Steve Jansen & Richard Barbieri | Richard Barbieri, Steve Jansen
Following a brief diversion in the form of last year's Rain Tree Crow project, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri are once more pursuing their creative partnership. Paul Ireson reports on the recording of their latest album.
In the wake of last year's brief reformation of Japan under the Rain Tree Crow banner — one eponymously-titled album, a few interviews, followed shortly by another split — it took keyboardist Richard Barbieri and drummer Steve Jansen remarkably little time to release an album of their own. Stories Across Borders is an instrumental album, quite different in feel to their previous, vocal, Dolphin Brothers release, and it was in every sense an altogether more modest project than Rain Tree Crow. The budget from Venture Records was a mere £10,000, prompting Jansen and Barbieri to put together a small 16-track setup and record everything themselves.
"If you're going to make an album that you know isn't going to sell a lot, and it's not a vocal album, you can do it really cheaply," insists Richard Barbieri. This is, however, a new way of working for the pair. "We've never recorded on a small scale before; from our first [Japan] album we always had a lot of time in top studios." Nevertheless, Jansen and Barbieri seem to have coped admirably with the change of scale, and the sound of the album belies any limitations in the recording process; it's hard to imagine that working in big studios would actually have produced a better, or better sounding, album.
"We've had enough time in studios that we know what we want to achieve, and we wanted to try and do it with limited equipment," says Steve Jansen. Two tracks were actually recorded at The Townhouse and The Manor ("Virgin owned the studio, so it wouldn't cost us much and put us over our budget — also we wanted to use Mick [Karn] to record some saxophone and bass"), but other than that all recording and mixing was carried out on the Fostex E16/Soundtracs PC MIDI setup to which the budget for the album stretched.
The recording of Stories Across Borders was a somewhat extended process, being interrupted by work on Rain Tree Crow. The decision to make an instrumental album was partly practical, partly artistic, according to Jansen, "We try to alternate our recordings, in terms of types of album. Our first [Worlds In A Small Room] was instrumental, the next vocal; so this should have been instrumental. Also the record company weren't budgeting enough for a vocal album, which requires studio time. If they had said 'do another vocal album, here's the budget', we'd have done it. But we were quite happy not to. So we had the £10,000 budget — we knew what we wanted, we went to Syco and they sorted out a package for us. It was the desk, the E16, a Mac SE, and a DAT machine to master on. That was the bulk of it. We also spent our own money, taking it over £10,000, and we had our own gear too."
It was more or less at this at this point that Rain Tree Crow came along. "Literally, the deal was done and we'd bought the equipment," says Jansen. "We'd done some writing, but we hadn't got down to any recording. We started doing some work in Italy, and it was when we were over there that the Rain Tree Crow project came up. Virgin were all for it, and it took priority, so we came back over here to do that."
They resumed work before the mixing, but after their work on recording. "Rain Tree Crow finished recording in April, and we went and started our thing in Italy in June." The Italian location was chosen for very mundane reasons; an Italian record producer friend had a place where they could record, and at the time neither Jansen or Barbieri had a suitable base of their own for recording.
Obviously, working with only 16 tracks and a 16-channel desk imposed limitations. Barbieri: "Although the Soundtracs PC MIDI 16 is a small desk, it still gives you 32 inputs on mixdown — we'd have all the tape tracks, plus sequenced keyboards — so it can get quite complex at the mixing stage. But 16-track is limiting, particularly with percussion." All drums were sequenced, apart from some live percussion miked up with a Sennheiser 421. "Steve's percussion was just recorded in a little room, an ante room off the converted garage in Italy. There was one vocal as well, done in the bathroom."
"We were very limited as far as effects went," continues Barbieri. "We didn't have any compressors or noise gates, and quite a small choice of reverbs." The latter is perhaps not too great a hardship, but many would baulk at the prospect of recording an album without any compressors or noise gates. "We didn't have any trouble," insists Jansen. "There's not a lot of real bass, and what we did have was recorded in a proper studio. The keyboards were no problem. We kept the noise down with MIDI muting on the desk, and we found that was enough. Also we just had to remember where things were peaking when we mixed, and generally keep the levels down so nothing went into the red. One of the reasons we got the PC MIDI was for the MIDI muting, but it was recommended to us in any case; it proved to be really good, I liked it a lot."
