Interview with Tim Barry | By Ben Sailer
Some musicians would have an ego if they had Tim Barry’s legacy. With nearly three decades spent on the punk touring circuit both as the frontman for Avail and under his own name, his reputation as one of the scene’s most respected figures is well established. Barry isn’t like most musicians, though. In fact, he doesn’t consider himself a musician at all. That may explain why he’s hesitant to discuss his creative process or the meanings of his songs: it’d be too self-indulgent and spoil what makes the music special.
It might also be why he doesn’t waste time on the extraneous things musicians often do. What you get with Barry in conversation is exactly what you hear on his records: unfiltered honesty delivered without pretense. That much is clear when he talks about his latest full-length, High On 95—out now via Chunksaah Records—playing with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, and more.
Can you talk about the inspiration behind the title High On 95?
Yeah, but let’s just leave it up to the imagination of the listener. I think that the title, the way I hear it and the way I write it means one thing. It’s certainly interpreted many ways. Now, with the release of the record, a lot of people use it as a weed reference, like being high. [Or] driving on Interstate 95, which is the main vein that runs north to south on the East Coast. I’ve seen truckers already using it, like riding high in the big rigs on Interstate 95. I’ve seen old cops use it as nostalgia, high on 1995, because Facebook is helping us all become obsessed with nostalgia culture. That’s a legitimate one. Then, I’ve heard people reference it as a train number, so I’ll just leave it.
I’m confusing myself [about] what it’s actually about, but one of those is pretty close.
That’s a fair answer. I understand that once you’re done with the record, like you destroy all your rough mixes and audio files and things like that. This is a two-part question: Is that something you’ve always done? And can you discuss your philosophy or rationale for doing so?
Not philosophy. Rationale? One hundred percent. I think I’ve done it for a long time. I remember many years ago, a friend of mine was sort of abhorred by the idea that I didn’t even save rough drafts of songs. He contended that as an artist, he would keep every single draft of everything he did. I contended that I’m not an artist, and I don’t give a fuck about immature, shitty recordings that I do on a four-track cassette thing, you know?
I guess, thinking back on that conversation, I have done this for a really long time. When I say I destroy this stuff, that includes the original demos, generally, and stuff like that. Really, the reason I do it, again, is not a philosophy, it’s just a tick that I have. It’s been overindulged. I didn’t go to college or university or nothing like that, but I can only imagine—what is it that they make you do? My neighbor was just talking about it. What are those papers they make you write?
Like a thesis?
What did you just say?
Like a thesis paper or term paper?
Thesis—no, the big one. Whatever. I think finishing a record is like graduating school. By the time you’re done, you’re so fucking done with it, you need a break. You need to step away from it. When I finish a record, you have to realize it’s so focused and so much work, even though it’s just three chords in the same really elementary English language that I’ve always sang in, that I’m just so tired of hearing it. I think it’s not so [much being] tired of my songs or the music, it’s the emotion, the cognitive fatigue of overthinking everything.
Especially in the studio when it’s like, you’re listening to sounds, you’re hearing things that aren’t there anymore. It’s just so silly. It’s such a stupid process. It’s just music. But I think it’s a really great feeling to step away entirely from those sounds and the songs and completely forget about them.
What I generally do is I get rid of the files, I get rid of the rough mixes, I get rid of anything that I have so I can’t listen to the stuff, even if I’m tempted to.
Then, last night—since I haven’t heard this stuff in three months—last night, I listened to the record for the first time, because it came out the day before. I was really excited. I listened to it twice and had some beers and cleaned the house. I was excited to hear it. I had forgotten what song was coming next. The little things that bothered me during mix weren’t there anymore. I was proud of my sister [Caitlin Hunt’s violin] playing. I was excited about Daniel Clarke’s piano playing. I was enamored and really drawn in by Christina [Marie Gleixner’s vocal] harmonies that she did. It was really nice to hear it after stepping back.
That’s why I do it. Because I want to like the music, instead of thinking too much about it.
You’re not burning yourself out on it before the end product even gets put out, which makes a lot of sense. That leads into the next question: is it literally true that you record songs in one take like it says on your website? Is that literally the case, like you just practice the songs, get them down, go into the studio, and just bang them out? One shot and done?
