Chris Barron Being All Weird And Beautiful
Chris Barron has recently released his insightful solo album, Angels and One Armed Jugglers. Perhaps best known as the frontman for the early '90s indie rock band The Spin Doctors, Barron has also launched a successful solo career.
In support of the new album drop, Chris will be playing at the Beachland Ballroom on Thursday, April 19th. Recently, Chris spent some time on the phone with our own Courtney Ramey.
Courtney Ramey: Hi, Chris!
Chris Barron: Hi, Courtney. How ya doin;?
CR: Doin' pretty good, thank you. Just sitting in this rainy weather in Cleveland.
CB: I’m in New York City, but rainy weather in Cleveland isn’t good news.
CR: Tomorrow’s supposed to be sunny with more sunny days will come.
(Chris was spending all day with his nephew but managed to find time for North Coast Music Beat, for that we thank him!)
CR: I listened to the album today, some parts made me laugh, others made me actually cry…
CB: Oh wow, amazing!
CR: No one’s cried at your songs before?
CB: Oh yeah, yeah people cry at them all the time. It never gets tired though. Which ones made you cry if you don’t mind my asking?
CR: It’s fine, I was going to talk about it later anyways. But it was "Until The Cows Come Home."
CB: Oh yeah, that gets my wife every time.
CR: Yeah I recently went through a powerful breakup where everything’s still kind of happening…
CB: Awe, well, that’s awesome, very cathartic.
CR: Very much so.
CB: That’s what music is for.
CR: You mentioned there was always something special from the very moment you played with the Spin Doctors, a very strong musical chemistry, can you tell me more about that feeling?
CB: Yeah, when you meet somebody that you really hit it off with as a person, whether it be a friend or a romantic interest or whatever, when you meet someone and as human beings you’re able to engage in these conversations, sometimes there’s a chemical quality where you’re like, ‘Ah man, I’m totally hitting it off with this person.’ They seem familiar and the stuff they’re saying is fascinating and endlessly diverting yet somehow inevitable and music is a language you know? And that’s what it feels like, music is language that I don’t really know what it’s expressing. I mean sort of a more fundamental level, it’s sort of expressing emotions.
There aren’t any words, so if I say ‘Monkey’ you see a monkey in your head, but if I play a note, what is it that you see in your head? If I’m playing a musical phrase and someone I’m in a band with, like Eric the guitar player, plays that back with a musical difference and I play it along back to him and meanwhile the drummer is in there and he’s pushing his own sort of take on the rhythm. It’s like an intriguing conversation that’s taking place on this very fundamental level of language that goes deeper than words. Does that make sense?
CR: It definitely does. Music, as well as art, I believe is 50% creator, 50% observer and I believe one of the purest forms of communication.
CB: For sure. I agree.
CR: How is that feeling different from your solo work?
CB: Well, I think with my solo stuff I wanted to work with different people, I’ve been working with the Spin Doctors people for 30 years. I wanted to step out and work with people that, one, I haven’t worked very much with before, and two, people I felt I could learn from. Roman Klun, the producer, and I have actually worked together, we made one record together and it went very well. So we were just into making another record together. And then Sean Pelton is a guy I’ve done a little bit of work with here and there and I am a super drum snob; I play with one of the best drummers in the world in my band so if I wasn’t going to play with him I had to play with somebody who’s absolutely amazing. And Sean is an epic, iconic drummer and his work in the studio is really renowned. His tone is so good, his feel is so good, and as a kind of "locker room guy" he has such presence in the studio. He’s a dynamic guy, he knows when to step in and command and when to let someone else drive the bus for a while. He’s got that kind of feel, you know, the drummer who’s always ready with the rim shots for the joke or to create some kind of ambiance around the music. For example, in "Until The Cows Come Home," the song that you mentioned, in the last verse the lyrics are “Parades go by, Moons cross the sky…” when I say Parades go by, he plays this little march thing... and it’s like of course, that’s genius! He creates these subtly atmospheric things.
