Music — December 3, 2018 18:18 — 0 Comments

Spin Doctors Front Man, Chris Barron, Talks Comfy Sweaters, Befriending John Popper And Writing Songs

Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, residents heard a lot about Chris Barron, the fun-loving, golden-voiced front man for the famed 90s rock band, Spin Doctors. From rumors spreading about the blond singer crooning from his window atop Farrington’s music shop near the library to hearing about his myriad poems depicting odd characters and indelible, quirky turns of phrase.

Barron, whose band has been making music for thirty years, has seen and done a great deal in the business. Of course, everyone knows Spin Doctors from their two hits, “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” from the 1991 album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite. But Barron and the band have other strong songs from that record to go along with a catalogue of rich albums and a swath of stories about the their formation, years on the road and becoming international rock stars.

But to look back on their three decades of success, we caught up with Barron to ask him about first befriending John Popper, the harmonica playing front man for the rock band, Blues Traveler, in high school English class. We also asked Barron, who recently released his solo record, Angels and One-Armed Jugglers, and who will play the Rockwood Music Hall Dec. 30th, about learning to write music and how he first started singing at a young age.

How did you start singing and developing your signature tone?

I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. And at some point, a friend in Princeton, Ben Lewis, introduced me to the Princeton High School choir. Ben had perfect pitch and he knew I was trying to sing really high. I hadn’t thought about being in choir much, I never thought it was an attainable thing to be a singer for a living. But I got into the Princeton High School Choir as a result of that introduction.

The choir went to Europe after my first year. So, I’m like 16-years-old in Austria and Germany and France just because I could sing. That made a huge impression on me. The fact that I got across the Atlantic Ocean just on virtue of being able to sing. I learned a lot about singing in the coir – about singing curiously and singing curious music. And when I got back to school, I made the decision that I was going to be an artist. I stopped taking math and science classes and I just did choir, music theory, two French classes and two art classes. People were like, “How are you going to make a living?” I didn’t believe yet that I could be a rock star but just to wind them up a bit, I said I was going to be a rock star or a hunter-gatherer. That went over well in Princeton, as you can imagine.

But to answer the second part of your question – I’m lucky. People tell me time and again that they can recognize my voice quickly, that nobody else sounds like me, which I just think is a personality thing. For me, the purpose of virtuosity is not to be able to do some kind of gymnastics, but it’s always been to get out of your own way and express your personality purely. I don’t like singing that sounds like the physical manifestation of a singer’s insecurity. I try to sing really unguarded and unaffected. Just the emotion and my voice. You know, lots of guys in the 70s got this [chortles low and aggressively] and I always thought that it was so affected. So, I just try to get out of my own way.

I remember hearing tales of you serenating people from your apartment window above Farrington’s Music in Princeton. What do you remember about those nights?

I had the apartment above Farrington’s. And that spot by the window was right were the couch was. So it was just a nice place to sit and play guitar. When the weather was nice, I would open up the window and when the weather was really nice, I would sit in the window and just play. People would gather below and just listen to me play. I wasn’t really serenading people, per sé. I was just playing in the window and a crowd would gather. Once I knew people would start gathering and listening if I played up there, I started doing it more, it became a thing. But initially it was just a beautiful day and I’d sit there and play. But that was a really nice time. I was maybe 19 or 20. At that age, for me, I didn’t know if people wanted to hear me play. So, that was a life-affirming thing. I played and people liked it.

You are a rather loquacious lyricist. What led you to be such a verbal, storytelling songwriter?

I’ve always admired people like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. When I reverse engineered their songwriting, their lyrics, a thought came to mind. I was like 14 or 15 and I remember thinking, “Oh, they’re making you see movies in your head with their lyrics.” I was instinctively drawn to that as a powerful songwriting technique. At John Witherspoon Middle School, I had the legendary English teacher, Eugene Daugherty, who was always urging us to describe and to show things rather than make assertions about the feelings of your characters. Rather than having them be nervous, he told us to make them do something with their hands, fiddle with an object. If you say, “I’m nervous,” you give the listener the opportunity to either believe you or not. But if you say, “I couldn’t find something to do with my hands,” then the listener is forced to come to a conclusion, forced to see something. I was always drawn to that kind of writing.

Can you talk about your friendship with John Popper?