No, it’s not as literal as that. Yeah, in a lot of ways. The guy I work with, Lance Koehler, we’ve been working together for a really long time. When I say work, it’s not a job, it’s just the action in that I bumped into him in my old neighborhood, and he had a little recording studio, and we hit it off. I recorded everything I have with him.
I use that history—like, this goes back to the demos I recorded in 2004, all of which are with him. He used that little bit of history to reinforce the idea that we know each other so well, and the recording process. We’ve had our fights, we’ve had our great moments, we’ve had our disagreements.
In that, just like any relationship, he knows how I tick. He knows that the more I do something, the worse it’s going to get. He also knows that [during] booked studio time, I’m going to play it the best I can. It’s not going to get any better. The only way it’s going to go is worse. I think when you overdo something, it just starts—I think the more you do something, you lose a little bit every time.
This is one of the reasons I’ve chosen not to use producers or go on big record labels, because you know what, man? When I go in the fucking studio, first of all, I record in the morning, not in the night. I’m doing the best I can. If I have to sit there for eight hours to play the same chords and the same song over and over, I just wouldn’t do music anymore. There’s nothing interesting about that.
Yeah, I’d say that I played each song no more than two or three times, ever, in the sessions. Then, when they’re picked, they’re picked from performance for me, and then picked on recording quality from Lance. Then, we find middle ground.
Yeah, a lot of the songs on that record are the first take. In fact, let’s see—“Slow Down” is the first take, first song’s the first take. Second song, [the title track]’s the first take. Let me see—I mean, most of them are.
You were noticing what’s unique about my recording process as opposed to other people; people go into studios, and they believe they have to play to a click track. A computerized click. It makes everything perfect. They believe that they have to go in and play the guitar part to the click, and then, they do the vocals over the guitar part with the click in the background.
It takes out all of the natural feel of folk music—or rock music—when everything’s formulated to a click and then put into a grid and then computerized. Nothing on this record is done to a click. Often, the drums are coming after my take, so if you hear songs, say like “Running Never Tamed Me”—which is right close to the end, it’s a slower song—I did that with no click track, guitar, vocals live. The drums came later. Drums played along to the song. That’s what makes the song sound natural.
People don’t have to do what’s proscribed. You can do whatever the fuck you want. This is just music. It’s not combat. No one’s going to get killed. Experiment. Music sounds a lot more natural when you take the computer element out of it.
You also mention on your website that you’re basically like a conductor: you hum the melodies and the other musicians interpret that onto their respective instruments. How does that process work?
Yeah, I mean, I’ll play them like demos. Basically, when I demo stuff, I do it on an iPhone; like, I’ll do guitar, vocals. This is my own demo—personally learning the songs.
Then, I dump that into the computer—like your old GarageBand thing—then, I layer it with the melodies that I hear. The different instrumentation. I’ll put keys on, and I’ll put electric guitar on, whatnot. My sister plays violin, and she’ll—I can hum to her what I want.
If you notice they—look, an example would be basing it off of my demos. If you hear the guitar solos, they’re all pretty much like one-finger solos. It’s my horrible version of playing an electric guitar solo. The terrific guitar player, [Allen Parker], just sort of played them the way I presented them.
Yeah, there’s a lot of me just sort of conducting. It’s weird. It’s too hard to explain.
The players are all really fucking good. They understand my weird ticks. I don’t speak music: I don’t understand the terms, and I don’t understand the counts, and when guitar players, they play classic 9/7, I don’t even know what the fuck they’re talking about. I’m just not trained. I just play by feel, entirely. Thankfully, Lance, who records with me, can act as an interpreter, but yeah, a lot of conducting. It’s bizarre. It’s weird.
Actually, my next show is next Saturday, and it’s with the Richmond Symphony. That’s going to be weird, because there’s actually going to be a conductor. I’ll be onstage at our biggest theater in Richmond, [Virginia], with everybody playing my songs.
I know a brother who’s very nervous for me. He said to express to the conductor that she needs to follow me and then conduct the orchestra, the symphony, based on that, instead of me trying to follow a conductor. I don’t even know what they’re doing up there.
How did you get hooked up with an orchestra?
Originally, [the Richmond] Symphony Orchestra approached me, actually. It was odd. The executive director called me. I was in New Jersey in a dressing room at a show with Brian Fallon, [vocalist and guitarist of The Gaslight Anthem]. It was him and I in the backstage, and the executive director of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra called and said, “Would you play with the symphony?” I said, “Oh my God.” Instinctively, I just wanted to say no. It was just terrifying. I used to work at the theater. I used to unload trucks and build stages and push boxes—labor jobs. IATSE Union, Local 87.
I hung up the phone, and Brian said, “Who was that?” I said that was the Richmond Symphony asking me to play my songs with the symphony in the back. He said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m not going to do that. Fuck that.” He said, “Well, if you go onstage tonight and talk shit about challenging yourself and putting yourself in positions that scare you and becoming empowered by it, then I’m going to call you on it.” I just said, “Oh shit.”
I called him back. I said yes to the show. That was my decision making process. How it actually came about, I don’t know. I think they were confident that I could bring a lot of people in. The Richmond Symphony, like a lot of orchestras nationwide, are trying to bring in younger audiences. Their ticket sales are down, and they know they can play shows with people like me.
Talking about the record itself, there’s certainly personal themes about loneliness and isolation and hard times and things of that nature. When you’re writing lyrics, do you always make sure you’re offering some sort of hope or something uplifting when you’re writing about things that are pretty dark and heavy?
I don’t know. I don’t—just like my summaries, I don’t have a songwriting process. There’s no intent when I’m writing lyrics to make them sound hopeful. I just write stream of consciousness. It’s really—I could talk about recording process. I don’t usually do interviews anymore. This is only the third one I’ve done in maybe four or five years. I guess I don’t do them because I’m not very good at talking about music. It’s not, like, the only thing I do. It’s not something I think a lot about. It’s just something that happens.
I guess that kind of rolls into your last question of how I would keep a hopeful sort of theme in songs that are inherently sad or depressing in some ways. I have no ability to discuss how I wrote songs or why, because I don’t know why or understand it and never have. I think I stray from talking about it or analyzing it because, for me, it’s a real release, and it’s a relief when I finish a song. Usually, the meanings behind them come later as I understand the stream of consciousness I was writing from.
I think the more I analyze them, the more that I think about them, it would take away from the process if I started really understanding it. I just kind of don’t talk about my songwriting. It’s never the same process. Sometimes, it’s a word or a lyric. Sometimes, it’s a guitar note. Sometimes, it’s hearing another song that somebody else wrote that makes me interested in trying to mimic it. It’s always—there’s just no rhyme or reason to it. If I think too hard on it, it might not stay, keep going. I’ve been writing songs my whole life, so who knows?
That makes a lot of sense. The next question actually pertains to an older song of yours that has some timely relevance to some things that are going on in the U.S., “Prosser’s Gabriel,” which is about a slave hero who should have a monument built to him where there actually stands a parking lot or something like that. Considering recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the debate around Confederate monuments, would you be willing to offer any insight into that song or the story behind it? Or just your thoughts on that topic in general?
Well, as a man born and raised in Virginia, it’s really a complex answer. The monument situation is super complex. I’m also a history nut, [which] even makes it more complex. Let me just be as clear as I can be that there should be no [Confederate] monument on public land for any reason at all throughout the entire United States. It just doesn’t even make sense. They’re representations to some people of a heritage, but to many more, they represent the master looking down on them.
It’s an absurd thing in 2017 that they’re still here. Richmond streets are sort of based around these monuments. They’re beautiful artistically. They’re some of the most amazing monuments you’ve ever seen.
I’ve always thought that it would be really great to add onto our main street, Monument Ave., that has J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and so on running down it over numerous miles, surrounded by really beautiful houses. I thought, up until recently, it would be just incredible to add Maggie L. Walker, Nat Turner, Gabriel. You know, all kinds of different people. Especially not the economic elite; the people who built the city that we live in. I thought it would be very great to have interpretive sort of history of that included. People other than rich, white Confederates who fought against the North.
That completely changed after [counter-protestor] Heather Heyer was killed by an invading force of non-Virginian Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. If they were using the potential removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville as an excuse to come to our state—into a really small town, not even an hour from where I live—and to come and create such havoc and violence and fright and fear in people who dealt with that for many generations, that is unacceptable and unforgivable. For them to kill a young woman from Virginia is unthinkable.
