Interview with Richard Barbieri (Porcupine Tree)

Porcupine Tree have just released their most ambitious album to date, Fear Of A Blank Planet, and have embarked on an extensive tour of Europe and The States in support of the album. Metal Express Radio caught up with Richard Barbieri (keyboards).

Your new album, Fear Of A Blank Planet has just been released. What are your thoughts on it now that it’s out?

It actually feels like it’s been a long time because we started playing the new album on the last tour before we’d even recorded it. That was quite interesting for us to see how it would work with the audience, to see how the tracks would work, and to see if we could find better arrangements. The actual recording went quite quickly. Of course, when it gets nearer to the end, there’s the mixing to do, the artwork and everything else, so it always seems like a huge project. We’re definitely happy with it and I think things are changing for us … there’s more people coming to the shows, the record sales are increasing, and there seems to be a buzz about the band.

The album features 6 songs, which seem to run as one piece. Is there a theme running through the album?

There is a theme; a general concept running through the album, which I suppose is a rather depressing concept. In a way, it deals with the disaffected youth in that a lot of kids’ lives are quite blank and meaningless because much of their time is taken up with instant gratification … whether it’s something as simple as I-Pods or an X-Box, down to prescription drugs. Parents who can’t deal with their children anymore are getting them onto drugs. It’s just this general sort of feeling about not experiencing life, but just living it in a very one dimensional way.

How did you go about writing for this album? Did you have a pre-prepared idea of what you wanted to explore beforehand, or is this how it developed over the recording sessions?

It usually develops in one of two ways. Steve is the main writer and he’ll go away and write tracks on his own and bring those to us to arrange. What we’ve also been doing these last few years is having group writing sessions where we all get together in a room in a very disciplined way. We don’t go off on these long jams, we just work on things that are happening, then stop and work on something else, cut it up and see how this goes with that. It’s a very quick process. The group came up with three tracks and one ended up on the album called “Way Out Of Here.” I also co-wrote a track with Steven called “My Ashes.”

Steve Wilson seems to be the main writer for Porcupine Tree. How do you get involved in the writing? Do you help with arrangements, or by contributing ideas, or are songs produced complete to the band prior to recording?

Steve is a strong songwriter and has great ideas, which we help to arrange. We all play our own part. We’ve essentially co-produced the album as a band. It’s become more of a band over the years.

It seems like it’s an album that succeeds on different levels. “My Ashes” is probably the most immediate track on the album and “Anesthetize” is one that reveals itself on successive listens. Do you think you’ve written an album that is going to stand the test of time?

To us, we still have a 70’s ethic where the album is the important thing: the way it flows, the concept, the artwork, the whole package. That’s the art for us, it’s the album. I certainly would like to think this will stand the test of time.

Porcupine Tree have always paid close attention to the overall presentation of their albums and Fear Of A Blank Planet is no different.

I guess we’re doing it in a way that we would want if we were a fan or a music buyer.

In the past, you’ve had one or two notable guests appearing on your albums, such as Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth on Deadwing. This time you have Alex Lifeson of Rush and Robert Fripp of King Crimson. How did they become involved?

Well, Robert we’ve known for a while. I actually worked with Robert on a Sylvian album back in ’85, and Robert Fripp was always a big hero of mine right back to the days of Eno and the stuff with Bowie. He has also opened shows for us. He doesn’t really like playing live, but he enjoyed it. I think he liked what we were doing musically, and I think he liked us as people as well, as we gave him space. He’s quite particular about things, and it really worked out well, so he wanted to do more with us so that was great. It was a natural thing for him to be involved. He was very keen to be a part of this.

As for Alex, that was more Steve’s contact as he’s a massive Rush fan. I don’t actually know that much about Rush, but I know that Neil Peart has been into the band for quite a while, and I think Neil likes what Gavin is doing, so it’s nice to have Alex involved.

Did they record with you in the studio, or did they send their parts to you?

No, unfortunately we weren’t in the studio at the same time, it was more of a trans-atlantic thing, which is a lot easier to do these days.

Last year, you played most of Fear Of A Blank Planet at one of your shows and the response was universally positive. You must have been very confident of your work to present it months before it was due out …

Yeah, we thought so. It turned out better than we thought and we were expecting more of a mixed reaction. That was the whole point of it really. We were between albums and wanted a reason to do some gigs. The first half of the show was going to be stuff that people hadn’t heard before. We were really astounded by the audience’s patience and respect for something new.

Was this the chance to test out the material before finalizing the arrangements? Did you change any of the material after the show?

There was one change. One track that we felt didn’t quite stand up the way we wanted it to, so subsequently another track was written by us that ended up on the album. So 5 of the 6 songs made it to the album. That track will see the light of day sometime around the autumn.

Fear Of A Blank Planet is your first for Roadrunner Records since leaving Lava. Why the change?

We didn’t really leave them; they kind of folded as a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. Our main supporter at Lava then became the head of Atlantic, and so he wanted to take us on. We thought we’d rather have someone different for Europe. When you have some major label like Warner Brothers, when you come to Europe and go to say Sweden, and they haven’t heard of you, then you go to Germany and it’s fantastic, they’re right behind the band, so with a major it’s a bit hit and miss. We just thought we’d go with whoever wanted us and Roadrunner were very keen.

Roadrunner are more associated with Metal bands. Were you wary of signing with them at first?

They are more associated with Metal and I suppose at first it was a bit of a worry, but then there’s an aspect of PT’s music that is Metal. We looked at other groups who’d joined the label and it looked as though when Roadrunner took them on they just seemed to increase their profile and sales. Opeth, for example, two or three years ago were at the same level as us or even slightly below, but since joining Roadrunner, they’re selling really, really well and have way surpassed us.

One of your strengths is the fact that you never quite know what to expect from Porcupine Tree. Each album is different compared to the previous ones. It must be much more rewarding for you as a musician to know that you are not trapped into producing the same album over and over again?

I think we can push our musical boundaries a bit, but there’s definitely a Porcupine Tree sound and I suppose the last three albums you could group them together. We’re very light and shade, and very diverse, but there is a definite Porcupine Tree approach.

Deadwing and In Absentia were a lot more guitar-orientated than previous albums. How did you feel about those? Did you feel you keyboards were pushed back a touch?

Being a keyboard player, it was tough. You have to find the space, that’s the problem. The guitar is such an overwhelming thing, especially on stage. You’re also dealing with the guitarist’s personality, and when they have a guitar in their hands, they are all the same!! The whole thing with the keyboards is the sound and the whole textural side, and it was fine for me really. I find it interesting as I won’t play anything if it’s not needed. I’m not a widdly type of Proggie keyboard player, so hopefully I give something different to Porcupine Tree than you’d maybe get from a Rick Wakeman type keyboard player.

How do you see Fear Of A Blank Planet as being a progression from your previous work?

I think this falls in between the Stupid Dream/Lightbulb Sun style and the Deadwing/In Absentia heavier approach.

There seems to have been a big increase in interest in the band since the release of Stupid Dream in 1999, and each album since then seems to achieve a steady increase in interest than the one before. What are your hopes for Fear Of A Blank Planet?

We never hope to much as we’re never going to be a trendy band or off to Glastonbury or featured in Q magazine. Things are changing, though, and we get a lot more radio play and we’re doing more radio sessions. We’ve just been asked to do the Download Festival. We’re getting some recognition and our profile is going up. I don’t know what I’m really hoping for with this. I’d like to think it could break the 200,000 copies mark, which would be a natural progression for us. We had a chart position of #11 mid-week, and it’ll go down from that, but if it can stay in the Top 30, then that will be a big achievement for us.

Was Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun a deliberate step to become more accessible, being a more song-based approach as compared to the more ambient/trancey elements of your earlier work?

I don’t know. Steven has a lot of projects on the go and he tends to compartmentalise his life and his music. It seems at the moment he’s concentrating on the art of a Pop song with Blackfield and with Porcupine Tree it’s more experimental and a more Progressive approach, and for us it seems as though that’s what the audience wants. We’re not trying to write 3 minute Pop songs and compete with Coldplay and Keane. We are trying to do something that we consider uncommercial, but it seems to be the direction that the fans are moving with us. We are getting new fans and I think we are getting a younger audience with the harder edge that we have now.

As a band, you’re pretty hard to describe. Names such as Rush, Pink Floyd, Talk Talk, and Radiohead come to mind, yet you sound nothing like these acts. How do you describe your music to someone who hasn’t come across you before?

I suppose those are as good a comparison as any, really!! Recently, I heard some Rush and thought that it was so much like Stevens guitar and I asked him “Did you get that riff from there?!!”

You’ve just embarked on an 8-date tour of the UK. What do you have lined up for the shows?

We’re playing the new album in it’s entirety, but we’ll be mixing it up a bit. We’ll not be playing it all in one go. We’ve a lot of film to go with the new material and we kind of want to break it up so you haven’t got this continuous film for 50 minutes, or you haven’t got the same vibe going on, so we’re breaking the set up a bit and we’ll play a few older songs too and some stuff that we’ve never played live before.

Will John Wesley be joining you on the tour?

John will be with us, helping out on guitar and singing. We need two guitars for this material, definitely. He’s opened for Marillion in the past and has also played with Fish.

The show at the Carling Academy will be your first in the North East since you played at The Cellar Bar in South Shields in 1996. Why has it taken so long to come back?

I think about 15 people turned up for that!! It’s not an area where we thought we had an audience, but we go where the agent tells us to go, and he’s never really been wrong, so we’ll do the places where the demand is.

Once you’ve finished in the UK, it’s over to the States. How do the Americans take to you?

After these shows we’re off over to The States for a month. I think they’ve taken to us really well. We’ve sold out a lot of shows over there. We actually recorded our recent DVD over there in Chicago.