In the last song "Too Young to Fade," the second verse I say a line like, “I’m on the high wire while the lava boils below." When I say, “I’m on the high wire” he does a drum roll beneath it just like a drummer in the circus would do. Little things like that made it so much fun to work with him.
Each musician that came in had so much to offer and that I learned so much from. For example, in "The World Accordion to Garp", again in the second verse, “The tuba has been drinking,” Eric played this little cadenza.
CR: I’m glad you mentioned "The World Accordion to Garp," because I kind of picked up what you were saying, very dark and soothing… almost like I should have been at a dive bar on the beach at dusk.
CR: Just curious what your metaphors are?
CB: I was in Norway with these guys; I have another band called The Canoes with these three Norwegian rock stars. We are really, really good friends and always get into silly word play and we were drinking a lot of beer with a lot of brandy when my friend Arna Hopta just at one point said, “The World Accordian to Garp” and I thought it was so funny. The next morning I was sitting in bed and I wrote that whole lyric in a half hour and I thought it kind of my little time capsule of my life in show business and what’s it’s like to play music the whole time.
CR: One line from the song is “The tall grass hides her secrets, she plays it on her heart strings just as it gets dark.” Is this about trying to figure out life’s secrets?
CB: To me it’s like you can’t get it right and you can’t get it wrong. Life is this piece of music you’re hearing and your interpretation of it, even if you get it wrong, you’re still a part of the choreography of all of the atoms and the planets and this life that we’re living. It’s not like you’re never going to get it until you’re older, it’s more like you’re never going to get it but you also have it more right than you think you do.
I think the record thematically, the idea of angels and one-armed jugglers, is like people are these beautiful, celestial, angelic beings that are deeply deeply faulty and we’re also like apes. I like to look at various aspects of life and philosophy and stuff rather than as opposites, I like to look at them along poles; north is angelic and south is animal. We’re like these clumsy angels trying to keep everything in the air when everything is already in the air, we’re probably trying to keep the wrong things in the air.
CR: I read that your song, "Raining Again," is about climate change and the 24-hour news cycle, is that true?
CB: When I wrote it, I was about eighteen or nineteen and trying to figure out if I should try to make music my living, and this waitress named Susan, who was a professional painter, said to me, “Chris, my love…” in a British accent, “No matter where you go, no matter what you do you’re going to have trouble. You just have to find your place to have it.” I was like, I don’t even know what you’re saying but I’m basically going to interpret that as to follow music.
Later I was thinking about how life is an ongoing torrent of trouble, punctuated with joys and accomplishments and stuff. So I just wrote that song about how it’s a good world but it will never stop raining again. Later on, because I started that song ten years ago, climate change was definitely on the horizon but, one of my Norwegian buddies, this guy Eric, and this Nashville writer Rachel, after the Nashville flood a few years ago I was like wow, I came a cross that idea and I hadn’t really thought about it that way; it’s never going to stop raining again in terms of climate change. Rachel had just lost a bunch of stuff in that flood and I brought in this chunk of the tune and she helped me finish it, literally, in the wake of that flood. Correct use of the word "literally" by the way.
CR: In regards to your song "Need Someone," did you write that in a time of your life where your strength and passion just wasn’t enough and you needed someone to push you along?
CB: That song is the newest song on the record and I lost my voice last year. I was very depressed and it wasn’t clear if I was ever going to sing again and my whole career was on the line…
CR: Not just your career but the way you express yourself.
CB: Yeah, yeah almost like my identity was on the line. My wife was just so steady and understanding during that period of time. The song is very introspective, it’s more about the protagonist of the song going from being very independent to realizing that interdependence is just as much of a virtue in this life as dependence. Being able to determine if someone is worthy of your trust and then being able to place your trust in them and work dynamically with another person in turn makes you a powerful person. Married people live longer, particularly men, it’s way better for dudes than women, but generally it’s better for both.
CR: Really? It’s probably because we get you guys away from fast food…Having someone to always care for you is nice.
