Katie Ellsweig recently gave us a wonderful interview she did with Avail front man and solo artist Tim Barry. She explained:
Tim Barry doesn't know why he writes songs. Sometimes it's because he's lonely, sometimes he's angry and sometime's he's had one too many beers down by the river James. Whether he's singing in seminal punk band Avail , or writing folk songs with his siblings, Barry makes sure that whatever comes out of his mouth also comes out of his heart. "Rivanna Junction," his debut solo effort, is a collection of acoustic guitars, violins, pianos and stories about a life lived hopping trains, driving trucks, writing songs and trying to keep up. Go ahead, ask Tim Barry if he's happy.
You work at the Richmond Ballet Theater, what do you do there?
You can walk down the street [in Virginia] and there are some of the most redneck mother fuckers you will ever meet, and then on that same street, you find some of the brightest.
I love ballet; itâs very strange. Weâre doing The Nutcracker, so Iâve got Tchaikovsky running through my head all day. Iâm a carpenter, but not quite the master carpenter so when I say that it seems deceiving. I take care of set pieces and drive a lot of trucks. Iâm in charge of a crew of about twelve people. The show opened on Friday but weâve been on tour with it since the beginning of the month.
Howâd you fall into that? Were you always interested in ballet?
I just kind of happened. I swear, everything in my life just happens. Years ago, the whole band lived in the same house and then one of the guys got married so everyone started bailing. We werenât touring like we were (9 months out of the year) so I was trying to find extra money. I started working as a stage hand and somehow after learning all the union shit and doing Wrestling matches, area concerts and Disney on ice, I started working at the ballet and never left.
I never really thought much on it (ballet). I worked my way up from a shop in the basement of the ballet just doing things here and there, and then I started running shows. If you listen to a band and you like the people in it, you pay more attention. You know, itâs the idea that one day your friends start a band and you like them a lot so youâre more interested in the music and where theyâre coming from. I got to know a lot of the dancers pretty well and I began to enjoy it. I donât know how you make a living out of dancing on your toes; these people have done it their whole lives and their bodies are just destroyed. Itâs got to be weird for them to quit at age thirty; those are the top dancers. Theyâre unbelievable. I love this bizarre, fucked up, twisted life of going out on the road, getting in fist fights and drinking and then coming home and working at the ballet. I play music and then I come home and help entertain the social elite.
You donât even have a computer, right?
Actually, I just got one and it has a virus. It barely works. Iâm that guy who never had a computer and still doesnât have a cell phone. I manage Avail and do all this solo work on my own and itâs really more work than I think anyone would understand so when Iâm home, I feel swamped. Even having a cell phone or the ability of bringing a phone with me would ruin that peace I feel when I leave my house. I think it becomes compulsive; I just got the computer and already Iâm checking it four times a day whereas when I didnât have one, I did it maybe once. My brother lives in Astoria, heâs a classical music composer making $10 per hour and heâs got one of those Blackberries. Basically, itâs an anchor. Heâs always working and anywhere he goes, he is expected to be working because the company gave it to him.
Well, you never leave your house so a Blackberry wouldnât exactly be practical for you.
I live three blocks from the river. The Neighborhood is called Oregon Hill. I donât have a lot of money, I like to drink, I donât like to go to bars and spend all of my money so I donât really leave. The beer store is right in the neighborhood and I spend all my time with my friends. When Iâm on tour, Iâm in bars and clubs every night and every day. I love it. Actually, I donât know if I love it or not anymore but itâs such a normal part of my life that itâs almost like Iâm as comfortable on the road as I am at home. Doing this solo tour is totally different. I have more autonomy and I donât have to be at some big venue at 3:00pm to do a sound check when we go on at midnight. Itâs just my sister, my friend Josh and I, and whomever else we want to bring with us.
Your brother and sister both played on the record. I know you mentioned your brother has a professional music background, but what about Caitlin?
