THE SOUNDS OF DAVID BARBE
By James Calemine
David Barbe’s studio magic renders him a highly sought after engineer. His musical expertise proves essential to some of the south’s finest contemporary groups and artists such as The Drive By Truckers, Vic Chesnutt, Kevn Kinney and Bloodkin to name a few. Barbe, an accomplished musician, can play various instruments and his golden ear provides a vital asset to the aforementioned artists.
Barbe earned his engineering break from John Keane (R.E.M., Widespread Panic) which eventually led to opening his own recording studio in Athens, Georgia, called Chase Park Transduction Studio. Barbe’s sonic mojo can be heard on Drive By Truckers albums such as Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, The Dirty South and their latest, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, set for release on January 22—as well as Bettye LaVette’s Scene of the Crime and Bloodkin’s last five records. Barbe also recorded hundreds of other musicians including Michael Houser, Johnny Jenkins, Son Volt, Kevn Kinney, Amy Ray, Barbara Cue, Jack Logan, Southern Bitch and Tishamingo. Barbe remains of pillar of the Athens music and baseball (that’s another story) communities.
Bloodkin’s Daniel Hutchens recently told me this about Barbe: “More than anything, once you get to know him, you'd just flat out trust him with your life. He's one of those rare characters who never seems to let you down. And he damn sure creates one beautifully rowdy rock n roll record right after another. He's got that feel that touch, whatever it is, and he just keeps on delivering. For us down n dirty rock n rollers who still believe that this "rock band" thing can actually be an art form—he's the very best we've got these days. “
I’ve spent various times in Barbe’s studio to witness his work first hand. He’s an expert of the highest order. This exclusive Swampland interview provides clear insight into one of the south’s finest sound wizards.
Your parents were musical. You grew up here in Atlanta...
DB: Both of my parents were musicians. They were in a big band together in the fifties. That's how they met. My dad played baritone saxophone and clarinet. My mom was the singer.
Obviously any musical inclination started at a very early age.
DB: When I was a kid what my parents did they wrote and produced jingles. So I could not actually tell you the first time I was in a recording studio but I’ve been in one my entire life.
Could you name some of the jingles your parents performed?
Well my mom is a native of Atlanta. My dad is a New Yorker. They moved to Atlanta in the early sixties. There wasn’t a whole lot of jingle business going on. I don’t think there was a lot of competition. So they did a lot of things. They did commercials for Coke and I think they might have done the first Braves commercials campaign when they first moved to Atlanta in the sixties. I have a pretty sizable CD set that my dad made me of their commercials. They were constantly busy for a long time. Then my mom she had a general voice talent so she did all kinds of things. My dad also played on pop records sessions. He played a lot of the pop music sessions in Atlanta with Joe South, Tommy Roe, Billy Joe Royal—he played in the horn section.
What was your first instrument? How old were you?
DB: The first instrument I’ve ever had any interest in was the drums. I got a tiny little drum kit for Christmas when I was probably about three or four years old. The first thing I never took any lessons in was piano when I was about six. Then I went through from there. I played the piano a while and then I got interested in the drums and took drum lessons. I played drums in bands from the time I was probably 11 or 12 years old until I was in college. I picked up a ukulele so I got a guitar.
What was your early record collection? Beatles…
DB: Totally…the Beatles, by 1970 I was picking up real rock and roll records which were the same thing tons of other people were listening to—Beatles—Stones. It’s funny, I’d get into some kind of music and when I was a little kid, I’d watch the Monkees, I had a couple Monkees records and listen to them over and over. When I saw Yellow Submarine I just went nuts for the Beatles records. I bought all of John and Paul’s solo stuff too. When I got to be about 11 or 12 a kid at school turned me onto the Rolling Stones. Then I listened to that for a while. The Who, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin all the stuff that I think is still great today. I can’t even remember really being wrapped up in a music that makes me cringe now.
Where did you go to high school?
DB: I went to Ridgeview High School. It’s closed now. It was over near Northside Hospital. I went to elementary school at Christ King which is on Peachtree and West Wesley. I have a very white bread school history. I went to three schools. I went to one first through eight grade. I went to one high school and then moved to Athens and went to the University of Georgia.
What was your first band in Athens?
DB: A band called The Legion. They were guys I went to high school with. They needed a bass player. They had a session booked with songs to record but they had no bass player. They figured since I could play all this stuff that I do alright with a bass. I remember I was so nervous my hands were sweating. The first time I played bass was in the studio for these guys session. I must have been 18.
