Interview: Spin Doctors' Chris Barron talks angels, one-armed jugglers...and zombies
Chris Barron

In 1988 Chris Barron moved to New York City armed with only an acoustic guitar, $100 cash, and a couple good song ideas for his new band.

“Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes” catapulted The Spin Doctors to superstardom in the early ‘90s, and the group’s debut album—A Pocket Full of Kryptonite—proved a funky, fun-loving counterpoint to the angry MTV grunge of the era.

Kryptonite eventually sold over five million copies. Barron and the boys enjoyed a couple other minor hits (“Hungry Hamed’s,” “Cleopatra’s Cat”) off 1994’s Turn It Upside Down, but their fortunes were waning by decade’s end.

Undeterred, the original Spin Doctors (Barron, Mark White, Aaron Comess, and Eric Shenkman) continued writing, recording, and performing in the new millennium. Barron also gained the confidence to step out on his own for Shag (2001) and Pancho and The Kid (2009).

Barron still does his musical brain surgery with a monkey wrench: The Spin Doctors’ last studio effort, If the River Was Whiskey, arrived in 2013, and his most recent solo disc—Angels and One-Armed Jugglers—dropped (pun intended) last October to rave reviews. It’s some of Barron’s best work yet, a musical travelogue replete with electric guitar rockers, Tin Pan Alley anthems, and bluesy, Americana (and New Orleans)-flavored fare.  

We rang the “Jimmy Olsen” author this week to discuss the new album, his upcoming solo tour, and his need to weave the occasional “homebelly groove” apart from his Spin brothers.

AXS: How’d you decide the time was right for another solo album, for Angels?

CHRIS BARRON: When I was a kid I started out playing guitar. I took solo gigs off and on, in a scattered kind of way, before and since The Spin Doctors. The Spin Doctors are still together with the original lineup and everything. But I never made a concerted effort to do something with my solo career. Initially I wanted to do something that would reflect what I’d intended to do live, something not super-overblown, something on the acoustic side. I was talking to Roman Klun, the producer of the record, and was telling him about it. He had this grin on his face like, “Yeah, okay, whatever you want to do. We’ll do what’s right for the songs.” It’s one of those things where you’re having a conversation and they’re agreeing with you, but….

AXS: You know they’ve got something up their sleeve.

C.B: Yeah, exactly! Just this look on his face. I’ve known Roman for a long time, and it almost didn’t register at the time. But then I lost my voice for a year, and that really turned my head around. It made me realize that time is precious, and you can’t take your gifts—of any kind—for granted. So when I got my voice back and was ready to hit the studio, I’d had a lot of time to think about that glimmer in Roman’s eye. I realized he saw a scope in these songs that couldn’t be covered simply with a mandolin here and a ukulele there. I knew he was going to give the songs this iconic sound in the studio, because he’s such an amazing studio player.

AXS: You’ve got a great rhythm section in Shawn Pelton (drums) and Jesse Murphy (bass). Tel us about their input.

C.B: So I just sent those guys the tunes with my playing by myself into an iPhone. I sent the files. And those two guys charted out all my songs on big paper, like an orchestra conductor might have. They’d be talking about the instrumentation, stuff like, “That part with the clave…” I was like, “My songs have a clave?!” It’s this Afro-Latin rhythm instrument. They said yeah, it was on two of the songs! And I heard it, and I was like, “Wow! That is a clave! I never thought of it that way!” But they’d really analyzed the songs in a very thorough way, and they had these charts. They basically paid me this huge compliment by doing that. People in any profession have ways of showing their mutual respect. But the fact that these guys did it was a huge compliment. They were so prepared and had taken such care.

AXS: They put their passion into it.

