AXS Exclusive: Dr. Neal Barnard (CarbonWorks) premiere's 'Samurai'

World-renowned medical doctor, guitarist, and music composer, (Dr.) Neal Barnard, has released the music video premiere for his band's, CarbonWorks, new single, "Samurai." Barnard is best known for his groundbreaking work in the medical field, and founded the DC-based nonprofit, Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine. On the other hand, Barnard has been a lifelong musician, since his childhood days in Fargo, North Dakota. His latest music project, CarbonWorks, just released their new album on Dec. 1, 2016. Their new single, "Samurai" features the entire band, with Barnard on guitar, and features a young girl named Lily, who dresses up as a samurai warrior, and frees animals held in captivity. With Barnard's unique interest in the medical field, and in music, AXS spoke with him about both professions, and how relates with both of them, his collaborations, and other musicians that he's worked with. 

AXS: How do you balance being a world-renowned doctor, along with creating and making music?

Dr. Neal Barnard: People think of doctors as being “left-brain” — that is, very logic-oriented — and musicians as being “right-brain” — more emotionally oriented, and you have be one or the other.  But the truth is that we all have our logical and emotional sides, even if one side or the other gets neglected at times. And many scientists and physicians have been in both worlds. Albert Einstein played violin with leading symphonies. And Rudy Tanzi, who is a top Harvard researcher—plays with Aerosmith.

The bigger problem is being taken seriously in both worlds. In music, you’re all right if you’ve just gotten out of prison, are strung out on drugs, and have a face tattoo. But if you’re a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology, you’ve lost all artistic credibility; it’s hard to imagine you’d know what to do with a Les Paul.

AXS: Being that you are immersed in two different professions, how do you personally relate the two to find fulfillment from both?

NB: The two come together in surprising ways. First of all, when people are drawn to unhealthy foods — meat, cheese, sodas, etc. — it is because these foods trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the reward chemical, and the search for dopamine is the basis for all addictions — alcohol, drugs, and junk food. But researchers at McGill University found that you can get dopamine — a “high,” if you will — from music, too. And unlike Velveeta, Beethoven has no calories. So the more we get dopamine from healthy sources — friendships, exercise, and, yes, music — the less we need junk food and drugs.

And these two elements come together in another way, as you’ll see in our Samurai video. Lily, the adorable little girl who wakes up to find a rock band in her bedroom, becomes a samurai and cuts imaginary chains to free her animal friends. There is a message about kindness and compassion there. And from a medical standpoint, there is a huge payoff, too. When you leave animals off your plate, your coronary arteries breathe a lot easier.

AXS: What is it like collaborating with so many different musicians?

NB: The musicians really complement each other. My own roots are in rock music, and Martha, Mike, and Shea are such great rockers. And many years ago I was playing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, and I felt that our testosterone-driven guitar music needed an element of restraint. So how about a string quartet playing with a rock band at the same time? "Samurai" uses the same elements: my guitar lays down the aggressive 15/8 time. But Allegra comes in on violin and adds wonderful layer to the song. And there is also a cool contrast between the music and the images: the soundtrack is hard-driving, and the video is light and touching. The contrasts are what count.

And then a few years ago, I was listening to a European radio station and happened to hear Naif Hérin—who is from Italy. What an incredible voice! I really couldn’t believe it. So I asked her to join us. And I first saw Chris Thomas King in the Coen Brothers’ "Oh Brother Where Art Thou." But Chris bridges traditional blues guitar with a completely modern vibe. All these flavors fit together beautifully.

We combined all these elements in a long, 15-minute piece, called "The End of the World." The idea was to take the gutsiness of the guitars and drums and layer on the restraint that comes from strings. So, on the first section, it’s Chris Thomas King and me bringing in the rock and blues in 7/4 time, with the strings adding a layer of delicacy. Then the second section was inspired by Asian pentatonic music. The third part starts out as bebop jazz, and the strings come in so cool. And it finishes with Martha, and then Naif and Nikki singing in Latin. With all these colors, it could be like a Jackson Pollack painting where it doesn’t make sense until you’ve stared at it for five minutes. But I think of it more like a flavors melting together into a big vat of chocolate. 

AXS: Who was your first concert, and do you have an overall favorite?

NB: This wasn’t my first concert, but it wiped out all my memories for any previous concerts. I was at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and John McLaughlin played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra on a stage that was surrounded by the audience on all sides. I was sitting in the front and was blown away by this young Englishman whose rapid-fire guitar dished out rock, jazz, Indian music, and everything else. 

AXS: Which five albums and/or artists would you not want to live without? 

NB: Wow! There are a lot more than five, but let me mention a few that other people might not know about:

  • Phi Nhung is a Vietnamese singer who retains traditional instrumentation in her music, which is very beautiful.
  • Naif Hérin is on our album, of course. But go on YouTube and check out her songs, "Aspettando l’Aurora (Waiting for Dawn)" and "Annarosa"(click here). You’ve never heard anything like it.   
  • Moby is a good friend and very kind to people and animals, and his CD Play did more for the integration of musical styles than just about anything else.
  • The Incredible String Band was a 1960s group that people either loved or hated, but they won me over with their creativity, poetry, and refusal to be categorized.
  • Waka Flocka Flame (click here) gets a shout out because he has such a conscience. We worked with him on a video to promote vegan diets, and he was so funny during the shoot, you just have to love him. 

AXS: Do you have a guilty music or entertainment pleasure?

NB: Guilty? Never. Music is all about beauty, fun, and getting your pulse going. And when we use music as a language to promote kindness or respect, or as an alarm about things that need to change, so much the better. 

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