Steve Barton rose to fame as front man/guitarist of Translator, which was formed in 1979 in Los Angeles, but which garnered major attention in San Francisco for Beatles-like harmonies and clever lyrics. His band mates were Robert Darlington (guitar/vocals), Larry Dekker (bass) and Dave Scheff (drums).

By the end of the 1980s, Steve had embarked on a solo career and went on to release: ‘The Boy Who Rode His Bike Around the World’, ‘Charm Offensive’, ‘Flicker of Time’ and ‘Gallery’ with the Oblivion Click.

Currently the ever-prolific songwriter has released the stark evocative ‘Projector’ which serves as a stunning platform for his raw guitar licks, raspy voice and plaintive, but often rebellious lyrics. He spoke to Pennyblackmusic about finding himself through music at an early age and reinventing his sound, album after album.

PB: Let’s talk a little about the production history of Translator. David Kahne produced your first two albums, 1982’s ‘Heartbeats and Triggers’ and 1983’s ‘No Time Like Now’. For your third album, 1985’s ‘Translator’, and your fourth 1986’s ‘Evening of the Harvest’, you worked with producer Ed Stasium who had also worked with the Ramones. How would you compare the work you have done with these two producers?

SB: We moved as band from Los Angeles to San Francisco in late October 1980. A friend of ours had recommended that we get in touch with someone he knew - "a young up-and-coming producer" named David Kahne. We didn’t really know very many people in San Francisco, but we had a slip of paper with David's phone number with us when we moved.

Arriving in San Francisco, we got in touch immediately. He brought us into the studio - I think he had some free studio time, and we certainly didn't have any money! I believe that we recorded several songs that day, including ‘Everywhere That I'm Not’. This was the version that would end up as our debut single. We had no record deal yet. When we did sign with 415 Records, of course we wanted David to do the entire album. We all spoke a similar musical language, we all loved ‘Monty Python’ and we all loved being in the recording studio.

David had the idea to capture the band as "live" as possible, so we hired a mobile recording studio - a large van with all of the recording gear - to park outside of our funky rehearsal room. We set up as if we were at a gig, which was how we set up at our rehearsals. Once we had the songs recorded, we moved to a proper recording studio to do the overdubs and finish mixing the tracks. It was a real joy to make that first album. I remember hearing the LP for the first time. When the needle went down onto the vinyl, we were ecstatic. David encouraged us to be as creative as we wanted to be. There was no pressure to change what we were naturally doing. That was very important, especially for a debut album. By the time the album came out, 415 Records had become part of the giant Columbia Records Company

For the ‘No Time Like Now’ album, we worked with David again. We had just come off a national tour and we were sharp as a tack. We were really an amazing little band, if I do say so myself! We wanted to make this album a bit more expansive, maybe a bit more lush. Plus we wanted to capture some of the magic of our live shows.

One of my favourite Translator recordings is on this album. It's a song called ‘I Love You’. I wanted to write an out-and-out love song that I would not be embarrassed to sing. I think it's one of my better lyrics. Ironically the album also includes ‘The End of Our Love’, which is a song that dates back to the band's origins in 1979. So, typical for Translator, you get a love song, and an end-of-love song. Even our first album was called ‘Heartbeats and Triggers’. I have always thought that this light/shadow melodic/dissonant aspect is one of Translator's biggest strengths. David was really marvellous at bringing that out. Robert Darlington's song ‘I Hear You Follow’ creates such a wonderful thick sonic landscape - it's like following someone through the San Francisco fog.

After our second album, and the subsequent tour, we shook up our world. We decided to see what would happen with a different producer. After talking with several candidates, Ed Stasium's name was suggested. All we had to hear was that he had produced the Ramones and engineered the first Talking Heads album, ‘Talking Heads: 77’. We met him, liked him a lot, and decided to give it a whirl. For the ‘Translator’ album, we really insisted on dialing back the lushness that we been so enamoured with during "No Time Like Now". We wanted a much more stark, brittle sound.

Ed came out to San Francisco. We recorded there but went to New York to mix. That was a great idea of Ed's. It made us totally focus in on the music, since we were in a city that we had played in on tour, but didn't know all that well. Plus, it was winter and cold. That suited us just fine. I love the album. We could play all of the songs live.

Bob's song ‘Gravity’ leads it off. Thinking of it now, that was an appropriate first song - after all, we were grounding ourselves into a more stark sound. Our expansive nature was there as well – ‘New Song’ was and still is one of our live show set pieces. In the studio, Ed was very into building up the guitar and the drum sound. We worked really hard on guitars for the album.

I think that in the back of our minds we knew that ‘Evening of the Harvest’ would be our last album. I mean, look at the title! We really went for it on this one. ‘These Old Days’ is way up on my list of favourite Translator songs, so is Robert's song ‘Standing In Line’ (another current live crowd pleaser). We had started to stretch out the songs in concert, and we wanted to have some of that on the album. I think that albums should ultimately capture a moment in time for a band. We recorded mostly live, with very few overdubs. Ed was very understanding of what we were trying to achieve. He got it right away. Again we mixed in New York.

I think that the best thing that I can say is that I am friends with both Ed and David to this day! They are both lovely guys.

PB: Steve, you began your musical career very early on, striking a publishing deal at 14, but actually performing with the band, Present Tense, and writing songs such as ‘Lost’, several years earlier. What were the pros and cons of starting your career at an early age?

SB: The Present Tense was my band when I was around 11 years old. I was the drummer. I found an old reel-to-reel recording of the band not long ago. We were pretty good! I had always played the piano, and I had started my earliest attempts at songwriting on the piano. I realized that I wanted to play guitar, so my parents got me a cheap nylon string guitar (which is propped in my bedroom today). I wrote tons of songs, while teaching myself how to play. I would sit for hours, trying to figure out how Keith Richards played ‘The Last Time’.

‘Lost’ is one of the first real songs that I wrote. A friend of my parents played it for someone at a record company, which led to the band going into the studio to record. We were probably all about 12 years old. The single never came out, but the bug had bitten me. As you mentioned, I did sign a publishing deal when I was 14. Again, one of my parents' friends got a tape of my songs to the company. They paid me an advance of $25 every week. For a kid of 14, that was a small fortune.

Interestingly, I never told any of my friends at school that I had the publishing deal. I think that I was afraid that they would laugh at the commercial sounding songs that the company wanted to hear although I would also turn in my early "Steve Barton" songs - dark songs about death and confusion. One of them goes: "Tthe clock says it's time, time to die time to die - don’t' ask why - you ask why anyhow - why now, why now, why anyhow…."

I would sit in my room for hours and hours writing songs. It's all that I wanted to do. I wanted to be in a band, but I would have to wait several years for Translator to happen.

I don't really see any cons. This has always been what I do, so it all feels very natural.

PB: What were the elements of ‘Everywhere That I’m Not’, even in its demo state, that you think struck such an immediate chord with Howard Klein’s indie label 415 Records?

SB: I know that Howie had a radio show on KUSF, which is the great college radio station in San Francisco. He began playing it as a demo on his show, and very quickly began receiving requests for the song. As to why it struck such a chord, well that’s a bit of a mystery to me. I wrote the song after obsessing over Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ album for a couple of weeks. The song certainly doesn’t sound like an outtake from that record but somehow it was a major influence. I read once that Elvis Costello wrote ‘Watching the Detectives@ after listening to the first Clash album. This was the same type of thing – it doesn’t sound like a Clash song, but it might not have come about without that album.

I think that ‘Everywhere That I’m Not’ stood apart from the other songs of the day in that it isn’t simply a bashed out rock song. It swings, and the bass line is so memorable and infectious. David Kahne suggested putting the strummy acoustic guitar all the way throughout the song – and that is one of the other keys to its charm, I think. It draws you in. I still play it to this day, but the meaning of the lyrics has shifted as the years go by.

PB: For your new album “Projector”, in which you worked with producer Marvin Etzioni, you went back to a simpler time, recording-wise. Why?

SB: Marvin suggested recording on tape, rather than ProTools for this album. We wanted the warmth and intimacy that analogue brings. He also rented a very specific microphone to record my vocals. I think that my singing has never sounded better on an album. We recorded my guitar and voice at the same time for all of the songs. The songs are so intimate - it made sense to go with this type of approach. I would love to do it again.

PB: ‘Projector’ was recorded when you may have felt very vulnerable. Were you surprised that you could be so prolific after facing your father’s death? ‘These Four Walls’ and ‘Super Fantastic Guy’ sound like they follow a sequence of events. Do they?

SB: My dad had been in the hospital for a couple of months before he died. When he was in hospital I wrote several songs. Beginning the day after he died, they really started to pour out. He died on a Sunday morning, and ‘Super Fantastic Guy’ was written while I was home alone on the following Monday. The lyrics tell the story of his last days. From that moment on, whenever I picked up my guitar or went to the piano, a song would come out. It got a little spooky for me. ‘These Four Walls’ talks about the house I grew up in, that I was in the process of selling after his death, and it was completely empty when the video for the song was shot. Both Marvin and I knew that this album had to capture the honesty and openness of the songs.

PB: Why did you choose to play all of the instruments yourself on “Projector?” Did you find yourself feeling any limitations along the way or did this allow you to focus more on the lyrical aspects of your writing?

SB: It was Marvin’s idea to have me play all of the instruments. I had written all of the songs, but I hadn’t played them for anyone, well, except for ‘Super Fantastic Guy’, which I sang at my dad’s memorial. I called Marvin and told him that I had some songs to play for him. I went over to his house, he set up his 4-track cassette recorder, and I started to play them down. By the end of the week, we had around eighteen songs. He offered to produce the album.

I do have a solo band, but since these songs are so naked feeling, the idea of me playing everything came about. I was a bit reluctant at first – but once I decided to do it I embraced it completely. I didn’t really feel any limitations – in fact it was actually pretty liberating. I could totally focus in on the lyrics. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, I played the guitar and sang at the same time for all of the songs – as opposed to overdubbing the vocals later. Yes, we added harmonies here and there – but the core of the album is me playing the songs live. We went into a lovely recording studio. There are a couple of times where drums come in, but we made a point of not making it sound like a band was on all of the songs. We would turn down the lights, figure out which amp to use, get the right sound and let it happen….

PB: ‘Pie in the Face’ pokes fun at conservatives, ‘Here Come I’ is a plaintive ballad and ‘Bowie Girl’ is a post-hippie anthem. The themes run from sassy to contemplative. What binds them together?

SB: There were three albums that we had in the back of our minds going into this. ‘The White Album’, the first Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, and ‘Hunky Dory’ by Bowie. We would also reference Ziggy Stardust, T-Rex’s ‘Electric Warrior’, and ‘White Chalk’ by PJ Harvey. ‘Projector’ doesn’t sound like any of those – but they were our touchstones.

I love how ‘The White Album’ has all different types of songs, yet it works as an album. I think that’s where the idea of ‘Pie in the Face’ living on an album alongside ‘Here Come I’ comes from. ‘Pie…’ is one of the original 4-track cassette recordings done in Marvin’s front room. I love the funky thick sound on that one, sort of like there is pie all over the microphone! And ‘Here Come I’ is a ballad that is a slight tip of the hat to Lennon’s ‘Julia’.

PB: I definitely hear Lennon’s influence in that arrangement.

SB: I like that you picked up on the post-hippie bit with ‘Bowie Girl’. Part of the lyrics say: “Did you get what you thought you’d always want /Staring up into the unforgiving sky /With the 60’s boiled down to a flowery font in clothing store windows/Withpeace signs flashing in a model’s eyes”.

PB: Your instrumental cover of ‘Cry For a Shadow’ was mistaken as a Beatles original from their ‘Anthology’. On the album ‘Charm Offensive’, the Translators do a one-off punk rendition of ‘She’s Leaving Home’. Translator was clearly influenced by the Beatles, not to mention that you played in a cover band. Did you and the group make a conscious effort to analyze their sound?

SB: The two biggest influences for Translator, I think, were the Beatles and Cream. We learned ‘Cry For a Shadow’ very early on. It was in our live shows long before we moved to San Francisco. I remember being a little boy and phoning up a radio station to request that song. I think that I had read about it in ‘16 Magazine’. They played it right away and I was thrilled.

I also recall being around nine or ten and wondering who this Stuart Sutcliffe guy was – and what about Pete Best? So, I was pretty deep into it. We all were. The song was mistaken for an ‘Anthology’ outtake, and various news outlets picked up the story. “Surviving Beatles re-record’ Cry For a Shadow’!” It was actually from an EP that we put out in 1983. Retractions were printed…

The Beatle cover band was something that I did with Dave Scheff (Translator’s drummer). I had answered an ad in the paper. I was originally George, but switched to John. Dave was Ringo. We toured Japan. It was a good band. I did that for around a year – right before Translator. It got my voice in unbelievable shape, screaming out ‘Twist and Shout’ night after night. On the way to the airport in Tokyo, Dave and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s start our own band”.

The punk version of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ came about like this: I was in our rehearsal room, which was in the basement of my house at the time. I wanted to do a thrashed out version of a Beatle song. That song is so lovely, with the strings and lilting melody. We switched it to 4/4 time and just bashed it out. It makes it more of a triumph. She’s getting out of that fucking house! Yes!!

PB: Translator will release their first album in 26 years, ‘Big Green Lawn’. What should we expect in terms of style? Will you tour the album?

SB: We are really proud of ‘Big Green Lawn’. The first video is for a song called ‘Soul On Fire’, which nails the classic Translator sound – our vocal harmonies and the dark edge of the music, yet is still a pop song at heart. Love it. The songs really do cover all of our stylistic faces – the expansiveness of ‘Everywhere About You’ – the rhythmic pulse of ‘Better Days’ – the acoustic song ‘New Kind Of Sin’ – it’s all there. And yes, we do intend to tour! All four original members….we wouldn’t do it any other way.

PB: You mentioned how ‘Soul On Fire’ nailed the Translator sound and it definitely worked well visually, too. Translator has travelled as far as India to record a music video. Was that a valuable experience, something that you would repeat?

SB: David Rathod directed the video for ‘Come With Me’ from our third album. His family lived in India. We spent ten days there, working most of the time. It was an incredible experience. Yes, I would do something like that again! It was like going through the looking glass: the coloors, the sounds, and the smells – I still have some small drums that I bought over there. I didn’t buy a sitar, but now I sort of wish that I would have!

PB: Steve, you’re bilingual. Would you consider recording a song in French?

SB : Je voudrais bien composer en français. Peut-être un jour…

PB: Merci! Having worked solo but also with a band for many years, what is your preference?

SB: I love playing with Translator. We will always be together, as it turns out. I also love my solo band the Oblivion Click (Me, Robbie Rist and Derrick Anderson). It's cool that we are a trio - it sets it apart from Translator, which of course is a four-piece. For ‘Projector’ it is truly a solo act! What is my preference? I like it all, but I am really a band guy. I like the collaboration.

PB: Thank you.

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