She teaches violin. Also, anyone whoâs classically trained makes a lot of money playing weddings and sitting in for different orchestras and symphonies. Itâs almost sad how good she is and we just sit around drinking and playing. She can do anything. After friends will pass through town, we end up just playing music all night; she can be there playing with the best of them while Iâm sitting out because I canât understand the chord progression. Sheâs such an inspiration.
Thatâs so great that you can just play music with your family. Did you all grow up playing together?
Iâm 35 and my sister just turned 24, so thereâs an eleven year difference there. I grew up playing with my brother, and my mom played in the church Choir. I still have her guitar that she played while I was growing up. Of course, my sister is so much younger that she didnât stumble into it until much later. Iâm trying to get her to sing more, but sheâs just lacking the confidence. She has a beautiful voice; a younger voice. I think after another year or so sheâs just going to nail it.
Your sister lives in Richmond as well, did you all grow up there together?
We all grew up in Northern Virginia. Iâve been down here for about 17 years; I just bailed right after high school. My mother is kind of like an âearth motherâ and the place where we lived is supposed to be this Utopia where everything you need is right there and no one needs cars or anything. Itâs the worst of suburban sprawl now. My sister followed the same path and so did my brother, he was the first one to move down here in the mid 80âs.
Have you ever thought of moving out of Virginia?
I wouldnât have the money to anyway, but no. Iâm not the type of person that could work to live. What I do with the ballet is seasonal and I work as much as I can during the season. Iâm not under a contract, so thereâs no issue with my leaving. Iâll be on the road from the beginning of January until March. Iâm doing an Avail tour with The Draft on the west coast and then I start a solo tour. Iâm going to do an easy coast run with Smoke or Fire in April.
The Smoke or Fire tourâs going to be solo, and not with Avail?
We had a busy year last year and we just came back from Australia so I think everyoneâs ready to ease up for a minute. They all have real jobs and two of them have kids. Iâm the only one who can be so readily available. I never got married, never had kids and never kept a girlfriend.
Never kept a girlfriend? Never got married? Was that your choice or just the way it ended up?
I have the ability, I just have no interest in it. I donât like feeling tied down and Iâm not saying that women make me feel that way, but I have a job thatâs not real. I work when Iâm home. I donât like feeling trapped in anything, but with kids and relationships even if the person is beautiful and perfect, I just feel that way.
But, are you happy?
Half the time. Who the fuck is happy? Iâm happy half the time. I have close, great friends and really thatâs all you need. As long as I get by and have my friends and the river, I donât really need much else. I donât like shopping. I talked to my mom the other day and she goes "What do you want for Christmas?" I donât need anything. I donât want a lot of the things people seek in life like commodities; toys and shit. I just want to pay my rent, drink and play music. I donât need fucking fancy clothes, fancy televisions or cable. Every year I buy myself one present and I just recently bought a DVD player. The first thing I did was break the VCR part of it. It was like $80.00 and thatâs a lot for me to just spend on a DVD player! Iâm buying myself a nice guitar this year for all these tours coming up. Iâve always played but I never had my own.
Yeah, living up here itâs not easy either. I just bought a new car because of my commute to work. Now thereâs so much to worry about.
Yeah, youâre locked into payments now. I put gas in my car maybe every two months. You donât need that shit around here. I have no idea what the price of gas is like and the last time I did fill up, it was around two bucks. You know whatâs sad? The amount of people who are part of this work force, and thatâs all that they do. They wake up, commute their forty minutes to their 9-5 job, go home and watch TV. There are different types of people; those people all feel frustrated and they donât know why. Iâm working right now with the notion of being able to go out there and play music. Iâve got friends who do the same, but theyâre working to write books or make paintings.
Or to write in magazines. I have a younger brother who comes home from school every day, sits down in front of the video games and wonât move until he goes to sleep. I canât imagine what he thinks about every day, how thereâs nothing more for him.
