Sound & Vision: Cookies, Cats, and Old Tube Microphones — Kearney Barton’s 50 Year Career in Seattle

Sound and Vision
Hans Anderson

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.

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Down in the basement of the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library, standing among shelves packed with boxes, is John Vallier, curator of the ethnomusicology collection at the University of Washington. In these boxes are the 7,000 reel to reel tapes left to the library by Kearney Barton before his death in 2012. Each, a small story of Barton’s life.

Vallier pulls out a recording of The Frantics and looks for the song “Werewolf.”

“The Frantics, they’re pretty cool,” says Vallier. “If you hear that one, that’s Kearney playing the role of the werewolf.”

Vallier says that Barton can be heard on all these recordings, though, he’s not usually playing the part of the werewolf. Instead, he’s crafting the raw, unprocessed sound he’s most associated with. Even into the 2000s, Barton relied almost entirely on older analogue recording equipment in his Seattle studio – reel to reel tapes and vacuum tube microphones. It’s a sound that Barton was lauded for.

“It may not be the perfect sound and you know, according to the audio engineering society or whatever,” says Vallier, “but it's Kearney’s sound and you're in Kearney’s space. So, you get what you get and you get kind of an honest representation of what went down at that day.” This archive is also a trove of historically important recordings. Vallier pulls out a tape of Ann Wilson & the Daybreaks.

Wilson would go on to front the band Heart, but before that, she was a kid from Bellevue releasing her music on Barton’s Topaz Records. Barton also worked for Quincy Jones and The Sonics. Rumor has it there’s an early recording of Jimi Hendrix in this collection – though it hasn’t been found.

There’s also something a bit more difficult to grasp down in the basement of Suzzallo Library – the story of Barton himself. Vallier only met Barton a few times, including when he took these tapes out of Barton’s home studio, but he was a singular figure, Vallier says. The artists he recorded are eclectic, reflecting the welcoming atmosphere Barton created in his studio. He was known around the music community for his famous oatmeal cookies.

“Sometimes I'll get emails or people will call and say, yeah, I recorded with Kearney back in the day,” says Vallier, “and it was really great experience and I miss his cookies and there's always this kind of thread. And he had a lot of cats. So, it's like cookies, cats, old tube microphones, you know what I mean? This kind of one package of this analog gear plus the welcoming environment.”

Dan Trager took classes from Barton at North Seattle College in the early '90s. As a part of those classes, Trager worked in Barton’s studio.

“Eclectic and variety doesn't begin to cover the gamut of the, the range of different things that you are going to work on,” says Trager. “One week it'd be a steel drum band of like, you know, 10 to 12 musicians and 10 to 12 steel drums or another week an opera singer or something like that.”

That eclectic taste and flexibility in genre can be seen throughout Barton’s career. His first commercially successful recording was the song “Mr. Blue” by Olympia based vocal group, The Fleetwoods.

The song charted at number one on the U.S. Hot 100 in November of 1959. Within a few years, Barton was the engineer for the influential garage rock band The Sonics

"Since that success post-Fleetwoods, he really became synonymous with this garage rock aesthetic,” says Trager.

Barton’s work with groups like The Sonics and The Wailers became his defining legacy. He’s often credited as helping to develop their heavily distorted sound. Kearney Barton was among the first to push the envelope in the form of tape saturation and distortion, says Trager. “I mean, sure, the Sonics amplifiers are distorting but it's also getting an extra bit of distortion as far as how hard and heavy and saturated Kearney was willing to print it to tape. So that was an aspect that he was among the first to take it that far.”

The Sonics’ sound in turn influenced groups like Nirvana and Mudhoney. Barton was even referred to as “the godfather of grunge” in the early '90s.

Kearney Barton wasn’t necessarily a huge fan of rock, though. In fact, he was a known opera buff, but that’s what made him unique. He’d record nearly anyone if they paid for the studio time – and sometimes even if they didn’t. Dan Trager asked Barton about this.

“I was able to ask him directly, did you have any challenge reconciling the proverbial Saturday night music and the Sunday morning music? And he said, no, not at all. As long as they pay their bills, I'm up for anything,” says Trager.

Barton continued to record almost anyone who asked into the 2000s, which is when Matt Sullivan of Light in the Attic Records first heard of him. At the time, Sullivan was looking for Seattle R&B and funk for Light in the Attic’s Wheedle’s Groove compilation. Barton, in his vast library of music had some recordings Sullivan was looking for and a lot more.

“It's like a pretty phenomenal a time capsule of Northwest history,” says Sullivan, who soon after, became close to Barton. Sullivan then recruited Dan Trager, who formerly worked A&R at Sub Pop, and UW curator John Vallier to release a new compilation of recordings by Barton called Kearney Barton: Architect of the Northwest Sound.

The album explores much of Barton’s catalogue — gospel music by the Beacon Hill First Baptist Church, recordings by Seattle’s Dave Lewis and even sitar covers of pop songs. In all the songs, Sullivan finds a common thread.

“His recordings never got flashy,” says Sullivan “they didn't feel like someone had taken off the natural sound of it. It always had a very genuine authenticity to it and that was very much like him as a person.”

Sullivan also says that Barton loved hydroplane races and Seafair. He talked about watching the Space Needle being built outside his old studio location near Seattle Center. He loved Seattle and his long-lived career here, created a vast archive of sounds from the Pacific Northwest which John Vallier, back at the University of Washington says, is necessary for the city today.

“We’re changing really rapidly as a city,” says Vallier. “Our identity is changing — maybe for the better, maybe for the worse — but in order to get a better sense of who we’ve been, hopefully that will help us on our journey forward.”

Vallier adds one other thing about this collection. “Plus, there's a really great music to listen to,” he says.

It’s hard to sum up someone’s 50-year career, but here are just a few descriptions to leave you with – Kearney Barton, architect of the northwest sound, godfather of grunge, Seattleite, cat lover, teacher, engineer, mentor, documentarian.

A compilation of just a few of Kearney Barton’s recordings is out now on Light in the Attic Records. It’s called Kearney Barton: Architect of the Northwest Sound. Light in the Attic is also hosting a record-release party with KEXP DJ Greg Vandy next Saturday, March 7th in the KEXP gathering space. It’s at 2 p.m.

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