The Richard Barbieri Interview
The Richard Barbieri Interview:
The Porcupine Tree and ex-Japan, Rain Tree Crow, No-Man, Dolphin Brothers, Indigo Falls, JBK and countless other collaborations, Keyboard player Richard Barbieri speaks to 2-UpTop's Jim Powell
Can you remember the moment when you first wanted to be a musician and what made the keyboards/synth the most appealing instrument for you??
When I first starting going to concerts I guess. I liked all the strange gear and sounds and, being quite reserved, maybe lurking in the shadows with lots of keyboards appealed to me.
Who are your main influences for your playing style?
Initially it was Brian Eno, a self confessed non musician, who managed to combine quite abstract sound with pop music.
It pointed to a way of working creatively within a group without having to be technically proficient.
Nowadays my influences are far more abstract. Environmental sounds, places, emotions, films etc...
Any particular favourite film scores/soundtracks?
Vengelis's "Bladerunner" is amazing. Kubrik's films always have inspired soundtracks and the "sound design" in David Lynch's films work really well. I love Ennio Morricone as well.
You are currently touring the USA with Porcupine Tree. How is that going?
Hard to gauge really. This time out we are playing secondary or even tertiary markets that we haven't really worked much before.
Texas, Tennessee, New Mexico, North Carolina etc.. Still managing to get a good crowd in for the shows, so it bodes well for future visits.
You've spent a lot of your career collaborating with the two Steves, Wilson and Jansen. Are they the musicians that most reflect your own feelings towards music?
I have a good musical dialogue with both. They are very much aware of my style and approach and we share a love of electronic music. They both work well with sound and can appreciate the subtleties of the recording process.
You first found fame with your first band Japan. After two fairly heavy albums, you brought out ‘Quiet Life', which was very synth driven, to much acclaim. Was that a natural progression or was it a case of scrapping what you've done so far, to maybe reach a wider audience?
That album represented a massive change and yes we more or less ditched the sound of the previous recordings. A wider audience wasn't the incentive but we did tap into a very contemporary sound and it was the first time we really felt we had made a polished, complete and consistently strong album. It was also the first time that the keyboards and synthesizers were strongly featured. A very enjoyable time was had making that album.
You all looked very cool and the timing for what was going on in the British fashion and music scene was perfect. I have to admit that when I went to the barbers with my best friend, we used to take a picture of the back of the ‘Tin Drum' album cover with us. He always asked for a David Sylvian and I always asked for a Richard Barbieri, "but keep my rats-tail on!
Interesting. The rats-tail never occurred to me. Too late to try now.
Was the then guitarist Rob Dean chucked out of the band for that perm or did he leave because the guitar parts were becoming less and less frequent?
Every band seems to have a member with big curly hair don't they? Not quite a sackable offense though. The guitar was featuring less and less and it was probably the right time for Rob to move on to other projects where his obvious talents could be used more. There was no animosity, we all loved Rob.
Is it right, that by then all four members of the band were playing keyboards in the studio?
No, not at that time. On the next album "Gentleman take Polaroids" David played a few keyboard overdubs, mainly on tracks that were composed that way like "My New Career" and "Nightporter"
On "Tin Drum" David and I more or less shared keyboard, synth and programming duties and Steven played any part that was percussively critical for obvious reasons.
I don't think Mick ever played a keyboard on any Japan recording.
Japan had a very unique style and mature sound. Do you think that's why the band has always kept its credibility, more than some of the other bands from around that time, who sometimes preferred style over substance?
We ventured way outside of the musical trends of the time with "Tin Drum" It had an original sound and I think the musicality of it surprised many producers and musicians at the time, primarily because we were still in our very early twenties.
Since our motivation was neither money nor fame, we were free to concentrate on music outside of the commercial norm and probably people respected that.
Since then, reluctance to reform for financial reasons or get mixed up in any 80's nostalgia events has kept the credibility.
The band broke up at the height of your fame and popularity. Was that you thinking of going out at the top or was the in-band tension becoming too much?
In short, the latter.
We did go out at the top, but that wasn't what I wanted.
If you asked each member of the band why that happened you would get a different answer from each person. Without doubt problems between David and Mick came to a head. Ego, rivalry, girlfriend, personal ambitions, musical differences etc....Take your pick.
In nearly every band or group of people there will be some who are more self interested and personally ambitious than others.
Some may be happy to be a part of the whole and work for the common cause.
The four of you got back together for the Rain Tree Crow project in 1991, which went down well with critics and fans alike. Personally I feel that half of the album sounds stunning, while the other half feels unfinished. Was the lack of funding from the record company or the fact that David Sylvian was taking over the reigns too much, that the project didn't really meet its natural conclusion?
A lot of people have made the same comment about it appearing half finished. In fact it's a combination of fully arranged songs and pieces where we improvised more and worked in a minimal and abstract way. Those tracks are almost like parts from a film score and conjure up strong images for me.
