Antonio Costa Barbé is a lawyer, musician and freelance journalist. On 19 December 1997 he telephoned Matthew Fisher for a chat about music and computing: their conversation was broadcast on Antonio's show Il Pezzo Mancante ('The Missing Piece') on Radio Azzurra Novara ...
ACB: So Matthew: for me and my listeners of Radio Azzurra Novara I will ask, if I may, something about your music and about you. May I begin?
Matthew: Yeah, sure.
Thank you very much. First, a question. In your youth did you think about life as a musician, or it happened by chance?
Well when I was a kid I think I always wanted to be a musician, um, I never really thought about being anything else. I'm not sure that was a good thing, but that's how I was when I was young. So it just seemed perfectly natural for me to do that when I left school.
You did seem very skilful in playing your part, the Whiter Shade of Pale at the Hammond organ. How did you reach that skilful in playing? In the early 60s there were no more heroes at the keyboard, at the Hammond organ.
Well, there's nothing very difficult in what I played, you know; it's um ... I mean if there's skill involved it was in just thinking what notes to play, you know. But the actual performance of it was straightforward, quite simple.
And have you some experience as musician before Procol Harum?
Well yeah, I mean, um, well ... it's a long story. I had piano lessons when I was a kid. And then when I got to about sixteen years old, I suddenly discovered rock and roll, and took up playing guitar. Just rhythm guitar, and then I changed over to bass guitar. But it was when I decided that I wanted to go professional, I discovered that there were, you know, a lot of bass players around but very few keyboard players, and I thought, well, I can play keyboards, I can play organ, so maybe I'll get more work doing at. And in fact I did ... I've only ever played various guitars semi-professionally, all my professional experience has been as keyboard player.
Did you feel happy after your first separation from Procol Harum, it was the right decision, in perspective?
Oh I think so, yeah, I mean in fact the more I think about it the more I think I should have done it sooner.
OK. Please, in the 70s and in the 80s you were I think a producer, musician / producer. How did you choose the artists that you would produce, or were they looking for your collaboration?
Well I didn't actually produce that many people. I mean the notable one was Robin Trower, and that came to me simply because I knew Rob, and he was looking for a producer when he got his new band together and he contacted me and we did the first three albums. And I got a little bit of work from Chrysalis, because of that.
I remember an album of Roderick Falconer, produced by you, I think?
Oh yeah. Now that was ... he came to me. In fact he was ... he'd decided that he definitely wanted to do the album in England, with an English producer, and he had a list of names with various people on, and I was one of the names on the list. And ... I was the one who actually got chosen.
What is the meaning of your solo albums? Your albums were few during the years. What is the meaning of writing songs in your mind and your intention?
Well, my approach has always been that I always write the music first, and then I have to try and think of some words that I can sing, that I think kind of echo the feeling of the music. You see, it's something that I've never felt very confident about, writing lyrics, you know, but I just do the best I can.
You know that I am amateur musician too. I gave you at the Barbican concert my audio cassette, Come Fregoli II, and in addition a video cassette, or do you not remember this?
This was ... you gave me a video cassette?
Yes the Italian TV video at time of your trip in Italy, 1968, at the time of Il Tuo Diamante: '15 Minuti con i Procol Harum' ...
I've still got that. I don't always remember who gives me things, but I know the tape, yes.
How happened the reunion of Procol Harum for the Prodigal album, the Prodigal Stranger album.
Well ... for a long time I didn't really have any contact with Keith and Gary, and I gather that a lot of the reason for that was that I had a partner, a manager at the time, that they didn't like, and so they didn't really want to get in touch with me for that reason. And it was very soon after this manager and I parted company that I suddenly got a call from Gary. But this was not for The Prodigal Stranger, this was with a view to the ... um ... The Echoes in the Night album ... because it was going to be called Saw the Fire at one time, and he changed it to Echoes in the Night and I keep forgetting what it was called. But that's how we got back together: we wrote some songs together for that album, and nothing much happened for a couple of years, then I got another 'phone call from Gary saying they getting together for another album and maybe some tours, and would I be interested, and I said 'Yes.'
OK. And may I ask you what you think of Gary and Keith, as well as musician, as well as friends, if I can say this?
Ah. That's a very difficult question. (laughs). Um. I'm not sure how I could put this. Let me just say, I like them, I like them both. But I have reservations (laughs) in dealing with them. You have to be careful with them. That's all I would say.
OK. How it happened your approach to the world of computers? You have a Wolfson ... a degree in computer Science at Wolfson's College ...
Well the degree's from Cambridge. Wolfson's just the college I was at. The way Cambridge and Oxford are organised is that the University organises the courses and the exams and everything like that, but you have to have a college to belong to, to go there you see, so the college is where you live, and they look after you, but the degrees [...] are organised by the University.
Well that was .. the situation was really that I ... um ... I split up with my wife about ... ooh, getting on for ten years ago now, and after a while I began to realize that in fact I was now free to do things which I hadn't been able to do before. And one of the things I felt I'd always wanted to do was go to university.
And then I thought, well, OK, but I've got to study something: what shall I study? And I looked through the courses and all the things that you could do at university, and the one that caught my eye was Computer Science, and I thought 'This sounds interesting'. And that's how I did it. But it was more that I wanted to go to university than I really wanted to learn about computers.
And do you search a job as a programming computer man, now?
I am now, yes. I wasn't sure that I wanted to do it, but I thought about it long and hard, and .... I've come to the decision that I actually really enjoy programming and I enjoy working with computers, and in fact I probably enjoy it more than music. You see ... I mean music I can enjoy if I don't do it very often, but I wouldn't want to do it every day. Computers I can do every day, and I don't get bored.
I understand. And how do you see the diffusion of Internet, this new world communication medium.
Um ... it's very difficult to say. At one time I had visions of it really changing the world, but I don't think the world is changed that easily. So maybe (laughter) it's not going to change the world as much as I would have hoped. But it's too soon to say. There's not enough people on it yet. Wait until everyone's on it, then I think we might see some changes.
And just two questions finally. What are the projects for the next year, 1998, your projects.
I don't have anything much myself, I mean I want to get a job as I said, because I feel that should be my base now. In the mean time I'm writing a lot of songs and things and I want to make an album, but there's no particular hurry on this, I won't do it until I'm good and ready. And I need to earn some money to rebuild my studio.
I have read on your internet page ...
Just yesterday I added another page, which you might find interesting
I will be ... take a look
I won't tell you anything about it. But you might find it funny.
And just the last question, Matthew. You were very patient. Do you want to say something that I did not ask you during this chat, this conversation?
Ooh, I wish you'd told me that before (laughter). No, honestly, right now I couldn't. I'll probably think of something in ten minutes' time. But um, no, I just wish everybody a Happy Christmas ...
Thank you for my listeners. I think this interview will be broadcast this Sunday at Radio Azzurra Novara at eight o'clock, Italian hour, p.m. If you want I can send you a copy of this ... a souvenir if you want.
Do you think I could get that in this country, or is it too far away?
Did you ... have you intention to come to Italy in the next month, in the next years?
No plans to come to Italy at the moment. But my plans are always so sudden, you know what I mean? It's like ... I mean, last year I went to Greece, but it was only, you know, it suddenly came up, and suddenly I found myself in Greece: I'd never been there before. And although I had some friends there ... so I don't know ... who knows? maybe I'll be in Italy next year, maybe I won't.
Yes, It's very kind of you. I thank you, and I would give to you Merry Christmas and a happy, happy new year.
Same to you, Antonio.
Read more Procol Harum interviews from Antonio at Radio Azzurra