Thursday, October 31, 2013

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Rick Barton (Continental, ex-Dropkick Murphys)

Hey, Rick, thanks for talking to me – can you tell me how Continental got started and your decision to get back into music?

I had kinda been taking some time off and had started up a project called Everybody Out! – we had put out a couple of records for two or three years and then the band imploded.  The lead singer and I hated each other, which just kind of happens.   I was talking to Frank Black one day – I was painting his house – and he said the same thing! (laughs) It’s probably equally my fault as much as his, and it’s just like any other kind of relationship, sometimes things just don’t work out.  When you are in such close quarters, it just seems inevitable that a couple of the guys are going to end up not liking each other.  It’s a brutal existence being in a touring band.  We’re out on tour and there are 6 of us in this tiny little van, and every little thing everyone does can get annoying and that gets amplified as several days turn into several months and no one really knows how to handle it. 

So, that band disbanded and I decided I wasn’t going to tour again on that level – it’s just brutal and you don’t make any money anyway.  You end up losing tons of money to end up having friends become enemies.  My son had heard me playing some songs – I had been approached to become a songwriter for other people and get into production – and he said, “You gotta play those!”  And I’m like, “Well, who’s going to be the band?”  He brought me in to play with his friends, and they’re all 18 year old kids.  It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but I figured we’d give it a shot.  I went down there and they were all really incredible musicians, the thing hit right away.  I love playing with my son, and the next thing I know we had a dozen songs together and I said we need to take this thing on the road. That was a little over three years ago and the original guys in the band, they kind of went into shock and couldn’t do it.  So I had to go and find two new guys and they were young kids too, friends of me and my son.   We did our first full US tour, started in September 2010 and the rest is history as they say.

Has working with guys your son’s age affected the way you write? Or is this simply the right guys for your songs?

You always have to be adapting, not only year to year but day to day, so that’s an interesting question.  At first, it was more that I would bring in the songs and tell them to play them the way I wanted them to, but now the band is so incredible – I mean, we just learned a brand new song yesterday – they take what I bring in and just bring it to the next level.  The drummer is incredibly creative and I just let them go to town. The next thing I know, they are coaching ME on when to come in singing and changing my phrasing.  They are all naturally gifted musicians, and sometimes I’m like “I’m not sure I want to sing it like that.” [laughs]  But I defer to their knowledge of music. I mean, if they wanted me to sing a disco song, I might have to draw the line [laughs] but as long as it sticks to my intent, I am willing to let them take the song where they think it needs to go and it’s been working out incredibly well.  They get excited coming up with chord changes and accents, so I don’t want to take that experience away from them.  That is the essence of making music and being in a band, creating a song and hearing it come to fruition from the raw structure on the acoustic guitar. 

Is that how you do it, you just work it up on an acoustic?

Oh yeah, every song.  For example, I was working on that new song in my camper this morning.  The band will get the song in one night, and then I have to go back and practice for three days because I am just not a natural musician.  What I have is some kind of bizarre gift that enables me to have a song come through my body and it’s a phenomenal thing.  I come up with some great shit that I have no idea where it comes from.  Working on that new song today, suddenly I found myself turning these three chords around and I am on to another song – it gives me chills up and down my spine to do that!  I’m 52 years old, and this phenomenon happens to me on a regular basis.  All my peers, guys who are far superior to me musically – guys who I worship like Frank Black and Paul Westerberg – most of my peers wrote their best stuff in their twenties and have steadily gone  downhill. I’m not sure if they are just experiencing life differently or what, but they aren’t able to draw from the same inspiration as they once did.  Most artists do their best work when they are younger, but in my case I really think that I am writing better every day.  It just blows me away.  I really, honestly think my best material is still to come.

You can see a difference even between the Continental stuff and the stuff you did with the Shadowblasters – it’s leagues better and more mature.  The songs have a swagger and confidence  - you seem to be very confident in your writing right now. 

Oh yeah, I am.  I am very lucky.  We’re about to turn the corner and have people start to recognize us…it’s beginning to happen for us now.  This is where I really have to be careful, because we are actually starting to get popular.  It’s a very slow process, acquiring fans.  Now these songs that I write are actually going to be heard by people.  It’s fun, though, to know that your songs are going to be heard.

So what’s the endgame with the next release from Continental – do you have something in place label-wise or are you shopping it?

We have a label in Europe and one here – these are small labels, they don’t give you any money or anything.  We pay for the recording and everything ourselves – labels aren’t what they used to be and everybody’s poor in the music business.  I think we’re going to do a couple of singles sometime soon and those singles will be the lead-in for an album we are going to record right after we get back from Europe in December.  We’re kind of old school, where bands would release a single or two and then you’d have to wait for the album to come out.  And it’s not even the plan because we are copying the past – it’s for financial reasons.  We can only afford to do singles right now.  We had to put up a lot of money to go to Europe but we’re pretty sure we’re going to get most of that back and we are going to invest all of that money into recording an album.  That’s the way you have to do it – you have to put every dime you make back into the music, even the stuff you make from your day job.   A lot of people are afraid to do that, and I understand that fear because I am often reticent to throw all my money into music but at the end of the day I do it every time.  I get down to the last hundred bucks to eat for the week, but everything else goes to the music.