There was an article in the paper the other day, I canât remember exactly what the numbers were but they said Americaâs teenagers spend as much as five months of the year with some sort of electronics device in their faces. It sort of sucks everything out of a person. I have a friend whose kid must have been one or two years old and he was teaching me how to use a remote control. Right from the time he could stand up and start saying "Ma Ma" he was using electronics. What direction is this kid going to go in? Itâs a great way to foreshadow how difficult itâs going to be for kids to keep an attention span beyond a thirty-second song. Not to be critical of parenting, but itâs too much.
Right, and then doctors will diagnose every other kid with ADD and put them on some sort of medication. It makes you wonder if they even look for the root of the problem.
I think people do but they just donât know how to address it. How do you tell a kid who is always surrounded by their friends playing video games or constantly being satiated through some sort of outside stigma that they canât do it? Itâs normal now, as normal as being outside making forts when I was a kid.
When I was a kid, I wasnât allowed near video games. We read books.
Well thank god for Harry Potter! If that didnât exist, kids wouldnât read at all. A friend of mine is a second grade teacher and sheâd addicted to those books. Imagine, being so bright that youâre able to get children to read obsessively. What a good thing for America! Americans arenât as stupid as you think.
I think she was English.
Oh, right. English people are as stupid as Americans. Theyâve got Tony Blair, weâve got George Bush. Actually, Americans arenât stupid at all. Politically, yes. They know the stats and names of every football player in the NFL but they canât tell you the name of their own senator.
Thatâs another thing, Iâve lived in New York all my life. Youâve lived in Virginia all of yours. People up here have such a generalized opinion of people down there; you know, that theyâre all stupid rednecks.
If you ever come down to Richmond, I will prove to you that they are right and they are wrong. You can walk down the street and there are some of the most redneck mother fuckers you will ever meet, and then on that same street, you find some of the brightest. Weâve got guys wearing Real Tree camo jackets and driving pickup trucks. People are always going to talk shit, thatâs just how it goes, but the dichotomy over the north and south is funny. People write letters to the editor about these âdamn Yankees.â Itâs highly entertaining.
John K. Samson from The Weakerthans talked about his hometown of Winnipeg and why he always writes songs about it. He said that itâs his place, and that itâs a place the he loves and hates but still doesnât fully understand so heâll be writing about it for the rest of his life. Iâm wondering if thatâs how you feel about Richmond?
That probably sums it up pretty closely. I would say that I canât write about things that I donât understand, and I donât understand a lot of things outside of Richmond. What I draw inspiration from comes from my interactions with people around here; the locals, the college students and the changes that are happening throughout the United States with urban renewal, and censorship running rampant. Those are the things I understand. I also understand that I wonât be able to stay here much longer because the rent is doubling. I travel so much that maybe I feel a deeper connection with this city because I donât get to be here that much. I feel both a deepness and a frustration with the river and the people and the things that happen around here.
In one of the songs on the record, the narrator kills his sisters abusive husband and goes to prison for it. You said you take inspiration from the people around you, is this particular song just a story, or did it happen?
Letâs just say a buddy of mine was just sentenced to 28 years in prison. That song came out of nowhere. I donât even think I wrote it; it just came to mind one night when I was sitting down at the river by myself. I had gotten a call from a family member of his and it just hit me like a brick. As I was writing these verses, I realized I was being way too personal and telling a personâs story that wasnât my place to tell. I switched it up a lot so that it couldnât be traced to him. I mean, he would know where I was going with it.
Itâs amazing how all of the songs seem to have such a deeply personal story behind them.
