Anton Barbeau plays "pre-apocalyptic psychedelic pop." He's a Taurus, born in Sacramento and now living by a canal in Berlin. He's made something like 30 albums and has worked with members of XTC, The Soft Boys, the Bevis Frond, Cake, the Loud Family and Mystery Lawn label-mates, the Corner Laughers. Julian Cope got him stoned in Croydon once. His new album is Berliner Grotesk and it's not bad at all.
"Anton Barbeau represents the Sacramento chapter of that nameless coterie of enduringly reliable, acid-tinged singer-songwriters that includes XTC's Andy Partridge, Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope and the Bevis Frond's Nick Saloman. His new album bathes beautifully constructed, thoughtfully arranged songs in a fading psychedelic sunshine, and it would be many casual consumers' album of the year if only they got to hear it. Four stars."
"Prolific, pretentious, precocious, intelligent, quirky, nasal, amusing, annoying to some, pop genius to others, and never ever boring—this, my friends, is the cumulative description of northern California's musical auteur Anton Barbeau."
"The man in question is Anton Barbeau, cult hero and left-field maverick from Sacramento, California. Mind you, calling him a 'singer/songwriter' is a bit like calling Jimi Hendrix a 'strummer.' His songs are fervid, swarming, tangential and often humorous, but possessed of a compelling inner logic."
"Oh my God, it's you... I finally get to meet you!"
Read an interview with Discussions Magazine
An Interview with Anton Barbeau
(Questions by George Parsons of Dream Magazine, 2007)
I sorta feel like I've known you for a long time, you would call me on the radio once in awhile, but we've only met a few times as I recall. But I have been aware of your work from very early on. How did you put together the collection that became The Horse's Tongue?
Yeah, we do go way back, don't we! I used to listen to your radio show on KVMR whenever I could, great stuff. As for The Horse's Tongue, we pulled the bulk of the songs off of recent cassettes I'd released. We were a well-liked little band in town, and the tracks we put on the CD were crowd-pleasers. I think we added two fresh songs, "Life is Sweet" and "Andrew Burke Can't Sing," and those two are my favorite tracks on the disk, they have something more organic and grunty going on.
What's the story behind Waterbugs & Beetles from '95, recently reissued by Pink Hedgehog?
Again, some of the songs on this one came from stuff previously released on tape, but this time there were also loads more fresh tracks. This record is more varied than Horse's Tongue, which has a real pop heart. Waterbugs had me listening to The White Album and Julian Cope's Jehovakill, amongst all the millions of other influences. I split up my band, the JoyBoys, during the making of this disk, as I found myself dictating parts note-for-note, or sometimes re-doing the other guys' parts. Rather than carry on like that, I thought it most fair to just "go solo." Perhaps one immediate downside to this was that left to my own devices, I was putting everything I could find on the album, including several songs that really didn't stand the test of time. When Simon Felton at Pink Hedgehog offered to release the 10th-anniversary edition of the the album, I took advantage and actually trimmed loads of stuff off the record. I left all the weird little tape-loop bits on and added the dub re-mix of "Beautiful Bacon Dream" to the re-issue. Those are the tracks I like best on that album, the un-pop moments. I don't know why, but I still think in terms of "either/or" when it comes to doing music - either I'm a pop-songsmith, matey, or I'm a repressed loop-n-noise guy. Hopefully I'm finally getting the hang of mixing and mashing and shoving it all together and meanwhile not caring so much anymore anyway!
Who or what first inspired you to want to make your own music?
The Beatles. So simple! I was born in Spring of '67, so Sgt. Pepper was one of the first albums I ever heard! But I suppose it was Gary Numan's "Cars" that got me actually doing music. I got a keyboard and learned to make chords and from chords I made songs. Terrible songs, but songs!
Is it safe to say that your songs have often sounded very English for a Sacramento lad, and that you have always had a clear kinship with the UK?
Yeah, safe to say! I was at a Robyn Hitchcock gig the day Graham Chapman died. Robyn heard the news after his set, and came out to do the encore stunned. He said that growing up, the Beatles and Monty Python were the only two groups he ever wanted to be in. That pretty much works for me too, though you can add that I spent a good 5 years wanting to be Robyn Hitchcock. Ironically or not, though, the more time I spend in England, the more I push my American-ness. Gotta have a gimmick! Incidentally, I met Graham Chapman at a comedy club about a year before he died. I think he was pushing "Dangerous Film Club," or something like that. I asked him what his favorite Beatles record was. He seemed surprised and pleased with such a question, and without hesistation said Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But he was quick to add that "Imagine" was his favorite song ever.
How did you end up working with the Bevis Frond?
My band supported the Frond in Sacramento. I'd not heard them before, though I had heard of them. I'm not sure why, but I'd pictured them as well-coiffed slick-pop stylists and was thrilled to discover otherwise. We hit it off at the gig and kept in touch. I went over to London in 2001 and did a support slot for them at the 12 Bar. I asked Ade if maybe he'd play bass on a track of mine someday, and he suggested I could probably get the whole band to do a whole album, that they worked very fast in the studio. Nick was up for it, and I got some songs together, which I sent over with chord charts etc. I think Nick and I did a quick run-through at his place in Walthamstow, but otherwise, no rehearsal with the band. Everyone showed up at 10 in the morning and we knocked through an album's worth of basic tracks over the next 10 hours. Spent the next 8 days with Nick and Colin, our engineer, overdubbing and mixing and that was that!
Do you feel at home in England?
Funny you ask, as I'm "home" right now in Sacramento, and feeling like a Stranger in a Strange Land! What is this place and why am I here? I just got back from almost three months in England, and I head back for another block of time next month. I love it there, I fit in and stand out there in swell ways. I look like Chris Evans, it seems. I've got wonderful friends there and a great range of musicians to work with. I've been going with friends to a few of the many sacred sites—Avebury, the Uffington Horse, Belas Knap—and those moments have been mildly mind-blowing. Yeah, on both a simple/practical level I love it there—cups of tea etc., but it's my spiritual home to be sure!
What did winning a SAMMIE mean to you?
I dunno... it was sweet, good to have the work recognized in the hometown. The first SAMMIE was for The Horse's Tongue, and it's nice to look back and see that album as sort of a soundtrack to a very wide-eyed period in Sacramento's musical history.
It seems to me that your music is in a constant state of refinement, do you feel you've grown as a songwriter over the years?
I hope so! I can't listen to my first records without squirming. The lyrics, at least, are full of that teenage/20-something sex-crazed blind arrogance. Perhaps my style is still somewhat obtuse, but there seems to be more going on under the surface in the newer songs. How to put it? I'm much more spiritually/mystically inclined, and it's become important for me to put out some kind of deep vibe. As for the craft of writing, I hope my range has increased. I've always been a wordy lyric writer, and I like playing with the sounds of words. I used to say my purpose was to amuse and confuse, but I also hope I'm connecting emotionally with anyone listening, or if not emotionally, then on some level that is genuine and satisfying. Musically, I have a broader palette to paint from as well. I've gotten more into minimalism, into laying back and filling less space. Sometimes! I also like to create density and darkness. This is all sounding vague, and that's not my intention. The thing, ultimately for me, with songwriting and making records, is that while the goal is to learn and improve, there's no way around inspiration or the lack therof. When I was starting out, I had such incredible enthusiasm for everything I wrote... I wrote hit single after hit single, or so I thought! Perhaps I'm more pragmatic and humble... I still want to write big songs, but in the face of Nick Saloman, Scott Miller and Sharron Kraus, I see my music as fitting only into its own world. I've met too many amazing freaks whose kneecaps I may never reach!
How do you feel when you are referred to as eccentric?
When I hear that, I feel... eccentric! Naw, I dunno... nothing much phases me by now. I suppose on some technical level, measurable with charts and scanners, I AM eccentric. Meaning, I work and live in a way that often sits outside of the Normal Way. But who cares? I'm driven to do my thing, I love making this music and I think what I'm doing is both unusual and also accessible. I'm not out there setting my moustache on fire sitting on top of a gumball machine, I'm not being wacky for attention. I opened for John Otway recently in London, and it's easy to see him as "eccentric, yarp." Yet it's just as easy to see him as a songwriter/performer, song by song, town to town. Still, if globalisation means fratboys in Brazil and like, you know, idiot pap-pop coming out of every radio in the mainstream world, I'm happy to do my bit to stick sand inside a few oyster shells.
Do you feel an affinity to any of the surrealists?
Certainly, especially Magritte. There's something so elegant in much of his work, and I've always had a "but of course!" reaction to surrealism. Jan Svankmajer is one of my heroes as well. I like Dali, but I've never wanted to stretch slugs out across the canvas of my songs. I'd rather stick an apple in front of a Belgian. To flesh this out a bit, I like warmth, even in the most way-out places, and anything that feels weird for the sake of being weird doesn't hold me for long. The fact that humor is a key element in much surrealistic work appeals to me.
Do you have a ghost story?
Barely. My Mother died when I was 6, and my Grandmother, my cousin and some aunts and uncles had come to the house soon after her death. While everyone else was in the living room, my cousin and I watched the door to the ante-chamber leading to the attic blowing open and shut for about ten minutes. We were suitably freaked out, but fascinated. We summoned all the grown-ups, but nobody seemed too impressed. It was a still day, no wind, not the slightest breeze, but the adults convinced us it was a weather-related scene. Being kids, we accepted that, but years later it dawned on me that maybe there was more at play than we understood. Who knows? Not a scary ghost story, to say the least!
What part if any have dreams or dreaming played in your music?
When I was in England recently, I got sick and had a fever. The following three nights I had the most incredible dreams. The first was Bob Marley singing "Redemtion Song" to me in an airport. The next night I was with George Harrison at his place in Hawaii. We watched the sun go down on the Pacific and then went off to record the Hare Krishna chant. The following night was one of the best dreams I've ever had. I was watching the Beatles rehearsing a new version of "The Long and Winding Road," with George and John improvising the most beautiful and complex harmonies. Man! But I couldn't ever come up with those harmonies again, though I suppose the shape they took is something to reach for. I was in the C.G. Jung Club of Sacramento a while ago... it was pretty informal, we'd get together and share dreams and try and express the dreams through creative means, sometimes poems and sometimes painting. Things like that. Mainly it got me more deeply tuned to the idea of the unconcious mind as the true source of so much incredible information. My songwriting style has always left much room for things to bubble up. I do try and craft things, obviously, and a good rhyme is a good rhyme, but sometimes it's best to let the song go anywhere it wants. Dream-logic makes its way frequently into my lyrics, with the irrational, the matter-of-fact and the surreal all mixing freely together. On a more practical level, I dreamt once that I needed to add layers of "Julian Cope keyboards" to a particular song. Woke up, went to the studio and had at it... no way to resist a command like that!
Do you believe in luck?
I believe in everything! It's not meant as a cop-out, but I dabble in the cheap study of cosmic-connectedness, and luck is an easy word to use to describe when something all of a sudden falls right into place. Synchronicity is sort of like luck squared, where you can see the multiple roads that led you to the moment of fortune.
Where have you been best received in a live setting?
Certain venues seem to have an inherent vibe, like the Starry Plough in Berkeley, or the Delta of Venus in Davis, California, and gigs in those type of places often resonate deeply, but having girls screaming at my band at the Cavern Club is hard to beat! If I had to pick, though, the first time I played Cambridge was one of the best shows for me ever. Kimberley Rew came out, and that was a nerve-wracking thrill! But there was something other, an anticipation amongst the crowd. I'm really so underground in ways that I never assume anyone has heard of me when I play a new city, but there was a feeling in the room before I went on, and it carried on throughout my set. A great gig, and Cambridge shows have almost all been special like that.
Tell me about the inspiration and creation of Drug Free! (Pink Hedgehog 2006)?
Drug Free started life during the sessions for In the Village of the Apple Sun. The latter album was very specific about what songs were to be included on it, so anything that didn't fit was set aside for later, and eventually I had an album's worth of material. The title track came as I watched my new next-door neighbors moving in. I speculated, based on Homeland Security hairstyles and such, that they were probably quite conservative and I wondered how they'd take to my smoking dope daily in the garden. "Leave It with Me, I'm Always Gentle" was written when I was living in Oxford at Sharron Kraus's house. It's quite an upbeat murder ballad, I'd say! I was in and out of a troubled relationship at the time I wrote most of these songs, and that comes through. There are also references to my mother's death, and lots of other bits of my life that I doubt would be obvious to most listeners. I was digging into lots of Krautrock, and "In a Boat on the Sea" came out of this affection. That song was recorded live in the studio with a collective of musicians. I think we patched up a couple wrong notes and I had to re-do my vocals, but it's pretty much exactly the sound we made. That one is a favorite for me. This album also features the vocals of Su Jordan on a couple tracks. More on this later!
Tell me also of In the Village of the Apple Sun (Four-Way 2006)?
Of all the records I've done, this one is certainly the most special for me. The title track is a love song for Oxford, inspired by my first moments there, and the psychedelic vibe of that cosmic city informs the whole record. I tried to balance light and dark, male and female, dogs and cats and mice and rats. There are countless riddles and cross-references throughout the songs, but I still see it as a pop record. No one is going to feel my incredible disdain for G.W. Bush when they hear the record, even though that was one of many elements that shaped the music. Yeah, there's nothing overtly political in the album, but there's was a strong desire to put something positive into the world, or something informative at least.
