AMID a harsh stateside winter, MALCOLM WYATT spoke to a housebound Chris Barron to talk about the Spin Doctors’ past and present, ahead of a three-date UK visit which includes a brief trip to Lancashire.
Admittedly, this early ‘90s hip US outfit were best known for Two Princes, Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong and the album that spawned those breakthrough hits, multi-million selling debut LP Pocket Full Of Kryptonite.
But while they never quite reached that commercial high again, Chris Barron and his band-mates never really went away.
And the New York quartet’s latest blues-driven album, If The River Was Whiskey, their sixth album, certainly proves their lasting musical worth.
Chris (vocals), Aaron Comess (drums), Eric Schenkman (guitar) and Mark White (bass) play Burnley Mechanics on February 20th, one of just three UK gigs this time, following that with shows at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls (February 21st) and alongside Dodgy at Thre Garage in Islington (February 22nd).
That small scale ethic sits nicely with the band’s philosophy, and it’s worth noting that when they hit the back time, the Spin Doctors were just four guys in their 20s having a whale of a time playing the Big Apple blues circuit and NYC downtown bars.
Then came the hits, hysteria and mega-stardom, selling 50,000 records a week. As Chris said, “I’d walk into a shopping mall to buy underwear and 300 kids would surround me.”
Fast forward a few years, and I’m pleased to say they’re back to their roots, the band feeling If The River Was Whiskey is the deep-blues album they almost made before fame called.
Yet this is no retro LP, but fresh, honest blues from a band clearly on their game after all those years honing their craft.
Some of the songs are rooted in late ‘80s sessions, a European tour to mark 20 years since Kryptonite leading to a re-visit, the results unfolding with ‘an effortless magic’.
Chris added: “It’d be awesome if it sold millions of copies, but honest to God, I just want to keep making a living playing music.
“We get up onstage and we turn it on, sing and play our hearts out. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
I was playing Pocket Full of Kryptonite as well as the new album as I sculpted a few questions for Chris. And I’m pleased to say, 22 years after its release, Kryptonite is as fresh as ever. Great rock’n’roll is clearly ageless. So is Chris still (rightly) proud of that sparkling debut?
Is it also something of an albatross, the first album you always had to live up to? Do you find yourself having to say, ‘actually, we’ve made six albums’?
“I don’t know. I tend to focus on how lucky we are to have made something that people still care about 20 years later.”
It must have been a bit mad in those days – the fame and all that followed.
“Lots of good memories. Parties, travel, romance… We had a hell of a time.”
Fame can be a fickle mistress, but you’ve always had that hardcore of fans that have stood by you and enjoyed all you’ve done over the years (the band LPs as well as the solo projects), haven’t you?
“We have some of the best fans a band could ask for.”
Was that album a reflection of that New Jersey/New York blues circuit at the time, with with yourselves, Blues Traveler, and so on?
“It was our version of the music coming along at that time. We had our own novel style, but were all pushing against the boy band, cheesy pop thing and hair bands – who I actually kind of love now!”
You were known for the on-stage jams and lengthy shows. Was that all part of your musical education?
“Indeed it was. Learning to carry off songs no one in the audience knew was crucial. We’ve always been conscious that we’re entertaining people so try to keep that stuff really focused and dangerous so it doesn’t turn into boring finger gymnastics.”
“Oh, yeah. We all lived through a special time.”
Listening back to those early songs and the words behind them, how do you feel you’ve changed these past couple of decades? And what – if anything – would you change now, given the chance?
“I don’t know what I’d change. I always get worried answering that question. Like, what if I wish I could have changed something and it’s like The Twilight Zone and the wish comes true but I’m a robot stuck in the same week playing over and over for all eternity.
“We’ve had a great time and we still are. I’m a lucky guy. I’m gonna leave it at that. As to the other part of your question, I’ve worked hard on my singing and writing skills over the years and I think I’m better at those things.”
Are you a family man these days, or an early-hours hard-drinking musician?
“A little of both. I have a lovely wife and daughter and a couple of cats. I do a lot of cooking at home. I’m a little obsessed with Downton Abbey but like to drink my scotch straight.”
How do you compare NYC and its political and social scene then to now?
“The upside is it’s a lot safer but it’s not as crazy as it was. I love NYC. I wouldn’t live anywhere else, except maybe the south of Spain in January and February.
(When I interviewed Chris, New York City was in the midst of a cold snap, to say the least, its wintry conditions making worldwide news. So I couldn’t resist asking him – in a very British way – what the weather was like there.)
On Some Other Man Instead he speaks of some heavy weather – I guess you didn’t have this current spell of winter in mind? Talk us through it. Where are you these days, and just what it takes to nip out for a bite to eat at present?