In June and July you’re back over to Europe for a string of European dates including some festivals. It must be strange performing in broad daylight when you’re used to atmospheric lighting and a moody ambience. Does this affect the way that you play?

It’s a bit strange, very weird!! A lot of people place a lot of importance playing at these festivals. Personally, I’m not that keen on them. You have all that preparation and you’re on for an hour and that’s it. For Download, we’ll just play the Heavy stuff, otherwise we’ll get bottled!!

As a live band, you have toured with a diverse range of acts such as Dream Theater, Anathema, Opeth, and Sonic Youth, who are all very different to you, but also compliment your music. How did you end up playing with these acts? Were you asked or did you approach these acts to play together?

Opeth were great, they are such nice guys and Michael is a really talented guy. These tours tend to happen as we know the same people who know the same groups, or maybe you get into correspondence with people you really like. I think Michael was a big fan of Porcupine Tree, so it came from there, and likewise we all love Opeth too, so we just take it from there. It’s not often that you find groups that you want to be associated with, so it’s nice when you do get someone you like working with.

Is there anyone out there now who you’d like to tour with?

We’d love to tour with Tool. I think in a way we’re almost like a mini-Tool. We aspire to have the same kind of stage presentation, the visuals are amazing, and we like the whole way they present their show.

Rush will be embarking on a World Tour soon. Is that something that would appeal?

If they were going to take someone there’d be a good chance they’d take us, but I think they’ll go with the “Evening With …” format. It’s hard to come out well when you support as you are denying the fans more of the main band. We toured with Yes and the audience were OK, but felt they were denied the full Yes show. We did go down well, but they really wanted more of Yes.

There is also a lot of activity outside of Porcupine Tree with Steve being involved in No Man, IEM, Blackfield, and Bass Communion, and yourself releasing Things Buried a couple of years ago. Do you use your solo work as an outlet for material that’s not quite suitable for Porcupine Tree?

That’s right. Usually you write a lot of stuff that may not be suitable for the band, but you just write it because it’s how you feel at the time. Then you think about where it fits in. Probably about 10% of what I write might be OK for Porcupine Tree and I hand that over to Steven, and the rest I keep for possible solo projects.

Have you any plans for another solo album?

I do have plans, but this year will be very busy because of touring, but hopefully towards the end of the year I might be able to do some solo work. I’ve already got some material and I’ll start to work on my second solo album. The first hasn’t been released, as such. It was only really available through my Web site.

There’s also another band that I play with called The Bays who are an electronic improvisational group. I’m doing various bits and pieces really.

There may be some people out there that don’t realize that you were a member of Japan. Do you think you were unfairly lumped in with the New Romantic crowd in the early 80’s?

That’s right, but quite a lot of Porcupine Tree fans do know, though, and are actually into both bizarrely. I think maybe from a media point of view, we were lumped in with New Romantics, but I think any musicians or people within the industry knew we were outside of that. There was a point where it crossed over, and it was part of the New Romantic sound, but once we made Tin Drum we were well away from that.

There was obviously a greater degree of musicianship within the band than the average Pop band of the era. Do you think Japan have received the credit for their music that they deserve?

I think from musicians we have, so we have the appreciation of our peers. Tin Drum remains a lot of people’s favorite album, and it remains an original piece of work.

You’ve been involved with past members of Japan over the years, most recently with Mick Karn and Steve Jansen, on Playing In A Room With People in 2001. Do you have any plans to work with them again?

Yeah, I’m sure we will. It’s just that during the ’90’s, we formed this label and we worked together a lot, and, of course, we spent a lot of time together with Japan, so it was a good time to leave it for a little while, but I still see them all the time.

What about David Sylvian. Are you in touch with him?

We e-mail each other every so often. He’s actually started his own label, which is very avante garde, but we follow what each other has been doing over the years.

So many of your peers have reformed recently … have you ever been tempted to put Japan back together even as a one-off show?

I can’t really see the point. What reason is there to do it other than money? Whether it’s The Police or Velvet Underground who’ve reformed, it’s a nostalgia thing, it’s just about money. I’m more than happy musically where I am at the moment. I suppose it kind of happened a while back with Raintree Crow. We know that when we work together something will happen, but it won’t be as Japan.

Seeing as though you already had a track record as a major recording artist prior to joining Porcupine Tree, was it difficult joining a band where the members were relatively unknown?

Yeah, well it wasn’t difficult in the beginning. What I’m proud of is that I saw something there that I thought would be good and I stuck with it through many hard years. A lot of people would ask me why was I doing this or why was I playing in this club, but now they’ve gone very quiet as we’re the ones selling records. I’m quite proud of the fact that I’ve only been in two bands and both were started from scratch.

One final question. What are your long-term plans both with Porcupine Tree and as a solo artist?

You never really know with things, but hopefully we’ll keep our momentum going and keep progressing. We’ll do all this touring this year and see where we go from there. We’re music lovers and were meant to make music, so we’ll see what happens.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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