RR: How old were you when you first started playing piano / keyboards and what was that the first instrument that you started fiddling around with?
RB: I was around 16 and I bought a really cheapo Organ with 4 sounds.
RR: And how did you get into it? What was the catalyst for you?
RB: Well it was nothing more than just loving music and having the chance to join a band and I knew that it was keyboards that I would wanna play so I just started off with something very basic but unfortunately I learnt very quickly that I couldn’t play.
(RR and RB Laugh)
RB: And I wasn’t going to be able to play! I did have some piano lessons but I just had no ability, so it was a struggle until I bought a synthesizer, which is a completely different beast, because there are no real rules with a synthesizer. As Eno said, it's an instrument in development. It can make virtually any sound that you can imagine and one's you can't ! There's no limitation with the frequency of scaling as in other instruments. There are infinite possibilities. Once I had started working with it I found that I could come up with a lot of interesting things and it didn’t matter so much about the keys anymore. I could play only one or two keys but could produce with some really interesting movements and evolutions within the sounds and that’s kind of governed the way I’ve worked ever since, Much in the same way as Brian Eno did I suppose with Roxy Music. He was a self confessed non-musician but what he did became an important part of the sound of that group and that’s what it’s been like for me ever since then really- I’ve just worked more with synthesizers than conventional keyboards. I can play some piano and organ but it doesn’t interest me as much.
RR: So everything that you’ve kind of, done, with regards to synthesizers , is all self-taught?
RB: Oh yeah! I found that I had an aptitude for it because in those days synthesizers didn’t come with pre-programmed sounds- you had to make and develop sound(s). Back then I used to have an old modular synth, which is a bit like a telephone switchboard to look at and you just had to create sounds. Until you patched and routed the signal paths it wouldn't make a sound. But I found that pretty quickly I could imitate instruments pretty well. I could make timpani drums, gongs, bells and then change to trumpets, brass, woodwinds and I knew how to do that instinctively so I felt that was and is what I’m supposed to do.
RR: So when you think back to when you first started playing and discovering everything that you could do, who were the people you were looking at for inspiration? Who was blowing your mind?
RB: Well it was Brian Eno; It was Roxy Music. But also bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, and a lot of the Kraut rock movement as well...just people working with electronics. Also the abstract recording by Stockhausen. That’s what fascinated me so that would have been a big influence.
RR: So take us back to the first band you were ever really were a big part with the synth? What band was that and how did that all come about?
RB: Well that was Japan. I joined them in 1975. I think I was chucked out once or twice early on. I’d just not been good enough with playing conventional keys, but by the time we came to record the first album I was very much a part of it, although I still hadn’t reached any kind of peak at that stage. We were all very young. But I stayed with the band right to the end and probably did some of my best work ever on the last couple of Japan albums. For those who don’t know we were a kind of hyped, sort of glam band. Looked very much like the New York Dolls, with coloured hair, loads of makeup, women’s clothes, just generally, very camp. [laughs] We got a deal- probably based more on the shock and image factor than because of the music and we didn’t do that great to begin with but we hung in there and we fortunately became very popular in the country Japan, and we’d go over and typically play two nights at the Budokan to around 28,000 people and that kept us going while we were failing everywhere else. It was just a struggle really with the negative press, until we came towards the end of our career when we made an album called ‘Tin Drum’ which achieved much critical acclaim and was one of the most successful UK albums of that year.
RR: So how did you go from being in Japan to ultimately, where you are now being in Porcupine Tree ?
RB: Well there was quite a long gap. I carried on working with lots of different people- I’ve always been involved in music- and one day I had a call from this group called No-Man, which was Steven and Tim [Bowness] and they wanted to work with 3 of us guys who were in Japan and for us to contribute to their new recording. That’s where I first met Steven and I guess their enthusiasm for music, their ambition and their general belief in everything kind of rubbed off on me a little bit.
RR: So what’s your set up on stage? It looks like there there’s a million and one things up there!
RB: Yeah it’s become a bit more complicated then I wanted it to but what I have up on stage is dictated to some extent by what I use on the album. When you’re in a recording studio and often writing and recording in an improvisational way you want lots of gear and lots of options to hand because you’re there for a month or something and you know you’ve got all this space so you just have everything at your disposal. So I’m working with sounds all the time and I’m constantly moving from one synth to the other trying this and that and of course, by the end of the album, you realise ‘Christ..what did I do that on? Oh I did it on there…there it is and this one...’ In the end, some of these things can’t be duplicated as they just have their own sound and their own character. So then you have to have a setup to be able to do that. It would be great if there was one keyboard that combined everything. I’m sure the band would prefer that , with all the freighting costs !
RR: So what have you got up there at the moment? Do you think you can give us a run through?
RB: It’s a little bit different these days in that I used to take out a lot of old vintage stuff- all the old analogue gear but it was becoming too unreliable and would break down on tour and it would compromise shows and that’s the problem, so I’ve gone a little bit more digital. I have a V-Synth, I have sponsorship with Roland and I use a lot of the V-Synth range- that’s a really interesting keyboard for programming. I do a lot on that. I have an Access Virus Indigo which is a virtual analogue synth, but with all the controls available to change sounds as you go along, so you can perform in a more instinctive way . I have an little module (Pro 12) that is an imitation of a Prophet 5 which is useful as I always used to have a Prophet 5 onstage. Works and looks the same. Almost sounds the same with a bit of programming. I also use software with the computer as well I’m using instruments within this software, samples, all kinds of things and there’s a whole load of hardware units, effects , distortion , multi effects units. There’s a lot going on there.
RR: As we’re going through the list you’re smiling you look like you really enjoy having all your toys around you and fiddling around with them!
RB: Yes! There’s probably an easier way to do it but as I said it’s the way I work in the studio, and it kind of dictates how I do it.
RR: And you mentioned that you’re endorsed by Roland, is that the only endorsement you have or do you have some others as well?
RB: No I do stuff for PropellerHeads which is a Swedish company that make the software that I use which is called Reason and I had an interesting meeting last week with Access Virus in Germany who noticed that I was playing their product and I think they want to talk with me about something for the future. I often program for these companies as well. That’s my love- programming sounds. A lot of the keyboards that people buy out there will contain many of my sounds within it as standard.
RR: So if you were to give any advice to anybody who was wanting to work in a similar area and become a professional musician what would your tips?
RB: Don’t look for a shortcut. The key thing is to take your time and find your own style, you know? Try to make sounds that are different to other people; endeavor to differentiate yourself. Having influences is a good thing but don’t necessarily be so over-impressed that you just try to copy what their doing. I mean, I love hundreds of musicians and I love what they do but I’ve got no interest in trying to emulate them. It’s better to find your own way. And it’ll take a lot of work and a lot of dedication but that’s the best advice I can give.