Worlds In A Small Room
Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri
A prolonged period of silence from two ex-Japan members may have lead same to believe they've said all they have to say. Dan Goldstein and Tim Goodyer discover this is not the case.
Free from the constraints of playing with Japan but with an uncertain commercial future ahead of them, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri discuss a recent album of ambient music, a forthcoming one of more conventional material, and the current sorry state of British pop.
If you were a businessman and you were in charge of a band that had been together for seven years and just made the big time, what would you do? You could get the wheels of marketing rolling and milk the hit album for singles of dubious worth. You could withdraw the band from the public eye in the hope that as soon as they returned after the lull, their followers' appetites would be capable of gobbling up just about any old rubbish. Or you could despatch them to the nearest recording studio to record the first eight songs that come into their heads, thereby avoiding the enforced lull by filling it with musical foam rubber.
But if you were Japan, you'd do none of these things. You'd split up instead, on the grounds that you could no longer work together under the strain that old-established group compromises and newfound commercial pressures have brought about. The split wouldn't make commercial sense, of course, but it would ensure at least a brief period of critical credibility, and give you the chance to take a much-needed artistic breather, time to sort yourselves out.
That, in a nutshell, is precisely what Japan did getting on for 2½ years ago, much to the disappointment of their followers and the dismay of the businessmen who thought they controlled them. Singer David Sylvian travelled the globe, surrounded himself with a host of immensely talented musicians, and produced Brilliant Trees, 1984's most inspiring long-player. It didn't sell particularly well, but it gained him a lot of respect; the follow-up is due in a month or so. Bass player Mick Karn made a spectacularly unsuccessful solo LP called Titles (it sounded good, but the weeklies couldn't understand it, and neither could the public), then joined forces with Bauhaus frontman Pete Murphy to produce an album under the title Dalis Car. That wasn't too successful, either.
Meanwhile, the two 'quiet men' that made up the Japan quartet, drummer Steve Jansen and keyboardist Richard Barbieri, announced their intention to form a band together. An album release looked imminent, but it wasn't forthcoming. Now, in the autumn of 1985, the duo hope they'll be able to go into the studio to record it. Why the delay?
Jansen: 'First of all, we had problems getting released from our existing recording contract. Some people at Virgin wanted us to stay but the powers that be didn't. Then we changed management a few times, but the main problem has been connected with our decision not to do any demos. We're not used to doing them, and for us it takes some of the enjoyment away from recording music if you've already done it once before - so much of what we've created in the past has come about simply as a result of working on something in the studio. We were asking a lot of the record companies, to sign us up without any demos whatsoever, so it's taken time to convince people.'
'We think we're just about there now', affirms Barbieri. 'But we can't start recording until the end of November, because Steve is going off to tour Japan with Yukihiro Takahashi. Once we've started it, it should be scheduled for release in about February or March - probably March. '
Is there much material written?
Barbieri: 'Yeah. We've continued writing and experimenting with new material ever since Japan split, but the longer you have material kicking around, the more likely you are to throw it away and do something new. We've probably written quite a lot of stuff that'll never appear in any form, simply because we're fed up with it now.
'The more you write, the more your attitudes to writing change. I think the material we were writing a year or two ago was probably a bit too personal. If we had contributions from other musicians, other opinions from people, then it could work. But we've been doing all the instrumentation ourselves, and you get a bit bored, just hearing yourself play all the time; things become too predictable.
'We're definitely going to employ other musicians when we start recording this album. We'd like to try and get a balance between very experienced musicians and quite naive people.'
Jansen: 'It's been a frustrating last couple of years. I've been doing bits and pieces to keep me occupied, like the David Sylvian albums, Propaganda concerts, and going on tour with Ippu Do, which we both did just after Japan split up.'
It seems surprising, though, that two founder members of a band as well known and as well respected as Japan should come up against such a solid brick wall when it comes to looking for an outlet for their future activities. Jansen and Barbieri acknowledge that without the charisma and notoriety of Sylvian or Karn, they automatically stood a slimmer chance of gaining record company approval. But they also admit to being surprised by the lack of reaction they've managed to inspire in people.
