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Rock and Rosin

An interview with Ben Barnes of Deadweight

By Bob Ignizio

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 diving. 

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 Tentacles?
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’ mean?
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 lyrics?
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.   

Visit the Deadweight website