Tim Barry | Keepin’ It Simple

No matter the musical style, in one form or another, Tim is one hell of a storyteller.

So, there we were. Tim Barry, a dog named Emma, a tub of Miller Lite and me. In a room with nothing but two chairs and a sink. It was awesome.

Tim Barry has been a recognized name since he began fronting the influential punk band Avail in 1990. 1994 and ’95 saw him also playing with (Young) Pioneers, another Richmond, Virginia punk band. Starting in 2005, he began releasing solo work as a folk singer. No matter the style, in one form or another, he is one hell of a storyteller.

Tim has been promoting his latest release, 28th & Stonewall, since the beginning of this year. I was stoked to chat with him for a bit in the aforementioned tiny room above Off Broadway about tour, music, news and, of course, Emma the dog.

A lot of the interviews I’ve read with you are some of the same questions, so I’ve tried to mix it up a little bit here.

God, thank you!
(both laugh)

You are a self proclaimed “current events junkie,” reading any paper you can find. Of all the papers you read, what’s your favorite and what’s your favorite section to read?

I always start with the business section. On daily papers, I start with the business section first, then I go to the front page. And I love reading the Metro section, like the local news, in each city that I’m in.

It’s funny that you say that because this tour, for some reason… Like, tours have cycles and you get these rhythms and for some reason on this tour I haven’t found the reading rhythm. So, I haven’t been reading much. But beyond that, I love to read the weekly papers, too, because they have investigative journalists that are writing about their area always tend to have just a really neat, unique angle. I feel like I learn so much about cities that I go through when I read weeklies, in particular. And I seem to retain the geography better in my head in those situations.

But I don’t know that I have a favorite paper. I love reading the Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, and of course, you know, the Village Voice, and all that kind of stuff. Like big city papers: the Minneapolis Weekly, whatever the fuck it’s called. I mean my heart’s always in Richmond so I love Style Weekly, our weekly paper there. And even as bad as it is, the Times Dispatch, which is our conservative [newspaper]. (laughs) I say that because it’s what the stereotype is about our daily paper.

It’s sad to me that papers are going away ‘cause I’m not the type of person who wakes up and reads the internet. I’ve just never been able to do it and I don’t dislike the idea of it or think that it’s stupid that other people do it. I think it’s because I’m 39 years old and I’m used to reading text on paper, where most people I know, nowadays, get it straight from the source, which is the internet. But at the same time, I also have a weird connection because I have friends who are publicists and writers, like investigative journalists, and publicists for bands, and things like that and their careers are going down the fucking drain because people aren’t reading print anymore. It’s hard. Everybody’s searching for ways to adapt and acclimate to new technology and also make a living at the same time. So it’s semi disappointing but…
That’s a long rant for a short question but there ya go.

Being on tour for pretty much the last 20 years has taken you all around the world. What are some of your favorite places to play?

To play or to go to? It could be different questions…

Either, or.

Yeah, because I’ve never had, like, a place. I set little goals. I get really excited to go to places like Lawrence, Kansas, where I was last night, because I love that little town. I love getting in early, dropping my gear off, and walking for, like, three fucking hours. Going down to the train yards and talking to the hobos that are down there. Or going over on the levee and walking on the whole thing for an hour, which is what I did this morning. So, I set these little goals. And, yeah, I’ve been lucky, man, after this tour I go straight to Australia and then I go over to Europe.

I’m definitely one of those people that lives in the day so there’s never really a favorite place. It’s just like a collection of moments, you know what I mean? (laughs) It sounds kinda hippie-ish. I mean, there’s some places where I draw bigger crowds and the shows are really intense, because of that, that satiate my ego in some way. But then the flip is I look forward to the shows that only five people show up to, on the other hand, because it depletes my ego, which is really important for someone who plays music.
We all, as humans, inherently have fragile egos but musicians and artists and writers — they try to peak them, so I love when mine gets busted. And I like playing for five people more than I like playing for 500 generally. So with that said, it goes different ways. Too many big shows rots my brain and inflates my ego. Too many small shows does the opposite and makes me wonder why I’m doing anything I do. And that all is based on geography and where you’re going.

