Chris Barron Puts His Spin On It
Chris Barron is a prolific singer and songwriter that got his start with the band Spin Doctors. That band, 25 years and six records later, is one of the few bands that still have the same original four members. Chris recently began a Kickstarter for his upcoming new solo record that showcases some very original and intimate packages for his fans. We had the opportunity to sit down with him to talk about that record, the Spin Doctors, and his hometown of Princeton, New Jersey.
The Musician’s Ear – You currently have a Kickstarter out there for your new solo record, tell us about the program and approach for the record.
Chris Barron – “I come from a 20th century model of record making that, not only did you get the money to make the record from a record deal, but it was a status thing, about getting a record deal. It meant that you were good enough to make a record. And once I turned to the whole crowdfunding thing, I really got into it, because you cut out the middle-man, and then it’s just you and the fans, and once I realized that, rather than asking for money, what you’re really doing is a pre-order situation and you can make available really cool stuff that you couldn’t get unless they were on the inside of this whole crowd-funding thing.
You’re doing this directly with the fans. Once people become backers, and you only need one dollar to become a backer or to get updates, if you decide to get more involved you can. I love it, when I’m making records, I’m always thinking ‘God it would be so cool for the people who are going to hear this record if they could see what I’m doing right now’. I have my own way of setting up a studio in a way that is inspiring for me with my own set of problem-solving skills when I am making a record.
But not only do I have the opportunity to bring the backers in on the process of how I am making a record. But in my mind, it’s an opportunity to show them other things too… like how I write, and how I sing, and how I play. What guitars did I decide to use on which songs, and why. So it’s kind of cool. I intend to make this an updated process, almost like a tutorial because I think that I’ll have the opportunity to learn more intimately how an artist that I like portrays their process…
I’m an old-school guy, and I know stuff. I’ve met Keith Richards and I’m friends with Jackson Browne, and I know these people and they have taught me stuff and I know old-school stuff about how to make records, and how to sing that I want other people to know. It’s important that that knowledge is out there in the world. I really feel like I have a lot to share.
On my Kickstarter I’m gonna make a colored, vinyl, gatefold with a special backer pressing. You can do a ½ hour Skype session with me, I’m doing house concerts, VPI Industries is doing a limited edition 10 turntables with a special finish that I am going to select. I fill out the first 2 pages of a Moleskin notebook with drawings and inspirational stuff, I’ll write you a haiku. There is just a bunch of really cool rewards on the site. Things you wouldn’t be able to get any other way. Between the cool limited edition awards only available to backers, and the updates only available to backers, it’s gonna be such a really good, enriching experience, not just for the people that are gonna get involved, but for me as well. This is really how I want to make records moving forward.”
The Musician’s Ear – Do you find crowdfunding more liberating or do you find there is more pressure because you are doing it yourself?
Chris Barron – “I am in the pressure business. My job is to get up in front of people and sing my ass off. So, just like an athlete, I thrive under pressure. I don’t perceive pressure the same way a regular human being does. It doesn’t register like a normal person. When I hear someone ask an athlete how they deal with the ‘Championship is on the line’ moment with 3 seconds left, and he says ‘I want to be that guy, it’s what I dreamed about when I was a kid’, I completely identify with that, so for me, I do think that there is a pressure, but I don’t perceive it in a negative way, I like it.
I know that I have a great record to make, and I also know that the way I am making it is really interesting because other musicians I work with are interested in how I work. I think if guys like Sean Pelton, who is playing drums on this record and is most famous for being the house drummer for the Saturday Night Live Band, if he can go in the studio and tell me that the things I do in the studio work really well, it’s really exciting.
I’ve sung for millions of people, not just the people that have heard my records, but the people that have been in the same space. And I wonder about them sometimes… Like, I hope they are OK.
I’m also doing a book of poetry that I’ve never done before. The only writing I’ve ever put out were my lyrics on the cover of records. But I’m a pretty prolific writer, so I am going to do a package that is a copy of the record, and a book of selected writing. I write poetry and prose among other things, and it’s really cool, and very exciting.
Once you get past the idea of the 20th century celebrity which is unattainable and distant, the 21st century model of the artist is this accessibility and this inside, intimate, view. It can be a little much, and bring you reality tv, and the term “overshare”, but at its best, it’s also really cool. Because there is a lot of interesting information out there as well if you look for it in the right place. I want to have the opportunity to share, I am that guy that has hung out after a show, met everybody, signed anything that they wanted me to, stopped in the street, and talked to people. I like that.”
The Musician’s Ear – How do you approach writing a solo record vs writing a record with the Spin Doctors?
Chris Barron – “First of all, before I forget to mention it, the Spin Doctors are together with the four original guys. It’s not easy to name another band that has been around since 1988 with all four original members. We really have a lot of enthusiasm playing together, we don’t want to just show up and phone it in, we try to get after it every night. I’m in this for the music and I don’t want to get on stage and fuck around, and we all feel that way. There is a pressure in this band to show up and play. Don’t show up unprepared.
I don’t worry about whether I write in a particular genre. I don’t even worry if I’m writing something particularly good. In the moment, I am making decisions to make the piece good, but I’m not hung up on the quality in the moment. It’s like a proposition… Here is an idea for a song and… how do I build this song so that it hangs together, and this idea ends up working.
By the time I sit down to write a record, it’s not me sitting down to write a solo record, it’s me sitting down with a glob of material and picking out the songs that are gonna work together to make an album that is coherent, and make an album that tells a story. I’m sitting on 100 songs at any given time and I try to pull the ones that make the most since together.
