Translator’s Steve Barton Has Released a New Holiday Single With Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Scott McCaughey (The Minus Five) and Debbi Peterson (The Bangles)

Did you know all these people live in Portland?

Steve Barton’s holiday gift to Portland is a supergroup of Portland transplants.

When the Translator frontman and solo artist, who first moved to town himself in 2016, wound up with the makings of a seasonal single—“Happy Holidays,” with one song for Christmas and one song for New Year’s, released Dec. 9—he first reached out to Steve Berlin.

The Los Lobos sax man and producer (Grupo Fantasmo, Deer Tick, Leftover Salmon) is a longtime Portland resident and even longer-time musical pal of Barton’s, dating back to Translator’s earliest shows as a trio in Los Angeles, circa 1979. (Translator’s eventual fourth member, Robert Darlington, has said that before he joined the band, he and Berlin were sometimes the only people in the audience.)

Barton wasn’t really looking to write a Christmas song, though a cousin of his had repeatedly suggested that he do so. Then, one day in his home studio, “Just Like Christmas” came out of him—a wintry, not quite grinchy, but not fully holly jolly pop song that is also a love letter to someone who is even better than the holiday (“you make me believe/that every night is Christmas Eve/maybe that’s why/we can’t sleep at all”).

On top of that, Barton had already written and recorded a song called “Happy New Year,” which in its original form was kind of a “Nick Cave-ish piano version,” he says. So why not cut a single? (Or rather, put one out on Bandcamp: a physical release—perhaps on festive-colored vinyl—will have to wait till Christmas 2023.)

Berlin, who is generally almost always on the road or in the studio, had a little downtime to produce, so Barton figured he’d bring Translator drummer Dave Scheff up from San Francisco as usual, overdub some bass himself, and call it a recording session. But Berlin thought it would be more fun to actually have a band, and cut the two songs live.

Enter Scott McCaughey of the Minus Five and Young Fresh Fellows, a California native and former Seattleite who’s now lived in Portland long enough that he was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame (the eligibility benchmark is two decades).

While Barton thinks that Translator and the Fellows crossed paths in the ’80s, it wasn’t until he moved here and didn’t know anyone that he and McCaughey connected, thanks to Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding). Stace told him, “Oh, you don’t know Scott? That’s who you have to meet,” Barton recalls, and the two have been friends and occasional collaborators ever since.

McCaughey not only said yes to playing bass and keyboards, but suggested they get one of his other frequent bandmates, a guy named Peter Buck, to add a 12-string guitar. Barton does remember the one time R.E.M. and Translator played a show together: they both opened for Gang of Four in Los Angeles in 1982. (Coincidentally, Buck and McCaughey also have a new Christmas song of their own, the jaundiced “A Christmas Voice (I Don’t Want to Bring You Into This World)” by the No Ones, whose other members live in Norway).

Raymond Richards (the Parson Red Heads, Blitzen Trapper) not only engineered the session, but also added sleigh bells to the “little psychedelic out-vamp” of “Just Like Christmas.”

“I wanted to have sleigh bells somewhere on it,” Barton says, “and I wanted to mention mistletoe and reindeer.” Beyond that, he didn’t necessarily have any particular Christmas song traditions in mind, but he’s fan of Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again,” which he once played live with a bunch of other musicians, as well as Phil Spector and Elvis Presley’s Christmas albums, and Mel Torme’s classic “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).”

“I wanted it to be a song where, if you were somebody who plays guitar, you could just hear it once and play it,” Barton says, “which is kind of what happened when we recorded it, because nobody really knew it. So I was like, ‘It goes like this.’ It’s not a hard song to play, but you still have to get the vibe of it and everything.”

It was the same again for “Happy New Year,” which Berlin suggested turning into more of a guitar-driven band arrangement. Later, at a second session, Berlin and Barton brought in Debbi Peterson of the Bangles—yet another former Californian living in the region—to add harmony vocals on both tracks. “It was really fast and organic,” Barton says. “A little family.”

Barton also personally hadn’t been in a studio with a group of other musicians playing in the same room at the same time since even before COVID—going back to his 2018 triple album Tall Tales and Alibis. “I really didn’t realize how much I missed that,” he says. “Because you spark off of each other. It’s just different than doing it in your home studio. And I like collaboration.”

“It was really cool to be able to pull this off,” he continues. “This is like a one-time band. But I remember thinking, ‘God, I’d like to do a whole album like this.’”

HEAR IT: “Happy Holidays” is available at https://stevebarton.bandcamp.com/album/happy-holidays.