What were you looking for at that point? A band? Being a songwriter? Session guy?
DB: Songwriter all the way. Everything I did stemmed from that. I started writing songs and I grew apart from those guys musically. I got turned onto a bunch of cool music in Athens. I knocked around. Then I started Mercyland. I always played in bands—this is 1985—I was 21. The three of us had a plan to start a band. But I always played in bands as an outlet for songwriting. The songs are what stimulated being in a band. Then when I got in a band it was a hell of a lotta fun. The brief history was we started Mercyland in 85. Our drummer quit in 87.
Then The BBQ Killers asked me to be in their band for a few months. But I always thought they were better as a four piece instead of a five piece. They didn’t need the extra person. I bowed out of that; my old buddy from cub scouts was playing in bands around Athens—he used to drum for the band Crack. But even since I was playing in The Legion—right around the time the most radical development in the history of musicians recording their own music was introduced to the public and that was the Fostex four track cassette. Once I got that thing I really got into recording. I always done it—I had a four track reel to reel in the basement that was my dad’s. I still have it. It’s down at the studio. I think there’s something wrong with one of the motors but it hasn’t turned on in 30 years. I was always recording—I remember borrowing the Glockenspiel from the high school band in high school to take it home and use it as an overdub. I recorded all my bands coming all the way through high school. When I got this little portable four track you could go to other bands’ practice space and their shows and record. So, I got into that. I made this one thing with the BBQ Killers in my parents basement. I think the Christmas of 84 or 85 when my folks were out of town. So I had the band over to record, but I started recording bands other than my own on a four track.
When I was in Mercyland we’d go over to John Keane’s and record. I had a good experience over there so I told the BBQ Killers why don’t we go over there and I’d produce a proper studio recording even though I really didn’t know what I was doing. John was the engineer and I was the producer. I did a lot of stuff with John like that…I always had four tracks that I would play for John when I’d show him what I wanted to do. I realize now everybody has PROTOOLS and stuff at their house, but at the time it was kind of an unusual thing to do. John, over time, began to recognize I might have an aptitude to do this kind of thing. So after that I’d go around the studios with bands I liked and produced their records—The Kill Billys, The BBQ Killers, Jack O Nut and others I know I’m leaving out. So I got adept at being in a studio. I didn’t really know how the gear worked very well. John didn’t show me a lot of technical stuff, but he done me a greater favor.
When Mercyland broke up John called me and said, ‘You should learn to be an engineer, I think you’d be good at it.’ That sounds good to me. I was John’s assistant. The deal was I’d go there and be John’s assistant for a little while, and if I’d go to this crash course in Ohio he attended that took about five weeks that when I came back I could come back and start recording bands. So I helped John out and I learned a lot of cool stuff. Billy Bragg was over there working at the time. Kelly Hogan. The Vigilantes of Love. It was interesting to watch other people come through there. So, then I went to the recording workshop for five weeks one summer. There’s some of these courses that take years to get through at some places—but this one was serious hands-on activity. You do it for ten hours a day, just like being in a studio. It was great. When I came back John said, ‘Pick a band and record a song so you can show me you know what to do.’ So I got Liquor Cabinet to come over and record one song in John’s studio. John gave me a key and an alarm code and told me I could record as much as I wanted to on weekends. He had Monday through Friday and I had Saturday and Sunday. I worked over at John’s for a pretty good while. He gave me an opportunity which is the greatest gift. He saw something in me I don’t think I recognized in myself. I knew if I got good at it we could keep his place booked all the time, which we did until it got too big for two of us. So, then I branched out and started freelancing around to other studios in Athens which at the time was Maxwell Sound—he’s still in business—he doesn’t really do rock bands, Full Moon Studio, Kelly Noonan’s Suite 16, Scott Stuckey’s studio on Boulevard—Sound Gallery. I was the first freelance engineer in Athens. The idea of a guy who went from studio to studio recording wasn’t the way things worked. It was fun to work in all these different places and you get a feel for each place—a vibe, an atmosphere from room set up to equipment—you get a good idea of what works and what doesn’t work.
