Interview: Jeffrey Barnes

—Michael Constantine McConnell—

[first published in The Porch 1:3 September, 2005]

I first met Jeff Barnes a few years ago at a bar one evening. We had a friend in common, Paul Slavens, and so ended up in the same conversation circle. I'd been a Brave Combo fan for as long as I'd lived in Denton, ever since I first heard the band playing polkas at Fry Street Fair, so I

already had great respect for Jeff and was stoked to get the chance to meet him. Paul mentioned that I wrote palindromes; Jeff immediately opened his briefcase and pulled out pages of poems and palindromes that he'd written. This blew my mind. Few people even know what a palindrome is, so finding so close to home another palindrome author to talk shop with delighted us both, and we spent until last call scribbling anagrams and word games onto napkins and buying each other shots. By the end of the night, the beginning of a wonderful literary friendship had been forged. I'm pleased to present this interview, conducted in the spring of 2005.

MCM: How about a musical autobiography?

JB: Well, sure. Let's see. I'll start from the beginning. We always had a piano in the house, and I spent a lot of time at it. I didn't take lessons except for briefly with an old-maid piano teacher who would hit your hands when you made mistakes, and stuff like that, such that I did not take lessons very long, but it was long enough to learn a little bit. I took a test in the fourth grade, at nine-years-old, and I got a really good grade on it—a musical test to see who might be in the school band, and I got a ninety-six, so when they asked me what I'd like to play, I said, "Well, drums."

      They said, "Your pitch recognition's too good; you can't play drums."
      "Ok. I'd like to play the trumpet."
      Ma says, "We don't want to hear you playing the trumpet."
      And I said, "Well, Grampa's got an alto sax up in the attic, I could play that, right?"
      And the band teacher says, "You play clarinet, and I'll teach you the saxophone in a half hour."
And so I learned to play the clarinet, which didn't excite me too much at the time, but now I love it, and it's probably the best instrument I play.

I spread myself really thin. I play a whole lot of instruments. Through the years, I've picked up—well, first of all it became obvious to me that I would meet more girls if I played the guitar, so I did. Well, actually, to tell the truth, the Rolling Stones came on Hollywood Palace in 1964, when I was thirteen, and so I washed the grease out of my hair, and my grandma bought me a harmonica because Brian Jones played harmonica with them, and if you wanted to get on my good side, you'd tell me I look like Brian Jones, which I did. Anyway, so it was pointed out by some friends of mine who wanted to be the Beatles—I wanted to be the Rolling Stones—and they pointed out to me that Brian Jones played guitar also and that I could be John Lennon if I wanted, who also played harmonica, so they insisted I learn to play the guitar, so I learned to play the guitar, which, as I said, was a good thing for meeting girls; we could play at parties and stuff like that.

At the time, I lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the thing that was happening before the Beatles was surf bands. Right in the middle of the continent were surf bands, like The Ventures, and so we learned to do that, and I got involved with blues music because I wanted to be the Rolling Stones instead of the Beatles; so anyway, I got my chops up on guitar and actually I became the lead guitarist and I played. When I was sixteen, I was hospitalized briefly, and my mother bought me a flute, and I had a little bit of time to practice it, and I got pretty good at it. Our blues project had the flute thing, and Jethro Tull was about to start doing that, so I was right ahead of the trend, and I learned to play the flute, which I do yet today, and I also play the guitar and a few other stringed instruments, too.

Anyway, it was not until I was twenty-one that I finally got a saxophone. I got a baritone saxophone for fifty dollars, which was an incredible deal, and I took it to Austin. I had kinda stopped playing guitar, and I was playing the saxophone. I moved there to join a band. We went bust, and me and my girlfriend moved into a trailer. I should mention, we were quite a big thing in Beaumont, Texas, where I lived. I played with a number of bands. Boot Hill was a pretty well-known band, and Brandy—these were pretty fairly well-known bands from the area, and I was a blues freak—the beginning of ethnomusicological journeys that I would take, recreating the music of other cultures; however, what LeRoy Jones would say was, like, me carving arrowheads or something, but I've done it and listened to it so much that it's become me, I think, such that departing from it would be like cutting off a portion of me, so no matter what color I am, I am deeply involved with blues and don't feel like I'm being derivative at all. I know other people may think differently, but, still. Anyway.

MCM: It's each to their own, when it comes down to it, right?

