Tim Barry recently released 40 Miler, his fifth solo full-length and first for Chunksaah Records. The album is filled with honesty, optimism and a sense of resiliency, as Barry continues to grow more content with age. The record also features added instrumentation, like violin and piano, but at its heart is what fans have come to enjoy most, and that’s Tim’s voice and his acoustic guitar. We spoke with Barry after his recent show at Beat Kitchen and discussed the meaning of the album’s title, what’s behind some of its lyrics, his upcoming shows in Australia and more.
Bill – Compared to your previous albums, 40 Miler is fairly upbeat and positive. What do you think are some of the reasons for this?
Tim – I don’t know. That’s something that’s been noted multiple times recently, but I don’t write songs with an agenda, unlike like some people who possible do that. I just feel lucky when any song shows up in my life. It’s possible that the overall theme of the record is more positive compared to my other releases, because my life is getting better as I age. Like many people who’ve dealt with a lot of tragedies and a lot of heartbreak and a lot of beautiful things all combined, and maybe the bad stuff hasn’t disappeared, but my outlook may be a little less weary. Where it all comes from I’m not really sure. Again, I just feel lucky when any songs show up that I decide to keep.
Bill – What does the album’s title mean?
Tim – The term ‘40 Miler’ is a fairly obscure railroad thing and it’s rooted mainly in the culture of people who ride freight trains, illegally hoping on boxcars and other various freight to get from point A to point B. There are different varieties of people interested in that sub and counterculture, in the same way that there are many varieties of people interested in the counterculture of independent music. There are a lot of different subsets. The term ‘40 Miler’ is a derogatory term used by railroaders who live, literally live without homes and ride freight trains and live in hobo jungles. They use it as a negative term for people like me, who you could also term as a weekend warrior, a person who has a lust for adventure. To gain perspective, I do that often by rail, where if I feel stagnant or troubled I will ride freight trains for an allotted amount of time and then come back to my small home on the south side of Richmond. It’s essentially just calling myself a poser. I’ve never felt completely rooted in music, I’ve never felt completely rooted in railroad culture and I’ve never felt completely rooted in anything. I’ve almost felt like an outside observer my whole life in most situations. Therefore, I thought I would name my new record 40 Miler as a way of making fun of myself, as I do with some of the lyrical content on the record too. I’m certainly at a point where it’s pretty comforting to publically humiliate myself. With all of that said, I keep thinking that I need to title my next record File Under Adult Contemporary Folk/Punk to further embarrass myself, (laughs).
Bill – One of my favorite lines on the record comes from the title track, where you say “Music should sound like escape, not rent.” What inspired those words?
Tim – It’s a combination of things. First of all, I had not been in a writer’s block, that’s never happened to me, and this might sound a little whacked-out, but I hear sounds and songs in colors. I had been writing for a long time, just any songs that would pop up I would keep them and record them, but for some reason they didn’t conjure colors. If they don’t, I lose interest in them. So, I had about twenty songs, but I just shelved them. I decided not to write anymore and was just going to see what happens. I had played at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and typical of my life, the show was one person away from selling out. I thought that was pretty funny. I got drunk that night and fell asleep in the van in front of Kate Hiltz’s house. She runs Chunksaah Records and manages The Bouncing Souls and other bands. I woke up three hours later at six in the morning with the cadence and the lyrics to the song in my head. I wrote them in my notepad and then I went inside the house, woke everyone up and told everyone it was time to go home. As a joke I read them the lyrics and then I forgot about them. About a month later I found them in my notebook and put a few chords to it. What I realized was happening was I was dealing with not a tremendous amount of pressure that like big artists or writers or singer/songwriters deal with, but in a minor form I was, because I am irrelevant in the grand scheme. But, I was conflicted about some of the popularity I had gained, because I never really expected to be making music the way I do. I realized that the colors weren’t showing up and the songs weren’t coming together well because I was focused on what people may think of them. Then there’s the conflict of always being broke and then realizing I’m actually getting paid a little bit. The challenge became why am I writing this music? Is it for myself as it always has been? Has it become about money? Has it become about ego? Has it become about longevity? Am I afraid to go back to work? What is it? Then I just realized I’m a difficult person emotionally and I am not committed to anything. As soon as I wrote that line, “Music should sound like escape, not rent” I realized that I was focusing on the wrong issues in music. Music is about escaping reality and living in the moment, and that’s what music has always been for me, whether I’m onstage or at home. The song really came together when that line was put to the cadence of the two chords that encompass the entire song. Then there’s another line in that song that goes, “When this has all been for nothing”, meaning I still got a lot under my belt. Many more life experiences that are far more priceless than you can put a number figure on.
Bill – In “Fine Foods Market” you talk about hipsters and trends in the music scene, but you also make fun of yourself. What motivated you to write this song?
