BY JOHN NYMAN, PHOTO BY JEFF MILLS
FUN, FATIGUE AND A FARMER’S TAN
Rise Against drummer Brandon Barnes spoke to us by phone from somewhere near a forest on the North American continent. “I’m in Canada now. We did five shows at The Troubador [Los Angeles] last week, and then flew from there to Vancouver, then out to a clear-cut area in the woods.”
Barnes is not some Ted Nugent knockoff, at least not as far as we know. His closest relationship with the hickory tree is likely in his drumsticks. But yes, this day he was in the woods, or what used to be woods, shooting footage for a video in support of the newest Rise Against release, The Sufferer & The Witness.
And in the sneak-preview video footage we saw at the band’s site, riseagainst.com, the band is indeed rocking out in an ex-forest, a chip-strewn clearing that used to be a stand of great trees. For the video, there’s a fog of fake smoke swirling about, giving the dead plot of tree stumps a very Armageddon-ish air that underlines the message of the tune. The band gives a lively performance, and Tim McIlrath even does a snappy Roger Daltrey mike swing just before the clip ends.
Does Barnes enjoy the process of video production? “Making videos is all right,” says Barnes, with all the enthusiasm of someone talking about a trip to Home Depot. This does not sound like the cat punishing the drums in the video. “It’s fun to see the whole behind-the-scenes thing. This is our fourth video — two for the last record, two before that. In the new video, there’s footage of the forested part and then footage of the clear-cut part where the forest is all wiped out. It’s pretty shocking.”
Yes, but what’s more shocking to us about the conversation is how mellow Brandon Barnes is. The band’s tunes are fraught with political messages, so we half-expected to get a lecture about the perils of clear-cutting Canadian forests, the idiocy of Bush’s war machine, or the sins of eating baby-seal burgers at McD’s, or something. But Barnes is just another road warrior, doing another phoner from his hotel room, and the clear-cut forest talk gave way to talk about the new Rise Against CD debuting on the Fourth Of July, 2006. Roman candle, please …
“The songs on this new record are really good,” Barnes says. “They’re really well put together, and the vocal melodies are really good and the drums fit in really well. It’s the first record I’ve done where I can listen to the whole thing front to back and not hear a bunch of stuff I’d like to change. It’s a mixed record. We have our fast punk songs; we have some rock songs: It’s kind of all over the place. We have some poppy stuff; we have some heavier, hardcore stuff. My favorite song is called ’Ready To Fall.’ I love that song. It’s got a strong chorus. It’s really catchy. It’s our favorite chorus. And the drums came out really interesting.”
Hmmmm … no ranting, no haranguing … why, he’s just a nice fellow! For all his speedy musical endurance, we were expecting more of a Tommy Lee, ADD-type personality. The Brandon Barnes on the phone is a likable sort; but we’ve heard how animal he is on the drums.
On disc, doing his duty in his vigorous, eclectic, and shockingly political punk band, Barnes is bristling with energy. Rise Against CDs, including their previous releases,Siren Song Of The Counterculture and Revolutions Per Minute, show Barnes’ ability to thrash through faaaast double-time punk tunes with speed and accuracy and uncanny ease. Barnes plays with the forward motion of a toboggan going down a steep dirt hill, but with that assassin’s accuracy that gives you confidence in spite of the landscape. He also adds a punchy whack to the much-more metal tunes sprinkled throughout Revolutions and deftly accompanies the bothersome, John Mayer-ish pop tunes that also littered the last disc.
It’s always a fast-changing sonic ride with this Chicago band, which is doing the Warped Tour (again) and everything else they can in support of the brand-new release, freshly packaged and promoted by those organic farmers at Geffen Records.
Yo, Brandon, what strikes you most about the Warped Tour?
“It’s a long, long tour, like 65 days or something. I think it’s fun. We hang out every night after the show, there’s barbecues and all your friends. It’s a good tour to hang out with your buddies. The crowds are great, most of the shows are around 10,000 to 15,000 people or so, some bigger.
“We’re one of the headliners on this Warped Tour, which means we’ll be one of the last two acts of the day, I hope. This is our third Warped Tour. Other years, we were on the smaller stages, last year we were on the Volcom stage, but they always move the time slots around.”
Is it all beer, broads, and bros ’round the BBQ? That’s what you said, right? Can we quote you? Barnes scoffed at our fantasy of his workday. Chuckled politely, actually.
“It’s usually a lot of driving, hundreds of miles a day. We get to the gig, sometimes we have an interview, you set up, you play — some days you’ll go to a radio interview in the morning. It’s amazing all the stuff that your manager can pack into one day. So some days are like 4:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., like a regular eight-hour day, but some days have radio interviews or whatever, and it’s like 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. But when you’re up there playing the drums, which is why you’re doing it anyway, it’s like, ’Oh, yeah, I like this, this is why I do this.’
“With this new record coming out, it’ll be an onslaught of interviews, photos, signings. The Warped Tour is a lot of work. It’s long days in the sun. You’re sitting in the sun all day, whether you’re playing or selling merch, and we go help with merch all the time. Or doing stuff in your tent like meeting fans, or doing interviews. It’s a lot of work. I’ll be tan, and I’ll probably lose ten pounds.”
We don’t doubt it, and we plan to alert corporate heavies Subway and Weight Watchers that there’s a new weight-loss method going head-to-head with theirs, the Barnes Burner, that guarantees ten pounds off in only two months.
Barnes is pedaling fast with both arms flailing on much of the Rise Against catalog, and there’s no fat in that. How does he do it? Is he from a long line of marathon runners?
“It’s definitely tiring,” Barnes says. “Some of our songs from the first two records especially are blazing. But I guess it goes back to playing along with those Slayer songs, with Dave Lombardo doing eighth-notes on the ride cymbal at 100 miles an hour. I practice a lot on a pad; if we have time off, I definitely feel it. It’s like you have to play almost every day to keep up. But we do 250, 300 dates a year; it’s pretty intense. We only get two or three months off, so yeah, we pretty much play every day.”
The days have always had a lot of drumming for Barnes, who comes from a musical family that stretches back a couple of generations. “My mom plays piano; she sang in bands. My grandparents were both musicians and performers. In fact, that’s how they met: My grandmother sang in my grandfather’s band. By the time they were both 18, they had their own well-known radio show that came from Chicago and went coast to coast. After that, my grandma worked for my grandpa in his band, the Will Back Orchestra; they played dances and stuff.”
Doesn’t sound exactly punk, but it is a good story! We kept listening. “My mom always played piano and sang around the house. My grandpa used to play for us, and we’d go see him do gigs around town. I dabble on piano and guitar. I’ve actually played guitar a long time. I took lessons and stuff, but never got into it the way I did drums.”
Listening to Grandpa won’t give you punk chops; this we knew. So we asked Barnes what else he’d done to hone his sticking. “My parents had all these old records. I started out playing whatever records I had around: ’80s rock, older stuff, too. I like Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, and then the metal drummers, too. Slayer’s Reign In Blood, I really love Dave Lombardo. Lars Ulrich — those were the drummers that were easily accessible to me. When I got older, I got into Tony Williams, Elvin Jones.
“Then I took lessons and learned a lot of jazz-type stuff. I went to CU [University of Colorado] in Boulder and played in the jazz band there. The jazz band earned me elective credits, and that’s why I did it, really. I was a music major at one point — I switched later — and I had lots of classes.” We turned up the volume on “Black Masks & Gasoline” fromRevolutions Per Minute and tried to hear Rise Against’s inner jazz band. Well, okay. This stuff is fast, and that means chops, but stylistically speaking, Barnes has hidden away all his jazz vocabulary and speaks in only fierce rock and punk tongues.
On the new disc, Barnes is helped by a great production team that happened to include two of his heroes. “The new record is definitely a step up from the last one. We recorded it with Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore, and they’re both super-good drummers as well as producers. Bill played in Descendents and Black Flag and all these punk bands.
“We recorded it at the Blasting Room, Bill’s studio in Fort Collins, Colorado. We used my Tama Starclassic kit, and the Tama Bell Brass snare. Bill tunes them — he’s a really good tuner, he’s old school and super good at tuning. He can tune snares extremely well. He’s a pretty talented drummer. I knew his stuff from before; I used to go see him play when I was in high school, and listened to his records since like eighth grade. It was neat to get to meet him. He’s in a new band now, Only Crime, and we got to take them out on tour with us.”
Barnes and the producers tried a revolutionary approach to tracking drums: they had fun. “It was a great experience and a lot of fun. It was me and Bill and Jason just sitting around trying different drum parts all day, and I think we came up with parts that are just perfect for each song. We’d talk about the different beats, and it was great to have all that insight. Bill did our second record too [The Unraveling], and that’s why we ended up going back to him for this one.”
Barnes gets a lot of energy into his tracks. Does this translate into bins of busted sticks and piles of cratered heads?
“I’m definitely playing hard, but I don’t dent my heads too bad. Some drummers dent the hell out of their stuff, but I don’t and I don’t know why! I don’t hit like that. I don’t dent heads or break cymbals. My snare I dent up once in a while. Sticks I go through, about a pair a day, because I rimshot everything.”
We asked Barnes about his mansion back home: Does he miss it? The Harley? The indoor swimming pool? “Me? No, I don’t even have a house. I rent an apartment! I have a wife and kid, so as long as I can continue feeding the family by playing drums, doing what I love to do, then that’s fine with me. Whatever happens, happens. I stop and think all the time about how amazing it is that I still make a living playing drums, and I’m 27 now. I’m putting off real life for as long as possible.”
Drums Tama Starclassic
1. 22″ x 18″ Bass Drum
2. 14″ x 5.5″ Snare
3. 12″ x 9″ Tom
4. 16″ x 16″ Floor Tom
A. 14″ Paragon Hi-Hats
B. 19″ AAX Crash
C. 21″ Paragon Ride
D. 20″ Paragon Crash
E. 19″ Virgil Donati Saturation Crash
Brandon Barnes also uses Tama hardware, Pro-Mark sticks, Evans heads, and Shure microphones.