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On studio, stage work, and future solo projects

Japan have made a name for themselves over the last few years as one of the most interesting bands on the UK pop scene. Despite their popular appeal, their approach to studio and stage work differs greatly from that of the average rock band. Keyboard player Richard Barbieri explained to E&MM how the band works, what its influences are, and how solo projects feature in the plans of each member of the band in the immediate future. Finally, we review one date in what is planned as Japan's last world tour.

The Oriental flavour comes about from an interest we've had in Japanese and Chinese traditional music over the past year in particular. We've picked up that interest from visiting and playing in Japan four or five times, and gradually we've become fascinated by the culture and the traditional as opposed to the modern technological music of Japan.

That doesn't mean we're not aware of the ways they're using electronics nowadays, we've been in touch with the Yellow Magic Orchestra and Ippu Do and so on for a long time. David Sylvian our lead vocalist has been working with Riuichi Sakamoto (for instance on the 'Bamboo House' single) and he's just returned along with Steve Jansen our drummer from YMO's concert tour; now we're all very interested in their system of headphone monitoring on stage, it's just like listening to a record at home!

We take most of our influences from classical or traditional music nowadays though. To be honest we can't see any good coming from listening to other bands at the moment; if you listen to diverse types of music, to traditional music or to Frank Sinatra, you're more likely to come up with something original, rather than just becoming part of musical fashion.

In avoiding these fashions we're aware of the dangers of being tied down to something we've created ourselves instead; but I don't think the name of the band, for instance, limits us in any way. The Japanese influences are more on the sound than on the methods of composition, and when we make an album we try to give it a specific sound. On 'Tin Drum' we'd sometimes spend a whole day on one synth sound until it was perfect, and then the sound itself would influence the way the composition went along.

We've tended to work that way since the group was formed. We all knew each other in school about twelve years ago and more or less went straight into the group when we left. The line-up hasn't changed since then, although David has started to play more keyboards as well as singing recently. Steve plays a Tama kit, sometimes a Simmons SDS V electronic kit with the tom-toms in particular used on stage, and also African and Indian drums and marimba.

Mick Karn has two Wal basses, designed by Percy Jones who's played with Brand X and must be our favourite bassist. Mick's also got a Travis Bean bass, again fretless, and also plays African flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, Chinese oboe and so on. I've got a Prophet Five, Prophet Ten and Oberheim OBXa, all of which sometimes provide tomtom or African drum sounds which make the rhythms more interesting.

Studio Work

We wanted 'Tin Drum' to sound acoustic and natural rather than electronic, although a lot of it is played on synths with David taking about 45% and myself about 55% of the work. The percussion is quite dominant because we wanted a lively sound, and we used a new producer as opposed to John Punter who worked on 'Quiet Life' and 'Gentlemen Take Polaroids' and who's doing the live sound for our tour, John's been involved in about half our music, but on 'Tin Drum' we were looking for a different sound, a hard acoustic sound with a sort of 'dead echo' using single repeats as opposed to a lot of echo or reverb. There's no reverb in Chinese music!

We feet very emotional about the music but a lot of careful thought goes into it, particularly in stereo placement of the instruments. It's actually a very sparse album and so the placing of rhythmic patterns and instruments is very important; we build up a track very gradually and carefully and try to put in the absolute minimum, we like to keep it simple. The spaces are the most important part of any piece of music!

David writes most of the songs, in that he'll start with a title and come up with lyrics and a very sparse chord structure, which we'll then add to as we want. Sometimes he might have a more detailed idea in his mind, but he doesn't force any particular arrangement on us and we're free to do our own pieces. A year ago I played all the keyboards, but on 'Tin Drum' it was useful to arrange it so that if I had an idea to fill up a piece I could go and play it, or if he had a different idea he could go and play it — it reduced the pressure because there's no way I could imagine playing all the keyboards on that album. In fact we have very different styles, but it all comes over as one style on the album.

Once we've got the basic idea we put a rhythm machine track on tape and begin to add our parts over it. Steve then plays the drum parts in between for a much tighter feel before we take the drum machine off; he's a very tight drummer anyway, with impeccable timing. We're all self-taught; none of us is a virtuoso, it's just a matter of knowing and having respect for what the others can do. If I program a drum sound and have a pattern but can't quite get the timing right, I give it to Steve to play, for instance.

I use a Roland System 700 in the studio, which is great for ideas but not practical for stage use. Also I used an Emulator while I was producing an album in Sweden, and I'd like to use one for vocal effects like choirs and chants. At the moment the polyphonics are best though; I go through about 140 memories on stage, and obviously haven't got time to start twiddling knobs, so all the creative work is done in the studio. Rehearsals are pretty boring for me, because they're just a matter of remembering the numbers and pushing the buttons!

Stage Work

We don't feel we can perform very well on stage ourselves, because we see the studio as the creative medium in which to work. Some bands are more creative live, but we tend to feel a little uncomfortable; ideally we'd like to create the relaxed mood of a classical concert, but we'll probably always get screams and shouts because we're labelled as a rock band, which I don't really feel we are.

On the other hand I enjoy the excitement of live work, which is why I'm not sure that I want to use the headphone monitoring system; I like to be able to hear the audience or even the occasional feedback. In the studio David multi-tracks the vocals, whereas on stage Mick will sing as well; I don't think I'll ever be able to sing!

We also have to use some backing tapes to do 'Tin Drum' live. Normally we take the master tapes from an album and remix them in the studio to produce a backing tape with just a few of the important rhythmic elements on it. Steve monitors that on headphones, and the rest of us play in time with him, so we can't get out of sync with the tape. We try to keep it all as simple as possible really; I haven't used the built-in sequencer on the Prophet 10 yet, because even if it was triggered in some way I think it would still interfere with the backing tape because that's already got some keyboard patterns on it.

Also we always have a guest musician on tour who takes the guitar parts and some keyboards. In the studio David plays a Rickenbacker guitar with an E-Bow, but there are only two or three guitar solos on 'Tin Drum'; Mick's bass on the other hand is very important, his bass riffs have so much personality. He's in great demand now for other people's projects and I think his style has had a lot of influence.

We try to be visual on stage without making it too complicated. Rather than changing the sets we make them appear to change by using different lighting. We haven't been too involved in video yet because we've never been sure of having total control, although we were very happy with the video for 'Visions of China' which won a music business award as the best video of the year. We are going to release a video of the tour to go with with the double live album, but we want to make them in some ways different from the normal rock band material.

Altogether the tour by the time it's over will have covered two weeks in Europe, six weeks in the UK, then Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand. In Japan they're not quite sure what to make of us — we've been popular there for about four years but have only lost the teeny-bopper fans in the last year and become respected as serious musicians.

Programming Sounds

Programming synths is what I feel most comfortable doing. I can only read music very slowly, and if I sat down and tried to play scales I'd have some difficulty. On the other hand being self-taught helps to develop your own style, and I now find I can imagine a sound in my head and then produce it on the synthesiser.

I prefer to get the sound by programming the synth rather than by using effects. The ring modulator effects on the Prophet are my favourites, but I do use a rack with a Roland Digital Delay, a Roland Stereo Flanger, Six Channel Mixer, Pitch to Voltage Convertor and an MXR Flanger. Now the keyboards are going to be in stereo on stage which means I can get the benefit of the chorus effects.

We don't use a lot of tapes in the studio; about the only ones are those based on a Chinese traditional singer which are cut up and triggered from the Prophet's keyboard. As far as we're concerned the voice is another sound, like an instrument; we've been very much influenced by Holger Czukay's album 'Movies' (see E&MM May 1982) which involved three years of collecting and editing instrumental sounds.

We like old, rough-sounding settings with a touch of white noise, very deep reverb, fast flanging, detuning and soon. On 'Ghosts' we tried to get the same feeling as Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1950's electronic albums which sound very old fashioned and scary in their way!

That means a lot of ring modulator bell sounds, and parallel tuning in fourths and fifths, which also accounts partly for the Chinese feel. All the compositions are based on repeated riffs but either the melody or the sound itself will change each time round. I wouldn't want to program in a whole song because we want to avoid that degree of repetition; I don't want it to sound computerised, it's more emotional than that. It doesn't even matter if you can't hear all the words, because it's more important for David to be able to constantly vary his vocal sound in the same way that I vary my keyboard sounds.

You'd be surprised how many people buy a keyboard and never program it, just sticking to the factory presets. I can't understand anybody doing that; I always feel incredibly guilty about using a factory preset, say for Chinese bells, because I feel I haven't worked for it. I'd rather give my own interpretation.

A lot of people ask if we used a lot of sequencers on 'Tin Drum' but there aren't many in fact; most of it is very tight keyboard patterns, and I'm working on my timing to be able to produce this sort of thing more easily. I can't find enough time to work on technique in the broader sense.

Future Plans

We've just bought a couple of Roland MC4 Microcomposers and next time we record we'll use them to put down some interesting patterns which can be left on the tape as opposed to taking off the backing track. I don't want to get too computerised because it always shows: I was longing to get these things but found I was thinking too much about numbers and mathematics and not enough about music. For the same reason I don't think our music would ever become so complex that we'd use a Fairlight.

I've just had a little trigger interface made up for the Prophet after seeing one in Sweden, and I'm thinking about doing a solo album next year. On the other hand that might not use only keyboards, or even any keyboards at all. I might just arrange some music for other people to play, because I've always wanted to work with an orchestra although perhaps one made up of traditional instruments rather than the normal orchestral instruments.

I've just been working on Mick Karn's solo album 'Titles' which has a very Eastern feel; we're both into Turkish and Arabian music. I think we'd all like to work on more solo projects before recording again; after the tour 'Tin Drum' will be totally out of our systems, as it is I think anything we do in the very near future might be too similar.

The group's been going for eight years now, but I think in a sense it's a good thing to reach the limelight relatively late in the day because it gives you a more mature sound. In the future I'd still like to be able to say that we've never gone out of our way to be commercial, that we've never done anything because we had to.


Hammersmith Odeon
18th November 1982

An evening of elegance, both musical and sartorial, enhanced by an excellent sound mix and very imaginative stage set and lighting. Extensive use of tapes rounded out the sounds produced by Richard Barbieri's Oberheim OBX and Prophet 10, the two Prophet 5s used by David Sylvian and the guest lead guitarist, Mick Karn's bass and the acoustic drums of Steve Jansen. Visually, the focus of attention on stage was divided between the immaculate cut of Sylvian's clothes and hair and Karn's robot-like appearance as he glided eerily across the stage.

The songs were a selection of old and new. Beginning with 'Sons of Pioneers', the set included 'Private Lives', 'Gentlemen Take Polaroids', 'Taking Islands in Africa', 'Cantonese Boy', 'Visions of China', 'Still Life in Mobile Homes' and 'Methods of Dance'. Most memorable were the highly atmospheric 'Night Porter' and 'Ghosts'. The subdued lighting combined with the glockenspiel and clarinet on 'Night Porter' to send shivers down the spine. 'Quiet Life', which drew the loudest roar of the evening, and 'Burning Bridges' closed the set.

The audience had to work hard to bring them back on stage. Japan accepted the adulation as no more than their due, and returned for two brief encores before the house lights came up and the clapping and stamping reluctantly died away.

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Electronics & Music Maker - Jan 1983


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