CB: Women are better, let’s just face it! We need more women running things, guys have had a really good run of fucking things up. It’s time for the women and the girls to take over. Women are just straight up more sensible.
CR: We are definitely on the rise which is nice! Is the song "Till The Cows Come Home: about your wife, then?
CB: Umm, I think of my wife when I play it but it’s an old tune. I actually wrote that on an old ukulele, it’s just a love tune. I like making stuff up sometimes, I actually love that title and had accidentally written another song with that same title.
CR: I felt like I was in a dimly lit, classy restaurant when I listened to it. One where Jessica Rabbit would be singing.
CB: Hahaha It’s really funny, I was in an Uber the other day playing guitar and the guy was so psyched that I was playing. He said something like, "I feel like I’m in a beautiful restaurant and this is the music that’s playing in the beautiful fancy restaurant." I said thanks buddy, you get a tip, flattery will get you everywhere…
CR: Haha speaking of flattery, I absolutely loved that slow, low trumpet.
CB: That was my friend Steve Burnstein playing a slide trumpet. He would be supremely annoyed if I described it to you as a trombone. He’s like, "It's not a tiny trombone, it’s a slide trumpet!" But essentially, it’s a tiny trombone.
CR: It does sound similar, it took me a second to distinguish it.
CB: We knew we wanted to produce that song like a jazz standard so we had most things figured out, but we needed another instrument for respondondo. At first we thought of saxophone but then realized we just needed Steve. I told him that he goes for the weirdest note you can play that’s still beautiful.
CR: I think that really encapsulates the album, I’ve read some of your other interviews and saw that what you really wanted to show is that everyone is weird and everyone is beautiful.
CB: Yes and the best way to do that is to just be weird and beautiful yourself. Roman did such a great job producing this record, he really knew when to step in to let a strong suggestion and when to let me be the mistro and we just didn’t stop working on the ideas of the tune until it made the hair stand up on our arms. We just kept going until we ourselves had a really strong emotional reaction to the way the recording was sounding. Once we were like, god this is beautiful, then we knew we really had it.
CR:How did you decide when songs needed a “Sha la la”?
CB: That’s a funny story. A buddy of mine asked me to sing "Jersey Girl" at his wedding. He gave me a video of Bruce Springsteen playing it solo acoustic at a stadium, at one point he sings the sha la’s and it made me think of all the fifties tunes that say "Sha la la" in them. I’ve been writing tunes for about 35 years now, I think I’ve earned the right to have a sha la la tune. I love to think in terms of textures when I’m writing and that song was very wordy; I’d love to have a little break in between to give the mind a rest. Before a gig I was hanging out and playing the tune and all of a sudden I was like maybe this is a good spot for it and I started singing it… the chorus came together in ten minutes after that.
CR: The last song on the album,"Too Young to Fade" took me by surprise. Like I said, I was tearing up at the song before it then it came on with a drastically different tempo. Where do you feel your life is headed? You’re fifty and you may not feel the fiery hunger that has pushed you before but you’re kind of in the middle ground now.
CB: I’m a tremendously ambitious person. Ambition undergoes a metamorphosis as life goes on. When I was young I was never super motivated by fame or being really rich, but I wanted to be successful and I don’t really know how clear I was with what that meant. Now I’m older, I’m willing to sit and play the same six notes on the guitar for three hours; now I’m really concentrating on my guitar playing. When people come out and see me play at a show it’s just me and a guitar, I’m not really known for that. I’m grateful for being known as the lead singer of the Spin Doctors but I’m a storyteller and people are pleasantly surprised. I’ve always done it, but this is the first time the public has really seen it. To do this you have to be really motivated. My objective in all this was to make a comfortable living playing music. I like working hard.
CR: I think the best part about making a living with music or art is that you’re getting paid to work on yourself, this type of work is very introspective. You get to delve into who you are as a person. Yes, we all have those April and May songs, but you’re growing a lot.
CB: I agree.
Buy tickets to see Chris Barron at the Beachland Ballroom here!
Interview by Courtney Ramey