Rock and roll eyes

The many faces of Matt Barnhart: producer, record-label boss, and mail-order honcho. But which one is which?

When Matt Barnhart moved back to Denton earlier this year, he found himself facing a big decision, the kind of choice that can change your life no matter what the answer is. It had already been a year filled with tough choices for Barnhart, from deciding to leave St. Louis after living there just longer than a year to scrapping the record label he had started in 1996 and starting another one from scratch. Each decision affected the other: He had returned to Denton mainly because the area's resurgent music community seemed like the best place to run his new label, Quality Park Records, as well as to record bands with his longtime partner Matt Pence. The move paid off almost immediately, leading to an alliance with another local producer, Dave Willingham. The trio combined their respective operations at Willingham's 70 Hurtz studio in Argyle, renaming it the Transcontinental Recording Company (the name of Barnhart's former label), and Barnhart began preparing for Quality Park's next release.

And that's when Barnhart had to make another big decision. Originally, he had planned to issue only an odds-and-ends compilation of songs Centro-matic had recorded during the past three years, a low-key release between real records for the band. But by the time Barnhart had returned from St. Louis, the situation had changed completely, and the group was ready to put all of its trust in Quality Park. After being burned by Austin-based Doolittle Records, Centro-matic wanted to work with someone who knew and understood the group and its music, and no one fit the bill better than Barnhart. He and the band had been together from the beginning, when Centro-matic was just Will Johnson and a four-track recorder; Automatic Records, Barnhart's first label, had released Johnson's debut single. Now, Centro-matic wanted Quality Park to release its next album, and Barnhart had to ask himself whether he was ready to do it. It would be an important record for both the band and the label, and he had to make sure he could handle it. It turned out the decision wasn't that tough after all.

"That really made me take the label very seriously, Centro-matic deciding to do a very serious album with me," Barnhart says, "one that we would hire a publicist for, and radio promotion people, and do a lot of serious work trying to get a good national foothold there. Because of that, I had to look inside myself before I agreed to do it. It was like, well, I have this label, and it's pretty much a hobby, and that's all it is. When they asked me to do that, and we both agreed to do it, we had to put a lot of faith in each other. I had to put a lot more stock into the label, which is something I enjoy doing, obviously, so it's not a problem. The good side of that is guys like Little Grizzly and Baptist Generals and Wiring Prank -- and if I decide to take on anyone else -- they can benefit from whatever good work happens with Centro-matic."

If Centro-matic's track record is any indication, there will be enough benefits to go around. The album Quality Park will release in January or February could be the best rock record released here or anywhere next year, the kind of album that could turn the label into a legitimate force, more than just another local label. But Quality Park isn't big enough to make anyone nervous yet, or so it would seem. So far, the label's output can be counted on one hand, with fingers to spare: Little Grizzly's Please Let Me Go, It Wasn't Meant to Be and Centro-matic's The Static vs. The Strings Vol. I, both released this year. Even if you take into consideration the Little Grizzly and Centro-matic singles Barnhart put out on the Transcontinental Recording Company, or the pair of out-of-print seven-inch discs he issued under the Automatic Records name in 1996, the sum barely spills over onto another hand.

Yet Quality Park has done enough in a short time to unnerve a few people, including the local music-industry honcho who called Barnhart recently, worried that the label was trying to muscle in on his distribution racket. Barnhart laughs when recalling the conversation, amused by the fact that the tiny operation he runs by himself out of his Denton apartment could worry anyone, much less a wheeler and dealer who tools around in a sports car. But it's not really what Quality Park has done that excites some people and scares others -- it's what Barnhart and the label have the potential to do. Quality Park is one of the few local labels that thinks outside of the confines of Dallas, Denton, and Fort Worth, supporting the scene while it attempts to expand it.

To that end, Barnhart has made releases by several other local labels -- including Willingham and Philip Croley's Two Ohm Hop, Leaning House Jazz, and Western Vinyl -- available through the Quality Park Web site ( And copies of Centro-matic's The Static vs. The Strings will come with a print version of the catalog. It's a throwback to the old SST Records catalogs that grouped a diverse collection of bands under one umbrella, letting everyone see the entire menu instead of just one page. You might prefer Centro-matic, but that doesn't mean you won't enjoy Wessell Anderson too, or Light Bright Highway. For Barnhart, it's more about getting the word out than selling records.

"With the mail-order thing, it was a way of bringing together all these disparate entities from around here that, you know, were doing well on their own," he says. "They don't need me to push them at all. Those labels are doing better than I am." He laughs. "Hopefully, maybe some kid in Iowa will see a catalog. He'll buy a Centro-matic record, and then he'll see all this other stuff and at least he'll get the impression in his head. Maybe he'll at least see the name Earl Harvin Trio, and the next time he sees it, he'll recognize it. I don't want this just to be Quality Park. I wanted a way to involve what they were doing. Even they are so dissimilar musically, the people who are in those bands are really important to me as well, and the music they make is really important to me. I just wanted to maybe present some kind of front to people who aren't really familiar with what this area's all about, people across the country."

Quality Park will re-release The Baptist Generals' Dog EP in October, and plans to release a full-length by the band next year, along with albums by Wiring Prank and Little Grizzly and a handful of other projects. Yet Barnhart isn't just limiting himself to putting out records. Along with Pence and Willingham, he's ensuring there are records around to be released. In fact, recording might be his first love. He's always known that some people make records and others make them happen. Since he was a teenager in Granbury recording his own "crummy music" on spliced-together cassette decks, he has realized that he would probably be of more service in the latter category. You have to play to your strengths, Barnhart decided, so that's what he's done, helming sessions by Wiring Prank, Post From Vermont, and Little Grizzly, among others.

He became much more serious about recording after hooking up with Pence, and eventually, the pair's dedication to the studio led them to relocate to St. Louis. Unfortunately, there weren't enough bands in St. Louis to support two full-time producers, so a permanent move ended up being written off as a wasted year. Barnhart wasn't thrilled to move back to Denton at first, but he sounds as if he's back where he belongs, even if the sun tries to convince him otherwise every day. The music and the people are worth the discomfort.

"The whole entire reason we decided to move back to Denton, besides our friends, was to be involved in music and in a music scene we loved," he says. "I mean, that's a huge life change, because I hate this weather. I hate Texas. I really don't like Dallas. I sound very bitter here, but I grew up 70 miles from Denton. I don't really like this area of the country that much. The whole entire reason we moved back was because of our friends and because of the music they play. It's the kind of community that I really missed by living in St. Louis. I was talking to Philip Croley right when I moved back, and I think he put it this way. He's like, 'Man, it's so great that I can sit down at Lou's, and on one side of me is Brent Best, and on the other side is Miguel from Sub Oslo, and we're all just sitting down having a drink.'" He laughs. "Man, that is beautiful."

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