Monday, October 21, 2013

INTERVIEW: Richard Barone (the Bongos)

(Photo by Mick Rock)

Venerable New Jersey songwriter and erstwhile leader of art-rockers the Bongos, Richard Barone writes fiercely independent and genuinely passionate songs about love and life.  Barone reached out via email to discuss his recently reformed group, their just-released "lost album" and being the final act to take the stage at legendary NJ venue Maxwell's.

Your “lost” album “Phantom Train” is just now coming out, and it’s a doozy!  The album had a notoriously troubled gestation. How did it come about that you finally were able to “finish” it? 

There was a perfect storm for its delay and a perfect storm for its release. At the time of recording, coming off a 300-show tour and landing in the Bahamas to record, the project was too big and unwieldy for us to deal with. There were multiple takes of songs and endless mixes to sift through, and no pressing label commitment to deliver it. We were back on the road before we knew it, and soon after that we were all off on our own doing different things. So, the album remained in storage boxes. After I mentioned it onstage at the “cool blue halo” 25th anniversary concert last year and performed a song from it, Marty Scott who was re-launching his JEM Records label this year contacted me to ask about it, and everything fell into place. We spent the summer finally listening to all the mixes and versions of the songs, and picked the ones that comprise “Phantom Train”.

You recently got to help Maxwell’s in NJ say farewell, closing out the storied venue with sets from both “a” and the Bongos.  It must have been an honor to be the first and last band to play there.  Can you tell me about that experience?

The closing night of Maxwell’s unleashed a torrent of emotions for anyone who had ever been a part of its closely knit community. The bands and bartenders, the DJs, the house sound mixers, the waitstaff, the regulars and even the youngblood newcomers stepping in for the very first—and last—time could each sense something important was being lost. Something cool that we would all miss. It all began quite innocently. We were just some guys in a band looking for a place in the neighborhood where we could play. It was mutual love at first sight. We performed there, we practiced there, we stored our gear there, we ate, drank and had basically grew up there. Over time, musical styles and personal lives evolved and changed, as did Maxwell’s, yet the venue remained a constant. Through good and bad days as Hoboken lost its original innocence and “small town” vibe, Maxwell’s persevered somehow, remaining a meeting place for music lovers and perhaps the most well-known and least-known bands of our time. Bounding that stage on July 31, 2013, first for a set by the specially reformed “a” (the original first band to ever play at Maxwell’s, including all three original Bongos) and a final closing set by the Bongos as ourselves, felt poetic somehow. The entire day and night was a celebration of old friends and new faces. Every bit of the original magic was there in that overcrowded little room. Looking out into the crowd, the energy and sense of celebration was at a sustained peak throughout the night. Especially for the final encore of Big Star’s “Thank You Friends,” when we were joined onstage by members of Yo La Tengo and the Feelies. For me personally, in some sadly joyful way, it was Maxwell’s finest hour.

With the Bongos seemingly reunited and the Feelies back together, the NJ scene of the late 70’s and early 80s seems to be having a bit of a resurgence!  Why do you think that music resonates so much now?

Originality never dies.

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

Whichever of my songs I am performing at the moment is my favorite one. “The Bulrushes” might be a current favorite, as it has been covered several times this year alone, most recently by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs.

Can you describe your songwriting process for me?  What inspires you to create? 

Anything can inspire me. Usually, though, it’s a person or a relationship issue that starts the ball rolling. From there it takes all kinds of turns and free-association. Like, how does my situation relate to other experiences and how does it relate to the listener? And how can I tell this story in a way that has never been told.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  Who inspires you musically?

That’s easy. The Beatles, in particular Lennon. Marc Bolan and T. Rex. Donovan. The production work of Tony Visconti. The music of Kraftwerk. The ambient music of Brian Eno. The guitars of Robert Fripp, David Gilmour, Marc Bolan, Eddie Cochran. The poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. The prose of Willliam Burroughs. The plays of Tennessee Willliams. And the art of Andy Warhol. For starters.

What’s on tap for you next?  Are there plans to tour or promote “Phantom Train”?

I’m always on tour, primarily as a solo troubadour (see for schedule and sign up for the geo-targeted newsletter) and I perform many songs from “Phantom Train” in my shows. The Bongos just played this week at New York’s CMJ Festival and will do some more shows as well. Just keep an ear to the ground, and you just might hear The Bongos “Phantom Train” roar into your town!  I’m planning my next solo album as well, on which I plan to open the door to special guests. I am one of the luckiest musicians I know, who is fortunate to work with some of the greatest artists around, and I’m honored to collaborate with so many who have inspired me.

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