Swear I'm not Paul: Interview: David Barbe

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Interview: David Barbe

David Barbe and the Quick Hooks

Renowned producer and splendid musician in his own right, David Barbe, has just released a new album with the Quick Hooks. Love It, Don't Choke It To Death is a fantastic rock album, which adds to the splendid career Barbe has carved out for himself, with Buzz Hungry and Mercyland, as well as the excellent Sugar. Barbe is also known as the producer of all the Drive-By Truckers albums, and has worked with Son Volt, R.E.M. and many other great acts. I asked him about coming from a musical background, how being a producer influences his own music, working with a variety of acts, his new album with the Quick Hooks, and a lot more.

You grew up in a very musical family, did that help or hinder you?
I think it was a help. My parents encouraged us, and always had music around, but we were never pushed towards it. Looking back, I probably learned more about the vibe of recording studios and musician culture than I was aware of growing up.

Do you think they were the reason you ended up in this career?
Well.....it didn't hurt. My dad always supported me doing this, even though my music is very different than his own. There were some pretty lean years when I was in Mercyland, and found myself with a baby and another on the way. I had pretty much decided that I needed to make music a hobby and get a straight job. My dad talked me out of it, told me I should give it one more year before doing that, which I don't know that he would have done if he had been a banker or a salesman rather than a musician. In the year that followed, John Keane hired me to engineer at his studio and Bob Mould invited me to join his (then) new band, which turned out to be Sugar. If not for the advice of my dad, things might have turned out quite differently for me.

You enjoyed success with Sugar, was it then that you knew this would be a viable career?
It's funny. I really should have, but it took a while for it to sink in. In the early Sugar days, on breaks I came home and not only worked in the studio, but still picked up a few shifts here and there at a local copy shop. Since I had a family, I always felt like I needed to make sure I was supporting them. Once things really took off for us, it also raised my profile as an engineer/producer and I have been busy as can be ever since. I think that the years I spent in Mercyland, living in the van, sleeping of floors made me aware that perhaps I should not take anything for granted. Good lesson, I suppose.

Compared to Mercyland, you didn't have as much say in Sugar. Did that inspire you to go your own way, musically?
Sure. I did wind up having a much greater say in Sugar than anticipated. Nonetheless, I did feel the need to express myself musically on my own terms. I have always had a lot of freedom as far as input into the records I produce for others, and obviously this new album gave me pretty free reign.

Why did you decide to take up producing full-time and sideline your career as a musician?
From the moment I started engineering at John Keane's I knew it was a good fit for me. Something that I felt naturally good at right away, even though I knew I had a lot to learn. By the last year of Sugar, we were up to three children (which is where it ended) and I was ready to be home with them more. When I looked forwards, I could more easily envision myself in my 40s in the studio more than I could envision myself staying on the road. Don't get me wrong, I never stopped loving the playing of music. It was just everything else involved. I realized I could make music from a record-making standpoint and do so with a wider variety of co-conspirators over time. I did not imagine it would turn into as many people and projects as it has. Now, in spite of that, I have gone out on a few small tours in the last year - last summer as Patterson Hood's bassist, and then the last couple of weeks with the Quick Hooks promoting the new record - and it has been great. I just pick my spots, though. I think there is a place in my heart for both worlds.

You've produced some great acts (particularly Son Volt and Drive-By Truckers), have you learned much from working with them?
Absolutely. I learn something from every artist with whom I work, famous and unknown, young and old. What impressed me about Son Volt was Jay Farrar's patience with the process. We made 'Wide Swing Tremolo' in their rehearsal space over about half a dozen sessions of a week or two. The band was never shown songs before they arrived. They were learning and recording simultaneously. We worked some long days and in some instances had over 50 takes of songs, but Jay had a vision of what he was looking for and never wavered. With Drive-By Truckers, there is always a sense that no inspiration should be rejected without being explored and that normal studio boundaries do not apply. For example, there have been times that we have just cut a full band rocker, and they want to completely shift directions and do, say, an acoustic based number with everyone in the room around one mic, which requires a completely different studio set-up. The traditional way would be to do the similar songs together to use time efficiently, but they prefer to follow their muse, which I believe is the better way. Go with the inspiration. I love working like that.

Does being a musician also help you as a producer?
I can't see doing it without being a musician. It helps immeasurably. It is a combination of things. Knowing how it feels on the other side of the glass aids communication. Having the ability to demonstrate what I am hearing in my head is much easier. There are lots of little things - knowing when the drum fill doesn't jibe with the lyrics; knowing when the bass line fits the drums, but should really follow the guitar; knowing when everybody is about at the boiling point and needs a breather, or knowing when everybody is at the boiling point and we are about to get an amazing performance as a result. I think my years of being in bands, both as the leader and side-man has helped me gain insight.

You've played on many of the albums you've produced, is that a conscious decision?
In most cases it just happens. I hear something in my head and want to try it out, or suggest that someone else try it and they want me to go ahead and do it. Any time I have a musical idea with an artist, I stress that it is their record, and that mine is just an idea that they are free to accept or reject. Most of the artists with whom I work want the input. There are also times where the artist just asks up front if I will play bass (or guitar or drums or keys) on their record. I need to check out the music first and make sure that I am feeling it right to do it.

How do you write songs? What's your particular process?
I get inspired by different things, and it sneaks up on me. A thought, a line, will run through my head, generally with a melody and I will realize it and then try to find the song from that. To me it is like the music is there, in the air or something, and I just recognize it and pluck it. I have never had the ability to sit down and purposely write a song....at least not any good ones.

Patterson Hood said you are "one of the best bands you'll ever get to see." Were you flattered by that description?
Yes! Especially since I regard his band in the same way.

You've worked on all the Drive-By Truckers albums. Do you have a favourite (album or song)?
That is a hard pick. It's like picking a favourite child. I would say I have favourites, but too many to narrow down. They are pretty prolific. There are always a few songs on every record that are something special

Are there any moments of working with the band that hold are particularly memorable?
Lots. This last time, I would have to say it was the tracking of 'The Wig He Made Her Wear,' which was the whole band on the first take, and everybody knew it as soon as the sound died. It was a transcendent moment.

Do you pay much heed to what other people say about you? On the internet, for example?
Only the good stuff! Just kidding. Really, I try not to worry about it too much. It is nice to see a good review, and it can be instructive to read a weak one, but at the end of the day, I try to follow what inspires me and keep on plugging away at getting better at all of this

I've interviewed many musicians, and asked them about their position on online music piracy. From a producer's perspective, how do you feel about it?
I see it both ways. Everyone wants their music to be heard, and now it can be, but if no one is willing to pay for any of it, it will ultimately have a chilling affect on the ability of some artists to carry one. If they have to spend all of their time at some other job because they simply can't make any money with music, there are some who will just dry up. The availability of music on the internet is amazing. We just need to respect the rights of others to earn a living and be willing to toss a few cents in the pot in exchange for the pleasure we glean from listening to their work.

Your solo album The Comet of the Season came out in 2001, why has it taken you so long to record the follow-up?
I have been so busy with other artists' albums that my own just took a while to germinate. When I spend 9 hours a day listening to music, I am not ready to start over again when I am done with their session. I guess the big question for me is will it be another 9 years?

How did this album come about? Why now?
For the last few years I have been occasionally playing local shows with the Quick Hooks as my backing band. They are a great group, comprised of guys from bands with whom I have worked in the studio - Harvey Milk, DBT, The Glands. Generally, what we would do is play a residency at the Caledonia Lounge. Every Monday for a month in the Spring or Fall. We played songs from 'Comet' and any new ones I was coming up with. It was always pretty casual, but the shows were well attended, and well received. There is a healthy taper community in Athens and a good many of these were recorded. I would try from time to time to do some studio time with them, but I was not able to disconnect from whatever project I was working on at the time to really do it right. The way we were able to finally do it was that I took a week of time, blocked it off, and set us up as a live band in the studio. We came in in the evenings, and just hung out until everybody was in the right frame of mind and then just played. Just like it was a show or a rehearsal. Different engineers who work at the studio would sit in the chair so I could relax my mind and get into the song. After that week we pretty much had it done. There was another stretch of a few days where we did a few more songs, two of which made the cut.

Why now? The songs and the takes were there. Once I had it was mixed and mastered, I wanted to release it. Just get it out there to be heard. Plus, you know there are plenty of times where an artist hangs on to a project too long and loses perspective. It just felt like the time was now. It didn't hurt that the release and the Big To Do [new Drive-By Truckers album] release were close enough together where we could do some shows together.

Did you find yourself being a bit of a perfectionist when recording your own album?
This time I tried not to be. I think I was on Comet of the Season. I let a lot more go with this one and am happier with the results. The singing is pretty untouched. Several are the scratch vocal. Having another engineer in the room kept me from butting in too much. Kyle Spence (drummer) had been kind enough to warn me about becoming "that guy with a studio who tweaks his own record to death."

You've played a good few live shows to promote the record. How does this compare to being in the studio?
Nice and loose. We try to keep the arrangements somewhat open-ended live. Keeps it interesting.

David Barbe and the Quick Hooks - Love It, Don't Choke It To Death is out now.

(Photo thanks to http://southernshelter.com/category/david-barbethe-quick-hooks/ Check out that site for loads of great David Barbe live shows)


Anonymous said...

Really interesting interview. Love hearing things from this perspective.

Ronan said...

Thanks. I really enjoyed this interview too. The album is pretty great, btw.