Interview: Chris Barron. Spin Doctors.

A great interview with Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors,  On a  New York morning in  May. Tim Price discovers why some rock stars run away from home,  the old school tie,  why he misses Ireland and a few surprises.

Paul Jones recently introduced ‘If the River was Whiskey’ on his BBC Radio 2 Blues Show, playing “Some Other Man Instead” with irony and a question mark in his voice “the Spin Doctors play blues?” but that’s your roots, that’s what you do isn’t it?

Yeah, absolutely, when we started out playing the Blues Clubs in New York City putting the world to right, we were already all blues freaks, working our right, making a living in NYC, we played the clubs which would pay us, they put you through it for the pleasure of doing so.

Right, they wanted you to play covers and you just wanted to do your own stuff.

An evenings worth of old riff tunes was like old crust to us and we could have got away with it, but we decided to do our own stuff and it was like an extraordinary writing exercise, we would write like a whole nights worth of Blues stuff in the manner and style of, Elmore James, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.  So, actually as a writer I gained first hand professional experience, pleased with what we made, we wanted to really see this through as a career.

One song on the new album you actually wrote when you were 19 years old, “The Sweetest Portion”, it’s just such a beautiful piece of music.

Thank you, I got lucky with that one.

So, why did you write that? I mean, you ran away from home? 

I was into the first year of college education and my dad had been saving money up for that.

Your father was in the American Air Force, right? 

No, my dad was a Navy guy, long before all this happened.

You were born in Hawaii? 

Yes, born in Hawaii, my Dad was serving in Hawaii in the Navy during the Vietnam War, he was serving in Pearl Harbour, wasn’t in Vietnam. Many years later my Dad got out of the Navy, and his second wife spent the rest of my college money, so, I had to sit out of college for a year and was stuck at home. My Dad and my Step Mom were at each others throats, so I was talking to my buddy, Charlie, on the phone; he had a pad down at Richmond Virginia. We talked about that could be a good place for me get a job if I could figure out a way to get down there. So I asked can I crash on your floor or something. He said, come down, the guys I live with are total jerks and there is a dog with fleas running around, but you can come, just think about it.

There was a railway schedule at our house, and there was a train leaving at 5.45 the next morning for Richmond. So I woke up early and took four pairs of underwear, a couple of shirts and the complete works of Shakespeare, in an old mailbag, and I got on the train, which was an old milk train, crap everywhere, my buddy got home from work that night and didn’t know where I was at, he was worried about me and no-one else knew where I was, folks were worried about me, and that’s how this song came about.

A track which appears on your first album which you play really well live, is “Refrigerator Car”, did you also write that on that train journey down to Richmond? 

No, I wasn’t able to write that on that journey: “Refrigerator Car” that came out of the partnership with Eric and Aaron, we were hanging out and that riff came out in 9/8, he and Eric were fooling around and came up with the groove and the riff and I came up with the lyrics to that. The writing of that song came out in an electric guitar session and we came up with a record arrangement as a group, where, “Sweetest Portion” is just like me, by myself as 19 years old on an old guitar.

“Sweetest Portion” has now come out on “If The River Was Whiskey”, a 20 year gap since ‘Kryptonite’, but you actually released four albums in between: “Turn It Upside Down”, “You’ve Gotta Believe In Something”, “Here Comes The Bride” and “Nice Talking To Me” but they all became pretty well lost, so what happened?

We set out on the follow up, which went Platinum and sold about 1 Million copies, mostly abroad but domestically we did not have the same success as “Pocket Full of Kryptonite”. In the meantime Eric had left the band, and we stumbled along for seven or eight years with different line ups, we had some guitar players who were really great, we had Ivan Neville join us for a while, and that was really cool, but, we never had that same spirit as the original four guys. One of those clubs we played when we first started out was closing down and they asked us if we would play for their last evening there and put the original band up.

What was the name of that club,  do you remember? 

The club was called the Wetlands, in Manhattan, the biggest club in New York City, so we put that up and the original chemistry of the band came together, we hadn’t been in the same room together all four of us for some seven years, we were in rehearsal and we started playing and it was like POW!

That was 2001, there were no promoting agents, no booking agents and we just said this is fun playing together, and we were just like cautiously feeling each other out, thinking lets do another gig, cool, yeah this is fun so lets do that. Anyway, it went barreling down the river and we got to 2005 and we made “Nice Talking To Me” and nothing really happened with that because the record company…

Well, didn’t they go bust?

Yeah, they went bust like you know as in like either a week before the record came out or the week after, so really nothing happened with that record.

What were they called the record company? You remember…

Yes, Ruff, but not to be confused with our current label, Ruf.