The flipside of the coin, though, is that you own it and don’t have any other master telling you how it needs to sound or what single needs to be released.  You’re in control.

Yeah.  That’s definitely the good part.

Tell me a little bit about FM359, the project you and Mike McColgan (Street Dogs, ex-Dropkick Murphys) are working on.

I tried calling Mike and I was talking to Jonny (Rioux, Street Dogs bassist) and I think it’s coming out sometime in November or December and then we might do a one-off tour and see how it goes.  There is really no definitive plan.  I mean, I think the stuff doesn’t sound the best, sonically, but the other guys are really into it. 

I know that you aren’t probably one to cash in on nostalgia, but I am sure that there are a bunch of people who are interested in that because of the connections you guys have from the Murphys days and from the Street Dogs.  Do you think the connection is going to help raise the profile of Continental?

I don’t think it will, actually.  Nowadays, I don’t think people research and do a back history on the bands they like.  It did happen and it was still happening through the 90’s, but I don’t think people really care about that anymore.   They just want to know what’s happening right now.  I can tell you, me being an ex-member of the Dropkick Murphys has done almost NOTHING for Continental.  We might get one or two fans a night who were my old fans from the Dropkick days, but that’s it.  They don’t come out.  People don’t come out in general to see new bands.   They’re going to go to Warped Tour and Riot Fest – anything that’s a big event.  Or if some legendary band from England comes over like Cocksparrer or someone, people are going to go to that but people aren’t seeking out new music live.  They just click on it on the internet - click, dismiss, click, dismiss.  They don’t have to put any work into finding out about bands. They might just go to some live clip that sounds like crap and go “They suck” and move on.   It’s a hard sell if you’re an underground, original, unknown band. 

We’re playing a show in our hometown on Saturday and we have this campaign blitz of giving away free CDs and shirts, I have been doing personal invites on Facebook to practically every person I know, flooding social media like crazy – and after three weeks of this campaign we are up to about 60 tickets pre-sold, and the Middle East (the club) have said that that is a PHENOMENAL number.  The venue holds 190 people and we are probably going to end up putting 150 people in that room.  That’s our hometown and it’s because of constant vigilance and working our asses off.   Back in my day, in the early 80s, 150 people would come out on Monday night to see two bands at Cantone’s or the Rat and they wouldn’t even know who they were.  That’s just what people did.  That’s where people socialized and now people socialize from their bedroom.  There’s a huge divide.  The tour we were just on, after we left Buffalo – Buffalo we had a good crowd, I think that there were about 70 people there – after that we played SEVERAL rooms where there were only one or two people and that was it. I’m not even exaggerating.   I made my mind up, at least we can get people out in Boston, but you would think with our networking we could fill a much bigger room.  And I have promoters who caught wind of my promotion and they want us to do this same thing in Canada…I’m like, “I’ll go completely broke giving away our merchandise”, but you know what I’ll do it.  The guy in Montreal, the promoter, I told him “Free t-shirts and CDs”.  We’re not going to make any money that night, even if people come.   But that’s the name of the game…I’m willing to lose money to get people into the room to hear the music.  I have no retirement account or anything.  I am a painter and work in the trades, so I do this because it’s what’s in my soul.  I am not and will never be a rich man, and I had to pay a lot to get out from underneath the Murphys, so this is it. 

Is that mercenary, “take no prisoners” approach to getting people in the room what you attribute your growth to?  The album is great, but seeing you play live is really what sold me on the band…

That’s the point.  It doesn’t matter what it takes, getting warm bodies in the room is the goal.  I posted on Facebook recently that I would rather make people happy than make money, so that’s it. 

You’ve got the tour coming up, the album after that – what’s your plan long term?  You seem to be hitting a late stride songwriting-wise…are you focusing on the band or do you plan to do more production gigs and farm your songs out to other performers?

I’m putting all my eggs in one basket and really work this Continental thing until I can go no longer.  If somebody asks me for a song, of course I will try to do that, but I don’t want to work with musicians [laughs] 

Have you thought about working with some of the people who are your heroes – Frank Black, Westerberg?  Is that something that would be a viable option for you in your golden years?

Those two guys, they’re a lot like me and they write on their own, so I don’t really see that working [laughs].  Collaboration isn’t for me, it’s just not.  I do it with the Street Dogs and Mike, but he doesn’t play an instrument so it’s different and I like bringing stuff to him to see where he takes it.  We were going to cover a song of mine that we did with on the Street Dogs’ last album (“Poor Poor Jimmy”) about the old Rat in Kenmore Square and the owner there.  But Mike just hits it out of the ballpark, and we were trying to practice it last night and I’m like, “Dude, I suck at my own song…we can’t do this!”  As for others, I would be in too much awe to work with those other guys you mentioned, but I kinda like to be the lead guy.  That’s just my ego or something. 

Is that what brought you back in front of the mike?

I got tired of having lead singers and having to deal with that….I thought, I could probably do all this myself.  It might not sound as good as I want it to, but there is more sincerity when the guy who wrote the song is singing it.  I’ve had other people sing my songs in the past because I didn’t have confidence in my voice, but now I have learned to sing and feel like I can do this.  

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