HUMAN LEAGUE or GARY NUMAN *laughs*
You later worked on a number of projects with Steve Jansen under your own names, as THE DOLPHIN BROTHERS and as JBK with Mick Karn…
With THE DOLPHIN BROTHERS, it was the one point in our career where we tried to do something commercial, in a way against our better judgement.
Listening to it now, there’s a couple of tracks on the album I still love that are pretty timeless like ‘Catch The Fall’ and ‘My Winter’. But I think the rest is pretty much of its time. After that album, we quickly went back to making more experimental, alternative stuff.
More recently, you released a great 1996 live performance featuring you, Steve and Mick as a mini-album under the title of ‘Lumen’?
‘Lumen’ was one of those rare occasions where you get invited to do something and this was a show in Holland. It was an opportunity for the first time for us to focus on our instrumental music and we fleshed out the band by having Steven Wilson from PORCUPINE TREE as well.
It was just one of those things, we found out it was recorded and thought it sounded pretty good, so these things happen through chance and luck really. Nowadays, I always like to try and get a recording of a live performance.
When you founded Medium Productions in 1993, you established an outlet for your work. How do you find self-release outlets like Bandcamp? Does an artist need a conventional record label today?
These days, I make the choice to go with a label if I can. I could probably make a bit more money if I did the whole thing myself. But I would rather it reach more people, so more people get to hear it and buy it. That means I make slightly less, but that doesn’t really matter to me. The machinery that a record label has does give you a lot of headaches, but it does get the music out there and there are benefits.
Did the business side of Medium Productions ever distract you from making music?
Luckily we had Debi Zornes working for us who ran the label and that really helped us. Although we had to make all the decisions as directors, it took a bit of the pressure off. We had distributors, and once you have them in place, you just hope that they get the stuff out there.
It was diminishing returns really, it started off amazingly in terms of sales, but then eventually it goes down. It’s like anything, if you leave a long gap and do a gig, it sells really well but if you start to do a lot of gigs, it’s harder to sell tickets because people have seen it and wonder if it’s going to be different. Obviously having been with Virgin on-and-off throughout all that time, it was just nice to not have any record company expectation.
Photo by Ben Meadows
Have you any views on Spotify and streaming services?
Yes, I hate it! I can’t see how it would benefit artists who don’t have enormous record sales and I don’t see how it can benefit new artists trying to breakthrough.
I can see how it would work for entertainers and big artists, but if you’ve got to have 2000-3000 streams to make the same amount of money as a CD sale, I mean really?
What hope is there for these kids who are trying to have a career in music? It will suit the big artists because they can say “I don’t care about record sales, this will get me enough people to my shows who will buy a T-shirt”, and a T-shirt costs less to make than a CD! And I can’t stand this thing about how you can spend months making music and you’re supposed to just put it up on a site for people to have for free. I guess I’m from a generation that can’t my head around it.
For this generation, music is an accessory to their lives. You have your video games, social media and then you’ve got a bit of music. In my time when I was growing up, music was my life even before I was making music. Just going to the record store and buying a new album was such a big deal, I was happy to save pocket money to buy an album and it would be a real experience.
People in my generation still love to buy packaging and have beautifully crafted artwork, but that’s slowly fading away to this era of streaming. A lot of people’s excuses for streaming is they “go on there to listen to everything and when I find something I like, I buy it”…
I find people seem to hop though stuff and don’t listen to it properly with streaming…
You’re so right, because when I first bought an iPod, I had all my favourite music on there and I thought this was the most amazing thing. I started playing a track and about 30 seconds in, I thought I’d play something else… I was so excited about having everything on there, I kept switching from one track to another, I didn’t listen to anything!
But with this modern environment, have you managed to make social media work for you?
I have… I only got into it about a year and a half ago. I injured my knee and I was laid up for a long while recovering and I got so bored, I thought I’d try Facebook. So I gradually started to work my way around it and you could sort of tell the ok people from the nutters! *laughs*
But I noticed all these groups that were to do with my music from JAPAN and the solo projects. I was impressed by how informed they were and how keen they were about everything we’d ever done. So I got involved in that to a certain degree and found that social media really worked. People wanted to help promote things.
Making this album, I started running these auctions as I was getting rid of all this memorabilia. Because I don’t have kids and I haven’t really got anyone to leave all these things to, I’d rather they go to people who really appreciate them. I started putting up old JAPAN stage clothes, test pressings and people were paying a lot of money for it. So it was funding my album as I went along, which was brilliant. The interest was incredible, so I now use social media quite a lot.
You’re performing a synth masterclass at the Birmingham & Midland Institute at the end of March, what can attendees expect?
Photo by Debi Zornes
The masterclass at the Birmingham & Midland Institute is going to be me with a selection of gear including vintage analogue synths plus some newer stuff and software.
Basically, I’ll demonstrate the old synths and my techniques, I’ll show people how I tend to make less action on the keys but more action on the programming so you can hear how sounds evolve.
I’ll deconstruct the whole programming process that I go through so people can hear the start points and play some live stuff. Plus I’ll invite the audience to have a go if they want to try any of the old gear and do a question and answer session. It’ll be an insight into my mind and the way I work with music.
And you’re doing some shows too?
Yes, Lisen Rylander Löve who’s the main contributor on the album will be on stage with me. She’s an incredibly flexible person to have because as well as voice, she does all the electronics and saxophone so that fleshes out the sound quite nicely. We’ll have some film as well, so hopefully it will be a lot more of a production than before.
What have been your most favourite pieces of work from throughout your career?
When I get asked this, I usually go in terms of albums. The albums I like the most are the ones where there’s been a big change in direction.
So with JAPAN, my favourite albums are ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘Tin Drum’ because each one represented a huge change in the sound and the approach. If you’d heard the first two JAPAN albums, you’d agree. *laughs*
Likewise, ‘Tin Drum’ is pretty different to ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’. I suppose the big achievement is ‘Ghosts’ on ‘Tin Drum’, because it’s such an adventurous and strange piece of music that we got onto ‘Top Of the Pops’ and had a Top5 single with that. It’s something I’m really proud of.
Following on from that, on the Medium label, me and Steve Jansen made an album with a Japanese DJ named Takemura called ‘Changing Hands’. That to me is one of my favourite albums because it was a different way of working. Me and Steve normally have control over arrangements, but we gave some of that up to this DJ. They work in this hip-hop / trip-hop thing rhythmically where everything is not on the beat, it’s around the beat and it’s strange… but the combination worked really well. It’s a mesmerising, trancey album.
‘Rain Tree Crow’ is definitely one of the highlights… for me, David, Mick and Steve to have got back together and come up with something so very different was quite an achievement really. I think we all feel a certain amount of pride from that album.
And moving on to more recent times, my latest solo album 🙂
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