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Interview with Barbarossa

Barbarossa’s debut album Chemical Campfires is a deeply personal and honest collection of folk tinged songs, written and performed by London based songwriter James Mathe. His sincere vocals are underpinned by a subtle electro sheen that makes it sound refreshingly modern – the sonic equivalent of a glacial lake, its depths hidden by a pristine surface. This impeccable sound is thanks to Mathe’s choice of producer, Simon Lord, previously of Simian, as Mathe explained to The Skinny. “It was really exciting to have found someone who was realising the things I heard in my head. I wanted to keep it organic in the main, but introduce a bit of electronica without taking away the emotion of the songs. I didn’t want to do the whole retro thing because of the new folk revival that was happening around me – I was really flattered to be involved with that and play with some great, great musicians, like The Eighteenth Day of May & Alasdair Robert, who are pulling on the more traditional side of folk, but I was also aware that I wanted it to be a contemporary thing.”

Mathe found the surge of great new music we’ve enjoyed recently a major inspiration. “Although I was listening to things like Bert Jansch, and Fairport Convention, during the time of recording the album I was also listening to a lot of newer bands who were exciting me like Sigur Rós, Sufjan Stevens and Animal Collective.  In the last couple of years I’ve just been blown away by some of the music that’s out there.”

The name Barbarossa, meaning ‘Red Beard’ in Italian, came to Mathe while on holiday with his half-Italian girlfriend. “We were in Italy and we started to appreciate really good red wine. While we were over there we saw a particular bottle called Il Barbarossa, and it had a picture of this guy with a big red beard who looked a bit like my Grandad. My Grandad was a big character who has had a massive effect on me, so it all seemed to fit perfectly. Although we bought a bottle of the wine and it was fucking horrible!”

Prior to recording the new album with Lord, Mathe had already been lucky enough to know Adem, who produced his debut EP, which then, in another stroke of luck, or perhaps fate, made it’s way to the East Neuk of Fife and into the hands of the folks at Fence, through whom Chemical Campfires is being released this month. “A friend of mine sent it up to them; I got an e-mail saying we really love the EP and the homemade packaging – I think they were as excited about the packaging as with the recording! Then they invited me up for Homegame, and the rest is history really – it just clicked and I felt really at home up there – it was incredibly inspiring to be around those people.”

Mathe will be returning to Scotland in 2007 for more gigs with his Fence compadres, and is also releasing a track on the new offshoot label De-Fence which focuses on the more electronic aspects of the Fife based collective’s output, along the lines of this year’s sublime Electric Fence compilation. Meanwhile, his debut album has already been made Rough Trade’s album of the month when it received a limited release in December. But isn’t the bearded one worried that he has bared too much of his soul? “I think a lot of people are hiding all the time, and I’m sure I do as well, but I just wanted to put myself out there and be really honest. When I’m up there on stage or recording, to be able to get yourself in that place and remember exactly what you were going through, your performance becomes very honest as well.” [Milo McLaughlin]

Published by The Skinny Jan 2007

By Milo

Freelance writer and content creator.

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