So after that I got my first call to go do something in Atlanta. It was for a band I recorded at Full Moon Studios. 134 told these guys they played with in Atlanta they recorded with me in Athens and they should give me a shot. They peppered me with what kind of records I’d been listening to and we had enough of a crossover of things so they hired me to go to Atlanta. It was Bosstown which was owned by Bobby Brown, which is now Stankonia, but way before it was any of that it was Soundscape which was where the first Black Crowes record was cut. It’s a great big, nice, studio. I went down and recorded this Fiddlehead single in Atlanta which served two benefits for me. Number one, it got me into Atlanta. Now I just don’t work in Athens—I’ve expanded my circle a bit. It was a different scene, a different set of bands. I got so much work off that Fiddlehead single, which is a great sounding record. Their drummer plays with me now.
One always needs a good drummer around…
DB: Yeah, if you’ve got a great drummer, you’re recording sounds a whole lot better. That’s why I’m so picky about drummers because it’s the foundation. If the drums don’t sound right or played right nothing sounds good. There’s no microphone, technique or trick to make someone who doesn’t know how to play sound good. I know you can PRO TOOL anything, but it doesn’t feel the same. So, other Atlanta bands began calling me up. As an engineer I now had a justifiable reason to charge people. Y’know traditionally, the lines are blurred…traditionally the producer is the creative director who doesn’t touch the equipment. The engineer is the equipment man, but nowadays those lines are blurred. I rarely do sessions where I am not the engineer now. I have to have my hands on that. So, by the mid-90s I had a circuit of about 20 studios between here and Atlanta which was great because the studio people let some other person come into their place. The other thing is they realize, ‘Hey, this guy is bringing us work we wouldn’t ordinarily get.’ Once I started working at John’s I stayed busy right away. I was playing in a band called Sugar and working at John’s. By early 95, when I quit Sugar, I had a solid circuit I worked. I knew I wanted to build a studio one day, but I didn’t want to make the common mistake of building something important without the necessary experience to get it right. So I began amassing my arsenal of equipment.
Then in 97 I got asked to go to rural Illinois to work on the Son Volt record. I went out and had to fly home—and have a grand opening of Chase Park Studios. Then get back on a plane and fly back to St. Louis and drive down into Illinois again and work on that Son Volt stuff some more. That’s 97 and that’s when we opened Chase Park.
That’s about the time our paths intersect. I remember being over there with Danny and Eric (Bloodkin)…
DB: Yeah, exactly. I remember recording Bloodkin there that summer. By the time we were building the studio I already worked in so many different places in Atlanta and Athens…I also made records in Massachusetts, Texas, England and Japan. I been in all kinds of studios…even with my parents. When we started to build the studio it dawned on me on how many places I’d been in. I had a much broader knowledge base than what I was aware of—so it was great when we built it because I knew what worked. In 1990, me and John Forbes, who recorded great bands in Atlanta and Chicago, we talked about building something. We go to music shops and look for equipment. Now, thinking back what the guy recommended to us in the music store I realized how screwed we would have been. We would have gotten loaded down with the same thing everyone else had when they start. Let’s go buy a bunch of cheap, mediocre crap and good luck, hope it works. For me working in studios that already had equipment and being able to process it all and buy good equipment one piece at a time. I’d tell studios send me a copy of your microphone list, so I’d know what I needed or wanted.
Danny (Bloodkin guitarist/singer/songwriter) gave me a copy of this latest stuff they’ve recorded at your place. That’s how you and I met--through Bloodkin. I was over there for New Year’s…
DB: I went to see them last night. They were really good—William Tonks played with them. The highlight for me was a good version of “Calling Back” and “Morning Chrome” that kind of makes me think we might need to record that, it sounded good.
You’ve recorded—over all—about six or seven Bloodkin related projects. I think I first did some spoken word over there around 98 or 99…
DB: I think you’re right. You know Tony Eubanks—he owned the High Hat Blues Club back then. At the end of 96 he hired me to record live bands there. I did 8-track recordings…simple stuff…early versions of the Drive by Truckers, Jack Logan, Liquor Cabinet, Six-String Drag, Hot Burritos, the Continentals, the Real McCoy’s and Bloodkin. Of course, Danny and Eric have been here in Athens since the mid-80s and I can remember seeing them way back with Barry and Aaron. I always liked them and knew them peripherally but not very well. We had a lot of common ground, but it’s funny—you never get to see these bands in your hometown when you’re in a touring band. They came over and did some mixes and there was something about the guitars…I think I turned them up really loud but Danny and Eric really dug the guitar sound when I recorded them. The song they recorded was going on a compilation. Then Danny talked to me about making a record which turned out to be Out of State Plates. That was the summer of 97 and I just started Chase Park and I probably done three or four records in there by that point already. In the middle of the summer we started making the Bloodkin record. I knew it was a few days into it where it all really fell into place.
