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Chris Barron: The One-Armed Juggler

JPG: You were going to record the album solo acoustic and then it morphed into a band record. Did that change come about during the writing process and why did you change it?

CB: It’s still my intention to go out and tour it solo acoustic. I wanted this record to be a vehicle for me to just go and play. Eventually, I want to get this band together and do some shows with them. I had this misguided notion that I should represent that on the record; that that’s what the record should be. You make a record; you’re better off presenting the songs as they would be best portrayed and presented. So, luckily, I was working with [co-producer Roman Klun]. Roman heard the material and he didn’t really have any preconceived notion. I came to him, “I want to make this stripped down kind of thing,” and he’d just grin, “Okay.” I could tell he saw a bigger production in his mind. He’s got this really funny way of agreeing with you when he doesn’t agree with you. And he was grinning.

When I lost my voice, my whole head did a reboot, changed the way I look at everything. Roman and I had started the record before I lost my voice. So, while I was off, I was slowly internalizing a lot of the unspoken stuff that had been going on in many areas of my life. When I got back, I was like, “Fuck this.” It’s really not indicative of my process at its best to be working from an outcome. I’m much more of a “Let’s get a real big pot!”

It’s actually funny. I saw this Julia Child quote after the record was done just a couple weeks ago. Julia Child’s a famous chef (American known for her cookbook on French cuisine) who said, “Always use a bigger pot than you think you’ll need.” I was working with two small pots. The first thing I did when I came back, “Let’s get Sean Pelton.” That’s more indicative of the way I work; more like “Let’s put this factor in the equation and then see how it works out.” It was like putting a different lens on the camera. All of a sudden, we were working with a wider angle lens and it became more of the landscape.

Then, it’s not a good artistic reason to make an album that’s stripped down and acoustic then you’re going to go out and tour stripped down and acoustic. It’s actually kind of cooler once I started wrapping my head around it. We’ve got these full beautiful productions on this record; some of it is more stripped down. “The World Accordion to Garp” has just three instruments — tuba, accordion and guitar. Some of it’s really big with orchestrations and horns. But, if I was a fan, I would love to see somebody be like, “This record has got this full production but I would love to see the person lay the tunes out, just them and the guitar, break it down to its most essential elements and see it and interpret it in a very different way than it is on the record.”

Also, it’s funny, a bit of a parallel thought. I started out playing solo acoustic. I always do it around the house. I’m constantly playing guitar and singing. I’ve done a lot of gigs that way over the years but I’ve never gone out and done it a tour. I always end up working with the Spin Doctors. I’ve just never really made time to do it, and, I guess, to speak to your readership, I think they probably are pretty aware of the Spin Doctors. If I heard the guy from the Spin Doctors was coming to town or had a record out I think I would picture some guy in a Guatemalan hat singing “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes” and a couple other silly songs; songs that might be silly or might not be.

Every time I do a solo concert, I’m like, “Thanks for taking a punt on me” because I don’t know what I would expect if I saw the listing for my solo acoustic show. But, I’m happy to have the opportunity to put myself out there as a writer and that the results of the career I’ve had and that we’ve had as a band is people really know us from “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes,” but Spin Doctors’ fans know that there’s a deeper, darker side.

We put out a blues record a couple years ago that was very well received critically. I’m happy to have the opportunity to show a bit more of the scope of what I can do as a writer and my guitar playing. It’s really fun to get out and play guitar. People come up to me after the show, “Wow! You’re a really cool guitar player.” And I’m not like a super crazy virtuoso guitar player but guitar players like my guitar playing because I have a personality on the instrument. Men and women who play really well don’t express themselves very much on the guitar, and I’ve got a really eclectic odd style.

So anyway, I’m really grateful to you guys for putting something out about the record and getting it out there. When you’re a performer and you’re known for something, and you want to do something different, you have to canvas your audience a little bit and see. I spent some time. Does anybody even want to see me out there playing guitar? Should I undertake it seriously because you don’t want to see Tom Hanks play the bad guy, you know what I mean? So, I put myself out there and I was really gratified that people seemed interested in seeing me and hearing me in this capacity.

JPG: You wanting to make a full band record and then go out and play it solo acoustic, that’s where it’s understood that those who are under the wide umbrella of the jamband genre, which encompasses so much more than the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers Band and now includes everything from Beck to Pretty Lights, it’s a mentality more than anything else rather than just endless jamming and improvisations. Talking about not wanting to go out and not do the same thing that’s on the record, that’s the jamband mentality. You don’t want to do the same exact thing that you’ve done yesterday. You want to do something new.

CB: That’s a really interesting insight that you made because one of the reasons, I think, the jamband umbrella has gotten so wide is that jamming refers to improvisation and improvisation is really vital, and I mean vital in terms of having vitality. It’s this vital ingredient in most American forms of music – jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and blues. In classical music, generally, the piece is notated. It’s going to be played somewhat similarly except maybe the dynamics might change a little bit. But this kind of music, when it doesn’t have an improvisational element, it can get really stale in rock ‘n’ roll.

I’ve been taking guitar lessons with Woody Mann, who studied from Reverend Gary Davis and he was saying that Gary would teach him a tune and then he would come back the next week and Gary would be playing it and it would be different and he would be like, “What are you doing? That’s not how you played it.” And Gary would be like, “Yeah it is. That’s the song.” “But, you’re playing it differently.” Gradually, he realized that was his approach, improvisational approach. Every time I play a song, whether I’m playing it alone or with The Spin Doctors, it’s wide open to interpretation. I’m not going to do “Two Princes” as a bossa nova but you know there’s a certain level of novelty and spontaneity that’s got to be in the music, and that level of spontaneity stems from the ability to improvise extemporaneously and vary the song in, sometimes, really subtle ways. It’s like a good writer can say the same things in several different ways and a good player can play the same thing a lot of different ways.

JPG The Spin Doctors 30th anniversary is coming up next year. Are there any plans that you can divulge at this point to celebrate that

CB: No, not really. We’re just going to go out and play our asses off. I’m sure we’ll do something cool but we haven’t formulated any kind of plan. I really gotta say that after all these years it’s a lot of fun being in that band. We really play beautifully together after all these years; that kind of savage energy that you saw on the show that I was tightrope walking. We’re four really different guys and we play with a lot of aggression and a lot of humor. We’ve always had this really special musical rapport. Over the years, it’s deepened and we have this wonderful intuition when we play together.

I’m just really grateful. A lot of musicians play their entire lives, and they’re fantastic players, but they’re never fortunate enough to be part of a really special ensemble. They just don’t happen to meet their musical soulmates during the course of their playing careers or in the right part of their playing careers. I was a 20 year old kid when I met those three guys. I was super green and the artiste singer songwriter guy and they really showed me the ropes of being in a band. I learned so much about music from those guys. They’d all been in bands their whole lives. Spin Doctors was like the third band I had ever been in.

I love playing with those guys and settled in to this really nice professional thing. And when I say professional, I feel very fortunate that I’m still a professional musician. Music as a profession really hit me hard when I got my voice back, and when my voice was gone just how much I love guitar picks and guitars and strings and microphones and cables and stages, backstages, bottles of whiskey, other musicians and talking to other singers and talking to other guitar players and going to a guitar shop and just talking about guitars for like an hour. I love rock ‘n’ roll and I love show business. I love my band and I love my guitars. I love you, John.

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