JB: Yeah, but I know what hits me where I live, and this hits me where I live, and when I moved to Beaumont, TX, that proved to be kind of a good thing for me as far as that goes. I could go across the tracks there to Effie's A-Go-Go and I could see Lightning Hopkins play live, and I could go to Sparkle Paradise in Bridge City and I could go see Clifton Chenier and I could go across the border there to Vinton, Louisiana, and go to the Big Oaks and go to the Texas Pelican, and if you could put your nose on the bar, you could get a drink, no matter what age. I could go there, and I've seen Marvin Gaye and Joe Tex on the same night, and I've seen the Boogie Kings and all these musicians, and lots and lots of Cajun musicians—Andrew Cormier and the Rambling Aces, and all this stuff that really made an impression on me. And I liked this down-to-the-knit music stuff, and so this was a big thing for me. And so there I was, and I had played with these bands, and then I had a gig—me and a guy named Bubba Goode were the only white guys in Carl Stewart's Sonic Show and Review. We'd back up exotic dancers at nightclubs in the area, like Effie's A-Go-Go and Sly's Dove in Port Arthur and Sour Lake Drive-In in Sour Lake, TX.

It was quite something; I had a marvelous time, but eventually, as I was saying, I moved up to Austin, went bust, worked construction, came home after working a ninety-pound jackhammer and tried to wrap what was left of my fingers around a baritone saxophone and learn it. But my girlfriend got fed up and left, and I got to wondering why the hell I was doing that, because there was no good reason anymore, so I quit, and from then on I camped out on a friend's couch and took my saxophone out—did I mention that I didn't drive until I was forty?—so I was on foot, so you'd see me wandering around with this baritone saxophone and a pack on my back.

Anyway, I went, and I jammed with whoever would let me, any club, anywhere, and I got a gig with Jimmy Vaughn—Jimmy Vaughn and the Storm, which eventually, with some changes, but not with me, become the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and I played with Jimmy for a little while, and, oh, I don't know; I went back; I played with a band in Lafayette, Louisiana, that was kind of popular for a little while. I played here and there and got to be a reasonably good saxophonist finally and eventually moved to Austin—that's where I played with Jimmy Vaughn, and a little bit with his brother, Stevie, although we never got out of the living room in that case, and it might have been because I was on an Eric Dolphy trip and all I wanted to play was bass clarinet, but he was very tolerant of that, I must say. Anyway, I got a job with Marcia Ball and played with her for five years, and I kinda freelanced for a while. I played with the Cobras and a lot of other people, and, eventually, I got a gig with Brave Combo right here in Denton, and I moved on up here twenty-one-and-about-a-half-year-ago or so—it was June 14th, 1983—and they were a favorite band of mine.

During the meantime—you know, I'm a high school dropout; I tried to do my junior year about five times, each time a little bit less than before because I was becoming the oldest high school student in the world, and I was getting mighty tired of it, so I just quit, but I had really good SAT scores, and I still had to wait until I was twenty-one to get in and eventually got into UT and studied music theory and composition, and I went there for a couple of years before I started making too much money to think about—uh, I was enjoying myself and making too much money doing what I wanted to do anyway with Marcia Ball. During that time, I almost got seduced away from the music department by the anthropology department and ethnomusicology, the study into music of other cultures, which I guess I had been doing anyway. So anyway, that was something that happened in the meantime, so this kind of prepared me for doing this, for playing with Brave Combo, which is ethnomusicologically bent, playing polkas without being Polish or Slovenian. If you boiled me down, mostly I'd be German and Scotch and Irish and British and, I don't know, Iroquois, and a number of other things—just a homogenized American guy. Still, this is really good music and I do love to play it, and we do try to take it and make it our own, to approach it respectfully and try to play it as if—well, I don't know; imitation is the sincerest form of theft, but we try to give credit where credit's due and tell people where we got it from and also play it as if we are what we are, namely a bunch of guys who formed garage bands then went to music school.

MCM: Well, you've certainly achieved the highest forms of accolade. On one level, Brave Combo's won the Polka Grammy twice, after how many nominations?

JB: Six.

MCM: And then, also, immortalization on the Simpsons; that must be a great honor.

JB: It is. We were on there for not very long—two and a half seconds? Bouncing up and down on the stage with our logo in the background. It was great, a big rush. Matt Groening is a fine fellow. He likes us. We certainly like him, too. You know, cartoon characters, especially in Road Runner cartoons, are immortal, and unfortunately on the Simpsons, cartoon characters actually die. So I'd really like to be on a Road Runner cartoon.