They were quite big here in the UK

They were, anyway we lost, and then we gained a solvent record company, Ruff (Ruff Nation. mainly a hip-hop label with a turbulent past) is what we lost and Ruf is what we gained, so we now have Ruf instead of Ruff so we lost an ‘F’ along the way…laughs…, nothing really happened with that record and the experience we got was really nothing as the company was like spiralling as we were just finishing recording it, nothing really at all happened with that.

We just continued playing together and we didn’t really have any world domination agenda, we are just guys who are all further along in life, we all have kids, we’ve known each other now like for 25 years and were just assholes but there is nothing anymore like the old days when Chris would bring his lead singer thing, Eric would bring his guitar thing and music would be pretty much like world war three.

That was the way it was in the old times but the main thing is to realise that we all value the band itself, of the fact that we have all been around but have never played in an ensemble like this one, we have the common, shared experience, the camaraderie and then the raw musical, total experience, which is chemistry.

Cut to us in England two years ago and we were asking our fans “so, what do you guys want to hear us play?”, and they just wanna hear just blues tunes, so we just started playing them.

Your blues tunes, or other peoples blues tunes?

No, no, we don’t play covers, you know what I mean?  These guys were asking play “So Bad”, and we were like, you wanna here “So Bad”, yeah they said, do “Little Prince” from 1991, and we were like, Oh, really, OK, you know how it is today, there are some guys on the side recording it on his I pad and so some 30 seconds later I’m listening to it, and I was like, wow, this stuffs great, and we put it in the sound set and played it in the encore and everyone was coming up to us after the show and saying that was so great, what’s that Blues stuff, and we went Huh, shall we continue to play a various selection from that period of time? Almost like 20 years ago music but with new technology but the rest of the tour on we were really enjoying playing this material which was taking us back, getting a reaction from the tours.

So this is now two years ago, right?

Yeah, that’s right, so we just kinda looked around at the reaction we were getting and how much fun we were having and we just said we need too make a record of this stuff, you know before we were deadwood, as nobody sells records anymore anyway, so we might as well make a blues record.

Give me that line again, nobody sells records anymore, what do you mean?

Well no one sells records anyway these days, so they might as well make a blues record.

Wow!  What makes you say that then, because of the X Factor and all this sort of stuff?

Well, I don’t think there has been great commercial move to make a blues record since like 1948.

But, isn’t all this stuff coming back and folks are focusing in on traditional, core music?

Well, right, but now that were kinda getting into this whole kinda world, like, Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers everyone’s focusing on that and oops the blues have almost like been passed by, by a step, the blues are like one step more maybe from The Lumineers.

There’s so much crossover now. I have just done a review for Madeline Peyroux, the New York Jazz artist, at the Cheltenham Jazz festival and she has just covered Ray Charles, you even have Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music bringing in a jazz and big band act. 

Right, yeah it’s all really cool.

What do you think of today’s college kids dancing around to your early releases of “Little Miss”, thinking it’s just recently released?  We know its 20 year old music which still sounds so fresh, but the kids love it. 

Yeah, that’s great, its funny, because at the time when we started out to make this new record we were not activated in blues or our early stuff at all, and that’s really my main point, we were not activated like looking around saying this old stuff is coming back, were bringing it back to bring the blues home , why don’t we see if we can sell some blues record, you know that was not on our radar at all, what we are doing now was still fermenting when we were on tour.

So, what your saying is two years ago when you were on tour, you had the spark to go back to the roots and that’s how it all came together for “If The River Was Whiskey?”

The funny thing is, you know, the session was a demo session at Aarons house, we were just gonna make demos, but I’ve been telling people we made the record in 3 days but it took us 25 years to get those three days (laughs)

So, those tracks, I mean you’ve got 10 tracks there, all of them which have been kicking around for years and then you put them down in three days….. 

No. no, two of them are brand new

Oh really, which two?

The first two songs are brand new, we wrote them the day before we did the rehearsal for the session. There is a You Tube gig on the night after the second day of our demo recording with a fresh cut of “If the River was Whiskey”.

That’s one of the questions I really want to ask. You can go on You Tube but with The Spin Doctors the material it is really quite limited, do you control that? Other bands seem to flood the network with their videos, so I think that’s good on your behalf, that there is a limitation, this surely gives you good artistic control and creditability?

I don’t know why this is, maybe its because we had this gulf of time where we had broken up for a while, I mean people were recording stuff on their phones for a while but they get lost but we certainly don’t have a You Tube police going around controlling that stuff with a natural aversion. I wish I could say it was according to some Master plan, but master plans have never been the strong point for the Spin Doctors, we have a strong mental philosophy and we are not full of shit, we really play, it’s contrary to what you would think, it’s so much pop except really like music has always come first for us.

Would you call your early songs pop, funk rock, jam rock or what?

