Chris Barron is a singer/songwriter and the front man of the band the Spin Doctors. He has released six albums with the band, including its Grammy-nominated, platinum debut, Pocket Full of Kryptonite. A seasoned songwriter and solo performer, Chris is currently working on a project with the month-long songwriting event, Hookist, where established songwriters and rising stars collaborate with die-hard fans and musicians to build an original song together.
Chris talked about how he built the Spin Doctors from the ground, up and the lessons he has learned about the music industry. He also talked about the process of growing a fan base and the many challenges the Digital Age presents to musicians trying to establish lasting careers.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Chris. How did you get started in the music business, and how did the Spin Doctors come to be?
I was always really into creative writing. I took guitar lessons here and there, and gradually got more into playing. Some guys I knew later on in middle school/early in high school were taking guitar lessons with this guy Barry Peterson, who was the first guitar teacher for Trey Anastasio of Phish and for a lot of other guys around Princeton.
Barry taught me a variety of songs by artists like Harry Belafonte, Fleetwood Mac and Simon & Garfunkel, and I took a chord from each one and just started stringing them together. I showed him what I was doing, and he explained to me how I could add lyrics and turn it into my own songs. I didn’t realize you could write songs that way. I assumed that great songwriters like John Lennon knew how to read music and wrote songs very formally.
At the same time, I was getting into poets like E.E. Cummings and writing my own poetry. And one week, when I was about 14- or 15-years old, Barry gave me an assignment: to listen to a record and figure out the guitar part. I took the top record off the stack – “Aqualung.” And instead of learning the part, I just decided to write my own song.
I went to high school with John Popper of Blues Traveler, and I started bringing in songs for him to listen to. He said, “That sounds like a real song,” which was the highest compliment at that time. Going to high school with John was cool, because he would play a harmonica solo with the high school band, which no one usually cared about, and he would have people jumping out of their seats. His virtuosity was just amazing. We became friends in an English class and started making music together.
When John and I graduated, he went off to New York City with Blues Traveler, and I spent a year in college, but had to leave because I didn’t have the money for tuition. What would’ve been my sophomore year I spent in my hometown working in a kitchen and I also played a lot of guitar and writing songs. During that time, I wrote tunes like “Two Princes” and “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues.”
Going back to John Popper … if you knew John Popper, you knew that being in a band with him meant you were going to be famous. So, everyone wanted to have him in their band. He was trying to do Blues Traveler, but I still kept calling him up and asking him to do something. And Eric Shenckman, who became the guitar player for the Spin Doctors was calling him up and asking him the same thing. The two of them were actually in a project together called The Trucking Company. John eventually connected Eric and me, thinking we would be able to work well together, with me as the lead singer of The Trucking Company.
Eric and I got together really well the first time we met, but then didn’t get along very well during rehearsals. A couple months went by, and the guys from Blues Traveler visited me and heard the songs I was working on. They said I shouldn’t be in our hometown just rotting away and invited me to move into their apartment in New York City.
I moved to New York and ran into Eric again. He apologized, and we became friends. A couple weeks later, he asked me to do a gig, which ended up being the first Spin Doctors gig. He found our drummer, Aaron Comess in a rehearsal studio. We went through a bunch of bass players, and Aaron finally brought in a guy from another band he was working with. That’s how the band really came together.
We played our brains out. Our ethic was that we just wanted to make a living playing music, so we took all the gigs we could get. We just played a hell of a lot. We used to play every night in New York City, which is really saying something.
Now, that’s definitely a really hard thing to do without burning out the market. Were you playing originals?
We played originals at some of the bars. Then there were others that were blues bars where you were supposed to play blues covers. But we didn’t want to do covers, so we would write an entire evening’s worth of old, crusty-sounding blues songs and just played those and pretended they were other people’s songs. We got away with it. Our latest record, If the River was Whiskey is a recording of all these old blues tunes we used to do.
People always want to know what the secret of show business is. The truth is, we really treated playing music like a job. I would go down to the photocopy shop and make flyers, and we would go down to Broadway or go to Central Park and pass them out. We did all the little things bands do to promote themselves. And then, of course, we insisted on a high level of musicianship. And I think the band was good enough where people saw us and wanted to see us again. We placed high importance on songs.
There were a lot of jam bands around when we were starting out. And I think whenever you come out of a “scene,” you need to have something that distinguishes you within that scene. We wanted to have really good songs. I think other bands placed more importance on the jamming and improvisation than on songs.
I knew you guys were in the jam band sandbox – or that people regarded you that way – but you didn’t have 17-minute songs.
