You might recognize Tim Barry as the former lead singer of Richmond based punk band Avail, but lately he’s been hitting the music scene as a solo act. Barry is not trying to relive his punk days, but he is completely embracing his own style of music in such a raw and honest manner that it’s hard to ignore. Not only is Barry insightful and probably one of the realest musicians you will ever meet, but his latest record, 40 Miler deserves far more recognition than it’s received. Scene Point Blank had the gracious opportunity to talk to Tim Barry about his latest record, his obsession with freight trains, and what his favorite thing to do on an airplane is.
Scene Point Blank: You have a new record out and you’re constantly touring. Is it safe to assume you will keep making music and touring until you can’t anymore?
Tim Barry: That’s what I’ve always said. I started touring in my old days when we were kids and we always said that we would continue to tour and play music as long as it was fun. I’m shocked that I’m still really enjoying it. I know that, generally, there’s no longevity in music. You know, people generally lose interest very quickly. The real answer to the question is: Yeah, I’m going to keep doing this as long as it feels right. Sort of every record that I do I consider it my last one, I’ve always done that. I go, “Oh, I can’t do this again; it’s such a tedious process,” but there’s something really enjoyable about it in the end. I think it’s a neat cycle. Like I’ve been home all winter and I was really nervous about getting in the studio and making a record. Now it’s done and I’m tired of being home and it’s time to get on the road. In six months I’ll be tired of being on the road. I’ll still have fun playing the shows, but the traveling and inconsistency in schedule is so bizarre, insane, and scary, that sometimes the traveling gets to you. So it’s this over-and-over again cycle. I’m going to keep playing music until it burns me out.
Scene Point Blank: I heard it said that the new record is more hopeful than previous albums. Would you agree with this?
Tim Barry: You know, it’s writers that are going to say that the record is more hopeful. The cliché is that all musicians use music as their therapy. Well go ahead and let people say what they will about this album and say it’s more hopeful. In the end it really is, in retrospect. In listening to it from beginning to end there’s definitely a theme of resilience, but all of that is unintentional. I sort of just document what’s going on in my life at particular times, and those are the records. It’s strange to document what’s going on in your life and expect that people would have any interest in it. I guess it is more hopeful in the end. I’ve been through some shit in my life, everybody’s been through some shit in their lives, and I just happen to express it through music. Lately things have been going pretty well, there haven’t been that many deaths, that many injuries, and that many fights. Things have gotten a little bit more peaceful as I’ve gotten older. But, really, I noticed that the theme of the record—after it was done—was more about travel, time, age, and what you pick up along the way. The record is really written while on the road, essentially, and many of the thoughts and stories and topics that I touch on the record were conjured by the people I met, or the stories that people would tell me, or my own feelings while being detached from home and feeling rootless, but in a positive way.
Scene Point Blank: How did you come up with the album title? What is the title’s significance to you?
Tim Barry: The title of the record is 40 Miler and it’s sort of an obscure railroad term that only a small minority of railroad enthusiasts understand, and those are the people who ride freight trains illegally and live on the road in a more homeless fashion. I seem to live more in a van. In the railroad world they call that rubber tramping, when you live in a van or a vehicle. I’ve been illegally riding freight trains for nearly 20 years now and there’s different kinds of hobos. There are those who are full-timers who live on the road and then there are the people that are considered poseurs, which is me. The term is “40 miler” and the joke is, “Yeah, he goes 40 miles from home and no further.” So I made some fun of myself with the album title. It’s very comparable to a mall punk showing up to an Anti-Flag show and the old punks going, “Oh, you’re a poseur.” Sort of identical, really. There’s a certain part of your life were you except your inconsistencies and your hypocrisies. Much of my image has been built surrounding freight trains, it’s a part of the world that I feel most comfortable in. Music is really rooted in ego and I’m more interested in people who like adventure, so a lot of those people who really understand the railroad culture are going to laugh at me for calling myself out on it.
Scene Point Blank: I think it’s pretty evident that trains always seem to make their way into your albums. What makes freight trains so important to you?
Tim Barry: Even if I tried to keep freight trains out of my writing, it wouldn’t work. I’ve actively tried to not put that stuff in there, but it always ends up in there no matter what. It’s funny that you called me on that too. I don’t understand why each person has a fascination with something and I can’t say why I am so engaged in such a weird thing. Like, why do middle-aged men sit at train yards and watch trains roll by? Why do young punks get on freight trains and drink space bags and pass out in hobo jungles next to homeless people and in homeless people’s shit, literally? Why are we interested in these things? In the same sense that it’s perplexing for an outsider to understand it, it’s as perplexing for me to understand why someone would want to build a website, or do a Tumblr blog, or be a scientist. I can’t answer why that stuff shows up in any of my songs, it’s just something that I’m interested in.