I don’t know, you see that’s another thing, I would leave that to journalists, that’s not what I like, gendres and sides, that’s a whole different game. I write songs, and I sing and that’s what I do, for the most part when I’m writing a song I don’t think of what gendre its gonna be, you know its totally inapt, down the road, oh my god, I wrote a blues tune, look at that, I wrote a punk tune, more like a matter of what comes naturally.

Do you do most of the writing, or is this a collective thing and you put it all together?

I wrote the lyrics for the most part, sometimes Eric writes some lyrics, but for the most part I write the lyrics, the tunes when Eric is singing, those are the tunes he wrote the lyrics for.

You have so much live material, and you do it so well. Are you going to release a live album, or a double live album, and will that be the next project?

Thank you but no, I don’t think so; a live record is not on the front burner. It’s been a long time since we made a studio record. Eric has got like a million riffs laying around, I have lyrics laying around and I think what were going to do gonna do next is we wanna make another bluesy record but we’re gonna turn the compass a little bit more in the rock direction, so we want do a like salon mainstream thing, this is a Blues-Rock where the next record is gonna be more Rock-Blues, if you know what I mean.

Yeah, I get that, I know what you mean. 

Were kinda excited to get together and do some more song writing, we thought that the songs that we wrote were like, the first two songs, those new ones I am really excited about the feedback they are going to bring.

They are fantastic new songs and you have some great reaction to the air play on BBC Radio 2 Blues Show pre release of the album in May.

Oh cool, we got some good feedback from it?

Sure, on media sites and Facebook but also from the radio play, there is a good reaction to it.

That’s cool as I think some bands like writing ‘wise kinda fizzle as they get older, I don’t think that’s the case with us.

I think especially Eric and Aaron, you know, Aaron comes up with chord progressions too, they’re really amazing and I’ve been writing my brains out and I’ve actually did like teaching and word writing at a University in New York, the State of University New York, so I’m now asked to write my face off and go, I get invited, to you Germany and Norway and Denmark to head up song writing sessions with various artists whose company I value as they have such amazing command of English , so lyrically I stay really sharp.

I’m not just writing for the Spin Doctors, I’m writing for other people and get going to castles and writing, writing in monasteries, islands in the middle of the fjords, I just been writing everywhere.

The UK is for sure a priority for the Spin Doctors has always been great to us. Roger Daltrey came out and sat in with us at the Brixton Academy on the day we signed for our first album. We have always had an amazing time in the UK  and we love English Breakfasts and we love British people.

Well, it’s an island isn’t it, and you always said you are a lover of islands!

Well, I understand islands and I lived on islands my whole life, I am an islander, I was born in Hawaii, I went to elementary school in Australia, and learnt island confidence, and for the entire second half of my life so far I have lived on a small island of the East Coast of America called Manhattan, so I identify with that whole island mentality. You know, the genesis of this new record occurred in the UK so well, so we love Wales, England and Scotland but we keep missing Ireland, we have never played there!

Chris, I notice you’re wearing a tie now on stage is there a particular reason for that? And the stripey pattern, is that an old school tie ?  

It does look like a school tie doesn’t it?  I actually, which is not normal for an American, went to an English Style Boarding School when I lived in Australia and I did wear a school tie and uniform and everything. I don’t know, over the years I just have sort of gravitated towards different looks, and now I have one with the moustache now, and it looks quite cool.  At Halloween last year we had a hurricane in the States, Hurricane Sandy….

 We saw it and felt the aftermath in the UK. 

Oh, did you really? Anyway, during the hurricane here in New Jersey, my actual apartment, our house, wasn’t actually hit very hard, but it was such an incredible storm which went on for hours and with no going outside. So, myself and my daughter were watching a bunch of Zombie movies and we were going into the bathroom and coming out with our hairstyles in a crazy hairstyles just to shock each other and just having a laugh. That was October, anyway in the November this thing was started in the States called Movember, are you aware of that?

Yes, when guys start growing moustaches for fund raising bets…..

Right, guys growing Moustaches for prostrate awareness, so thought why don’t I do that? So I went to the bathroom and shaved by beard off so it looked like just a moustache. My wife was stood laughing at me “That’s kinda’ hot”, so been pretty much left with it since then! Yeah, I don’t know, so just kinda built the look around the moustache, kinda fooling around with my looks just like were fooling around with some blues records right now, wanted to get that bluesy look.

Chris, you have been great, many thanks for the interview and good luck on the tour.

Spin Doctors play The Garage, London on September 25th. Special guests are

Dodgy. Tickets: www.eventim.co.uk, 0844 249 1000.  Their new album “If The

River Was Whiskey” is released by Ruf Records.  More info:

www.spindoctors.com.

 

SP17

 

Tim Price. Rockshot.  15th May 2013 with Chris Barron.

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