We were the subject of an article called “The Jam Bands” in 1992 or 1993. It was us, Blues Traveler, Phish, Widespread Panic and some others. We were lumped into that movement. Back then, I didn’t want to embrace any comparison or scene. Looking back, those were the bands people associated us with. I’m just a musician, so I’m not in the position of organizing bands into categories or context.
And regardless of where you fit in, you guys definitely hit a point where you started having a draw. How did you break out of the New York market?
We were industrious. My dad co-signed a loan for an Econoline F250. We got in that thing with our gear and started driving up to Ithaca. Then we went to Binghamton, etc. We went to clubs and colleges.
There are a lot of bands who do this, but then they end up playing for bartenders and servers. How did you get over that hurdle?
We just kept going back. We were also a really good live act. We would go to a new town and play for the bartenders and servers and three or four people. Then we’d go back and play for 15 people. The next time, we’d play for 45 people. By the third or fourth time, we would pack it.
We kind of approached it as, “Hey, here we are.” We had a bit of a reputation as a good band. The word of mouth was usually really good. There were also tapers at a lot of our gigs, so tapes would get around.
We really believed in the act, and people who saw us play were impressed enough to bring their friends back the next time. We’d walk into a place and blow the roof off.
How did you build your recording career from that?
We knew some engineers who got us into studios during the graveyard shift. We’d go in at 10 at night and work until six in the morning. We had a few demos that we turned into cassettes and sent around got get gigs. We knew a woman who was friendly with a lot of bands and people in the music industry. She rarely recommended bands, but she knew manager David Sonenberg and recommended that he come see us.
We had some trepidation with signing with him because we had been doing pretty well on our own. He said that if he couldn’t get us a record deal in six weeks, we didn’t have to sign with him. Three weeks later, we were signing with CBS, which became Sony right after that.
Very little changed. We went in and made a record. Sony was way more into Pearl Jam and Michael Jackson when we signed. We were the redheaded stepchild of the label, even though we were signed personally by the head of Epic Associated. We toured really hard. They wanted us to come home and make a record, and we decided to stay out on the road.
A guy named Jim McGuinn was working at a radio station in Vermont. He wrote an empassioned letter to Sony saying we were one of the best bands around. They made an ad for a pizza joint and used one of our songs, and people started calling and requesting the ad. We were also getting some play in a couple random markets, like Honolulu. Sony saw us getting play in these different markets, and they gave us a push. Six months later, we were platinum.
What were the hard lessons you learned in your early days as a band?
The thing we really did right was work, and I think that is an important thing to do even today. We got in front of people and took every single opportunity we had to play. I think people these days get discouraged really quickly. They go somewhere and people don’t show up, and they don’t go back. Sometimes you have to go back a hunch of times before anything comes of it. These experiences also make you a better musician.
A big rookie mistake people make is forgetting that you have to be entertaining. Sometimes, being really brooding and staring at your shoes is entertaining. And sometimes being really flamboyant is entertaining. You have to figure out what your audience wants. You can’t figure out what works unless you go out and do it. It’s great to sit around writing kooky things down in notebooks, but at some point you have to get it out in front of an audience.
In New York City, we played a lot of very different venues. We had to work hard to get slots at the blues bars and other bars we were playing and write music that was really entertaining, because people were there to see live music. Luckily, I have an aesthetic that’s upbeat and catchy. And philosophically, I feel like art and music offers solace to the person experiencing it. I think even if something is really dark, it should offer some sort of emotional or philosophical consolation. Music should show that life is worth living.
Right now, I think music itself is undergoing the biggest paradigm shift since the advent of recording. Just from a musicianship standpoint, anybody can make a record now. If you have a computer, you can make a recording. If you have a little bit more money, you can make something that sounds like a record. And if you have a little bit more money, you can take someone who can’t even play or sing and make them sound like they can play or sing.
Music as a profession is undergoing a major shift. When we were making records on tape, you couldn’t hide.
You didn’t have the luxury of cutting together a bunch of different vocal or instrumental performances.
Right. And back then, you had a large class of musicians who had undergone a lot of musical training. The cool thing was, you had guys who had more and less training, but they were working together. I was definitely more of a natural musician. I sang in choir in high school and took music theory for ten minutes in college. I have some training, and I have a lot of vocal training. But when I joined the Spin Doctors, I was very rough and very green. I had only been in a couple bands, but I had a songwriting talent and could sing my ass off. I didn’t really know much about being in a band.
