Tim Barry

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; it’s very strange. We’re doing The Nutcracker, so I’ve got Tchaikovsky running through my head all day. I’m 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. I’m in charge of a crew of about twelve people. The show opened on Friday but we’ve been on tour with it since the beginning of the month.

How’d 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 weren’t 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, it’s the idea that one day your friends start a band and you like them a lot so you’re more interested in the music and where they’re coming from. I got to know a lot of the dancers pretty well and I began to enjoy it. I don’t 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. It’s got to be weird for them to quit at age thirty; those are the top dancers. They’re 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 don’t even have a computer, right?

Actually, I just got one and it has a virus. It barely works. I’m that guy who never had a computer and still doesn’t have a cell phone. I manage Avail and do all this solo work on my own and it’s really more work than I think anyone would understand so when I’m 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 I’m checking it four times a day whereas when I didn’t have one, I did it maybe once. My brother lives in Astoria, he’s a classical music composer making $10 per hour and he’s got one of those Blackberries. Basically, it’s an anchor. He’s 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 wouldn’t exactly be practical for you.

I live three blocks from the river. The Neighborhood is called Oregon Hill. I don’t have a lot of money, I like to drink, I don’t like to go to bars and spend all of my money so I don’t really leave. The beer store is right in the neighborhood and I spend all my time with my friends. When I’m on tour, I’m in bars and clubs every night and every day. I love it. Actually, I don’t know if I love it or not anymore but it’s such a normal part of my life that it’s almost like I’m as comfortable on the road as I am at home. Doing this solo tour is totally different. I have more autonomy and I don’t have to be at some big venue at 3:00pm to do a sound check when we go on at midnight. It’s 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 who’s classically trained makes a lot of money playing weddings and sitting in for different orchestras and symphonies. It’s 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 I’m sitting out because I can’t understand the chord progression. She’s such an inspiration.

That’s so great that you can just play music with your family. Did you all grow up playing together?

I’m 35 and my sister just turned 24, so there’s 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 didn’t stumble into it until much later. I’m trying to get her to sing more, but she’s just lacking the confidence. She has a beautiful voice; a younger voice. I think after another year or so she’s 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. I’ve been down here for about 17 years; I just bailed right after high school. My mother is kind of like an ‘earth mother’ 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. It’s 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 80’s.

Have you ever thought of moving out of Virginia?

I wouldn’t have the money to anyway, but no. I’m 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. I’m not under a contract, so there’s no issue with my leaving. I’ll be on the road from the beginning of January until March. I’m doing an Avail tour with The Draft on the west coast and then I start a solo tour. I’m going to do an easy coast run with Smoke or Fire in April.

The Smoke or Fire tour’s 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 everyone’s ready to ease up for a minute. They all have real jobs and two of them have kids. I’m 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 don’t like feeling tied down and I’m not saying that women make me feel that way, but I have a job that’s not real. I work when I’m home. I don’t 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? I’m happy half the time. I have close, great friends and really that’s all you need. As long as I get by and have my friends and the river, I don’t really need much else. I don’t like shopping. I talked to my mom the other day and she goes "What do you want for Christmas?" I don’t need anything. I don’t 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 don’t 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 that’s a lot for me to just spend on a DVD player! I’m buying myself a nice guitar this year for all these tours coming up. I’ve always played but I never had my own.

Yeah, living up here it’s not easy either. I just bought a new car because of my commute to work. Now there’s so much to worry about.

Yeah, you’re locked into payments now. I put gas in my car maybe every two months. You don’t 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 what’s sad? The amount of people who are part of this work force, and that’s 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 don’t know why. I’m working right now with the notion of being able to go out there and play music. I’ve got friends who do the same, but they’re 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 won’t move until he goes to sleep. I can’t imagine what he thinks about every day, how there’s nothing more for him.

There was an article in the paper the other day, I can’t remember exactly what the numbers were but they said America’s 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? It’s a great way to foreshadow how difficult it’s going to be for kids to keep an attention span beyond a thirty-second song. Not to be critical of parenting, but it’s 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 don’t 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 can’t do it? It’s normal now, as normal as being outside making forts when I was a kid.

When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed near video games. We read books.

Well thank god for Harry Potter! If that didn’t exist, kids wouldn’t read at all. A friend of mine is a second grade teacher and she’d addicted to those books. Imagine, being so bright that you’re able to get children to read obsessively. What a good thing for America! Americans aren’t as stupid as you think.

I think she was English.

Oh, right. English people are as stupid as Americans. They’ve got Tony Blair, we’ve got George Bush. Actually, Americans aren’t stupid at all. Politically, yes. They know the stats and names of every football player in the NFL but they can’t tell you the name of their own senator.

That’s another thing, I’ve lived in New York all my life. You’ve lived in Virginia all of yours. People up here have such a generalized opinion of people down there; you know, that they’re 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. We’ve got guys wearing Real Tree camo jackets and driving pickup trucks. People are always going to talk shit, that’s just how it goes, but the dichotomy over the north and south is funny. People write letters to the editor about these ‘damn Yankees.’ It’s 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 it’s his place, and that it’s a place the he loves and hates but still doesn’t fully understand so he’ll be writing about it for the rest of his life. I’m wondering if that’s how you feel about Richmond?

That probably sums it up pretty closely. I would say that I can’t write about things that I don’t understand, and I don’t 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 won’t 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 don’t 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?

Let’s just say a buddy of mine was just sentenced to 28 years in prison. That song came out of nowhere. I don’t 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 person’s story that wasn’t my place to tell. I switched it up a lot so that it couldn’t be traced to him. I mean, he would know where I was going with it.

