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40 Miles with Tim Barry

written by: on May 7, 2012

40 Miler artwork Chunksaah RecordsThere’s a moment while interviewing Tim Barry when the Richmond, Va. singer-songwriter stops everything. “Hey, there’s fire trucks in front of my house,” said Barry, pausing the interview, “Let me make sure these neighbors are OK, let me holler at them.”

This exchange, however small, illuminates the singer’s humble temperament.The down to Earth Barry spent years fronting Richmond’s premier hardcore outfit Avail, but that feels like ages ago now. Avail has been dormant since 2007, and Barry just released his fourth full-length album, his first for the Bouncing Souls’ owned Chunksaah Records – 40 Miler. Yet, through it all, he’s found a way to never let his influence on the punk scene go to his head.

“I feel like people that put me on a pedestal that approach me realize very quickly that I’m actually not very special. I have worked all the shitty jobs that they’ve worked, and I have the same thoughts that they have and the same family issues. It doesn’t make me a realer person or a better player; it’s just how I am,” said Barry.

The same things that keep Barry from being full of himself are the same ones that keep him from taking himself too seriously. While the title 40 Miler is partially a reference to the fact he’s now 40, it also addresses one of his deepest passions: riding freight trains. “The record is almost a metaphor for time continuing on, and I know that sounds kinda hippie [laughs] but it was written during a lot of traveling. Thus the name 40 Miler, which is a derogatory term freight train riders use for poser riders. A fake freight train rider is a ’40 Miler,’ and in a lot of ways I’m making fun of myself throughout the record,” said Barry, something both the title track, and the hipster-indictment “Fine Foods Market” highlight.

While Barry has always been a positive influence in the punk community – the phrase “Ride Fast, Live Slow” has probably been tattooed on more bodies than one could even fathom – his solo releases have always had a heavy weight tied to them them. Since striking it out on his own in 2005, he’s written emotionally charged songs about the passing of friends, rousing political numbers and downtrodden ballads about relationships.

To put it lightly, Barry’s records are fucking downers. At least they used to be.

40 Miler is uplifting – both musically and lyrically – and it serves as a reflection on his new circumstances.

“Being married to an amazing person is a positive experience, but unfortunately, at the same time, we’re surrounded by tragedy. [40 Miler] is almost, maybe, me trying to help myself through by being positive, where in the past I would sing very introverted lyrics about the death of my friends and so on. But even today, paralleling those same situations, and with new tragedies coming up in my life, it’s almost like, ‘Fuck y’all! I’m gonna be happy as shit and do everything I can toward the people that I love and really kill every fuckin’ day like it’s the last.’ And I think that resonates in the new record,” said Barry. “And in retrospect, in listening to the sequence, the songs that were chosen in the order, I realized that literally it’s a less depressing record [laughs] it’s filled with less depressing songs than I’ve written in a while.”

But Barry makes it known this change was subconscious, and that this record was in no way a planned departure. “I think that’s a fact, and fairly unintentional. It’s something I maybe gained in retrospect when it was done and I listened back through it,” said Barry. In a way, this has to do with Barry’s off-kilter method of songwriting, which has nothing to do with notes and chords, but has everything to do with colors.

“This sounds really weird, and I rarely talk about it, but I hear songs in colors. If I listen to another group’s music, if it doesn’t conjure a color very quickly, I generally don’t have much interest in it. If it does, I’ll listen to songs that other people write on repeat. And the same goes for my music. If a song falls into place very quickly and definitely has color tones, the song sticks,” said Barry.

With 40 Miler now in the hands and ears of his dedicated audience, Barry is gearing up for some extensive touring. But the prep work he does before hitting the road may be more rigorous than writing and recording his albums.

“I’m currently going through a detox, which is when I approve the mastering of a record, I delete anything that’s on my computer that has to do with it. I don’t keep a CD copy. I will not listen to it at all. I don’t even want to think about it. You put so much into it that you hear the flaws that other people might not hear, or you’re annoyed by an arrangement that you realized in retrospect should have been changed. So what I do is I detox. I literally walk away from it and want nothing to do with it. If you told me to give you the sequence – which I worked very hard on presenting – I couldn’t even tell it to you. When it comes out, I will pick up a vinyl copy, and I’ll put it on my record player and I’ll crack open a beer and listen to it for the first time like everybody else, with a clean slate,” said Barry.

This process of detoxing is something Barry claims to have done for most of his career. “I have done this with every record that I’ve done, probably even going back to my old band Avail,” said Barry, “But I don’t think I realized I did it until this record. This is the first time I’ve been able to verbalize that and say, ‘Wow, I do this. I’ve always done this.’ I’ve definitely done that for a very long time.”

Although Barry’s dedication to making a good album was paramount, his dedication to putting on an engaging live show seems even more important.

“What I’m focusing on is playing every song that I have – every song I have, all day, every day; getting that cadence back in my head, understanding the rhythms with my hands, and the vocal cadences, thinking about why I wrote these songs to begin with, thinking about the time periods they were written in. That’s all preparation, emotionally, for getting on stage and doing that in front of people. And I find that to be very conflicting, because I’m not a social person. I don’t like to be the fun director, I don’t like attention, I abhor it. I don’t like attention that puts me onto a level that’s higher than the person talking to me,” said Barry.

Barry’s live show is an exercise in community experience. He transcends the simple singer-songwriter tropes, and as he sings on 40 Miler’s title track, “Music should sound like escape, not rent.” At live shows, he embodies this; jumping into the crowd, screaming impassioned lyrics and putting everything he has up on the stage. It’s a creative release unlike any other, and the fact that it is shared with a room full of likeminded fans makes it all the more powerful. However, it’s not without its stresses.

“When I’m on the road, I’m a nervous wreck every single night. I truly get so nervous before I play every night that I think it’s probably eventually gonna take a toll on my health,” said Barry, “I am literally shaking, rapid heartbeat, then by the end I feel like I’ve been through a whirlwind that’s so relieving and feels good. Then the next morning, it all starts again.”

Barry puts himself through the ringer, offering himself up on his records and through his live shows. Yet, he plainly states, the day this stops being a simultaneous fun and cathartic experience, he’ll walk away.

“As soon as I don’t enjoy something, it’s time to stop. I never want to not enjoy gardening, or not enjoy riding freight trains, or not enjoy spending time on the river, or not enjoy music, because it’s too important to me. As soon as the business, the ego, the bullshit fall into place I want nothing to do with it,” said Barry, “It’s a lot of work, but I’d have it no other way.”