Anton Barbeau is a genius musician that other respected musicians have been keen to work with – from cult UK psych rockers Bevis Frond to members of ’80s new wave band XTC and Kimberley Rew of Katrina & The Waves. The BBC Radio in Oxford even wanted the Sacramento-born Barbeau for themselves remarking: “He’s a bit of a genius and I think we need to adopt him as one of our own.” A prolific songwriter, he has been releasing albums since cassettes were the regular medium for consuming music not just a throwback novelty. But chances are even after almost 20 albums, most of us may not have heard of him.
Magic Act his most recent might change that. It was released earlier this month on Mystery Lawn Records and is also his first to come out on vinyl. Barbeau is thrilled with this somewhat incongruous turn of events, considering the format was falling out of step when he was starting to play and write songs on his keyboard back in the ’80s. It would perhaps then not be too far-fetched to think that the mainstream has finally caught up with the experimental pop-psychedelia that he excels in.
The instant his first words are uttered on the excellent Magic Act opener “High Noon”, David Bowie comes to mind. There is a certain quality in the tenor of his voice but also in references to ‘satellites’ and being shot out into space to ‘stick this flag into the moon’. The consistent sonic wobble and layered textures baked into songs like “Flying Spider” and “Heavy Psychedelic Toilet” echo the psych standard bearer, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club by The Beatles. The psych cognoscenti will no doubt point out the Robyn Hitchcock influences first but it is Barbeau’s voice again – a lilt similar to John Lennon’s that anchors it at the Fab Four’s door and is a reference familiar to most.
Traditional psych signifiers such as references to rabbits, third-eyes, dream states and riders of one kind or another are also aplenty on this album. “Euphemism & Innuendo” with it’s dark swirling melody and flourishes of what sounds like a Hammond organ trying to act as a beacon out of the murk, is particularly memorable.
Barbeau’s songs are so lyrically literate that he should be wearing the tweed jacket of an English professor. Yet he reveals his lyrics are often just mumbles over melodies that develop into psychedelic ramblings. It is music with morsels of phrases that grab you and prompt you to look further for clues and insert your own meaning. For the nerdy, bookish or just interested it is a practical criticism paper where you don’t need to bother about the final grade.
To that end “High Noon” is Barbeau aspiring to Bowie heights with similar Major Tom markers. The theme of loss is palpable – there is a grappling with the sacrifice of a maternal figure – ‘Your mama paid the price, her back against the wall’. Religious imagery meshes with the desire to have made it big – ‘Son /Son of God Record In the Charts /A human cannonball.’ High noon being the time of the crucifixion where Jesus breathes his last words of forgiveness and the sky goes dark – that alone makes for rich meaning and interpretation much more potent than the regular fodder found on mainstream charts.
Its final line – ‘cockrcoaches dancing on the kitchen floor’ a reference to Kafka with its affecting use of language to point out how alienated we can become from our quotidian when it is not serving our true aspirations. The whole song in a backdrop straddling fantasy and reality. As Carl Jung purported the unconscious is more knowing that the conscious and in his gibberish lyrics Barbeau reveals volumes. And if we’re wrong – does it matter?
The tunes jaunty as in “Sit Your Leggy Down” which sounds like something the Wiggles – an Australian children’s show with four color-coded Wiggles – could have come up with; or moody such as “A City By the Sea” which seems a rumination on climate change – are all delightful as a psychedelic compendium that should be in one’s iTunes playlist next to Tame Impala and Pink Flyod.
Don’t miss Barbeau when he performs two shows in the Bay Area next week. On Friday, March 25 he will play a CD Release Party at Neck of The Woods and at Octopus on March 26 he will do an acoustic set. Ahead of those shows, he chats to Examiner about his attraction to psychedelic music; the critical acclaim and opportunities it has afforded him but also the doors that it hasn’t opened; and the method behind some of the songwriting on Magic Act.
Examiner: Your new album Magic Act was out this past week – how are you feeling about it? And have you had any feedback so far? Do you have any rituals for when a new album goes out into the world?
Anton Barbeau: Well I’m feeling very pleased. I like this record. It feels special somehow, one of these albums that made itself. The feedback has been… the people who like it really, really like it. And the people that don’t like it, really don’t like it. I think some people get hung up on the lyrics. And the lyrics they just bubble up from my psyche, I have no control over them – I can kind of craft them into the song but people looking for a literal translation can get a little frustrated it seems. But the people who do like it, they’re really excited. I am too, I feel like this album is a complete thought. As for rituals, I don’t have any except maybe trying to google myself every 2hrs.
Examiner: I imagine you don’t really get too many bad reviews as such but those scrolled down comments can be scary.
AB: If I can help it, I try not to read those comments. On Twitter just now, I saw someone reacted really strongly to my presence in the world. Occasionally, I will get a review that does sting. Oftentimes it is weirdly personal. I know it shouldn’t be but I think there is a lot of me and my personality in my songs. If someone says something about the music it’s like they are saying something bad about me which can be like being back in High School or the school yard when the bully is calling me names. A reviewer said ‘I’ve tried listening to it now. And I just don’t get it!”. I am flattered that they took the time to listen to it but I don’t know if there is something to get. I just know this is a colorful record and there is something about it that stands apart from my other work.