It’s amazing how all of the songs seem to have such a deeply personal story behind them.

The last song on the record, that’s personal. I decided if I was going to start doing this solo shit for real, I’d 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. It’s 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 I’m sitting in this hotel room. I was schizophrenic, insane and neurotic. That’s 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 can’t play at all. People might listen to them and get something completely different, but each song is really personal.

You know, I didn’t even write questions for this interview. I just kind of blindly hoped you’d be able to have a great conversation with me.

If two people can’t have a conversation, than it just shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t be formatted. A lot of people in bands though are self righteous ego ridden fucks. It’s obscure to me and I don’t understand why people are that way. It’s just fucking music.

I can’t even imagine some of the things you’ve been asked in interviews like that. Things like "what’s your favorite color?"

You wouldn’t believe some of this. I’ve been doing interviews for so long. Someone requested an interview by computer recently because people are lazy and they don’t want to transcribe. When it’s all there in front of them all they have to do is cut and paste. I’ve done some wonderful interview that way because the questions evoked a strong answer or a strong opinion. But that’s more like writing or what you would call corresponding.

Interviews are like art to me. I’m trying to put together a book of interviews I’ve done.

That’s cool, man! I always wanted to do a book called "Letters to a Band," and print all these letters we’ve 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 90’s 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 woman’s 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. They’d 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.

I’m so absolutely drained creatively. I re-typed it all and put them on a disc. A lot of them are very old, so it’s not like some kid would be like "I wrote you that last week, what the fuck." I’m thinking that one the next record I do, I’m 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?

I’ve 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 I’m going to write a solo record every year until I’m 40 and then once I’m 40 I’ll just write books.

Then you can do book tours. Don’t you have a ton of press to do tonight?

I’m doing an interview for Chuck D’s radio show. Evidently I get to do one for Steve Earl’s radio show as well. He tells you to pick four songs you want to play, other people’s songs, and then talk about them. I’m thinking about choosing one Richmond artist and then a couple others that are personal to me.

Wow, a radio station that let’s you choose songs. That’s 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 they’re 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 I’m 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 don’t shine!" I work with a lot of rednecks. They have those redneck names too; Earl, Smitty, Wilbur, Big John, Bubba…you know what I mean.

That’s too funny.

They’re all hunters, but not the way you’d 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 etc…

If you don’t live, you can’t sing about living and it’s not even worth it. Pretty boys and pretty girls who get scooped up at eighteen to be rock stars, they haven’t 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 didn’t really go north of Pennsylvania, so shit’s 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! I’m going to need to come down for a tour sometime.

Absolutely. When I’m home, I only hang out with good folks, so there’s always people to show you around. There are different Virginias. There’s northern Virginia, which has nothing in commons with the rest of the state, and then there’s 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 I’ve been thinking about when it comes to your solo music. It’s folk music, and it’s 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. I’m a huge fan of Avail, and I love it as well.

I certainly do like that you said folk music. I’m 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. It’s certainly not a Merle Haggard rip off. I like the word "folk" used as a description because it’s just telling people’s stories. Crossing genres? I’ll use Myspace as an example, which I never learned about until Avail put out some re-releases and Jade Tree insisted on it, it’s really a great tool for someone like me who doesn’t have the money for real publicity. I’m 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. I’m 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 aren’t Avail. You’re Tim. Of course there’s more to you than Avail, this is just that something more.

Hell yes, Katie. I don’t know if people ever understand that people in bands do a lot outside of that. When I go to a bar people go "oh, it’s that dude from Avail," but thank god I have friends who don’t even think about that. Music comes so natural to me because I always played it. It’s how I was raised. My mom listened to folk and my dad listened to classical and I’m 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 don’t go to the roots of music, this isn’t really a departure, it’s just a stripped down version of what I already do.

That’s 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. It’s so upsetting because I actually really liked her.

Sometimes I wonder if all of that is because there’s just too much music out there. It’s a giant rat race now in the music industry.

There certainly is too much music. I hate to bring up the ‘old guy" shit, but when I was a young kid in the mid-80’s 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 it’s overkill. It used to be you had to be pretty talented to have a record out.

Now you just have to be pretty.

I’m glad I’m 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 he’s a great songwriter and that’s all I need. I don’t want to look at some good looking guy with no soul. You can’t sing about going to jail if you haven’t gone to jail. You can’t sing about heartbreak if you’ve never had your heartbroken. If you don’t live, you can’t sing about living and it’s not even worth it. Pretty boys and pretty girls who get scooped up at eighteen to be rock stars, they haven’t lived enough to have created anything.

It must be pretty frustrating reading reviews like that. Or just reading reviews in general…

I don’t mind them at all. I just don’t like to read them because I don’t 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 can’t let that get to you.

It’s in everything. I tell myself that all the time, even with writing articles, it’s hard to stay true to yourself sometimes.

You’ve got t keep those ethics. One of the proudest things I am about this band is that we’ve never done any of that corporate shit. We always kept it independent and it’s made our lives so much easier. We’ve never signed a contract that’s more than one record, and I manage the band. It’s hard when there’s all that outside pressure. There’s 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. It’s scary shit trying to pay your rent doing something you love.

Smoke or Fire is from Richmond, too. Are you guys friends?

They’re 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 that’s what signed them.

That’s great! I guess that’s 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 you’ll 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?

I’m so out of the loop with pop culture that I didn’t know it was a trend until my record came out and I read reviews where people said "following the trend of so and so…" I told someone in an interview that I’m thankful I didn’t know. I can see how it’s easy to get caught up in that, but it’s just my music.