Danny Barnes: Punk On The Banjo The banjo has country-music and bluegrass associations, but the Texas musician is taking the instrument further: to jazz, punk and pop. His latest solo release is titled Pizza Box, and it features guest vocals by Dave Matthews.
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Danny Barnes: Punk On The Banjo

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Danny Barnes: Punk On The Banjo

Danny Barnes: Punk On The Banjo

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When you hear the word banjo, you know that country and bluegrass aren't far away - there's just no helping it. But as soon as I put in the new CD by Danny Barnes, that preconceived notion flew right out the door.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DANNY BARNES (Musician): (Singing) Don't bring me down. I sure like sleeping in the underground...

HANSEN: So, maybe it was that and Danny Barnes's storytelling chops that caught the ear of Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band. Danny Barnes's latest release is called "Pizza Box." It was recorded at Matthews's Haunted Hollow Studio in Virginia, and he even sang backup on a couple of tracks.

We've invited Danny Barnes to our studio, and he's accepted. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BARNES: Thank you, Liane. Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: Now, I realize that introduction almost made it sound like you've materialized out of thin air. I know that's not true. You've played with a lot of bands and musicians before this solo release. Just give us some - drop some names.

Mr. BARNES: Well, when I first started traveling, I was in this band called Bad Livers. I wrote their music and sometimes I worked with this country singer, Robert Keen. The jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and I have done some records and some film scores and things together. And played some with Dave Matthews Band, Im on their new record. So, I have a good circle of friends that make music and stuff.

HANSEN: Right. Lyle Lovett and the Dead Kennedys and the Butthole Surfers.

Mr. BARNES: Yeah.

HANSEN: That's a pretty wide range of music, and I guess that's really what fascinates me about this CD. I know I'm not alone. Let's listen to a cut that's called "Bone."

(Soundbite of song, "Bone")

Mr. BARNES: (Singing) The ground round down at the pound, like you found me. I'm a flea-bit, dog-whipped, stain your carpet, launch your logger, got extension for your (unintelligible), know my body's worse than barking...

HANSEN: When I heard this, I said, when was the last time I heard somebody scat-sing to a banjo? And I think it was Roger Miller...

Mr. BARNES: Oh, yeah.

HANSEN: ...doing dang me, dang me. I read that it's either hip hop or rap, but wouldn't you call it scat?

Mr. BARNES: A long time ago, one of my teachers told me that with a banjo you can play, like, these fast flurries of notes in a way they can be kind of musically meaningless. And so one of my teachers, arrangement teachers, told me that I should only play what I can sing. And so I practiced for maybe 10 years where when I would play, I would try to sing everything that I was playing so that it wasn't just gratuitous scales and things.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BARNES: I got real interested in what Ornette Coleman was doing and those guys, and I just got real interested in playing between the cracks harmonically and rhythmically.

HANSEN: Yeah. There is something about it that sounds like a horn - I mean, like you're trying to do a horn solo as well.

Mr. BARNES: That's right, yeah.

HANSEN: Yeah. The title of the CD, "Pizza Box" - you've said you're not a virtuoso instrumentalist but you write really good songs. And you compare your music to vignettes and stories within, like, the theme of a movie. So, "Pizza Box," what's the story, what's the movie?

Mr. BARNES: Well, the story arc for the whole record is there's these various characters that are coming to this realization that they're sort of like the cause of their own misery, and they're in various stages of figuring this out. Some of them are past that and they're realizing it, and there's a lot of joy and release in their lives, and they're really excited about it. And some of them never make that conclusion, and they end up just sort of like, one guy goes to prison, and then one guy ends up robbing another guy in one of the other songs.

But the bad news is that they don't have anyone to blame. But the good news is, is they can make better decisions right now if they could just get their mind around it.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You put, I mean, deliberately put classic pop hooks on this CD as well. I'm thinking of the tune "Overdue."

Mr. BARNES: Right.

HANSEN: That should bring people in the tent?

Mr. BARNES: I'm just, you know, I really am a fan of pop music, you know. I look at what I do as kind of fractured pop music and I love the way that they have a way of sometimes delivering some really profound messages in a really simple way. And thats a direct path to a lot of people's kind of attention, I think.

(Soundbite of song, "Overdue")

Mr. BARNES: (Singing) Baby, be my Valentine. I'll be yours and you'll be mine forever. I'm learning to forgive you, baby. Would you forgive me, too? Don't give up on the sunshine, baby. I can still learn a thing or two...

HANSEN: This fractured pop music, weird pop music, twisted pop music - not something, too, that you would expect to hear a banjo in as well. But you do call the banjo your weapon of choice while playing non-traditional music. Did the banjo choose you, or did you choose it?

Mr. BARNES: I think that's a tough question. I know when I was 10 I used to see that - remember those shows that came on during the summer, the summer replacement shows?

HANSEN: Sure, like...

Mr. BARNES: Smothers Brothers and The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour.

HANSEN: Yeah, well, there was a whole folk music going on...

Mr. BARNES: Totally.

HANSEN: ...at that time, yeah.

Mr. BARNES: And it would be on, like, back then there would only be three channels on TV. And right at prime time, the thing would go dark, you had a fade to black, and it would fade up on John Hartford playing the banjo. And when I was 10, I thought, wow, this must be like, the coolest thing that a person could do.

And, you know, the funny thing about the banjo - and I've been at it 38 years and I still take lessons and work on it - is that it doesn't look like those hand motions would make that music. I looks a little out of sync. Like, if we were sitting here talking and someone was in the back room and they pulled out one and started kind of tuning it up, I'd just be totally drawn into it.

'Cause if you look at it, it looks so weird because, like, on the piano it's linearly arranged. These are the low notes, and these are the high notes. And you can sort of tell what the music sounds like just from watching someone play. But with a banjo, it seems like you're watching a movie that's dubbed or something. It doesn't make sense 'cause, you know, that weird string - so the high note and the low note are next to each other on the banjo, which is really odd.

Even today - I've been at it 38 years, and I look at my hands and I go, man, that looks really weird. It doesn't look like that would make that sound, you know. So, it's pretty weird.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BARNES: (Singing) I think about how I loved you so, wishing you were mine. I wished it all the time. I had a love so blind. Basically, it's so elemental that I was born this sentimental...

HANSEN: I just want to remind our listeners: People can go to our website, NPR.org, and actually see a performance of you doing what you do.

"Pizza Box" - you talked about it being an arc of character in a story. So, is this meant to be listened to in its entirety and to put ourselves in that arc in the way you anticipate the whole...

Mr. BARNES: That's the way I listen to records. And I made this sort of as a way of like...

HANSEN: That's the...

Mr. BARNES: ...entertaining myself.

HANSEN: The album days...

Mr. BARNES: Totally.

HANSEN: ...remember, you would listen from beginning to end?

Mr. BARNES: That's where I grew up - around that era. Like, you sat and you played the whole thing from one end to the other, and then you did it again and you did it again and you did it again. And you listened to it in order, and you listened to it the way I like to listen to music, which is sort of - I look at it sort of cinematically, I guess.

HANSEN: Danny Barnes - his CD is called "Pizza Box." Thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. BARNES: Thank you for having me, Liane.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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