Bloodkin’s music and my work style came together. That’s the way it is with all the musicians with whom I work. There’s that point where you get over the hump where you realize everybody’s creativity locks into a flow of this confluent experience. I know that with Bloodkin it was “Something To Say” was the song we were tracking and listening back to that and realizing, ‘yeah, we got it.’ My contribution and their comfort level…that was the moment it all came together. With them—and there are a few others that are pretty lucky—to have some people I’ve made records with repeatedly through the years—Bloodkin, The Drive By Truckers, Dodd Ferrell—I’ve been doing for ten years.
I just made this new record with The Drive-By Truckers and I think it’s their best one. Patterson hung dry wall in Chase Park when we built it the first time. I knew Patterson because he was the soundman at the High Hat when I recorded those shows. I was sitting up in the perch of a sound booth with him up there and we were always talking music. He was, at the time, a huge Bloodkin fan. Tony (Eubanks) and Patterson both were always talking about Bloodkin. Like I say, I knew Bloodkin and I liked them, but Patterson always talked them up—about what a great songwriter Danny was and what a great guitar player Eric was. It’s funny, my relationship with both bands started around the same time.
The first thing the Truckers did at Chase Park were not with me. They had already done some recording with Andy Baker at his house, so when we built the studio they made their first album with Andy at Chase Park. Then Pizza Deliverance they recorded out of Patterson’s house and then came to Chase Park and mixed it. The next thing they did was—they were working on the Southern Rock Opera, but they made a live album and I mixed that…
…Alabama Ass Whuppin…
DB: That’s right. And then, once again, they kinda…same thing with Bloodkin…I mixed some live stuff and I think they felt like I got it as far as musical common ground. I think a lot of people’s fear when they get their stuff mixed by some studio guy that the vocals and the snare drum are going to be way too loud. So that went really well. We recorded the Southern Rock Opera and I mixed that as well—they recorded it themselves. At that point, obviously their career really takes off when the Southern Rock Opera hits and gets all this great press. They get signed and then they want to record…Decoration Day was me working with them pillar to post—that was done entirely at Chase Park. While we were still finishing the record they had some sort of… their A & R person changed at their label—former label now—and you know the deal with that…an A & R person signs somebody and you’re their band, but if a new guy comes in—well the new guy might want to make his own mark and not want to inherit someone else’s band. Face it, people have different musical tastes. So anyway, while they were making the record—it seems like there was some conflict of some sort that the record never really came out on New West. Then Dirty South was after that. The Dirty South was done half at Chase Park and half at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
Was that your first experience of going to the Muscle Shoals Studio? I’m partial to The Dirty South, but I haven’t heard the new one yet…
DB: Wait until you hear it. I think…I just can’t pick favorites…but The Dirty South is a great one—it’s got a great feel. Blessing And A Curse was mostly recorded in North Carolina and mixed back at Chase Park. That was a different kind of record for them. They decided to try and instead of making a 70 minute big, dark record, they made a 45-minute record with shorter songs and did some things different ways. On this new Truckers record we were talking about making the new record, but then the Bettye LaVette record came up…so we did the Bettye record in February 2001, and the mixes, because Bettye’s in New Jersey, the label is in Los Angeles and me and Patterson are in Athens. Mixing went back and forth…I’d do something, email somebody a file—we’d talk about it, and then I’d do some more. I did that pretty much last spring. Then the Truckers latest—Brighter Than Creation’s Dark started in June. That’s what I did in the summer of 2007, and we mastered it in New York September 24th and 25th. So, I basically worked on that for three and a half months and it comes out in about two weeks. This one has got it all…its 19 songs, 75 minutes with nine Patterson songs, seven Cooley songs and three Shonna songs. Everybody’s stuff is great.
Now The Truckers have another Athens musician, John Neff, in the band who can play anything, especially the pedal steel…
DB: Yep, John’s in the band. Spooner Oldham plays on the whole record. It’s the Truckers' greatest record. I might be a little too close to it right now to say that—I guess ask me in ten years, but right now It feels terrific.
