Chris Barron of Spin Doctors

by Carl Wiser

Chris Barron was advancing toward a career in pottery when his stepmother - Little Miss Can't Be Wrong - spent his college money, ending his studies at Bennington and putting him on course to form the Spin Doctors. Despite his best efforts to avoid a life in music, it seems that was his destiny: He could sing, write, play guitar and withstand long hours in vans filled with equipment and body odor. He was also good friends with John Popper of Blues Traveler, who in 1988 offered encouragement, gigs (playing between Blues Traveler sets) and housing - Chris moved in with the band and assembled Spin Doctors a short time later.

Epic Records signed them based on their live shows, and in the summer of 1991 released their debut album Pocket Full of Kryptonite - the one with "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" and "Two Princes." Epic was busy promoting Pearl Jam, so they didn't bother releasing any Spin Doctors singles until radio stations started playing "Little Miss" on their own. It was December 1992 when that song reached its chart peak of #17; "Two Princes" went to #7 in April 1993.

They picked a good time to get famous, earning invites to HORDE, Woodstock '94, Glastonbury, Sesame Street, golden age Letterman and SNL, the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge tour, and Farm Aid, where Chris smoked weed with Willie. How's that for a bucket list?

The frenetic pace took its toll. "Sometimes, I feel the life getting sucked out of me by this lifestyle," Chris said in their January 1993 Rolling Stone cover story. Guitarist Eric Schenkman left late in 1994, and in 1999 Chris suffered a vocal cord paralysis that left him barely able to speak. He recovered, Schenkman returned, and the group has been sporadically active since 2001.

Chris' latest venture is an album called Angels And One Armed Jugglers, which he is funding on Kickstarter. For $1,000 he'll write you a song; $150 gets you a haiku. Perhaps he can collect on the karma earned from encouraging fans to tape Spin Doctors shows in the pre-smartphone era when it was taboo.

His memories from his myriad adventures remain intact. Chris recounts many of those stories here, along with the tales behind some Spin Doctors favorites and details of the bulk writing technique he uses to sharpen his pen.
Songfacts (Carl Wiser): You did Saturday Night Live. When the show ends at one o'clock in the morning and everybody says goodbye, what happens after that?

Chris Barron: You go to an awesome party with the cast and the guests and it's an open bar. There are former cast members there. I went to the bar and ordered a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and I walked around drinking out of the bottle and sharing it with people.

I chatted with Joe Pesci for like a half an hour, and he was confiding in me, like, "I've been getting all this work but I am really tired. I'm not as young as I used to be." I couldn't believe I was having this conversation with Joe Pesci.

And then I look and Dan Aykroyd is across the room, and he's like a lifetime hero of mine. It was the chance of a lifetime, so I thought, "Okay, what's my entrée, what's my point d'appui with this man? Oh, he's a harmonica player."

I'm childhood friends with John Popper, who is also a harmonica player, and I believe they know each other. So, I got my whole approach set in my head and I make my way across the party and I walk up to him and I offer my hand and I say, "Mr. Aykroyd, my name is Chris Barron, I'm the singer of the Spin Doctors." And he's like, "Yeah, I know."

Holy crap! Dan Aykroyd knows who I am! That was a moment for me - I really felt like I'd arrived. An icon dude like Dan Aykroyd knowing who I was.

Songfacts: Is it at a secret location?

Chris: Well, the audience doesn't know where it is, and it's not the same place every time. I think it's a bit of a rotation, but it's a private party. The place is rented out.

Songfacts: Was pretty much everybody there, or do some people just go home?

Chris: Most everybody was there. Pretty much the whole cast and the band and the crew and the guests. It seems like they work all week on the show and it's a high-pressure situation. As cool as they all are about it, it's live television so it's definitely a high-pressure thing.

And I think they have a culture of partying. So, all of that combines to there being some steam being let off after the show for sure. But it was one of the best parties I've ever been to in my life.

Songfacts: Did you go to The New School right after high school?

Chris: No, I went to Bennington College for one year and I studied music and ceramics and anthropology and poetry. I was all set to become a potter, actually. I was set to major in ceramics, and my dad's ex-wife basically spent all my college money on a Ferrari Dino and a lynx and a mink and a couple dozen Saks Fifth Avenue suits, and there was no money for me to continue going to Bennington, the most expensive school in the country.

So I came back to New York City and I lived in a little apartment above a music store and at night I would write songs. I wrote "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" up there and I wrote "Two Princes" up there in that apartment on Spring Street in Princeton, New Jersey. Then during the day I would work in this kitchen at a place called The American Diner - a very colorful, kind of cool restaurant that was run by the former maître d' of the River Café. This guy Nicky Azzalini and his wife Roberta opened up this restaurant in an old stainless steel diner. It wasn't actually a train car but it was architecturally like one of those old train car diners. I worked there during the day and I wrote tunes at night.

And then, the Blues Traveler, one fateful evening, came and hung out with me in my apartment and I showed them the songs that I'd been writing. They had been living in Brooklyn for a year, and they invited me to move in with them. They were getting a new apartment and they were like, "Dude, you can't just waste your life here in our hometown. You're not in the band but we're getting a new apartment so we might as well get an apartment for five guys as for four guys. Why don't you move into the new apartment, share the rent and you can play in between our sets in New York?"

