The woman behind the Barbarian Beach Party
Last month, D.J. Barbarella, the host of KWMR’s Barbarian Beach Party, spun records for “Soul Nite” at the Old Western Saloon, a benefit for the Inverness Almanac. She granted few requests, and her playlist strayed far from the standard script. “This is not soul,” complained one local on his way out the door. Barbarella, better known as Katie Eberle, a young staffer at KWMR, sported vintage ’60s high-waisted jungle-print culottes as she danced behind her booth with a gin and tonic. While a crowd of young urbanites (and some irrepressible elders) reveled in the exotic range, others sat along the bar, staring glumly at the transformation of their local dive.
On March 9, the Barbarian Beach Party will air its 50th episode in two years. The 90-minute program travels to a different country every other Monday to uncover an eclectic batch of up-tempo tunes from the 1960s and ’70s interspersed with sound bites of the era. Its audio cabinet of curiosities is made possible by the trove of rare music shared by a community of obsessive collectors on Internet blogs that Eberle sifts through for each show. “Music used to be individual genres operating along their own timelines, this 2-D axis,” she said. “But now we have this three, even four-dimensional experience of music—people influenced by music that is out of print, by record companies no longer in existence.”
The station offices of KWMR are lined with compact discs classified by genre, but it’s hard to imagine a program like Eberle’s being drawn only from those shelves. The Internet’s reach has given the past a new immediacy. Like other programs on KWMR, it is steeped in the music of the last century, but avoids nostalgia by presenting what it unearths as the product of now. And, Eberle said, “It’s all thanks to those crazy archivists out there, who know good music and keep it and share it with others, only because of this instinct to reach this kind of musical wholeness.”
For Eberle, the Barbarian Beach Party and her comic persona are also an effort toward a more personal wholeness. “Barbarella has been in the works for a long time, though I wasn’t aware of it. She’s been in there, in my habits and cultural interests,” she said. In her native Massachusetts, she enjoyed a cinematic childhood sailing up and down the Eastern seaboard with her older twin brothers (“blond, blue-eyed, the whole nine yards”) from island to island, cove to cove, fishing and making art.
She forsook art school for a liberal arts college, however, deciding that the pursuit of a career in art was too self-serving. After graduating, she signed on as an energy consultant for a firm in Oakland with the aim of changing the world through environmental policy. But she found herself on a conveyer belt through corporate culture toward a compromised life. “I had proven I could hack it in the professional world, but I was faced with the reality of sacrificing my time and freedom for a reward that was increasingly oblique and obscured.”
On a business trip to Portland, she dragged her colleagues to Hunx and his Punx’s final show, a riotous, gender-bending mix of performance art, bubblegum pop and queer punk. The performance, and the audience, raged out of control. At its climax, Hunx took off his pants and let out a blood-curdling scream, then sprayed the crowd with the contents of a bottle between his legs. Her co-workers were “scarred for life,” but Eberle was transformed. She emerged baptized by beer foam at an otherworldly revival. “I looked at my colleagues and decided I was nothing like them.”
A quarter-life crisis took hold. “My body refused to work that job anymore… I woke up one morning and everything had seized up. I couldn’t eat, so I went on this involuntary spiritual fast,” she said. After leaving her job, she moved to a cottage in Marshall and began clearing the adult weeds that had grown around feelings of inspiration, discovery and pleasure.
She delved deeper into the movement that was rediscovering international vintage music, and frequented a nomadic dance party in Oakland called the International Freakout A-Go-Go, the brainchild of Mark Gergis, or Genghis, an Egyptian D.J. with a lazy eye. “That’s where I discovered it and wanted to be a part of it and bring people to it,” she said.
Eberle seems content to make her low-key way in community radio, but at little urging she reveals ambitious, far-reaching ideas with clarity and force. While having drinks with a friend, she will suddenly leap from her bar stool to convey some idea or scheme into the ear of an acquaintance entering the room, whose surprise often quickly turns to interest. In common with the recent wave of young people to the area, she pushes for the creation of venues and support for innovative, accessible culture in West Marin, even as the rigged game of government regulations, soaring property values and NIMBY resistance conspire to discourage such visions.
It would be unwise to discount energy like Eberle’s, however, as she helps KWMR expand its reach and scope by leveraging the digital world in service of the analog one. “This show would not be possible without the Internet,” she reminded. “It’s a showcase of the past, which you’d think would be possible at any time, and yet it just wasn’t possible until right now. Nobody’s music collection could ever hold this much.”
First published March 5, 2015 in The Point Reyes Light.