MCM: I'm sure that's still possible. It seems like you've had great experiences with the blues and anthropology. Does that translate into your love of poetry? Or can those three—the blues, anthropology, and poetry—can they even be separated from each other? Or is that the wrong way to approach it?

JB: All of these things cannot be separated from each other, I think. For the Greeks, the three temporal arts were all one: dance and music and poetry. I think that's what draws me to it—that it's something that moves through time as opposed to, say, a visual art where you perceive the whole thing at once then you begin to perceive its parts, whereas, for a temporal art, you'd perceive the parts in a progression, then the whole thing, just backwards from the other. Plus, I'm especially auditory, so I like to hear stuff. I like to hear poetry out loud.

MCM: From my experiences with you, you seem bent toward form and wordplay.

JB: Yeah.

MCM: Do you have any underlying theory that drives your interest for that?

JB: I think it's because I'm a little bit inhibited, and form helps bring me out of it. It's like I don't necessarily trust my instincts, or something. Some people just go ahead and write raw emotion down on the page, and I don't trust that. I want to think about it and put it into a form. It's really peculiar—I can almost say more under the greatest restrictions than I can without it. It seems more appropriate, like, say, I'm doing a word game—well, it's all spelled the same backwards and forwards or something, it's a palindrome. I might be able to say something I couldn't, or if I do say something, perhaps I'm not to be blamed for it. This is perhaps a hang-up? Well, anyway, I think it's fun to play the game, to work into the form and stuff.

I was just thinking that when you're doing that type of thing, you're kinda steering it like Odysseus between Scylla and Charaybdis, if I may give a classic allusion there. Here on one side you've got nonsense, and here on this side evil, even. You don't want to say something that's abjectly evil, but you want to steer it away from being jabbering poppycock, you know. It's interesting. Also, it's nice to let go of your ego and let the poem say it instead of you. Then you can't be blamed if it does.

What do you think about it? I'm sorry to turn the interview on you, but I'd like to know.

MCM: Well, I think that strict forms can launch the imagination to a place it might not have otherwise gone. Even if it's at the word level, like when you're making a palindrome or an anagram, where to come up with grammatical coherence, the language becomes stretchable to where, for example, you can use a verb as a noun or a noun as a verb, and to use language in a new way that brings a new light to a concept in your mind, or a new way it can be used, when it comes through the form, I believe the form acts as a catapult.

Take writing a palindrome, for example. To make it all make sense, a lot of times it's jumbled in certain parts and you get a phrase or a sentence that you'd probably never think while you're just walking and whistling a tune, but all of a sudden, you've got a picture in your mind of something that's absolutely ludicrous, and there's no rhyme or reason for why that image pops up in your head other than that the palindrome or the anagram dictates to you how it will meet you half way if you meet it halfway.

JB: Yes!

MCM: And at that halfway point, it births creative usage, you know, and I really respect form for that. It's a way of stretching the mind. It also helps me to realize how infinite language really is. You can even take two images and split them into each other in certain ways to where you get an infinity of possible derivations. And I think form helps that; like you said, form helps you to escape the pressure and stress of having to draw meaning out of the world. Using a form, like you said, makes you less responsible.

JB: Well, there is something about form that has to do with performance that is a test of skill, and that's always admirable, you know, but then again, there is something about it that will make you go someplace else than what you'd intended to do. One of the things about music, unlike language, is that it doesn't have the burden of meaning. It doesn't have to mean anything; it just is in and of itself. You don't have to worry about it being nonsensical or evil, you know, saying something bad or saying something that doesn't make sense because all of it makes sense, any group of notes you put together—it's great to float around in this abstract musical space and do all this stuff. It's really sweet. It's the best, it really is. I mean, it's better than anything when it's really, really, really working. And with forms, improvising through a form is like walking through a little formal garden—it's just beautiful. You have to get through a little bit of initiation in order to be able to do it, but when it finally happens, it's so good.

[photo courtesy Digital Reflections]
A writing teacher and devout student of the 20-button Anglo concertina, contributing editor Michael Constantine McConnell holds a B.A. in Language and Composition as well as an M.A. in Literature and Literary Criticism with concentrations in Poetics and Scottish Literature.

content Copyright 2006, Michael Constantine McConnell—All Rights Reserved