Landmarks – Issue 16


Japan’s synth wiz Richard Barbieri talks us through the making of the band’s breakthrough hit, the very excellent ‘GENTLEMEN TAKE POLAROIDS’
Words: Rosie Morgan

At the time Virgin signed us, we didn’t have any hits. What convinced them to take us on was this growing interest in the band. They came to see us play live and realised we’d been playing all these London shows that were sold out in advance. We had a residency at The Music Machine in Camden – I think it’s called Koko now – and we used to sell that out every week. So Virgin took a gamble with us, and ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ was the first recording we did with them.

I think Japan had three stages. You can group them: the first two albums are of a type, and then ‘Quiet Life’ was a big musical change, and then there was another massive change for ‘Tin Drum’, which was a completely different sort of animal altogether. The ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ album is an extension of ‘Quiet Life’ really. With ‘Quiet Life’, we’d found a way of doing things and a producer we liked working with, so ‘Polaroids’ was about perfecting a new style we’d developed.

The hardest thing to explain is how we used to compose and arrange our music. Nowadays, you can move tracks around on a computer within seconds and easily test different things out. Back then, you couldn’t record anything so to try new ideas you’d have to play the whole thing again, but that’s how we did it. Just in a studio, a couple of keyboards each, building the track up like that.

Although David Sylvian is credited as the writer on all the tracks, by that time we were working on material together as a band and arranging them in rehearsal rooms. David would come in and he would usually start playing either an acoustic guitar or, as in this case, a keyboard. He had this basic line which is on the album, playing single notes, going through the verse, and we would all start playing along. I still have tapes of us rehearsing and writing this song.


Read the full feature in the November Issue of Electronic Sound

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