Danny Barnes: It’s All So Elemental
“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 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.”
“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.
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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Working Without Parameters
“Music is so malleable, when you play something it’s so easy to change it,” Barnes says. “It’s an idea that’s not really set in stone. It’s endlessly engaging in that regard. The trick is to not impose your own structure on it but to work with whatever ideas come into your head, because you get a lot of them. I think that’s why more people don’t write music and come up with art because it’s so easy to go, ‘Oh that’s not good, I’m not gonna do that,’ or, ‘That’s a dumb idea.’ You never get anything done that way, as opposed to just getting all your ideas down and then listening to what they tell you. If you’re doing that, you can be as prolific as you want because [the ideas] just keep talking.”
“Working without parameters and getting a lot of ideas down is really good. Sometimes, for instance, musicians have a hard time making records because the part on a song you have to play [is] something really simple, and a guy might be thinking, ‘Man, my friends won’t know what a great guitar player I am unless I do something really complicated here,’ and then the part never works. It’s like you’re making a house and you want to put this weird room in there that doesn’t go with the rest of the house, and you get stuck because you’re trying a million ways of making it fit and it won’t fit. I learned just to take myself out of it as much as I can.”
Pizza Box is an album with a grand scope crafted out of intimate details. It’s a multi-character, fractured narrative that unfolds with cinematic richness. Violent drug dealers, sketchy loners, repeat convicts, the lonely and the lovelorn claw and slack their way through the stories. Barnes renders them in flesh and blood in vividly detailed micro-views that pull us down into these creatures’ hilarious and heartbreaking lives.
“It’s a bunch of vignettes,” he explains. “The common theme in there is a kind of learning for these people that are wrecking their own lives. It’s sort of like a film where you’re exposed to the narrative out of order. There’s these characters that pop up, and then one of the characters robs somebody else in another song. They coexist and intermingle. There’s little bits in the poetry and in the sonic palette, things that pop in and out. There’s a lot of little hidden Easter eggs, like internal rhymes. Those are the records I really enjoyed, and still enjoy. I like when there’s stuff buried in there and you have to dig around. There’s always little meanings and motifs that will show up in another song, reverb times and compression schemes that get used more than once, loops that get moved around, buried processes within other processes.”
Those layers and nuances taken as a whole provide a mural of early 21st century America’s substrata. Much like the protagonist of the title track who looks around at various objects – “A pizza box/ A baling wire/ And a ball of twine” – that bring up memories of a lost love, depending on where the listener’s focus falls, different images leap out and demand attention.
“There’s something about the way, cinematically, things can operate,” Barnes says. “There’s a post-structuralist way, where all the movements and the shapes and the color palette and everything in the scene can have other meanings. For instance, if a character is talking on the phone but there’s a song playing in the background, maybe that’s more important than what’s happening in the foreground. When I was a little kid I used to listen to a lot of radio dramas. They had this thing called Mystery Theater, and it was this hour-long show with host E.G. Marshall. The way all this stuff would happen in your mind, it was in-between reading and watching a movie. Movies sometimes nail everything down for you and can be a passive experience, but reading is a very active experience. This [radio drama] was in-between, and I try to make that happen in my songs, where things are open enough where people can interpret them in different ways.”
To see what a feller like me could learn
Well, the times get harder and the cities burn
It ain’t no different than the caveman time
There’s an old saying, a curse really, that says, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, things are pretty damn interesting out there. It makes one wonder, as the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuating itself, how much we’ve really evolved. It’s a theme that runs through the song “Caveman.”
“In one sense, we have this chronological pride,” Barnes reflects. “We think, ‘Boy, we’ve really advanced.’ In another way, we’ve really not. [‘Caveman’] came about when I was flying one day. It was one of those days when they just shut down the airports. It just freaked me out because I couldn’t get to work. It wasn’t 9/11, but it was one of those days after that. There was like 3,000 people. It was like being in the stands at a Mariner game. Nobody could get on their flights, and it just reminded me of the way cavemen must have operated, just digging in the ground for grub worms. In some ways, we’re not so far removed from that reality. Every now and then the brutality of existence kind of strikes me as poignant.”
This brutality is most acute in the punk rock menace of “Road.” Barnes plays a bone-crunching electric guitar on the song, while Chamberlain’s drums pound with chain gang intensity. It’s unapologetically heavy, but Barnes says, “I’m underground enough so that I don’t have to worry about alienating anybody.” The music fits the story; as the drug dealer protagonist barrels full-tilt towards a self-destructive end, Barnes vocals go unhinged and raw as he sings:
I got a .40 Smith and Wesson in a car downtown
I got a hollow point safetied on a chambered round
Selling methamphetamines to Jungle Jim
‘Til I crashed and burned and dropped the dime again
The song was inspired by a friend who was sent to prison.
The song’s chorus – “I left it laying by the side of the road” – hints at leaving a destructive way of living behind.
“I realized that getting the right people in your life AND getting the wrong people out is really important, because being around a lot of negative energy can take up a lot of your forward motion. So, I’m trying to encourage people, sort of surreptitiously in that song, to put down their burdens and move on with their lives. It’s buried in there; it’s a subtext. I’m trying to build people up, because you carry around all these burdens and you see the world through this guilt. So, if you look at a rose, you can’t really look at the rose without the guilt. You don’t look at it and think, ‘What a beautiful flower.’ You look at it and go, ‘Man, I should really have a garden. I need to go home. I haven’t been doing that. I’m really letting that down. I’m not holding up my end of the deal. Somehow, I’m coming up short.’ I say that from experience because I’ve looked at life that way and have let that stuff go a little.”
It’s the fact Barnes speaks from experience that lends extra weight to his words. He wasn’t born an optimist. Although it might seem hard to imagine him ever having to take an anger management class, there was a time when he found himself looking up classes in his town in Washington State:
Personal change often starts with examining our own self-inflicted wounds. If we can face them, we can grow from that scar tissue. At one point in our conversation, I ask Barnes if he’s hopeful about people’s abilities to shift their own situations?
“I am hopeful. I just have this idea that everything is going to be great. That’s my idea, that the world is getting better and we’re getting better and things are good, you know? I just sense that. I’m a reformed pessimist. I used to not think that way. I used to have a real doom-and-gloom way of looking, but I do think we’re in the process of moving into win-win. In my business, in my relationships, I’m learning that win-win to me is really the best model that we have. I just stumbled on that in the last few years. We think a lot of times [that] we really got to get what’s ours, what’s coming to us. The problem with that philosophy is you’re taking it away from somebody, or you’re grasping and you’re really in a negative mindset. Win-win is something I think we’re slowly learning as a society.”
Lord knows you don’t need to look too far to see plenty of examples of lose-lose, as America seems to be dissolving into a partisan pissing contest. But despite what the culture war profiteers want you to believe, there’s empowerment in seeing the world as a place of potential rather than a place of terror and failure. In our own lives it ultimately comes down to each of us deciding what we want – love or fear. In many ways, Pizza Box couldn’t have come at a better time, as it reminds us that no matter how insane things get outside, inside, we always have the power to make a choice for the better.
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