Interview & Introduction by Sarah Hagerman
To say that genre-defying banjo virtuoso and songwriter Danny Barnes has always followed his own uncanny artistic voice feels like an understatement. He founded the groundbreaking and influential (read: woefully under-appreciated in their time) Bad Livers and since the group stopped touring in 2000, he has produced several fantastic and wide-ranging records of solo output. In his unpredictable live shows he showcases his inventive folkTronics approach, employing Ableton software and effects pedals with his banjo to paint a sonic landscape that infuses electronic sound experimentation and jazz improvisation with the raw essence of Americana and a DIY ethos. He’s collaborated and shared stages with the likes of Bill Frisell, Yonder Mountain String Band, Robert Earl Keen and Dave Matthews, as well as wailed on a flying V guitar with members of the Butthole Surfers. He has even developed his own instrument, the “Barnjo 15,000,” a prototype of a hard body electric banjo with pickups. And he started his own label, Minner Bucket, specializing in limited run cassettes, which we’ll get to later in this interview.
It’s uniquely Barnes’ path, and it certainly inspires a great deal of respect, the occasional head turn, and more than a touch of awe amongst fans and fellow musicians. But what makes Barnes such a vital artistic voice isn’t just his resume, of which we’ve truthfully just skimmed the surface, it’s the fact that, taken as a whole, his career comes into focus as one unified around highly principled systems thinking. It’s an inspired and holistic approach, and when you interview Barnes, you don’t end up merely talking about the latest projects – you end up talking about the processes, correlations and structures that reach far below the surface.
This isn’t limited to just music. Barnes possesses a drive to dig deeper into mechanics of this world and the strange human creatures that inhabit it. What bubbles up in his work is uniquely in his voice, yet it’s filled with bigger truths. In a present era that seems wholly concerned with skimming the surface, playing loose and dangerous with bite sized pieces of information, it’s encouraging – and absolutely crucial – to know there are those out there with an infectious enthusiasm for seeking out real knowledge and drawing genuine connections.
That modus operandi is reflected on Barnes’ latest album, Rocket (2011). Sonically, the album draws heavily on the Barnjo. The instrument lends Rocket a more balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll feel than previous albums, the songs steeped in both garage murk and sparkly 70s glam. That kinetic electricity struts through the album’s tales of down-and-outs, ne’er-do-wells, and hopefuls that still believe in love. The songwriting, by turns both humorous and frank, explores lives at the crossroads, building on the narrative themes of his previous release, the brilliant Pizza Box. Rocket was accompanied by two other releases, Poison, a cassette of demos, and Angel, a stripped down, acoustic banjo version of the songs. As with any project, it presented its challenges, and we discussed those, as well as his cassette label and the joyful surprises of the artistic process.
For Rocket, you worked with pretty much the same team you worked with for Pizza Box. What was it like working with that team the second time around?
One thing that was really cool about it was we had our language together. When we first met [for Pizza Box] and started working together we had to figure out where everybody was. [This time] it was neat to be able to jump right in and go to work. It felt very comfortable in that regard.
We were in John’s [producer John Alagia] environment, and that means you have to work pretty quick. We probably cut the record in about ten days. We were down in L.A. in this place called The Village. It’s a really cool facility. I was thrilled to work there. So many great records throughout history got made there, like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On. It was amazing just to read how many records came through The Village.
You debuted the Barnjo at Northwest String Summit in 2010. What influence did that instrument have on the songwriting for Rocket?
“Rich Boy Blues” and “Safe With Me” were written on an arch top baritone acoustic guitar, but all the other songs were written on the barnjo. That really shapes what comes out. If you limit yourself to working within a certain type of instrument, it really filters the songwriting process. Sometimes I’ve written with piano. I don’t really play the piano, but I can get music out of it. I’ll just sit down and play, and sometimes you find things that you couldn’t find on an instrument that you’re more comfortable with. [In the case of the piano] you tend to think a little more orchestral.
So with the barnjo, I was working up a tuning and a voicing for that instrument. I was reading that throughout history various records got made by guys that forced themselves to work out of a certain tuning or write it on a different instrument than they would normally play as a way of encouraging their creativity. Because sometimes as a soloist it can be hard to play those real basic changes and those real basic chords because you start to think you’ve got to do something a little more involved or active. So changing it up and picking up an instrument you don’t really play very much gives you a different perspective.
Also, because the banjo is voiced differently, certain ideas fall out in different ways, and sometimes easier than they would on guitar. The guitar has a certain palette. So, I worked with the barnjo thinking it will help me write songs that would have a thematic and harmonic unity.
I can definitely hear that. I really like this album because it’s very rock and roll. It’s a really great side to what you do that some people. Maybe if they’ve been following your career for awhile they know you’ve always had that element, but this brings it to the forefront.
