Rock and Rosin
interview with Ben Barnes of Deadweight
Certainly other rock bands have incorporated string
instruments like violin and cello into their sounds. Hawkwind had a violin
player for a good number of years, Frank Zappa often worked with Jean Luc
Ponty, and of course there was ELO. But with the possible exception of
Rasputina, no rock band I’m aware of has used string instruments in even
remotely the same way as Deadweight. Drummer Paulo Baldi provides a steady
foundation while violinist/vocalist Ben Barnes and cellist Sam Bass run
their instruments through various effects, until their sound is
unrecognizable. They don’t sound like traditional bass and guitar, either.
Deadweight don’t bother writing traditional rock songs, either. The only
comparisons are other equally unique bands like Primus, Mr. Bungle,
Fishbone, and Morphine. The band recently released their third album,
‘Stroking the Moon’, on Alternative Tentacles Records. It seemed as good an
excuse as any to speak with violinist/vocalist Ben Barnes about his band.
Utter Trash: How did you decide to incorporate violin
and cello into a rock band setting?
Ben Barnes: Well, it started out trying to play bass
and guitar, but we’d been trained on violin and cello. We just felt more
comfortable playing on the instruments we were trained on. It seemed more
natural to us. Plus we sucked on guitar and bass.
UT: What sort of effects do you use?
BB: Mainly a lot of guitar effects. I dual amplify
my system. I have one amp going for a certain sound, and one for lead.
Trying to get a more stereo sound. The old Jimmy Page “birds” thing that he
used to do. Setting up amps on either side of the stage, crazy delays and
stuff like that. I was inspired by reading ‘Hammer of the Gods’.
UT: Were you influenced at all by some of the rock
violinists like Jon Luc Ponty?
BB: Jon Luc Ponty, definitely. Also some country
players, like Doug Kershaw, Charlie Daniels of course.
UT: When did the band come together?
BB: Around 1995. The first album we did, ‘Opus One’,
was more like a demo. It was more of an experiment to see if our set-up
would work, and if it would work for playing in clubs. We only made like
1000 copies of that. Then ‘Half Wit Anthems’ came out on Nippon Columbia,
and Fishbone’s label here. We did a tour with them.
UT: Have you played in Japan at all?
BB: Twice. We went to the Fuji rock festival in 2000
and 2001. It was an awesome time.
UT: How were the Japanese fans? I’ve heard they can
be kind of quiet.
BB: No, they were pretty rambunctious, even stage
UT: What sort of bands have you played with in the US?
BB: We’ve opened up for Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade,
and Buckethead. And Hank III and Fishbone. The three of us have all gotten
to work with Les, and we’re real friendly. Sam and I are on Frog Brigade’s
‘Purple Onion.’ We actually played a couple shows with him in his backup
band, and Paulo’s been the drummer for Frog Brigade.
UT: What made you decide to sign with Alternative
BB: I’ve always been a big fan of Jello Biafra and
the Dead Kennedys since I was 14 years old, running around with a big DK
symbol on my jacket. To me, it was kind of a goal for myself to be on
Alternative Tentacles. When we finished ‘Opus One’ I sent it to Alternative
Tentacles. I’ve got the rejection letter framed on my wall. It says, “Dead
Deadweight – thank you for sending your CD. Unfortunately we have no room
in our budget schedule right now. If you’ve managed to get this far on your
own, why not start your own label? That’s how we started. Who knows, you
might even be able to help other bands if your label gets off the ground”.
Then later we got signed to them, and it was cool.
UT: So what changed their minds?
BB: Jello saw us at a Hank III show. And he really
liked our second album, ‘Half Wit Anthems’. When ‘Stroking the Moon’ came
up, he decided to take it.
UT: So what does the album title ‘Stroking the Moon’
BB: It’s also the title of a song. It’s about beauty
and aging. I wrote the lyrics for a friend who is turning 30, and gave it
to her as a birthday present. It’s about perseverance and getting over
personal problems, that kind of thing.
UT: What are your tour plans for the new album?
BB: We’ve been touring all over. We did an east coat
tour, we’ve been doing northwest tours mainly, but we’re going to be going
to France in November for 3 weeks. Whatever we can do. If somebody wants
to take us on tour, that would be great.
UT: Any plans to hit Cleveland?
BB: Hopefully in the fall. The fall or winter, most
likely. Either before or after the French tour.
UT: Any philosophy or political viewpoint to your
BB: My political views are probably different from
the rest of the band, so I try not to. Everybody has a right to their own
opinion about what’s happening. I’m certainly not a proponet of the war
that’s going on. I can’t really go about the same way Jello does, because
I’m not as informed or as intelligent as he is. We try to reflect our time
and what’s going on in the world, but more on a personal or emotional
level. That’s what the lyrics are more about. Emotional battles and
struggles in life. Life is hard. Everybody’s got to do their best to get
through life without screwing up to much, and try to be good to your friends
and people who surround you.
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