Tim – Nothing, it just showed up. That song is the color blue for some reason and when it showed up I was conflicted. It is so stupid, that song is just so stupid. For those of you who have not heard it, essentially all I’m doing is making fun of my entire environment. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a very diverse group of people. If you sat in my yard when we have a fire you’d be surprised by the variety of people that my friends and I surround ourselves with. It’s very diverse. There is an element of humor in those of us who are part of this kind of revolving fashion world and music world. The trends are funny and we can laugh at ourselves. Essentially I had just written the song after I stopped by Fine Foods Market, which is our local beer and grocery store and it was just a hilarious moment. I looked around and realized how much things had changed, and seeing the sort of thrash kids who dressed exactly like I did in the ‘80s and the men with mustaches who when I was a child I looked up to as like scary authority figures. They were generally cops or gym teachers. It was just really funny to come full circle. I rode my bike home and looked at my 1980 Saab that someone had given to me for free, that I look like a clown getting in and out of because it’s so small. I contemplated donating it to this group that gives cars to working immigrant families. I was thinking about getting rid of it and then the song just fell into place. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to make fun of myself. I live in a city and I’ve lived in the city of Richmond since 1989 or 1990, but I grew up in the suburbs. People for some reason think I’m country, so this was a wonderful opportunity to make fun of myself publically and everyone else. And no harm, no foul. That’s the thing if some people feel offended by the song and that’s why I try to make it clear when I play it live that it is mostly about me. What a stupid song. Honestly, it was originally called “Tim Barry Makes Fun of Tim Barry”, but the title was too long for the album art.
Bill – What aspects of 40 Miler are you most proud of now that it’s complete?
Tim – Well, I’ve never listened to it. I generally don’t listen to my records when I finish them. It’s almost like a journal where as soon as I’m done I just close it and don’t ever open it again. I put so much of myself into making these recordings that it’s almost obscene and absurd that I don’t listen to them when they’re complete, but I think it’s because of how much I put into them that I have to step away. Once I approved the mastering of the record down in North Carolina, I listened to it to give the approval and then I listened to it when I got home, but I haven’t listened to it since. It’s funny, right before you called I was trying to decide on what songs to rehearse before the next tour and I had totally forgot about some of the new songs. I think what enjoyed most about the process of making the record was tracking most of it live. That seemed to me like the nicest change. Not worrying about the sounds and worrying about the moments. Being in there with my friends and relaxing and really just playing music, instead of constructing an album as they do these days, manipulated by computers and click tracks. We just played music and it didn’t matter if the electric guitar bled into the acoustic guitar mic. That’s what I think was the best. I call it a record detox and I’m about detoxed from it. I just flew in from Montreal and I have to fly out to the West Coast next, but I’m pretty sure that in the next month or two I’ll sit in the garden and listen to the record, and hopefully like it, (laughs).
Bill – What do you like best about your new partnership with Chunksaah Records?
Tim – Everything, I love everything about Chunksaah Records. My relationship with the people involved in the record label spans more years than I can count at this point. Kate Hiltz in particular is someone that I’ve known, loved and trusted for as long as I can remember. These are people that I care about deeply and they’re great friends. I’ve talked to other record labels, but I’m not at the point in my life where I feel like taking too many steps up and forming new relationships, especially when it comes to the word ‘business.’ It’s just so boring to me. All I ever ask is that there are records in stock, that everyone communicates properly and that if there is money that it’s divided in a way that everyone deems appropriate. And that it’s done with clear conscience and collectively. That’s how they function and that’s how I function. Everything’s done with honesty and they’re super-organized. We don’t necessarily need record labels anymore, but when somebody is there and they’re as organized as you are and they communicate well, I hate the word ‘blessing’, but it’s a damn blessing for me. It’s a tough racket and I’m the luckiest person in the world for it.
Bill – What parts of playing live are most fun for you?
Tim – All of them, whether it’s the most challenging night of my life or whether it’s the most ego-bloating night of my life. It’s the moments where you realize that there is a pure connection between the people who know your songs, who don’t know your songs, who may not even like your songs, but just that everyone can get together and celebrate. That’s really what music is supposed to be, a celebration. My mom still goes to church, she’s not religious, but she goes because she likes the music and the community. I know it’s been compared that way a lot, but when I play shows I go over every detail with the club, like every fuckin’ detail. I expect when people come to see me and my friends play live that they are as content and as comfortable as they would be visiting my house, or a house that they were comfortable in. If it all goes together the way it’s supposed to, then everybody does relax and enjoy themselves. It’s a hard thing to organize every night, but I really work my ass off on it. Here’s the deal; I’m scared to death every night, literally scared to death every night I go onstage. As soon as I’m not, I guarantee you I will stop playing music, I’ll just walk away from it. That’s what happened with Avail, my old band. One night I played and I just walked off the stage and was like, “Okay, that’s it, I’m not doing that ever again.” At that point I became addicted to the fear of standing there with just an acoustic guitar, and as soon as that dissipates I won’t play music. The real content that I find in it is the second I walk off the stage and say, “Okay, I pulled that off, we pulled that off, we did this.” Then I go to sleep and I wake up and the fear comes back because I’m getting back in the van and going to another city. As soon as I’m done, I walk off the stage and maybe it was the best night ever or maybe it was the worst night ever, but I go “I did it. I fuckin’ did it.” I’m addicted to going forward and doing things and making plans, that’s where freight trains tie in. It’s like if I’m not doing as much as I should be I decide to go ride trains. I’m scared to death to ride trains. Then it’s like, “Why am I riding trains? Why am I on this freight train by myself? Where the fuck am I going? Am I gonna get arrested? Am I gonna fall off?” Then when I get home I go, “Oh shit, I did it.” And I have a good night’s sleep and then I wake up with a new idea. That’s sort of the cycle of my life.
