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Safe at home 

After a stint with Sugar and studio sessions with countless local acts, Athens producer David Barbe steps up to the plate with his first solo record

Chase Park Transduction is tucked away in an unmarked corner of a small industrial park near Athens. The state-of-the-art recording facility glows with the warmth of unpainted wood and the blinking lights of massive recording consoles. Scrambling beneath the main control board is musician/producer David Barbe, busy reconfiguring monitor speakers for an upcoming session.

Just a few feet away, floor-to-ceiling shelves hold master tapes labeled with the names of acts as diverse as Kelly Hogan, Bloodkin, Macha, Jucifer and the Star Room Boys. The rear wall is covered with graffiti, colorful and often profane testaments to the time many of the Southeast's premier acts spent here honing their craft and making records with Barbe and his two longtime business-and-creative partners, Andy Baker and Andy LeMaster.

Today, Barbe has handed the controls over to guest producer Bob Weston, in order to take a rare day off to promote his own CD, Comet of the Season, which is released this week on Winder-based Backburner Records. Barbe has played music since he was 12 years old, recorded hundreds of bands and has made remarkable albums as the leader of Mercyland, Buzz Hungry and (most famously) as the bassist in Bob Mould's band, Sugar. Comet, however, is the first album to carry Barbe's name alone on its front cover.

An eclectic batch of 10 songs recorded over a three-year period, Comet blazes with a pleasing range of styles. Sugar fans will enjoy the hard attack of the disc- opening "Nickel a Minute," featuring guest appearances by members of Atlanta rockers, The Tom Collins. Marc Tissenbaum of the Wide Receivers adds guitar to "Silver White Flash," and local songwriter Jack Logan (who also co-owns the Backburner label) helped pen the stellar "Favorite Star," a gleaming exercise in Badfinger-style pop.

As he hands the key to the studio over to Weston -- himself an indie-rock veteran who plays bass in Steve Albini's band, Shellac -- Barbe gestures at a baseball glove resting atop the main console. "That's Bob's glove," he chuckles. "I wonder what the indie-rock world would think if they could see me and Bob Weston playing catch out behind the studio? We should listen to some really uncool music, too, like a Paul McCartney solo record."

Living this sort of dual life -- architect of cool, acolyte of the mundane -- is what's kept Barbe a major player in the Athens music scene, and what's saved him from the wreckage of post-'80s burnout.

Native Atlantan Barbe moved to Athens in 1981 to attend the University of Georgia. "That was a good time to be in Athens for someone who loves music, a lot of great stuff was happening. I went out every night and saw bands," he says. However, Barbe didn't find his real inspiration until slightly after the initial wave of early '80s Athens scenesters had peaked. "I was kinda crouched down in the weeds," he admits, "waiting for my chance to strike."

In '85, on one of his many nights out on the town, inspiration hit like a cymbal crash. "I saw the Bar-B-Q Killers, and I loved them. They could barely play at the time but the energy of their show was total rock 'n' roll. There was nothing jangly or arty about them -- it was just a complete visceral experience."

Realizing that raw aspect was missing from most of the popular Athens bands of the time, Barbe corralled members of Fashion Battery and the Kilkenny Kats to make some noise. Mercyland, a loud and edgy pop trio featuring Barbe on bass and vocals, was an instant hit. Their first show, opening for the Is/Ought Gap, drew an impressive 150 people. A month later, they were asked to open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"Back then, with 30 or so local bands, you could make a splash if you were any good at all," Barbe says. "Now, there's literally hundreds of great bands in Athens and the ratio of supply and demand is so much different than it was then. A lot of great bands get overlooked."

Barbe became immersed in the scene and forged working relationships with many of Athens' most popular bands. "The whole time I was in Mercyland (1985-90), I was producing other bands. I'd either record them on my four track or go with them to the studio to be sort of a creative consultant."

After Mercyland disbanded, Athens-based producer John Keane (who has worked with R.E.M., Robyn Hitchcock and Widespread Panic) asked Barbe to help engineer some of his many projects. "John was nice enough to see something in me that I didn't. The only skill that I thought I had was playing in Mercyland."

Keane told Barbe to "pick a band, record one song and show me what you can do." Barbe picked his friend Jack Logan's band, Liquor Cabinet. After hearing the song, Barbe says Keane immediately told him to "'book the weekends, do it cheap and go at it.' He totally threw me into the fire. Not realizing how little I really knew about recording, I called up all these friends of mine and said, 'Come on over and let's record really cheap at John Keane's.'"

Barbe and his wife, Amy, had one small child by this time and one on the way. To pay the bills, Barbe found himself working four 10-hour shifts a week at Kinko's and two 10-hour days at Keane's studio. Soon, he was taking on freelance production work at other studios. "I have constantly been in over my head forever," he says. "I'd rather make a mistake doing something than to stand on the sidelines and watch it being done. It's more productive."

Barbe had become a local hero of the Athens music scene by the early '90s, recording constantly and playing in his second high- profile trio, Buzz Hungry. Another great opportunity came when former Husker Du frontman Bob Mould called. Mould, also a producer with a fondness for three-piece bands, asked Barbe to join his new trio Sugar. Surprisingly, Barbe initially declined the offer.

"It was an amazing opportunity, but I thought I should just stay at home and get a job and take care of my family," he says. "Rather than being jealous or wanting to keep me at home, Amy totally encouraged me to do it. I was still very reluctant, and Bob knew that."

Once Barbe joined Sugar in '92, even more bands wanted to record with him, and as his performing and recording ventures increased, free time for his family vanished. Sugar recorded and toured to support three albums, including Copper Blue and Beaster.

During their File Under Easy Listening tour in '94, Barbe says it was becoming increasingly obvious he needed to leave the band. "I had three children, ages 1, 3 and 5, and I really needed to be home with them. Raising children was the most important thing to me, and even though the Sugar touring was as family-friendly as possible, I was still gone a lot. What's the point of having a family if you're never together?"

When Barbe considered his future, he realized he could much more easily see himself in the control room, making records, than "acting like Mick Jagger in yellow football pants prancing around on stage, well past the point of productivity." As much fun as touring had been in the past, he says, "I had the revelation that that part of my life was coming to an end. It wasn't the point of running away from something, but walking toward something else."

When he discussed the matter with Mould, he was surprised to find that Mould also realized that his life was being consumed with being in Sugar. As producer, manager and frontman of the band, Mould worked constantly. So, the trio quietly decided to call it quits, but kept it to themselves.

"Those last few months were easily the best shows we ever played. We were finally free of having to worry about anything and just had fun." The final Sugar show, in January '95 in Japan, was heralded by a dramatic earthquake. "We started it," he jokes. "I hit a low E on the bass."

Returning home, Barbe concentrated on recording the first two Rock*A*Teens albums as well as projects with Harvey Milk, Fiddlehead and Jac-O-Nuts. He formed the Chase Park Transduction studio partnership with Andy Baker and Andy LeMaster in '97.

Now 38, Barbe stays close to home, raising his children and coaching Little League games as he continues to work on an impressive amount of material. In recent months, he's readied several albums for release including new works from The Tom Collins, the Drive-By Truckers, Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons, Kelly Hogan, Bloodkin, the Star Room Boys and, finally, his own.

"I've never counted how many records I've worked on, or how many bands I've recorded. I know it's well into the hundreds," Barbe says. "My job is just hanging out with friends, taking care of my family and listening to music. And you know, there's lots worse things in the world than that."

lee.smith@creativeloafing.com, greg.nicoll@creativeloafing.com

David Barbe's debut solo album Comet of the Season is available at local indie retailers or online at www.backburnerrecords.com.

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