John had a huge influence on me. He and I met in English class. We started out sitting across the classroom from each other in those, like, chair-desks. But as the year moved on, we were allowed to move our desks. So before the first semester was over, we were sitting next to each other. We were both wise-asses. Our hands were always up and we talked in class. We didn’t always agree but we always were coming at things from our own angle. We were drawn to each other because each guy saw the other as an individual and a thoughtful person. I was really glad for it because I’d seen John around school and heard him play the harmonica. He’d been this mysterious figure to me. I just thought he was so fucking cool. This big, Lone Ranger figure with a harmonica. He’d wear camo gear and a fedora and he played the fuck out of that goddamned harmonica. It was crazy the way that guy could pay. I’d never seen anybody in person play an instrument like that, with that intensity and savagery.

Eventually he invited me to hang out after school. He had a car and when we got to the car I asked if I could drive. He asked if I had a driver’s license and I said no. But he said okay and he hands me the keys. I’d never driven before. It had snowed the night before. The roads were plowed but this one road wasn’t plowed totally. So when we went around the corner, I got a little nervous and we skidded. I jammed on the brakes and we ended up running over a stop sign. Any normal person wouldn’t have let me drive their car ever again. But from then on John and I were always hanging out and he’d always let me drive. So, we’d drive and get lost and when we were lost we’d get out and play music and eventually find our way back home again, driving around until we found a road we thought led us back into Princeton.

What did you have to learn to navigate in your life as Pocket Full of Kryptonite began to take off?

I think the hardest thing is just all the expectations you’re balancing. You write your first album and no one is paying any attention. You’re just writing like a kid – it’s all finger painting and wondering what happens if you do this or that. Then you make a record and a bunch of people make a lot of money off you and you’re expected to repeat that success. There are people – I didn’t really realize this at the time, but people’s jobs were on the line. In an effort to continue the success for the company they worked for, they put a lot of pressure on me and made suggestions they thought were helpful. But when you’re a young person you never had that amount of input – and at times conflicting input – with people coming at your from every angle, it’s hard. Meanwhile, you’re trying to maintain relationships with friends and be the same person you’ve always been but also you’re kind of not. You’ve been around the world and changed your standing and grown in a way that most people haven’t, which is to say other people are concentrating on having a job and getting married and having kids and you have this career that has a life of its own. So, it’s pretty confusing. The hardest thing is to maintain your relationship with your creativity. It took me a really long time to get back to writing like a kid again.

The Spin Doctors were a part of this prolific New York City group of bands, from Blues Traveler to Phish and others. What did that era feel like for you while in the middle of it? 

That was a lot of fun. The great thing about playing improvisational music is that it invites musicians to step outside of their bands and sit in with each other and it emphasizes music as a form of communication between musicians but also between bands and their audience. I’ve always really liked the Phish guys, for example. I know Mike Gordon and Trey [Anastasio] fairly well to the point where over the years we run into each other a lot. In fact, I ran into them at a thing in New York and it was really pleasant, we had a lot of laughs. And I respect the shit out of them as musicians. With Blues Traveler, I was in an earlier incarnation of that band so I’m sort of an honorary member. There’s a lot of love there. I did a show opening for them in Ocean City, New Jersey, a couple months ago. I’m very fond of those guys. So, at the time, it was really exciting because we were all in these bands that we taking off, we were all hitting this success together.

Do you have a favorite moment from touring?

There were a lot of great moments. The first thing that pops into my head was one of the really long tours. During a six-to-eight week tour, somewhere between the third and fourth week everybody is kind of losing their mind. You haven’t really gotten into the absolute rhythm and swing of being on the road yet and you’re just fucking bored out of your mind. So, one of the big highlights of a tour like that is dinner. Dinner is usually around 5 o’clock. You know, for me, life in general is mostly bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, meal, bullshit, bullshit, gig, bullshit, bullshit. I remember being in my dressing room with the guys. I had just taken a shower and came out naked into the dressing room. The guys in the band were like, “I dare you to go to catering naked.” And I was like, “What will you give me if I do?” Everybody pulls out a $20 bill. Before I know it, there is like $140 on the coffee table. But I probably would have done it for free. So, I walked into catering stark naked and, well, it caused a commotion.

Where did you get all those comfy sweaters and hats you were known for? 

