Photo by Fin Costello.

Low Key Man
Fan Library, July 1982. p. 28-30.

"I don't think I've ever done a a proper interview on my own in England..." Thus spake Richard Barbieri, keyboard maestro and erstwhile bank clerk of this parish. More so than Steve, he's the piggy-in-the-middle, the anonymous face of Japan who was always quietly ignored and left to potter around his knobs and dials.

Mild-mannered and artistic, Richard's coolly confident of his abilities and firmly serious about his musical endeavours. His untapped knowledge of the band and its component parts provides the freshest and most objective angle on the Japan Circle -- perhaps the very reason that he has had few chances to analyse their actions. Bu he likes it that way...

"It's kind of nice, in a way, being the anonymous figure. The last couple of weeks I've been recognised quite a bit, probably due to Top of the Pops, but apart from that it very rarely happens. Which I quite like really. People are always asking questions about me now, because they don't really hear much. Suits me fine."

The Early Days:

Richard tended to err on the side of caution, staying on at school to do "O" - levels, then getting a "proper job" in a bank for a year. He still thinks this hindered his maturing process, that the others, "came of age" before him. But he soon took the courageous (for him) step of leaving a secure, normal job, going on the dole and choosing to play keyboards with his friends.

Barbieri: "I didn't know anything about it really, and no-one else did either, I didn't have any sort of technical background whatsoever. It was only when I started playing synths that I felt any confidence at all, only then that I could contribute something interesting. And I'd say that was about four or five months before the first LP, around the time of the deal."

It was Richard's synthetic textures on the Hansa albums that cause so much of the argument about contradictory, confusing musical mixtures -- hardly anyone else used electronics in the same way at that time. But his style was then at an embryonic stage.

Richard claims Dave was the only individual aware of what he was doing at the start and, like him, Richard would disown everything he did up to, "Quiet Life." Visually, he fitted in with the overall image, dyeing his hair electric blue on occasions (usually to match his jacket!) but adopting an unfussy appearance along with Rob before the rest. The white surgeons jacket he wore onstage prompted the observation that he, "manned his battery of keyboards like some thoughtful railway signalman." Rather apt...

Fan Library: What sort of people have influenced you?

Barbieri: "Keyboard wise...more recently, mostly traditional musics as far as sound, melody and arrangements go. When I first started out my main influence was Brian Eno, hew was my hero in those days, and I think he's done a lot for African traditional music, and Talking Heads. And also things like Eric Satie...the kind of things we did with, 'Nightporter,' and, 'Despair.' They've been a very strong influence. I can't say I'm influenced by anything that's around today, 'cos we never take enough interest, I think if you take too much interest in what's happening now then you're at a loss really, the more diverse your influences are, the more original the material you come up with."

Fan Library: You like to look outside the boundaries of your own situation?

Barbieri: "Yes, because that's how the whole idea of a fashion comes about -- so many people in the same kind of environment being influence by each other until it all becomes one thing. I think we've been influencing a lot of people lately, I've heard a few things."

Fan Library: Does that surprise you?

Barbieri: "No, it doesn't. I think they're more influenced by individuals in the band -- I don't think anybody had ever sounded like us or has that overall sound, but you can pick out certain parts, especially drums and bass."

Fan Library: Are you working with any Japanese musicians or staying away because all the others are doing so?

Barbieri: "I haven't stayed away on purpose, it's just that way things are being recorded, there's always been a keyboard player there for the purpose, like Riuichi has always played keyboards on Akiko's album, and Masami Tshchiya (of Ippu-Do) had all the keyboards put on before he came over. It's interesting, I popped down to the studios to listen to what they were doing. It's great, 'cos Masami's still keeping all the traditional elements of Japanese music, whereas other people are all going very technical."

Fan Library: Were you involved with David's solo single?

Barbieri: "He asked me to play keyboards, to come in at a later stage, but I refused, not in a bad way, but because I prefer to be involved. I didn't feel it'd be useful for me to add something to the end, and he appreciated that."

Fan Library: Is that the way you like to work -- being involved from the start?