The 16 tape tracks were largely taken up with Barbieri's keyboards. Although many keyboard parts were added on mixdown, sequenced with Performer running on a Mac SE, still more went down on tape. "We'd start out with a stereo rough of the kit, once the drum part was worked out, on 1 and 2, and timecode on track 16. Then Richard would gradually build up keyboard parts. Some were in stereo, with a lot in mono. If there were ideas that we knew were important, but not really necessary to get down at that stage, we'd either do a rough recording or leave them out until the mixing stage, and recreate the keyboards then."
Although done partly for practical reasons — it enabled a few keyboards to go a long way — putting keyboards down on tape brings an added benefit, according to Barbieri: "A lot of the keyboard sounds seem to take on a nicer sound when they're on tape; it's often better than running them live."
Tracks were mixed more or less as they were finished, rather than being left right until the end of the recording period. "We were mixing each track as we went along, so that we weren't leaving anything," says Barbieri. "We figured we'd never be able to recreate what we had at that point, with certain effects coming into particular channels," adds Jansen. "To have a week mixing at the end would have been a nightmare."
Working without an engineer or producer, and therefore handling all the technical aspects of a recording, can impede the creative process. Nothing dispels the creative urge faster than sorting out a technical problem. "That can be a problem," agrees Barbieri, "but doing it together helped. One of us could go into creative mode, into writing mode, and the other could be in technical mode. Whoever is working well creatively, the other can be making sure that you're not dropping in on anything, or checking up on EQs, levels and so on. Inevitably, the other's going to come up against a blank at some point, and then you swap over. It's very difficult if you're working on your own; you have whole days where you can't do anything."
The two clearly work very well together, as is demonstrated by the cohesive feel of Stories Across Borders. Although they insist that it is really an album of eight quite separate, distinct tracks, it seems to have more direction, and makes more satisfying listening, than Rain Tree Crow. "The album title comes from the way we were working," reveals Jansen. "To us each track was a different story, but because there was so much time in between, it was hardly a session. Each piece has its own atmosphere, so there was no real continuity. We couldn't think of a way of presenting the album, after the fact, that really summed it all up, so the title came from the way we recorded it. The song titles are suggested by the moods."
Throughout the album, Barbieri's eerie, organic keyboard textures are underpinned by Jansen's distinctive rhythms. One of the unique features of Barbieri's playing, which this album certainly demonstrates, is his ability to create and use sounds that in other hands would all too easily become effects or mere atmospheres. Here, however, they relate to, and are an integral part of, a coherent musical structure. There are also contributions from Mick Karn, on the tracks recorded at The Townhouse and The Manor, and Jansen plays clarinet on one track. "I was palmed off with this clarinet, for about a fiver, last year, and just enjoyed picking it up and playing it. We had chords down on tape for this track, and just thought we'd try the clarinet. It was minimal, but in keeping with the track's build-up of little phrases and keyboard parts."
The eight tracks came together largely through improvisation. "We each had two tracks prepared, and the other four were improvised when we got together," says Barbieri.
"The stuff in Italy was definitely 'plug in and see what happens'," adds Jansen. "We'd lay some drums down, and that would suggest a mood or whatever. We work on an emotional level, rather than articulating what a song's about, otherwise you're just kidding yourself." Barbieri: "I think we respond quite well to the direction that a track can take. It can go in a different direction if Steve does something quite drastic, then I'll go in that direction because I know it's working. Singers, on the other hand, are very adamant about what a song's about, and they relate sounds to their words. I relate sounds to basic things like elements, colours or textures. It can be blue, it can be cold, it can be warm. You can't say that's the meaning of the track, but you can say 'I feel that this is a very hot, humid atmosphere'. You think in tones and textures."
So when you're working up a track, would you think 'this needs a humid sound', and if you don't have one, then go and create one? "Yes I will, or I'll look for something in that area. I work well when people give me those kind of guidelines, I'm used to working in that way. I program a lot of new sounds — I'm trying to slow down on that actually, because I found that, over a whole album, every track would have so many sounds. I never repeat them. It was coming to a point where I was working non-stop on sounds and not thinking about playing.
"People describe a sound they want, and you'll know that the Prophet is going to work for that, for example. Which is not to say that you couldn't find something good on another keyboard, but when you're working under pressure, you go for what you'll be able to get a sound most easily on. If you want something hard you might go to the VFX. If you want something airy you'll go to the Prophet — you hardly ever get white noise on a digital keyboard. But having said that, the digital keyboards that I like, I like because I can work with them in quite an analogue fashion." Would you say that was true of the DX7II? "No. That was just there, it was hanging around and it's always useful for something. I've never got into the programming of that, but I'd really like to. It's a lot of work."
Noticing a slight bias towards American equipment in the keyboard and sampler line-up, I suggest to Barbieri that American-designed synths tend to be better in terms of operating systems and modulation possibilities (the VFX is a good example), whereas Japanese equipment scores in that it tends to feature more significant technological breakthroughs — FM, for example. "I agree with that, although I actually think that the American products are more inventive and creative. I would always prefer to work with American products, except they're not as reliable. Japanese stuff never breaks down, but I have always tended to go with an equal American/Japanese setup." Barbieri has recently been trying out the Korg Wavestation, which he feels is "very satisfying. It's definitely for me."
"We were very limited as far as effects went. We didn't have any compressors or noise gates, and quite a small choice of reverbs."
Effects are very much an integral part of Barbieri's keyboard sounds. "I've always worked that way. With all the early analogue stuff, I always processed my sounds, and if you took away the processing, the sound didn't work. It wouldn't have any magic to it. So I'm very into on-board digital effects — if I didn't have them, I'd just do what I do with the Prophet, which is put it through a stereo effects processor so I can do the things I need to do to it, even if it's just as subtle as splitting the signal and giving it a bit more space.
"I'd really like to get an Eventide H3000SE; or the new TC Electronics stereo processor, but they're expensive. I just use SPX90s, Quadraverbs...," "the noisy ones," elaborates Jansen, "...but sometimes, because of the relatively bad quality of the sound, you get something interesting. I like to degrade the sound quite a lot. That's the way I tend to work, making big sounds small, and making the most of small sounds. Anyone can get a huge lush string orchestra. If you make that very small, you get something interesting and weird. Just like if you take a very tiny sine wave melody, and elaborate on it, it can become something really overwhelming.
"I'll always go through about three effects. I usually go through two delay lines, and then through this great Roland SBF325 stereo flanger that I got ages ago; I think it's quite popular now, because I hear it on a lot of things. After that I go through a multi-effects processor." Always through the flanger? "Yes, I always use subtle flanging, or chorusing, just to get some movement. I think it's important that the sounds move, for me. It all started from my technical inability to play something really interesting, or something technical. I started to make more of the sound. A more technical, soloing synth player needs a blander sound — it has to be bland in order to define the changes of notes, and what he's doing. For me it's not. More movement in the sound, less in the hands. I've got into that kind of process, though I guess my playing's improved somewhat, over the years." Jansen shakes his head, grinning. "It doesn't limit me in what I do," continues Barbieri, "I don't feel that I would need to play better to work the way I do, but I would like to be able to sit down at a piano and play something complex, which I can't."
All the drums on the album, apart from some live percussion, were programmed by Jansen using MOTU's Performer, triggering samples on his Emax and Emu III samplers. Though an accomplished player, Jansen has no problem with throwing away the drumsticks and getting straight down to programming parts in Performer's event list editor.
"There was simply no opportunity to use live drums. The only chance we had was in the studio, but we didn't have any time then. I don't play parts in from a keyboard and quantise — I do it by numbers. I know what I want to hear, work it out in my head and type it in." This is quite an impressive conceptual leap, cutting out any real time element and creating decent drum parts via an event list. "I just find that playing, quantising and looping a part is not clear enough. I know what I want to hear, and I know how to achieve it numerically. I feel I can get it, and if I'm out, if I'm wrong, then I can edit it numerically until I get the feel want. It takes a long learning process, but it's the same as a composer writing music without hearing it. Also there's a certain pleasure involved in achieving what you hear in your head without playing anything."
