I don’t know about you lot, but the prospect of spending a wet & wintery Thursday in the faded glory of a Northern industrial milltown isn’t one which usually fills me with much excitement; however, throw into the mix the opportunity to meet up with some fellow music-loving folk and the added bonus of a master-class being fronted by one of your alltime favourite musicians, and the idea suddenly looks like a total must, doesn’t it? And so, this is how a few dozen hardy souls found themselves in the rather splendid surroundings of St Paul’s Hall in Huddersfield last week, being battered by the remnants of yet another crazily-named storm, and having our nerves and ears soothed by the sonic dexterity of one Richard Barbieri.
The masterclass was organized through the Huddersfield University music department, and was aimed primarily at their own students, but there were also tickets available to the general public and thanks to Richard posting this information on his own fb site, a good few of us had made the journey; some folks came from afar afield as Bristol and London, which may seem a tad excessive for an afternoon ‘lecture’ but what we witnessed was actually far more interesting and intimate than a ‘normal’ gig.
As we filed into the hall, Rich’s gear was already set up and it was pretty astonishing to see his Prophet 5 just sitting there, ready to do business. I am not a synth geek by any stretch of the imagination, but even I got a bit goose-bumpy when I saw it. I had no idea what to expect of the day – and certainly no idea how he would pitch his session. After all, most of the people in the room were under 25 and had probably little or no interest in Richard’s earlier career, even if they were aware of Japan. There were a couple of students who I heard discussing Porcupine Tree, but surely he wouldn’t focus on the Japan years at such an event? Whatever, I was just happy at the prospect of finally seeing him play live again, after so long. It is a huge regret to me that I never saw JBK so, when I totted up the intervening decades I realized it has been a shocking 28 years since I last laid eyes on Richard. Blimey.
On he came……..notebook in hand and with a flask of hot tea for lubrication (although he did pretend he was sipping warm sake at one point, trying to gain some rock n roll brownie points!) …and it all went a bit surreal. He talked about his initial lack of musical prowess and how he had ended up finding his ‘voice’ with the advent of programming….all familiar stuff to those of us who are Japan fans, but still incredibly exhilarating to hear it from the horse’s mouth (as it were). He talked through how he constructs a track, often just taking a few notes from a sample and building them into a larger piece, which was quite mind blowing to me. I have absolutely no musical ability, and one of the things which astonishes me when I listen to Richard and Steve’s music, is how they build the layers, so it starts at one point and ends up somewhere totally different over the course of the composition. He then played an amazing new track, which showed all these layers and built to a beautiful crescendo…..absolute bliss.
Over the course of 2 hours, Rich focused his talk around his equipment, illustrating how the old analogue synths create a much richer sound than today’s modern digital technologies. He used ‘work in progress’ examples of Canton and Methods of Dance to explain how many of the sounds which are so familiar to us were created. One of the highlights (for purely voyeuristic purposes, rather than aurally) was a sneak airing of the Moroder demo of Life in Tokyo, which was pretty appalling and sounded (as Rich said) more like Boney M than anything you could imagine Japan producing. Rather hilariously, he said something along the lines of: “they say that you can’t polish a turd. Well, David Sylvian definitely did polish this turd” which got a huge laugh from the crowd. Later he explained that the rest of the band had very little to do with LiT and it really was just Sylvian who worked with Moroder on the track.
If there was one stand-out moment for me, then hearing the opening notes of The Experience of Swimming has to be it. I sat in a trance for the whole song, not quite believing what I was watching; 20 yards in front of me was one of my all-time musical heroes, playing one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard, in a converted church, at 2pm on a wet Thursday in West Yorkshire. You know that ‘Letter to my 16 year old self’ thing they do in the Big Issue?? Well, this would definitely be one of the ‘you won’t believe this but one day….’ sections in my version.
As if this wasn’t enough, there were snippets of Burning Bridges, (a ‘boring song’ according to RB!) Nightporter, and even a little tribute to Bowie, when he played a sample of Blackstar over an improvised ambient piece, all followed with a lengthy Q&A session where people were given free rein to ask whatever they wanted – and then Richard stayed and chatted to people, signing CDs and just generally being a lovely bloke. A few of us were even lucky enough to end up in the pub with him for a few hours afterwards, where we got to ask even more questions and generally natter him to within an inch of his life. It became totally surreal when the young man behind the bar realised who he was, and started playing loads of Japan tracks, all which Richard took with good humour (until Adolescent Sex came on and then he looked rather mortified, if I am honest!)
They say you should never meet your heroes.
Well, balls to that; I just met one of mine and he was an absolute star.
With thanks to Paul Rymer and Craig Hamlin for additional photographs