When Steve Barton moved to Portland, Oregon a few years ago, he found himself removed from the California music scene which he’d been part of decades. That didn’t bother him. Instead, he set about making one of his most ambitious records, Tall Tales And Alibis. It’s a three-album set that sets three distinct moods. In some instances it would be appropriate to call such a work “sprawling” but, despite its length and sheer volume of material, Tall Tales And Alibis is tightly woven and, in its way, succinct collection that speaks to Barton’s emotional and musical range.
It is his seventh solo release and comes on the heels of 2017’s Carriage Of Days, which he recorded with the band Translator, an outfit that recorded four albums in its initial run (c.1979-1986) and which gigs to this day. He’s not entirely reluctant to discuss the band, though it’s clear that he’s traced and re-traced that group’s history more than a few times for music scribes.
Still, his solo career is not entirely a clean break from the group. Translator drummer Dave Scheff, a lifelong friend of the singer-songwriter, appears on Tall Tales’ full band installment, alongside Nelson Bragg (Brian Wilson band) on percussion, Derrick Anderson (Bangles) holding down the bass spot, and co-producers of these sessions Marvin Etzioni and Willie Aron on guitars, keyboards and vocals. Joining the band sessions for three songs was Pete Thomas, known for his work with Elvis Costello’s Attractions.
That material is different than the other discs. “It was recorded with everybody playing at the same time in the studio,” Barton offers. “That was finished and then I moved to Portland. The project got put on hold but once I got here it unleashed something in me creatively. I tend to write a lot anyway but up here the songs just really started coming out.”
He adds, “I essentially had another couple albums worth of songs. I started listening to it together and it all sort of worked together as one set. I thought, ‘I could put out three separate albums; I could put out an album a week.’ I was just trying to figure out how to do it. A friend suggested the triple album to me. It made a lot of sense. It’s not a concept album but it is of a piece in a way.
How did Pete Thomas come to enter an otherwise tight-knight group? “It was sort of a pipe dream, joking around,” recalls Barton. “But Marvin called me the next day and said, ‘OK, we have Pete Thomas!’ It was great to look over and see him. “He’s playing on one of my songs? OK, cool!’”
Tall Tales And Alibis is out now.
Jedd Beaudoin: Do you prefer getting a group of guys together in a room and tracking live or close to live?
Steve Barton: I love collaboration. I come from being in a band. But I like doing stuff by myself too. That’s rewarding. But if push came to shove, I would chose being in a band. That’s not to say that the two records without a band aren’t what I want them to be. This whole record is exactly as I envisioned it.
How did you wind up covering the Rolling Stones’ song “Dandelion”?
I’d always loved that song since I was a kid. If I remember correctly, I was at Marvin’s house. We were screwing around, playing songs, some cover songs, some of mine. We came across “Dandelion” and said, “Hey, we should cover that. That’d be cool.” I’m always looking for interesting cover songs but I don’t want to do them in such a way that they sound exactly like the original.
So, I started playing it almost like a T. Rex song. Marvin said, “Whoa, whoa, what’s that?” We kept that sort of vibe. It’s kind of a Stones-meets-T.Rex thing.
Was there ever a thought of trying to form a Portland version of the band?
I think it’ll happen at some point down the road and although I knew a few people when I got here, I thought about how I had a studio at home and was writing songs. It all took on a life of its own. But, yeah, eventually I would like to put some kind of combo together or at least have people come over and occasionally play on stuff.
What do you see as being the dividing line between the two records you did by yourself in terms of moods and themes?
The first album is more upbeat, I’m singing in my rock ‘n’ roll voice. With the second record I made something that was purposefully quiet. I’m singing in a lower register almost through the whole thing. I wanted to keep that vibe for the whole record.
Some would see making an entire dark, quiet record as risky.
The quiet record just had to be what it was. It is risky, yeah, but you gotta do what you gotta do sometimes. It just took on a life of its own and that’s exactly what I had to do with that record.
Have you always been prolific as a songwriter or does it come and go in periods?
I’ve always been pretty prolific and I don’t want to jinx it. It’s not to say that every song I write is good. There’s 37 songs on this collection, two of which are covers. One is an old Translator song called “Unalone.” I’ve got more songs written already. I’m thinking about the next record.
I remember reading an interview with Neil Young and the conversation turned to how prolific he is. But he said, “I don’t write all the time. I might have a six-week period where it all comes out for a year and that’s it.”
Yep. When I start writing and songs become what I think of as keepers, then other songs start to arrive, like, “Hey, we want to be part of the party too.” If there isn’t a record on the other end, you’re just sort of writing these songs and there’s nowhere for them to go, though they get written anyway. For me, when there’s a record in view, then the songs definitely come very quickly.
You started writing when you were pretty young.
I wrote my first song when I was about 11.
Did you have a testing ground for them?
I had a band called The Present Tense when I was 11 and 12. I was the drummer. I wrote a song with the guitar player called “Lost.” It got recorded by Mike Curb, who’s a big name in the record industry these days. It never came out for weird reasons. But I had the acetate of it and it’s kind of charming with the band playing it. There’s also a studio musician version. We were so young and I’ve never really stopped since then.
But, yeah, I used to go in while my parents were watching TV and I’d go in, make them turn it off, which was like a major moment, so that I could set up some mics and record some song that I’d written on piano. I’d play songs for my parents. But a lot of my songs when I was a kid were these weird, dark songs about death and time passing. I don’t know where that was coming from when I was 12. I must have been a joy to be around! [Laughs.]
Was writing an escape valve for you in a way?
I would have rather been doing that than going out with my friends and I would do that, a lot of times.
I started writing poems and short stories around age seven or eight. It wasn’t exactly something where I could go to my friends and say, “Hey, do you guys wanna read my new poem?”
Exactly. I had a publishing deal when I was 14. I didn’t tell any of my friends. It was a private thing, in a way, and I think I was, not embarrassed, but I think it was expected that I would write really commercial songs and I just wanted to write songs that sounded like The Doors. Then, one day, I remember sitting with a friend in a park or something and it came up. They said, “Wait a minute? You have a publishing contract? Why didn’t you tell me?” I said, “I don’t know, I was kind of embarrassed.” He said, “What? That’s so cool!”
What’s the turning point, then? Where it goes from being this kind of secretive thing to being a visible part of your identity?
I remember with my band, The Present Tense, when we were kids, we did a gig at our elementary school. All the girls chased us like it was A Hard Day’s Night. It was that era. They chased us to Winchell’s Donut House. I can still see it. I remember thinking, “This is kind of fun.” That donut shop, by the way, had the coolest jukebox. That’s where I heard “Like A Rolling Stone” for the first time.
It strikes me, listening to the Translator records, that you guys were not 100 percent in fashion with the times.
That’s for sure.
Does that become a problem or is it something where you can take it as, for lack of a better term, a point of pride?
Sort of a point of pride but we weren’t alone in that. We gravitated toward bands that didn’t sound like robots with a bunch of synthesizers. We would do tours with Gang of Four or The B-52s, Psychedelic Furs. Quality, great bands.
You know, the ‘80s has been boiled down to big, pointy shoulder pads, walls that were all splashes of pink and black. Crazy haircuts. Synthesizers. There was a lot of great music that didn’t rely on any of that.
Lone Justice was happening, Los Lobos was happening, X.
Absolutely. It all happens at the same time. Even during the storied ‘60s there was a lot of crap too. It wasn’t all Revolver.
At some point, Translator grinds to a halt. Did you think of going solo, did you wonder what you were going to do next?
I thought everything. I wondered what I was going to do. I had that moment of “Wait, what?” It turns out that it was just a big hiatus for us because we ended up getting back together. We still play from time to time. We put out new music from time to time. But, yeah, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just started writing songs. I did a couple of gigs. I did do some demos that I found not that long ago that were not that great. I was clearly trying to find my way. “OK, now I’m a solo artist. What does that mean?” It took me a while to find my footing.
I owe a lot of what did happen to Marvin. My first solo record, The Boy Who Rode His Bike Around The World, was produced by him and he really helped me figure out what it means to be a solo artist. I didn’t know what that meant. I’d only been in a band.
Can you articulate that difference?
A band is, at least for me, extremely collaborative. I like that. As a solo artist, there can be collaboration but a lot of times you’re really dictating how a song goes, that kind of thing. I would never tell anyone what to play but I have a really firm idea of the direction I want the song to go in. With a band, at least with Translator, we were much more open to surprise. A song could change direction once I brought it to the other guys.
When you reactivated the band and it went from being a thing where maybe there were record company promises and pressures and now it’s just you guys, does it become more special somehow?
We didn’t have much pressure when we were in the middle of a record deal. We still tried to make the same kind of music. But, yeah, it definitely becomes something where you’re doing it to do it. Hopefully people hear it but it definitely is a different feeling.
You’ve done something special with these new records. In the ‘80s or even a decade ago, if someone had gone to the record company and said, “OK, I’m going to do a triple album,” there would be raised eyebrows around the room. In this era you can get away with that, though.
I think that’s the good thing about the era we live in right now. You can do whatever you want. For me, part of it was, “They say people aren’t buying albums anymore, it’s all streaming. And singles. OK. I’ll put out a triple album.” My next record won’t be a triple album but I like that I did it this way.