Song Writing

Translator founder Steve Barton

by Trevor Morelli

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Los Angeles musician Steve Barton is the iron man of the music industry. In 1979, he formed Translator in L.A. and relocated with the band to San Francisco. Unlike other '80s bands like R.E.M. and Blondie who relied on radio hits to propel their fame, Translator built a devoted following through hard work, dedication, and exhilarating live shows. The band established a cult following in and around San Francisco and Los Angeles and by the time the band's debut LP Heartbeats and Triggers was released in 1982, their song "Everywhere That I'm Not" was already the most requested song on San Francisco station KUSF. It remained a favorite among listeners for six months straight.

Between 1983 and 1986, Translator completed three more albums for Columbia imprint 415 Records: No Time Like Now (1983), Translator (1985), and Evening of the Harvest (1986). Although Evening of the Harvest would turn out to be Translator's last album of original music for the next 26 years, the band continued to enjoy underground success into the late '80s and early to mid '90s. Their 1996 recording of The Beatles' early instrumental "Cry For A Shadow" was so good that even diehard Beatles fans mistook it for a Fab Four original.

In 2000, Barton decided it was time to try something different so he started a new solo band called The Oblivion Click with bassist Derrick Anderson and drummer Robbie Rist. Since then, Barton has released five solo albums and even fits in the occasional Translator gig when time permits. Translator stole the show at the South-By-Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas in 2006 and brought the house down to a sold-out crowd at Slim's in San Francisco in 2009.

Earlier this month, Barton released Projector, his most ambitious and important album to date. The record was produced by good friend Martin Etzioni of the '80s country band Lone Justice on an analogue tape recorder. Projector is about the death of Barton's dad and stands as a powerful testament to the singer's ability to relate to his audience through honest lyrics and intimate melodies. By confronting his emotions head-on and playing all of the instruments on the album himself, Barton has created a memorable piece of work that has not only helped him deal with his own grief but one that will surely help others in their times of need as well.
Songfacts (Trevor Morelli): Your new album is mostly about the death of your father and how you're dealing with it. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Steve Barton: Absolutely. Some of the songs I wrote when my dad was sick and in the hospital for a couple of months. Then, the bulk of it came. One song on the record is called "Super Fantastic Guy" that I wrote literally the day after he passed away. I was at home by myself and sitting with my guitar and it just sort of came; one of these songs that wrote itself in a way. After that, every time I'd pick up my guitar for about a month, all these songs were just pouring out, which is something that really is unusual for me - to have it that intense.

After about a month or so I had a bunch of songs, so I called my friend Marvin Etzioni who was in Lone Justice. I've known him for years. He's an independent record producer now and makes records. I said, "Look, I want to play you a couple of songs."

I went over to his house and he set up his four-track cassette machine. He's a very analog kind of guy. I just played song after song after song for him. He's the one who said, "Look, this sounds like an album. Let's figure out the 12 or whatever songs." And I said, "Yeah" and I just kind of teach them to my band. It's a post-Translator band that I've played with for years. He said, "That would be a really cool album. Or, this is a very personal record. You could play everything yourself. Just think about that." So I took a weekend and thought about it and realized, "Yeah, that's not a bad idea."

We went in and recorded on tape and did the whole thing in about five days. A lot of preproduction went into it; meeting a lot at his house and figuring out what we were going to do. But once we got in there, we recorded it pretty quickly.

Songfacts: Which songs changed the most from when you first sat down with Marvin to the final product that's out now?

Barton: Oh, that's a really good question. One of them on the record is called "Please." First of all, it was originally called "Inside Joke." It kind of had a vibe of "I'm Only Sleeping" from Revolver.

Songfacts: I was going to ask you to elaborate on that a little bit later.

Barton: Yeah, it was much more like that. In fact, we've got demos like that. It was in a lower key, and it was in a very kind of strummy song, like that song is. I think it was Marvin who said, "Why don't you sing it a little higher? What happens if you kind of belt it out?" And I said, "Well, I could just do it like this." Almost as a joke, I just started bashing on an E-minor chord and sort of screaming it out a little more. We both said, "Whoa, that sounds pretty good." I realized that would be really cool live because it just starts with the singing. So we thought, "Let's do it like that." We kind of reworked it. That song is probably the one that changed the most.

Songfacts: On your Web site, you've got a video for the song "These Four Walls." In the chorus you're singing "These four walls are coming down" over and over. That could be interpreted in two ways. Do you see that as a liberating thing, or is that a feeling of your world crumbling down in on you?