It did reach it's natural conclusion, though already well documented problems set in just before the mixing stage.
David mixed the album with Steve Nye, and though we all would've wanted to be involved, I haven't any complaints about the final mixes.
Why didn't you call yourselves Japan instead of Rain Tree Crow?
David had a problem with that.
Yourself and Steve Jansen have always played on both David Sylvian and Mick Karn releases. During the times when relations were strained between the two, was it sometimes awkward for you, collaborating with one and then the other?
Not really, if you get on and relate to other people who have differences there's no reason to take sides
Sadly it was announced earlier this year that Mick Karn had cancer and was also in financial trouble. How is he currently doing?
He's back in London now and living very near the hospital where he is receiving treatment. Despite his serious condition he remains positive and wants to make some new music.
The online proceeds from Porcupine Tree's live album ‘Atlanta' sales are all being donated to Mick Karn; is that correct?
That's right. We've raised substantial funds and I'd like to thank everyone who has contributed by buying the download and also those who donated directly.
link to Porcupine Tree Atlanta album purchase is above, and if you would like to donate straight to Mick Karn, please click on this link: http://www.mickkarn.net/index.htm
While many 80's bands have come back out of the woodwork to reunite and tour, and in a lot of cases, playing their ‘signature albums' in their entirety, I've never heard any rumours about Japan. Has there ever been times where you've been tempted, and if you ever were, what Japan album would you want to play from start to finish??
Never been tempted with the format you suggest. It's always a bit sad when bands do this.
The motivation is purely financial of course. If these groups were so keen to get back together, then why don't they go into a studio and make new music together ? Because that wouldn't generate the same money.
As to working together again - my position hasn't changed since 1983, I've always been happy to work with David, Steve and Mick in any combination.
Some fans of purely your 80's music, might have been surprised when you played with the sometimes heavy, but very melodic nd progressive rock of Porcupine Tree; but in Japan's early days, there were traces of prog-rock; you've been involved in countless oriental influenced collaborations; you've also been involved in ambient and trip-hop ventures with No-Man and the Jansen/Barbieri/Karn albums (and especially the superb ism album), and your two solo albums have many influences, even sometimes tribal.
Does this reflect your own varied music tastes?
In some cases yes, but not all.
For example in the early 80's we didn't pay much attention to the contemporary music scene. We were listening to things like world / ethnic music and even some classical, neither of which I particularly enjoyed, yet very interesting sonically and rhythmically. It's not hard to spot the influences on Tin Drum and subsequent solo releases.
It's not always the case that the music or artists you enjoy will be an influence on your own work.
After playing with Steve Wilson's No-Man project (with Jansen and Karn) and then performing on the first couple of Porcupine Tree albums, did Steve Wilson ask you to join as a full-time band member and writer, or did you start dropping him hints that you were keen to do so?
Steven needed a band in order to perform live and also wanted a band sound for future recordings. I joined in 1993.
Left to his own devices, Steven would happily write everything but over the years I've presented him with demos and ideas, some of which make it onto the albums. For the last 10 years the band have had group jams and writing sessions that have produced material for the albums. Steven is still the principal songwriter but there is a lot more collaborative writing these days.
How do you feel about the term Prog-Rock?
With Porcupine Tree now being alongside and arguably ahead of maybe the likes of Dream Theatre, Oceansize, Amplifier and Marillion as the biggest and the best of the batch, and definitely with universally loved bands like Muse and Radiohead openly sounding prog-rock, the stigma attached to that term seems to have been lost along the way doesn't it?
Yes, prog isn't such a dirty word these days. I think any artist making ambitious music without restraints or rules is essentially being progressive in their endeavours and Radiohead is a good example.
It used to be called "pompous" but now I think even young kids want something more adventurous to listen to. Muse is a case in point.
You've performed with Marillion's Steve Hogarth's band H. What was that like?
Really enjoyable. Steve is a great friend of mine. Against all the odds and with little or no budget he managed to assemble an 8 piece band of very talented musicians (all with different backgrounds and musical styles) and go out on the road to promote his own album and the music of the members of the band.
He did this with a different line up 3 times ! When you factor in musician's busy schedules and availability, it's quite amazing really.
Your last solo album ‘Stranger Inside' was an instrumental masterpiece in our eyes, with eerily atmospheric tracks, mood-swings and time-changes aplenty, lovely mood pieces, and a lot of up-tempo tunes with great beats and in particular, drum beats.
Any plans for another solo album in the future?
Thanks for the kind words.
There is going to be a reissue of the first album "Things Buried" out on K-Scope early next year. It will come with a bonus cd of new material, live tracks and a cover version of Japan's "Experience of Swimming" and Porcupine Tree's "Idiot Prayer"
What are the your career highlights so far?
