By: Sarah Hagerman
The rapid changes that have occurred in the music industry in the last decade have left a lot of folks sour as they wistfully long for the good old days. But not Danny Barnes.
"I can't understand it," he says, regarding that negative outlook. "When I was a kid it was hard to get music. I lived in this little town north of [Austin] and it was so hard to get records. I would mail order these records out of magazines, and because of the heat a lot of them would come warped. It would take weeks to get a record. Now you can sit in your hotel and just have access to all this stuff. I'm working on this theory of the universal set that includes all existing data. It's this massive thing that we have access to now, but man, we didn't have that back then. It was hard to get books and records and movies. Now, the database that we're working with is so gigantic. The whole way data is operating now is just amazing to me because I'm talking about making ideas. Holy cow, there's just so much stuff out there to work on because we've got this giant database."
He mentions sitting in a hotel room before a Yonder Mountain String Band gig, shuffling through the iTunes of others in the hotel and finding "Jay-Z, Metallica, Kitty Wells, Beethoven, The Beatles, Bob Marley and Bill Monroe. And everybody's doing this. I think the whole iPod shuffle thing has just totally changed the way we hear music. The whole genre-based way of looking at stuff is becoming more and more invalid as time goes by because people are really aware of everything."
For some, this new method of listening to music constitutes mere consumption. But where others see closed doors, Barnes sees creative possibilities. In some ways, his take on things reminds me of these wise words from Louis C.K., albeit delivered in a gentle Texas accent with more joy and less misanthropy. It's a refreshing perspective (especially if you're prone to misanthropy yourself).
"I think putting [music] in a new context is the point," Barnes says. "To me, art is recontextualizing things and making a new context for myself. I hope that we can have the freedom to do that. That's what I really enjoy and get off on, that idea of making those contexts. I grew up on traditional American stuff that's been played in my house since I was a kid. I think if you discovered it in middle life you may yearn for some other period, or some [perceived] purity of it that wasn't there to begin with. You may have a different view of it."
"It's like the way DJs build things out of other things," he continues. "I think that's a totally valid approach. We need that vantage point. They have a way of looking at music that a traditional musician might not. They have this way of melting and realigning things and using things chopped up and moved around. Man, that's where it's at! I do not see the problem with that. I think it's, like, the bomb! I get so jacked up about it, I rise out of bed and I'm just so excited about work and about music and about finding new things. To me, it's a very rich experience as a fan. Then, when you go to make these ideas you got all this stuff to draw upon. I just think it's a golden time for ideas."
It may seem odd to a lot of folks to hear a banjo player praise DJs, but those folks don't know Barnes. Creating new contexts has always been a mark of his music, from Bad Livers through his prolific solo output. Whether playing his own folkTronics, where armed with a banjo and his Ableton software he crafts a whole auditory world, or sharing stages with artists from YMSB to Robert Earl Keen, or even picking up a Flying V electric guitar and playing his songs with the hard-rocking members of Honky (which also features Jeff Pinkus from Butthole Surfers), Barnes is an artist that trusts his inner compass. It may point in directions that seem far flung to some, but if there's any justice, people will catch up eventually.
His latest album, Pizza Box (released last October online and in-stores January 2010 on ATO Records), brilliantly combines his diverse musical explorations – electronic pulses, bloodshot country ballads, skittering free-form banjo lines, Bill Frisell-inspired sonic blooms and even balls-to-the-walls rock adrenaline. But in Barnes' hands, these contrasting elements meld so effortlessly you can't detect the seams. It's simply his sound, and it's never sounded better. Powered with premium studio gas to rev it up to 11, this record is big, rich and full of heart. It's the product of an artist who never stops studying, listening, and perhaps most importantly, being an enthusiastic music fan.
"What I'm always interested in doing is propelling acoustic music forward," Barnes reflects. "Pushing it into the modern world and using it as a form for contemporary expression. I've enjoyed being in bluegrass and country music. I like that music, but what I really enjoy is its potential in the pop realm, the way you can use the forms and elements in a pop way so it speaks to more people. I think that's the most valuable thing really, because people can pick up on that so easily. If you put away some kind of banjo cantata, you're speaking above people a lot of the time, regular people that have jobs. [But] you can speak to someone whose five years old with a good song."
