A Chat with Chris Barron
Fair Hearing catches SPIN DOCTORS lead singer CHRIS BARRON as he drives upstate to visit relatives. The band has made an album celebrating their original blues/rock roots and after Barron’s recovery from illness they hit the UK for live shows early 2014. As usual, this isn’t a cold interview, more two blokes talking about music. Barron is lively and enthusiastic, just as he is on stage. If you can get to a UK date in February, you will not regret it – all details on the SPIN DOCTORS site
FH: Now I’ve been playing your album, I am sent lots of interesting blues releases for review and I’ve been wanting to have a word with you Chris about the tracks now I’ve heard it thoroughly
CB: Yeah sure, Pete… fire away
Where are you now? You’re in New York City ?
I’m just south of New York City. I’m driving down to see my family
Ok good. Have you been playing live lately or doing anything gig wise?
We are having a little break right now. We had a little run in the UK and also played some gigs in Spain. And then we’re going to start up again with some shows in the United States
Do you plan to play in places like Chicago and Detroit ?
Actually, yeah. I don’t think we have anything on the books right now but we play everywhere , so most likely those places
I saw you in London…now this will be about two years or so ago, at the Jazz Café
(Brightly) Ah yeah!
We came to see you on a busy Sunday. Because we wanted to hear you go through the ‘Kryptonite’ album and strangely enough though in the end I couldn’t be that forward I stuffed my pockets with harmonicas hoping to play some of the John Popper lines. But Eric looked so grimly determined , I backed away ! And we were talking to your roadie about music, your guitar tech and he was telling us about his love for AC/DC. And it was a very good night and you seemed to really enjoy being in London playing that album through and other stuff. What do you remember about that gig?
That WAS a fantastic gig. I mean, the place was packed and we always have a good time in the UK. I love the British because they’re sort of reserved in their everyday life but then you take them to a football game or a concert then all of that pent- up emotion comes out
You are absolutely right, Chris. And the thing is we’re lucky because we live just outside of London therefore I’m seeing a lot of shows in London, I’m playing a lot of show in London myself and I’d say like New York, we’re a little bit like .. . ‘come on then, impress us…’
The band is just great. I mean.. Eric’s solos are just fantastic. We just kind of go through that. We just play our guts out and wait for a response
That’s exactly right because you’re a pop/rock band ostensibly but you do have this sort of funk undercurrent which mainly comes from your bass player. I’ve got friends in a band called Living Colour and they always cut through because people’s guts can’t resist getting in the groove. If someone said to me what’s the Spin Doctors trump cards I would say well it’s this driving heartbeat at the sound and the fact that your voice is a bit different from other lead singers in some ways
(Laughs) One guy from the 90’s who doesn’t make you miserable !!
The other thing is you don’t sound sorry for yourself
( Sighing) We were the alternative to the alternative
Well that’s the way and of course radio loves you because of that
Well definitely. You know it’s funny, we came out of this scene in the United States ..all based upon musicianship and improvisation and just like playing OUT to our audineces. But other bands SO serious ! and serious-LOOKING…because of that we ended up coming across as, I don’t know ..lighter ? But.. we were just focused on good song writing. And it really took off and it seemed like a really interesting situation for the band because we had… we’d be on the radio all the time and the kind of college age kids that just liked to get stoned and come and see the band we’re like looking over and they’re were like ten year old kids and their parents next to them. And now it’s like cool because, we have a wide appeal, it seems ..those ten year old kids these guys have kids
And you guys have maybe a different set of personalities, like the jamming sort of thing – now you could have gone into a much darker terrain like Television ..you know what I’m saying? But you didn’t do that. At the same time, I think you’ve got more in common and this might sound a bit glib but you’re almost like a more cheerful Talking Heads. That stuttery, funky drive
Yeah ..that’s fair..I listened to a lot of those guys when I was a kid, stuff like Tom Tom Club. I like the lyrics, the rhythms…yes, the driving force. It was our job I guess to be what we were and I’m glad that we were because I also happened to be opposed to the notion of nihilism and al that negativity. I believe that life is worth living. I believe that the world is a beautiful place. I believe that (most) people are essentially good. That life goes on and we’re all in this together. So whilst I really like Nirvana and a lot of those bands , I do think if your message or approach is based upon some kind of philosophy that doesn’t give people some sort of solace in this world then to me, it’s somewhat a failure. I think that it’s always really easy to point out how ****ed up the world is. Any idiot can look round and see that people are getting ripped off left and right. That the system isn’t fair. You know the whole cruelty and injustice everywhere you look. I think the trick is figuring out how to live in this world in spite of those things. To see the beauty in people and the world. To preserve it
Ok. Yeah well you’re a glass half full guy we call it here. It does give the band almost..well, not a schizophrenic BUT in the past most happy-go-lucky bands didn’t need to be great players. Although, paradoxically some of them were. One of the greatest happy bands ever was The Turtles. And those guys will always be underrated as musicians because their material was so straightforward. I saw their singers in London with Frank Zappa
Wow !!! What year was that?
That was back at the time of Live at the Fillmore – the white cover with the scratchy black writing on it. I saw all the Zappa bands..in fact I was talking to Denny Whalley, last week -The Magic Band were laying in London , the music of Captain Beefheart
Oh cool….He died right?
He died about three or four years ago. But the band tour the music and Drumbo the ex-drummer does the singing the harmonica and the sax. Anyway let’s talk about you. This album, these are songs you used to play in the clubs as I understand it
Yeah, that’s right. Six of them are like our staples from the old days when we played the blues clubs. Two of them are very rare. We only played those once or twice back in the day
Which ones are those, Chris?
The first two tracks are new. ‘ River of Whisky’ and ‘Some Other Man Instead’ and we wrote them just a day before we went into the studio. ‘Sweetest Portion’ and ‘Looking Out the Window Blues’ we only played once or twice back in the day. I think we actually did them with a side project that was called Fat Orange Cushions. Then the other six are staples from back in the day – to make it in the city you had to play these blues clubs. They were the cool clubs to play and treated the bands really fairly. And so you were expected to play covers and we wanted to play original music. So what we did was we wrote a whole evening of blues songs that sounded like old Willie Dixon tunes. So we just played them and we completely got away with it. Nobody ever suspected.
This is why ‘About a Train’ sounds suspiciously close to Albert King’s ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’..
Yeah absolutely. That’s the thing about that music. That’s what so wonderful about the blues is that It’s like painting with the same brushes that everybody painted with before you. You’re mixing the colours in your own way
Exactly. People say to me… they hear a familiar song and I’ve rearranged it a bit and they say ‘Pete what do you do with that song there?’ I say that’s a Freddie King number and we treat the blues songs as black and white drawings and we colour them in ourselves. You’re not hearing the same guitar tone as him, you’re not hearing the same Freddie King voice as I’m from Chiswick in West London but what you’re hearing is the feel of that music,,,, with our own twist
And that’s what so great about it. I think of it kind of as musical Lego cause we’ve been talking about doing this blues record for a couple of months and people said are you gonna do covers? And I said : god no! Absolutely not! Because for me I’ve always loved writing blues tunes. When I was just starting out and I was getting to understand chord progressions. It’s so useful as you can make people think the song is going a certain way by quoting these chord progressions and then pull the rug out from under people being like this song starts with a four instead of…
It’s a simple as taking out a B7 and putting in a C7 and immediately people’s ears go – hang on what’s going on here !? But you can make that smooth but you’re actually polishing it up. I mean this is your toolbox isn’t it? The progressions are the toolbox you turn up with but that’s your vocabulary that you then using. I’ve always thought of everything else as a bit of an accent. Each group or band has their own. I learnt from Savoy Brown and The GroundHogs. They were taking blues structures, but putting fresh stuff in there so you weren’t hearing ‘the same old’
Well that’s the amazing thing about the Rolling Stones. They have such enduring songs that stand up forever because they’re just fantastic like Tectonic twelve bar structure. They found a damaged bone flute about 40,000 years old , in a cave in France.. they reconstructed the thing exactly as it was..
It was probably originally owned by Jethro Tull!
(Laughs) Ha ! Or like, his ancestor! It played a pentatonic scale !
On a couple of cuts on your album it’s almost like a Steve Miller Band sort of chugging because you sing in a similar range to Steve Miller
Yeah - I love Steve Miller!
But the weird thing about your voice is that it’s in a higher range than most of us who sing this stuff, but it’s warm. Now how… it’s obviously not an affectation, it’s naturally there. But do you know what I’m saying?
Yeah, I accept that totally, my range is higher than most, for this material
The alto range a lot of the time… like say Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane but there’s a warmth in your voice. That’s rare. That’s really what makes your band sound so distinctive, I humbly contend
I’m like a genuine first tenor, you know. And I got lucky I just got born with a high male voice but I’ve had a lot of training and worked with my voice teacher. We’ve always been a really loud band. We’ve not been maybe a stick your fingers in your ears loud. Just..rock and roll. You want it to be loud enough so people feel it in their bodies but not so they stick their fingers in their ears
You’re playing about the same volume as Steppenwolf. That tough thing but it doesn’t drive you from the room
You know you feel it in your body. But on stage, you have to be able to hear yourself over that. I immediately realised that. When I was a young boy I sang in a choir and we toured internationally and our choir took second in the world. But I knew pretty soon that I would have to get more vocal training. I’ve had the same voice teacher my whole career and he has I’d say eighty per cent opera singers, a few musical theatre singers …and me
Obviously, I don’t sing like an opera singer – he just teaches me technique. But I have pretty decent technique for a rock and roll singer. I’ve worked hard on having a nice tone even though I sing high.
That’s what I was trying to say. That’s what I was getting at. For example, you don’t sound like Adam Levine. You see the current bigger pop groups, get a huge following because it’s very easy for males and females to sing along to them. Maroon 5 springs to mind and also this fantastic band from San Francisco who I’ve seen many times Train. I mean there singer Pat Monahan is amazing because although he sings in a higher range he has a warmth. But you sound a little bit richer than he does. The overall mood of this album is rocky and I’ve been listening to ‘Looking Out the Window Blues’ which has this great rolling Jimmy Reed feel to it …don’t forget, when I was very young I went to see John Lee Hooker and I met Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters cause I was so interested in those guys
I envy you. I wish I could have met those guys !
But what they had was a great dignity about them. I saw Muddy Waters with Otis Spann and they had a great presence. An act that’s successful has to have their own presence. This record when I play it…its clearly you, your players, your band and your distinctive rhythm section. It’s got that springy feel to it. However..it’s not miserable. It’s like Taj Mahal to me. I learnt Country Blues off Taj Mahal from the first album …would you find that offensive or an OK thing to say,from an Englishman?
( Laughs) That’s amazing. I consider that a tremendous compliment. I have met him a couple of times and he’s just a remarkable guy. Great songwriter and I used to try and break out of these kinds of comparisons you know. Phew.. I just don’t really… if you’d told me when I was fifteen I’d be talking to a seasoned journalist and he says that my band sounds like Taj Mahal I would of crapped my pants!
Chris, if you had told me when I was seventeen that I would be on stage one day playing harmonica with Country Joe and the Fish and Steve Miller’s guitarist …I wouldn’t have believed you. But nice things happen if you’re true to what you believe. Here’s a question for you: Why didn’t you cut this album live in an auditorium ?
You know we had a good live vibe in our drummer’s basement and you could pop up stairs anytime
No, I like it but why didn’t you do it in a club with a live audience ?
