“I'm the guy who sells four albums every twelve years, right?” Anton Barbeau talks about “success”, the mainstream, krautrock and the gaps in his Todd Rundgren album collection to Ian Rushbury.
Double albums, eh? Tricky little blighters. You’ve been waiting around since “Quadrophenia” for one to arrive and then two come at once. Just when you thought that everyone was veering away from the epic grandeur of the two-album set, both Spygenius and everybody’s favourite pop-psychedelic troubadour, Anton Barbeau, have released one.
Sadly, neither have sleeves designed by Roger Dean, which is a bit of a shame. IDHAS caught up with the King of Air Miles, Anton Barbeau, to find out why the world needs a krautrock infused, pop-rock-psychedelia concept album about travelling (and music), loaded with avian references.
“Manbird” is a good, old fashioned, lavish and sprawling, concept album. But what’s the concept?
"It’s about leaving the nest and trying to find myself in the big scary world and trying to find out what it all is. In the past years, I’ve done loads of travelling and I've been in a permanent state of jet lag for months at a time - always living with a suitcase at hand.
My life has been divided between living in Europe and coming back to California, so it’s looking back at a life of travelling or being afraid to move at all. I think there’s also a theme of music as well,and how music has been essential to me, from the very beginning. I was born a Beatles baby, so that’s always been there, and that plays out in a couple of songs."
And the bird references?
"The bird theme was really convenient as everywhere I go, there are birds – I’m on a farm right now, and I can hear flickers and scrub jays and vultures, bluebirds and hawks and quail. In Berlin there were wood pigeons and crows and magpies."
Recording this album in multiple locations, as far flung as California, Berlin and Oxford, how the hell do you keep track of what you’re working on?
Everything goes onto one hard drive (laughs). At the moment, I have two laptops and everything then gets consolidated onto another computer. I've been making records this way for a while. I've sometimes done the jet lag thing, where the first thing you want to do after you land, is get all the stuff that you've recorded in California on the Berlin drive and I've gone the wrong way. I don't know how I manage to keep it all together, but somehow, I do."
It's 2020 and no one can concentrate for more than thirty seconds at a time any more. Why on earth have you released a double album?
"I knew that this album was going to have a theme to it and that it was going to be a concept thing, because it was inspired by the film “Lady Bird” (a coming-of-age-in-Catholic-school story set in Sacramento, Barbeau’s home town), so I already knew what the timbre of it was going to be.
When I started working on it, I knew that it couldn't be contained in a small space - it felt like it wanted to tell a story. The way I work is that most of the time, I don't know what it is I'm doing until I’m some way down the line, then I can start to see what the themes are.
But in this case, those themes were obvious from the outset and it just made sense that it was going to spread out. There was a moment where I thought, “oh no, it's going to be a triple album!”
The people who pre-ordered the record and helped us fund it in the first place, are going to get a third disc of stuff, but that isn’t as developed as the other two, so the triple album idea was nipped in the bud."
Like some of your recent albums, this record was crowdfunded. This must mean that reaching out directly to your fanbase has been successful?
"Yeah - it’s funny, as the word successful is shocking in relation to anything I do. I'm the guy who sells four albums every twelve years, right? When I was doing a campaign with Pledge Music, I met up with one of the guys who was helping me with my campaign at the time.
He said, “you're one of our most successful artists” and I replied, “what do you mean? How dare you!” He meant that I had run two or three successful campaigns, so by Pledge Music standards, I was successful. I was really taken aback at hearing the word ‘successful’ applied to me and my career."
So, you’re a fan of this method of funding for albums?
"As far as crowdfunding goes, it's been something that I've been able to make work, but it’s also something that I hate doing. Artists who do it, all try to put on a happy face and make it look like it’s an enjoyable thing to go through.
In the case of “Manbird”, we put the campaign together ourselves. We didn't use an outside company like Kickstarter or Pledge, we just set up a website ourselves and that was really enjoyable. A nice organic way to do it. It was from the heart and without any of the icky, behind the scenes stuff. We were setting out our own terms and it was really quite fun this time. Very gratifying. Very satisfying."
It's a great looking package.
"Much credit has to go to (graphic artist) Julia VBH - she’s really pulled it together. We collaborate, but she does much of the work. She did a beautiful job with this. I spent forty minutes the other day just looking at the lyric sheet and poster. It's my own record and I'm still fascinated with it. I wanted it to be something that people will spend time with - especially as it’s a double album, but I was surprised at how wonderful it turned out to be."
The front cover has more than a whiff of an early seventies, prog rock album on the Vertigo label…
That's what we thought, too - it feels very early seventies. There are a lot of things coming together in this record - a lot of things crisscrossed. None of it was planned - you grab this element and that element and you put them together and something new happens. The photo of the canal on the cover was taken two minutes from where I live in Berlin. I'm on that bridge every day, taking pictures of the same canal."
Am I wrong in thinking that the first CD is almost “mainstream”, with much of the weird stuff occurring on disc two?
"I think there's some conscious effort in that direction. Is it mainstream? I don't mind that word. I'll never be mainstream. I always think I'm the next Beatles, but apparently, I'm not! There's still enough weird variety from me on the first disc - it’s still enough of a bumpy ride. I's such a big record that even I can’t say, “here’s my intention at this point, here's what happens in the middle.”
I don't have that vision, but definitely side two is meant to be a ‘B’ side. If you picture the whole thing as a single - two songs on a piece of vinyl - the ‘A’ side is the pop hit and the other track is the weird ‘B’ side. It's not a linear story, I couldn’t write it down on a piece of paper or do bullet points. It's all over the place, time wise."
And stylistically – talk me through the country-romanesque curio, “Cowboy John Meets Greensleeves”, please…
The “Cowboy John” part is the entirety of the first song I ever wrote as an eight-year-old - my first attempt at creating original music and lyrics. I would sit and play it on the piano for hours. And “Greensleeves”, is… “Greensleeves.” I don't think I wrote that... That's an early childhood memory that got grafted on."
Apart from that pre-teenage magnum opus, you haven’t re-recorded any of your previous material for this record, like you did for “Natural Causes”?
"Everything on “Manbird” was written for this record. There have been a few recent records – “Natural Causes” and “Kenny Versus Thrust” in particular, plus the “Antronica” stuff, which are meant to be, either an introduction to my work for newcomers, or a reintroduction to my work to people who may have dropped off to sleep after album twenty-three, or whatever.
There, I’m taking certain songs and giving them a new life, or what I hope is a more definitive presentation. “Natural Causes” is a record that I’m really pleased with. I'm happy with the remakes on that album and it's a very complete album in its own right, even if the songs aren't all original. It’s one of my favourite albums that I’ve done. I think it has a lovely sound to it – Popol Vuh meets pop music!"
Talking about Popol Vuh, there seems to be a little bit of krautrock in “Manbird.” “Beak” and “Beak II” both have a motorik feel. Ever thought of doing a krautrock themed record?
"I have thought about it – I’ve got a few krautrock tracks which are coming out on a pair of Fruits de Mer compilations. They’re not particularly long tracks and I think if you’re going to do it properly, like a forty-minute piece, you really have to commit to it. I can do it on my own, but when you get a bunch of people together to play something like that, it’s a whole different thing altogether. You want that almost spiritual experience.
I did a track called “In a Boat on the Sea”, for an album called “Drug Free” a few years ago. It was at the end of the recording of the album and I wanted to get a bunch of people into the studio, just for the experience of recording live. We ended up doing this really beautiful, krauty track."
Aside from the Germanic influences, do I detect a bit of Todd Rundgren creeping into your work every now and then?
"I'm a fan, but I couldn't say he's a real influence. because I don't know his stuff that well. It's funny because Michael Urbano and Larry Tagg play on this record and they’ve both played with Todd, so there is a connection.
In recent years, I've been digging out stuff by him and starting to get more and more into it and paying more attention. I saw him live once and it was an amazing gig - one of those, "oh right, you're that guy" gigs. But for some reason, I can't claim myself as a bona fide Todd Rundgren fan, but I probably will by next week!"
You do realise that admitting to a lack of knowledge of Todd Rundgren and recording a radically reworked version of Big Star’s “September Gurls” in 2017 for your “Heaven is in Your Mind” EP, will result in death threats from hard-core powerpop fans?
"I can’t even remember how my version of “September Gurls” goes! I'll have to dig it out again. I don't think it was a conscious decision along the lines of, “I'm going to move this song over in another direction - I'll show them!", but I certainly have no patience for rigid thinking in any genre.
I understand that, because the song is so good, that you don't want to dishonour a song that you really care about. When I was younger, I probably would, but we're all running out of time now - life is short and life is precious.
That track came out on Fruits De Mer which is a pretty psychedelic label, so the audience is already pretty freaked out and expecting something unusual. I know Ken Stringfellow and Jody Stephens liked my version of "I'm in Love with a Girl", but I'm not sure if they’ve heard "September Gurls".
And so, we leave Mr Barbeau to brush up on the Todd Rundgren back catalogue and check his front garden for aggrieved, knife wielding powerpop afficionados. “Manbird” is another in a long line of paisley-hued pop rock records that bounces around the musical spectrum like a kangaroo with ADHD. But this time, there’s double the amount of it.
It might not be as linear as that concept album about the deaf, dumb and blind chap, or the one about the lamb lying down in Broadstairs, but it’s well worth the time and effort. Get your headphones and make yourself, comfy, you’re in for a fascinating ride… just watch out for the birds.
You can pre-order Manbird and listen to and buy other Anton delights here.