An Interview With Acclaimed SPIN DOCTORS Front-Man CHRIS BARRON On His Latest Solo Album And Much More!
Posted On 13 Nov 2017
Acclaimed Spin Doctors front-man Chris Barron has returned with his newest album, “Angeles And One-Armed Jugglers,” released last month via Chrysanthemum Records.
He’s a veteran approaching 50, living in a world changed beyond recognition, compelled to write the music that chronicles the here-and-now. As far back as he can remember, he’s had a hunger driving him onward, towards something just out of reach. In 2017, it propels him to this new collection, the culmination of a lifetime’s craft and a record both contemporary and classic.
If the concept of “Angels and One-Armed Jugglers” began anywhere, it was born on the 59th Street Bridge, as Barron drove home from Queens. “I wrote that title track on the steering wheel,” he reflects. “With that first line — ‘Angels and one-armed jugglers, sword-swallowers and smugglers’ — I was thinking about this woman who once lived next door to me, this old chorus girl. She was in her 80s at the time, always plying me with limoncello, telling me great stories about Broadway in the ’40s. And I always find, if you fall in with the title early on, you start to make a record that’s very thematic. But then, weirdly enough, I had a paralyzed vocal cord and I lost my voice. So I’m the one-armed juggler. Art imitates life.
“I guess this record is like the tray of oysters on a side table of the soirée they throw the evening before the comet hits the earth,” Barron considers. “Y’know, thematically, it’s about the cocktail party at the apocalypse, the decline of the American empire and just a bunch of lemmings in neck-ties going over the edge. But it’s very personal, too, and there’s a lot of my own sadness in there. Anybody can see the world is a deeply unfair place. It’s the responsibility of the artist to give some kind of consolation. Yes, the world is fucked up. But there is still wonder. And there’s still a twist of comedy.”
With 1991’s five-times-platinum Pocket Full of Kryptonite album, Spin Doctors duly exploded, and while millions screamed those solid-gold choruses, there was more going on beneath the surface. “I’m so proud of Pocket Full of Kryptonite,” says Barron. “We really captured the times we were living in. Historically, I think the Spin Doctors were perceived in the landscape of grunge and alternative music as this happy-go-lucky band, but in my mind, all of our songs are sad lyrics with happy music. If you delve into the lyrics, there’s a lot of pain and longing in there.”
With the ever-questing Barron at the bow, the Spin Doctors were bound to have a fascinating evolution. A four-album hot streak in the ’90s established them as a heavyweight of the era, and since the line-up reconvened in 2001 (a reunion sparked by the imminent closure of the iconic Wetlands club, where they cut their teeth), there’s been acclaim for 2005’s “Nice Talking to Me,” before 2013’s “If the River Was Whiskey” reconnected them with the Delta-inspired tunes from early days in New York’s blues clubs. “I love being in the Spin Doctors,” says Barron. “We’ve been playing together a very long time — thousands of stage hours, time in the studio, time in vans — and I feel like we’re now in this really cool phase of our career. I have no intention of leaving the group. This solo project is really about learning and just expressing the broadness of my musicality. Because as a composer and a lyricist, I can’t fit everything I do into the Spin Doctors.”
Learn more about Chris Barron in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time today! Where does this interview find you? Is there music playing in the background? If so, what is it? What music gets you instantly out of a bad mood? What is a song you are loving these days?
I’m in Tallahassee, Florida and until a few minutes ago I was playing some Reverend Gary Davis on my guitar which is leaning against the bedside table in my hotel room. When I’m in a bad mood, I tend to play music rather than listen to music.
Growing up, did you always want to be a musician? Can you recall your earliest musical memory? Was there a time where you thought of doing something completely different?
When I was a little kid, I saw Shirley Temple on our little, black-and-white, Sony television and I thought to myself, I’m going to marry her we’re going to do that, whatever that is. I didn’t know the difference between a singer, an actor, or a dancer. I just knew I wanted to perform. I stumbled into a music theory class my freshman year in high school and pretty soon I was writing songs and that’s all she wrote.
How has 2017 been treating you? What are you most excited about for in 2018?
2017 has been a pretty good year. I got my voice back, and I made my new record. In 2018 I’m excited to get out and play some solo shows.
I always like to ask artists about where they came from and how that city or town has influenced them as an artist now. So how do you think your hometown has affected you and your music today?
