By Rush Evans
June is hot in Austin, Texas. At the outdoor stage of Threadgill’s World Headquarters, a beer garden concert venue, the temperature gets past 100 at five in the afternoon. The sun beats down hot and bright, so much so that fiddle player Richard Bowden has to wear shades. Not Barbara Kooyman, the only other person on stage. Sunglasses would be a bit too obvious, and maybe distracting from the songs and stories she’s singing. She braves the heat and glare with eyes and heart wide open, performing original tunes plus one (the suddenly relevant “Border Crossing”) from her days as one-half of Timbuk3 — though it’s not the song that put them on the map, the one about shades.
“Here’s a song about fireflies, a setting sun, and an immaculate misconception,” she says before singing the murky and mysterious, “Maria,” a solo song with the same understated groove as so many Timbuk3 songs, but it’s a whole different presentation from that earlier two-person band. Kooyman’s songs are heartfelt introspections with globally hopeful intentions, all supported with an expressive and unpretentiously passionate voice.
Barbara K (the name she goes by professionally) is still singing her songs with passion and grace, originals and the occasional Timbuk3 song. Timbuk3 had a deadpan look and feel in its songs and videos of the late eighties and early nineties, which suited its darkly ironic musical vibration, but Barbara is vivacious, energetic and vibrant, on stage and off, all of which can be heard in her three solo albums (including one that reinterprets the songs of Timbuk3).
It was Timbuk3 that brought her to Austin. She still calls it home today, where she was happy to adjourn into the air-conditioned Threadgill’s restaurant after her blistering set for a discussion of her music then and now. It is here that she creates her music and her vision for a nonprofit venture that brings independent artists and community radio stations together in a mutually beneficial and symbiotic convergence. More about that later.
Barbara K and Pat MacDonald had been making music together as Pat MacDonald and the Essentials in Madison, Wis., where they, like so many musicians in any city, struggled to make ends meet. To keep their songs alive, they needed a new setting. “We were really, really poor,” remembers Kooyman. “We tried it out in New York, [but] we thought we needed to go someplace where it’s warm, in case we don’t have enough money. We can play on the streets and go buy some rice and beans or whatever.” Kooyman had grown up in Texas and had even lived in Austin for a time, and she knew that it was the right place to do what they had been doing.
It was their 1983 move to Austin that gave voice to their music, in a community that understood their quirky, intelligent songs. They were idealistic artists with the vision thing, but they were still quite broke when they hit town. In a textbook case of necessity’s motherhood of invention, the young couple realized even before hitting town that their most affordable band mate was not even a person, and it was this stroke of almost accidental genius that distinguished the music that the world would quickly know as Timbuk3.
The trio of two humans and a boom box with programmed, pre-recorded drum and bass tracks started hitting the open mikes in local clubs, where they would befriend local songwriting legends like Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt. It was the age of MTV, a network (and time) that was quick to understand music with a techno touch, something rare in the folk circles that the new Austinites ran in. When Kooyman learned that the MTV/IRS Records “The Cutting Edge” television series was coming to town, she got the group on the right local stage to be seen by the right person on the right night. Timbuk3 was quickly videotaped for an appearance on the show, then flown to Los Angeles, where the band was signed to IRS. Here was a band with a new sound, a new look, and a new kind of band dynamic (by this time, Kooyman and MacDonald were married). There were experimental sounds, thoughtfully intelligent lyrics, rich musical depth and a good beat you could dance to.
IRS executive Miles Copeland (brother of Stewart from The Police) took a special liking to an infectious, harp-driven, hook-laden song whose title had come from Kooyman’s love of wordplay, when she casually mentioned that, “the future’s so bright, I gotta wear sunglasses.” MacDonald changed sunglasses to shades, wrapped a tune around it, and an inevitably radio-friendly track was born. The song was bitingly sarcastic — or was it wildly optimistic?
IRS got the band a promotional tour of England, where Timbuk3 played 25 shows for 25 quid a night. While the duo was canvassing Britain in a borrowed car, IRS released a cassette tape, a compilation of the label’s records that were coming out that fall. “We had two songs on it,” says Barbara. “‘The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades’ was one, and it started playing on radio before the record came out. It wasn’t on LP, it wasn’t on nothin’ yet. It was just on this cassette compilation for radio. It was already climbing the charts without any product in the stores! Miles Copeland said, ‘Here’s a hundred quid; go out and buy some clothes.’ I went, ‘I don’t know anything about buying clothes.’ I didn’t! I hadn’t ever thought about it. I bought some black jeans. I’m still wearing ’em, same jeans that I bought in a London flea market 25 years ago!” Indeed, Barbara K suddenly realizes that she is wearing identical jeans at this very moment. “It’s amazing that they still fit!” she quips.
By the time Timbuk3’s first album, “Greetings from Timbuk3,” came out, “The Future’s So Bright” was a runaway hit, landing the duo an appearance on Saturday Night Live, a Grammy nomination, and tours with Sting, Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan. The song was, and still is, often misconstrued as a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”-styled novelty cut.
“The song’s about not paying attention to the intention behind things, and ending up with nuclear destruction,” she says, though she is OK with interpretation remaining in the ear of the beholder. “Everybody’s ability to see content and intent is different. Some people listen to lyrics; others don’t. But music is a vibration. And it was a very happy, upbeat vibration. And people responded to the vibration and they responded to the cleverness of the ‘future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.’ It was the combination. Whenever I heard of somebody not understanding what it was really about, I would take the opportunity to go, ‘Well you know, it’s really about this.’ They’d say, ‘No, I didn’t know that!’ Or if it was a deejay, they’d go, ‘What? This is an anti-nuclear song?’ Well, yeah. So there was like this moment of embarrassment, like, ‘I’ll never play your songs again! How dare you pull a fast one over on us!’ Whereas, Casey Kasem got it.”
To this day, MacDonald (who lives in Spain and continues to tour) and Kooyman are approached for usage of the now-classic song for commercial purposes. “We’d get asked all the time, over and over and over, and we’d say no. How about $100,000 dollars? No. How about $200,000? No. How about $900,000? No. We do not use our music for commercial purposes.”
Kooyman adheres to this policy in general, not just for that massive hit.
“You can only sell your integrity once. Integrity, it’s like virginity. Once it’s gone, it’s gone! You can hire a doctor, spend a lot of money to put a spin on it, but it’s gone. I just made that up,” she suddenly reflects with a laugh. “Just like ‘the future’s so bright, I gotta wear sunglasses!’”
Barbara K made something else up, too, of which she is even more proud. Artists for Media Diversity is her brainchild, one that has been in development for more than five years, and it has recently become a reality.
The Web site for the new nonprofit Kooyman created with co-founders Wolfgang Pracht and Ben Bright, Artists for Media Diversity (a4md.org), summarizes that it “exists to restore the purity and power of the spiritual relationship between music and radio. A4MD can help you bring your radio station and your listeners back to the roots of the magic before music became heavily commercialized.”
Barbara K envisions that A4MD will play a role in strengthening community radio stations by engaging each city’s local artists, thus creating a more powerful artistic force, a voice for the people and the songs so overlooked in more commercially driven media outlets. K imagines the possibility of vibrant creative communities, like the one in which she lives, the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World.
Many of the nuts and bolts of how community radio and local musicians can and will join forces will unfold as A4MD grows, but the first avenue is quite tangible already: songs. Barbara’s vision will get more music to the masses by way of a sort of legal bootleg collection of recordings.
“Basically, what A4MD can do is it can sell music and channel the proceeds to support noncommercial media organizations, so artists can donate a download of something cool. We’ve designed a system for noncommercial radio stations called the Live Music Broadcast Archive, so when artists go to radio stations, they’re promoting a record, and sometimes they play live on the air. I was just at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. I flew to St. Paul and presented this. I asked all the stations, ‘How many of you have live music on your stations?’ They all raised their hands. ‘How many of you record that music?’ Most of them. So what we’re going to do is create a national archive of that stuff, so stations can share the local or regional flavors through that archive, but we can also sell that music and raise money for our mission. Because it’s just sitting there! The artists can contribute that recording. And it’s ‘Artists for Media Diversity,’ not ‘Cover Bands for Media Diversity.’ It’s independent artists who support independent media, and it’s independent media who support independent artists. And we want to create a national support system for localism at the grass roots, for those communities.”
Call it a musical stimulus package. The mutually beneficial relationship between artists and community-run radio signals is the crucial key: There is power in such a union. And that is what has been lost over the past few decades, as the diversity of voices — musical and otherwise — has been lost in the concentration of radio-signal ownership into a short list of mega-corporations. It wasn’t always that way, and that’s reason enough for A4MD’s creator to cultivate a new musician/broadcaster relationship. After all, Barbara K remembers a time when her little musical combo enjoyed an international hit that came about from the now-quaint process of fan requests.
It was a song about a possibly bleak future, but Barbara sees an artistic future ahead, in her own music (sparrowswheel.com is the only place to purchase it) and in her nonprofit creation. She will continue making albums and performing live, and she will likely work a full band into her shows. “I’m ready to rock! I’m tired of folkin’ around!”
After finishing her dinner, she excitedly shares that there is an update to that song from the past all about the future. “I’ve written a new verse! Wanna hear the new verse?
‘Blowin’ up the lab,
Blowin’ the professor,
Torn between two evils,
I always pick the lesser.
I’m doin’ all right,
Getting goooooood grades,
The future’s so bright,
I gotta wear … sunglasses!’”
With big laughter, her interviewer wonders if she’s OK with those lines going into the article. “Absolutely!” says the nonprofit founder, who’s well aware of the current state of broadcast media. “’Cause they ain’t gonna play it on the radio!”