I guess your mag is a safe place to say that the album was very much a result of a newly-discovered love of psychedelic mushrooms. The title of the second track on the album is "Mushroom Box, 1975," and it's actually the title of a piece by German artist Joseph Beuys. He'd gone digging in his garden, found an old mushroom box, labeled it and called it art. There is a lot of "found art" on Village, and on "Mushroom Box," there's a burst of Christian radio that comes through right on the line "she opened up a dresser drawer and pulled from deep inside it a music box that tingled with the gentlest of tones." A broken wah-wah pedal brought us one of so many moments of synchronicity! And the album is full of these things, scraps of daily life like my Dad's coffee-maker, or songbirds in the garden. But it's also rich with powerful musical contributions from so many good people. Sharron did half her parts on the first day we met... She was in town to work with Christian Keifer and I was giving her a lift to meet him later. I asked if she'd want to do some music and she added classic tracks in an instant. Same with Gabe's bass, for example. He'd hear the song once and then come up with something that elevated the whole thing. I'm in awe of all these people, and for a solo artist, I do feel like the collective "we" made this record together, even if it was a track at a time over a couple years. Man, Jaime Smith, the violinist, would come to town once a year. She lives in Greece now. I'd say "can you give me something sort of Indian, microtonal," and she'd give me five great takes to pick from. For the next song I'd ask for something "maybe Turkish" and she'd nail it. This record is made of the best memories for me!
Well, it's taken me so long to finish this interview that I'm now back in England! I've got an album with Su Jordan called The Automatic Door coming out over here soon. It's a much tighter/brighter pop record than the recent albums, sort of commercial psych! Su sings like Sandy Denny and I wrote all the songs with our harmonies in mind. Gabe, Greg and Todd, CAKE/ex-CAKE guys are all over the disk, and Kimberley Rew plays on three tracks. I'm well under way on the follow-up, called Solitary Bees. Many of the same players but so far the album is rather dark and slow. It's the weird difference between Cambridge and Oxford for me. Auto Door is an up Ox vibe, but there's a low/slow thing in the water here! But this record isn't settled yet and the shape and color will probably change. Otherwise, It seems like I'm moving over the England one suitcase load at a time, and we're trying to get a more settled band together for when the album comes out. Doing a few festivals, lots of little gigs and such. I thought that releasing three albums last year would calm me down, but I'm a compulsive writer/recorder. I've brought Pro Tools to England with me this time, so the food vs. studio time debate is better settled! Gonna crank out albums 'til 2012 and beyond!
How's it going Mr. Rock Star?
Funny, but I've moved from "cult figure" to "legend" just recently, according to a friend. It has to do with how many records I've released compared to how many I've sold. Or not sold, I suppose! I told an audience in Weymouth once that I was so famous in America that I had to come to England to find a bit of peace and quiet. I said I was in a band called The Eagles. This one woman jumped out of her seat and said "I've heard of you!!!" Shit! Not only did I have to back out of that without embarassing her, but she really thought I was an Eagle! Yuck!
Are you having fun?
Man, I'm sitting in the cafe where I met Kimbereley Rew yesterday for tea. I've got an amazing gang of musicians scattered about England to gig and record with, same as when I'm back in Sacramento. I finally feel that my records make sense, that I'm doing things the right way. I'm the same age as Sgt. Pepper and my knees hurt when I leap about on stage, but I'm leaping about in front of people who seem happy with what I do. This is all good stuff.
Another Interview with Anton Barbeau
(Reprinted from the Sacramento News & Review, May 8, 1997)
When and where were you happiest?
June 12, 1995, on a red ottoman.
What would you like to be reincarnated as?
A soft-spoken, eloquent pig.
What's your idea of perfect happiness?
100 years of solitude in the studio with all my favorite people.
What's your idea of utter misery?
Seven nights straight of dry papercut dreams.
Your greatest regret?
Not being born 10 years too late.
Your greatest fear?
Being hit by rocks and bits thrown from the blades of an electric mower.
Living person you most admire?
Living person you most despise?
I can't remember his name, but he's very paranoid.
Your greatest achievement?
"The Banana Song."
Your worst failure?
I just can't write good songs about coughing.
What would the title of your autobiography be?
12,000 Cups of Tea (and No One to Marry Me).
When do you lie?
I haven't lied since I graduated from Catholic school.
What's your motto?
"Live fast, play dumb and carry a great-looking corpse."
What's always in your refrigerator?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My grandfather's head.
If you had a super power, what would it be?
The ability to read my own mind.
What's the most embarrassing CD in your music collection?
Embarrassing for me or for the artist who recorded it?
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
What is something about you that people would be surprised to know?
I'm incredibly tall.
© Anton Barbeau. Photo of Anton by Karen Eng. Web site: interbridge.