Ringing the Bell Backwards, An Interview with Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri, Part 1 - 1996

Posted March 2, 2011

Mick Karn Richard Barbieri Steve Jansen

Conducted via e-mail by Brian McWilliams
Photo by Dean Rogers

Luck must be on my side. l'm a struggling musician who's interviewed one band, Judgement Of Paris. l'm a complete novice when it comes to writing and interviewing but for me, interest in an artist sometimes goes beyond music and can lead to drastic forms of devotion. With Jansen and Barbieri's release of STONE TO FLESH, I wanted to see an interview that would dig a little deeper into their history as a duo and reveal secrets from their past; I wanted to know how they write, record, and produce their albums and what's kept them going over the years, so l sent Debi Zornes at Medium a proposal to do an interview by e-mail using Judgement Of Paris as my resume, surprisingly, Steve and Richard accepted.

Personally, l feel Jansen and Barbieri are incredibly important figures in electronic music, if not outright pioneers, and the lack of exposure and interest in their work is disheartening. Richard Barbieri, with his extraordinary gift for synthesis and continued reliance on analog gear has become a personal hero of mine: sky high notes layered with emotion and texture ("Pocket Full Of Change); mood and ambience ("Pushing The River"); or emotion beyond joy ("Long Tales, Tall Shadows"); Barbieri has the right sound for every occasion and he never fails to amaze with each new record.

Steve Jansen, you could argue is probably the most important drummer in experimental music. More than a time keeper, his drumming has been complex and off-kilter ("Methods Of Dance"), tribal (anything off of TIN DRUM), organic and rich (anything off RAIN TREE CROW) and more recently, modernised but not compromised by recent trends ("Beginning to Melt" from SEED). But Jansen is more than a drummer. Composing with keyboards since his days with Japan, his writing ability and understanding of musical structures lends itself to his sympathetic style of drum and percussion playing.

A word of warning before beginning, e-mail is not the ideal medium for an interview. It's difficult to follow up on interesting tangents. lt takes time. And it's hard to develop a rhythm. And since l'm not a professional, it's all too easy to be gushy and embarrassing. Regardless of its flaws, l hope you enjoy. l'm thrilled to have been given the opportunity to do it!


Q: It seems the trend among musicians today is a movement towards more 'do-it-yourself' recording and promotion. Home recording is now more affordable, the result being that the record industry these days doesn't necessarily dictate who can afford to record and sell records. Was Medium started as a response to Virgin records, the music industry, or more of an alignment with these current trends?

Steve: Initially, it was mostly a matter of necessity. Because we don't like to work within the constraints of the 'pop' industry, or be competitively commercial in any obvious way, it meant that the tolerance level over the years had continually decreased to such a point there was very little commitment from Virgin. Once the EMI take-over occurred, we found ourselves dealing with new people with even more mercenary views. It was time for a change. We had managed to purchase some analog recording equipment over the few years previous, (since '91 when we started work on STORIES ACROSS BORDERS) and decided to make more use of it. By testing the water with BEGINNING TO MELT we soon realised that there was a lot to be said for having our own label. Apart from the independence it allows us, we also 'own' our material, which is something we've never experienced before. We managed to invest in a digital studio set-up and since then, as far as making records goes, we're much happier with this situation. The only major drawback we find is tour support. It requires the help of larger investors, and it's because of this reason that Richard and I haven't managed a tour as yet.

Q: I assume both of you have more responsibilities since Medium was started. Has starting a record label made it more difficult to write music?

Steve: There is certainly more time dedicated to matters of business. Though we are lucky enough to retain the assistance of Debi Zornes, who basically runs the business. We've been actively seeking distribution deals all over the world and have managed to develop a network of deals throughout most of the major territories.

Q: Artwork seems to be an important element of all the albums you've recorded with Virgin and Medium, each being quite different from the next. What role do you play in selecting the cover art and designing the layout?

Steve: We feel that it is often refreshing to see how others interpret our work and how that inspiration manifests itself visually. We follow the artwork through every stage, and put forward our corunents or suggestions. I would say however, that with the development of design software for computers, (and with funds allowing), that it is only a matter of time before we are seltsufficient in this field.