For me, trains have always been an escape, a place to go to and I think. When it’s time to write a lot of times what you’re doing is escaping the situation that you’re writing about, and then there are things like freedom of the rails or the nostalgia of times with friends having beers around a fire telling stories, makes the train yards more luring than anything else. I think because we all seek the sense of freedom and contempt, those images creep into my head and then creep into the songs. I do write songs on freight trains a lot which is weird, not that I bring a guitar, but a pad and paper. The second song on the new record, called “Driver Pull,” was definitely conjured on a freight train—pretty obviously—the whole song is freight train code. Here I am discussing freight trains and what I’ve been saying for years now is, “I’m so tired of talking about freight trains, let’s talk about current events or something like that.” Then I have to blow it and put a bunch of train songs on the record.
Scene Point Blank: Speaking of writing songs, is it true you threw away 25 songs before you created anything worth keeping?
Tim Barry: I don’t have a system or a format for writing, Some people have a way of doing it, they pick up a guitar, or they sit with friends, or they write the lyrics first and then add to the songs. I have no rhyme or reason for the way I write. The songs just pop in my head and I go with them—and that does not mean that they’re good. I think what was going on when I started writing this record was that I had the realization that people would hear the record. They had expectations where, before, I was just writing for myself. I remember when I did my first album, Rivanna Junction, I didn’t think anyone would hear it. I wrote that for my family and friends, and I just didn’t expect it to go any further than that. That’s the way that I’ve always written, although there’s not a formula to how I write the songs, I’ve always written with that in mind: The only people that are going to hear this are my close friends. That escaped me when I started writing this record and I don’t know why. I had some talks about it with a couple friends who are popular musicians and they had some really good suggestions. Then one night I was playing at Asbury Lanes, in Asbury Park, New Jersey and it’s so typical, I’m always so close to achievement, but I always fail. It’s sort of an overall theme in my life, like I never mastered anything. Can’t sing, can’t really play the guitar, but that’s what I do. Can’t do art, but it still looks cool to me. Can’t really write because I’m full of typos, but I really enjoy it. Play Asbury Lanes, one person away from selling it out. It’s just hilarious to me how my life always goes. How can you be one person away from selling a show out? I just fell asleep drunk in a van that night at 3am, woke up at 6am, and wrote all the lyrics to the song “40 Miler.” They were just pounding over and over again in my head. It was that song that broke my mental block. I stopped writing for people and started writing for myself and it came together. From that point on I just essentially dropped all the songs that I had written before because it started feeling a lot better. I pulled a couple of the older songs out that I had written, but I dropped probably 20, maybe 30.
Scene Point Blank: A lot of your songs are like stories, so I see you as this incredible storyteller. Have you always been interested in telling stories or the stories of other people, or is it just something that happened?
Tim Barry: It’s definitely something that happened. One of my best friends is an investigative journalist and when I was in my old band I remember him clearly saying, “You should try writing stories someday.” And that wouldn’t work in my punk band, the format was conflicting. When I started writing story songs it was by accident. A friend of mine had went to prison and I wrote a song called “Dog Bumped” and that one was my first story song that people took note of. And they’re easy for me to write. Have you ever sat down with somebody in a social setting and that person asks about everything that’s going on in your life? And then when that person gets asked what’s going on in his or her life they don’t really say anything? I’ve realized that I’m that person. I don’t know if it’s that I won’t forfeit information about myself as much as it is I’m clearly more interested in what’s going on in other people’s lives, but I feel like a lot of the story songs that I write aren’t about me in particular. They are from listening to people. I’m really just regurgitating shit that people have said to me, and I have an imagination and believe in hyperbole and exaggerating. I believe all good stories have to be exaggerated.
Scene Point Blank: When you’re a musician that has been doing this for a while, whether it’s on your own or with a band, there’s so much history created. I read that you kept these journals full of show fliers, set lists, photographs, etc. Do you still have them? Do you ever look through them?
Tim Barry: You know what’s crazy about you bringing them journals up is I gotta fly to Austin, Texas and I was just sitting here thinking about what I should bring. I hate flying and you only get so much space and every bag costs more money. And I just realized I hadn’t written in my fucking journal in two months. I’ve been doing those journals since 1993 and the journals are filled with thoughts, stories, letters, photographs from tour, train trips, family, flyers from shows, photographs from political actions, anecdotes, situations—they’re filled with so much crap. Much of it is really immature writing, but the journals aren’t private, they are documents. It’s like reading the newspaper, anyone can open them up and read them aloud because I’m not hiding anything. I do still have them and I do still keep them, but I’ve been concerned that technology has taken one of the fuses from my brain and limited my interest in maintaining an ink and paper journal because everything has moved to this very quickly ego-stimulated Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, all the music sites, etc etc. It’s a lot easier to put your thoughts there and instantly see how many people like it or commented on your photo. I really want to continue to do these journals and so many cool things are going on that I can’t believe I haven’t been writing about it. I need to change the fuse in my brain to focus back onto almost the primitive style of pen and paper journal writing. The reason I bring up my trip to Austin is that there’s nothing I like more than getting on an airplane, ordering a Jack Daniels’ whiskey, and opening my journal and writing for the duration of that flight.
Words: Kristen Swanson