An EXCLUSIVE Q&A
If you are not familiar with the music of Anton Barbeau, then you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Initially coming to prominence during the Indie and Power Pop uprising in the ‘90s, the Sacramento-born/Berlin-based artist has remained a sorely under-rated and overlooked singer, songwriter and collaborator. Since his debut album in 1993, his music has taken so many twists and turns that his most hardcore fans are often left dizzy and searching for a place to sit down and gain their composure. From Power Pop to Synthpop to Psyche Rock and back again, Anton is a clever one. He never stands still long enough to become boring and he always surprises the listener with every new release. In fact, his every song on his riveting 2016 album MAGIC ACT manages to head off in a different musical direction than the song before it. Often times, he manages to cram a few different genres into the same song! However, they never sound like anyone but Anton. You can make comparisons to Bowie, Julian Cope, Robyn Hitchcock, The Bevis Frond, R. Stevie Moore, XTC and many others, but he never strays far from sounding like Anton Barbeau.
He’s worked with a myriad of artists over the years – his trio Three Minute Tease featured two members of The Soft Boys/The Egyptians for chrissakes – and he’s managed to rope in a few high profile guests for MAGIC ACT, including XTC’s Colin Moulding and acclaimed drummer Michael Urbano amongst others. While his music doesn’t always speak the language of Top 40 radio, there is more to love on MAGIC ACT than most albums released this year so it’d be a shame for you NOT to hear it...
Apart from his own albums, he’s also worked with the wonderful Bay Area Pop outfit The Corner Laughers and is the creative force behind two albums by Allyson Seconds, the wife of 7 Seconds vocalist Kevin. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Like I said, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do!
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE was able to track Anton down – he’s always working on something – and he graciously took time out between tours and recording projects to answer….
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Your album MAGIC ACT is now available. How are you feeling about the journey to make this particular album and the reaction to it so far?
ANTON BARBEAU: Well, the response has been really lovely. Fans and friends seem to really like this one, and I've had some good reviews digging deep into the layered soul of the album. Not like I'm clogging the airwaves, but radio so far has been wonderful as well. I'm pretty sure every song on MAGIC ACT has had radio play, beyond the obvious pop picks or the "specialty show" psychedelic tunes. BBC 6 Music and Resonance FM have been kind to the album and hometown spins on KDVS and KALX are personally meaningful. Lots of coverage in Spain, where the album is out on LP on the You Are The Cosmos label. While my music might not be for everybody, this album seems to suit the breakfast, lunch and dinner crowds!
Um, as for the journey to make MAGIC ACT… perhaps it's been the long and winding autobiography of a performing magpie with a metal detector! "Sticks and shiny things" all glued together with wax and green cheddar cheese. If I do try to think through what led to this record, honestly, it feels like my whole life story is crammed in the grooves. The title refers to my first gigs as magician and then actor, with cryptic shout-outs to Jodorowsky and Jung. In more immediate terms, I thought I was making the third Three Minute Tease album, originally. TMT was my UK band with Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor. I had maybe half the songs written and was wondering when we might be able to get together in London to record but Andy sorta suddenly left the band. The eggs were knocked right out of my chicken, man! Enneagram 7 as I am, I scrambled to make the best of the situation and found myself making a solo record.
After a bit of moping and fretting, a sense of liberation took over and I saw that I could make any sort of record I wanted to. I rang up various musicians, some I'd worked with many times before, others who were new for me. Andy did agree to play on a few tracks, and Morris is all over the album, so there's the lava of TMT, if not the full volcano.
SPAZ: While the album remains cohesive, you manage to take the listener on a thrill ride down many different musical avenues. When you began the process of recording MAGIC ACT, had you already chosen the songs that were destined to make the final track list or did the songs ‘magically’ present themselves to you during the writing and recording process?