There have been plenty. To mention a few - playing 2 nights at the Budokan in Tokyo to 28,000 people at the age of twenty is pretty special.
"Tin Drum" staying in the album charts for a year.
And after so many years of struggling, finally getting back in the top 30 charts all over Europe and the States with Porcupine Tree is pretty amazing.
In the next couple of months we play two special concerts to close our current touring cycle. Both historic venues - Radio City Music Hall in New York and The Royal Albert Hall in London.
First single ever bought?
Beatles, can't remember which song.
First album ever bought?
First album bought for me as a young kid was The Beatles - Revolver. Or Rubber Soul, can't remember now.
First album I bought myself - could've been "Electric Warrior" by T Rex. Can't be 100% sure.
Last album bought?
Massive Attack - "Heligoland"
What did you think of it?
I really liked it. I think as good as "Mezzanine" though for most people and the press in particular, that album won't be bettered. It's difficult when you've made a real classic that becomes the "coffee table" album of the moment. Portishead had the same problem, the first album was a classic and though the most recent one is really interesting, people haven't taken to it in the same way.
Are you a vinyl, CD, iTunes or mp3 man?
A little bit of everything there.
What are your five favourite albums you have played on?
1 - Japan - "Tin Drum"
2 - Rain Tree Crow - "Rain Tree Crow"
3 - Porcupine Tree - "In Absentia"
4 - Jansen / Barbieri / Takemuara - "Changing Hands"
5 - Porcupine Tree - "The Incident"
Desert Island/Isle Of Mann Discs - What 5 albums would you take, that you weren't involved with?
That's really tough.
1 - Talk Talk - "Spirit of Eden"
2 - Roxy Music - "For your Pleasure"
3 - Pink Floyd - "Dark Side of the Moon"
4 - Brian Eno - "Another Green World"
5 - Lou Reed - "Berlin"
You have played with some of the best vocalists (David Sylvian, Steve Hogarth, Steve Wilson) and definitely some of the best musicians out there ( Robert Fripp, Ruichi Sakamoto, Steve Wilson, Gavin Harrison, Holgar Czukay, Mick Karn, Steve Jansen, Colin Edwin and Mel Collins), but what would be your fantasy band?
Like any fantasy, it probably wouldn't really work out the way you think it will in real life.
For example , and including those not with us anymore.
Jaco Pastorius - Bass
Stewart Copeland - Drums
Jeff Buckley - Vocals
Jeff Beck - Guitar
Stevie Wonder - Keyboards
................Hang on, that might just work !
Porcupine Tree's live shows are not only an event musically, but the visual aspect is also breathtaking and link-in with the music superbly.
Are you a fan of a good live slideshow?
Yes, the visuals are really important and we have our artistic collaborator Lasse Hoile constantly working on new ideas for films.
The sound and visuals are synched perfectly and it's been working well for us.
First gig attended?
Queen at the Rainbow, early seventies.
First gig played and its abiding memory?
Can't remember, but either a local youth club or pub.
I have live recordings from all those early gigs.
Have you ever thought to make those first gigs you have on tape, available to the public?
I haven't. They sound pretty terrible.
What bands did you support when you were starting out?
The Damned, Osibisa!, The Fabulous Poodles, Jim Capaldi / Steve Winwood, Blue Oyster Cult
Best gig played?
Open Air show in Quebec with Porcupine Tree, around 2005 I think. It looked like we were going to pull the show because of equipment problems but at the last minute everything worked out and the gig went really well. The sound was amazing for an outdoor show and we played as the sun was setting to around 5000 people.
Favourite gig venue?
I like Hammersmith Odeon, London though it's very grubby backstage. The Nokia theater in NYC is nice and the Olympia in Paris is beautiful.
Favourite Radio Show?
Just a Minute - BBC Radio 4
Favourite tour cuisine?
Favourite tour drinks?
Sake, Dark Rum
Growing up in South London, what football team did you support?
Millwall. Doing very well at the moment.
As a Millwall fan then, can you remember going to your first Millwall game and any lasting memories from that? (I know I have when I first watched Pompey playing Millwall at The Den!!!!!!!!!!)
It's not the most hospitable environment is it ? My Dad used to take me when I was a kid. At that time the star players were Keith Weller, Derek Possee, Harry Kitchener, Eamon Dunphy, Harry Cripps etc....
And who have been your favourite Millwall players and managers from down the years??
We had a couple of seasons in the old first division in the late eighties with a strikeforce of Teddy Sheringham and Tony Cascarino, and managed by John Docherty. That was as good as it ever got.
Who would you consider ‘playing away' from the missus with? (hopefully with her consent):
Who would you consider turning gay with? (hopefully with their consent):
Heroes in Life:
All those around the world who dedicate their lives to the welfare and protection of animals.