The last time we reported on Kearney Barton, the most accomplished and unsung music producer in the Pacific Northwest, was in April 2011. Steve Fisk, the producer and engineer of albums by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Car Seat Headrest and more, penned a tribute to Barton, who was then in the twilight of his life and in the process of donating his prodigious collection of recordings to the University of Washington. Barton died less than a year later.
Fast-forward to May 2017. I’m deep inside Suzallo Library on the UW campus, led like a lost lamb by John Vallier, the archivist in charge of the university’s Kearney Barton Collection. Within the fluorescent-lit basement, lining rows and rows of tall metal shelves, are some 8,000 pieces of recorded material—mostly reel-to-reel tapes, as well as 45s, cassettes, CDs and even some 78s—that span Barton’s 50-year career.
Barton recorded well-known Northwest garage-rock bands such as the Sonics, the Wailers and the Kingsmen, plus a bevy of the Seattle funk and soul bands collectively known as Wheedle’s Groove, plus countless other forgotten artists in every conceivable genre, plus hundreds of hours of commercials for the likes of Ivar’s and the Seahawks, plus hundreds more hours of ice skating routine music, marching bands, Seattle Symphony music, Seattle Opera music, interviews, radio plays, spoken word performances, news reports, personal messages and pretty much every other type of auditory experience imaginable. (Somewhere among Barton’s tapes, legend goes, is even an early, never-heard-before recording of Jimi Hendrix.) Taken in total, the scope and size of the collection is simply stunning. As Fisk wrote in 2011, “Kearney made a big dent in the last century that people all over the globe are still discovering.”
Vallier is the man tasked with bringing those discoveries to a wider audience. A veteran Northwest musician himself (drummer for experimental rockers Climax Golden Twins and Wizard Prison) and UCLA musicology grad, he’s worked at UW since 2006. Part of his job is to catalog Barton’s collection—listen to each tape, determine if what’s on the tape matches the description on its box, convert the tape to digital, and possibly make the digital version available for online streaming via the UW’s SoundCloud page. It was Vallier who acquired a $10,000 grant from the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities to offset some of the costs of archiving, from new boxes and bags for storing cassettes to an hourly rate for students doing the listening.
Barton’s own organizational system was rather fluid, to put it generously; he titled and notated his recordings in earlier decades but became less meticulous as the years went by. Vallier has been helped by Barton’s daughter and record label Light in the Attic, which over the years released compilations of Seattle bands that worked with Barton back in the day. At this point, Vallier says, they’ve logged about 1,500 of the estimated 8,000 total recordings.
Vallier cues up a recording for me. This one was retrieved from a box marked simply “Gula Matari”—which is also the name of Quincy Jones’ most renowned jazz-funk album and one of his record labels in Los Angeles. The sound on the tape is ripping Afrobeat-inflected funk. No other information about it is available. Vallier plays another selection, this one labeled “Alpha Centauria Quadrant & Seattle Symphony—Bach/Rock, April 20, 1974 (Part 1)”; out pours driving experimental prog rock that blends into a full symphonic production. Both of these selections are available in the streaming version of the Barton collection via the UW Libraries’ SoundCloud page.
“I’m committed to Kearney’s collection because of what I think it has to offer Seattleites and Washingtonians: a cultural-historical audio mirror of who we were and where we came from,” Vallier says. “So much music today just gets popular because of marketing and there’s such a long tail of great music out there, music that reflects our community and who we are in a way that popular music doesn’t speak to in the same way. At least we can provide access and make it listenable.”