Q&A with Spin Doctors’ front man Chris Barron

Chris Barron, lead singer for 90s-era proto-jamband Spin Doctors is my new BFF. Or at least that’s how it seems when I finally reach him by phone. It’s the day after Thanksgiving. He’s at his Dad’s house. He starts in talking, right away, like we were in high school together (we weren’t) and have two decades of catching up to do.

I can’t help but like the guy.

After the chart-climbing success of ‘90s hits like “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” Barron admits its a strange shift to go from playing crowds of thousands to crowds of dozens. Then again, the musician’s pop career was waylaid in 1999 by vocal chord paralysis, so he’s thrilled to be able sing at all.

“If you want to be happy, you have to accept life has its zigs and zags,” he tells Xpress.

It’s the singer/songwriter’s Zen perspective — well-learned life lessons tempered by a contagious sense of fun — that make him seem not like last-decades throw back but, instead, a performer in his prime. Well, that and his finely crafted, pop-flavored songs that deserve the radio play of his Spin Doctors’ hits but will probably fly under the radar.

Undaunted, Barron claims to keep his gold and platinum records from Spin Doctors days in his bathroom. Whether that’s meant to be funny or to keep the singer humble, the truth is his current solo work proves that, not only has he maintained his song writing savvy, hooks intact, he’s honed his skills and matured gracefully.

Fans both new and old can expect Spins Doctors hits at Barron’s show, along with a new playlist culled from his soon-to-be-released album, Pancho and the Kid, a joint effort with songwriter Jeff Cohen. He’s also got an ambitious tour in the works—but we’ll let Barron tell it in his own words:

Chris Barron: Asheville’s one of those towns you hear great stuff about and I’ve been around a little bit touring but [it’s also] one of those towns I never ended up in.

Mountain Xpress: You’ll get and here and then you’ll be like, “I’ve got to move there.”
[Laughing] That’s what people say, but I’m like a New Yorker freak. There’s been a lot of places where I’ve been like, “This would be great, but I live in New York.” There’s a lot of people who hate New York an I totally understand because there’s a totally frenetic pace. I think New Yorkers are sort of born, not made.

You have a whole lot of shows in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia in the next couple months. Why?
I am basically starting out as a solo artist. I’ve been playing around a little bit over the years, mostly in the Northeast. I had this great run with the Spin Doctors, but as a solo artist I’m really starting over again. We just kind of decided that we would crack a couple regions. Come and come back and start playing regularly in a couple of places. We’re psyched. We’re calling it the Southern Fried Tour.

The stuff I’m doing, people who come out can expect us to play some Spin Doctors favorites and then I’m going to do the stuff off Pancho and the Kid. All the stuff on my MySpace is Pancho stuff.

Well, What can I do for you? Because I know everything about me.

Do you think if you hadn’t contracted vocal paralysis, the Spin Doctors would’ve kept going?
The Spin Doctors are back together again. We did a gig two days before 9/11, about 10 blocks from the world trade center. We played a place called the Wetlands, a club we’d played a lot in the early days of the band.

Meanwhile, I was starting to do some solo stuff. My friend Jeff Cohen and I were doing a bunch of writing together. He’s got this alter ego group called Pancho’s Lament—it’s just a vehicle for his song writing. I was like, “We should record some of this stuff. This stuff is cool. We’ll call it Pancho and the Kid.” And the name kinda stuck.

Half as a lark, half as a labor of love we started recording this stuff. We had all these amazing musicians coming in to record this stuff. We pulled all these favors. Between the two of us we know a lot of people. They were like, “What are you gonna do with this?” and we were like, “I don’t know. We’re gonna build it and see who comes.”

In the meantime, the Spin Doctors were getting back together. The Spin Doctors kind of got the call to make a record. Out of loyalty and morbid fascination I decided to shelve Pancho, which was almost done, and do this Spin Doctor’s album. So we put out Nice Talking to Me, in 2005. It was real well received, critically, but about six weeks after it came out our record company went out of business. So it was a commercial flop.

So, I turned back to Pancho and finished it up. We have advanced copies now that I’ll be selling at the gig. Early 2008 it will come out … I forget the question now, but I’m sure I answered something.

I asked, if you hadn’t lost your voice, would the Spin Doctors have kept going?
We were in an abysmal state of disarray at point in time. We were on our second bass player and our third guitar player. We definitely had a great record that was about to come out, even though we’d had a couple personnel changes. We were playing with Ivan Neville and Aaron [Comess] and I had kind of masterminded this record. It was called Here Comes the Bride [1999] and it’s a really cool record. It virtually never came out because I lost my voice two weeks before. I kinda went into production and then croaked, you know?

So, at that point, we were definitely about to put out a great record. We were with Universal at that time and were getting a big push from them. We were ready to kind of mobilize. I don’t know what would’ve happened. That’s a really interesting question just on account of we had a different lineup at the time. If we’d had a big success with that line up … I think as a result of me losing my voice, that lead to a change of events that resulted in the original band getting back together. So, it’s quite plausible that if [Bride] had been a success, the original band would never have gotten back together. It’s difficult to know what would’ve happened. It might have resulted in a nuclear war.

Is starting over as a solo artist exciting or frustrating?
A little of both. Mostly exciting. But there’s times when I’ll show up someplace and think, “I’ve played in this town for like 35,000 people and now I’m playing for 300,” you know? But I love what I do. I love what I do. I love writing songs and I love singing them. I love playing for people.