The last song on the record, thatâs personal. I decided if I was going to start doing this solo shit for real, Iâd have to learn to play live. I went over to Europe for a while and played solo. It was lonely and it was sad and I wrote that song in Milan, Italy. The second track, too. Itâs so simple. I was working for the ballet and I had to drive up to Brunswick to pick up some lights and next thing I know Iâm sitting in this hotel room. I was schizophrenic, insane and neurotic. Thatâs how it all comes out, me sitting down at the train tracks getting drunk. One of the local women who just lost her house because the neighborhood was coming up so much it basically got stolen from her, is now homeless and lives down by those train tracks. She was down there one day trying to jump in front of a train. I watched her try to kill herself. She was screaming, blacked out drunk. I doubt she remembers anything about that but the song is directly about her, I came home and started throwing it down on a piano which I canât play at all. People might listen to them and get something completely different, but each song is really personal.
You know, I didnât even write questions for this interview. I just kind of blindly hoped youâd be able to have a great conversation with me.
If two people canât have a conversation, than it just shouldnât happen. It shouldnât be formatted. A lot of people in bands though are self righteous ego ridden fucks. Itâs obscure to me and I donât understand why people are that way. Itâs just fucking music.
I canât even imagine some of the things youâve been asked in interviews like that. Things like "whatâs your favorite color?"
You wouldnât believe some of this. Iâve been doing interviews for so long. Someone requested an interview by computer recently because people are lazy and they donât want to transcribe. When itâs all there in front of them all they have to do is cut and paste. Iâve done some wonderful interview that way because the questions evoked a strong answer or a strong opinion. But thatâs more like writing or what you would call corresponding.
Interviews are like art to me. Iâm trying to put together a book of interviews Iâve done.
Thatâs cool, man! I always wanted to do a book called "Letters to a Band," and print all these letters weâve gotten as a band. Before anyone started doing things via e-mail, the P.O. box would be stuffed full of letters, and some of them were so personal. I remember in the mid 90âs I got a box in the mail. It was about eight inches tall and four inches wide with a heart on top. It was from South Dakota and was addressed to Avail. I opened it up and it was a human heart inside that formaldehyde with the womanâs name on it and everything. It was truly disgusting. Who the hell sends a band they like a human heart? I felt like I had to bury it or something.
Was there a return address? What did you end up doing with it?
I was trying not to write this guy, but about three weeks later, Joe (Guitarist) answered the telephones and it was the detectives in South Dakota. Theyâd caught this kid who had stolen it from a morgue. We gave up the address and sent it back immediately. I was so close to burying it!
Wow, I think that book idea is great. You should seriously consider it.
Iâm so absolutely drained creatively. I re-typed it all and put them on a disc. A lot of them are very old, so itâs not like some kid would be like "I wrote you that last week, what the fuck." Iâm thinking that one the next record I do, Iâm going to put a hidden track on it and just include a full spoken word monologue of a freight train riding story or maybe the time when I got beat up by skinheads in Germany and put in jail.
You were beat up by skinheads in Germany and put in jail?
Iâve lived a life of chaos. I kind of always cut those stories short, but I could actually go into detail and do a twenty minute monologue. I was telling a buddy of mine down by the river and I said Iâm going to write a solo record every year until Iâm 40 and then once Iâm 40 Iâll just write books.
Then you can do book tours. Donât you have a ton of press to do tonight?
Iâm doing an interview for Chuck Dâs radio show. Evidently I get to do one for Steve Earlâs radio show as well. He tells you to pick four songs you want to play, other peopleâs songs, and then talk about them. Iâm thinking about choosing one Richmond artist and then a couple others that are personal to me.
Wow, a radio station that letâs you choose songs. Thatâs rare. I thought Clear Channel had taken over.
We have one independent station around here. But yeah, Clear Channel is fucking genius. They bought up the entire Virginia market, used and abused all the stations and now theyâre selling them privately. They changed FDC regulations so that they could make a monopoly and flip them.
I interned for a radio station a while back and I realized that all the DJs do now is walk into the studio and push a button.
The way you said "button," you just had your first Yankee moment! Not that Iâm invalidating what you said, you just said it funny. I was at work today making my charges for the show and some of the crew came over to talk to me and I said I just did an interview with a yankee and told them what you said about the south, and they were like "you tell that damn uppity yankee lady to go stick it where the sun donât shine!" I work with a lot of rednecks. They have those redneck names too; Earl, Smitty, Wilbur, Big John, Bubbaâ¦you know what I mean.
