Keeper of the Tapes – Ben Stillman on Kearney Barton’s tape archive

Ben Stillman wrote this blog post about his experience archiving the late, great Kearney Barton’s vast tape collection, which we took over after Kearney passed away earlier this year. Though it was surely a lot of work, looks like Ben also had some fun in the process and possibly discovered some gems in the collection. Thanks for fighting the good fight, Ben. RIP Kearney. We miss you.

I was asked during my first week as an intern at Light In The Attic to move equipment out of Seattle producer Kearney Barton’s home studio. At that time, the name ‘Kearney’ didn’t mean much to me, at least not as much as it came to mean in the following months. Kearney’s studio as we found it was a relic of the past filled with countless reels and vintage recording gear. We packed a U-Haul and dropped the cargo off at a storage unit in Ballard. There we compiled his legacy into a vast and disorganized stash, which, stacked one cardboard box on top of the other, towered over my 6-foot frame. I didn’t know it then, but his tapes would dominate the next year of my life.

After finishing my internship, I was kept on to sort through and catalog Kearney’s reels. Initially it seemed insurmountable – an overwhelming task that would only be conquered by passion and patience, I found that the best way for me to work was late at night with copious doses of caffeine and Brian Eno. I could judge a reel’s significance by how fastidiously Kearney had labeled it. The most interesting were the 1” and ½” tapes, because they usually contained recordings from serious musicians who had enough money to pay for nicer tape. The ¼” reels were much more tedious; they were often jingles, or radio advertisements. Occasionally a very interesting ¼” reel would pop up. I once stumbled across a box of NBA recordings from the 1970s, including recordings from the Seattle Super Sonics’ 1978 Championship season. Rummaging through the tapes I sometimes felt like a paleontologist sorting through the bones of an ancient creature. As the months passed, the stacks of sorted boxes grew taller and taller. It took nearly eight months and roughly sixty trips to Ballard, but I eventually sorted through all 5,000 Kearney reels.

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All photos by Alex Peycheff.

Although he never wrote a song, Kearney was a true artist. With the tools of his chosen medium, Mr. Barton documented the time and place in which he lived. He frequently attended Seattle music festivals, church masses, political debates and sporting events, always bringing with him his portable ¼” tape recorder. Each reel is a snapshot of the day it was recorded, and the end product of organizing the stash he left behind is a meaningful portrait of Seattle in the 50s and 60s. Kearney’s Seattle was a place where roller skating was the popular weekend activity, where there were only 13 channels on TV, where Garageband referred to bands that played in garages, and where radio – rather than the Internet – was the common venue for the discovery of new music. It was also a place where in order to record audio for any purpose, one had to first win the respect of the man behind the recording console. These tapes are a lost piece of Pacific Northwest American history and they belong in the Smithsonian. Fortunately, they’ve found an ever better home at Light In The Attic.