The guys in the Spin Doctors recognized my talent, and all of them had been in a million bands. They took me under their wing. I didn’t know much about phrasing. I would just come in when I felt like it, and our drummer showed me how to look for cues so I could figure out when to come in. They taught me the ropes of some of the more sophisticated aspects of playing in an ensemble. That kind of training was necessary back then, because making a record cost what it cost to buy a house. Pocket Full of Kryptonite cost $200,000 to make. If we hadn’t spent that money, it wouldn’t have sounded that good.
And how have you seen things change?
I’m not one of those people who thinks everything sounds like crap these days, and I’m not against digital. But I think it has dragged the profession into a place where if somebody really can’t sing, you’d never know it until they were forced into a position where they couldn’t hide behind all the equipment that’s available now.
Back in the day, my business was making pieces of plastic with music on them and selling them to people. At that point, nobody would dream of going into a store and taking your record without paying for it. Now music is an ephemeral medium. But people still need to eat and make a living.
I follow all the things that are happening with songwriters’ rights, and there is some crazy stuff going on. If we had received a fair royalty from our plays on Spotify, my life would be very different. I did well in the music business. I had two hit songs, and the Spin Doctors have had some great touring years.
I’m able to work as a musician, and I will hopefully for the rest of my life. I won’t have to get a job doing something else. But I’m by no means a wealthy guy. I own an apartment in New York City that I pay a mortgage on and drive a Subaru. I’m a guy with a fantastic job who gets to travel a lot and have a wonderful life, but I am not wealthy. I probably would have been better off had it not been for a dotcom crash and a few other financial catastrophes.
I think people think of this stuff as the petty concern of this very rich class of people who are grasping for more and more money. But the truth it, the system has always been kind of exploitative. If you look at how much money the Spin Doctors made on Sony and how much money the actual guys who made the music walked away with, it’s a tiny fraction.
I interviewed Jake Slichter from Semisonic a while ago, and he refers to that phenomenon as as “rock n roll sharecropping.”
It’s always been exploitative. And now it’s crazy. Someone recently tweeted that “Two Princes” had a ridiculously high number of plays, but we’ve only seen a few thousand bucks for that. It’s been the same with YouTube, where that song has over 28 million views.
The woman at the Department of Justice in charge of the preliminary ruling for songwriters worked for Google for 20 years. There’s no way she should be making decisions about these types of rights, because it seems like there is a conflict of interest.
David Lowry and other musicians like you are talking regularly about these issues and how broken the system is. And I read somewhere that it’s going to be five years before the end of the download. Soon, if you have a wi-fi connection, you will have access to all of Western music, and if you don’t, you won’t. It’s interesting when so many people can appreciate what you made, yet you can’t make a living.
That’s the thing: So many people love music so much. But nobody really knows the lifetime of work that goes into it. It costs money to go into the studio to make nice versions of the songs you write.
And these companies are strangling the tree that grows the fruit that they want to sell. If people can’t make a living making good music, the good music will go away. The quality of the music will just get worse and worse.
And you’re now working with Hookist. We’ve interviewed co-founder Terry Derkach and also talked to some artists who’ve done Hookist projects. What led you to work on a Hookist songwriting event?
Someone posted an interview I did with American Songwriter, and the people at Hookist thought I’d be a good candidate. It sounded like a fun way to engage with people. I am at a point in my life where I’m interested in giving back a little bit. I’m almost 50, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. I think I have some ideas and techniques to share with other artists. And I know how great it feels to write songs.
I’m working with these guys in Norway called The Canoes as a side project. We’ve had a lot of fun doing stuff together. They had an opportunity for us to go to a castle in Denmark and do some recording with a mobile recording unit, and I couldn’t say no. They had me go there a couple days early and teach songwriting. I started answering questions and talking about my craft, and I realized I have a penchant for teaching songwriting.
Peter Denenberg, who produced and engineered Pocket Full of Kryptonite is the head of the music production department at SUNY Purchase asked me if I wanted to do some teaching there as part of a master class, so I taught there for a while.
I think a lot of people don’t have the first idea about how to write a lyric or how to write. They have stuff to say, but they don’t know how to go about writing it in an effective way and turning it into a song. There are all sorts of guidelines that I’ve learned over the years. Hookist sounded like fun and a cool way to connect to other people.
And it’s nice to have fans be able to have access to you. That opportunity would not have existed 10-15 years ago.
The Internet is such a troll warren. I can barely look at Facebook. I get a kick out of Twitter, because everything is so short that you can easily forget it if you don’t like it. I think Hookist is such a mature use of social media. It’s a positive and friendly experience, and that drew me to it.