Richard Barbieri gives us a behind-the-scenes look at his musical methods

A press shot of Richard Barbieri
Master Of The Synth: Richard Barbieri (Image credit: Ben Meadows)

Given the widescreen nature of his new solo album Planets + Persona, you might expect self-confessed movie buff Richard Barbieri to be an enthusiastic fan of film soundtracks. With yearning melodies, terse crescendos, percolating beats and haunting, jazzy reveries, the album builds from a series of arresting sequences and intriguing cameos into a work of style and substance. There’s even a musical homage to the Charles Laughton-directed The Night Of The Hunter, a 1955 film noir movie starring Robert Mitchum, which Barbieri first saw as a youngster. Yet despite such filmic connections he’s more impressed by what he hears on television these days. “I rarely like movie soundtracks, to be honest. A lot of the really interesting things are on these TV dramas. You listen to the music and it’s really interesting, really nice sound design.”

With Planets + Persona and his previous solo releases Things Buried (2005) and Stranger Inside (2008), you’d assume that TV producers and showrunners would be knocking down Barbieri’s door. “No! I’ve never been asked,” he laughs. “I don’t know why. Even right back to the days in Japan, it’s been fairly cinematic music you could say, but I’ve never been commissioned. That’s my unfulfilled ambition I guess.” Barbieri is no stranger to television, having made numerous appearances in front of the camera with Japan. “Although we were considered an underground band, we were actually the second most successful chart band in 1981. There wasn’t a single day where I woke up and there wasn’t a single or an album of ours in the charts,” he recalls. At a time when the UK charts were awash with a tidal wave of acts whose sounds were filled with flashy songs with catchy hooks, Ghosts, Japan’s ethereal ballad of existential angst, wafted through the dry ice of the TV studios with an unsettling intimacy, seemingly unanchored from the then-current pop scene. The path Barbieri has travelled since those days has tended to favour the eclectic rather than the obvious. His name has sat next to musicians as diverse as avant-garde guitarist and some-time Bowie collaborator David Torn, German electronic pioneer Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Marillion’s Steve Hogarth, Japanese experimentalist DJ Takemura and, for 17 years, Porcupine Tree.

Hair Raisingly Good! Barbieri (far left) with Japan

Hair Raisingly Good! Barbieri (far left) with Japan

Any veteran musician will likely tell you that the best thing about being in a band is also the worst thing about being in a band. As the miles on the road clock up, what was once camaraderie gradually begins to resemble captivity, a sense of being perpetually trapped in the limbo of the tour bus, wherein, to purloin Jean-Paul Satre’s celebrated quote: “Hell is other people.” Barbieri laughs at the suggestion. “Yes, but you know what the interesting thing is? That thing about being in a van, being cramped and driving up the motorway and playing to two men and a dog and all that? When you’re going through that whole thing the actual group itself is very strong and that’s when the relationships between people in the group are at their strongest,” he observes of an experience which he says translates to both his time in Japan and Porcupine Tree. “It’s actually when you achieve something and you get to a place where everything becomes a bit comfortable and is going so well, that’s when all the egos and the petty resentments start to surface. I think you’ll find that with any band. You’re probably strongest when you’re aiming for something. Once you get there then that’s when it’s hard to make things carry on working.”

In whatever setting he’s chosen to work, Barbieri’s distinctive approach has always been primarily that of a texturalist given to layering the music with a painterly deliberation. The deft touch of his sonic brushstrokes have avoided the artistic cul-de-sacs associated with either the florid excesses of progressive rock, pop gimmickry or the more torpid shallows of ambient music. Asking a musician to point to a favourite track or album in their previous output will often provoke a wince of pain, as though they were required to favour one child over another. Barbieri suggests that the albums that represent a turning point or a shifting of gears in a career are the ones that stand out the most for him. 2002’s In Absentia, along with Fear Of A Blank Planet in 2007 defined new directions for Porcupine Tree. Following the release of 2009’s The Incident, the band went into hibernation and though there have been periodic hints that the group may reconvene, the ascendent trajectory of Steven Wilson’s solo career suggests this may not be for some time. Barbieri candidly admits that the ending of the group was initially something that was hard to adjust to. “Well, I did miss it for the first two or three years, definitely, because it becomes part of your life,” says Barbieri. “The touring and the albums had been quite a regular thing. I knew we were going to have a big break but I didn’t imagine it was going to stop. So I did feel a bit bad about it for a while, but then time goes by, and now, to be honest, I don’t really think about it. It’s now seven years or so and it doesn’t cross my mind that much. In life you adapt and you go to other things. Probably for the first time, I’m now thinking about myself more than perhaps I’ve done previously. I’ve got back in touch with my love of electronic and alternative music and that’s where I’m heading at the moment.”

With Planets + Persona, his eyes appear to be fixed on the far horizon. Bookended by Solar Sea and Solar Storm, the album possesses a beautiful sense of balance. Barbieri’s fascination with the notion of duality, the contrasting poles of things such as good and evil, or the way in which the planets and stars sailing in the oceans of space may look serene from our perspective but are subject to vast yet unseen turbulent forces, underpins much of the album. “The third kind of duality is the way that I actually work, which is in a very kind of unconscious state where I’m not really thinking too hard about what I’m doing,” he explains. “I use a lot of abstract start-points for tracks. I’ll set something in motion but without any thought or judgement, like a stream of consciousness in a way. Then at some point, the other self comes in as a producer: as a logical mind, making sense of this music, thinking that’s a nice thing that’s happening, making choices about what I like. And that side of me starts to edit and make formations out of what the unconscious self did earlier. That’s a duality in how I work. It all seemed to come together quite naturally.”