Writing, Reeording, and Producing

Q: Steve and Richard, both of you seel to have opposite feelings about the technology used to record and write music. From what I understand, Steve, you seem to utilise whatever means are available: drum machines, sequences, computers, and samplers while Richard, I've read that you prefer recording direct to tape and your use of analog synthesizers alone suggest a philosophical stance against some modern technologies. Is this analogy true and in what ways does it affect your partnership? Does it cuase tensions or do you complement each other in this way?

Steve: I see the purpose of using computers and samplers (I don't include drum machines) as that of any other recording medium, offering us greater possibilities to manipulate and formulate ideas. They are tools to be used in this way. As I have worked more in this area, there hasn't been much necessity for Rich to focus on it. When we work together, almost all of Richard's performances go directly into the computer before committing to tape, with usually very little editing in between. Working seperately, Richard will go direct to tape in the traditional method. The 'accidents' that sometimes occur can occasionally lead to something more interesting, so I think that both methods have their merits. There's no tension regarding this matter.

Q: Both of you have been heavily involved in producing as well as recording for some time. Steve, I read that as early as Mick Karn's TITLES you were asked to help because he was having difficulties on his own. I'm also curious, since you both seem to have a genuine knack for the craft, what role did you play in the production of the Japan albums? The band wasnt really given production credit until TIN DRUM. ls this where you both started developing your production values or did it take the break up of the band and working on WORLDS lN A SMALL ROOM to really develop these skills?

Steve: Production is really a grand term for what is essentially a sensibility which quite naturally develops the more albums you make. With the ability to evaluate and visualise a direction whilst performing the practical task of recording, a producer is like a guiding force in the studio, which is something that comes with experience. Each producer inflicts his or her own methods and values on the work in progress and their 'character' reflects itself on the finished product and that is why even the most experienced artist may still insist upon a producer's presence. I would say that probably as early as QUIET LIFE we were all, as a band, beginning to develop these skills, but it wasn't until the solo projects that they really emerged. The Mick Karn album that you mentioned was in fact DREAMS OF REASON PRODUCE MONSTERS. At the outset, Mick was working with a producer but it wasn't working out, at which time he asked me to do it.

Q: Personally, I find that mixing/producing can be very tedious and at times difficult. Do you both find the process to be enjoyable and a natural extension to the writing process or is it difficult for you to achieve what you imagine in your head?

Steve: It can sometimes be difficult and frustrating getting ideas to sound as you're perceiving them in your head, at which times the enjoyment factor is way down low, but given time, you can generally find what you're looking for. That's one area where having your own studio set-up can make such a huge difference, having the time to experiment. As I mentioned earlier, production is a display of your own sensibilities, so there's not much room for tediousness there. As far as mixing goes, I quite enjoy the procedure of making everything sound as good as you possibly can, which then allows you to move on to something else.

Q: You mentioned investing in recording gear, first analog then digital. Do both of you have home studios, and when it's time to actually work on songs and record where do you do the bulk of the work?

Steve: We fortunately have two studio set-ups which allow us to work separately. One digital and the older analog. When the time comes to make the definitive recording we obviously resort to the digital studio. On occasions, we actually transfer tracks from analog to digital simply because the 'takes' are irreplaceable. The digital set-up is situated where I live, and the analog is with Richard (he's more the tranditionalist!)

Q: How spend time do you typically spend writing, arranging, and finally mixing a typical song? Have there been any that were total nightmares to finish?

Steve: There are always tracks that you know you should give up on, but stick with in the hope they will come together in the end. We tend to drop these eventually. Nightmare mixes can be quite common. Because of the arrangements and sounds that we tend to use mixing can sometimes be a problem. The total length of time from composition to final mix really does vary. With past studio albums, once in the studio, we try to move things along as quickly as possible for obvious reasons - but with STONE TO FLESH we took our time. We probably spent the best part of a year with the project ongoing. Giving extreme examples - WORLDS IN A SMALL ROOM was writren, recorded and mixed in a little over a week - CATCH THE FALL was gradually written over a long period then recorded in 6 weeks.

Q: Can you describe typically how a song is sparked, hashed out, and finally recorded? I'd be curious to hear about "Long Tales, Tall Shadows" from STORIES ACROSS BORDERS and "Ringing The Bell Backwards" from STONE TO FLESH.