Barton: Another excellent question. It's kind of both. I don't know about the world crumbling in on me, but it's kind of both. The video was shot in the house I grew up in. It was right before we sold it. It was empty and I thought, "Let's go in there and say goodbye to it in a way." That song is written about that house, so it made sense to do it there. I think it was kind of a song about liberation in a way. You've got to let go. My dad was gone; my mom had died about ten years earlier. It was that feeling of, "Okay, now the house is going, both my parents are gone." It's almost like you're in this next part of your life now. So I guess it's sort of about that.

The lyrics talk about very specific things in that house. The first line is, "Yarmouth the drifter in a glass case, always heading out to sea." There was this boat that my dad brought back from when he went to England in 1963, I think. It was in a glass case and it was called the Yarmouth Drifter. I used to always look at that thing. It sat up on the mantle in the den in the house for my entire life. Now I have it in my bedroom. So that sort of started it off. That song is completely about that house.

Songfacts That's cool. The idea for the song "Here I Come" came right after you read your Dad's diary from when he was 14 years old.

Barton: Right.

Songfacts: What were the specific things that you were reading that struck you as interesting and inspired that song?

Barton: Well, he ended a few entries by saying whatever the year was. I think it was 1935, "…here come I." I thought, "Well, that's a cool turn of phrase." That kind of stuck in my head. In the diary itself, it would be the typical things for a kid. He'd write about playing baseball and took a couple of trips with his parents. He grew up in Chicago, but he took a trip to California and he talked about going to some restaurant and seeing Edward G. Robinson or some other movie stars of the time there. Just typical stuff that a kid would write about. But that phrase just sort of stuck to me. Then it became this little love song, which not every song on the record is. That song talks about rolling around on the beach and kissing, and it's like, that never really happened. (Laughing) But that was a song that I wrote literally about as long as it takes to sing it. I was sitting in the front room of my house and had this little fingerpick guitar thing and it just sort of popped out.

Steve formed Translator in Los Angeles, California in 1979. The band relocated to San Francisco and released their debut album Heartbeats and Triggers in 1982. The album was produced by David Kahne, who's worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry including Paul McCartney, The Bangles, Stevie Nicks, Sublime, The Strokes, and Lana Del Rey.
Songfacts: You've got another song on the album that I thought was also a little bit different called "Mojave Phone Booth." You wrote that one about the phone booth in the desert that people would call just to let it ring. Can you explain why that inspired you?

Barton: Yeah. I grew up in Los Angeles and the desert is not far from here. That image - I never actually saw that phone booth - but I think I read about it. I think they ended up taking it out. I don't think it's there anymore. But it would be on the map and there would be endless miles of nothing and then a little icon that meant phone booth. So people would go there and wait for it to ring. Some people had the number and they'd call it. I just thought that was really evocative in the middle of the desert to have a phone booth. That's probably the oldest song on the record. That was one of the first ones that was written for the record. My dad was maybe in the hospital, definitely before he passed away.

That pattern, that bluesy sound of it just reminded me of driving through the desert or something. It has a desolate sound. On that one, I played two bass drums on the recording. One of them had a snare on it, so it has kind of a rattle-y sound, and a special pedal that was made so that it hits both the drums at the same time. I was sitting behind the drum kit with my guitar and pounding on the drums at certain times. I had never rehearsed that. They said, "Let's do that." And I said, "Okay." And so we sat there and I said, "When do I hit the drums?"

Songfacts: So it was kind of on the fly?

Barton: That was one take. I think we did a second take and it wasn't nearly as good. So that was just one take and it was kind of magic.

Songfacts Are there other moments on this album where you have that magic feeling, where it was just the one take and it was good?

Barton: The whole record was kind of like that. We knew very much what we wanted to do going in - that we wanted to be based around my voice. In fact, we rented a very particular microphone that was incredible for my voice and the guitar. The guitar on it is this Guild hollow body electric guitar that my grandfather gave me. It's the first electric guitar I ever had. And I got it when I was about 15 or so.

Songfacts Where did you get it?

Barton: I think it's from around '71. It might be the late '60s. I bought it at a vintage music store. I think it was slightly used when I got it. I wrote almost all the songs on that guitar, so it made sense to record with it. It's the guitar I always write on, because it works as an acoustic guitar as well. It's almost like a jazzy guitar. It's really different from the Les Paul or the Gretsch that I usually use. We decided, "Yeah, let's feature this guitar on it." We knew what we were going to do going in. We knew we wanted to record on tape, so we got a reel of 2-inch tape and a reel of quarter-inch tape and we'd record on the 2-inch and then mix down to the quarter-inch. On a 2-inch tape, you can get 3 or 4 songs on it and that's it. So we would get the songs on, record a song, mix it, do whatever overdubs, mix it down to the quarter-inch and save it on ProTools. We wanted to keep it all on the tape. Once the 2-inch tape was filled up and we'd mixed it, we'd say, "Okay" and we'd just erase it and put the other songs on it. It was a by-the-seat-of-your-pants thing. We did the whole thing in about five days because we recorded the mix as we went.

Songfacts: That sounds crazy.

Barton: It was really fun. There were a lot of moments like that because I had to be on my game. I had a couple of days where I would just get a splitting headache because it was hard to focus.

Songfacts: Was it exhausting when you listened to the whole thing back? Did you think "Wow, did I really just play all these instruments myself?"

Barton: It totally was. We purposely decided not to make it sound like a one-man band. If I was going to make it sound like a band, I would have just had my band do it. We did it with mostly guitar. There are some drums here and there, or other guitar parts, and stuff like that. But mostly it's just guitar and voice embellished.

Songfacts: You've got a song called "Bowie Girl" on the album and that's speaking to your influence from David Bowie growing up. How would you say his music and him as a person in general shaped who you are?


Barton: Huge. I mean, I didn't see the first show here, the Ziggy tour, but I saw the Aladdin Sane tour, so it was with the Spiders from Mars. I was at the Hollywood Palladium; I was that kid pressed up against the stage, literally. Mick Ronson was right in front of me and I was drenching wet with sweat by the time it was over. That was just incredible. All those records back then just really affected me big time. For me, it was like The Beatles, Dylan, Bowie, The Kinks. But Bowie really was the guy. For this record he was the real touchstone. We had listened to Hunky Dory quite a bit before the album, so we kind of had that in mind, even though the record doesn't sound like that at all.

That song changed a bit in the studio. It actually had a different chorus. Marvin called me up one night when we were in the middle of the sessions. He said, "Listen, I think it needs a different chorus." I was like, "Whoa. Okay. I may have to write a new chorus, great." He said, "Give it a try." Sometimes when people suggest those things, in the back of your mind you realize, "God, they're right!" I knew it needed a little something and they got that.

I wrote the chorus really fast and we kind of tweaked it together. That song is actually credited to both of us, because we both shaped it and tweaked it. To me, it really works. It's the one song that does kind of sound like a band towards the end, even though it's really just high hat and guitars.

Songfacts: Are there any artists out there today that inspire you in the same way?

Barton: That inspire me in the same way? It's such a pivotal period when you're a teenager and soaking the stuff up. Now when I hear something, I get inspired all the time. I think there's some really amazing stuff. I love PJ Harvey. I love the Arctic Monkeys. I think Alex Turner is just an incredible songwriter.

Songfacts: For sure.

Barton: I really like them a lot. And I even like the soundtrack he did for Submarine, this little indie film. It's a really cool acoustic guitar soundtrack. I think they're great. I also like Arcade Fire. I like all sorts of stuff that's happening these days, for sure.

Songfacts: Which song on this album are you the most proud of?

Barton: That kind of varies day to day. If I had to just pick one right now, I really like "This is Where Tomorrow Ends." It's kind of a strummy 12-string song. It wasn't when we first started it. It was a little fast and a little louder on the electric guitar and we thought, "Let's try it with this 12-string." Speaking of Bowie, that's a real Bowie influence right there - to just be strumming on a big acoustic 12-string. That one comes to mind; I like that song a lot.

Songfacts: One more question and this might be a tough one. Do you think creating this album has helped you deal with the grief that came with the death of your father?

Barton: I do, and I appreciate that question. My intention is go on tour behind this album, and it'll probably be just me. I've thought I could bring other people to flesh it out, but ultimately to keep with the spirit of the album, I probably should just do it myself. That's going to be interesting because then it's like, "Great, I have to go sing all these songs." (Laughing)

Songfacts: You're really putting yourself out there.

Barton: Yeah. I do think it definitely has helped me deal with it. I think my dad would love it; I think he would have been really proud. I also do know that after I do some touring behind this, I'm going to be fucking ready to make a rock & roll record with the band. (Laughing)

Songfacts: It's always great when you make music that inspires you to make even more music.

Barton: Exactly. I've already written most of the songs for the next record, so I'm always looking forward, which is cool.

We spoke with Steve Barton on April 4, 2012. Get more at stevebartonmusic.com
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Comments: 1

  • Jim from North Billerica, MaTranslator was a hugely underrated band! They put out alot of great music that didn't get the play it deserved. Thanks for the interview!
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