The album utilises contemporary rhythms, rich analogue synths and yearning melodies all embossed with his trademark blend of spacious atmospherics and some intriguing sound sources which he’s altered and transformed. “Steve Hogarth’s voice has been manipulated into this beautiful choir. My wife’s voice seemed to work best as a kind of Mellotron vocal lead,” he laughs, “and Tim Bowness’ voice is sped up a little bit and that seemed to work as woodwind! I love the voice texture but of course I didn’t want the voices to be saying anything or providing any meaning.” Any inference of meaning or subjective interpretation is something Barbieri is content to let the listener project upon the music. A featured contributor on the album is Swedish musician Lisen Rylander Löve, who plays sax and electronics. Previously part of the cult Scandi group Midaircondo, she also supplies real-time performance vocals within some tracks. “She’s the star of the show in a way, offering a lot in terms of improvised vocals without actually saying anything, just kind of sounds, like a made-up language,” Barbieri says, clearly relishing the ambiguous nature of her work. “I like the way that these voices hint at something. You think you’ve heard them say something but you’re not sure what.”

Dark And Brooding: Barbieri (centre) with Porcupine Tree

Dark And Brooding: Barbieri (centre) with Porcupine Tree

Aside from the strong Nordic flavour of the album’s stunning artwork – Planets + Persona is the first of Barbieri’s solo works to receive the gatefold vinyl treatment – Rylander Löve is just one of the guest musicians providing a Swedish connection that stems from Barieri’s two visits to take part in Sweden’s annual IB Expo event. “The IB Expo is a collective of musicians based in Halmstad. They invite two or three artists they like to perform their work, as well as new original material. There’s an intense period of rehearsals for six days and then on the seventh day, a gig. Just one show. It’s quite an amazing thing I have to say and such an uplifting, spiritual kind of thing. By doing my own music there I got to see how people worked with my music and I knew instantly who I wanted to use on my album.”

Barbieri’s planning on taking Planets + Persona out live, initially with a series of concerts with Rylander Löve but as the year progresses, he’s hoping to add further players from the album. Additionally, he’ll be continuing his series of masterclasses which are part concert, part Q&A, enjoying the connection with fans enabled by such intimate events. “I think if I was a kid and if somebody heard Tony Banks or Rick Wakeman or one of my prog idols had come along to our school or university and said, ‘This is how I do this’, I would have been over the moon.”

And when he’s not writing, performing or conducting sold-out masterclasses, he might well be watching television. “I’ll be here at home with Suzanne in the evening, and it gets to about 12 o’clock and we’ll see what’s on television. So we go to BBC4 and find they’re running another repeat of Top Of The Pops from the 80s,” he says, recounting the odd experience of turning to a TV channel and, as a man approaching his sixtieth year on the planet, being confronted by an image of himself in his mid-twenties haunting the cross-fades; past and present creating their own strange, fleeting duality. “It’s another life,” he laughs.

Planets + Persona is out now on Kscope. See for more information.

Richard Barbieri’s Five Of The Best

What are Barbieri’s favourite albums?

During Prog’s conversation with Richard Barbieri, he mentions that he is hoping to move to somewhere bigger and, with the extra room, he intends to buy a record player and his 50 all-time favourite LPs. We asked him what he’d buy first from the list. Without missing a beat he replied, “When you choose your favourite albums, somebody has to be able play you any track on that album and you’ve got think, ‘Yeah that’s amazing.’ No weak tracks. That’s my criteria, anyway.”

For Your Pleasure - Roxy Music (1973)

“I like the debut album as much but here they seemed to bottle and perfect the experiments of the earlier work. It sounded like the past and the future combined. Great lyrics on this, and Eno’s approach with abstract sound was a massive influence for me.”

Spirit Of Eden - Talk Talk (1988)

“Just the most perfect use of space and restraint. It’s as though they tried to play less with each album. It’s beautiful, spiritual and precious. It’s a piece of art. Not many albums are.”

Hejira - Joni Mitchell (1976)

“This seems to push musical boundaries and is just so complex and harmonically interesting while never distracting from the songs. You can delve into the complexities or just enjoy the dreamy atmosphere.”

Rock Bottom - Robert Wyatt (1974)

“John Peel used to play this a lot when it came out and it fascinated me. I’d never heard anything like it before. It’s quite out there and jazzy and the instruments sound like characters or creatures. Otherworldly. Very ‘English’ and eccentric.”

The Dark Side Of The Moon - Pink Floyd (1973)

“Obvious choice, I guess, but I’ve never detected a weak moment. It’s one long piece really and was the template for musicians who wanted to write meaningful, poignant and long-form atmospheric rock songs. It’s pretty much perfection.”

Steven Wilson and Richard Barbieri on the magic of Porcupine Tree

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.