Examiner: I have to admit as a total newcomer to your work I very much enjoyed it, I felt it had lots of Bowie and Beatles, it was also reminding me of J Masics and Weezer but I was wondering if all that went back to Todd Rundgren and XTC, it’s where you draw a line in the sand I guess – anyway, can you tell us a little about where your inspiration for this album came from?
AB: It’s a real nest by now. I have been doing music long enough that I have countless influences there is no list of names that I can give you. Certainly, Bowie was a huge influence on me. I don’t want to put it in an arrogant way but after Bowie died I felt like I was so happy to be a musician, to be in this position of privilege where you can do something better with your music. When he was alive, he was always trying to do things better and different with each record. In his death, his entire life in terms of how he led it and the output of his albums are on a level that is almost incomprehensible. We are looking back at all his albums and looking for clues to see what a genius he was. There’s a video on youtube of him rehearsing and having some snacks and I watched it – he was beautiful, he even ate snacks beautifully. And I am also very influenced by The Beatles. Bowie and The Beatles are two of my biggest influences. XTC I was a big fan and it’s huge for me that Colin Moulding plays on Magic Act.
Examiner: Is that why you have a song in homage to Swindon?
AB: I started playing in Swindon a few years ago now. I lived in England for 5 years and would do two tours a year and Swindon became one of my regular stops. I think it needed a little tribute too.
Examiner: What is it about psychedelia that appeals to you?
AB: I think psychedelic music it’s very sound based. It’s the quality of sound and what that can say to you. It is colorful and textural in an unconscious way. It doesn’t have to be literal or lateral. I love to experience life in a psychedelic way – how everything is interconnected when you can see the textures in daily life and hear in those ways. I like to see how it can fit back into an album and its music. It’s nice for me to know that it’s your first introduction to my music. I am happy for it to be this – I don’t mean it in a morbid way … but if this is the last thing I ever did, I’d be satisfied with it. Magic Act is a good introduction and a good fresh start. There is a confidence on this record that I didn’t make. I can recognize it. I can take some credit but it sort of wrote itself.
Examiner: I like a particular line in Flying Spider ”You built the world in Seven days and ever since you’ve been on holiday” – as a struggling Catholic, those sentiments appeal to me – could you share how that song came about?
AB: On one hand – I was just showing off the 7 chords on the guitar to someone. You know that sort of power pop guitar sound. I was then just messing around musically on the piano trying to subvert the chord progression. I sabotaged it by putting in a wrong chord there. When I write I mumble and mutter what phonetically sounds like it could work. It’s sort of a muddle really. Religion and spirituality that shows up a lot in my lyrics but it’s not glued together in a cohesive way. I was raised Catholic well, at least they tried to but it just didn’t stick for me.
Examiner: You feel like since you’ve spent enough time with the doctrine you have earned the right to use the stuff now?
AB: Yes. But I am a spiritual person I do believe that everything is interconnected, that there is something greater than us out there. “Flying Spider” is also about being an adult and moving away from God as this all-knowing father figure – who is both there for you but also judging you and spying on you like Big Brother. There’s a reference to it in the song …”There is no God, there’s only Jesus, the eight-eyed spy who always sees us.” That’s also a reference to the Ingmar Bergman film Through The Glass Darkly where the female lead who has gone mad sees God in the shape of a Spider. None of these things add up to a linear story but perhaps it’s all like sticks, leaves and dead flies in an old spider web.
Examiner: I can hear all the English colloquialisms in your songs – how has living in Cambridge affected your music and songwriting?
AB: I lived in England for 5 years and I never liked Cambridge. The term ‘dark and sinister atmosphere’ comes to mind. It’s where I suffered an anxiety attack. And I always felt that low level anxiety for the rest of my time there. But I met my wife there. And Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge there, I successfully connected to that heritage of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd. But I don’t think it affected the way I wrote, except maybe occasionally when I used a dark piano waltz in a song. I had also lived in Oxford and I loved it. It’s still my home away from home. By the time I got to Cambridge my songwriting was becoming so potable. I now live in Berlin so I have settled into a way of writing where cities, buses and windows don’t affect me in that way. I can start a song in one city and finish it in another but it may not be reflected in the lyrics. I say that but now I’m going to contradict myself – I think “Hop Skip A Jump” has a certain feeling of Cambridge, a feeling of mournfulness. When I listen to it, it reminds me of working on a 12-string guitar and looking out of the window – and I did a lot of that in Cambridge.
Examiner: And what does ‘sit your leggy down’ mean?
AB: No idea what it means.
Examiner: Oh good I thought it was me, cause I am familiar with a good few of those English phrases?
