Anton Barbeau’s Traveling Magic Act, Part 1

From my point of view, it’s a strange world in which a recording artist can craft highly melodic, accessible tunes, release a long string of consistently well-regarded albums, and still go largely unnoticed in the commercial marketplace. But of course, such circumstances happen all the time. Even if one allows for the lack of commercial success of music’s oddballs (see: Express Rising, Jandek, and the impossibly prolific R. Stevie Moore), it’s beyond my modest abilities to explain why Martin Newell, for example, isn’t a household name.

Anton Barbeau is another artist whose name I’d suggest belongs up there with Newell and his projects (Cleaners From Venus, Brotherhood of Lizards). The Sacramento native began his recording career in the 1980s with a series of self-released cassettes, and began releasing CDs in 1993. Since ’93 he has put out some two dozen albums (under his own name, with others, and including some reissues and compilations). The strong pop foundation of his music is a consistent thread that weaves together some rather disparate projects, like 2014’s Antronica (a collection of solo 80s-styled synth-pop tunes that – while a pastiche – effortlessly best most of what came out thirty years ago); King of Missouri (a 2003 collaboration with like-minded psych-poppers The Bevis Frond); and a pair of albums under the Three Minute Tease moniker (Barbeau essentially fronting Robyn Hitchcock‘s old band, Soft Boys and/or The Egyptians).

Barbeau knows his way around a pop melody; his early recording of “Octagon” was a highlight of the fourth installment in the legendary Yellow Pills powerpop compilation series. But he’s never signed to a major label, never had a Top 40 hit. He emigrated to the UK around 2006, and more recently he’s made the Kreuzberg district of Berlin (well inside the former East German part of the city) his home.

And that’s where I found him. As a highlight of an already thrilling trip across Europe, I arranged a meeting with Barbeau at Federica, one of Kreuzberg’s fine coffee shops and a favorite haunt of the American expat multi-instrumentalist who lives nearby.

At the time of our meeting, Anton was putting the finishing touches on his upcoming album, Magic Act. (The album is due for release on March 4, 2016). And as it happened, the deadline for a crowd funding initiative to help cover the costs of that album had its deadline the same day as our meeting. He had apologized in advance for bringing his laptop computer to our chat, explaining that he’d need to check on the status of the funding in the campaign’s final moments.

In a departure from nearly every other interview I’ve ever conducted, I didn’t arrive armed with questions; our discussion was going to be informal and free-form. My wife Audrey was with me, and in fact it was she who asked the first question: how did Barbeau come to live in Berlin?

“I started going to England on and off,” Barbeau explained. And the woman whom he married had lived in Cambridge for five years. Some friends ran a magazine out of Istanbul, and the pair visited them in Turkey. “And after that, I realized, ‘That was great. That was easy. Let’s travel all the time!’ I started booking gigs, and several of them were in Berlin. We came over here about ten times before we moved here” in 2011.

L-R: This writer, Anton Barbeau. Outside Federica, in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, 1 August 2015

I assumed that it was while Barbeau was in Cambridge that he first met former Soft Boys drummer Morris Windsor and bassist Andy Metcalfe. “Actually, I met them in San Francisco,” Barbeau said. “Way, way back when Game Theory opened for the Egyptians, I saw that show. So I officially met them backstage in 1988. Over the years, we had reconnections at gigs.”

“The story’s actually very convoluted,” he continued. “I’d run into them here and there, especially Morris. I did [King of Missouri] with The Bevis Frond, and it came out on Ralph Alfonso‘s label, Bongo Beat. And [Soft Boys guitarist] Kimberley Rew was also on the label. The first time I played in Cambridge, Kim showed up there. It was great meeting him, and that made it easier connecting with the other guys on a more familiar level.” After Barbeau had settled in Cambridge, he saw Metcalfe again. “It was out of the blue; I thought, ‘Maybe I should ask him if he’d play on something of mine!’ I’ve always been good at asking people to play on my stuff,” he chuckled. “Because the worst they can do is say no. Actually,” he added with a sly grin, “they could do worse.”

Metcalfe said yes. And when he delivered his tracks to Barbeau at a local gig the latter was doing, Anton asked for more: “’Do you want to do a gig sometime?’ And he said, ‘Alright!’ So we started playing together.”

At the same time, but independent of his work with bassist Metcalfe, Barbeau had seen Windsor playing drums at one of Rew’s Cambridge gigs. “And I said to Morris, ‘Hey, would you ever want to do something together?’ And he said yes. Meanwhile, Berlin was coming up; I was heading there quite soon. And Morris was going to be there at the same time; he’s a huge Berlinophile, too.” And it was at Rew’s wedding reception that Barbeau upped the ante. “I asked him, ‘Would you be interested in playing with Andy again, assuming he’s up for something?’ It turns out they had played together on Roger Jackson‘s album; Roger was the Egyptians’ keyboardist. So it’s not as if they hadn’t seen each other in ages.”

So Berlin ended up being the base from which the newly-formed Three Minute Tease would first record together (though their self-titled 2012 debut was tracked in Rew’s Cambridge studio). And after the happy experiences of recording together, they decided to do some live gigs. “Slowly, it turned into a band,” Barbeau recalls. “And it was great. However intimidating it may have been to play with my heroes, it was just musicians doing their thing. And it was easy.”

Another album, Bite the Hand would follow in 2014. And Barbeau said, “One of the recordings we did at our first session together will be on the new record [Magic Act], even though it’s quite old.” Originally, Magic Act was “going to be a Three Minute Tease record,” Barbeau revealed. “But the band hit a profound moment of…artistic differences.” I complimented Barbeau on his diplomatic word choice. “It took awhile to find that phrase,” he laughed. “that’s what happens after hanging out with Brits for all those years.” [click here to continue to Part Two]

Aaaand… here’s a world premiere/exclusive (‘cept for that one place it ran already) of a track from Ant’s upcoming album, Magic Act. The tune is called “Swindon,” and it features Morris Windsor, Larry Tagg, Karla Kane, and Khoi Huynh. You heard it here first!


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