Barbieri: 'I think if we'd formed a group with maybe two or three other musicians, made a few demos of some pop songs, and played them to people, those people would have sat up and taken notice. But that's not the way we want to work. We've been through that 'band' thing before, and it all seems a bit childish now.
'We don't really want that responsibility any more. There are things that we want to do, like filmscores for example, that would be difficult to arrange if we were tied to a band. This way, there'd be no problem. We've got no responsibilities to anyone else - other than to each other. '
Jansen: 'It would have been very easy for us to have formed a band and set ourselves up as a sort of Japan splinter group. And we knew we'd be giving ourselves a hard time by doing what we've done - but it'll be worth it.
'In a way, what we've got now together is the way it should have been in Japan. I think if we'd had that element of flexibility in the band, things would have gone a lot better. But there was no way we could have gone off and done other things while the band was still going. There was so much internal pressure within the band for everybody to stay in it. The philosophy was one of "if you give your best elsewhere, we won't have the best in Japan". We had this idea that if anybody did anything else outside the group, it would be diluting the force of Japan.
'But that's one of the things we want to get away from now, which is why I'm able to go off and tour if I want to, and Richard can do what he wants.'
'But while we're doing the album', interjects Barbieri, 'we'll both be totally committed to that, for as long as it takes and as much as it demands. Then when it's done, we can go off and do what we want to do again.'
Jansen: 'We trust each other. We've been working together for the best part of ten years now, and we know we can work together. We've worked alongside each other in studios for months on end in the past, and we know it works. The one thing we have in common, if anything, is that we both want to write our own material. We want to play it together and share it, and that's as far as it goes. We live our own lives totally separately, and as long as we can feel that musical bond, that's enough. '
"We've continued writing and experimenting ever since Japan split... the more you write, the more your attitudes change."
It's difficult, even if you weigh up their musical contribution to Japan and analyse it carefully, to know what to expect from the duo's forthcoming release. In fact, Jansen and Barbieri themselves find comparisons between what they're writing now and what Japan created in their later years ridden with problems. There are going to be similarities, obviously, but how far will they extend? Will the music be recognisably that of one-half of Japan?
Barbieri (after a long pause): 'I think it's more normal... no (pauses again), I don't mean normal. I think it'll be more structured, it'll make more sense. Japan, in the end, did come over as a whole and it was great, but there were always a lot of conflicting things going on that didn't really have a place in the songs. I think this will be a little bit more planned, a bit more coherent.'
Jansen: 'It'll definitely differ in that the main structural fault with Japan's music was the relationship between the bass and the drums. That's going to disappear now. I think the influences will show, and you'll probably be able to recognise its origin, but I wouldn't say it'll be along the same lines as what we did with Japan.
'We'd like to experiment with things like arrangement, which we did to a certain extent with Japan, but maybe not far enough. We could go about it in a conventional way, just asking a guitarist to come in and play a specific riff, but you'd play back a tape of something like that after a week and it might not be very interesting any more. So we think we'll be better off just asking a guitarist to do what seems right for the song, without having to worry about the chords or what we might think about it. Getting a performance from people is the main thing.'
Barbieri agrees. 'The idea is to give other musicians a sort of controlled freedom, so that they feel completely uninhibited about what they do, while we retain control over what we eventually use.'
Jansen: 'We'll probably at least co-produce the album. Ideally we'd have a good engineer and a good producer to work alongside us, to help make those sorts of decisions and add their own input. But we won't be using a producer in the sense of somebody who comes in and works with a band who don't really know what they're doing. We don't need that form of direction because we're experienced enough and confident enough to get along fine without it - but it will still be nice to have some form of outside influence.'
That turns out to be precisely the way Jansen and Barbieri worked to produce a second, more off-beat project that's already seen the light of day in Japan, but hasn't yet found its way into the High Street record stores of the duo's home country. That project is an album of 'ambient' music titled Worlds in a Small Room, composed as a soundtrack to a video of NASA space shuttle missions. It isn't too surprising that two musicians capable of coming up with the diversity of styles inherent in Japan should be able to apply themselves to such a novel discipline. What is surprising is that they're having the same problems getting the LP distributed in the UK that beset them when they were looking for a new record deal.