But then there’s the small things, like, I love walking in new places. And I’ve never had a chance to walk around this part of St. Louis as much as I have today and it’s been a wonderful time. The houses are fucking amazing! They remind me a lot of a mix between London, England, and Richmond, Virginia. The architecture. And everybody’s so friendly, at least in this area.

It was a good day for it, too. Yesterday was cold and rainy and horrible and today was awesome.

I know.

So that’s good! It’s a good day to be here. Ok, being on the road so much means you often have to leave behind your two cats and then Emma when you can’t bring her. Is it hard for you to leave them?

Yeah, it’s an enormous source of anxiety for me to leave, especially if I’ve been home for a couple of months because we find a routine in our lives: we pretty much wake with the sun and then go back in the shed [Tim’s chosen place of residence] when it gets dark and spend most of our time outside. Doing whatever. I’ve been lucky that I don’t have to work these days, making just enough with music to get by, though I do still find myself working just ‘cause that’s another habit.

Yeah, it’s a difficult thing but once I get it out of my head, once I’m a week out, week and a half, two weeks out, it’s kinda like I won’t even call home ‘cause it’s easier to forget it and live on the road instead of living in your head, if that makes sense.

It’s funny that you bring that up ‘cause now that I’m back on this side of the country, after tonight’s show, I’ll be one day from home. And that’s when my head, everything just slows the fuck down, and where the tour goes quick, now it goes slow. Like, oh my god, I could be home tomorrow if I needed to. The transmission’s fucked up…

So, yeah, now, starting today it was that ‘oh my god, I can’t wait to see the cats,’ ‘oh my god, I gotta do this and that on the shed,’ ‘oh my god, I’ve gotta put the garden in the ground ‘cause it’s getting to be spring.’

Who watches them [the pets] while you’re gone?

I live in a shed right now. I’ve lived there for three years and the people who are renting the house that I live behind are in charge of the animals. In fact, when I come home from Australia at the beginning of May, it’s my turn. I watch their animals for a week or two while they’re on the west coast. So it’s a nice trade off. It’s way overdue. They deserve a vacation and I deserve to be stuck at home to watch my animals.
(looking at the dog)
What you think, Emma?

I love that she’s named after a feminist anarchist, by the way. [note: Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was an anarchist, a feminist, and one of the first gay-rights advocates. Fun fact!]

Well, that’s what she is.

[and then the interview is cut off by an incoming phone call on my end. I thought iPhones could do everything?!]

[Tim had been telling the story of how he adopted Emma]

Yeah, I guess people returned her twice because they thought she was going to be a gnarly guard dog or something like that, but she’s just tiny. And she’s perpetually looked like a puppy. The last people had named her Dixie – of course – and then they returned her. So when I got her, her name was Dixie and I had, like, three names for her and she just does her own thing. She’s her own dude. I was like, ‘she’s my little anarchist.’ I was like, ‘Emma’s a good name for an anarchist.’ ‘Cause she’s got her own fucking thing going on. Yeah, Emma Goldman, that’s her name.

She’s a sweetheart. Let’s talk about some of your inspirations for writing. Was there anything in particular while you were writing this last album, 28th & Stonewall, or is it usually a collection of inspirations?

It’s so weird ‘cause I don’t sit down to write; I never have. Honestly, the only way I can explain it is: songs show up. And there’s no agenda. It’s either syllables, a melody, a guitar part, whatever it is, and then it all just flows. The topic almost comes as an after fact. I’ll finish a song and be like, oh my god, that’s a total relationship song. It’s just subconscious shit. I’m sure I could streamline and steal a whole bunch of shit from stuff I’ve read, you know, that’s just retained. Sometimes I’ll be listening to something like Wilco or Chuck Ragan or Townes Van Zandt or somebody and I’ll just hear a line and suddenly that line will conjure some emotion that turns into another line or a rip-off or a change of one of theirs and then, there you go! It just happens.

