Sound & Vision: Tim Barnes

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. In this installment I’m delighted to be talking with Tim Barnes, an internationally recognized percussionist, composer, sound designer, and audio archivist. In addition to playing and recording with indie rock greats including Wilco, Sonic Youth, and Silver Jews, Barnes has also made a name for himself as an experimental sound artist, performing at venues such as the Guggenheim, Whitney, and Pompidou museums. Equally at home in both worlds, Barnes runs the Quakebasket record label (best known for its archival releases of solo work by Angus MacLise, the poet and original drummer for the Velvet Underground). He is also the Artistic Director of DREAMLAND, Louisville, Kentucky’s experimental performance space. 2016 is shaping up to be an especially exciting year for Barnes. As I learned, a new album release with long-time collaborator Jeph Jerman is just the beginning…

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The Rumpus: You’re originally from Southern California. Tell me about some of the music you were listening to as a kid.

Tim Barnes: In the 70s it was the Eagles and KISS; I was definitely a KISS fan at the time, but that was more because they were the anti-Eagles. My mom was, and still is, a big music fan too. We always had Creedence Clearwater, the Jackson 5, Elton John, or something like that playing in the house. Those sounds inspired me and my friends to pick up tennis rackets and pretend they were guitars, or to use stand-up vacuum cleaners as microphone stands. I first learned drums by air drumming along to records. [Laughs]

Rumpus: Were there musicians who were particularly influential to you?

Tim-Barnes-feature-smallBarnes: As I got a little older my awareness of other music started to grow. As the 80s approached, my friends and I were getting exposed to new wave stuff coming in like the B-52’s and DEVO. This music wasn’t on the radio much, but I remember my junior high would have dances and I think that’s where I first heard “Rock Lobster.” I also remember getting the album Are We Not Men? We are DEVO! and just listening to it over and over and over again. I felt as if I found “my” music.

Rumpus: Tell me about your transition from music fan to musician. When did you start drumming?

Barnes: When I started high school, surf music was making an interesting comeback—kids were listening to bands like Dick Dale & the Deltones, and also The Safaris who had that song “Wipe Out.” Some kids also had their own bands that played in the quad at lunchtime. To my young ear, they were amazing! A couple of my friends wanted to start up a band. They wanted a drummer, and I thought I could do that. I went over to my friend’s house and started trying to play “Red Tape” by the Circle Jerks—that super fast ba-tu, ba-tu, ba-tu, ba! I figured it out, and that informed my ideas about how the drums were supposed to work, you know, put the bass drum on the one and the three, the snare on the two and the four. That was sort of the mode of rock music. If you could do that, you could basically play ninety percent of all rock songs. We played our versions of surf music, plus songs by the Ramones, the Who, etc.

Rumpus: So that was your entry point…

Barnes: [Laughs] Having already seen the punk documentary Decline of Western Civilization, I was already heavily leaning into the idea of being a musician. However, when my high school screened the Who’s The Kids Are Alright one evening, and I saw a very young Keith Moon terrorize his drum kit while playing “I Can’t Explain,” “Shout Shimmy,” and other early era rave ups, that was it! I remember thinking, “I WANNA DO THAT!”

Rumpus: Was it easy to find your tribe?

Barnes: In 1982, my family relocated to Long Island for my father’s job. I had just finished my first year of high school, and while most kids would be bummed about the transition, I was excited to leave the beach culture behind. I was deep into music, and also art and printmaking, and when I got to our new town I discovered it had something like four different record stores. I was in heaven! But then I discovered that the kids in my new school were into Van Halen and Rush. That was a bit of a bummer. I tried to roll with it, but it was hard. I was a self-taught drummer who was into mod and ska like the Jam, Secret Affair, the English Beat, and the Specials. I just loved the backbeat and that’s what I wanted to be doing.

Rumpus: How did you go about establishing yourself professionally?

