Tim Barry is a name that is synonymous not only with the Richmond, Virginia punk scene, but also punk rock in general. While he is most known for his work as vocalist of Avail, one of punk's most iconic bands of the last twenty years, it is his recent solo output that has really garnered the songwriter the praise and attention he deserves. Scene Point Blank caught up with Barry as he embarked on the road for his two-month tour of the U.S., discussing the beginnings of his solo career, inspirations for his songwriting, and the current state of Avail.
Scene Point Blank: What kind of schedule are you on right now?
Tim Barry: Today is the first day of tour. We are on a pretty tight schedule where I think we're doing forty-eight shows with two days off. Actually I should rephrase that. We're taking a one-week break at the beginning of April so I can finish planting my garden. It's pretty crazy. I guess just standard tour shit that I'm used to. We're heading straight down south right now. I'm on the road with Josh Small, who lives in Richmond, and Austin Lucas who's out of Bloomington, Indiana and all of us are on Suburban Home and we're just gonna go for it the best we can.
Scene Point Blank: When you started doing the solo project did you see it going for two/three albums or were you just doing your own thing and seeing what happened?
Tim Barry: To tell you the true, first of all, I don't even see it as a "solo project," because this is all I do now. I'm not doing Avail and this is the music that I play. With the word "project" I think of something that someone is doing on the side and this is my main thing musically these days. And, not unlike Avail, this whole thing of me playing an acoustic guitar and being an old dude and getting onstage was an accident. If I retrace the steps of Avail it was a handful of friends that played music together and without much knowledge of the music business or any understanding of moving forward. It just sort of happened by chance. When I started playing these songs of mine on my own, the original reason I got up on stage with an acoustic guitar was because Avail was unavailable for a show down in Ashville, North Carolina when asked to do a benefit for a leftist newspaper called Asheville Global Report and because I cared about their economic situation, I proposed coming down with an acoustic guitar and playing on my own, not doing Avail songs, but doing a whole bunch of songs that I had sort of sitting on the back burner. With that said, it just felt so good. It felt challenging and scary to be onstage by myself and I got hooked on it. Without much intent, I just went ahead and recorded some songs on my own for friends and family and those songs sort of got out. And then eventually a record came out of it and I was like, again, this is challenging and scary and a lot of fun at the same time so I just kept doing it. And I won't stop until I can't. A very long-winded answer.
Scene Point Blank: No problem. You might've answered some other questions in there too.
Tim Barry: I'm the master of that. I'm the master of answering too many questions at once. So, yeah, to summarize, and I can just rant and rant… I never in my entire life have had any intent of being like a musician ‘cause I'm not. Really, I'm not a great guitar player and certainly not a great singer it's just a normal part - I don't say that with pretentiousness - it's like that's just how I feel. I just do it. I'm always going to put out records and I respect and understand the fact that some people are going to like the records that I record and some people won't and I'll just keep doing it for myself and the people who do enjoy it.
Scene Point Blank: Do you feel like there's a difference in writing songs between Avail and when you're doing it now?
Tim Barry: No, not at all. Folk music is the same three chords as punk music. Bluegrass music is the same three chords as most rock music and onward…Just like Avail, there's no rhyme or reason or system to my writing. Avail's writing process was always extremely eclectic with no sort of manufactured format fabricating songs so it's the same thing with me, I just write by feel and if the song feels right to me, I keep going with it. If it doesn't feel right I just drop it and that's sort of exactly the same as with Avail.
Scene Point Blank: Now that you're a little more established and separated from Avail are you seeing a different audience?
Tim Barry: It's surprising. As I continue to do this, I'll get a lot of emails from people and a lot of people that talk to me are like, "We didn't even know you were in another band" or sometimes people come up to me and they'll be like, "We came to see you play. We have a couple of your records, and then we got onstage and realized you're the singer from Avail and we didn't know that." [Laughs.] You know, they didn't know my name. And then, of course, it's nice to play shows, like tonight I'm playing in Virginia Beach, and from my last experience playing here it was a real thrill to look out and see folks that used to come to Avail shows years ago and a lot of new folks that never went to Avail shows and are genuinely sort of uninterested with Avail or punk rock in any way. And also, it's really exciting to see a really eclectic group and dynamics of age, like seeing the twenty-one year-old folks and the folks who are up in their mid-forties and whatnot and it comes together really well. It's pretty damn exciting that the music that I make now isn't just based on what I've done in the past with Avail.