ANTON: Sincerely, there really was a sense of magic at play with this one. I'm saying this with affection, but I imagine if TMT had gone on to make a third album, it would have probably been a far more linear experience. We'd whittle down the song selection by committee, we'd book time at Pat Collier's to record backing tracks and backing vocals and I'd finish the rest in Berlin. Instead, I found myself freed up to pick any songs that fit my new mood, including a handful of older songs that hadn't had a home, like "Swindon." I love that track - the recording is charmed and any attempted remakes in recent years never came close to the vibe of this version. Actually, "Heavy Psychedelic Toilet" IS TMT - it was left off our second record, apparently so it could sit perfectly on MAGIC ACT. And "Hop Skip a Jump" was one of the first things Morris and I did together at the Funkhaus in Berlin. That session led to Andy joining the band. He added a beautiful fretless bass track a couple years later. I think Morris's playing on that song is beautiful. Solid, yet delicate and absolutely intuitive. Andy's bass tells a tale within and around my lyrics. It's a perfect track and you'd never know the song was recorded in two countries and over 3 years. And that's true of so much of this record - people sent parts from everywhere over the internet. I didn't meet Colin Moulding until we were shooting the video for "High Noon." Michael Urbano sent two different drum tracks for that song. The "Ringo" version on the LP from Italy and the "Scary Monsters" take on the CD from California. Modern record making. I love being in a studio with great players and fine engineers and a cup of tea. Yet I'm happy as a clam in oyster sauce to be locked away on the top floor with a laptop, some headphones and an herbal jazz cigarette. I'll back up and say that while some of the songs I've mentioned are older, the majority on MAGIC ACT are very much reflective of the moment that holds this record together, whether they're quickly or carefully written.
SPAZ: Now based in Berlin, do you feel more in touch with your musical influences than ever before? Do you draw from the musical ghosts of Berlin for your inspiration?
ANTON: A funny story - before we actually moved from England to Berlin, I'd been coming to Germany a few times a year for gigs. And during this time I was obsessed with Krautrock and Bowie. No surprise! We were staying in a cosy flat in Neukolln with a bag of weed and only a radio in the kitchen for music. I had on an oldies station, and stoned out of my technically tiny mind, I heard ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down." I swear, it felt like I was hearing pop music and tasting sugar at the same time for the very first time. Not that it shook me out of my Krauty trance, but it certainly reminded me that I was also a pop fiend at heart. "Hooks! Needs more hooks! Everything needs more hooks!!" Anyway, the next issue of Tape Op magazine was waiting for me when we returned to the UK and in it was an interview with Reinhold Mack. Turns out he'd not only (famously) worked with ELO but had engineered some early Amon Düül recordings. He also worked with Sparks, and Martin Gordon, original member thereof, plays on MAGIC ACT, though he didn't work with Mack. I'm kind of drifting through your question, but I'd certainly say that Bowie's influence on me only gets stronger and deeper since I've been living here. It's not hard to feel how this place shaped and influenced him, though I can't begin to imagine his Berlin in the seventies compared to mine now. Not meaning to be fussy, but I wouldn't think to use the term ghosts, exactly. There are definitely living spirits, though. I was here when Bowie died. I'd done a cover of "Ziggy" that night, before hearing the news. And wandering around the city over the next weeks with BLACKSTAR in my headphones and sunglasses hiding my eyes was a fitting way for me to cope. I mean this with utter humility, but I'm glad MAGIC ACT is what I had to offer after he died. My record doesn't reach for any territory close to BLACKSTAR but I know it's as true an album as I'm able to make. If all I have for the world is a bit of music, and if MAGIC ACT was the only thing I'd done, I'd be ok with that.
SPAZ: And are there songs on MAGIC ACT that you feel could and would not have been written had you stayed in California?
ANTON: That's an interesting question. I'd have to say no, mostly, but slightly yes as well. Both? Meaning, "High Noon" and "Milk Churn in the Morning" were written upstairs on the sofa, TV on. These sound like songs I could have written anytime, anywhere. They're archetypal Anton guitar-pop numbers. "Hop Skip" was written on a sofa in Cambridge, TV on! Very 12-string, very Cambridge. "Flying Spider" might be a bit more liberated in a way I connect to my life in Berlin. The vocal isn't quite me, its sung in character. My piano playing is edgier, odder, maybe sometimes darker in Berlin. "Broken in Two" is perhaps the song most associated with my life here, but mainly because I was immersed in Jung's Red Book for a year and that song is a reflection of that time for me. ""Heavy Psychedelic Toilet,"maybe not surprisingly, was written on a train coming home from Amsterdam. “Black Lemon Sauce" is also of a similar state of mind, conveyed through descending chromatic piano-isms, and mentioning a slice of Berlin life, so that does get 3 points added! "Blue Lamp Rider," while written upstairs on the sofa, TV on, is all about my earlier days as a working musician in California! Folsom and Carmichael represent. "Swindon," ironically, was written in Sacramento, as were "City By The Sea" and "Sit Your Leggy Down." MAGIC ACT is quite the travelogue, come to think! Now, I did make an album not long ago called DISTORTION SCHLAGER which is far more clearly the sound of my Berlin life. If you look up "Bruising My Shin" on YouTube, that'll give you the whole Anton/Berlin pie and cake in one sitting!
SPAZ: I believe that artists (subconsciously?) draw inspiration from their surroundings. Do you feel that your songwriting has changed since you moved to Europe?
ANTON: I agree that we're all taking in so much information. Our brains work hard and fast to make sense of differences and similarities, shuffling much of the info out of the way so we don't freak out every time we ride the bus! And I'm very sensitive to my surroundings. People have pointed out that I have a hard time filtering things. I can't block out conversations in cafes and I certainly tune into any music I hear in cafes or supermarkets. Edeka is painful for me, all auto-tuned and blasting. Yet I'm working on my second album of full-on synth-pop including one track that's undeniably influenced by the very sort of sound that drives me mad! If you can't beat 'em, enjoy 'em!
I think I used to make much more conscious effort to reflect my travels in writing before I was actually traveling so much! You know, my first trips from Sacramento to LA had me writing one LA song after the next. London? Songs about London! Kinda funny, but maybe I write mostly about California if I really think this through. There's a song on the new Allyson Seconds album called "Summer of Gold" which I started in Berlin and finished in Madrid that's made of nothing but smokey California sunshine. I'll again mention DISTORTION SCHLAGER as the most concentrated dose of "Anton's Berlin." It's the feel of Berlin winter, and it's the feeling of my anonymous life here, as a spy, perhaps. There's also a track called "Clubbing in Berlin" that sorta takes the piss out of being an ex-pat or trendy tourist here, not speaking the language but boldly/rudely trudging forth. I'm proud to have captured the feeling of life here in various works but MAGIC ACT feels more about my life in the whole world, including the semi-unseen unconscious realm.
SPAZ: The songs on MAGIC ACT vary from whimsical to gorgeous and everything in between. What inspired this batch of songs?
ANTON: "High Noon" was written in two or three hours for the Acoustic Guitar Project. Thinking it was a one-off, I threw in all the tricks in my limited book. Another song in the key of G? Who cares, crank it out. And I hated the song at first. But it crept up on me, and when I played it live a few times I realized it was solid and by now I'm very fond. It's a song of love and forgiveness, with the memory of my own mother portrayed here by the Virgin Mary. "Flying Spider" was me mangling a wrong 7th chord from a Corner Laughers demo Karla (Kane) had sent. "Milk Churn" is, uh, inspired by the Polish entry in 2014's Eurovision Song Contest. Make sure you Google the version from the finals! Anyway, inspired by such but written on the sofa the next day while watching some old Errol Flynn thing in German. "City By The Sea" is the feeling of discovering that someone's moved onto a next someone other, though maybe the lyric isn't clear as to which someone is whom… We could subtitle this one "Breaking Up is Vague To Do." "Sit Your Leggy Down" came from me sat waiting for a ride in Sacramento. I knew I had about 40 minutes to kill, so I plugged in the guitar, turned Pro Tools on and started recording the first thing came to mind. One take. Harmony vocal… one take! Drums… bass… one take each! I did add a touch of backing vocals and keyboard later, but really, this is the most spontaneous bit of fluffy fun I've ever done. "Broken in Two" follows and it's as far the opposite as can be. I mentioned already I'd been reading Jung's Red Book, and was lost pretty deep. This track took a long time to get right, but I think it works well as a tone poem. Now, MAGIC ACT is out on LP - my first album on vinyl. On CD, this track is butted-up straight next to "Black Lemon Sauce" as though the two songs were meant to be joined. Yet, on the LP, Broken…" ends the first side of the album. I love how the contrast between formats works so well. Again, that's the stuff of record-making magic for me. When accidents sound or feel perfectly planned - fab! "Black Lemon Sauce" is what is known in certain show-biz circles as a trip report. The chord progression is a dead giveaway! Andy and Morris on this one, though Andy sent his bass from home while Morris did his drums over Skype from London! This song is like a sound effects record with a beat! "Heavy Psychedelic Toilet" is also a description of a particular day (or year or was it a minute?) in the life. Amsterdam in full glorious color. The title is a slight tribute to a fav Soft Boys' track, "Rock and Roll Toilet." Now, the word toilet here is used in the European sense, what we Americans know as a bathroom. There's too much song here to take place entirely in a porcelain bowl! "Euphemism and Innuendo" - not sure if there are even real lyrics. I muttered into the mic, and thought, "That'll do." The backing vocals and scribbly "Eastern" synth were also spontaneous, me improvising some harmonies not knowing the synth was being recorded to the same track. I like that about this record - for every song worked on for ages, there's always a next song that just flopped out of bed fully dressed. "The Wait of You" is a song of England, with adventures at Avebury thrown in to keep the clocks running on time. Me on drums, Andy on bass. "The coin is in the air, but it ain't hanging there" is a reminder to myself to waste no time, live now. "Swindon." A love song for a city. Of course I was drawn there by the music of XTC, but I've spent enough time there by now to be able to call the Beehive my "local." "Blue Lamp Rider" as I think I said earlier, is a stumble backwards down memory lane, specifically regarding my years slogging it out in suburban cafes for money. Carmichael, Folsom, Marysville, Citrus Heights… These places were my Hamburg! Ok, not quite. Good memories, really - three sets a night, three nights a week meant a lot of songs got played, new material tested in front of keen ears. "Hop Skip" was an odd one from Cambridge. I never liked living there, but I like the sunlight I can see in the songs I wrote there. I'd write in the afternoon, in the front room, before everybody else came home. Morse or Frost or whatever detective show would be on and I'd strum out a song between cups of tea. I do miss England!