Barbieri: 'We'd always wanted to do an album of ambient music, but it's difficult to do under a normal contract. Record companies just think they'll lose money on it, which I suppose they probably will. But then Victor in Japan, which is our label over there, asked us to do this NASA soundtrack last autumn. It's part of a series of video albums that they've put out. Steve was in Japan at the time and I was here in London, but we got together in a hotel room in Tokyo and ended up recording the album over there — it took about eight days. And we've surprised ourselves because we're both quite pleased with it, even though we wanted longer to record it.'
Jansen: 'We had to work fast because the album had to be out before the end of 1984, so we got a Japanese engineer to come in and help us out. He'd worked with any number of Japanese artists, and he just came in with his own black box of tricks and his own setup of keyboards. We used him mainly as a programmer. We instructed him to set up sounds we knew would work, but which we didn't have time to program ourselves.'
Barbieri: 'When Japan was still going I used to spend a lot of time programming synths. But for the ambient album, we both wanted to spend more time on composition and arrangement, so it was great to have someone working on sounds.'
The disc comprises instrumental sections written and arranged either by Jansen or by Barbieri (only one piece resulted from a pooling of creative resources), with both contributing performances to each other's pieces. There are no other musicians involved (Jansen says they'd have preferred to have other people participating, but again, time was against them), and only one of the pieces has any form of vocal, provided by Jansen.
'We actually wanted the whole album to be instrumental', explains the drummer turned keyboardist turned singer. 'But the record company wanted something they could release as a single, and something that would make the album distinct from the soundtrack itself. In the end we talked them out of issuing a single, but the track still had to be included on the album.
'Nobody wants to distribute it in Britain because nobody thinks they're going to make any money out of it. But once we've signed a contract for the more accessible LP, we should have no problems.'
Both Jansen and Barbieri see the difficulties they've encountered as symptomatic of an industry that's becoming increasingly conservative - to the detriment of artists attempting to do anything out of the ordinary. Barbieri is particularly critical of current A&R attitudes...
'All the record companies are interested in now is young bands that stand a chance of making it really big all over the world. So they want bands that have a good visual image and make music that's easily marketable. That's what makes it so difficult to get people interested in something that's a little odd, let alone anything really new. I'd say the situation is worse now than it was just a few years ago. It seems like we're back to the days when producers totally controlled what a band did.'
"We're still into electronic sounds that are completely new, but it becomes more and more difficult to create them."
But surely Japan succeeded in sidestepping that commercialism, by making inventive music and making it successfully?
Jansen: 'Yeah, but I think the teenage girls who bought our records would have bought them if we'd been making heavy metal. It was a case of people buying our stuff because of our image. But I suppose that was OK really, because at least it meant people did listen to our music; they gave it a spin, which they wouldn't have done if we hadn't looked the way we did.'
One of the things that characterised Japan's approach to instrumentation was a studied catholicism, an unyielding determination to create sounds that were new, and to combine instruments from diverse sources in the hope of presenting their public with a previously untried, untested pot pourri of musical styles. They succeeded with a consistency few of their contemporaries could have matched, even if they'd applied themselves with the same dedication. But while Jansen and Barbieri remember their Japan days with affection, they're both anxious to point out the flaws in the band's veneer of compatibility and cohesion.
Barbieri: 'It was like a very claustrophobic little unit, constantly striving for perfection. We used to spend hours programming new sounds on synthesisers, trying to think of rhythm patterns that hadn't been used before. And I think a lot of the sounds we used still haven't been matched to this day. Even when we took hold of something very traditional like ancient Chinese music or African music, it was the way we used it, or the way we combined it with other things, that made it stand out from what other people had been doing.'
And that attitude of refusing to accept conventional musical formulae persists, as the instrumentation of Jansen's and Barbieri's new album should show.
Barbieri: 'We're definitely going to work just as hard on the sounds this time as we've ever done. We're more interested in acoustic sounds now; we were in the days of Tin Drum (Japan's last long-playing studio excursion), but we used synthesisers to try and recreate them. But I'm getting increasingly annoyed with synthesisers, especially modern ones, and the way people use them. I think it's essential to know what you're trying to achieve musically before you approach a computer or a synthesiser, but a lot of people these days just use whatever's inside the machine when they get their hands on it; it might sound great and exciting to them, but it makes their records hell to listen to!'
And not for the first time,the keyboardist's partner agrees wholeheartedly. 'I think the latest technology is in its element when you want to save time and budget. But in the end, the results simply aren't as good. Everybody seems to be using the same Fairlight samples and the same preset rhythm patterns, and the records they're making are just unlistenable. It completely defeats the object of doing something creative in the first place.
'Some people use technology well - most people don't. But we haven't dismissed it out of hand. We're going to keep it down to a minimum on this new album, using it only when it serves a purpose, not when it's just trying to sound like the real thing and failing miserably.'
Barbieri: 'We're still very much into electronic sounds that are completely new, but it becomes more and more difficult to create them. I've still got the keyboards I've always had - I've stuck with them and I don't really feel the need to change, because up till now they've always given me what I've wanted. In fact, I like the idea of going back to even older synths. I've got an old Roland System 700 modular system which is great; there are sounds there that you've just never heard before, and which you're not likely to hear again. But that's the sort of instrument people seem to have forgotten; they've pushed their old synths to one side because today's are more convenient, more instant.
'I prefer instruments that let you hear how a sound is progressing as you alter their controls, and I don't like trying to program a system that's just based on mathematics — that puts me off from the start. We did use a DX7 on the ambient album, but we found you had to double it up with a sound from a Prophet to get it to sound really good. I don't like the digital sound: it's close to the real thing but it doesn't really satisfy, and all the sounds have that same digital quality to them. In fact, there's nothing lately that's caught my attention at all. I suppose that's mostly because I haven't looked out for anything — I don't feel I need it.'
And it seems neither Barbieri nor Jansen needs much in the way of modern chart music as a source of entertainment, let alone inspiration. Jansen confesses to listening mainly to 'classical piano music and Laurie Anderson's Mister Heartbreak', while Barbieri finds the application of technology by men like Stevie Wonder, Thomas Dolby and The Blue Nile to be his synthetic limit.
'I just can't listen to the radio any more', he continues. 'If a good album comes out, you're bound to hear it sooner or later, and I think I'm passed the stage where I'll turn on the radio and listen out for a particular favourite song; nine times out of ten, the records are rubbish anyway.'
Yet again, we find Jansen in complete agreement. 'I find it very difficult to ignore any music that might be going on in a room. I can't have a radio on in a room and not listen to it; I find myself listening out for things like the structure and the arrangement. So in many ways, I think having music blaring out at you is more offensive than silence - it's certainly less productive.'
Unlikely though it may seem, Jansen and Barbieri quite fancy their chances of working in an almost total vacuum, attempting to produce music that is almost entirely unconventional, and working with a line-up that's completely flexible and utterly unmarketable - and coming up with a hit single in spite of everything. Why should they succeed where Japan's more glamorous, better-publicised ex-members have failed?
Jansen (talking about his brother, remember): 'David makes very beautiful music. He's made an album and it's won him a lot of friends, and his new one is just as good, maybe better. But it's never going to be really big, because it's too self-centred, too melancholy. I think there's a limit to how much of that people will listen to, and how many people will even try listening to it in the first place. I don't think we could ever make music like that: ours is more likely to be brighter, a bit more "up".
'As for Mick, I think his stuff is just too avant garde. That probably doesn't bother him very much because so many people still respect him for being a great bass player, but out of the four of us, he's probably the one least likely to make it big again.
'It would be nice to go through the whole success thing again: to sell a lot of records and get all the fan mail. Apart from anything else, we need some amount of success to convince whoever takes us on that they've made a good decision. But in addition to that, it's nice to know that people appreciate what you're doing, and really, people buying your records is the only pat on the back you ever get.'
If the back-patting duly arrives come next March, Jansen and Barbieri will tour the world ('travel is the greatest inspiration of all' - Jansen) and play in front of half-crazed teenage audiences, make a phenomenally successful follow-up album, and then, just when the going is really good, they may even split up — just to prove that lightning can strike twice in the same place.
It sounds unlikely, but it could happen. All they need to start with is the record deal.
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