Let the Records Show

Steve Fisk recalls Kearney Barton’s 
life in music.

Barton's home studio, full of recordings. 

The 20th century was about defining yourself by the choices you make. Case in point: Kearney Barton. Over his 50 years as a recording engineer, the choices Kearney made—in the recording equipment he used and the way he used it—established his ears as some of the most respected in the Northwest. Kearney was as good as the big-time studio guys in Nashville, L.A. and New York, and he worked for a long time with little recognition. He never moved away to pursue money or acclaim; he stayed and worked in Seattle, mostly out of the same place, for decades.

An old-school studio engineer like Kearney knows that part of the job is being keyed into the players, the vibe, the arrangement. It’s not just hitting record and stepping back—he acts as a musician, mixer and often, producer. And when the take is done it’s all there on tape, a “recording,” a documentation. This isn’t putting track after track into ProTools and figuring out what to do with them later, this is flying by the seat of your pants. It’s what recording started out as—a live performance in a room. In that world, there is little between the listener and the genuine intention of the artist.

I first heard of Kearney as a “lifer.” This was around 1989 at the Music Source, the studio on Capitol Hill where I recorded Seattle bands at night. In the daytime, all these guys recorded music and voiceovers for commercials, and Kearney did too, but he was the one who had also recorded the Sonics and the Kingsmen back in the day. That was all I knew of him. It was, “Oh yeah, Kearney, he did that Nordstrom thing,” and “Kearney, he did that thing for the Seahawks.” Keep in mind that back then, the obsession with vintage audio was pretty new, so few people were talking about this guy with a huge collection of high-end classic gear, rare mics, tape decks and a custom mixing board. Kearney’s uniqueness never registered.

More recently, I’ve come to know Kearney’s work through record label Light in the Attic and the Wheedle’s Groove compilation. I knew a little about the Seattle music history that became Wheedle’s Groove, but I didn’t know Kearney had anything to do with it. Turns out he had recorded a lot of those classic soul and funk bands in his home studio back in the ‘70s. He still has the tapes, stacked up on every horizontal surface in the studio and his house, going back decades. A lot of tapes: roughly 7,000 of them. The labels are fading, but he knows the contents of every one. His house sold at the end of March and he’s in assisted living now. Half of those tapes went to the U.W. for archiving, funded by Paul Allen. The rest are being stored by Light in the Attic.

Kearney hung onto those tapes because he understood their worth. Artists often lose tapes, especially independent artists who aren’t on labels. He’d probably seen that happen enough and said, “Why don’t you let me keep it here?” When I’ve been in big studios in LA or New York, the tape vaults are always interesting. Recording studios reflect their lineage. The Music Source had been renovated so many times you couldn’t tell the place had been a big part of Seattle history. At Kearney’s place you could feel it, but nobody know it was there.

You record in one room every single day for five years, you learn a lot of shit. Kearney worked one room for 30 years! And this is after working in a “real” studio for years before taking it home. So he had a lot of experience and skill before he became this monastic presence in his house in University Village.

Barton on his porch.

I was at Kearney’s with Pat Thomas of Light in the Attic a month ago. He was saying that it’s sad seeing this whole thing come to an end. I pointed out that it would’ve been sad if it happened 12 years ago, before we all found out about Kearney. Because it’s happening now, we all win. Part of the 20th century thing is an accelerated cycle of recognition. We can look back effortlessly because so much history is available online. People manage to get their props before they leave the world.

For Kearney it’s been a long life. He chose music and made so many beautiful things happen. He made a big dent in the last century that people all over the globe are still discovering. Who needs “legacy” when you’re just really good at your day job?

Musician, engineer and producer Steve Fisk has spent 30 years fine-tuning Northwest bands like Nirvana, Beat Happening and Kay Kay and his Weathered Underground. Hear his most recent composition, a 22-channel soundscape to Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, showing now at EMP.

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