Singer-songwriter Danny Barnes’ new record, Pizza Box, came out earlier this year, featuring Danny’s quick wit and non-bluegrass flavored banjo-picking.
He was able to take a few minutes to chat with us from his home in the Seattle area about being an Idea Generator, his banjo and—of course—what’s on his pizza.
Q: Your record uses the banjo in a non-traditional way, how would you describe the way it fits into the sound?
A: I guess I don’t even think about it, it’s a song-based record and what we were trying to go for is, if someone heard it and they didn’t see the album or the cover, they would react to the songs. We were trying to put the songs out there as the thing that someone came away with because we felt really good about them.
As far as how the banjo works, I write on that instrument because it helps you take a different look at harmony and rhythm than say, if you were writing on piano. My station in life, I’m not really an instrumentalist in terms of someone who works on really developing an instrument in a certain way.
I use a banjo as a way of getting ideas out–it’s my medium so to speak. A visual artist would maybe use pencil or pastel and they could draw whatever they wanted within those parameters.
I don’t look at a genre-based thing, it’s just a set of parameters and orchestrally the banjo can work in a lot of ways. I think people look at it and have an idea of where it goes, but the way it works means you can play it in a lot of context. It fits in a lot of different places because it lives in this space where not a lot is happening harmonically, timbre-ly and probably pitch-wise too. It’s in this happy place where there’s a vacant spot. It brings a lot to the table and I don’t think it’s been developed that way so much. I’d say what the record is all about is songs, I’ve done other records where the banjo is developed instrumentally but Pizza Box is about the songs.
Q: The banjo is the butt of a lot of music jokes — what’s your response?
A: Yeah, it’s funny about that. It’s kicked around a little bit, but one of the ways that I changed how I looked at the instrument was learning how to write for orchestra and string quartet and arranging for horns. They have these manuals, like dictionaries of the orchestra. It goes through and tells you every instrument, what it does. Like the viola, it’ll say the high-note, the low-note the effective range, the timbre, what’s going on with the clef, how’s it written and one little extra note of something you might need to know—like you don’t want to put it in unison with this one particular instrument. You realize that every instrument has something funny about it, things that it can’t do and all this kind of stuff.
I began to look at the banjo that way, as having a high-note, a low-note, a certain timbre, things it could do and things it didn’t want to do. I began to look at it as that set of parameters instead of something I imposed on it. Primarily what I do is make ideas, there’s a French phrase, ‘raison d’être,’ which means ‘reason for being,’ in my particular case I make ideas, that’s why I’m here on earth.
Q: Where do the ideas come from?
A: They come through reading novels and books about philosophy, traveling, talking to people, observing things. Musical ideas and conceptual ideas, the more you do it the more you get comfortable with making stuff. You get where you can develop almost anything. I don’t know where they come from, but when I sit down to play, stuff starts happening.
Ideas come from practicing making ideas, I spend a lot of time doing that. I’ve come to realize that music is like a thing, music is really awesome. It’s this beautiful thing that no one’s been able to screw up yet, it reaches so many people, it’s a part of our lives and it’s basically free.
Q: Are you disciplined with writing, sitting down at a certain time to write or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
A: No, I just keep notebooks with me and write everything down. I’ll start with a one-bar phrase of music or a poetic line—these tiny little cells. When it comes time to write I have all things, places to jump off from and I start stringing things together and editing them.
I go through these cycles in my life. I’ve been out here 20 years or something like that and I go through periods where I write and that morphs into recording and I spend a certain amount of time working out the recording contract and getting into the studio, getting that done. Then I move into pre-production for going out and playing— practicing,rehearsing and touring. Then I go into studying and I take lessons and I start writing again and it starts the loop again.
Q: When did you decide to become a musician?
A: In a way it’s all I’ve ever really cared about. I was born late, my brothers were a lot older than I was and I was left to my own devices. It was something I was really interested in and I still really enjoy listening to it. I’m a big fan. I guess I really didn’t have a choice, I’ve tried to do other things but I was miserable at it and I didn’t do a very good job and I wasn’t happy.
I remember being at the University of Texas and I was trying to figure out a major and I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. The option came up to take a sequences of classes on audio production, and I was asking some questions and I realized that you could sit in the recording studio and they’d let you record all day. I thought, ‘Hell, I’m gonna do that!’ I learned a lot in those courses–about different elements in the way things are communicated. I leaned a lot of basics about recording and I use it every day of my life.
Q: There’s some awesomely funny posts on your blog, when do you write those?
A: I’m finding less and less time to do it, I could write a whole record with the energy it takes to do blogs. I do it when I get time but it’s hard to make something worthwhile. You get some things that you like and then you’ve got to keep working harder to make something good. It’s catch-as-catch-can and it’s getting hard because my work life gets harder.
Q: Over on the live music archive there’s a ton of recordings of your shows, what’s your philosophy towards taping?
A: I think it’s a good idea. To me, all that stuff is good for me. It’s great for people to have access to that stuff and I approve of it wholeheartedly. I know that people in my field are kind of down on that, but for me it’s been really good.
One reason is that if you take a typical recording arrangement with a company, they send out a whole bunch of promos. It’s expensive to to do that, to have someone stuff those envelopes. You hope those are getting into people’s hands that care, because a lot of them are likely going out into the ether.
But with the archive.org stuff, people can instantly grab it, and it doesn’t cost anything to put it out there. You end up with variations of a song, if people are really into your music they can hear those. Promoters can check in and see what my live shows are like. It’s been a great development in the music world, I think.
Q: Do you have any musical guilty pleasures that you’re willing to share?
A: Yeah, I think Madonna is great, I like Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson. I like pop music, I like all different kinds of stuff. The other day I heard a Connie Francis record I really liked.
Q: If you could sit down for an hour and play with any musician, alive or dead, who would it be?
A: Marc Bolan, the guy from T-Rex. About how he wrote all those great songs and to watch his hands move while he plays. I totally adore that guy and think he’s awesome. I listen to his records all the time.
Q: What would be on your pizza?
A: I like thin-crust pizza with just cheese on it.