“It’s been brutally, brutally cold these last couple of weeks. I have some wool long underwear that I picked up in Norway and it’s come in handy.”
Tell me about If The River Was Whiskey. It came out last May in the UK. How’s the public reaction been (both sides of the water)? And how do you feel about it a few months down the line?
“We’ve had the best reviews we ever received. It’s been very nice to go out on a limb and make a blues record and get all this great feedback. We’re on a lot of ‘best of 2013’ lists so I guess the record is holding up well.”
The line-up’s changed over the years, and you’ve clearly seen more than your fair share of upheavals. Is it good to be back in tow with Aaron, Eric and Mark again, and are you in a better place as a unit these days? Is it as good or perhaps even better, now you’re not living in each other’s kryptonite-filled pockets (sorry, couldn’t resist!)?
“Yes. We’re getting along well these days. It’s nice considering we were at each other’s throats for a lot on the time. Water under the bridge. We all have kids and really, we’re the only guys who we know who have been through what we’ve been through.”
Whiskey is a very bluesy album. Do you think it’s opened you up to a new audience?
“For sure we plan to stay with the blues direction. Really, just because it’s always been a big part of our music. The next record is going to turn back a bit in the rock direction. Sort of Exile on Main Street meets Houses of the Holy.”
Some of those songs have been around with you a long time? Is this perhaps a reflection of your musical DNA?
‘Deep blues’ is a pretty good description, and supposedly this is the album the Spin Doctors almost made before mega-stardom came knocking. Is that right?
“Yes. We were a blues band first. Kind of like Fleetwood Mac.”
And yet – around 25 years after you first formed – your material still sounds as relevant and fresh for today’s audience as it would have been back then. I’m guessing you enjoyed making the record? It certainly sounds like it.
“We truly did. We thought we were making a demo so just cut loose and enjoyed ourselves. In the outtakes there’s a lot of joking around. I was speaking in a Canadian accent pretty much the whole session.”
I believe the recording all happened in a matter of days. There’s definitely a raw feel – and it’s perhaps all the better for that. Was this a new way of recording for you?
“We did this record in three days. We’ve always been better when we didn’t allow ourselves to get to precious. Like I said, it was supposed to be a demo so we were really sort of fooling around. When we listened back we realized we were never going to beat that vibe.”
You had to cancel a short tour last year, because of a vocal cord problem, not for the first time either. I’m guessing you saw the signs this time?
“Yeah. I just blew my voice out. The band tried to do too much in too little time and I was trying to be a hero. Dumb. All you singers out there! No matter how tough the rest of you is, your voice is more delicate than your eye lids. You got to rest. No way around it.
“You can’t do a million gigs in a row and fly across the water nonstop and think you’re not going to lose your voice. I’m now a hundred per cent. I just didn’t talk for a month.”
That must be a little worrying – not least the first time you suffered with your voice? Do things like that make you re-evaluate what you have?
“I always try to stay in touch with how lucky I am.”
And did your (blues) doctor prescribe a little whiskey?
Your date at Burnley Mechanics is followed by others to the north and south of London then in Paris and Amsterdam. Why did you choose those three UK venues?
“Hey. I just get out of the van and sing my heart out. No matter where it’s parked. That said, I love going to a small town where they don’t get a lot going on. I wish more rock’n’roll came to the little town I grew up in.”
When were you last in the UK? Was it the Kryptonite anniversary tour? Have you good memories of gigs over here and previous visits?
“We’ve always loved playing the UK. I lived in Australia as a kid so grew up with the BBC. Classic Doctor Who (Tom Baker) and Are You Being Served? I can’t wait to get on the outside of a few English breakfasts.”
We famously stole the blues from your side of the pond and gave it back in a way that made you sit up and notice – via the Rolling Stones etc. Is this some kind of payback for you now – reminding us all about the blues and how relevant they remain?
As well as a few blues artists, I can hear on the new album a few bands that took on that influence too – from The Eagles right through to erm… Primal Scream, perhaps?
“Haha. The Rolling Stones mostly..”
So what of the future? Are you still writing a lot of songs? Will there be another Spin Doctors album coming our way soon? Or is it back to the solo work?
“Definitely another Spins record. I’m also working on a record with my Norwegian supergroup, The Canoes, and a solo record. I’ve been writing my brains out. What’s left of them, anyway.”
“If you only know our hits you’re in for a surprise. We’re more a blues band than a pop band, a power trio with a front man, who I hope isn’t annoying.
“We work very hard on our songs so you don’t have to listen to a bunch of crap then finally get Two Princes.
“And if you come out and don’t think we played our guts out, I’ll buy you a pint.”
For more details about the UK tour and all the latest from the band, head to www.spindoctors.com
And to get a taste of the Spin Doctors in 2014, try this video link to the title track of their latest album.
A version of this interview first appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post. To find that, try here