Tim Barry Interview | ThePunkSite.com
|Band: Tim Barry
||Member: Tim Barry
Suburban Home Records
Wrongbar - Toronto, Onatrio
February 6th, 2010
There are not a lot of musicians out there like Tim Barry. If you know him, you know his history as the front man for Avail who are, in my opinion, one of the greatest, most underrated, and highly influential punk rock bands around. You probably also know his brilliant simple solo acoustic folk music that he puts his name on now. I was really looking forward to this interview and talking to Tim for 20 plus minutes was just like listening to one of his records. There were happy moments, educational moments, introspective moments, intelligent moments, and some sad moments. After our interview over a couple of Labatt 50’s, Tim took the stage with a broken hand and a five or six beer buzz and delivered a solo performance more powerful than most five man bands could ever give.
LB: OK let’s start out by introducing yourself and talk a little about the tour and musicians involved.
TB: Well I’m Tim Barry from Richmond, Virginia and I have been touring eastern Canada for the past ten days with Chuck Ragan with Dave Gaunt, The Cavaliers and tonight Dave Hause is joining us. I’m touring to promote my new record that just came out - 28th and Stone Wall - which is on Suburban Home records. I know I sound filthy by plugging myself but I don’t care it’s the only way I can introduce myself right now.
LB: Ha-ha well that’s what we are here for. So how is the relationship with Suburban Home records?
TB: It’s the same record label I have always been on to tell you the truth. Ever since I started making this hippie ass acoustic music.
LB: What is the significance to the title of the record 28th and Stone Wall? I’m sure there is a story.
TB: I have this weird thing where all my record titles come from this geographical standpoint, which I didn’t even realize until I was doing this record. My first record was called Laurel Street Demos, which I wrote on Laurel Street in Richmond Virginia’s Organ Hill district. Next one was Rivanna Junction, which was where I had a camp, and was spending a lot of time drinking and riding freight trains. My next album was called Manchester which is the part of the city I live in Richmond leading to 28th and Stone Wall where I wrote the album in a shed at those cross streets.
LB: So it’s like a GPS location from where you write and record.
TB: Ya it’s weird but it’s also like a document of where my songs are being written.
LB: I want to ask you about, in my opinion, the most powerful song on the album: Prosser’s Gabriel. Tell me a little more about the man who inspired the song for those who haven’t heard.
TB: The song is written about slave Gabriel. I prefer to call him just Gabriel. In 1800 in Ricoh County, which is a county that surrounds the city of Richmond. Well basically there was a huge slave uprising in Haiti and the Dominican Republic area. There were all these French folks who fled the area and came to Virginia. This was at a time when slave labor was moving out of fields and into trades. The French really influenced the enslaved blacks and well the blacks got the notion to well kill fucking white people to free themselves from slavery. It’s a phenomenal story, which has been totally forgotten. Most people don’t even know about it. I credit my knowledge of secret aspects or alternative aspects of history to writer Howard Zinn who just passed away a week and a half ago. If it wasn’t for his writing I don’t think I would have ever fully understood history from a working people’s perspective. I think I just would have known the mainstream culture fed bullshit that everybody else was in a regurgitated public school. But long story short it was a failed insurrection for various reasons and Gabriel Prosser was hung with dozens of other slaves who took part in the attempted revolt. I guess the premise of the song is here we are in 2010 and Gabriel Prosser is buried below a parking lot owned by the city of Richmond’s biggest University. The song is meant to bring light to the absurdity that there is a neglected class of people in Richmond area. There are fucking well-manicured gravesites for white people and nothing for poor black people forced into slavery.
LB: But they will park their $40,000 cars over top of them?
TB: It’s fucking embarrassing. There are stereotypes that go along with this. When I’m standing here in Canada and say I’m from Virginia people think I’m racist. The other night in St. Catherine’s some dude just rolled up on me and blatantly called me a racist for no fucking reason maybe other than the fact geographically where I am from. I don’t need to defend myself because nobody knows a fucking thing about myself except what I give them. But the point is that I live in a city that’s 54% black and it’s embarrassing and I feel the priorities are going in the wrong direction. I’m not saying that tax based money needs to go into perpetuating the reminder that whites enslaved blacks but there should be significant monuments that equal out the ridiculousness of Confederate monuments that are all over the fucking city. To me it would mean a lot. Almost like a public apology.
LB: I know the album has just been released but what, if any, feedback have you received from the black community in your hometown?