Yeah! That idea about the barnjo came about from my friend Chuck Leavell, who plays in the Stones. I was talking to him several years ago about just being aware of what Keith Richards does on the guitar. On a lot of their records – like Tattoo You – he plays a five-string guitar. It’s like an open tuning with the sixth string removed, which is kind of like a banjo, except instead of a high string you have a low string. So then I was thinking of how the banjo is very similar a lot of Delta Blues guitar. If you listen to all acoustic blues records, like Charlie Patton, the guitar is very proto-rock-and-roll and it was open tuning, which is very similar to the banjo. Then, there’s Chicago Blues where Elmore James and some of those guys would play acoustic guitar with pickups, but then they’d turn up the amp really loud and play with a slide. That was a pretty rough sound. So, there are these lines that get drawn between rock guitar and banjo. There are these places where they converge.
The barnjo is neat because it allows me to play banjo ideas, but also jazz chords and metal. Plus having access to all these effect pedals, you can play really loud. You can use very large amps and crank it up because it’s a solid body. It definitely just has that rock and roll spirit to it.
I noticed a lot of the songwriting themes seemed to carry over from Pizza Box. You’ve spoken about that theme before, i.e. people realizing they are the cause of their own misery. I’m interested in hearing more about what attracts you to that theme.
Jung wrote a lot about that. He called it the fire. Here’s the thing: you either went through it or you got stuck in it. Poetically and dramatically, as an instrument, I’m very interested in that moment. Everything happens in that instance. I don’t know if people talk about it too much, about how we’re the architects of our own environment and atmosphere. Like have you ever watched Judge Judy or one of those shows? And they have these guys on there that borrowed a whole bunch of money from somebody, or they wrecked somebody’s car. You can see it in their eyes, there’s almost that moment in their eyes where they see, “Okay, I borrowed your car and I wrecked it. I should pay you for this car.” It’s like this little light bulb goes on in their heads, but very quickly they extinguish it. I find that just to be a very interesting human response to stimulus.
I find that it occurs on mass levels, too. As a country or a nation of people, we struggle with that sometimes. As a group on the timeline, we struggle with that issue. If we could lighten up on each other it would be a much better place. But the brain goes through all these plethora of rationalizations and justifications during those moments. It’s unbelievable what the brain will create – as a society or a species or an individual – as the rationalization to an experience. It’s pretty rich ground to mine.
It’s sort of like that with sound, too. If a guitar is recorded properly, it can really only be recorded properly in one way. But if it’s messed up, if you’re screwing with it or you’re processing it or rendering it, there’s a million ways you can mess with it. I just find that broken theme to be more interesting because the possibility hasn’t been nailed down yet. It has more options. The possibilities are all around the corner.
That kind of leads into a blog post of yours I read. It was called “A Possible Aesthetic for Acoustic Music” and you had a similar thought, that “Things can only get perfect in one way, but things can be kind of processed and messed with in lots of ways.”
Yeah. And I’m not saying that like I know the answer symbolically or in a symbolic logic way, but I suspect that that may be so, aesthetically.
I feel that, especially for acoustic and picking bands, it’s a really radical way to think about recording instead of looking for that quote-unquote “perfect” sound.
I think if you look at it, just as a recording person, there are certain genres that just get the idea of experimenting with sound, and there are certain genres that really stopped doing that. For me, electronic music is this really rich place because they’re constantly messing with sound and making new sonic aesthetics, considerations and structures. I think [electronic music] is super fertile ground for finding new sounds and incorporating new tableaus. But with Americana, there can be a sort of cop out in the sonic palette. I suppose you also have to deal with the fact that you can go back and hear Red Foley and Jimmie Rodgers and Slim Harpo and Johnny Cash. They are in the database [for listeners]. I like to look for new things, and a lot of people that work in electronic music aren’t artists in that sense of being able to play a complicated piece off the sheet music. They are artists in the sense of being able to put something together in a really interesting way. It’s compelling to me.
You had a very honest write-up about recording Angel. You wrote about how you were really reluctant to do that at first, and how the process was a challenge, but it basically boiled down to, as you put it, “leaving in the right mistakes.” How do you know, artistically, what the “right” mistakes are?
I’ve started studying that aesthetic more and paying more attention to it. That’s one thing missing from a lot of records – they have everything polished. It’s like seeing a photo of someone all photoshopped up. They don’t look like real people anymore. [Those mistakes] are the real drama. It’s like that saying, “The truth is stranger than publicity”
Normally in my head, I have all these ideas of vertical orchestration for how things could go. Since I’m pretty comfortable with recording, I can visualize it. I can build what I’m thinking about. It’s pretty satisfying in that regard, so it never really occurred to me to just sit and play [for a recording]. Even when I play concerts, I use electronics. That way you’ll have the light and the shadow, like the contrast and variation between those two polarities. Sometimes when I play my gigs I’ll strip it down to just banjo, but it’s part of that polarity; it makes it stronger because the stuff that’s electronic sounds bigger and more interesting. The acoustic and electronic support each other at my shows. I play [acoustic] all the time at home, just hanging out on the porch or in the kitchen, but it just seems so personal. I couldn’t imagine anyone caring.