Thatâs too funny.
Theyâre all hunters, but not the way youâd think. They live east of the city, and if you recall the civil war, the early part of it was when the Yankees landed out east by the Chesapeake Bay and tried to move on to Richmond. They were halted on the James River about 70 miles down and the confederates turns them around and sent them home. Those guys live around there. When they go hunting, they go civil war hunting. They have metal detectors and they go out in the woods to find rifles, belt buckles, buttons, cannons etcâ¦
If you donât live, you canât sing about living and itâs not even worth it. Pretty boys and pretty girls who get scooped up at eighteen to be rock stars, they havenât lived enough to have created anything.
I had no idea people could still do that, and there was still so much to be found.
Think about the war and how many people died; how many people were involved. Essential, all the males that were in particular towns and regions. The war started in South Carolina, but it was mostly fought in Virginia. The South didnât really go north of Pennsylvania, so shitâs everywhere. Just in the last year, I had two neighbors dig up cannon balls in their back yard. I found a bullet down by my house, too.
Incredible! Iâm going to need to come down for a tour sometime.
Absolutely. When Iâm home, I only hang out with good folks, so thereâs always people to show you around. There are different Virginias. Thereâs northern Virginia, which has nothing in commons with the rest of the state, and then thereâs the beach area which really has nothing in common with the rest of the state either. I always say there should be four Virginias.
Something Iâve been thinking about when it comes to your solo music. Itâs folk music, and itâs so unlike anything Avail did which really has this power to bridge so many age and genre gaps. I played it for my mom who is a huge fan of country and she loved it. Iâm a huge fan of Avail, and I love it as well.
I certainly do like that you said folk music. Iâm a little concerned about people calling it country or bluegrass. I read a couple reviews and they actually referred to it as bluegrass music. This is not it. Itâs certainly not a Merle Haggard rip off. I like the word "folk" used as a description because itâs just telling peopleâs stories. Crossing genres? Iâll use Myspace as an example, which I never learned about until Avail put out some re-releases and Jade Tree insisted on it, itâs really a great tool for someone like me who doesnât have the money for real publicity. Iâm surprised about the demographic of people who have been writing me on there: 45 year old women with families and 15 year old punk kids. Iâm surprised about the people who have no knowledge of Avail enjoying it.
The way I see it is that you play in Avail but you arenât Avail. Youâre Tim. Of course thereâs more to you than Avail, this is just that something more.
Hell yes, Katie. I donât know if people ever understand that people in bands do a lot outside of that. When I go to a bar people go "oh, itâs that dude from Avail," but thank god I have friends who donât even think about that. Music comes so natural to me because I always played it. Itâs how I was raised. My mom listened to folk and my dad listened to classical and Iâm not really great at any of it but I like it and I like to make it. The roots of Avail songs are exactly the same with Joe playing a guitar and then him and I throwing lyrics together with heavy drums. A lot of people donât go to the roots of music, this isnât really a departure, itâs just a stripped down version of what I already do.
Thatâs something to really think about. It must be hard to know who is being real with you or who is just trying to be around you because of who you are.
That is one of the biggest nightmares in my life. Now knowing who is who. I remember this girl I used to hang out with and we hooked up a lot. I always liked her so much. We lost touch at some point and I saw her four or five years later when she was older and I was older and had more miles under my belt. I was talking to her and telling her how much fun I had hanging out with her and she laughed and said the only reason she wanted to hang out with me was because I was in Avail. Itâs so upsetting because I actually really liked her.
Sometimes I wonder if all of that is because thereâs just too much music out there. Itâs a giant rat race now in the music industry.
