As leader of the San Francisco band Translator, Steve Barton helped create four of the 1980s greatest albums and the ultra catchy hit single “Everywhere That I’m Not.” West Coast Bureau chief Keith Valcourt caught up with Barton in Los Angeles to discuss all things Translator, playing John Lennon in a Beatles Tribute band , what it’s like to have the Brady Bunch’s “Cousin Oliver” as your drummer and his his haunting new solo CD: “Projector”
Rocker: Is it true you started your professional music career at age 14?
Steve: I was actually 11. The first band I was in was called The Present Tense. I played drums, then the guitar player and I wanted to start writing our own songs. We wrote a couple songs and a friend of my parents took those songs to a friend of his named Mike Curb who had a record company (Ed note: Curb produced Sammy Davis Jr’s “Candy Man” along with several hits for dozens of artists in the seventies.) He had a label called Sidewalk Records back then. They brought us into this big studio to record these two songs, and I remember thinking it was cool until we found out that the backing tracks we pre-recorded. We were a little crestfallen. But it never came out because one of the band member’s dads wouldn’t let him sign the contract. That made us break up. Right after The Present Tense I got a publishing deal at age 14. That lasted a couple of years. When that ended I had to figure out if I wanted to literally be a translator, because I was fluent in French, or play music. I ended up touring as the guitarist for a disco singer named Ella Woods. She made us call the band LIFE. I think she went on to success in France. I used to sing “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel. We did a USO tour with her all over Germany. It was pretty cool.
Rocker: How did you end up in a Beatles tribute band?
Steve: There used to be a place here in Los Angeles called the Musician’s Contact Service. After the tour with the disco singer I went there and saw that there were auditions for a Beatles tribute band, and they were looking for a George. I came into a plain-looking office with my guitar and the guy said, “Sing!” I just got out “Something in the…” And the guy said, “It’s Fine! You’re hired.”
I will say the band was really good once we got together. The guy who was playing George and I switched places. We played high school and amusement parks all over the country, Six Flags and stuff. This was right before Translator started. Me belting out “Twist & Shout” every night for six months got my voice in the greatest shape for Translator.
Rocker:Is that where you met future Translator drummer Dave Scheff who was Ringo?
Steve: Yeah. There had been another drummer first who wasn’t cutting it. I always say he was our Pete Best. Then Dave came in to be Ringo. We went to Japan and did a whole tour there. Dave and I were on the plane flying back from Japan and said, “Why don’t we start our own band? We did when we got back to L.A.
Rocker:How did Translator come together?
Steve: Different people would come in and out of the line up but the band was always called Translator. We had a song called “Translator” at the time. Finally Dave said, “I have a friend in Santa Cruz who plays bass.” It was Larry Decker. He came down to L.A. And we were a trio for a while, about six months, then Bob Darlington who was in another band came on board.
Rocker:Why did you guys move from L.A. to San Francisco?
Steve: Whether it was true or not, the feeling we had in L.A. Was that we were beating our heads against the wall. It felt a little bit like every gig was a showcase where we hoped we would get signed to the big label. Larry had lived in Berkeley, California and he suggested we check out the Bay Area. We moved as a band and fell in love with the place and lived together. For the first six months I slept in a down sleeping bag on a piece of foam in someone’s front room. It was really cool.
Rocker:You guys were part of 415 records, what was the 415 San Fran scene like?
Steve: It was really great. The 415 thing happened in a little less than a year of moving to San Francisco. We had a demo of “Everywhere That I’m Not” that David Kahne had produced and Howie Klein (415 Records Founder) started playing it on his radio show. He had a radio show on the great college station KUSF. He noticed he was getting all sorts of requests for it, not just from the kids but from housewives, and all kinds of people. He came out to see us and offered us a deal with 415.
Rocker:Were the 415 bands (Romeo Void, Wire Train) friends or competitors?
Steve: It felt much more like a camaraderie. San Francisco was much more supportive and family-like. They still had free shows in Golden Gate Park there, and we played a couple of those. Back in L.A. It wasn’t like that at all, it was very competitive. The band just blossomed up there. As did I.
Rocker:Translator released 4 great albums but only had one hit single with “Everywhere That I’m Not.” Was that frustrating for you?
Steve: No. To me some people never have a song that breaks through. I’ll take the one everyday of the week. It’s fine.
Rocker:Do you mind being called a “One Hit Wonder?”
Steve: No, because I know the albums were great. A lot of people know the albums, so I have no problem with anybody knowing the song really well. That’s great. I still play it to this day.
Rocker: Who was “Everywhere That I’m Not” written for?
Steve: I don’t know if it was exactly written for one person in particular. I was in a relationship that was ending and I’m sure it focuses around that a little bit but not completely.
Rocker:A lot of artists that succeed in the 80s have come and gone but you’ve continued to make music. What are you up to now?
Steve: I am busy writing all the time. My main focus is on writing and making records still. I have some interest in music publishing as well.
Rocker: Is it easier or harder to be a working musician these days?
Steve: For me, the joy in doing it is the same, if not maybe more. It doesn’t feel any harder to me. At least my role in it, as someone who writes songs, That hasn’t changed that much from when I was 12. I write in the same way on guitar or piano. I don’t find it any harder or easier. It’s never been easy but I love doing it. I haven’t lost the love for it at all.
Rocker: Is your latest solo CD “Projector,” your most personal album?
Steve:I think so. It deals with my dad’s death. Not every song is about that. There is one love song on there that talks about rolling around on the sand kissing. Just to be clear, that song is not about him. I’m not working out some issue with my dad.
Rocker: A lot of your songs and albums deal with death.
Steve: I listened to some of my early songs from when I was twelve recently and many of them are about death. A lot or my albums seem to be. The first post-Translator album I made called “Boy Who Rode His Bike Around The World” came out when my mom was sick, then the next one “Charm Offensive” came out after she died. It had a couple songs about that. Then the next album was “Flicker Of Time” which kind of is about life and death. Now this one.
My dad died on a Sunday. The following Monday I was home by myself, I picked up a guitar and was strumming and this song just came out of me. It’s called “Super Fantastic Guy.” I ended up singing it at his memorial with Dave from Translator playing percussion. For a month after he died, every time I picked up my guitar or went to the piano a song would literally pour out of me. It got to the point where I said, “I don’t want to pick up a guitar anymore.” It was therapy for me.
After my dad’s death, I had all these songs and I took them all to Marvin Etzioni (Lone Justice Founder), an old friend of mine from 1979 who ended up producing the record and also produced my first solo CD. He was very laid back. I went to his house and sat down with my guitar. He set up a 4 track cassette machine and said, “Let me put a mic in front of you and roll tape.” I just started playing. At the end of a couple days we had 18 songs. Marvin said, “This sounds like an album to me.” We picked 12 of them I said, “Great well let me teach them to my solo band The Oblivion Click and we’ll set up time to record.” Marvin said, “That would be a great record or since this is a very personal record why don’t you play all the instruments.” I took the weekend to think and thought “I can’t do that.” But decided Marvin was right. It’s mostly guitar but apart from a weird projector sound on the song “Projector” that Marvin played on a synthesizer, every sound on it is me.
Rocker: What was the recording process like?
Steve: We recorded to tape and mixed to tape as we went. Record. Mix. Move on. We only bought one reel of two-inch tape. Because, first of all, to get it now, it’s really expensive. We had to order it. We would fill up the reel. You get three finished songs on the tape, mix it to quarter inch and save it to pro-tools and then commit and record the next three songs over the stuff. We did the whole album that way, in about five days.
Rocker: Do you miss recording in big recording studios?
Steve: I love being in a big recording studio. If I had my druthers… I just wanted to use that word.
Rocker: Listen, anytime you can use druthers in an interview it’s a good thing. Also if you can throw the word permeate in as well.
Steve: If I had my druthers I would let the music permeate in a big recording studio, because I just love them. I get that everyone has a recording studio in their bedroom now, which is really cool. But given the choice, I like a recording studio.
Rocker:Who is the song “Bowie Girl” about ?
Steve: It’s actually about me, it’s about me growing up in my folks’ house. My parents never moved from the house I grew up in. It’s about me, and how David Bowie was my life raft, especially in my teenage years.
Rocker:You also have a band called Steve Barton And The Oblivion Click which features Robbie Rist (The Brady Bunch’s “Cousin Oliver”) on drums. Do you tease him about his past?
Steve: I don’t tease him, but people still recognize him. I think he’s really proud of that part. He’s done a whole bunch of stuff. He was he voice of Michelangelo in the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and he’s been in a zillion bands, but people tend to remember the six episodes of that one show he did way back when.
Rocker:How did he end up being your drummer?
Steve:He found me. I was doing a solo show ten years ago, like I’ll be doing the new tour to support “Projector,” which is just me and an electric guitar. Kind of like Billy Bragg. And Robbie came up to me after the show and said, “How come you don’t have a band?” I had just moved back to L.A. From San Francisco, and I didn’t know how to answer him. He said, “Just a minute!” and disappeared back into the crowd. He came back a few minutes later and said, “Alright, I’m your drummer. My girlfriend is your bass player. When do we rehearse?” We were a trio for a while and then Robbie and his girlfriend broke up. Rather than be in Fleetwood Mac he suggested Derek Anderson who has been my bass player ever since. He’s now The Bangles bass player. It’s a cool little band.
Rocker: What are you future plans?
Steve:After I finish the “Projector” tour I want to record a real rock record with The Oblivion Click. I’m going to want to do that after it being just me. The songs for that are much more up. I’ve been listening to a lot of Leon Russell. Not sure it will sound like that but it’s a good start.
The last time Translator played was 2009, do you have any future plans for another Translator tour or album?
Steve: That was in L.A. and San Francisco. It was a 415 records reunion with Wire Train and Romeo Void. It was great. Really really fun. We played one other time after that but it wasn’t open to the public. So we have played since then. It was in San Francisco. We rented a studio and invited our friends. That thing felt like a gig we would have done in 1981. It was really casual. After that we said if we do any kind of future touring it has to I don’t want to go out and do a “Tight Rock Show.”
Translator has something coming out on April 17th called “Big Green Lawn.” It’s an album of 8 songs we recorded a few of years ago that we are now putting out available online only. I think it’s really good. Great songs. Great playing. There is still life in the band yet. Translator never felt like we really broke up. We all did different things. Dave was in Winter Hours. Bob did a book of poetry. Larry has been in a bunch of bands. Everybody is doing their own thing but Translator has always been a really important part of our lives. What we’d all like to do when “Big Green Lawn” comes out is be able to do some shows behind it. I plan to be a very busy boy for the rest of 2012.