Scene Point Blank: Is the touring scene a little different too, since you're not just playing in the punk rock world. Like, you're not partying every night and sleeping on floors the same way?
Tim Barry: Oh, no, I still do that. [Laughs.] It's just me now. I sleep on floors or I sleep in the van almost every night. And I drink still. I probably drank less with Avail because it's some high-energy shit. You can't really get onstage too drunk or you'll throw up. This goes beyond that question but I feel the same energy standing onstage with an acoustic guitar as I did in the past with Avail. The format's still the same: I tour too much and I get really fucking tired, and I still love it.
Scene Point Blank: Does your voice hold up better with this type of music?
Tim Barry: It all depends. The thing about any folks who sing is there are so many weird dynamics that can destroy your voice, so it always depends on the show. I certainly like the fact that I don't have to scream at the top of my lungs to hear myself over the drums and the electric guitar, but it's still completely feasible to lose your voice if you play a show with no monitors - you push yourself too hard. Weird little things happen too, like if there's an air conditioner vent on the stage that blows on you - which a lot of clubs think is accommodating to singers because they get so hot onstage. Those things will dry your throat out in about two songs you won't be able to sing a lick. Pretty weird but it happens to all of us.
Scene Point Blank: I never really thought about the air conditioner aspect.
Tim Barry: You know, it's funny. I played on New Year's Eve down there in Atlanta opening up for Hot Water Music and I did the show entirely solo with no backup band at all. It's really challenging just by yourself and, like, as soon as I get onstage I realize there's an air conditioning vent just blowing, not at my face - which would've destroyed my voice - but directly at my guitar. So the club is super hot and I get onstage and my guitar will not stay in tune. Cool air blowing on it freaking out the wood, expanding and contracting. All kinds of weird shit like that. But, nothing that you don't get used to. In the end you just have to laugh about it, like "Shit, y'all, my guitar's out of tune again."
Scene Point Blank: Changing directions a little, since your name is attached to what you're doing now: do you get a lot of questions where people mistake your lyrics for being personal, like for example you use the first person in songs like "Dog Bumped" or "South Hill". Do you have people walking up and kind of mistaking that for you?
Tim Barry: I think most people understand that they're narratives. Take a song like "Dog Bumped" where in the end the first person character ends up in prison, it's pretty obvious that it ain't me. Actually a true compliment, and it was here in Virginia Beach a few months ago, and the song "South Hill" - which is, in a nutshell, a first person scenario on how the military inherently preys on the poor, a first person perspective of it, the story of a younger guy going overseas to Iraq - it was actually a profound compliment that somebody came up and asked me if I was in the military, not because they thought the song was about me being in active duty overseas, but because the person said I nailed it, meaning I didn't screw up any of the terminology that the folks in the military use. But I do think that most people understand that many of my songs are based on either personal experiences that I've had - I think that's fairly obvious - and then others are based on interactions I've had with people and listening to their stories. There's a song called "Tile Work" on the record Manchester and the first lines are "I walk straight now but with a sway. Please consider where I've been. I'm burning oxycontin now instead of heroin." I've never done oxycontin or heroin and wouldn't walk people to think that's the normal way of life. It would be unfortunate if people thought I was actually singing about myself in that. That's actually derived from conversations I had with an old drunk dude one night in the park.
Scene Point Blank: You just wanted to go on the record right now that you haven't done heroin?
Tim Barry: [Laughs.] It wouldn't be beyond me, but it wasn't my drug of choice when I was a kid. [Laughs.] But you know, I just write what I feel and if it comes out, it comes out. I'm not good at talking about how I write songs or why I write songs, because they just show up and then I go with them. Generally there's a pretty good explanation for all of them.