Barnes: During my senior year of college I did an internship at MTV where I met and befriended the producer and filmmaker Mark Pellington, who helped to change the whole face of the network. Among Mark’s projects was the documentary show Buzz, which was essentially a pastiche, an experimental, non-linear assemblage of sound and images. Seeing what he was doing was extremely influential to me, gave me new ideas about what was possible.

At the same time I got really into the indie music scene that was happening—I’m talking about bands like Sonic Youth, Polvo, and Sebadoh. It was a lot less polished back then compared with the indie rock of today. People were DIY, using 4-track cassette players to record their music. 45s were back in style, too. After almost every paycheck I would go to Kim’s Underground and buy a new stack. As I got more into the creative environment at work, I also started meeting some of the people whose music I was attracted to. That was my pathway.

Rumpus: How did your work with Pellington inform the way you later approached engineering and producing music?

Barnes: Eventually I started working for the film editor Hank Corwin (who was nominated for an Academy Award this year for his work on The Big Short). I worked for Hank for fifteen years at his studio Lost Planet—and like Mark, Hank became a mentor to me. He’s a brilliant editor with an amazing sense of how to get inside someone’s character, blurring the line between speech and internal dialogue.

I spent so much time behind the console learning from Hank, and over time I got to a point in the development of my skills and sensibilities where friends started coming to me to work on their music after hours. Established Fluxus-associated artists like Henry Flynt and La Monte Young followed. I became the mastering engineer and editor for a lot of Flynt’s archival releases through the early part of the aughts. Working through his old reel-to-reel tapes gave me a front row seat to his creative process, and helping to bring his work to the world was huge for me. As with drums, I had no formal training in audio engineering. It all came to me through experience.

Listen to Henry Flynt’s “Corona Del Mar” (iPad/iPhone users click here):

Rumpus: And eventually you started releasing music through your own label, Quakebasket.

Barnes: Quakebasket was a wonderful transition point for me. A couple years earlier, I went through an uncomfortable breakup of my band ditch croaker, while at the same time, starting to play on records by the Silver Jews, Jim O’Rourke, Dean Roberts, and Tower Recordings. I had been moving “up the ladder” so to speak at Lost Planet, and making a good living. At this point I was slipping deeper and deeper into improvisation and experimental music. Having a great time, of course! So I decided to start supporting recordings that I felt needed to be heard. I had a great run through the aughts, releasing 24 different recordings. Out of all of the Quakebasket releases, the series of Angus MacLise CDs garnered the most attention, and for good reason. Before I started releasing Angus’ work, there was very little known about the man.

Listen to Angus MacLise’s “Hummingbird in the Night Skull” (iPad/iPhone users click here):

Rumpus: Did your work with experimental filmmakers and musicians lead you away from straight up drumming to more expansive ideas about percussion?

Barnes: I was already moving in that direction for sure, but to tell you the truth, I am simply a massive music fan. I do not feel I have to identify myself as just an experimental musician, or a rock musician. I try to be as innovative as I can, whether it is spontaneous or not.

Rumpus: Can you give me a few examples of where we might have heard your percussion work on “indie rock” records?

Barnes: I have recorded drum tracks for quite a few people over the years, but in terms of bands that are more well known, I would say Silver Jews, Pullman, Neil Michael Hagerty, Jim O’Rourke, Pat Gubler, MV&EE, and Beth Orton. Oh, and yes, I am the handshake on Wilco’s “Handshake Drugs.”

Working with Beth Orton was quite a nice time as well. I will never forget meeting Beth for the first time. She came over to my apartment, sat down, and said, “Want to hear my new song?” She played, and my wife and I just sat there with our mouths open. When we went into the studio, I think we only had six or seven songs that we had worked out the previous week. Again, while we were in the studio, in classic Beth Orton fashion, she says, “Do you want to hear my new song?” The song was “Worms,” the lead off track on the record. I think we worked on our parts for about an hour or so, and then recorded it.

Rumpus: Musically, what are you up to these days?

