I became acquainted with multi-instrumentalist Anton Barbeau through a virtual friendship that began on social media. He was generous enough to share his music with me, and I was immediately hooked. The sounds made with his band, Three Minute Tease, were a heady stream of early New Wave within a sheen of experimental, psychedelic sonics, pulled kicking and screeching from the pages of history and into the present. You could tell right away Barbeau had a restless mind and an active imagination. After living with the Three Minute Tease’s latest CD, Bite the Hand, for a few weeks, I decided to send him some questions via email. Below is the first part of his responses.
You’ve been a professional musician for quite some time. For those unfamiliar with your work, how would you introduce yourself, and summarize your career?
Well, according to my press kit, I play something called “pre-apocalyptic psychedelic pop.” I’ve been writing and recording variations on the three-minute pop song for a while now, give or take the odd 12-minute Krautrock synth drone. I think my songs are fairly idiosyncratic, at least lyrically, but I’m a keen fan of ye olde catchy chorus and I’m usually trying to reach the back of the stadium the best I can. Not that I’m doing stadium gigs.
Really, as far as tracing a line throughout my career, I’m the last person to have anything to say. I just bumble along, making albums and doing gigs, working at home, working in studios, etc. There’s no arc, no storyline, just a trail of hundreds of songs and sounds and possibly too many albums.
You have an excellent album out with your (sometimes) band, Three Minute Tease, titled Bite The Hand. The other members, Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe, played with Robyn Hitchcock in his bands The Soft Boys and The Egyptians. How long have you known them, and how did the collaboration come about?
I’m glad you like the album. I’ve been a fan of Andy and Morris since I first heard them in the Egyptians. I met them backstage when they played with Game Theory in San Francisco. In absolute fan-boy mode I’d brought 4 copies of my latest psychedelic synth-pop cassette (this was 1988, kids!). I had one for Scott Miller and the other three I handed to Morris, Andy and Robyn in that order, bypassing (R.E.M.’s) Peter Buck altogether. My cult-y careerist priorities have never failed me!
Andy and Morris were sweet and Robyn mistook me for a guy from some other band and was thus even friendlier than he should have been. Anyway, I ended up opening for Robyn a couple times in Sacramento over the years, but didn’t properly connect with Andy and Morris until I’d moved to England. I saw Morris at a few gigs and hung out with him in Cambridge when he was in town playing with Kimberley (Rew, guitarist for the Soft Boys and Katrina and the Waves, and author of “Walking on Sunshine.”) This led to him sitting in with me in Swindon and us recording together in Berlin. During this same period I’d gotten in touch with Andy and had a sort of parallel thing going on. He played bass on a few tracks and we did a gig or two in London. It started to make obvious sense to see if Andy and Morris would want to work together, but at the same time it felt a bit weighty, you know? Turns out everyone was into it and we agreed to do an album. Gigs started happening as well and suddenly we were an actual band.
The album has a late-1970s-early 1980s feel, back when pop was fun and fresh and quirky and experimental. Was this a sound the band was going for and discussed? Or is this just a natural, organic sound?
There wasn’t any sort of discussion, no. We just showed up and got to work! We’d been playing together for three years, so the chemistry was pretty settled and easy to capture on tape. I think that we’re each well-formed musical entities in our own right, and the Andy/Morris rhythm section is a thing unto itself, so there’s going to be a certain solid sonic starting point no matter where things end up. Still, many of the songs on the new album were tracked with TMT in “jazz trio” mode. I’d be at the piano, Andy ten feet to my right and Morris 20 feet ahead, behind a sliding glass door. We’d keep a vocal mic set up, and once we had a backing track we liked, we’d gather ’round and do some some quick gangland backing vocals, just to thicken the chemical vibe. All the Mellotrons and synths and extra everything came later, usually me on my own in Berlin.
The album also has psychedelic overtones … Not the U.S. kind, but Britain circa 1966, before things got a bit self-indulgent. I see Pat Collier (Robyn Hitchcock, Jesus and Mary Chain) engineered Bite The Hand. With all the modern advances in technology, how did you get such a lush sound? All modern, or old school?
There’s a real mix-and-match approach taken here. As I mentioned, we tracked most of the songs in a clean, straight-forward way at Pat’s. His isn’t a candles-and-lava lamp studio. He gets a good sound in an instant and we get on with the task at hand. It’s typically me making the messier mess once the basic tracks have been captured, but always in service of the song and of the band. I’m very inspired/influenced by the people I work with. Morris has always encouraged my more experimental side, while Andy has taught me loads about making things sound more “posh and polished.” I’m a recording junkie, and can be as indulgent as they come, but I always want to honor the immense and intense work Andy and Morris put into TMT and thus things are kept somewhat in check.
What’s impressive about the production it is that if you listen closely, you hear a lot going on, sonically. But it never overwhelms, and as you said, the arrangements service the songs. Did it take a long time to record? Who had the final word on the production?
I don’t know if this makes sense, but it didn’t take as long to record as it did to finish. I think TMT did three or maybe four sessions at Pat’s in London, including a lovely last-minute quickie in which we added “Bravely Fade Away” after we thought the album was done. But it was the mixing and then the mastering that kinda did me in. Andy and I co-produced our first album, which worked well as I was still in the UK at the time. Andy would drive to Cambridge and we’d sit at my computer tweaking tracks. But Bite The Hand was more an Anton-centric production. It was exciting in moments, and sometimes rough, as I felt like I had stuff to get out of my system, but the result was me left alone in my high tower in Berlin. Andy and Morris would check in from time to time and offer feedback on the mixes, but Christmas typically knocks people off the radar for a while and just when everyone went quiet, I came down with a miserable flu. By the time I recovered, I could barely face the album. I started second-guessing it to death, taking songs off, adding them again, even re-writing them entirely. Thankfully (The Soft Boys’ other bassist) Matthew Seligman stepped in and was able to prop me up long enough that I could get the songs wrapped up and sent off. His ideas and encouragement certainly deserve acknowledgement.
Despite having a New Wave and psychedelic mix, the album doesn’t sound like you were trying to recapture the past. In fact, it feels quite current. The band brings the music into the present with references to your age (“When I Was 46 in the Year ’13”), a nostalgic look back at the old days of music videos (“MTV Song”), and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
One of my heroes is Julian Cope, a self-described “forward thinking mo-fo.” I wish I was as forward facing as he seems to always be. I’m actually an incredibly nostalgic person – a dear friend says I’m “nostalgic about the present” even. I grew up on my parents’ record collection, Beatles and Doors and Simon and Garfunkel. When New Wave hit me, I was 13 and it felt like the aliens had landed to take me home. Still, when I write songs or make albums, I’m always hoping to find out something new, or something next, you know? I’m happy referencing the past, whether in terms of pop music history or my own life story, but I don’t have fantasies about the good old days, 1967, 1977, or 1987, etc. That said, “MTV Song” is one of my earlier songs, re-recorded by TMT, so it’s a song dragging its own history forward into the present, I suppose. I’m loathe to inject politics into my songs, but I think Dick Cheney transcends politics… He’s more to do with the utter ugliness of humanity, the dark side. The fact that he’s still with us and still acting in a despicable manner makes him archetypically worthy of attention.
The songs cover a lot of ground, musically, as well. Some are straight pop, while others are experimental (“Tell Me”) or old music hall (“Drinking Horn”). How did the songs come about, and how do you distinguish between TMT material and your other projects?
One song that almost made it onto the album was our cover of the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry.” I think the White Album is a wonderful example of many song styles and sounds fitting together. I’m always aiming for range and variety in music, but at the same time, especially with Three Minute Tease, half the fun is trying to cram all my ideas into what’s ultimately a clearly structured format. I mean, Andy and Morris have their preferences as to what songs we do… If someone’s not into a song, it ends up on an Anton solo album! And if I write something for three synths and drum machine, it’s probably not for TMT. But by now, I can generally write specifically for TMT. I know our strengths and I know the sound we make. Something like “Coffee That Makes The Man Go Mad” from Bite The Hand wasn’t an easy one, and it wasn’t immediately picked for the album, so I’d gone ahead and worked it up on my own. When TMT decided to do it after all, the song was moving in several directions at once, and I’m not sure where it ended up! But “Bravely Fade Away,” on the other hand, we’d done a couple times live and from the first time we knew it worked. So when we went in to record it, it was effortless and very enjoyable. I like being challenged and I like challenging people I work with, but when things fit quickly, glued together with magic, well, that’s the best feeling.
Watch the video for “Drinking Horn” embedded in this article.
Part two coming soon …
Buy Three Minute Tease’s “Bite the Hand” CD from Amazon or Anton’s official website.
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