Talk about R.E.M…they really carved their own groove for a whole lotta other artsy, collegiate-type music back in the late 70’s. You were working with them in your studio the day Danny, Eric, and I recorded our Fandango Brothers session in February 2007.
DB: I’ve worked on and off with R.E.M. several times over the years. As far back as the first two or three months I worked with John Keane. About a year and a half ago, I spent a few days with them recording a cover of John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” for a benefit album for the people of Darfour, and then as you mentioned, last February I spent a few more days with them working on some demos for some new songs that were in the working stages of this new album they just finished that I think comes out in the spring.
Scene of the Crime is a great record—the one you made in Muscle Shoals with Bettye LaVette and the Truckers were her backing band…
DB: It was a great experience. We went to Muscle Shoals and into FAME studios.
You engineered the whole process.
DB: Well, yeah…sorta. The deal was, Andy Caulkin who is the president of Anti-Records in California, wanted to have the Truckers backing Bettye LaVette on a record and that the record was going to be produced. He wanted it to be like a Drive By Truckers record, and they wanted Patterson to produce this record. Patterson—God bless him—said, ‘Well, we don’t make records without David Barbe'. First, they wanted Bettye to come to Athens, but we said, ‘No, we want to go back to Muscle Shoals…to the scene of the crime…
Where Bettye recorded a soul classic, but it never really came out…
DB: That’s right. They said yeah we’d love to go down there. The Truckers said we want our guy with us when we do it because if you want it to sound like one of our records—we’re all in this together. I mean there have been other things Patterson and I produced together because we have a good way of getting it done together. It ain’t just me. I went down there with them and Bettye had picked out songs and so we worked through the things she wanted, and there was definitely some bumps in the road because it was a different kind of stuff that they would normally be playing. But once everybody figured out how to work together the results were great. She’s tremendous. Everything was cut with her in the isolation booth, but everything else is bleeding into each other. A total live band recording…a large majority of the vocals on that were scratch vocals. The best takes by bands are when they are following her. She’s singing the song. Bettye’s the navigator…it all stems from following her and her voice. She’s the conduit of it all. I also lucked out because I had a really great assistant. A guy named Ben Tanner—he’s a young guy that works at FAME. He was a tireless invaluable guy. He knew the room, he knew the place. I realized I had totally different ways of doing things than most of the people who work there. He was pretty curious about what I was doing and he was eager to help any way he could. I took a ton of microphones down there. I recorded them with my own mics. I used their tape machine and console. It was a great experience.
So the new Bloodkin album is finishing up next week…
Right now I’ve got Bloodkin going on, which is my seventh—and I count the two Danny solo albums as part of the family. This is my seventh record with them. I’m in the middle of doing that—I love it—it’s great. When I did this Bettye thing it was live and wide open—the Truckers record was the in the same manner and so was Bloodkin. I’m doing a Dodd Ferrell solo record where is backed with kind of my personal rhythm section—Kyle Spence and Jon Mills—that’s a really great record. That’s Dodd’s best record by far. This is maybe my fifth one with him and it’s easily his best one. I’m about to get some tracks from this New York band, The Young Lords I’m going to mix and I’ll probably do all that down here. It is my preference when I can to stay here and work, but I’m not against going to other places, but I can do things in Athens that are so much more affordable for people that are as good as or better that what they are going to get somewhere else. Let’s face it, with most people, budget is a concern. So, we talked about going to Ardent to record the Truckers new record in the summer, and I’d love to go there—I’ve never worked there, but I always wanted to because I love all the albums made there. Super people. But when we started adding everything up—hotel rooms, traveling back and forth…they would spend $15,000 just eating and sleeping. We talked about going to Southern Tracks in Atlanta—I love the place and I love the results—a lot of great music…but three times more expensive. If they had U2’s recording budget, I’d say hell yeah, let’s go…but we don’t. In January, I’m focused on Dodd Ferrell, Bloodkin, the Critical Darlings—another Athens band, the Young Lords and I’m in the process of slowly, but surely making another David Barbe record.
Yeah, I mean you play and write your own music. Your first solo record—Comet of the Season--came out in 2001...
DB: I’m just too busy making other people’s music to do my own. You just can’t listen to Bloodkin for ten hours a day and then come home and starting writing songs or recording—it doesn’t work. To me it’s a feel. I’ve worked on my own stuff over the holidays a little bit. I’ll get that done soon.
Well, I’ll see ya soon and we can continue into the next phase…
DB: Let me know when you want some more…