I am a bit of a circus sideshow freak in that regard. I was born in Hawaii, I went to elementary school in Australia, and I went to high school in Princeton, New Jersey. I think the fact that I was dragged around the world a lot as a little kid has more of a lasting impact on me than the places I’ve lived. Moving around so much gave me an outsiders perspective and paved the way for me to be a writer. If I had to pick one place that had the most impact, I guess I’d have to say New York City.
“Angels And One Armed Jugglers” is your first full-length release since 2009’s “Pancho and the Kid.” Why do you think it took so long to put another one out? How do you think you have grown as an artist on this collection?
It’s easy to kind of float along in this life, don’t you think? Sometimes a couple years go by like lightning. I lost my voice last year and when I got it back I found I was sitting on a huge backlog of material and I thought about how you can lose your voice or get stuck on a desert island and the last thing I wanted was to have all of those tunes lying around unrecorded.
Can you elaborate on where the inspiration for this new album exactly came from? How did the New York music scene inspire it all? Could you share how a few of the songs were put together?
This album is about the freak show that is the internal life of every human being. We all wander around from appointment to appointment looking at our watches and smiling nicely when all the while, our souls are churning with strange emotions, odd characters, and deep drives like motley fish beneath the surface of a pond in an enchanted garden. I wanted to lift off the lid of my addled brain and show, in song, that everyone is weird and that’s good.
How excited are you to be out playing these new songs? Do you think that they blend in well with your past solo music and of course Spin Doctors tracks? What can fans expect from one of your live shows these days?
I am very excited. I try very hard to put all of my personality into all of the music I make so I find, as my career continues, my music tends to fit together in a jigsaw puzzle kind of way. I’ve always loved to play solo acoustic shows. Spin Doctors, who are together in the original lineup, work pretty regularly. I’m really happy to have carved out a bit of time to go back to playing the way I did when I was a kid, just me, my eccentric songs, and an old Gibson guitar.
I just learned that your wife is an accomplished Broadway actress so I am curious to know if it helps being married to someone in the business who gets “it”? How often do you work together? What was it like having her sing on your album?
My wife is the pillar of my happiness. She’s a superb musician, she can read fly shit at 50 feet, her pitch is supernatural, she can hear a song twice and to have it practically memorized. We talk shop quite a lot around the house. She loves rock ‘n’ roll, I love theater so it’s really quite engaging to speak with her. Our perspectives are somewhat different yet there’s a huge amount of crossover in terms of the demands of our work respectively. She went to college for theater so a lot of the stuff I do instinctively, she actually knows what it’s called. We have a lot of respect for each other. We both love show business with the marrow of our bones and the skin on our fingertips.
Is there ever a time when you wish you could go back in time and re-live the crazy days as part of Spin Doctors? When you look back, can you recall a particular favorite moment from those times? Are you guys working together now on anything?
We had a lot of fun in the beginning but I like my life now. I love it. I like being 49 years old. I like knowing my process really well. I like my kitchen, my coffee maker, my cats, my daughter, my wife… The Spin Doctors are together with the original lineup and we are really enjoying playing together. I’ve got a lot to look forward to so, no, I don’t really look back much anymore.
With the summer over now, what was something fun or new that you tried?
I just got a new guitar teacher so I’ve been nerding out on a bunch of ragtime finger-picking stuff. It feels good to come at something like a beginner.
We are living in a crazy and at times rough world right now so I am curious how you think being a musician gives you the most joy in life today? How do you think that new music being created today is going to reflect these difficult times?
It makes me happy to have one foot in the 20th century. I like some of the old ways. Practicing guitar, singing on pitch without a magic twanger to fix your tuning. I think young people yearn for the sound of real instruments and real playing so there’s bands like Whitney and Peachpit that I like a lot.
Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? What musicians would you absolutely still love to work with in the future?
I’ve been getting back to a lot of Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James, David Bromberg… Stuff I was into as a young person. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s greatest hits volume two the other day and that record just holds up so well. Someday I’d like to collaborate with my old friend John Popper. We keep threatening to do that but we never do.
What do you hope your fans take away from your music?
I hope people hear a story that stays in their ribs. I wanted to make a record that took you under water but in a way where you could breathe even better. I hope these tunes remind people of ones they love. They are about people that I love.
What advice would you give to a young person who is thinking about becoming a musician one day?
Practice. Be real musician. Every generation thinks some technological breakthrough has shown the shortcut to Easystreet. There are no shortcuts. You’ve got to work. Work on your playing, work on your writing, work on the road.
(Photography By Jesse Dittmar)