C.B: They did. And they showed me. So there were moments like that. There’s a moment in the last song on the record, “Too Young to Fade,” where I sing “I’m on the high wire while the lava boils below.” And Shawn goes into this press-roll, like a drummer in a circus would do. He answers it in a storytelling kind of way. In “Till the Cows Come Home” there’s a verse about “parades going by, moons cross the sky.” And right in this middle of this beautiful pulse that he’s laying down, he does this marching beat. That kind of interpretation is just so cool, you know? You want to make a record that people want to listen to on different levels, for years and years. You want it to be this immersive experience where people keep coming back and hearing new things. You want them to keep unpacking.

AXS: Right. And there are lots of styles—and nuances—to unpack here. And at the heart of it is your voice and guitar.

C.B: The reason I wanted to do this again is to be able to go out with a guitar. And I have been doing these solo shows, and it’s been really fun to finally just be doing that regularly. Because I look at my career like it has drawers, like in a kitchen. What’s in the drawers? Well, one drawer would have all the heavy, funky loud rock and roll. That would be The Spin Doctors. But I’ve also got another project with some guys in Norway where we do harmony singing. We’re called The Canoes. It’s a collaborative thing. Then my solo career is like that funky drawer in your kitchen that has the Phillips screwdriver and the roll of tape.

AXS: Everyone has that drawer in their kitchen.

C.B: Exactly! And, if I bring a song like “Till the Cows Come Home” to The Spin Doctors—a song with like sixteen chords in it—they’d be like, “F@#k you, Mr. Chordy Pants!” So if I want to do those tunes, I have to do them on my own. Not that those guys can’t learn a tune like that. But I always say that like one out of five—or maybe seven—songs I write is a Spin Doctors song. But every song I write is a Chris Barron song. And as a songwriter, you go crazy when you’ve got tons of tunes sitting around doing nothing. The tunes get mad! They’re like, “Record me! Why are you leaving me? I’m lonely! I want to be out in the world!”

AXS: The album also has your trademark humor. “In a Cold Kind of Way” reads like it’s about a girl who is being standoffish, but she’s really a zombie.

C.B: The hardest thing about a funny song, it’s not hard to get that reveal happening. The hard thing is keeping it going after that because once the cat’s out of the bag, that’s the difficult thing. You want to keep the song funny and interesting after the audience knows the trick! I wrote that song really quickly. I watching the movie Warm Bodies and was just humming like, “I’m in love with a zombie girl.” I thought it was a bad idea for a song! But I picked up the guitar, and I knew I didn’t want to write a punk song about a zombie girl, so I strummed this minor sixth chord. And I was like, “Oh, sh#t!” I could make it this sweet little love song.

AXS: You really do have a talent for writing memorable lyrics, and for singing them in memorable ways.

C.B: I work really hard on lyrics. I slave over them. You practice, the way a runner would run. It doesn’t have to be erudite or clever, necessarily. It just has to be right. I always point out the song “Louie, Louie.” Nobody knows what the f@#k that guy is singing, but it doesn’t matter! Whatever he’s saying, we know it’s the right thing for him to be saying on that song. Then you’ve got Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” where it’s this opus. You get this Leonard Cohen thing where it’s super-conversational. There’s no wordplay, but it’s devastating. The guy knows just what word to put where, and why. So I work really hard on writing and studying.

AXS: Does it get stressful traveling all the time for shows, with yourself or Spin Doctors?

C.B: I’m a hunter-gatherer. I go where the work is, where the hazelnuts are! Parts of it are a bit redundant, like the airports and stuff. But I turn that into a game. I do it like, “How quickly can I get through the airport?” Just things I do to get myself through the day. I’m suited to that life. My wife is a musical theater actress who tours as well, so she gets it. Sometimes she’s the one left at home, and sometimes it’s me! But we never go three weeks without seeing each other. That’s our little rule. But I’m a really lucky guy. I’m thrilled with how this record came out. When I heard it I was like, “If nobody else likes this record, we executed. We did what we set out to do.” If it had gotten bad reviews, I would’ve been okay with it. But now I have this double-gratification. I went after something in this artistic way, and it’s just icing on the cake that people like it and that it’s gotten this terrific response.