Anton Barbeau is a solo artist, originally from Sacramento. He currently resides in Berlin and reached out to talk about his double-disc album, Manbird. Take a read as he explains in depth about his musical background.
What's your first memory of playing music?
"My parents started me very early - 2 or 3 or 4? - with Yamaha lessons. Great stuff - basically teaching ear training. Quite the opposite of more formal lessons teaching sight reading, I’d say. Anyway, we sat in a room full of Yamaha organs and plinked away at little melodies. Honestly, though my main memory is that at the end of the class, there’d be a sort of free-for-all where we’d go pick whatever percussion instrument we could.
I was very shy and seemed to always end up with the triangle or maybe a single drum stick. Still, even as I can barely remember those lessons, I’m sure they contributed to the fact that I’m a mostly self-taught, ear-first musician."
Who would you say are your biggest influences?
"The easy answer is the Beatles. From before birth, I’d even say, cos my parents played their records all the time. But by now, I have so many other influences. Some that have had an impact for decades would be Eno, Bowie, Dylan, Julian Cope, XTC, Kate Bush. I can add ABBA, even though I only got into their music a couple years back. Obsessed, me!
And I don’t say this with arrogance, but it struck me with the Manbird album that I’m one of my own influences. I’ve made too
many records and have absorbed too much of my own music not to rub off a little bit!"
What was the thinking behind the concept of Manbird?
"Well, it came to me after I saw the film Lady Bird. The film is set in my hometown of Sacramento, and the protagonist is
trapped in catholic school, dying to get out of her small life. Unlike Lady Bird, I sort of relished my status as big fish in a
small town and was actually sort of scared to leave home. When I finally did, I really did.
I lived in the UK for years, then moved to Berlin. The fact I saw Lady Bird while on tour in Spain made it clear I’d finally “left the nest,” but since then, I’ve been returning home with frequency. So, with all that as the bookends of the sandwich of my life, the middle bits are all to do with a life of constant travel and the weary return to home, even when I’m not sure where that is or what it means anymore.
I should add that music itself - from the Yamaha lessons mentioned earlier to the daily dose of Turkish pop I hear living in Neukolln - is one of the themes of Manbird."
Given that the recurring theme for your album relates to birds, did you find the writing process restrictive?
"Not at all, thankfully. I joke and tell people it’s a concept album about 'birds, airports and suitcases.' I mean, I do love birds and take their presence in my life quite personally! There’s a song on the album called 'Coming Home' which begins with a lyric about a blackbird and ends with a line about a mockingbird. I used recordings of the very blackbird and mockingbird I was, respectively, writing about.
That blackbird is the one I hear when I’m taking the 4am taxi to Tegal airport, and the mockingbird is waiting in California, doing his noisy thing at 6am on the power lines outside.
That mockingbird gets his own song, 'Don’t Knock the Mockingbird,' in which he flies between Small-town, California and Big
City Berlin every day, keeping tabs on people, judging them and collecting gossip to hold against them, if needed.
In that same song, I compare his song to the music of Schoenberg and this leads to my first ever burst of 12-tone music. I guess
I’m trying to say, I got a LOT of mileage out of the bird theme on Manbird! Rather than being restrictive, it just kept opening up more connected ideas."
You've managed to make a double-disc album with this project, it's not often seen with artists these days, why was that
important to you, as opposed to just a standard single-disc?
"Manbird is one of those rare records for me where the concept cart came before before the musical horse. I knew it going to be a different album, and would contain all new material. I’d been re-recording many of my older songs for recent albums but Manbird had to be a fresh start. And once the songs started coming, they didn’t stop.
Silly to say it like this, but as the album is autobiographical, I found myself not wanting to leave the world of the 'flying Ant.' My childhood and teenage years are written/sung about in the songs of the album and my life now is presented through the eyes of a character exhausted from being in constant motion, yet with that motion as the force of life itself. Anyway, the songs kept coming and the standard of writing remained high. It was thrilling and self-perpetuating.
There’s a third disk’s worth of material, but you can hear that there were definite limits to how far this could go. Hence, it’s not a triple album!! Most songs I’ve written since Manbird feel a bit purposeless. I tried to start another concept album, this one called Christian Wife, about a pair of characters in a small, conservative American town. The man and woman each play out traditional roles but each has a darker, secret life. It sounded promising, but I think I made it as far as the first two songs before giving up."
You use a variety of instruments on all these tracks in a studio recording, how does that work in a live setting?
"I’ve rarely tried to match my albums and my live shows. In the pre-Covid days, I’d often do solo acoustic shows, guitar and
maybe piano if there was one in the venue. My bands are usually your standard 2 guitars, bass and drums thing, though
more recently my California band has added Julia VBH on synth.
I’ve also been doing more piano-and-karaoke shows of late, where I alternate between singing and playing piano, all sensitive-like and belting along to a little bluetooth speaker loaded with various backing tracks. Makes for a good show, especially when I switch from sad balladeer to synth-pop new wave warrior."
As a solo artist, are there any other musicians in the same scene as you that have grabbed your attention?
"I’m never quite sure what scene I’m in, but there are always amazing musicians to meet and work with anywhere I go. In
Berlin I started working with a couple wonderful guitarists. I met Bryan Poole, of the Elephant 6 scene, when he was
playing with Robyn Hitchcock. Bryan ended up popping over for a couple sessions right as I was finishing up the Manbird album.
Another guy I’ve been gigging with is Lukas Creswell-Rost. His songs are great - very different from mine - and his playing is exquisite. Back in California, there’s a rich musical world around Nevada City. The Moore Brothers and Golden Shoulders are both brilliant. Karla Kane of the Corner Laughers is a top songwriter. In Paris I sing in a band called Salt. 4 of the 5 people in the band are songwriters, each of us with a distinct style. I’m really the luckiest unknown cult artist in the world when it comes to the people I get to play with."
How long was the recording process for this album?
"I had to look it up in Pro Tools to see, but 'Savage Beak,' the first song written for the album, began life on 12 August, 2018. Recording wrapped up - for the most part - in November 2019, with the mastering happening early this year. So, a year and some months for the main bit. Not bad for a double album!"
What are your plans for the future in relation to music?
"Not touring for a while, obviously. That’s weird. In the time I’ve been back in California, I was meant to have instead been gigging in Germany, France, Spain and the UK, plus a handful of shows over here.
I guess the immediate future will be all about promoting Manbird. We’re working with a different publicist this time, one who can do the US and the UK. Putting
finishing touches on the video for the title track. We’d planned to do a 'TOTP' style video for another song, 'Across the
Drama Pond,' with a crowd of awkward dancers and a full band, but the pandemic means it’ll be me and Julia VBH green screening ourselves into various positions.
I love making videos with her - we’re a good team and we’re always pushing each other and learning new tricks. I’m also working on a 'very solo' record, playing all the instruments. I don’t know if it’s any good or if I’ll release it, but it’s very much got the 'lockdown burnout' vibe to it, a bit lost. I’ve just started dipping a toe into the world of orchestral pond music, just for fun. I’m an odd mix of lazy and ambitious.
I try new things when they come naturally, and music generally does. But I’m also keen to work in fields I’m not familiar with or comfortable in, hence the orchestral biz. Not that I have an orchestra handy, but software is the new LSO. Oh - also, we’re re-releasing an album I wrote and produced for Allyson Seconds called Bag of Kittens. That’ll come out in October, after Manbird."
Final word: Anton Barbeau takes the mic
"First of all, thanks for having me. A pleasure to be here chatting! Considering I’ve been going on about Manbird this whole time, there’s probably not much more to add. I hope people will dig the album. I can’t guess what it’ll sound like to someone who doesn’t know my music. I have other records that feel more like a handy introduction, but I’m not sure a double album full of krautrock snippets and Hare Krishna chants and pop songs about suitcases will please people or
not!!! You can pre-order Manbird via Bandcamp:
It was great having this catch up with Anton, and a double-disc album!? That's a lot of content.
If you would like an opportunity to take the mic, drop me an email at email@example.com