Interview: Japan’s Richard Barbieri new album took a very different direction during the pandemic.
Richard Barbieri played keyboards for Japan, a band packed full of virtuosos who were continually pushing the boundaries of synth-pop in the early eighties. After they split in 1982, he went on to work with art-rockers Porcupine Tree as well releasing three solo albums.
Now based in Kent, Richard is set to release his fourth solo record, Under A Spell, that was supposed to be a direct follow on from its predecessor 2017’s Planets and Personas. Then the world closed down due to a global pandemic and Under A Spell went off in a very different direction.
I think it’s fair to say this wasn’t quite the album you intended to make before the virus struck?
“It was the opposite really. I was intending to travel around Europe using different studios and different sets of musicians to make the whole process a kind of social thing. I was going to film it and I had lots of plans for larger kind of bands and ensembles to be involved. It was this big expansive thing that suddenly turned into this very introspective thing.”
So you were forced to stay in your home studio and do it yourself?
“The choice was to make music or not to make music. There was so much time, and we were so confined, I just got down to work and things just flowed quite quickly. Of course, it was very much that atmosphere was very prevailing throughout, and that had a big influence on the way the music turned out in the end.”
You’ve talked about the vivid dreams you’ve been having during lockdown that have been an inspiration for this record, but how you turn that into music?
“If you’re working with instrumental music that’s difficult to start with because you haven’t got the lyrics. You can’t tell a story, you can’t present things to the listener, so you work in another way.”
“More or less the way I’ve worked all my life with music is that you try to create atmospheres that hint at that imagery, much in the way that you would write a film score. So you’ve got the scene, and it’s how you react to that, how you create that with the sounds, how you paint that picture if you like. It’s something that I’ve always been fairly good at using sounds to create a vibe and an atmosphere.”
You’ve also talked about the title track and Lucid being the key tracks that bookend the journey the album takes you on.
“Under A Spell is more a dark Brothers Grimm tale, or a Blair Witch type vibe, where things are heard, but unseen, and there’s this feeling of things around you that you can’t quite connect with, and it’s quite an uneasy feeling. Then the last track has got a different vibe, more kind of positive, bright with more sunlight coming through and it’s trying to leave that that whole environment. This voice is kind of calling you back, but it’s more lucid, you’re more in control of what you’re doing.”
I also enjoyed Flare 2, which starts off quietly, but quickly adds some jazz elements into the mix.
“I’ve always worked with jazz musicians, funnily enough, I have this reputation for hating jazz. There are lots of jazz things I really don’t like, and I started being more experimental with my musical voices. Not worrying so much about the structure, and particular tunings, just going with what kind of felt right. It seemed to work well working with these jazz musicians as I can use them in the context that I want, and I thought it just takes the music to somewhere else.”
This is mainly an instrumental album, but you have included hints of vocals, including from Swedish singer Lisen Rylander.
“I worked with Lisen on her last album, and a few years previous to that on some live concerts, and I was really, really impressed. I was drawn to what she was doing immediately, and I thought I love this, I could really see this working with what I’m doing. She has this thing where as well as being a great saxophonist, and an experimental artist, she has this great voice.”
You co-wrote A Star Light on the album and Lisen’s other worldly vocals make it quite an eerie track.
“She sings things, it’s not in a language, I don’t know what she’s doing. She’s singing things that hint at words but they’re not words. I found that fascinating.”
You also included vocals by Steve Hogarth who fronts prog legends Marillion and given your pedigree he wouldn’t seem an obvious choice as a collaborator.
“We made an album together in 2012 called Not The Weapon But The Hand, then we made an EP after that, and we’ve been great mates for a long, long time. We did have a working relationship there and I’m actually I’ve actually lifted his voice from the album that we made. I’ve used it in a different context within this as I have done with a lot of people’s performances. He’s a lyricist and vocalist I really, really like, and I just like working with all kinds of different flavours really.”
Looking back on your years with Japan do you get a sense you are finally getting the recognition you deserve for being innovators?
“I think so amongst a lot of musicians, for sure, I’ve been amazed over the years how many musicians from all different genres have cited one album or another as a big influence for them. They’re all different, play all different instruments and they come from different kind of musical backgrounds, but they found something in those albums that inspired them.”
It must be flattering to be appreciated by your peers?
“I think especially from a musician’s point of view it was that we all four of us had very, very different approaches where we had a kind of unique way of doing things because we weren’t taught. We were self-taught, and we didn’t have any idea of musical theory as such, so we didn’t know what rules we were breaking.”
Looking back at your career I was reminded Ghosts from your 1981 album Tin Drum got to number 5 in the singles chart. It is a really unlikely hit so why do you think it remains such a timeless part of your catalogue?
“I think for that album we weren’t really listening to our contemporaries at the time, we were just listening to things like world music and avant-garde music. I think it all kind of comes together in that album. A lot of people love that track, and it’s been sampled a lot as well, I think the first one to really pick up on it was Tricky, he was really into that. We’ve had a lot of compliments over the years from musicians I don’t know if in the wider public whether it’s there, I guess it still has a presence because there’s still reissuing them aren’t they? 40 years on.”
It might not be quite what you had in mind for your next release but Under A Spell still feels like a record your fans will enjoy.
“I think it has a lot of the elements of what I’ve done over the years and for people who know my music there’s recognisable traits within it. It’s very much me, although I’d say it’s probably a sort of darker sibling of the last solo album. I think this people will still connect this with me, even though it wasn’t the album I was intending to make.”
Richard Barbieri’s Under A Spell is released on 26th February through Kscope.
Under A Spell is available on pre-order now.
You can follow Richard Barbieri on Facebook
Words by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here.
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