Back Round To The Blues
In celebration of their return to playing blues music just as they originally started out in NYC clubs and making an album and their plans to tour the same, our man chats with Chris Barron, lead singer of the Spin Doctors for the full background
JLTT: Chris – I’ ve been playing your band’s blues album and suggested to your people here that I would really like a word or two with you about the release so are you OK to field a few questions on it please ?
CB : Yeah, sure.
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 for Easter
Ok good. Have you been playing live lately or doing anything gig wise?
We are having a little break right now. We just had a little run in the UK and played some gigs in Spain. And then we’re going to start up again with some shows in the United States.
Ok. 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 those places will be included once we’re out there ..blues places, after all
I saw you in London. Now this will be about a year or so ago at the Jazz Café …
Yeah, we remember that one !
We came to see you on a busy Sunday. Because we wanted to hear you go through the Kryptonite album.. we were talking about music with 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 recall 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 came or a concert and all of that pent up emotion comes out.
You are absolutely right Chris. I am often attending or playing shows in London and I’d say like New York, we’re a little bit ‘ come on then – impress us..’
I guess so…at this point the band is sounding 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 known as a pop/rock band ostensibly but you do have this sort of funk undercurrent which mainly comes from your bass player. I’ve got a pal in a band called Living Colour and they always cut through because people 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 of the sound and the fact that your voice is a bit different from other lead singers in some ways
One guy from the 90s doesn’t sound depressed ! – like Eddie Vedder and all those cats
The other thing is you don’t sound sorry for yourself. (laughs)
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 and opted to concentrate on musicianship and improvisation and just like the love ofplaying. Because of that we ended up a little out-of-step with the grunge thing…. 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… well, 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 and 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 those ten year old kids these guys have a reason to rock out and maybe get to play and sing themselves
But with a different set of personalities, like the jamming sort of thing you could have gone into a much darker terrain like Television if 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 ! I listened to a lot of those guys when I was a kid like Tom Tom Club. I like the lyrics aligned to a driving force. We felt it our job to be what we were because I also happen to be opposed to the notion of nihilism. 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 I really like Nirvana and a lot of those bands but I think if your act has some kind of philosophy that doesn’t give people some sort of solace in this world than to me it’s somewhat a failure. I think that it’s 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 obvious 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
Yeah well you’re a ‘glass half full’ guy that’s what we call it here. 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 is easy to listen to
I saw Howard and Mark 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. Anyway let’s talk about you. This album, these are songs you used to play in the clubs as I understand it ?
Six of them are like staples from the old days when we played the blues clubs. Two of them are very rare. We actually only played those once or twice back in the day.
Which ones are those Chris?
The first two tracks are new. ‘The River of Whisky’ and ‘Some Other Man Instead’ and we wrote them a day before we went into the studio. ‘Sweetest Portion’ and ‘Looking Out the Window Blues’ we only played once or twice. I think we actually did it with a side project that was called Fat Orange Cushions. Then the other six are staples as 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 to be fair they treated the bands really well. 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 ‘So Bad’ 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. Your mixing the colours in your own way. And that’s what so great about it. I think of it kind of as musical Lego, Pete cause we’d 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. It’s like for me 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 ? Each group or band has their own. I learned from Savoy Brown. 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 fantastically inspired. Talking of that pentatonic scale twelve bar structure, they found this 40,000 year old set of instruments in a cave in France and they reconstructed a flute exactly as it had been..and you could play a blues pentatonic scale on it !
It was probably originally owned by Jethro Tull!
(Laughs) Or like his ancestor !
Listening to ‘If The River was Whisky’, it’s almost at times like a Steve Miller Band sort of chugging sound 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 know I sing a certain way, even on blues-based material.
It’s the alto-tenor 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’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 from my voice teacher. We’ve always been a really loud band. We’ve not been stick your fingers in your ears loud. 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 rocky 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 highest honours in world competitions. 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 as you say 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. The overall mood of this album is stone blues and I’ve been listening to ‘Looking Out the Window Blues’ which has this great rolling Jimmy Reed feel to it … when I was young I went to see John Lee Hooker and I met Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters cause I was so interested in those guys
Gee…I envy you. I wish I could have met those guys.
But what they had was a great dignity about them. An act that’s successful has to have their own presence. This record when I play it it’s clearly you, your band and your distinctive rhythm section. It’s got that springy feel to it. It’s not miserable. It’s like Taj Mahal to me. Would you find that offensive or an ok thing to hear 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. I just don’t really… if you told me when I was fifteen I’d be talking to a writer and he’d say that my band sounds like Taj Mahal I would of crapped my pants!
Here’s a question for you: Why didn’t you cut this album live in an auditorium?
It was cut ‘live’ with all of us playing together you know we had a good vibe in our drummer’s basement and you could pop upstairs and get a beer..whatever
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. But to answer your question – we get the rest of our lives to play it live !
There are no special effects or anything
Ah 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 ‘room’ into it here and there…
I had an interesting conversation with Eric Johnson down in Austin, about over-producing basically 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. 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. 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. 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 record in a New York studio and chase after more takes of theses songs. This record is far, far, far from what you’d call ‘perfect’ – But it’s definitely got something going on
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. So you doing a blues set your way is great. As for live work…you’ve got to be good that night. For the people that have paid to come and see you that night. They want to go home happy and where you break through is when they come back with their friends
Yeah. To me, now 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 between throwing up in a trash can.
Well, I’m sorry to take your holiday time… I wanted to talk to you but I didn’t want to spoil your holiday period so…
No that’s fine it’s cool to talk to people that have heard the album, so thanks
Enjoy your Easter holiday. I do like this record and I’m sincere when I say it’s going on the shelf next to Taj Mahal for those moments when I want some lively blues
Great – I’ll see you in London sometime I hope…we aim to come over and play again
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‘If The River Was Whisky’ by Spin Doctors is out on RUF Records