In the spring of 2013, the Spin Doctors released their sixth studio album titled If The River Was Whiskey. We took a few minutes to catch up with Chris Barron, front man of the Spin Doctors to talk about their latest album, their relationship with Blues Traveler, the future of the band and the impact blues has had on the group.
Obviously, your musical styles have changed a bit throughout the years. What was the biggest inspiration for that change?
People think that your musical inspirations change throughout the years, but really you’re just sort of having the time to do different things that you’ve always been interested in. People look into what you’re doing and go “Oh wow, they’re doing the blues now” and you’re like, “dude, I’ve been crazy about the blues since I was twelve years old but now I finally got the opportunity to make a blues record.” Really, I’m still into a lot of the same stuff that I’ve always been into. I’ve just sort of casted the ballot for the next thing I’m going to do and I have this little buffet of interests and talents. The Spin Doctors started out as a blues band. Last year was the 20th anniversary of Pocket Full of Kryptonite. So when our fans started asking us to play this blues stuff it was this big ah-ha moment cause we were just casting our ballot for our next move. Here we are, doing this 20th anniversary for Pocket Full of Kryptonite and we’re like, do we leap-frog forward and come up with some new identity and then when we got the idea of making a blues record it was like No! we will continue backwards in the trajectory we already are going and forward march backwards back into our roots and what we were doing before we were doing Pocket Full of Kryptonite which made a lot of sense. It was something we just stumbled across directionally.
Anything off If The River Was Whiskey that makes you particularly proud?
I keep telling people we made this record in like three days but it took us 25 years to get to those three days. The first two songs (“Some Other Man Instead” and “If The River Was Whiskey”), we wrote those at the rehearsal for this session. So we rehearsed them Monday, then recorded them on Tuesday and Wednesday. So I’m proud of them because they are the newest thing. It’s always the latest thing you’re proud of when you’re a musician. For me, it’s the novelty factor. We’re really proud of the record all together. It’s extraordinarily gratifying that the critical reception that the record is getting because for me blues music is so close to home.
As a young guy, I was friends with John Popper of Blues Traveler and I was interested in music and very interested in performing music. I went to John and was like “So rock n’ roll comes from the blues, huh?” and he says “Yeah” and he played me the Blues Brothers and Sugar Blue and a couple of harmonica players. It was pretty cool, they were some real polished guys. So then I went to the record store with like five dollars and bought some 99 cent records. I had this one compilation that was called Memphis Blues Again Volume 4. I don’t know why it was called Memphis Blues because all the musicians were from Mississippi. It was all people I’ve never heard of before or since this record. I played it for John and asked him why he didn’t play me anything like this. He says “Oh, cause that’s the gut-bucket blues.” It was all solo performers. A guy and a guitar or maybe even a guy, a guitar and a harmonica and they were playing these really rudimentary songs. The chord progressions were sometimes really inconsistent ‘cause these guys were just at a bar. I was just completely knocked out cause I was never an instrumental virtuoso and the playing on this record really was more about the songwriting than it was about the virtuoso play. They were mostly accompanying songs. It was very personality driven and more than anything emotionally driven. So for me, it was just this huge door opening up. I was like wait a minute, I could do this. I get this because I know what it’s like to feel miserable and I know what it’s like to need some sort of outlet for that. I’m articulate enough to say it. I was already writing poetry and stuff so I figured if I take this kind of guitar playing and I put it together with my poetry, I think I can do this.
For me, to make a record like this, and straight up say “We made a blues record.” And then get these great reviews is really meaningful for me because it circles right back to the origin of my music aspirations. This is music that I love so much and respect so much, and to get reception like this is truly gratifying.
You guys have a big chunk of tour dates coming up pretty quickly here, anything in particular you’re looking forward to about this tour?
Were always psyched to come in and play. Were’ going to play some of our new stuff but were going to play everybody’s favorites as well. And we’re going to play our guts out.
For the most part, you guys have been working together for quite some time, how does that play creating new songs and content?
There are two things I think. There’s the chemistry that we’ve just always had. It’s really just kind of remarkable. It’s crazy what happens when these four guys play together. The sum is more than its parts. We’re all very different personalities and we just start to play. We broke up for a while and we’ve had different guys in the band, played around with a few different lineups. We’ve had some really extraordinary musicians take the place of various guys in the band but it was just never the same. When we got back together, that magic was back. We have evidence based on our past experience that it really is just something about the four of us. We’ve all gone on and done different projects but none of us has found the chemistry and energy like we have in different groups. There’s just something that we’ve just had all along. We know each other both musically and as people really well right now. We have this experience and chemistry working together now and it’s just fun. You know that game kids play? Where you kick the can, then they kick the can a few steps forward and you just take turns kicking it back and forth to each other? No real rules. That’s kind of how it is with us musically. I’ll fool around with the melody a little bit and play around on the guitar and Eric will say “You did something kind of funky there, how about this?” And he’ll do something and then the drums get involved and we’re just playing tunes we’ve played a million times, like “Two Princes” but we’ll subtly change it around- most of it the audience doesn’t even hear, but it sort of keeps things interesting.
Any bands stick out as being the most fun or enjoyable to tour with?
Definitely Blues Traveler. I went to high school with those guys. For me it’s always special when we do stuff with them. We’re trying to get together a little run with them in November. Trying to get like 10 dates. Something we haven’t done in a long time. Both bands are into segueing songs, so we used to do this thing with them, someone got the bright idea to segue bands. We would open up for them. One by one all those guys would come on and for a minute or two all eight of us would be playing together, then one by one we would walk off and bam, Blues Traveler would be starting their set. So these shows would just have continuous music going on and on and it was really a lot of fun. I’d have to say Blues Traveler then, because we’ve done so much fun stuff with them. Personally, we’re just such good friends with them too.
What next for you guys? Any big plans for the future?
We certainly will be enjoying touring this record and that’s our first order of business right now. We’re just starting to play this record live. It mixes really nicely with the older material too. So we do these shows where we play the new stuff and we’re playing everyone’s favorites. It’s neat cause you can see the link between both the Kryptonite stuff and our blues stuff. A lot of people are coming out to see “Two Princes.” A guy in England actually said that to me. He comes up to me and said “We were really excited to see you come to town, ‘Two Princes’ was my favorite song when we were kids but we weren’t really expecting much. But man, we were really knocked out by you guys when you walked out on stage and started playing blues. ‘Two Princes’ and ‘Little Miss Can’t Do Wrong’ is just a really small portion of what you guys really do.” We have a lot of material that is formed a lot by that heavy blues feel but obviously as we went on our focus became more of the “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Do Wrong” cause they got to be pretty big hits. We definitely want to make another record once we’ve sufficiently supported this record. I think we’re going to make another record that’s pretty blues influenced but we want to go more in a rock direction. This was a blues-rock record and next we want to make a rock-blues record.
Interview by Alysha Rendflesh
*Photos by Richard Ecclestone, Lucy Onions