Barnes: I’m really excited about my collaboration with Jeph Jerman, a sound artist based out of Cottonwood, Arizona. Jeph and I originally met in 2004 through a mutual friend. I invited Jeph to come to New York so we could do a handful of tour dates with mutual friends Sean Meehan and David Daniel. It was a very fun tour, which saw us swapping collaborations every night. All of it improvised. After that Jeph and I stayed in touch. I moved from NYC to Louisville, where got a call from Jon Abbey, who runs Erstwhile Records. Jon suggested that Jeph and I do a record together, and after a few months of sending each other ideas, I flew out to Cottonwood with our engineer Barry Weisblat and we recorded at some of Jeph’s favorite spots out in the desert.

Listen to Tim and Jeph’s “In Situ” (iPad/iPhone users click here):

It was an amazing experience, and not too long after we finished touring for that album, we decided to start kicking ideas around for record #2, Versatile Ambience, which has just come out on Idea Intermedia. This one is a bit different from the previous album—for one thing it wasn’t recorded in the desert. In Louisville I have a pretty healthy group of musicians, many of which are doing amazing work right now, so I started inviting people to contribute specific elements to specific tracks. Ken Vandermark contributes a couple horn parts, which really helped the opening track come together. Soon there were violin parts, bass clarinet parts, French horn, and electric guitar. The record is still very much Jeph and I—but just a little different approach.

Listen to an excerpt from the new record Versatile Ambience (iPad/iPhone users click here):

Rumpus: Busy guy!

Barnes: It has been a very busy 2016 so far, and I am having a great time. Jeph and I are already working on a new record, and I am also collaborating with the Chicago-based group Haptic. The legendary German band Faust recently invited me to sit in with them for a couple nights, and I also played in late April with Vandermark then headed to the Levitation Festival to play with Lee Ranaldo as well as Royal Trux.

Rumpus: As you’ve expanded your collaborations with other musicians, you’re also creating new venues for music?

Barnes: Yes, I’ve been in Louisville since the summer of 2007. There’s a strong creative community here; it’s the benefit of a small big city, and I’ve really come to appreciate it. DREAMLAND, which I founded in 2014, is conceptually based on places like the ISSUE Project Room and Tonic in New York, Constellation in Chicago, and a few others. I envisioned DREAMLAND as an experimental arts organization like those I grew up with as a musician.

I also host a radio show on Louisville’s new arts-focused low power FM radio station, ARTxFM. The music I play could be from Portugal, Africa, or Chicago, all experimental stuff I spin along with found sound. I do a lot of mixing and layering of tracks, kind of making my own pieces out of other people’s music. We have two turntables, two CD players, a cassette and a cassette deck, plus some auxiliary plug-in opportunities. It’s all done live. I enjoy sharing it with people!

Rumpus: As you’ve had a hand in cultivating the experimental arts scene, you’ve also had a hand in music licensing for TV commercials, featuring a diverse range of musicians such as Apples in Stereo and Milford Graves. How do you go about matching musical artists with brands?

Barnes: It starts with a huge pile of music, then sifting through to find the right piece. There are groups or artists that you might think of right off the top of your head as soon as you see the visuals, but after that it’s what makes sense for the client. Sometimes people come to me with a finished picture, and then I have to cut the music to it. But other times it’s a rougher storyboard or just a verbal or written description of the project. We can bounce ideas off each other, but mostly folks are hiring me for my sensibilities. Maybe they want a piano track, but instead of going with something obvious, they want something less so. To tell you the truth, I like to see what I can get away with. I love turning people onto new stuff, so I run with that mentality. I want someone to watch the commercial and discover new music in the process. If I hear “Eminence Front” one more time in a commercial I think I may go out on a rampage. You don’t necessarily need a recognizable track. You just need the right track.

Rumpus: So are you saying Nick Drake in VW, yes, but KISS in VW, no?

Barnes: [Laughs] Exactly.

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BONUS MATERIAL

Watch Tim perform with Body/Head at New York’s ISSUE Project Room as part of a benefit for IPR honoring Kim Gordon:

For more about DREAMLAND:

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Feature photo © PSquared. All other images provided courtesy of Tim Barnes. 

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →