Richard Barbieri is in the prog metal band Porcupine Tree, he used to be in the New Wave band Japan, and he RULES, as evidenced by this Q&A I did with him on a lawn at Coachella a couple of weeks ago.
You call yourselves “genreless” and there are indeed many different influences in your music. How do you sit down and write it all?
We kind of write and record in two ways. We do sessions as a band where we go out into the English countryside and lock ourselves away in a remote studio for a few weeks. On the other hand, Steven writes on his own and brings stuff to the band and then we work on it. For this album, he started writing something and carried on and on and on. And he said I think this piece is getting longer and longer and he realized that it was going to be one long piece with a theme that flowed throughout. We wanted to separate that one piece from the other tracks that we had done, so that’s why we made it a double album.
Were you listening to any bands in particular at the time you recorded this album?
I think Steve tends to wear his musical influences more on his sleeve. He listens to a hell of a lot of music, in fact. Personally I am not influenced by music. I mean—I love music. But it doesn’t come out in what I do. I am more influenced by sounds, atmosphere, places, films. Just things in life, basically. I work in a more abstract way. I’m a bit of a non-musician compared with the rest of the guys. I tend to work more with sounds and electronics.
You’re like the texturizer, basically?
That makes me sound like a blender. But yeah. It can be very odd. You know how you can be on a ship in Scandinavia traveling from Sweden up to Finland and you are passing these fjords and all these remote islands and ideas come to you? You get a sense of feeling that you wouldn’t get anywhere else? It’s like that. I am also influenced by the sounds you hear over Tannoi systems or when you tune the radio in and you’ve got two stations clashing and it sounds quite interesting. It creates a new kind of music. My upbringing was working with electronics and sounds and I wasn’t a technical keyboard player, so I don’t concentrate on the keys so much as I do the actual sounds. I learned to make one sound do something very special, more special than two hundred notes.
How do you get into that zone, when you’re writing?
I don’t know. I’ve been a musician since I was 17 and because I don’t understand normal music theory, I don’t follow any rules. I can break the rules. It’s like when Orson Welles went to make film and he went to the camera man and said “look I don’t know anything about making a film” and he broke all the rules. Not to aggrandize myself, referencing Orson Welles, but it’s an example. It’s a bit of an attitude in that if you don’t know and understand the theory, then you are free to do other stuff.
So you think it is better to not know the rules.
Yes. For me, that is. If all the band were like that, then it would be a disaster. But it’s nice—I’m the opposite of Gavin, our drummer, who is a master of his instrument. It’s unbelievable.
You’ve gotta be pretty brave coming at it from your perspective. In that you operate from a position of complete innocence. As in “I have no idea what I am doing or how this is going to turn out. I have my tools…I’m just texturizing.”
It seems to work.
You call yourselves prog—what does the word “prog” mean to you? It’s such a loaded word.
Its not such a dirty word now, like it was a while back. To me, it just means being progressive, looking forward. If you look in the dictionary, progressive is moving forward and finding new ways of doing things. I see Radiohead and Muse as progressive bands. And the Mars Volta. I’m not thinking back to 1970 when I hear them.
So…are you prog in your entire realm of existence? Meaning, do you read progressive literature? Like, I dunno…Umberto Eco. I can’t read Umberto Eco.
No, I couldn’t read Umberto Eco either. The Name of the Rose is fine. Then there was Foucoult’s Pendulum. I couldn’t do it. Tried.
Me neither! I’m glad I’m not the only one. I read that and I was like “you’re a wanker!” You know, like progressiveness for progressiveness’s sake. I dunno if sometimes that compromises the soulfulness of whatever’s going on.
Yeah, yeah. Whatever you do you’ve got to be fairly honest. It’s not always easy to do because you get very cynical. But if you can work on that honest basis…I know this sounds sort of pretentious…but in a sort of spiritual way, that’s the best way of doing things for me. Me, I like dumbing down…I like a lot of basic things as well.
You know. Like TV.
Like EastEnders? (British soap opera)
No I like Curb your Enthusiasm.
Where do you live?
Greenwich. I’m a South London boy
So you guys are going to be touring a lot over here? Why are you doing Coachella?
To be honest I don’t really love festivals and I’d never go to one. It’s not the way I’d want to experience music.
How do you experience music?
On my own. On my own.
My friend’s life coach was saying that he was really into your song Voyage 34 – it really changed his life
That was a really trippy, kind of trancy track
That’s what he was saying! That it was trippy and kind of an acid thing. Do you guys still do acid?
Steve has never done a drug in his life
Oh cool, I love it when that happens. So he is just naturally trippy?
Apparently. Neither did Frank Zappa. Do any drugs. Apparently. When I was young, I did things. You experiment. So I went through all that kind of thing.
But you don’t find you need it to get in to that zone anymore, when you’re writing, or texturizing?
No. Although when you think about it, most of the great albums were probably made under the influence of some kind of drug. There are very few that aren’t.
I was listening to Café Ethiopia the other day and I was like ‘damn! do you think it would have sounded this good if she wasn’t totally high?’ And my friend said ‘I think she was sober when she made this’. So I don’t know.
I am reading a David Bowie book right now about his time in Berlin when he made those albums and some of them he just didn’t remember, he was so coked out. He was so heavily into coke that he could not remember an album that he made.
That is amazing! Especially because coke isn’t what you’d think of as being the most creative of drugs.
No, it’s weird. I had a little bit of a similar experience. I used to be in a band called Japan in the late 70s, early 80s, and got into coke a little bit. And there are real lapses of memory about that time.
Just like black holes?
Yeah. Yes. It’s very odd. I know I was there. And I know we did it. But there are certain things I just cannot remember. I really wonder…
You’re like “what did I do?”
Yeah. It’s quite weird.
It’s always been interesting to me—rock bands and their relationship to cocaine. I think of marijuana and mushrooms and acid and even heroin as being more creative than cocaine.
Well coke is a nasty drug. It’s a bullshit, selfish, paranoid kind of drug.
Do you think it just emboldens you to push further, creatively? Just be like “fuck it—I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do that with the drums, and I’m going to texturize like that.”
Well yes. That’s what’s I’m into, yes. I like the idea of everything sounding not as it should sound. You know—we’re experimental to a degree.
And finally. before I get I trouble with Dave (tour manager who is hovering around looking at his watch), let’s talk about your solo stuff. What are you working on?
I made a couple of solo albums in the past three or four years. But I don’t really like working on my own. I don’t really enjoy solo albums.
Really? I thought you liked listening to music on your own?
I like listening to music on my own, but not my own music. The most enjoyable thing about music for me is working with people and hearing what I do in context with other peoples’ ideas. I think I am far more interested in context than I am on my own stuff, standing alone. Also, it’s a social thing. And you get feedback on things. If you are just working on your own, you lose perspective. I’m not interested in me. I’m interested in me and how that works in relation to other people.
Right. As texturizer, you need the raw material to texturize with.
Yeah. And I think if you are doing something a bit weird you need someone who is doing something more…normal. To make it sound interesting. As I said before, if everyone in the band started going off their heads writing really weird stuff it really wouldn’t have any substance or form at all. So I still make solo albums and I probably still will do. But I’ll try and get more people involved.