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Chris Barron: The One-Armed Juggler

JPG: The songs on the album have been described as eclectic but I see them fitting together as a collection of poppier tunes and others that remind me of The Band, probably in part due to the brass sections on them. You said that the songs were chosen thematically. Can you elaborate on that?
CB: When you stumble across a title early, it’s such a blessing. It’s a frustrating process to name an album once the album is made.

It’s funny because the album is out and I’m really grateful that it’s getting really good reviews. People really seem to like it. I haven’t even gotten a tepid review yet. So, from the other end when the album’s out and everybody likes it, it has this inevitable foregone feeling about it but “Angels and One-Armed Jugglers,” was a really fucked up idea for a title. A lot of people told me (laughs) “That’s a bad title. Don’t call your record that.” People I respect were like, “Really? That’s wordy. Don’t you think that’s kind of strange?” I questioned it a lot, and my wife took awhile to come around to it. One morning, she’s making coffee, and said, “I like ‘Angels and One-Armed Jugglers’!” “Really? You didn’t like it before.” “I know but it’s grown on me.”

I am very intuitive as a writer. I don’t think about genre when I write. I try so hard not to think about outcome when I write. I just write. I learned a long time ago just by going through old notebooks that my brain works thematically, and I think everybody’s does. I would go back through notebooks and I’d look at the notebook from around the Pocket Full of Kryptonite era. “Wow! I was really into ‘pockets’ as metaphors.” Then, other periods of time I’ll look and be like, “Wow! I was really into the sky.” I was writing all these sky metaphors. Then, you go into that a little bit more. The sky, there are images about freedom and space and the divine and the geometry of the universe and how things work together in serendipitous and strange mysterious ways.

I trust myself, as a writer, the process I’ve selected. You end up having a brain buffet but all the dishes go together because it’s one brain that’s generating it. Over time, I’ve learned to write the way I write. I don’t write so differently than I did when I was a kid but now I know the stuff I did when I was a kid works. This thing I did when I was a kid, now, I have a name for this technique. It was an instinct. Now, it’s knowledge.

To answer your question about themes, years ago I was in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. That is a really fascinating museum. It’s an interesting collection because they have a lot of his primary works but they also have a lot of his secondary and tertiary works. I found myself on this one floor and there was this painting in that inimitable Van Gogh style with the chunky strokes of paint. It was ochre and different shades of green in these parallel lines. It was called “Undergrowth.” And the next one was quite similar and it was called “Undergrowth.” I backed up and I looked at the whole wall and all of the paintings on three walls were called “Undergrowth.” I was like, “That motherfucker was leaning under trees and bushes, undergrowth, painting this underneath trees and bushes. He was just painting undergrowth for what looks like a long time. He got all into undergrowth. They’re not his greatest works. You don’t read about Van Gogh’s “Undergrowth” being sold for $52 million dollars on auction.

He was like, “This is my thing. I’m all into undergrowth now.” “What are you painting Vince?” “Oh, undergrowth.”

Can you imagine his brother? “Another “Undergrowth?” What the hell are you doing?” But, he’s fucking Vincent Van Gogh!

That to me was like, “Oh, if I want to write about pockets for a month, then I’m gonna write about fuckin’ pockets for a month. If I want to write about the sky for a year then I’m gonna write about the fuckin’ sky for a year.” There’s something there. Those little funny artistic obsessions, you’ve got to chase those rabbits all the way down the hole.

So, with “Angels and One-Armed Jugglers,” instinctively, I had this title that was a little bit celestial, a little bit terrestrial, a little bit crippled and hurt and beat up but also a little bit magic and divine. It made a lot of room for a lot of different kinds of imagery. Then, I go through my writing. I cherrypick stuff that was in harmony with that funky little obsession that I had.

“The World Accordion to Garp” (off his new album) refers to “I know that high above me there’s an order in the sky/play for the pearly gate man/he’ll show you where they keep the pie.” Love is an angelic, celestial, divine reference there.

On “Too Young to Fade” there’s a line, “I’m on the high wire while the lava boils below.” It’s like a circus, juggler imagery there.

Then, Shawn Pelton, genius drummer, does a little press roll on the drum when I sing “I’m on the high wire while the lava boils below,” a drum roll and then a cymbal crash like a circus drummer doing something for the trick.

Pocket Full of Kryptonite was a pretty successful album in that way, too. The song, “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” is about Jimmy Olsen who has this unattainable, unrequited love for Lois Lane who is in turn in love with Superman. The pocket full of kryptonite idea is about everybody having some inner special thing that makes them the equal of a supposed super person.

There’s a “How could you want him when you know you could have me?” theme, which, of course, is a title from one of the songs. You’ve got “Two Princes” which is also about a guy who’s basically saying, “How could you want him when you know you could have me?” I didn’t do that on purpose but it was one of those things that gave me faith in this process of just writing because later on I went back through the record and I was like, “Wow! There’s a theme on this record and even though the record is varied these all kind of fit together because I write the way I do.

JPG: Thematically, you describe your new album as a “cocktail party at the apocalypse, decline of the American empire, lemmings and neckties going over the edge” but it’s also personal. At the same time you say that it’s the responsibility of the artist to offer some kind of consolation. With that in mind do you write in a way that it leans a little more towards the angels even though the one-armed jugglers exist or musically, if it’s peppy, people won’t notice?

CB: In my mind angels are fallible and one-armed jugglers are to be admired because you’ve got one arm but you’re still juggling. Also, there’s an image of that must be nerve-wracking to keep all those chainsaws in the air with only one arm.

I’m not a nihilist. I can’t write the truth for me and not…I mean that on a lyrical level, I can’t write something that doesn’t leave a kernel of beauty or truth or hope behind. One of the really dark songs on the record is “Still a Beautiful World”…

JPG: Oh, really? Maybe I haven’t listened to it close enough but I thought of it as one of the more upbeat songs compared to “Raining Again” because you point out that it’s still a beautiful world. That’s something to remind yourself of every so often.

CB: Well, it’s still a beautiful world but we destroyed it long ago (is the full line from the song).

JPG: I guess, I’m consciously forgetting the entire line.

CB: One thing that characterizes me as a writer and the Spin Doctors in particular is its sad lyrics with happy music. Spin Doctors had material that was and is as dark as a lot of the grunge bands but we’re more famous for our more upbeat stuff. The difference between Spin Doctors, lyrically and philosophically, was we were not nihilists. I believe in humanity and I still believe that people, even in these dark times…what’s that Martin Luther King line that the universe overall arcs towards goodness?

In a tune like “Still a Beautiful World” there’s a bittersweet slant to it. I say, “Picasso and Rembrandt you know they paint the sunsets now/And Euclid aims the moonbeams as they gleam between the boughs/you can believe they’re up in heaven if it helps your garden grow/it’s still a beautiful world/but we destroyed it long ago.” I always feel funny interpreting my lyrics but what I intended when I wrote that was we are living on this planet that is facing an ecological disaster. Things seem to be going to hell in a hand basket but we still have the genius of Picasso and Rembrandt and the mathematical insights of Euclid. From a human perspective, Euclid aims the moonbeams as they gleam between the boughs. We are this amazing animal that can interpret moonbeams and branches and the angles of those beams, and we see straight lines as straight lines. It’s a totally abstract concept that is a formulation of the human mind.

As a species, we’re this double-edged sword. Even if we don’t make it, there’s gonna be some really beautiful vases (slight laugh) and things for the aliens to find. We’ve done a lot of really beautiful stuff, and that beauty without a human mind, there is nothing. There’s no beauty to be interpreted because it’s all from our minds.

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