I have so many songs, man, that I’ve never recorded. That are in my head or are just on tapes and stuff like that. When it’s time for me to go into the studio, I just record until I’m like, ‘oh wait a second, that’s like 40 minutes of music we should just stop now.’ Or I’ll take whatever songs and I’m like, ‘oh these work best in this sequence.’

(looking down at Emma) She watches me a lot (both laugh).

But you know, ‘this works in this sequence well.’ So yeah, there’s no agenda for the new  one. One time I decided I was gonna make a concept album. That’s still in the back of my head. If you ask that question with the concept album, then I’ll be able to tell you. Is that what you call that album? Like, a story album or whatever it is.

Yeah, I was noticing with this new one that there’s a lot of different kinds of songs but they all work together. But it doesn’t seem like they’re trying to work together…

I try to make albums not just a record with a couple songs that people want to pull. So, I think my favorite records are the ones were there are a couple of stand out songs. And then later, there’s more stand out songs. And then later, there’s more stand out songs. Because with my own music, I don’t know which one’s a stand out and which one’s not. It’s hard to hear that shit with perspective.

Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not really good about talking about music ‘cause I don’t really listen to that much music. I don’t collect any music. I collect photographs of, like, freight trains. You know, some people collect records. Music’s a huge part of my live but it’s hard for me to talk about. I don’t understand it (laughs). I’ve just always had it. It’s like some people’ve got religion — I’ve got music.

It probably gives you a different perspective on things, too, to not be totally ensconced in music all the time.

Yeah (nodding his head).

Well, geez, here comes another music question sorry (laughs): You’ve said that being a solo musician is, and I’m quoting, “the ultimate freedom” as far as being able to speak for yourself. But do you ever miss working with a band?

No. Not at all. Sometimes I think it would be fun to collaborate with other writers. Dude, even if you were ever in the studio with me, no one knows any of the songs until they get in there. I don’t practice. I don’t go, ‘hey, let’s all get together, 11 piece brass band’ or ‘Josh Small, let’s sit down and work these songs out’ or ‘Caitlin, (my sister) let’s work these out.’ They come into the studio with a fresh ear. And I’m like, ‘improvise!’ I’ll direct them or they’ll direct me. It’s to that point where I abhor the idea of even rehearsing.

Which is funny because probably the next tour, I’ll bring a full band. Which is gonna be a lot of rehearsing. I think once people get used to this whole folk singer thing, I’m gonna throw it for a loop.

But, no, not at all. Anyone who’s in a band for a long time knows it’s a pain in the ass (laughing) writing songs with other people. Not saying I don’t love everyone in Avail and that it wasn’t a great time but it’s, like, liberating almost, at this point.

Ok, and to aspiring artists — be it photographers, musicians, painters, poets, anything — as someone who’s done it for a long time, what’s one piece of advice you could give them or anything you have to say about it [being an artist]?

It depends on what the person or people aspire to do. There’s no such thing as success anymore but if you aspire to have people… If you want to share your creativity with the masses, the best thing to do is get the fuck off the computer and present it to them in person. I feel like a lot of people write great songs or great words or take great photographs or make great paintings and then they sit around and post them online and hope for the best. Nothing’s ever gonna happen if you don’t set up an art show. Even if you don’t have the resources, do it in your fucking house. Make a flyer. (laughs) Or play a show at someone’s house.

Man, there’s so many other ways to do shit other than fucking lurking on the fucking computer. That’s the main advice I could give anyone. And there’s no real way to make money off of this shit anymore. As I said, I’m just scraping by at this point but it’s always important to have other trades that you can fall back on. Thankfully, I do.

We sat around, finishing our beers, and talked for a bit about iPhones and dogs. Following our interview were entertaining sets by both the Rum Drum Ramblers and the Doc Ellis Band. Then the highlight of the evening, of course, was Tim’s electric solo performance. Just him and a guitar and a couple of beers made for one of the most intense shows I’ve ever seen: Tim singing with pure heart, people stamping their feet and clapping their hands, others singing along to every song, a handful of kids calling out praises like we were in church. And like Tim said, some folks have religion; we have our music. | Nicole Madden

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