TB: Oh ya. The descendents of Gabriel Prosser contacted me and their family historian archived the lyrics and any video footage they could find. The family invited me to their family reunion. The lyrics were printed in the family reunion program and I sang the song for everyone at the reunion. People in the black community have latched on to the concept of the song. A lot of anarchists and activists are working towards a goal of some sort of middle ground of having something done in the area. There is a lot of activity revolving around all of this. I’m blessed. I’m lucky I can play music and that some people enjoy it and understand the message I’m pushing although I will not say that all my music is message based and generally for me it’s just therapy and that song Prosser’s Gabriel is therapy for me because I’m a thinker and an analyzer and that story made me kind of insane.
LB: So was that the ultimate feedback/praise then for a song? Being invited to this man’s family reunion and creating a stir of energy around this man’s legacy?
TB: That to me has been more important than anything. It’s the same sense I got when my mom called me and said she was proud of me for doing this record. She listens to this song Downtown VCU and tells me it’s her favorite. That’s about as rewarding as it gets in terms of music for me. And then to take it to the next level where the music crosses the racial and economic barriers. There is not a day that I don’t feel lucky for doing what I'm doing. On Monday I will be 39 years old and if someone said to me when I was 23 - well 25 is usually retirement age for musicians so I would have never believed that I would still be here doing this today. But at the same time I fully understand that it’s just music and some people like it and some don’t. No hard feelings no harm, no foul.
LB: So as a 25-year-old singing and touring with Avail in the punk rock trenches did you ever see yourself as a 39 year old solo folk artist?
TB: Hell no. But the thing with Avail was that all of our songs began on an acoustic guitar. At least 60% of the songs started out acoustic. That’s how we wrote. That’s how we grew up so there was no real transfer. It shocked some people but to us it was how we did it. But no, I didn’t think when I started playing shows and what not that anyone would give a flying fuck to begin with. Everything with music and me, well not everything but a lot of things, have been an accident. Nobody in Avail thought we would ever play for anybody other than our friends from high school. And then we started traveling all over the world before we knew it. We never got that popular but we got around. To me the early solo stuff was just kind of personal for me but people seemed to like it. So I wrote Rivanna Junction and kept going with it. I couldn’t believe people liked it. I then started touring more and I brought my sister out on tour with me and my buddy Josh Small. It’s really quite neat.
LB: Do you see a ratio of your fans right now that know you from Avail as opposed to those who just may know you as Tim Barry?
TB: That’s a good question you know man because early on it was just Avail fans trying be a part of it because they are awesome dedicated people to me as I am to them. It was generally that kind of crowd but somewhere along the way during Rivanna Junction where so many people started coming up to me saying “I don’t even know who Avail is” And the neatest thing is watching the change especially in the United States where suddenly people who were interested in punk rock are now getting interested in other stuff. Then I started looking out into the crowd and seeing 18 year olds and fifty year olds and everyone in-between. Some are wearing flannel shirts and some look like punk rockers and others look like train riding kids. And I think this is fucking amazing.
LB: Everybody just starts coming together.
TB: Which is exactly what Avail did. We had hardcore kids; straight edge kids, punk kids and normal people all coming to our shows. So I’m like holy crap I can’t believe this is happening again. What thrills me is the age demographic where it’s not uncommon where there are 40 year olds comfortable hanging out at our shows.
LB: It’s the way it should be man.
TB: I agree because that was the intent of independent music when I grew up with it. Music for everyone not just white kids with backpacks and X’s on their hands.
LB: Since going solo you have been cranking out the music. Does the digital age make it easier to write record and spread the good word about your music?
TB: Dude it was about two months ago my publicist Vanessa was “get Twitter get Facebook” and all that shit. I generally try to stray away from that stuff because I’m not technically savvy and holy crap I was thinking the other day that the ethics that I grew up with in independent music are right here on my laptop computer. I have to use these tools. It’s free. It gives me the autonomy to not have to deal with anyone. I can just do this on my own. It’s crazy, so I embrace the technology. I’m not a Luddite nor do I feel it needs to encompass my life. So I’m fairly blunt on that sense. Like record out NOW! Or there aren’t a lot of correspondents but what a neat format. Looking back on it I mean I set up a tour to Europe with a coin duplication machine on a pay phone in 1994 or using a fax machine because we didn’t have enough money to pay the phone bill. The only way you could get word out was making hand bills and stand out in front of shows to pass them out. Or we would put all our money together to take out a 1/4 page adds in Maximum Rock’n Roll. Now I can send out a message on My Space that says touring in Canada next week and 10,000 people can read it. It’s crazy. It’s worth taking advantage of.
LB: Your lyrics are so brutally honest and open. They say a lot about your character, morals, ethic, and personality and when I listen to your music I kind of feel like I know you. Does that ever bother you or make you feel vulnerable that your writing reveals so much about you as a person or is that intentional?