And I believe that the world is sort of a big pendulum. Things sort of swing back and forth. I’ve never believed any progression follows a straight line. There’s a tendency to think that if something’s on a certain trajectory it’s going to keep going in that direction. I noticed early in life that you’re going along in a direction and the next thing you know life takes a right-angle turn. The happier you want to be — if you want to be happy you’re going to have to accept that life has its ups and downs. Not necessarily ups and downs, but the zigs and zags.

I consider myself well ahead of the game because I’m a professional musician. I don’t have to do some job that I hate, and a lot of people have to do that in this world. I’m not putting that down because you’ve got to put food on the table. In fact, I have tremendous admiration because I know there’s a lot of people out there who are basically doing the right thing for the people around them, but they’re having a really crappy time doing it.

I’m having a really great time. I wake up in the morning and dream up a tune or go do a gig. I just go back from playing in Europe. I was in Norway. I did some song writing and then did a gig in Spain and the Mayor was there and he presented me with a bell. My life is awesome! It’s really, really cool.

I’d be lying if I said it never crosses my mind that I was playing for huge, huge crowds and now I’m playing for a smaller crowd, but I’m just happy to be playing for a crowd.

What would you have done if being a musician hadn’t worked out?
[Laughing] I have to laugh about that because it’s really scary. I have no other qualifications. I’m not qualified to do anything else. I didn’t go to college. I could maybe write books, but I’ve been writing songs for such a long time that any other kind of writing is difficult for me.

In the songs you’re trying to — I call it “putting the world in a tea cup.” Most songs are about a page of words. You’ve got two or three verses, a chorus and a bridge, and it usually fills a page, unless you’re Bob Dylan. What you’re trying to do is condense language. When the [Rolling] Stones say, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find, you get what you need,” they’re basically … I think Anna Karenina [by Russian author Leo Tolstoy] is basically saying the same thing, but it says it in a thousand pages and the Stones say it in about a dozen words. I don’t know how good I’d be at writing books because I tend to condense my language instead of expand it.

I was an okay cook, but I’d basically be in trouble. I’m deeply, deeply grateful that I get to be a musician because [otherwise] I’d be a very frustrated person. The one happy picture I get of myself not as a musician is I very well might have ended up in Vermont, believe it or not, doing ceramics. I won a lot of awards in high school for my ceramics.

I might have been an actor. But I’m glad I’m not an actor because actors are cuckoo.

Right. And musicians aren’t?
Well, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know!

When did you put together the Time Bandits?
It’s basically Chris Barron, and the Time Bandits is kind of the name to rally around. Those guys found me — it’s kind of cool. I ran into Jon Lloyd of Macon, Georgia, at a gig I was doing at a little road house on Long Island. He came up to me and said, “Hey man, I know [Barron’s song] ‘Can’t Kick the Habit.’ This drummer I know turned me on to it and we do it at this bar on Bleeker St., in New York, and now people are requesting it.”

So we played it together later on. I started dropping by and sitting in with them. We started doing a few more songs, and then they called me up and said, “We’ve got this gig — want to do it with us? We can back you up on your songs.” So we did the gig and it went really really well. We have great chemistry; they’re really great guys.

A lot of times you see a solo project and it’s a guy with other musicians playing his material. It comes off as kind of sterile. The thing I really like about playing with the Time Bandits is it doesn’t come off like that. We come off like a band. It’s a much warmer chemistry.

It’s interesting listening to the similarities and differences between the Spin Doctors and what you’re writing now. It’s like you kept all the good parts — there’s a real sense of joy in it — but the songs have also grown up and become a lot more complex. How do you feel about it?
I absolutely agree. The Spin Doctors were very guitar-riff oriented. On [Pancho] there’s only one guitar solo on the whole record. There’s some amazing guitar playing on the record and musicianship all around, but this stuff is very song oriented, very lyric-driven.

A couple years have gone by and I’ve grown up a little bit. I don’t know if I’m always going to co-write entire albums with other people, but I can’t say enough about Jeff’s influence. Some songs he brought in and I helped him to finish, some I brought in and he helped me, some we conceived of together. There’s definitely a richness about it because it’s a collaboration.

The song “Louisiana Holiday” typifies what you’re talking about. It’s got all the hookiness and everything, but there’s a mature lyric, something I couldn’t have written in the early Spin Doctors’ days. I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. And something I could’ve have written without Jeff. He brought in the germ of that song.

As we were writing, he was writing about going on vacation to New Orleans to recover from a love affair that had gone very wrong. That theme is very strong in the song. But there’s also an imaginary figure: The second verse starts off, “There’s an old man by a trash can fire, straight out of Street Car Named Desire” and that character, to me, as we were writing, was my friend Bobby Sheehan who played bass for the Blues Traveler who died in New Orleans about five years before we wrote the tune. The song has a richness because we were writing from two different ends and met in the middle. The song took on, I think, an extra dimension.

Multiple interpretations can make a song accessible to more people.
Funny you should say that, because “Can’t kick the Habit” is another song that was a germ of an idea that Jeff brought in and I was lucky enough to be able to help him finish. “Can’t kick the Habit” is a very evocative title and people always ask me, “What’s the habit? What habit are you talking about?” We were very careful not to paint ourselves into a corner with the lyrics. We wanted to keep it open. As I was writing it, I was — I’ve got my devils — but we were both very cognizant that we wanted to leave it so it could be the obvious, like some kind of a substance or some kind of a compulsion, but also, like, it could be romance that had taken off. But we left it open so people can hear that song and it can become a mirror.

Chris Barron and the Time Bandits perform with Menage at The Grey Eagle on Thursday, Dec. 6, 8:30 p.m., $10. 232-5800.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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