There certainly is too much music. I hate to bring up the âold guy" shit, but when I was a young kid in the mid-80âs there was a band that came from my high school and they had a vinyl album come out. It was the biggest fucking deal in the world. Then, we all learned how to make demo tapes and that was even a big deal. Now you can burn a CD off your computer after writing a bunch of songs, give it to your friends and put it up on Myspace. I wonder if itâs overkill. It used to be you had to be pretty talented to have a record out.
Now you just have to be pretty.
Iâm glad Iâm old and ugly. I think it gives more depth to the music and looking at some of my heores like Steve Earle, he is not good looking. But heâs a great songwriter and thatâs all I need. I donât want to look at some good looking guy with no soul. You canât sing about going to jail if you havenât gone to jail. You canât sing about heartbreak if youâve never had your heartbroken. If you donât live, you canât sing about living and itâs not even worth it. Pretty boys and pretty girls who get scooped up at eighteen to be rock stars, they havenât lived enough to have created anything.
It must be pretty frustrating reading reviews like that. Or just reading reviews in generalâ¦
I donât mind them at all. I just donât like to read them because I donât want what other people say to push me in a different direction with my writing because I only write for myself. The most important thing that anyone in a band or anyone who writes or paints or whatever, the most important thing is for them to know that not everyone is going to like it and you canât let that get to you.
Itâs in everything. I tell myself that all the time, even with writing articles, itâs hard to stay true to yourself sometimes.
Youâve got t keep those ethics. One of the proudest things I am about this band is that weâve never done any of that corporate shit. We always kept it independent and itâs made our lives so much easier. Weâve never signed a contract thatâs more than one record, and I manage the band. Itâs hard when thereâs all that outside pressure. Thereâs a band we grew up with that has spent the last six years trying to write a record and every time they bring it to the label, it gets rejected. Itâs scary shit trying to pay your rent doing something you love.
Smoke or Fire is from Richmond, too. Are you guys friends?
Theyâre a funny story; a success story. I always try to use my position as someone who has been doing this for a while to help people out, people like Josh Small who just got signed to Suburban Home Records. I put his foot in the door, but his strength in playing music and in songwriting is what got him signed. But, I met Smoke or Fire years ago in Louisville, Kentucky when we played Crazyfest. Avail left me there and I was going to hop trains down to New Orleans. I woke up in the hotel I was staying at and was just drinking a beer on the balcony when I looked over and there were these two guys on another balcony drinking beer. They turned out to be Smoke or Fire, or at the time, Jericho. They said they had a bathtub full of beer and I had nothing better to do so I hung out with them for a couple days before leaving. They gave me a CD and I really like it. I forgot all about it until I heard they moved down here and I started hanging around their house all the time. They recorded this demo and I sent it over to Vanessa at Fat Wreck Chords just because I like to send her new music. I guess she played it and everyone was into it and thatâs what signed them.
Thatâs great! I guess thatâs when they changed their name.
I realized the integrity of this group was insurmountable before that. We were on tour on the east coast with The Curse when they decided to break up in Philadelphia. We still had two weeks left of the tour and I called the Jericho (Smoke or Fire) guys who had never been on tour before or had a sound check before or anything and asked them if they could meet us in North Carolina. Their singer, Brian, called me back a half hour later and all of them quit their jobs, got in the van and finished the tour with us. It was so great to see them open this huge show in North Carolina, and then when we came back and played South Carolina, those same kids were there singing along.
Is it strange that youâll be opening for them now?
Hell no! I told them a long time ago that my favorite day in the world would be when Avail opens up for them. Just the idea of getting to be onstage with my homeboys every night is going to be amazing. Man, I keep calling this "Solo Shit" but this is for real. This is my retirement plan, I should take it more seriously.
Did you know that being a solo artist is a trend now?
Iâm so out of the loop with pop culture that I didnât know it was a trend until my record came out and I read reviews where people said "following the trend of so and soâ¦" I told someone in an interview that Iâm thankful I didnât know. I can see how itâs easy to get caught up in that, but itâs just my music.