The Spin Doctors are more collaborative. There’s more of a process that is like ‘what ya got’. We hammer it out, but it’s more of a collaborative thing with them. Sometimes I will bring a song like “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong”, “Two Princes”, “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” were all songs that I brought to the band already arranged. The Spin Doctors newest record, the blues record, If the River was Whiskey was collaborative. Many songs were written in the rehearsal hall. The Spin Doctors records are kind of Frankensteined together in that way.”
The Musician’s Ear – The Spin Doctors have released six albums, and it’s been almost 25 years since Pocketful of Kryptonite was released, what do you think about that record almost 25 years later?.
Chris Barron – “I love it, I feel really good about that record, I felt like we were making a special record at the time. There was a period for about a year afterwards where I had grown a lot as a musician and I heard that record, and I was thinking ‘I wish we were making that record now’ because I’m a better musician now. I was 21 or 22 when we made that record. I had a year or two where I was like ‘I could do that so much better now’, but then a couple more years went by, and I was like ‘Awww, listen to me, I was so cute, isn’t that nice’, and I feel like sort of an uncle to myself
I feel really good about that record because we made a lot of good choices. We didn’t use any tech, instruments, or sounds that would date it. So you hear that record, and it has a time and place, but the time and place is more related to the listener’s perspective and experience. It has a very organic sound to it. One of the comments I get is that the record is timeless. For me, that is one of the nicest things anyone can say about something I’ve done. That puts your work in a certain kind of arena of stuff that stands on it’s own. It might be a product of a time period, but when the time period is expired it still works outside of it’s initial context. That’s what I’m always trying to strive for, I’m trying to work in a way that the work survives its temporal context.
And, of course, there is all that sentiment that goes along with listening to our first record, and… that record was my entrance into being a full time musician and people still pick up the phone and want to work with me, and people are still interested in wanting to work with me, partially because of that record.
It’s part of the album-oriented way of listening to records and is meant to be listened to front to back. We very consciously tried to put together a collection of songs that hung together rhythmically, and harmonically, varied enough to hold the listener’s interest and were lyrically interesting as well. Most people don’t listen to the lyrics first, I think the first thing that hits them is the melody and then the music as a whole. Eventually you listen to the lyrics and try to discover what the song is about. I don’t want people to listen to the lyrics and think that the song is stupid, I want them to really listen and think about how the lines build on each other.”
The Musician’s Ear – Tell us about the first record you ever purchased?
Chris Barron -The Who Live At Leeds. I’m from a little college town called Princeton, New Jersey and when I was 13 I went into the Princeton Record Exchange, which is now one of the few existing vinyl stores still around, and I had my allowance, which was about 4 dollars. And I knew one of the workers there named Seth Frank from school, and I knew Seth was cool because #1 he worked at the Princeton Record Exchange, and #2 because he smoked, so I thought he was cool. So I went up to him cause he was sitting at the cash register, and I asked him, ‘what’s a good record I could get for cheap?’, and he was like, ‘Dude, Live at Leeds is a killer album’, and he pulled it out and handed it to me, and it cost $2.99, and I wore that record out. The funny thing is, is that Seth has gone on to own one of the foremost vinyl retailers in the United States,SoundStageDirect, and I went on to be a prolific songwriter and rock musician.
The Musician’s Ear – It’s so amazing how a small town can produce such prolific musicians.
Chris Barron – It really is amazing how these places become hotbeds of music, like Princeton. Every member of Blues Traveler, Trey Anastasio of Phish, and Matthew Sweet are all from Princeton, so it’s funny how those things pan out. Princeton High School had a great music program I do have to say.
It’s funny too because Princeton is not a particularly cool town either, it’s central Jersey which is about 50 miles away from New York City. But one thing it had going for it was good radio stations. We had multiple stations from Philadelphia, New York City, and a pretty good rock n roll station in Princeton for some reason – WPST – and then…. Princeton University had WPRB which was the college station, which… you never knew what the hell you were going to hear on PRB. You could turn on Stravinsky one minute, and then crazy crusty old blues, and then old punk rock. The radio was really cool in Princeton.
The Musicians Ear – There seems to be a common thread in the style of music from that area of New Jersey.
Chris Barron – I always had a funny take music – rhythmically. Our drummer – Aaron Comess would always make fun of me and my shuffle… There is basically two types of shuffles there is a dotted shuffle, and then a triplet shuffle. The two shuffles are subtlety different. My shuffle was somewhere between those. It’s not a triplet shuffle, and it’s not a dotted shuffle, and Aaron used to call it a Princeton shuffle. And he would always talk about putting the Princeton funk on our music so there was always a difference approach to the music I helped write. We were a bunch of scruffy, rock n roll guys who knew just enough about music to be dangerous.
The Musicians Ear – I am a firm believer in the DIY ethos, and that while reading music is good, you don’t need to read music to feel music.
Chris Barron – I learned a lot of music theory when I was young, but I was always striving to do my own thing, so I would take the lessons I learned in music theory and warp them. And then I hit a point in my 30’s where I found that I have a voice, an original voice, and there is no amount of theory or technical stuff that I can learn that is going to take that voice away from me. And then that’s when I really started to delve into stuff, cause that’s when I knew that I would never become a technocrat.
The Musicians Ear – What’s next for you, solo and Spin Doctors?