Barbieri: "Even if I'm only playing a small part on it, at least to be involved from the start is essential, so I can feel something, see how things are progressing. To come in totally cold to a situation, start playing, is hard for me to do. I don't think I'd ever be a session player, it'd have to be involvement in a project of some sort. It's too small a part to play. And you can't compare it to the bass and drums because that is the structure of the song."

Photo by Fin Costello.

Fan Library: What is it you're doing at the moment with this Swedish band?

Barbieri: "I was asked to produce this band in Sweden, 'cos they were impressed by the sound on, 'Tin Drum,' which we co-produced -- I'd say me and Dave produced more than the others to a certain extent -- and they wanted me to produce their album. I listened to a couple of their LPs, which I wasn't very impressed with, but I thought I'd go over and meet them, talk to them.

And I was quite surprised, I got on really well with them -- and we don't get on well with many people. And the whole situations seemed to me that they were at the same stage as we were after, 'Obscure Alternatives,' they're not exactly pleased with what they've done in the past, they're ready to do something a little more interesting. I think it'll be worthwhile.

Also I'm writing at the moment, and I didn't want to spend months on end just sitting in a room writing, because it's a very lonely and depressing thing to do, so I thought this weld be a good chance to do something creative and have a break as well."

Fan Library: What's the name of the band, is it unpronounceable?!

Barbieri: "It almost is! They're going to change their name if they release the album outside Sweden, but they're already quite popular there. I think they normally sell the equivalent of a silver album, and considering there's more people in London than in the whole of Sweden, that's pretty good. They're called Lustans Lackejar and they're just trying to think of a different name!"

Fan Library: What sort of music are they playing?

Barbieri: "The music they've done in the past is a type of disco, modern disco type music. But after I'd talked to them, it seemed they wanted to do something totally different, more acoustic sounding, which is obviously what we were doing on, 'Tin Drum.' So whether or not it's for the best or worst, I think it's worth trying."

Fan Library: What sort of material are you writing?

Barbieri: Probably more middle and far Eastern, although there's always going to be a strong Chinese and Japanese influence in what we do from now on, but I share with Mick an interest in Turkish music, and I've also go interest in traditional Spanish music, which is very Middle Eastern, because of the Moors who went over there in the 15th century. That's quite interesting. And I really love Indian music.

I'm just writing music basically from feeling. I'm not really thinking about it. The main difference between myself and the others is the band at the moment is that I'm trying to get to a point where I don't think too deeply about what I'm doing.

If I have an idea, I'd like to use that idea in its crudest form, without processing it and using it in a different way and thinking how it could be used here, spending hours and hours on it. I'm just trying music by instinct, just putting things down and keeping them. It seems that all music today is made in a calculating way, it's made with the brain, and it's appreciated by people in their mind as well. It can only get to a level where you make it from just a feeling, and people can appreciated it so it can go straight to the soul rather than thinking about it too much.

I hope to be using mostly female vocals on the album, probably nobody known, just various traditional singers from different countries. I don't think I'll have that completed until towards the end of the year. I'm not in a particular rush."

Photo by Steve Rapport.

Fan Library: Are you doing that on your own?

Barbieri: "At the moment, yeah. Also the way I write is probably different as well, because when David writes a song he'll write a sparse arrangement, then he'll give the song to us and we'll be free to do what we like. When I write a song I tend to want to arrange everything myself and have more control, so it would be unfair to impose that on the others, but if I did it that way I'd lose total control of what I was doing.

I'm also trying to put together a kind of catalogue of film music I want to write, just various pieces, because there's a few people now who are interested in using our music for films. That really is one of my main interests, writing film scores."

Fan Library: You've already done some atmosphere music -- for Mick's restaurant.

Barbieri: "Yeah, it worked quite well. The new stuff will be similar. Although I don't want to spend too much time writing; I've written a couple of things for Japan before, but it's very lonely, you can just work day and night on something...I can really appreciate what Dave goes through, 'cos there's so many doubts that crop up, you need another person to give you encouragement. I played some of the stuff I did to Steve the other day and he thought it was really great, so that made me really happy, it made a lot of difference."