"One of the things that I've matured [about] and come to understand about myself on this particular record is that I'm best suited for idea generating," he says. "In this particular instance, the banjo is really used as a tool, a supporting role to get the idea across rather than the idea itself. I wrote a lot of the songs on the banjo, which makes different ideas come out than just [writing] on the guitar. That's a trick I learned from John Hartford, that writing pop songs on a banjo gives you a different little trip. Your foundation is a little skewed, which is really cool."
He's being quite modest here, as anyone who's seen Barnes play can testify, he's a banjo-wielding maniac of the highest caliber. But Pizza Box could certainly reach a wider audience. The bluegrass and country entry points often associated with Barnes' music are not prerequisites to buy a ticket for this ride. However, that fact provided considerable difficulties when he was initially trying to find any label support.
"I worked on [the songs] for about three years and I just didn't really have an outlet for [them]," says Barnes. "I talked to some different labels in the acoustic world and they were more interested in my regular acoustic banjo-picking kind of stuff. I really felt these songs are more fractured pop songs than bluegrass or acoustic songs. I wasn't really known for [bluegrass songwriting] anyway, but some of the labels I was talking to were discouraging me from what I was working on. But the music was going a little more open."
Barnes found an enthusiastic fan and supporter in Dave Matthews. Their friendship had developed as Barnes played several shows with DMB. Matthews would visit him while he was writing the tracks that would become 2009's Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (where Barnes plays banjo), and Barnes was writing his own material, playing each other their songs in informal jam sessions. One day in early 2009, Barnes says, "I got a call from Coran [Capshaw - Matthews' manager] and Dave, just, 'Hey we want to help you make a record. What can we do? We've got a bunch of resources. How can we help ya make a record?' At this point I was kind of calling Dave's machine and leaving these songs, kind of teasing him with these songs [laughs]. I think he started liking what he heard."
Thinking of what he needed first and foremost, Barnes, who could play the other required instruments, thought, "What I'd really like to do is just get one bad ass drummer, and we got Matt [Chamberlain]. He may be one of the most recorded drummers in American history. If you look at his resume it's almost like someone made it up; it's unbelievable."
Producer John Alagia (DMB, John Mayer, Ben Folds Five) was also brought on board, a pairing Matthews had been conspiring for some time.
"I would talk to Dave and he'd be like, 'You really need to talk to this guy John Alagia.' When I finally got a hold of him, John was telling me that Dave was telling him, 'Hey, you need to meet this guy Danny Barnes,' [laughs]. I got him on the phone and talked to John for maybe an hour, but I realized pretty quick into the conversation that the references that we had for what we wanted to do were really similar. I felt like this is the guy; this is going to work great," says Barnes. "He was great. If I was doing something, he could just make it happen, make it into something bigger. I would never be able to make a record like that without him."
The album was recorded in Matthews' private Haunted Hollow Studios in Charlottesville, Virginia. For Barnes it was "a real blessing I got through Coran and Dave. They said, 'Work here if you want to. Would you like to do this?' And I was like, 'Man, this place looks awesome!'" In the comfortable, state-of-the-art facility, the team recorded the album in two weeks with a relaxed attitude but focused approach. Barnes says, "Working with super talented people in a no pressure environment, you can get a lot done like that. If you get really good guys and just turn 'em loose, something's going to happen."
This past fall also saw him signed to ATO by Matthews, a move which places him on the same roster as Drive-by Truckers and My Morning Jacket on a label that's released albums by Radiohead and Paul McCartney. For an artist who's had to adopt a DIY approach for most of his career, this is a mighty sweet spot.
"I'm stunned," he says with humble gratitude. "I was thinking about this today. In sports, like in car racing, at about your mid-forties you're going to start tailing off. But with music you can keep getting better and better. So, I keep practicing and taking lessons and studying. It's strange to be 48-years-old and have the best record that you ever did. Typically a person my age has already done something significant and they're just replicating that, or they haven't done anything significant and they're just going to quit. It's pretty cool to be getting better and developing new ideas and having new relationships and new energy. I'm so thankful and blessed about that."
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