Bill – Where are some of your favorite cities to play?
Tim – Same answer as the last question, it’s all of them. Man, I am so lucky I can’t get over it. I’m so lucky that I can play a DIY punk show in California for ten people in a renovated boxcar and then open for The Gaslight Anthem in the biggest rock club in New York. Then play Pouzza Fest in Montreal, surrounded by so many peers and people that I admire, and then play a shitty bar show in Pittsburg with a small crowd that cares as much about me as I do them. And then sit in my backyard and play with my best friends, it’s every city, it’s just so neat. I just got in from Montreal and I feel high as a kite. The city was electric and the show was so challenging. I was playing before Lagwagon and there were 1,200 people all there to see Lagwagon. It was so challenging, but the city was on fire and the students were rioting in the streets because of an 85% increase in their tuition over five years. I got to watch it all outside the window and the weather was perfect and everyone was so kind and hospitable. How could I not say that Montreal is my favorite city to play? But how could I not say that about Richmond, when I got home and sat at the coffee shop and bumped into half a dozen very close friends? We sat and talked about their kids and their gardens and their chickens and their plans, and how could I not say that this is my favorite city or my favorite city to play? I fly to LA to open up for Hot Water Music on Thursday, and how could I say that’s not my favorite place to be, surrounded by friends? I play Alex’s Bar in Long Beach the next day with Kevin Seconds and how could I say that’s not the coolest? I’m so lucky. I feel so lucky to be involved in this community. It’s frightening almost.
Bill – You already mentioned some of these shows, but later this month you’re playing with The Gaslight Anthem and Hot Water Music, and in August you’re headed to Australia. What shows are you looking forward to most?
Tim – Generally just seeing friends. I actually just did the Gaslight show and then flew straight to Montreal and that was a terrific time. I think the one thing that I look forward to most here is the opportunities that people have given me through music have created opportunities for the people that I care about, which is sort of like that full circle thing. Andrew Alli and Josh Small, who play music with me, both work full-time jobs. When they tour with me it’s generally only on the weekends now and then once a year we try to pick a time that they can take off and go on a really cool trip. Last year we went to Europe. One of my favorite parts about music is that we get to do these really cool things together. Last year we went to Europe for the first time, I had been there many times, but it was going well enough where I could afford to bring them. Andrew Alli stayed there for a month and travelled all over Europe, it was his first experience there. So I guess you can probably follow what I’m getting to. I’ve been touring Australia for a long time and the last tour there I went over the break-even point. I’m always very honest with money. Because of that, I realized I could bring two of my closest friends on a vacation to play shows. These tickets are $2,000 each, but it’s working, it’s totally panned out. So Andrew, Josh and I all get to go on a big airplane and fly over to Australia. It’ll be both of their first trips there. I think for me, knowing their families and stuff, that this is my favorite part of music, the experiences that we all get to share. Not just experiences abroad, but just in this sort of life. It’s great that their employers let them take this time off to do these kinds of things. That’s really what I’m looking most forward to, sharing my experiences in a place that I truly love. Australia, if you haven’t been there, is one of the most beautiful places in the world and it’s inhabited by some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met, most hospitable and caring. What a neat opportunity to be able to go there with such terrific friends. The schedule is pretty light, so we can go to the koala reserve and see kangaroos and go to the Brisbane Botanical Gardens. And generally raise hell as tourists and play music.
Bill – What else would you like to do in music before you stop writing and performing?
Tim – I have no goals, no aspirations. I keep telling myself that I need to stop making music. It’s almost like when the songs show up they become a burden, they become an obsession and I have to finish them. I had a song show up when I was trying to take a nap in Montreal the other day. All I do is walk around singing this hokey, fuckin’ country song that I can’t stop writing in my head. So, my only goals and aspirations currently are to finish this song. Once that’s done I’m sure another one will show up, (laughs). I’d prefer to sit down and try to write books, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. But again, maybe I’ll make another record called Adult Contemporary Folk/Punk, and make it very quiet and very adult contemporary. I hate the term ‘folk/punk’, so I thought maybe I would just not have any folk/punk influences on it, but we’ll see. I’m on the road until September and then I’m going to take the winter off, other than doing the big festivals, like Fest in Gainesville and stuff like that. I’m just sort of going to stay low-key. You get a little tired on the road these days, so I need a break here and there.