To record that way [live and acoustic], you’ve got to be set up for it because you get a lot of ambient sounds. I did this job a few years ago, a spoken word project, where I read the book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Spoken word sounds like it would be easy to just sit down and read, but it’s really hard because your clothes make a noise, or your breathing or the air conditioning turning on and off. Or like those studios in New York when you can hear the subway or elevator going by – it’s distracting. Also, we had just made Rocket at The Village with arguably the best equipment you could buy. And there’s a record that going to be a companion piece to it that was recorded at the kitchen table? But ex post facto, after the fact, it become clear.
Can you explain more about that clarity?
There’s a track called “If You Really Want to Party with Me (Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See)” by Busta Rhymes. It’s all based on this messed up bass loop. If you listen to the bass loop, it starts in sort of the wrong place, but it sounds super cool. If you quantify everything around the beat, it’s called gridding it out. You can put every note, every beat, everything that happens directly and perfectly on the grid and get a perfect tone. But the problem is, if you do that, it doesn’t really sound that good. It’s like CGI. It doesn’t have that element of the brushstroke. It doesn’t have that human quality.
When you start working with looping and pedals, what you’re really trying to do is learn how to time it so you can start the loop at the exact right place. And maybe it takes you a year to figure out how to loop a section in your music and start it perfectly. Then you do it perfectly, but you realize it actually sounds better if it’s a little bit off. I realized a few years ago that sometimes a mistake, or what would be considered an audio mistake, can actually further the idea better than a perfect rendering of it would. But you have to be careful about it; you can’t really look at it like a cop out or a way of slacking your work. It has to create the effect that you want.
But me just sitting there playing, trying to get a pristine recording from beginning to end, I can’t build it that way. So, Angel had to be so direct. It had to be a continual performance, four or five minutes of continued inspiration from beginning to end. And something might be a little bit off, like the floor joints might creak or when the sun comes in the window it will gradually warm up the glass and you’ll get this pop. Or your stomach may growl [laughs]. But that might be your best performance on that track all day. You’ve got to figure out what am I going to go with this? Am I going to try and get rid of this? It’s an interesting process, but I was really happy with the end result.
You’ve recently started your own cassette record label, Minner Bucket. If someone were to go up to you and say why cassettes, what would you say?
I’ve got this theory that everything exists. There’s this conceit we have as a society because marketing is so insistent in order to make money off of products that as we move linearly through this artificially constructed timeline new products appear and old products disappear. But, for example, take that silent film The Artist that recently came out. Or that there are more Frank Sinatra records now then when he was putting out new records, or that there are more Beatles records, more Jimi Hendrix records now then when he was alive.
I understand all the comments. “Where you gonna get a [cassette] player?” But I find them on eBay and pawn shops. A lot of people I know have them in their cars. But I understand, and I don’t think in mass numbers it’s ever going to appear on the radar. But I never talk about those numbers anyway. But I’m always trying to find out what’s going on with new music, where the new sounds are coming from. Through research I found out that there was a lot of very interesting music coming out on cassette-only. There’s this entire world of really cool artists. There’s a blog called Cassette Gods and they review the weirdest stuff. I get so many cool tapes off of there. I just wanted to participate in that world.
Another thing that’s really cool about cassettes from a microeconomic punk rock perspective is your entry [requirements] are really low. If you’re on your own – and I’m talking completely independent, not on any sort of record label – and you want to make CDs to sell, your entry fee is going to be $750-1000 dollars to get a thousand CDs made. They typically don’t price it too much cheaper than that. If you try to do a smaller run, they charge you more per unit. But with cassettes you can do these really small runs for really cheap. You can get a tape deck and order forty tapes for under $40. Then you can start selling them. If I’m a brand new band, how am I going to sell a thousand CDs? I’m going to give away 40 or 50 of ‘em. I’ll be lucky to sell 100 in a year. But with tapes I can run them off and sell them pretty quick.
The other perspective is from a point of audio reference. I grew up buying records and making tapes off of records. There’s just some really interesting qualities to tape. When the tape speed is really slow, there’s this weird flutter that happens. The sound warbles just a little bit. I could be totally crazy, but if you listen to a cassette a couple times in a row it sounds slightly different.
