Gabe Barnett: I can only write about what I know, and I know the Twin Cities
|Photo by Amy Waksmonski|
Before the group's album release on Thursday, Gimme Noise spoke with Barnett about his history with the Twin Cities and the area's influence on the music and the aforementioned ghosts on this album.
Band Members: Gabe Barnett - vocals, guitar; Midwest Paul Cook - tenor banjo; Chris Cashin - mandolin; Dain "Maynerd" Arnold - harmonica; "Sleepy" G. Justice Roy - washboard; Rich Yaeger - trumpet; Liz Draper - upright bass
Gimme Noise: You have a sort of country/bluesy element in your music. Where do you think this came from?
Well, I personally think the Rounders and I make music of a strictly urban variety, but I know some folks hear the banjo and immediately their thoughts turn to that of the rural and pastoral. Frankly, I am a songwriter, and I was told long ago that a good song is a good song, and a good song can be done in any genre. If the basic songwriting is there, a song can be performed as a reggae song or a speed-metal song, as punk or R&B or country-western.
Over the course of my "career," I have chosen the basic template provided by the American folk musics to best express my thoughts, feelings, and ideas -- simply because folk music is that: a basic template, the basic template for all popular modern music. From there it can be done any way you like it. I would love to hear an EDM version of "Circus Someday," or "Detective Blues" as opera.
The Big House Rounders and I play acoustic instruments like mandolins and trumpets and washboards simply for ease of math. You can play them anywhere. It's easy to set up and tear down. We can perform on a street corner all afternoon, throw our instruments on our backs, hop on our bicycles and cruise across town to play a noisy indie-rock club, then cruise over to the after-party and jam all night. We can sit by the river and play, we can climb to the roof of a warehouse and play. Maynerd's got it real easy with his little bag of harmonicas.
There are also many local references in the music. What made you include those in the album?
What am I supposed to write about, Paris? I've never been to Paris, but I've lived in this part of the world most of my life. I can only write what I know, and I know the Twin Cities. I know the upper Midwest, and I think if you listen carefully you'll hear bits of New York and New Orleans, the Southwest and the West Coast in this latest batch of songs -- not just my beloved Minneapolis. I don't purposely include anything in my songs; songwriting is like fishing, you cast your line in the stream and what snags your hook snags your hook. You just hope it's edible.
The album is dedicated to your father. Can you tell me about him? How is he reflected in the music?
I don't wanna go too into detail about my personal affairs, but I will tell you that while working on this album -- over a two-year period from concept to release -- I had something like 14 people who I was either very close to or who had a huge influence on me, or both, die.
Most died suddenly and unexpectedly, including my (step)dad, who was, and continues to be, the single most important figure in my life. Dad instilled in me a work ethic, critical thinking skills, and a strangely logic-based compassion that have shaped who I am, and therefore what I write. He was my biggest fan and most fervent champion. We were very different from each other -- he a small-town, hard-ass good ol' boy and me a sensitive, city-kid goofball -- and he didn't always understand what I was doing with my life, be it making art and writing songs or hitchhiking around the country, dabbling in philosophies and drugs. But we could talk about it, all of it, as peers as much as father and son, and he knew I'm not fucking around. I'm not just pissing it all away or looking for the most slack. He was supportive of whatever I did, so long as I did it with passion and honesty. It's strange. All of the songs were at least sketched out, and the majority of the songs were fully written, before people I love started dropping like flies.
If there is an overarching theme to this album it is: overcoming the fear of death and rejection by embracing and celebrating life in the moment, in the now. I wrote these songs and then Existence was like: "Oh yeah? Bam! Prove it. Fucking prove it." It's been hard; it's been really damn hard.