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"I can understand why people do that," he concedes. "We're from Los Angeles and San Francisco, and so many '60s and '90s psych bands, per se, came from L.A. and San Francisco. But we see ourselves more as a regular rock band. I think in this day and age, people feel the need to label things using the easiest tactics, and for some of them, when you have a guitar solo or something, that means you're a psychedelic-rock band. It's the same thing as calling a band an indie-rock band. What does that mean? And what does a noise band mean?
"We're just ourselves," he concludes. "We're just trying to do something honest."
In this respect, Barbato and his partners — vocalist/guitarist Tim Presley, guitarist Jared Everett, organ/clavinet player Will Canzoneri and drummer Andy Granelli — have certainly succeeded. Their recently released second album, appropriately titled 2, sports plenty of swirling chords, tumbling rhythms and hypnotic vocal harmonies — hence all those psychedelia references. But these elements aren't cobbled together haphazardly for nostalgia purposes only. Rather, they're affixed to frequently mesmerizing songs such as "Northern Soul," "Blue Day," the ornately orchestrated "All the Hurry & Wait" and "Two Ways Out," the Barbato-penned lead single, whose lyrics embrace the mysteries of life in ways that echo the beguilingly dense atmospherics accompanying them. "If something looks familiar," Barbato sings, "something is wrong."
He adopted this philosophy in his own life, too, ultimately making a far weirder and more unusual career choice than his formative years suggest.
Growing up 45 minutes outside of Boston, Barbato didn't come from an especially musical family. In fact, he says that his father regularly listened to just one album: The Band's Music From Big Pink. Maybe that's why he devoted so much of his energy to sports. He played center on his high school football team, and did so well enough to secure scholarship offers from several sizable colleges in the New England area. In the end, however, he turned them all down to attend Boston's Berklee College of Music, arguably the country's best-known and most respected music school. Why? For one thing, none of the universities offering to pay his tuition had the sort of recording or music-technology programs that interested him. Besides, he says, "playing college athletics really takes up a lot of your time. It wouldn't have enabled me to be creative, which was a pretty important part of my life."
Indeed, when Barbato wasn't on the gridiron, he was typically holed up in his room with a guitar — an instrument that initially struck his fancy at age six or seven after he saw La Bamba, the 1987 biopic of the late singer Ritchie Valens. He subsequently convinced his folks to buy him an ax of his own and schedule lessons — but the latter didn't go terribly well. "The guy who was teaching me wasn't teaching me what I wanted to play," he recalls. "I wanted to play 'La Bamba,' and he wanted to teach me 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.'" So Barbato set the guitar aside, only to pick it up again during his tenure in middle school. Within a couple of years, he'd grown adept enough at it to write his own tunes — not that he'd like to get too specific about his nascent efforts. Thanks to his football commitments, Barbato seldom played music in public as a high-schooler, and the same situation held true at Berklee: He majored in music synthesis, which he describes as a fairly solitary pursuit that didn't regularly thrust him into band-friendly scenarios. But as graduation neared, he was suddenly faced with the necessity of using the knowledge he'd gained to make a living — and he decided that Los Angeles offered more opportunities in this respect than Boston or New York. More romance, too. "It was sort of a manifest-destiny thing," he says. "I think when you grow up in the East, or on the East Coast, you kind of see California as the place you need to get to."
Shortly after arriving in L.A. with a couple of friends, including guitarist Everett, whom he'd met at a Newbury Street record store, he landed a job at Wilder Bros., a studio in Century City where the Eagles once cut tracks. But music was no longer the facility's main mission. According to Barbato, "We did a lot of voiceover stuff" — tasks that brought him into contact with Hollywood celebrities he'd never expected to encounter. Bob Newhart. Fred Willard. Charo. And Lou Diamond Phillips, star of La Bamba. "I was like, 'Listen, man, you're the reason I play music.' And he was like, 'Ah, thanks, but that's ridiculous,'" Barbato recalls, laughing.
Luckily, salvation was on the horizon. Everett had a mutual friend who knew Presley, a San Franciscan who'd previously teamed with Granelli in a hardcore band called the Nerve Agents. The pair met at an edition of the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, and when Presley revealed that he'd just moved to L.A., they made arrangements to woodshed upon their return. Barbato, Everett, Presley and Granelli soon connected musically and personally — so much so that Barbato volunteered to take up the bass in order to complete the lineup. One key to the chemistry, he believes, is the relaxed nature of the collaboration from the get-go. "It wasn't overly intense or overly directioned. Not like those kinds of bands that are like, 'We're gonna fucking do this!,'" he says. "We were more like, 'Let's just play music together and see what happens.'"
The combo was never at a loss for material, since Presley and Barbato both write and sing their own material. They differ stylistically to some degree — Barbato feels that Presley's numbers are "a little bit dreamier" than his more classically structured pieces. But the tunesmiths' distinctiveness "gives the music a little flavor, throws in a couple of curveballs," he says. The addition of Canzoneri had the same effect, filling out the sound on 2 in a way that lifts it above the group's previous releases — a couple of EPs for Tarantulas Records in 2004 and 2005, and a self-titled full-length debut issued by the Dangerbird imprint in 2006.
"The first record's a little more smeared sonically than this record; there's a little more clarity on the new record," Barbato maintains. "Andy is a really awesome, hard-hitting drummer. I think that — coupled with the two guitars and now adding Will on the organ and clavinet — has made a big difference; it's become a really big thing. It does take time to figure that out, but we've never been a thin-sounding band. It's always been really thick and lush."
The band's growing confidence extends to live performances, where the players use the songs more as leaping-off points than blueprints that must be followed precisely. The stage run-throughs of "All the Hurry & Wait" tend to be so unlike the original that Barbato says some people may not even recognize it. "Different songs translate differently in live situations," he notes, "so you do what you can to make them as much fun to play as possible."
If that sounds like the sort of tack a psychedelic band might take, fine — but "we're not trying to do any kind of a throwback," Barbato emphasizes. "We're not trying to jump on any scene or anything, you know? If we were trying to do that, we're, like, a decade late."
In truth, they're right on time.