We did about three takes of every song. And it was nice just us in a controlled atmosphere. In one room you could just stare at another guy. When you’re in the studio it’s a bit more controlled and a bit more relaxed. We get the rest of our lives to play it live !
There are no special effects or anything..
We didn’t know we were making a record! This is the demo!
I was wondering and I thought I’d ask you..there wasn’t much work for Ted Jenson to do at Sterling was there? That’s pretty much it. I mean I doubt he had to clean up very much.
He just put a little bit of work in here and there, to improve the odd moment
I had an interesting conversation with Eric Johnson down in Austin. He’s just made a record, and it’s the first record of his that gotten me. Got in my head and got me grooving. And I said ‘Why is this?’ And he said ‘Look, to be honest Pete, I’ve stopped putting more into the records. I’m a bit too much of a perfectionist and if I leave a few things OUT it sounds warmer, more immediate, it connects with people better.’ And what you’re saying just underlines that. He’s a very lovely bloke Eric and I said to him ‘When does a painter stop painting? There’s a time when you say for what I’m doing here, that’s enough..’.
Yeah, that’s very interesting ! . But they say no great works are completed. They’re abandoned. I always said that only those that can love a mistake, can ever soar beyond perfection
Exactly. Mistakes are everything in life. I’m often playing live and things happen like the drummer’s snare will break or something. But we never stop playing. I have a spare guitar behind me if I have to switch. We make it to the end of the song. And the audience goes I loved what your drummer did on the cymbals. So I’m thinking, he did that because his snare went! The audience just thought it was a nice interlude. As long as an audience enjoys what you do, the technicalities of it don’t really matter do they? What matters is that people leave the room thinking ‘I’m glad I came out tonight’.
Yeah, absolutely, Pete ! When I was just starting out in music, I was hanging out with a girlfriend of mine and she had ABC outtakes of The Beatles. There was a version of ‘Twist & Shout’. And she was like ‘I love this version of ‘Twist & Shout’ because John’s voice like breaks on it’. I was like ‘You like that?’ And she said ‘ Yeah cause you hear something that’s purely him.’ I think people love that. I think people love to see… if you fall on your face but you do it in a cool way, I think people really respond to that. Because you know, the thing about a performance is it’s all about risking something. Seeing a guy walking on the sidewalk isn’t a big deal. But if you put him on a wire a hundred feet above the ground, people are gonna stop and stare. It’s just a guy walking but now he’s walking in a dangerous way. That’s what people respond to. For me, when I sing I want people to feel the emotional danger. I think that’s why we found this record so compelling. We decided not to just ecord in a New York studio and chase after more and more takes of theses songs. This record is far, far, far away from being too refined But it’s definitely got something going on. Like a screaming baby in a burning tree !
It doesn’t need to be refined. You see, Roger Mcguinn used to say that when a band brings out an album, and The Byrds did this a lot, it should be like an edition of a magazine. This time we’re gonna explore this side of what we like and next time.?. They went from space rock to folk rock, whatever. And with a live show you’re right. It’s no good saying you were good last week. You’ve got to be good that night. The people that have paid to come and see you that night. Don’t wanna know if last week you were good. They wanna go home happy and where you break through is when they come back with their friends
Yeah. To me, when people buy a ticket, you’ve got like a contract and you’ve got to show up and just ****ing bring it! Every night. I’ve had shows where I was going on stage and throwing up in a trash can. There’s nights when you don’t feel too good..bBut you’ve got to go on stage
A fireman can’t be moody can he? He’s gotta do his job and put the fire out. Thanks, Chris..
It was a great conversation. I appreciate the ink and really enjoyed the interview..will you be coming to see us again ?
Yep, I have the tickets !
Great thanks. Guess I’ll see you in London ..
The Spin Doctors’ UK tour dates are as follows:
Thursday, 20th Feb – Mechanics, Burnley (buy tickets)
Friday, 21st Feb – Fairfield Hall, Croydon (buy tickets)
Saturday 22nd – The Garage, London (buy tickets)