By Chuck Reece
David Barbe is pitching me a statistical theory, one he calls the Classic Rock Ratio.
“The Classic Rock Ratio is years of career divided by years of forward-moving creative output,” he declares. “Take the Rolling Stones. Where do you cut off your Rolling Stones records? Can you go up to ‘Tattoo You’?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I can go up to ‘Tattoo You.’”
“OK. I can, too. Some people would say it stops at ‘Exile on Main Street.’ But we’ll use ‘Tattoo You’ to mark the end of forward-moving creative output. So that’s 55 years of career, divided by 20 years of forward-moving output. So they’re at 2.25.”
The higher the ratio, the less respect is due the band.
“The Beatles. Seven years of forward-moving recorded output, seven years of career — one to one. Zeppelin: 10-year career, 10 years of forward-moving creative output — one to one. And the Minutemen: one to one. Those are the only three perfect ones.”
It does not surprise me, given my 35-year friendship with David Barbe, to hear him apply the rigor of a baseball statistician to rock and roll. Baseball and rock have been his two favorite subjects ever since I first met him.
But there is a deeper point inside David’s thinking. The Classic Rock Ratio, properly applied, tells us something not just about music, but also about life: In the long game, quality matters. Sticking around for decades is fine, but only if you make the years worthwhile.
Dave Barbe, over a three-decade career, has made his years matter. For those unfamiliar with this anchor of the Athens, Georgia, music scene, a few key points on the timeline:
- In the 1980s and ’90s, Barbe played long stints in two wonderful rock bands — Barbe’s own Mercyland, a chillingly good punk band that never got its due, and then Sugar, the band led by punk icon Bob Mould after his years in Hüsker Dü. (Not to mention to all the bands you haven't heard of, like Buzz Hungry or the Quick Hooks.)
- He learned audio engineering, went to work for Athens music producer John Keane, then opened Chase Park Transduction, his own studio, still going strong after 20 years.
- He produced hundreds of records by countless bands — including every Drive-By Truckers album recorded over the last 26 years.
- Since 2010, he has served as director of the Music Business Program in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia.
- Along the way, he married his college girlfriend, Amy Eidson, and together they raised three immensely talented people — Annabelle, Winston, and Henry Barbe. (In the video above, the two younger guitar gents in black suits are Henry, at left, and Winston.)
Of all the aspiring musicians I knew in ’80s-era Athens, Dave Barbe was among the few who knew exactly what he loved, then slowly built a life that paid him to do it. In the process, he held a marriage together, built a business, raised good kids, and never became an asshole.
“There were plenty of times in my 20s when I really thought I couldn't survive doing this any longer. I had mouths to feed,” says Barbe, who is now 54. “I just looked at my old tax returns, and there were two years where we had babies and made like $9,000. We just lived real close to the bone all the time. I told my dad one year, ‘I think I might need to think about doing something else with my life.’ I was like 26 or 27. And my dad's response was, ‘I think you’re being a little too hasty. You should give it another year.’ His advice was to not give yourself anything to fall back on, because you'd fall back on it.
“That next year, John Keane asked me to engineer, and Bob Mould asked me to play in his band. It's a good thing I listened.”
Today, in UGA’s Music Business Program, he teaches college students how to manage the business of following their artistic dreams. I ask him what he talks to his students about.
He stands, and his posture straightens as he transforms himself into Mr. Barbe the Teacher.
“A word problem for your enrichment,” he declares. “You have a $150 guarantee for your band, and the local support band agrees to play for free. Unfortunately, not only is there a foot of snow on the ground, but there’s also been a foot of snow on the ground in Richmond, Virginia — a Southern city without many snow plows — for about six days now. So, no one is going out anywhere. You pull up with a van and a trailer. Everybody plays. At the end of the night, there have been six paid customers at $4 a head. Those six people and the five local people who are on the guest list all drank beer. Which means only 11 people paid for beer. You to go collect 150 bucks, and there's no written contract.
“How does that work?”
It’s education of a practical sort, and Barbe teaches that way whether he’s in the classroom or working with a young band at Chase Park. After all his years of teaching, it was nice in 2017 for me to see Dave decide to make his own record again. And “10th of Seas” is literally his own record: He plays and sings every note on it. And it rocks pretty hard.
Although Chase Park is fully outfitted for modern, digital recording, it is also — unlike many recording studios these days — fully equipped for analog. Barbe learned to record on four-track cassettes. His process for "10th of Seas" was quick similar, but with vintage reels of two-inch-wide tape.
“I am kind of into this thing of just making a four-track, like I'm a teenager,” he says in the control room at Chase Park Transduction. “It's just with 16 tracks instead.” He proceeds to show me how he built various songs on “10th of Seas.” How a drumbeat in his head was the starting point of this song, or how a certain guitar riff was the core of another.
“Tape is the fastest way to work,” he says, “because you don't have Command-Z on a tape machine, which means you can't un-decide things. Nobody listens to Beatles records and thinks, ‘Aw, it's too bad that they didn't, like, turn the high-hat 2.3 db quieter.’ No. They made a decision based on the creativity that was flying around at that time, and it just kind of felt good, and they went with it, and there was no other option.”
His hands fly over the soundboard as he shows me how he grew each song, one instrument at a time, up from the feeling at its core — whether the core was a beat or guitar riff. As I watch him work, I come to understand something about my old friend. Yes, he had a dream and he followed it. That’s admirable aplenty, but getting to the dream requires mastering the tools, building up marketable skills. Following a dream is great, but not if you can’t keep your kids fed.
“I think my philosophy was always: I can reach what I want, but only if I accomplish what I must,” he says.
Last year, Barbe was asked to speak at TEDxUGA. He spoke less about dreams than about the economics of following them. He talked about the jobs he took to make ends meet. He talked about how he learned not to think of personal budget cuts as money saved. Instead, every budget cut meant one less hour to work the side job — and one more hour to work on the music.
In his TED talk, Barbe concluded, “I think sometimes people focus too much on what they want to be and too little on the process of becoming.”
He’s lived by those words for 30-plus years. It gladdens my heart to know he’s teaching the same qualities to the budding musicians of the South.
For readers in the Atlanta area, David Barbe performs tonight at the Earl in East Atlanta Village, backed by the Athens band New Madrid.