Spin Doctors’ Chris Barron on ‘Grad School’ with the Rolling Stones and More
Chris Barron’s new record, Angels and One-Armed Jugglers, is quite different from his work as lead singer of the Spin Doctors. It was also quite different to get a slap from the New York City Police Department while recording it.
“This record emphasizes my eccentric style of storytelling and oblique lyrical sense,” he says. “It’s got some strings and some horns — production moves that would be a bit out of place on a Spin Doctors record.”
The solo album was made at His House-Innsbruck Studios in the once beat up but now hip Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
“I actually got busted for having an open container one evening after the session,” Barron says. “I never do that — drink a beer on the sidewalk. I thought I would be all cool and Brooklyn hipster, and, right as I was taking a sip, a squad car drove by, and I got a ticket.”
Despite his brush with the law, Barron values what came out of his time in Brooklyn.
“One of the things I like about this record is how varied it is rhythmically and harmonically,” he says. “I guess you could call it Americana, because it spans a lot of different styles. There’s a tune that’s pretty much a jazz standard, there are songs that sit in a Stones-y rock-and-roll world, and some oddball beer-hall sounding stuff. It all hangs together pretty well, because it’s all got my personality.”
Barron’s personality began in 1968 at his birthplace in Honolulu, where his father, a Vietnam War veteran, was stationed before moving to New York. Barron’s childhood was spent primarily in the Bronx and suburban Westchester County, and then the family moved to Australia for about three years. When they returned to the US, they settled in Princeton, New Jersey, where Barron became friends in high school with John Popper, who would later found Blues Traveler.
In 1988, Barron moved back to New York.
“I moved to New York City in 1988 when I was 20 with $100 and an acoustic guitar, and I still live here,” he says. “I always wanted to live in New York. New York City has rhythm and pace that, for me, is very conducive to creativity. I also like to play guitar in the subway like I did when I first moved here.”
One of New York City’s favorite sons, Paul Simon, is Barron’s musical hero. Barron considers Simon a “songwriting genius,” and cites another former New York resident, Bob Dylan, as a hero for the “scope of his lyrics.”
Like Barron, another musical hero, Jamaican Bob Marley, was born on an island. “Our voices are in a similar range, and the syncopation of reggae blew my mind as a young musician.”
But the first music “that really made me go nuts for songwriting was the blues,” Barron says. “I love Muddy Waters and Reverend Gary Davis, and the Rolling Stones (who were heavily influenced by American blues artists) are my favorite band.”
Other heroes? “I also like Homer, Shakespeare, E.E. Cummings, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Picasso, Kurosawa, John Ford, Noel Coward, Rogers and Hammerstein, Modigliani, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Dexter Gordon, and a bunch of other crazy stuff. Eric Schenkman of the Spin Doctors taught me long ago to look for influences outside of rock and roll.”
The Spin Doctors, who are still going strong with their original members, became a 1990s sensation, combining blues, funk, pop, and a jam-band sound with rock. Their full-length debut album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, initially met a relatively quiet commercial reception after its 1991 release but took off a year later when two hit singles, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes,” received a lot of MTV and radio airplay.
“We’re old pals now,” Barron says about his relationship with fellow Spin Doctors Schenkman, Aaron Comess, and Mark White. “We go out for great steak dinners, drinks, and nice bottles of wine and talk about our kids. We’ve always had a very intense and special musical rapport, and it only gets better as time goes on. I’m very grateful not only to have had some success with those guys, but to be in the fortunate position to have found an ensemble that plays so well together.”
Of the songs Barron wrote for the Spin Doctors and his solo albums, which ones are his proudest accomplishments?
“Oh, I don’t know,” he responds. “I like the one I’m playing in the moment the best. I’m very grateful for ‘Two Princes’ and ‘Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong’ for being the tunes that enable me to continue being a professional musician. On my new record, I like ‘Till the Cows Come Home.’ because it has a lot of chords.”
Barron says the concert he liked best of all those he has attended as a spectator was his first one.
“My first concert was John Denver in Sydney, Australia, around 1977,” he says. “I had a fever of, like, 103. I was pretty much delirious. Pretty hard to top that one.”
Watching the Rolling Stones live in the mid-1990s, though, influenced him more as a musician than any other concert.
“When the Spin Doctors opened up for the Rolling Stones, I watched them every night,” Barron says. “That was a master class in rock and roll. Watching the things they did every night, the stuff they did off the cuff, the way they interacted with each other, and just the stagecraft in general, that was as close to graduate school as I’ve come so far.”