David Barbe never had a chance. Music was always going to drive his life.
Oh, there was the senior year internship with broadcaster Brad Nessler at Ridgeview High School in Sandy Springs and the journalism degree from the University of Georgia.
But as the son of influential big band musicians Jane (aka the “Time Lady”) and John Barbe — both vocalist and clarinetist, respectively, are enshrined in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2015 — who banged his first toy drum kit at the age of 3, David Barbe’s destiny was clinched.
“The first time I got paid to play music I was 12 years old. I made 10 bucks playing at a party with a rock band,” Barbe said with a sideways smile.
The money is better these days — as in, the past 20 years since he opened Chase Park Transduction studio in Athens and quietly became a sought-after producer, engineer, songwriter and musician. But Barbe still has the outlook of a scrapper, a guy who works far more than he needs to but can’t shake the intoxication of the music business.
He cuts a slight figure in jeans, black work boots and T-shirt that matches his dark, rumpled curls. At 53, he’s ruggedly handsome, with a laconic drawl that reflects his deep Atlanta roots. He’s a husband to Amy, whom he met at a record store in Conyers in the ‘80s, and dad to Annabelle, 27, and sons Winston, 25, and Henry, 24, both of whom work in the music industry and are in the band The Hernies. He’s also a passionate Little League coach.
Barbe manages to squeeze in moments with his family or escape to the tot-filled ballpark in between a parade of production assignments, most notably with Athens’ alt-country/Southern rock heroes Drive-By Truckers.
Since 2010, Barbe has also led UGA’s Music Business Certificate Program, overseeing a staff of six faculty members, including Cracker’s David Lowery.
And on Aug. 18, the guy who has played with Bob Mould in Sugar, briefly filled in on bass for Drive-By Truckers and performed with countless familiar Georgia music names, will release his first solo album in seven years, dubbed “10th of Seas.” He’ll also embark on a set of dates with his friends in Athens band New Madrid, which bills itself as Inward Dream Ebb when playing with Barbe.
Barbe played every instrument on the album, nine songs of propulsive fuzz guitar, steady drums (recorded on his childhood kit) and lyrics filled with vivid, slightly skewed imagery.
“Last Christmas I decided I wanted to do this and on beautiful two-inch tape so that I couldn’t fix anything,” Barbe said, sitting in a black chair scrubbed of most of its surface inside the comfortably worn studio. “There’s no ‘Apple Z’ on a tape machine. What I really wanted to capture … was a record that was as close to the source of inspiration as possible — except in the fact that there are going to be some flaws in there and hopefully those flaws would become part of the charm of the record.”
Barbe takes a minimalist approach to producing, which can be heard in his own output and is echoed by those who value his expertise.
Longtime Athens musician and photographer Chris McKay sought out Barbe several years ago when his former band, the Critical Darlings, was recording “Satisfactionista.”
“I wanted to work with him since I heard (2003’s) ‘Decoration Day’ by the Drive-By Truckers,” McKay said. “That album felt naturally underdone. I knew (Barbe) from Mercyland and some of his other old bands and realized what a history he had. But that wasn’t why I wanted to work with him. For me, it was how the records sounded — real and not overproduced … He spoke the language, that’s the bottom line.”
Barbe’s relationship with the Drive-By Truckers is one of the longest producer-artist tenures in music, and the band’s history with the Athens studio goes back to its origin.
Barbe’s partners Andy Baker and Andy LeMaster, who founded the studio with him in 1997, produced Drive-By Truckers’ debut, “Gangstabilly,” the following year. Then Barbe mixed the band’s 2000 live album, “Alabama Ass Whuppin’” and co-produced 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera.”
Barbe proudly points out that he’s worked with Drive-By Truckers twice as long as George Martin applied his studio wizardry to the Beatles. He treasures the “open, creative environment” present when he’s with the band.
Patterson Hood, singer-guitarist for Drive-By Truckers, concurs.
“He’s way more than just our producer, as he’s advised us on a personal and business level from day one,” Hood said via email from the road last week. He noted that Barbe performed the marriage ceremony for Hood and his wife, and Hood reciprocated by officiating Barbe’s daughter’s wedding.
“He has a naturalistic approach (to producing),” Hood said. “He makes you a better band in order to make the better record. He doesn’t add some trendy tone sound. He brings out our own sound and helps us develop it better.”
Hood is excited to see Barbe release his own new material.
“I’ve long wanted to see him make this kind of record,” he said. “We kinda get an unfiltered view of his vision.”
That vision is also something Barbe regularly shares with his students at UGA, who receive the benefit of a faculty that proffers real-world experience.
“I have a life of being in the music business,” Barbe said. “I’ve produced records and toured and played on records and managed artists and had a record label. In this new DIY economy, those of us who came up in the punk/indie scene, we already know how to do all of that because we’ve been doing that.”
Barbe, who said there are about 350 students taking music business classes at any given time — though only 100 are admitted into his classes — relishes the challenge of teaching and appreciates the interaction with his students.
“They’re smart and creative and forward-looking,” he said. “It’s an exciting thing to be part of.”
Barbe admits he has a “double full-time career”; he wedged the recording of “10th of Seas” into his 2016 winter break at UGA and set a deadline to mix it earlier this year during spring break.
His schedule would exhaust the heartiest musician half his age, but he manages to balance his time between teaching, performing, producing and traveling to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for work trips.
And, of course, spending time with his family.
Barbe’s dad, John, has been widowed since 2003 and is 90 years old. He lives in a retirement community in Roswell and still plays his clarinet.
Barbe drives to Atlanta every week to visit him — his most important assignment of all.
David Barbe and Inward Dream Ebb. With The Hernies. 9 p.m. Aug. 15. Free. 18 and older. Rooftop at Georgia Theatre, 215 N. Lumpkin St., Athens. 706-850-7670, www.georgiatheatre.com.
Also, with T. Hardy Morris, Mighty and A Drug Called Tradition. 9 p.m. Aug. 18. Donations at the door. 21 and older. 529 Bar, 529 Flat Shoals Ave. SE, Atlanta. 404-228-6769, www.529atlanta.com.
4 p.m. Aug. 26. Free. Summer Shade Festival Grant Park, 840 Cherokee Ave. SE, Atlanta. www.summershadefestival.org.