Steve: We usually work fresh ideas directly to multi-track with the expectation that it will be the master recording. We don't like to demo pieces first. This method though, is a luxury afforded by having one's own recording system. The two tracks mentioned were very different in approach due to the fact that we each wrote them separately. Rich always works with guide rhythms and arranges the track, overlaying various keyboard parts, until he is happy with the direction. I then intervene and either play or program my version of his original rhythms - then together we take it further from there. This was the scenario with "Long Tales...". "Ringing The Bell..." on the other hand, I started with the rhythm track and simple chord changes that were to become Part I (Siren) - from there I decided I wanted the track to evolve into something quite different. I knew I wanted a dynamic event as the middle section (similar in a way to the idea of "Big Wheels In Shanty Town" - RAIN TREE CROW but instead of returning to what was Part l, I literally kept adding 'codas' to the piece until it ended up the length it is. My main objective musically was that Part 2 was less aggressive and perhaps more 'fluid'.

Q: Together, you've been writing and recording since the late 70's. Obviously, there must be a mutual appreciation for each other's talents. What musical qualities/strengths do you most admire in each other?

Richard: I think we all appreciate and.respect the work that is involved behind each others contributions. We all strive to produce something original - a lot of thought goes into the most simplest of overdubs.

Q: Do you prefer to work the way you do: sometimes as a duo, sometimes with Mick, with outside artists, or ultimately would you prefer to be permanently committed to a band with a consistant line-up?

Steve: It is healthy to be able to work within various projects with varying degrees of responsibility. Having grown up as part of a permanent band line-up over many years, I'm of the opinion that although this may be satisfying enough when you are younger, it becomes less so as you mature. You need to be able to follow your own interests and direction and cannot expect everyone else involved to be wanting the same as you. No matter what people say, a 'group' cannot sustain a 'group mind', which is just an innocence that young bands try to convey to the public, but sooner or later personal conflicts will materialise, it then becomes necessary for individuals to pursue alternative solo or collaborative projects.

Q: Does working with other artists ever make it difficult for you to focus your creative energies on your own projects?

Richard: No, it actually helps you focus more easily on what you want to do with your own project.

Q: What typically interests you in working with a certain artist? ls it usually someone you know, admire, or are you often called by artists you've never heard of?

Richard: I've never been asked by anyone that I really admire to contribute to their work. This situation seems to make sense to me though, because I love their work so much already I don't think I could add anything that would make a difference.

Q: I'm pretty fond of the FLAME album. How did No-Man initially come to your attention and what are some of your favorite callobrative efforts?

Richard: No-Man, to me, were at the time probably the best group that had contacted us with a view to use contributing to their music. Tim and Steven are both talented musicians and I continue to work with both on separate projects. I like the "Sweetheart Raw" track with No-Man and THE SKY MOVES SIDEWAYS album with Porcupine Tree.

Q: Steve and Richard, I heard that you, along with Mick, recorded a few songs a while back with Midge Ure. Are there any plans for releasing an album together?

Richard: That was a 'casual jam' session that we recorded at Midge's studio. We may do more but there aren't any serious plans as yet to take this any further.

Q: Who would you like to work with now? Are there any collaborations planned or have there been any recently?

Richard: I'm more involved now with Porcupine Tree and the whole project seems to be gaining momentum. The next main collaborations, however, will probably be on the next Medium 'Series' release. This will be along the same lines of BEGINNING TO MELT and will hopefully feature new artists as well as long time collaborations.

As for who I would really like to work with - Scott Walker and Robert Wyatt spring easily to mind - Kate Bush too. But this is just fantasy stuff as I mentioned earlier, they don't need my input, the material sounds great already.

Q: With the number of side projects you've been involved with, in addition to the work required for your own albums, you must spend most of your time holed up in studios! What's a typical week in your lives like?

Richard: A typical week unfortunately throws up many things, mundane and important, that have to be dealt with before I can even start thinking about music. I used to live in a fantasy world where my life was managed by other people to some extent and everything was taken care of. I joined the real world about eight years ago and more recently have produced more output musically than ever before. This leads me to the conclusion that things are moving in the right direction.

to be continued...

Brian McWilliams

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