Fan Library: If and when Japan do record something else, it must benefit from all these things you're all doing now?

Barbieri: "Yeah. But I hope we don't branch out too far. I can't imagine us recording anything together at this point in time. Hopefully early in the new year we'll be able to do something, do an album. I'm quite sure we can. It just depends -- it becomes very hard to compromise when you've got four people. When people get stronger ideas about what they want to do, it becomes harder to do that, especially if you're friends as well, 'cos you tend to say more then normal, stress the point more."

Fan Library: So you think it's becoming more difficult to find something you're all happy with?

Barbieri: "Maybe. It just depends. At the moment, we might all have different ideas about how we want to arrange or write a song, but then something that always seems to happen with us is that by the time we get together for the next album, our ideas might gell, we'll end up in roughly the same way of thinking. We were at the point of a split after, "Alternatives," as we were after, "Polaroids," and our best work has always followed..."

Fan Library: Is it proving difficult to pace things at the moment?

Barbieri: "Yeah. But I think it's probably working quite well, because by the time we get to do another album -- and I actually believe we can make a better album than, 'Tin Drum' -- I think if there are enough things going on individually, gathering up influences, we could do that but there's obviously a lot of problems at the moment, mostly personal, probably a few disagreements over arrangements of songs, things like that."

Fan Library: But if you've survived this long, you'll probably come through.

Barbieri: "It's quite possible. I hope so. I think we're all stronger as a unit that individually really, musically anyway. I've just got this feeling that it could happen, we could make that important album because we've been together so long. It all depends on the circumstances, how much people are keen on what they're doing solo-wise. As people have said, myself and Steve aren't in a position to do much about it really, so we're just getting on with the things we're interested in."

Fan Library: What's been the highlight of the past five years for you?

Barbieri: "I think the, 'Tin Drum,' album, and, 'Ghosts,' at number 5 in the charts. I think it's the best thing that Dave's written, and as far as my contribution to Japan goes, I think that's the best work I've done, so I'm particularly pleased about that, and, "Tin Drum's,' success. That is our best achievement, though not necessarily the happiest times we've had. Probably the happiest period for Japan was just after, 'Quiet Life,' it was fun, then we did a really good Japanese tour. grow up!"

Fan Library: Do you enjoy touring?

Barbieri: "Yeah, I do. Maybe we don't tour as much as we should, I don't know. I enjoy it, but I get bored with it easily, more than Mick or Steve would. I'm kind of in the middle between Dave not liking it and Mick and Steve loving it. But that last tour of Japan was a success, for us anyway, it's when people stopped screaming and actually listened. You don't know what it means just to have a Japanese audience sitting there listening and applauding. When we were in Tokyo we went to a Talking Heads concert, and we were so jealous of the audience they had!

The next time we got to Japan, we're going to avoid playing the Budokan, it's hopeless playing that place. Hopefully we can do four or five smaller places. It's strange walking out there -- it's not really like playing at all. Our fans use to be fanatical -- them being Japanese it's probably more appreciative I suppose."

Fan Library: What do you think the future really holds for Japan?

Barbieri: "It's probably at this moment in time that we're at our most separate in ideas. The very fact that we're not working together for a few months helps, we can get that out of our system more and come back together -- probably. The problems have all been since the British tour, which hasn't been helped by certain articles...which have lowered the standard a bit. It's worrying from my and Steve's points of view -- we don't want Japan turned into a kind of gossipy joke. All the letters we get now are asking questions along those lines.

I think probably the next year will decide. It's a bit boring about the next single though, I'd be more content to leave, 'Ghosts,' as a success, not to release anything else for a while. There's always a point where you lose a certain amount of control..."

Cause for cautious optimism? If it was down to Richard, he'd hold the reins and steer things back on course once more. But, as he says, he's playing the waiting game again...though, if it all fell through, he could always go back to court. For Mr. Barbieri, whilst not locked in creative ivory-tinkling, is a qualified tennis coach...!

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