TB: I don’t know any other way of writing. I’ve never understood bands that create their image before their music or just sing singular topics. Sometimes it gets me in trouble because people think they know me and they don’t. Sometimes my openness may bum people out. I write almost all my songs in first person and that does not mean all my songs are about me. I guess sometimes when people know me and they hear a song they think Jesus Christ I think Tim is singing about me. I have that weird empathy gene were I really really really care about the people I love and I can’t get that shit out of my head and it comes out in my songs. I guess it’s just really important to know that not all songs in first person are about me. People come up to me and think I killed my sister’s husband or guys in the military write to me and thank me for my military service because of my song South Hill which is about how the military preys on the poor. And guys think I spent time in Fallujah in the first wave of the Gulf War and I’m like hold off guys it’s just a story. There is another song on my new album called Downtown VCU, and once again I never went to college. The song is about this guy who couldn’t get this girl because he was a college student and she was a working class girl and she thinks it’s stupid to go to college. Like I said I never went to college or university but I wrote it in first person just because but it’s kind of based on a true story. I was at my local bar and this old lady asked me to dance. We were playing the jukebox and she said to me “ Are you a real man or some college student?’’ And I just said well I guess I’m a real man. But that’s where the song came from. So you see where I find this stuff. But yes the honesty thing can be brutal. That record Manchester is fucking gnarly. I don’t know if you know it?
LB: I know all your stuff.
TB: It’s about all the hardest parts of my life. That one is just intimate to me. The new record is a lot more light hearted.
LB: I would say Rivanna Junction is pretty intimate too wouldn’t you say?
TB: Yes it is come to think of it.
LB: Yeah, I mean Wait at Milano just gets me every time and I’m not even really sure what it’s about.
TB: That’s a rough song. That’s how I broke my hand the other night.
LB: I was going to ask you about that. What happened there?
TB: Somebody disrespected me onstage right before I was about to play that song.
LB: Really? Where did that happen?
TB: Ottawa. Basically I was trying to explain the song. I mean its folk music so I talk between songs. It’s just what I do. Some people don’t like that and some do. So this guy just started heckling me while I was trying to explain how my best friend Travis killed himself two years ago last week. I found him hanging in a tree. It was so morbid. He just was hanging over my head. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to deal with. So anyway I was standing on stage and I was saying that I wrote this song with my buddy Travis in mind because he is chronically depressed and I wrote it for him before he passed away and never told him it was about him. And I was quickly explaining that this song is about now and living lightly and more kindly in ways that perpetuate good so that there are things left for the people coming after us and as I’m trying to explain this the fucking guy just keeps heckling me brutally, so I invite him onstage. I said no one can hear you so I gave him a microphone. So I said now that you have had your say I’m going to explain to you again what this song is about. So I repeated my words “My best friend Travis killed himself” and he replied “well he doesn’t sound like much of a friend” and I just beat the living shit out of him on stage. And I am not at all proud of that because I tried deeply not to be the person I used to be because I used to fight a lot. It’s not healthy. I just snapped you know. I still don’t know what he meant. But he certainly couldn’t envision what was going through my head when he said that. The slow pause before the physical confrontation took me back to the day I left for tour when I was with Travis’s family you know what I mean? With Luke, Travis’s little brother trying to explain to him two years later about his brother’s death. Those are the things I’m seeing in my head as I’m punching this guy. I fucking hate beating people up but don’t fuck with me on my stage.
LB: Was that it for the show then?
TB: Fuck no dude, I beat the shit out of him off the stage and got back up there and explained to the people why this upset me so bad and played the rest of my songs.
LB: And that was that?
TB: Then my goddamn hand is all swollen up. I went to the doctors after, to the ER and sat there from midnight to eight AM and never saw anybody.
LB: Yes, don’t believe Michael Moore - our health care system isn’t flawless. Did you at least get some free healthcare?
TB: No they said they were charging me. I should have given them a false address but I’m too honest of a person.
LB: I want to ask you about where you find the inspiration for some of your song titles. I understand you’ve come across them etched on boxcars while riding the rails?