Another thing that happens on tape is there is a significant noise floor, which is like a filter. With Pro Tools and CDs our noise floor went way down. But I don’t think music sounds that flattering like that. For me, a pristinely recorded acoustic guitar is kind of boring, just because it’s been done so often for so long. But if you start, for instance, with the ‘wrong’ mic then you’re starting to get into something interesting. You’re starting to create a different sound. If you grew up listening to old country, blues or rock-and-roll records, there was that noise floor. To me, that is very flattering to the music. It’s like the difference between 8mm film and a digital movie. 8mm has a look to it that’s more interesting, like a watercolor. Or for instance, if you just shine a light on the stage, you can’t really see it. But if you pump the stage with smoke, then you can see the light. That energy has to have something to relate to, and for me that noise floor is a very critical part of that music. That’s why hip hop and metal – and bluegrass – on cassette sound fantastic.
Its got a lot more character.
Yeah! It’s just like eating in a weird restaurant. You could eat at Chili’s – they are all exactly the same and served up in a certain way – but if you want to go with something weird, you have to go over to this place. For me, it’s like that with music. I still make mix tapes. If you go to someone’s house today and they have a lot of tapes, that’s a person who really likes music.
I think you could take half the bands that are trying to make records right now in Americana or roots music, and instead of going into the studio and dropping $15,000 on the ‘right’ mics and Pro Tools and an engineer who knows what he’s doing, they could buy a four-track cassette [recorder] off eBay for a hundred bucks and do the same songs. It would be ten times better, just in terms of the sound [which] would be so interesting. It would have more of a vibe, you know?
A really interesting record I use as a litmus is the first Latin Playboys record [Editor’s Note: One of DI’s favorite rock gems. Druggy without the drugs!]. That was made on a 4-track. I believe it was actually a faulty four-track, like the speed was weird on it. That record could be one of the greatest records ever made. Another one is that Springsteen record Nebraska. That record is amazing, and it’s made on a four-track.
The challenge with a four-track is you have to do a pre-mix, so you have to make a lot of decisions early on and you can’t back out of it. If you record one thing on a four-track, you’re already painted into a corner. But if you lay down 128 tracks you’ve got ultimate flexibility. I’m not sure the best art comes out of that. Brian Eno talks about that a lot, how in his studios he wants less options. You’re more creative when you have less options because then you can worry about what you’re doing as opposed to worrying about what the setting is. If our aesthetic is to try and make it sound perfect, then what if the meaning of the poetry isn’t enhanced by a perfect recording? Then we’ve just fought against ourselves. Sometimes the meaning of the poetry is better served by a rougher context.
[By recording perfectly] you can miss what’s referred to as “the idiot glee of sound,” like when you’re doing something with your guitar and it shouldn’t work but it does. You get this weird look on your face; you’re so amazed. It’s that obsession of looking for something interesting sonically. I’m fairly convinced that’s one of the things that makes contemporary records kind of boring – there’s just not enough noise. That’s why I like listening to glitch music. I like how they use a lot of sound that would normally be thrown away.
Speaking of Minner Bucket releases and Americana groups, I really enjoyed the Atomic Duo tape you released [Initial Transmissions from the Lost Continent of Mu]. I thought it was a really good sonic fit, especially for Silas Lowes’ songwriting.
Didn’t you think that from a folk band perspective the tape sounded great? The noise floor and that sort of dark timbre of the tape I think is really flattering to that type of music. It’s like staging a one act play. You’ve got a backdrop and a table, and you stage it with just that. I think that certain things are just more interesting on cassette.
Could you talk about some other upcoming projects on Minner Bucket?
I’ve got quite a good little roster of people. I’ve got this guy Steve Mannion, who’s one of my oldest friends. He was in this great punk band from New Jersey called the Raging Lamos. He’s a great cartoonist. He does a comic called Fearless Dawn. I’ve got another friend of mine Philip Saylor, who goes by the name Stripmall Ballads. And there’s also a really interesting singer/songwriter/mandolin player up here called Matt Sircely.
A lot of the things I’m doing are just going to be limited runs. Like 100 or 200, with hand-drawn covers. The aesthetic I’m trying to create is that if you buy a tape off of Minner Bucket it’s like a friend made you this tape.
My new project that I’m working on now is called the Jam Box Tapes. I’m going to do a series of 100 cassettes. They will all be different, with hand-drawn covers, signed and numbered. I’m going to sit down and have these 38 minute Hi Vox tapes and I’m just going to play right into a cassette jam box. I’m going to sing old hymns, Bad Livers songs, stuff from my catalogue, cover songs. [I’m going to record] effects, warming up, ambient experiences – anything I can think of. Each one’s going to have different material on it. It will be unmixed, unedited recording straight to cassette boombox.
It’s great that you can be on a major label like ATO and still be able to do all these other projects.
Yeah, like I thought it was really cool that they put out that Poison cassette. I’ve been selling a bunch of those on tour. It was a really cool move. I didn’t think a label of that stature would even have a place to put tapes in the warehouse. That was really exciting. The duplications on it sound really good. It’s been a real blessing.
You can check out Danny Barnes’ latest tour dates here