Yeah, the one in the “Two Princes” video was sort of a touchstone of the 90s – the hat in particular and that long sweater. I bought that hat for $6 on the street in New York City because I was broke and needed a hat. I thought it was a funky, cool hat. It was made out of really good wool. And I remember the shoot for the “Two Princes” video went really late. It was in December and it was at, like, two in the morning when we finally shot those last shots. I was sitting in hair and makeup and my coat was somewhere else. It was time to go and shoot all that stuff and the hair and makeup lady had that cozy sweater. I was like, “Fuck, I have to go outside and it’s freezing!” I came out of the trailer in that hat and her long sweater. The director was like, “What the fuck are you wearing?” But I was like, “Man, I’m cold.” And the director was like, “I don’t have time to argue just get in front of the camera.” That’s how that outfit came along. It wasn’t styled, it was just the warmest shit I had because I was fucking freezing.

How does it feel to play with the Spin Doctors today?

We’ve had our ups and downs as a band. We’ve broken up and gotten back together. Now the group is all the original guys and I just want to play with those guys. We’re like siblings. Thirty years we’ve been together. We are four guys with very distinct outlooks on life. Each one of us is very, very different from the other three. So, we don’t always get along. But there’s a very firm regard between us because we are the only four guys who went through what we went through. We really care about each other and love each other and we play so fucking well together. That’s been something that has been there from the first time we played together. At the same time, rather than the music and rapport becoming mundane or rote, I think it’s totally gotten richer and more deep between us, musically. We’re grateful to have the original lineup. If anybody gets abducted by aliens, I wouldn’t want to do it.

What are you working on now since the release of your solo record, Angels and One-Armed Jugglers?

Not a lot of people know that I play guitar but I’m a pretty accomplished guitar player. I’ve been taking lessons from the great guitar player and teacher, Woody Mann, who learned from a hero of mine, Reverend Gary Davis. I’ve been learning to play in this folk-gospel-blues fingerpicking style. I’ve always been super into fingerpicking but in the last couple of years I’ve decided I want to get really good at it, so I’ve been doing nothing but playing guitar lately. But, yeah, I made that [solo] record and I really feel like it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was really well received critically. But even when I was done with it, I thought that if it gets panned, I don’t care, because it’s exactly what I wanted to make. I really like how it came out so it being well received is doubly gratifying. I’ve been doing a lot of solo gigs lately, just me and the guitar, working really hard at playing, which is a great offset of being in Spin Doctors and playing in a really loud, powerful rock band. We’ve always modeled ourselves after bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin, these heavy trios with a singer. The guys in Spin Doctors are such great musicians and we play so well together that it’s super fun. But when I’m playing my solo stuff, it’s just nice to be me and a guitar. I’ve always been drawn to the single person with a guitar and a song.

What do you enjoy so much about Caturday?

That was a completely random and organic thing that I stumbled across. I had a really cute picture of my cat and I was like, “I’m going to post this picture of my cat!” But I wanted to use a hashtag. I wanted to find a cat hashtag. So I typed “#cat” and began going through the alphabet – “#cata-“ and “#catb-“ – and when I got to “u,” the “#caturday” hashtag popped up. It happened to be a Saturday so I posted the picture with #caturday. And the second I did, I had tons of people start replying to my tweets with pictures of their own cats, which I would retweet. Now I get so many that it’s impossible to retweet everyone. If you send me a nice picture of your cat, I’ll retweet it but sometimes I can’t even tell what the pictures are.

I have two cats. I never had cats but my wife got me into the whole cat thing. Now I actually fucking love my cats. When I first got Instagram, I was like, damn all I ever post are pictures of me and my cat. But someone told me, “You know, cats are the most popular things on the Internet.” I had no idea.

What’s the most important lesson you learned from 30 years in music?

That music is the most important thing. Different people get into different professions for different reasons and at different points in your life you, yourself, will be in it for different reasons. Certain times it’s about the adulation, other times it’s about the social aspect of it and certain kinds of gratification. But over time, I have slowly gravitated towards just getting better and better at music. Being a better and better singer, being a better and better songwriter and guitar player. In the end, if you keep pushing your virtuosity, and if you define it as a pursuit of the ability to express yourself truthfully through whatever it is – music, guitar playing, singing, writing, visual art, gymnastics – then I think it becomes its own reward and generally all the other things that you might be in it for – money, adulation – those things tend to fall into place if you keep your head screwed on right.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney