Telling it like it is

Israel prepare: Spin Doctors frontman is coming.

May 9, 2010 03:05
Chris Barron Spin Doctors

Chris Barron Spin Doctors 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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It’s so convenient to treat a pop star’s sudden rise to the top and dizzying descent to anonymity with a one-dimensional, Trivial-Pursuit-punch-line sort of callousness; with sold out arenas and gold albums being a thing of the past for the perennial “where are they now” one-hit wonders, it’s also easy to forget  that their lives – and careers – do carry on, even though the details aren’t splashed across headlines and their faces aren’t constantly on MTV.

Chris Barron has witnessed the glare of teen idol adulation and the obscurity of one-night stands in tiny clubs. And having experienced both, the former lead singer for The Spin Doctors would prefer something in the middle – but he’ll take what he can get.
Almost 20 years after enjoying a short run as the singer of one of America’s top rock bands – with 1993’s seventh best selling album, Pocketful of Kryptonite, and two giant singles, “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t be Wrong,” –  the 42-year-old Barron is soldiering on, doing really the only thing he knows how to do well – make music.

“I was always very ambitious, but it was never my ambition to be super duper big,” said Barron last week from Key West, Florida, where he was performing at a songwriters’ showcase sponsored by his publishing company, BMI.

“My aim was to make a living playing music, and not to have to work in any other jobs. I had a lot of jobs. I started working at age 14, before it was even legal to work, at my friend’s father’s ice cream shop. And I pretty quickly got the idea that I didn’t want to end up with a mundane kind of job. And I definitely wasn’t office material – I was never going to be someone who was going to rise the ranks in a big company. So it was sink or swim for me with music.”

BARRON HAS not only kept afloat with music, he rode a huge tidal wave with The Spin Doctors. Formed in New York City in the late 1980s, the quartet, featuring Barron, guitarist Eric Schenkman, drummer Aaron Comess and bassist Mark White, became known as a good-time party jam band, a more commercial version of the ultimate ’90s stoner band Phish. 

For Barron, it was the pinnacle of a life that began in 1968 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where his father, a Vietnam War veteran, was stationed.

“I don’t remember much about Hawaii – I was just a baby. I went to elementary school in Australia, and then we moved to New Jersey, where we stayed. That deleted all those romantic places,” laughed Barron. “I was always interested in music – from an early age. I took guitar lessons when I was eight or so.”

Barron enrolled for an elective course in music theory in middle-schools, and his eyes were opened to the possibilities inherent in songwriting.

“One day my guitar teacher came in and I showed him something that I had taken from a Fleetwood Mac and a Harry Belafonte song and combined their chords. I didn’t even know if I was allowed to do that. But he said, ‘that’s the way to do it. Pretty soon, it will turn into a song.’

“‘That’s it? What about writing down the notes and giving notations for the melody?’

He said, ‘Do you think Bob Dylan or John Lennon can read music?’ That was an eye opener for me. Until then I didn’t think anyone could write a song – I thought you needed something like a pilot’s license. It was also a blessing, because I’ve never been good at figuring out how to play other people’s songs. I could always sing them, but I couldn’t sit down and figure out the chords to a song on the radio. So making your own tunes was a great option.”

By the time of Pocketful of Kryptonite, Barron had gotten the songwriting thing down, and with its success, the Spin Doctors were suddenly everywhere, from headlining the HORDE festival to appearing with Elmo on Sesame Street. And then they were nowhere. Their next album Turn It Upside Down, while selling nearly two million copies, was considered a let down. Within a couple years, guitarist Schenkman had quit and the band’s third album, 1996’s You’ve Got To Believe in Something, sunk like a lead zeppelin.

“It was a difficult time,” admitted Barron. “Our popularity was on the wane, our guitar player left, which was disruptive to what we were about. It’s all about chemistry, and you just can’t take out one guy and insert another even if he’s a great player. When Eric left the band, it was extremely disruptive, although the fact that he left suggests that we didn’t have much of a trajectory left. If something falls apart, it doesn’t have a trajectory.”

BARRON CHALKED up the band’s demise to losing the focus on music that brought them together in the first place.

“The band lost its cohesiveness because it was so much easier for outside influences to take effect. In the beginning, we were in control of our aesthetics, but as we got big, there was much more outside pressure, and you end up making decisions that might be lucrative, but not the best decisions,” he said.

“Looking back, we should have held back more, kept things on a smaller scale and moved slower. One change that came about that affected us was our following. We were always a college rock band; people would get loaded and come see the band. But when you get a hit, and you’re on MTV a million times a day, you attract a younger set, and our audiences began to become much younger. So we had hippies and 10-year-olds in the crowd. We didn’t know how to react – it wasn’t ours anymore.

But you can’t go to MTV and say, ‘hey, stop playing our stuff!’”

Barron, whose daughter had just been born during the tumultuous period, responded to the crash by immersing himself in music, honing his guitar playing and writing songs. Although he’s kept The Spin Doctors name alive and various permutations of the band still occasionally perform, Barron has mostly concentrated on developing a solo career focusing on his roots rock and soulful voice. He’s bringing his show to Israel for the first time on Tuesday, at the Jerusalem Student Day celebration in Independence Park, where he’ll be performing some songs with local favorites Monica Sex, and on Wednesday night in Tel Aviv for a solo acoustic show at the Barby club.

“I’ve always wanted to come to Israel – it’s an absolute dream come true,” said Barron. “But I’m not a good Jew – I was never bar mitzvahed. My brother’s more of a practicing Jew and he was jealous when I told him I was coming. He’s a better Jew than I am.”

Barron appreciates the irony of appearing in Israel as a nostalgia act and having college students singing along to songs like “Two Princes” – which were recorded when they were babies – while at the same time he’s trying to reestablish himself as a viable singer/songwriter.

“I used to walk into a mall and 300 kids would surround me for autographs. There were times when I just wanted to buy socks and not deal with that. But I’ve always been grateful to the fans and was always happy to sign for them and appreciate the acknowledgement – even if could be somewhat disruptive,” he said.

“Now it’s more selective. On my way to Key West this week, the security person at the airport gate said, ‘Are you the singer for the Spin Doctors? Oh, my god!’ I gave her a guitar pick with my name on it. Those are nice moments. My girlfriend says she sees people looking out of the corner of their eyes at me sometimes, trying to place me.”

BARRON EXPRESSED no interest in returning to anything resembling the level of notoriety he enjoyed with the Spin Doctors.

“I had that and I don’t want it again – it’s hectic and stressful and turns you into a commodity,” he said.  “Here you are, a smart and engaged person, and there are people all around you who see dollar signs when they look at you. It’s kind of a perilous lifestyle.

“I would love to have more of a cult kind of thing going on, rather than be a huge mainstream success. I  wouldn’t mind having the audience of someone like Ryan Adams; a comfortable following, where I can fill a decent-sized room.”

But whether it’s appearing in front of 50,000 or 500, Barron remains an eternal optimist. And it’s his positive outlook that has enabled him to not only appreciate his past accomplishments, but to be grateful for his current status as a lifelong professional musician.

“I try to focus on the bright side. Here I was, just a kid from New Jersey who never went to college. I had a great ride with a couple hit songs and I’m continuing to play music for a living. For me, the cup is half full, not half empty,” he said.

“I’m grateful I haven’t had a real job since I was 20, I have a beautiful daughter and a girlfriend, I’ve got 26 guitars on my wall, and I’m still making records. I’m making a living, I’m here in Key West and it’s sunny and beautiful. I’d have to be an a**hole to complain.”

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