SPAZ: In regards to your earliest influences, can you remember that pivotal moment in your life when you first realized that you wanted to create music?
ANTON: I can name two huge moments where I recognized my love for music. The first was as a small child - two years old? - crawling through my parents' collection trying to find the one with "I Want To Hold Your Hand" on it. The next was not long after - a year or so. I was riding with my mother in her Studebaker, radio on. We heard some song and I loved it, needed to know what it was. Obviously wasn't Beatles or anything my mother knew, and this was in the weeks before the internet, so we never were able to find out what the song was. I figure I've spent my life trying to discover it by writing it myself. Anyway, the actual moment that turned me into a musician was hearing "Cars" by Gary Numan. I'd already been plonking away on my grandmother's piano, with "I'm Cowboy John and I Live On a Farm" my first-ever composition. But Gary Numan did it - I gave up on trying to be an actor, letting go of my dream of meeting Tracy Partridge, and spent 25 hours a day on the Casiotone my dad bought for me. That was truly that. And I'll tell you an amazing full-circle story. When Three Minute Tease was making our first album at Remote Farm, I asked if I could use the Minimoog that was leaned up against a wall behind an amp. Sure, they said, but it needed hours of calibration and there wasn't time for that. I just used it for a few drone notes and some squishy synth noises. Turns out that Moog was the very one that Mike Kemp had turned Gary Numan onto when GN was doing demos at Spaceward in Cambridge. Much of that gear had been bought by Katrina and the Waves for Remote Farm. I only found out recently that that was the same Mini that basically jump-started Numan's career, which in turn jump-started my, uh, nearly-career!
SPAZ: While you are often referred to as a Psyche Pop artist, there’s really much more to your sound than that description implies. If you could create a classification for the Anton Barbeau sound, what would you call it?
ANTON: If I had an answer to this question, I'd form four other groups and be managers!! Now, I've been borrowing the term "pre-apocalyptic psychedelic pop" for ages, probably because it sounds more like it means something than it really does. I dunno "normal music for weird people," or maybe "weird music for normal people?"
SPAZ: You’ve released an amazing amount of music over the last 20 years, often shaking thing things up along the way with projects like ANTRONICA and the album you did with Allyson Seconds. However, you manage to remain a unique talent. Is there a particular album you’ve released that you feel was overlooked at the time that you are particularly proud of?
ANTON: Even in the micro-cosmic world my music inhabits, I'd have to say that the albums I'm most proud of have actually had their share of relative attention. IN THE VILLAGE OF THE APPLE SUN got nice reviews and charted at CMJ while properly freaking people out with its vibe. A SPLENDID TRAY did ok and now MAGIC ACT is bothering polite people in pleasing ways. The first Allyson Seconds album didn't get much attention at all, but that's my own fault. I was playing the dumb game of waiting on a record deal that dragged on and never happened, and meanwhile, we sent zero copies out upon release, so nobody knew it existed. Actually, Robyn Hitchcock came up to me once in a denim suit at a wedding reception with a plate of potatoes in hand to tell me he liked that record, so that makes up for a multiplex of sins!
SPAZ: Your musical vision seems to be as eclectic – and eccentric – as artists like R. Stevie Moore, The Bevis Frond, Robyn Hitchcock and a host of other beloved yet commercially under-appreciated acts out there. Are you comfortable doing what you what to do at an indie level … and would you consider signing with a major label if the opportunity presented itself?