The Emu samplers have been around a while, originally acquired for touring. "They're just the machines that I have," says Jansen. "I've used the S1000, and it's a great machine, I just haven't made the changeover. I'm not entirely happy using the Emax [both are early models, not Emax IIs] — it's OK for snare drums, short percussive sounds, but it's not the best on the market. Pretty good though."
His sample library consists largely of his own drum sounds, perhaps one of the reasons why it's harder to guess that all the drums weren't live. "I have taken some stuff from the Sonic Sounds library, and when I've been in studios I've sampled stuff from producers. I've tried a few sample CDs too, but in the end I come back to my own samples, whether it's because I prefer the sounds or because the quality's better I don't know."
With Stories Across Borders behind them, Jansen and Barbieri's next project will be a full band, with guitarist David Torn and singer Robbie Asceto, both veterans of David Sylvian's Secrets Of The Beehive tour. The pair are currently writing new material, but haven't taken things any further as yet. Jansen: "It's difficult to fit David and Robbie in at the moment, as they're based in America, so tapes are going back and forth." "But once we know the idea works well," continues Barbieri "we'll make a concerted effort to get together and start recording."
No-one is quite sure what the band will sound like — "we're still in the early stages, all contributing styles, but it's not the definitive style of the group until we all work on it together" — but the new project is already marked by a desire to get back to basics. "I think that the music we've been involved in has been over-complicated, especially in the recording process," says Barbieri. "We want to have a basic group setup where we can just go and gig, and go into a studio and record quickly, with a minimum of overdubs. Just basic, song-based stuff."
This will mean a very different way of working from that employed on Stories Across Borders. "For this album we recorded a lot of stuff on the Mac," says Jansen. "It's as good as putting it on tape when it comes to keyboards. Richard plays a part, we record it, we play it round a few times, see if it's what we want. If it's not, we can try a few more takes, and choose the best one. It gives us options without wearing out the tape heads. At the end of the day you can have 10 versions of the same track, choose the one that's best, put it on tape."
"We'll leave all that behind for the new project," picks up Barbieri, "record it live with a minimum of overdubs. Obviously we'll make sure the piece works, every overdub will be important. It'll be within a carefully-worked out structure, which I think is a feature of the best pieces of music. Because of the technology, you tend to get carried with little details and subtleties. At the end of the day, the kind of music I like to listen to is quite simple." So what kind of music do you listen to? "Todd Rundgren, Bob Dylan, Cocteau Twins, Cure, Talk Talk, Blue Nile. I don't like much of what I hear of current chart stuff. None of it strikes me as being interesting."
Working with a band, and writing vocal as opposed to instrumental music, is of course nothing new to Jansen and Barbieri, and if anything they prefer working on vocal material to instrumental. "Instrumental music is fun, and fulfilling at the time," says Jansen, "but you grow away from the pieces themselves after you've done them because it's almost like an exercise in music. Songs, on the other hand, are deeper because of the lyrical content. I actually write a lot of poetry, and that whole side of it appeals to me. It's just that I don't think I should be singing; I'm not happy with the idea. Neither of us want to be front men. But I find the actual writing of songs quite easy, putting vocals to music. Lyrics are the worst part, because if you have a vocal melody but no lyrics, you're very restricted. It's a bastardisation of what a pure expression of lyrics should be, so really lyrics should always come first. That's why most pop music is so awful. Talk Talk, for example, are different, because the lyrics are floated on top of the music, like poetry; I like that approach.
"I think it's a lot more satisfying working on songs,' agrees Barbieri. "I like writing music for vocalists because somebody else is going to shape that piece. If I'm composing music solo I get bored, because it's me and I know what I'm going to do, and that's why it's important that we get this group going. I prefer working with people than solo. You can get too wrapped up in yourself."
Stories Across Borders is available on Virgin Records' Venture label.
Interview by Paul Ireson
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