AB: No I was just waiting for a ride somewhere and they said it would be late and take another half-an-hour. You know what it’s like when you’re waiting like that, there’s nothing you can do so I forced myself to sit down. Then I picked up my guitar and literally wrote the chords and words down. I looked at the time, and there was still another 20mins so I did a drum track. Then did a couple of takes on the bass and realized I had a song. Granted, it’s a ridiculous song. Later I added some backing vocals and was happy to have it on this record as it literally popped out of my head. Are they any real lyrics? Is there ever? But this was a genuinely spontaneous song.
Examiner: Your work has been critically acclaimed for some time now but you aren’t known in the mainstream – what’s the advantages and disadvantages of being in that position?
AB: (Laughs) I don’t know. By now, I’m so used to being me and haven’t had it any other way as a point of comparison. The advantage is that without any proper mainstream success there is a sense of absolute freedom and no one saying more this or more that’. Even being in a band there is compromise that’s just part of the deal. If nothing else I can literally just do what I like. I do worry about alienating what very small fan base that I do have. (Laughs) Some fans prefer the more straightforward stuff and this stuff they feel is weird. Then I have the more psych-underground who prefer this but hate the other more pop stuff. Hopefully this is a pleasant mushroom sourdough sandwich that they can all partake in. It’s a bit murky what you’re eating in the center but it’s good. I don’t think I am pandering to the pop people or the psychedelic folks. My music has been described as “weird music for normal people”. It’s like having an alien in our midst.
Examiner: Like Ziggy Stardust?
AB: Yes I think this is the thing that Bowie thought us. That we need aliens in our midst. Being bravely weird is a powerful thing. My aesthetic is mainstream fantasy. So I recognize I’m not mainstream – I’m still trying to do something unusual but in a user-friendly format. It’s apparently completely baffling and surreal to most people. (laughs) I hope I’m building a legacy here…and within 6 months someone’s going to press that magic button and I’m going to be mainstream successful. (laughs)
Examiner: What do you think of the current music scene especially in terms of the resurgence of psychedelia with bands like Tame Impala, Temples, Pond and a host of others? “Euphemism and Innuendo” and “The Wait of You” are songs that I can imagine on a Tame Impala album but not with the tenor of your voice, Kevin Parker has that pitchy falsetto that is reverb-drenched and maybe more bass. Do you pay attention to the mores of music’s mainstream?
AB: I don’t pay attention in the way that I am actively keeping up on everything like I did when I was younger and was glued to college radio. Music seems to come from everywhere – I had a friend in the UK who turned me on to Tame Impala. She made me a CD and I listened, and really liked it. Temples I heard in my local coffee shop in Berlin. The barista who works there loves it so I hear that every time he’s at work. On Wednesdays it’s a lot of Sade. (laughs) The girl who works Wednesdays loves her. And here in Sacramento there’s a Punjabi station on the AM/FM radio. So I find that I can re-tune to stuff I might have hated. I can listen to almost any kind of music except maybe that auto-tune music at the supermarket – that makes me physically ill. Psych music has really come back. There’s a band in Spain who opened for me some years sago called My Expanseive Awareness and now they’re touring England and are a brilliant band. Knowing it’s a genuine thing, it’s exciting to see that.
Examiner: You’re originally from Sacramento – how old were you when you first started making music?
AB: I remember at 13 I got a keyboard. My dad saw me plinking on a Casio at the department store and got me one. I think I was playing Beethoven’s “da da daaaaa…” (Symphony No 5) and before long I figured out that 3 notes together made a chord. Three chords made a song. My grandmother had a piano and I loved playing on that. And my best friend had one too. So I was writing songs immediately after I got a keyboard. But it was when I heard Gary Numan’s “Cars” that I really felt this is what I want to do. It sounded incredible what he was doing with the keyboards. Some years ago when I was working on the Three Minute Tease album – the studio I was recording in had a Mini Moog synthesizer. They had bought the equipment from the studio that “Cars” had been recorded in. It was the freakiest life turning circles moment for me. I had held that mini moog in my hand the very same one that Gary Numan had used in “Cars”! And I had played on it – of course at the time I didn’t know this. I only found it out a few years later.
Examiner: What are you looking forward to most when you get back to California for the two Bay area shows?
AB: I have been here for a month now. My dad is having surgery. He’s ok and doing well. I haven’t played in San Francisco for a few years now so I am really looking forward to that. I’ll be playing with the band The Corner Laughers, And my cousin’s wife is in Gutter Swan – one of the bands playing with us. So it’s a bit of a family affair. The SF show will be a full band, then the Oakland show will be a low-key acoustic show. I’ve played the Octopus before I like the contrast between the two nights. It’s going to be great.
To purchase Magic Act, please click here. For tickets to the Neck of the Woods show please click here and to The Octopus here. For further tour dates, please see below.
Anton Barbeau Tour dates
March 24 Kupros, Sacramento, CA
March 25 Neck of the Woods, San Francisco, CA
March 26 The Octopus, Oakland, CA
April 1 Molly Malone’s, Los Angeles, CA
April 2 Peeve’s
April 3 Tower District Records, Fresno, CA