ANTON: Sure! At this point I've got pretty much all the artistic integrity out of my system and have plenty of room inside for commercial reward! I'm kidding, probably. Actually, this is the hardest question for me to answer in this interview. If an established label was interested, I certainly feel an instant "greatest hits" record could be cobbled together and presented with me on the cover wearing a funny hat and red coat. Despite me not being able to come up with the perfect term to describe myself, I think you could fit me inside 10 songs and sell me to a far larger audience than I currently have access to. But after a lifetime of semi-sub-cultiness, there's a strong feeling of "just not good enough" that I live with. It doesn't stop me from making records - I can't help but make records. But I am finally trying to be more careful about what I release. MAGIC ACT is special and I don't want to cough up another album all of a sudden just because I can. While I wish to expand my fan base, part of how I want to honor the fans I do have is by not drowning them in half-assed albums anymore!
My recent Spanish tour was put together by You Are The Cosmos to promote MAGIC ACT. Even a small label like that can make a huge difference for someone of my DIY-as-default tendencies. Instead of playing to 5 people, I'm playing to 40. Instead of scrambling for a sofa, there's a hotel. Instead of trying to work out busses, there's a van. All of that helps me focus then on the show I've got to do that night and it all goes towards feeling like there's actual progress, forward motion. I'm so fortunate, even as a scrappy no-budget guy, to have worked with the most amazing people. That's always my reward - the musicians and engineers and artists I get to play around with. But it's always on the tightest budget or calling in a next-lifetime's worth of favors. I say all this having just spent two days in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, singing and playing guitar on my friend Stef's record. Mind-bending as it was to work in that holy place, it's just as startling for me to see how quickly comfortable I was. Yeah, I could totally get used to that. Major label or wealthy patrons, please get in touch!
SPAZ: You’ve recorded or shared the stage with some amazing artists over the years. Do any of them stand out as pivotal moments to you?
ANTON: Playing with the Bevis Frond in Sacramento was one that really changed everything. I'd never heard them before and was knocked out by their music, as I am still to this day. That gig led to me supporting them in London and then to us recording an album together. I've gigged with them in three countries and they've played on a variety of Ant tracks since. Working with them opened up many doors for me. Oh, and they're backing up Allyson Seconds on one song from her new album. Another huge moment, though it wasn't me supporting, was seeing Game Theory open for Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. Without going into the tangle of connections, I met RH, Andy and Morris that night after the gig. Meanwhile, a friend handed Scott Miller one of my tapes and Scott rang me days later to say he liked it. Decades later, Scott ended up playing on the very first Three Minute Tease track. I supported Julian Cope on bits of his 2011 and 2012 tours. Seeing my set-list on stage in front of Copey's was so weird. I love that guy.
SPAZ: Do you feel that social media has helped or hindered your career? Can the same be said about streaming services?
ANTON: I'm not great online - I don't present myself as well as I wish I could. I don't like being the guy who pops up on a forum to mention a new record and then fucks off again, but I'm sure that was me for a long time. My humor doesn't translate either, and I don't use emoticons. All that said, I'm finally getting a better handle on things, learning to mix in a few kittens and puppies in my sales bag!
SPAZ: What’s next for Anton Barbeau?
ANTON: Cup of tea, to start. Then I'm off again to Spain for a festival gig. There's possibly a film about me being made over there, though I'm not sure where that's at. Mostly what we've shot is me walking slowly past the camera, thinking moody thoughts. Working on a couple more videos for MAGIC ACT. Allyson Seconds' LITTLE WORLD album is out and I'll go to California to rock with her a bit. I'm close to finished with ANTRONICA 2, my next mess of pure synth pop. A UK tour including a gig or two with the Corner Laughers. Meanwhile, my German visa runs out in March, so I'm hoping I can renew with no problems. Truth is, it feels like time of such uncertainty on many levels for so many people, and no matter how busy I am, everything feels a bit like I'm just holding a drink at a party so I have something to do with my hands, if you know what I mean.
SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your CD and record players?
ANTON: Yesterday, for a whopping total of €3, I picked up Ultravox's VIENNA and the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER soundtrack on vinyl. The former is a hugely influential album for me, and this isn't my first copy. The latter, however, was the bane of my existence back in the day. I was a Beatles devotee by age ten and the Bee Gees and disco were like Donald Trump and krptonite combined to me. Nowadays I'm open to all sorts of things I missed out on or rejected before. It's not like I'm holding dance parties in the house, but it's interesting to listen to these undeniable hits. Otherwise, Eno's HERE COME THE WARM JETS and BEFORE AND AFTER SCIENCE, BLACKSTAR by Bowie and a whole mess of Scott Walker. Throw in Sly and the Family Stone, Kinks and lots of Turkish tracks and let's call it a night!