What they did, for a person like me who tries to not just examine the petal, but the whole flower, it made me decide, “Fuck these monuments.” If you are seeing them as a rallying cry, and you’re not even from our fucking state, then it’s time to take them down. Those motherfuckers—I have no words for those fucking pieces of shit.
Gabriel was an enslaved Black man in Henrico County, Virginia, which is the county that’s north of us and sort of splits to the east. In 1800, he led a failed slave insurrection in the city of Richmond. He was hung down on Broad Street, which is right in Shockoe Valley, essentially. I had read his history, his story, originally in the early ‘90s and then, later, wrote that song for reasons unknown—mainly because I was on a morning walk and realized that the place where he was hung and probably buried with other enslaved Africans was, at that point, a parking lot for Virginia Commonwealth University students. I thought that was just unacceptable.
And so, I wrote that song, didn’t think too much about it, and then started singing it live and people really latched onto it. It’s certainly my song, [but] me, I’m not responsible for there not being a parking lot where Gabriel was hung and possibly buried. Now, it’s an area that’s all grass, a field, and there’s some markers and small plaques up for Gabriel and other folks. A lot of people were involved in that. People say it was because of my song, but I don’t believe that at all. I think my song just helped people get a grasp on it, a portion of some of the hidden history in the city of Richmond that made them think about histories outside of Richmond and their own town.
With that said, there’s now a grassy field. I’m really proud to have been a part of that, but it’s time that there’s bigger, more beautiful monuments to men like Gabriel, women like Maggie L. Walker—who has a small monument now here in Jackson Moore—and a lot of other people. Yeah, that shit’s intense, man.
Oh, yeah. That whole thing can be a hard thing just to wrap your head around, to internalize.
As an adult, you can think these things through. I have a 3 and a 5-year-old. Both girls. I was up in New Hampshire when that shit in Charlottesville went down, and when I came home, you know, all the kids were talking about it.
They don’t know—I mean, even a 3-year-old, my fucking 3-year-old was like, “Why did they come and run the girl over? Why did they come and run the girl over? Why did those white—bad white people…?” Like, as she’s saying it, it’s getting worse. “Why are these bad white people coming here, running this girl over?” “Why did the bad, white Nazis kill the girl from Virginia?” Like, this is how she’s changing it as it’s going. She’s hearing the adults and the older children talk about it. A 3-year-old.
Yesterday, she was marching around in front of my house going, “I’m going to kill Nazis. If the Nazis come to Virginia, I will kill them.” That’s fucking intense, it’s a 3-year-old. Now, she and I have to grapple with how to try to teach kindness and olive branches and peace when I’m like, “Fuck them.” The only thing I can do is I can come to Charlottesville, put a flower down at the memorial for Heather Heyer. […]
Yeah, if you’re a rational, semi-rational adult, we can process this. Those poor kids got to grow up with it as well.
The last question that I have, and you can answer this in any way you want, but in general, what role or responsibility, if any, do you feel artists or musicians or creative people have in confronting sociopolitical issues or spurring that kind of conversation in society?
Yeah, I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t see musicians, successful musicians, successful artists, successful writers as any more interesting or important than the people who work at the 7-Eleven near my house or the factory worker in Michigan.
I just—I actually find it laughable when I see, like, peers who cross a certain sane threshold, and people start leaning on their opinions of political situations or their critical thoughts of other artists as more important. They lean on them like they’re important, but it’s like a self-important—I mean, I don’t know. I generally don’t follow pop culture or things in any kind of way, so I don’t know if I have a real opinion on people’s responsibilities regarding political thought and stuff like that.
I’ll tell you the fact that I like to ask people questions and listen to their answers, whether those people are famous or whether it’s Mr. Walker at the post office I go to or, you know, the folks at the 7-Eleven or my lawyer neighbor or, you know, I just—I don’t know. I’m burned out on people’s opinions.
In fact, I’m going to quote Steve Bannon, who’s an evil son-of-a… but I really like this quote: “Opinions get shrugged, facts get shared.” I’m just a fact person. I don’t give a fuck about people’s opinions. I give a fuck about facts that you know. The internet has ruined my interest in people’s opinions, including famous artists or musicians. It seems like really all I hear is people’s opinions about current events. Not people’s facts.
Photo Credit Nick Zimmer