TB: There is a man named Buzz Blur who is a retired railroad worker out of Garden Arkansas. He is about 67 years old now and some people on the railroad call him Colossus of Roads but for thirty plus years he’s been marking on boxcars and different freight trains as he walks through the yard. He’s a car knocker and railroad workers carry oil bars like chalk bars and he does a profile of a cowboy hat. It’s called a railway moniker and workers and hobos are famous for doing that since trains began traveling the USA. And I was enamored by this moniker. I would see it everywhere. No matter where I was riding a train I would see this Colossus of Roads moniker and underneath each moniker there would always be a quote. And I started writing down all these anonymous quotes. Idle Idyllist, Church of Level track, Avoiding Catatonic Surrender, Dog Bumped and I don’t know why but I catalogued hundreds of these quotes. And I started thinking about using them as song titles because I started finding relevance between the quotes and my lyrics. Church of Level Track perfectly fit the lyrics to a song I wrote. So through snail mail I tracked Buzz down. I found someone who somehow knew something about him and wrote him a letter and sent him some music to this 67-year-old retired railroad worker. So I asked him if I could use his quotes as song titles and he was thrilled. Now thanks to technology we correspond and I write him every couple of months. So then we were getting close to putting out the album “Manchester” and I didn’t have any art for it so I paid him $500 to do a stencil of my ugly face for the record and to write out all the song titles. So we have had a relationship since then and I got to meet him in person. Man I’m surrounded by everyone I load trucks with to the girls I work with because I work at a ballet company, so all the girls that dance to the master choreographers to the fucking red necks that I work with or the thugs that I drink with or the homeless guys that I ride trains with. I’m so blessed to be around the people I am but my point is that I’m surrounded by all these famous people and nothing ever scares me but when I met Buzz Blur in Little Rock Arkansas, I was playing a show and he came to watch I was nervous for a week man. I was shaking like a motherfucker, and just like bam we had supper together and his wife Emmy and me; well it was just wonderful. I still get nervous corresponding with him. You have to think for years I have been building this thing in my mind about who this man is. I didn’t know if he was a hobo or a train worker or young kid. It’s an interesting fucking life I’m lucky enough to live.
LB: Well we are getting tight for time are you good for a couple of more questions?
TB: Sure fire away.
LB: Well back to the freight train hopping. What’s your favorite stretch of track to set out for in the USA?
TB: It will always be the short 120 mile run out of Lynchburg Virginia on CSX. The train line parallels the James River and then it takes me right home. It’s always going to be my favorite ride. Lynchburg to Folt Yard Richmond Virginia. The train is right on the river so I go down there and Lynchburg is a real small town, you know with old flour mills and tobacco fields, so I take the NS line in on the Southside of town. I’ll get a bucket and fill it with ice, a twelve pack of beer, food, and just walk down the river by the train line and camp out for a couple of days until the Q303 comes in and works the yard every night until about nine. I’ll have a fire and just camp until I find the train I want to ride and then I just go for it along the James River. Like I said it will always be my favorite ride. I call it the loop.
LB: So what’s essential backpacking for a trip around the loop?
TB: Well I use my dead friend Travis’s old pack. It’s actually a small Canadian military pack. I just throw in some coveralls, worm clothes, some trunks, food, whiskey, weed, beer, and oh I have an Ipod now too. So I bring that. I listen to Pink Floyd The Wall now when I’m riding freight trains now.
LB: I wouldn’t have guessed that you embraced that technology.
TB: Well it’s funny because my friends were laughing at me and asked when was the last time you bought yourself something material like that? And I was like Uh last week. And they were like no you need an Ipod. And I hate it. It’s like I listen to National Public Radio, and our local independent radio station, I listen to Townes Van Zandt, and Josh Small and that’s it. So I have a $250 Ipod that can fit a million songs and I listen to the same goddamn three albums. But now on the freight trains it’s fun as shit listening to Floyd.
LB: I didn’t want to touch too much on your old band Avail, but I have to ask what was it like playing one of the last shows ever at CBGB’s opening for the Bad Brains?
TB: Oh dude it was a real privilege and it was really neat how they ended up doing that. I guess they didn’t announce or invite any bands until a week before, so it was a Tuesday when Jake, who books our tours and shows in New York City, called me up and asked me if I wanted to open up for the Bad Brains during the last week of CBGB’s for one thousand dollars cash on Tuesday? I was like yup. And I didn’t tell the guys at all. We always have meetings before we agree to anything because the guys have kids. I just called everyone and told them to get a babysitter because we are playing one of the last shows ever at CB’s opening for Bad Brains. And of course the Bad Brains were profoundly disappointing. They were awful. But who cares? It was still the Bad Brains and they changed my life so I respect them even if they are now awful. I just really regret not kicking out a section of the wall from that place. Avail’s very first show in NYC was at CBGB’s in 1989. God I’m getting old. I’ll be 39 on Monday. Almost half way to eighty!
LB: Very cool. So last question. What’s the short/long term plan for Tim Barry?
TB: Go home tomorrow and see my dog Emma and my cat Burnside! And then I go on tour with Against Me for about a week and then right after that I go on a solo five-week tour of the US and then I go to Australia with Chuck Ragan, Frank Turner, Ben Nichols, and Tom Gabel for a Revival Tour down under. Then I go to Europe in July and then at some point I may settle down and have kids.
LB: Well thanks again for taking the time. I really appreciate and enjoyed this.