So, I moved to New York the following summer, 1988, with $100 and an acoustic guitar - my dad was helping out with my rent. I played in the subway, I played in between the Blues Traveler sets, I picked up an unpaid weekend gig at this Hells Angels' bar called the Lismar Lounge. I played Friday and Saturday nights and I had to walk around with a mug asking these huge bikers that could have crushed me like a peanut for tips.

I've always had an ability to ingratiate myself to big dangerous scary people, especially back then. I was 20 years old, 129 pounds soaking wet, and they thought I was funny. You know, "Love this kid. I like the blues, man." And they would give me a buck or sometimes a little more to add in my mug.

And then, coming up on September, I talked to my dad and I was like, "Listen, these guys are all in this program at The New School. I don't want to get a degree in music, but this place is full of amazing musicians and if we could scrape money together for me to go there for a year or so, I'll learn everything I can about music and work my guts out. But the second I can put a band together I'll just quit because I don't want to get a degree in music, I want to be in a band."

And so, he was like, "Yeah, cool, awesome." So, that September of '88 I started at The New School. Eric [Schenkman] I already knew through John Popper, and he and I started collaborating a little bit, and then we started the Spin Doctors. And after a semester the Spin Doctors were starting to work, so I quit school after a semester and started just being in the band full time.

Songfacts: You got some revenge on your stepmother when you wrote the song "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong." What is the line, "Your brain surgery with your monkey wrench"?

Chris: It's: "You do your brain surgery too… You cook so well, all nice and French." Pretty much everything in that song is true, a reflection of actual things that happened. She wasn't a brain surgeon but she was extraordinarily intelligent - a very, very high IQ, but very low emotional intelligence. And also, she was an amazing cook. To this day, I've never had a better chocolate cake than hers. She could cook all this amazing French cuisine.

Nobody's ever asked me about that line. She's an extremely intelligent person but she couldn't relate to people, so, it's sort of a metaphor. She could have done brain surgery but she didn't have the tools. Rather than actually perform a delicate cerebral treatment on another human being she'd bash their brains out with a wrench. Does that make sense?

Songfacts: It does make sense, actually. The very first line of your very first single is one that you ended up answering to your whole life. Is that something that you put any thought into when the record company decided this was going to be your introduction to the world?

Chris: "It's been a whole lot easier since the bitch left town"?

Songfacts: Yeah.

The "Little Miss" video could have gone horribly wrong - the band wanted the "bitch" to be a female dog. In a bout of sound judgment, they hired a female director, Diane La Verdi, who eliminated any whiff of misogyny by creating a paint-splattered romp where the leading lady emerges unscathed. In a key breakthrough for the band, MTV played the hell out of it, then put their next video, "Two Princes," in hot rotation as well.
Chris: You know, I listened to a lot of Dylan growing up and I felt like he was a master of the opening line. Sometimes they were just lines that created curiosity. Like "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" where he's like:

The ragman draws circles
Up and down the block
I'd ask him what the matter is
But I know that he don't talk

It's like, what? He just sets this scene.

Obviously, "It's been a whole lot easier since the bitch left town" is not on the level of a Bob Dylan line. But, to answer your question directly, no, I didn't know what the hell I was doing when I wrote that song. I knew how to write a song at the time, but I wasn't looking at it in the sense that you are pointing out, which is actually very perceptive - I've never actually thought of it that way. But there is an irony to the fact that my stepmom used to tell me that I would be a guitar-playing janitor and that I would live in the basement of the high school and "play guitar for the rats." That's a direct quote.

So, there's definitely a high level of revenge. I don't know if revenge is the word I would use. It is partially apt, but for me it was like motivation and the drive to prove her wrong. And I don't know if there's a difference between that and revenge but it feels like there is. They say success is the best revenge, and I certainly savored the irony that she was so unkind to me in regards to my future and my career, and that my future and career were assured by a song that I wrote about her.

Songfacts: Well, not only that, in an odd way she seems responsible for your success because if she didn't pull the funding you could have done four years at Bennington and become a potter.

Chris: Who says I wouldn't have been a really successful potter?

Songfacts: You probably would have been a terrific potter, but the way your career went, you ended up in this apartment building writing these terrific songs, which were based on your hardscrabble life at the time. For instance, you've talked about how "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" came from when you were trying to steal food from a cafeteria because you were hungry.

Chris: Yeah. I look back on my life and I think that there were a lot of circumstances that were funneling me towards music including my stepmother, and I don't deny that she gave me a tremendous amount of impetus through her criticism. Also, there was a certain amount of difficulty in my home that sent me up to my room to write songs, and I was always grounded so I spent a lot of time at home just in my bedroom with a guitar. But there's a lot of people out there who have it worse than me or are the same as me and they don't end up being a musician or a songwriter. They kind of crumble under that sort of pressure or they just end up doing something else.

I tried really hard not to be a musician. I grew up in this town, Princeton, surrounded by these upwardly mobile, preppy adults and kids. The idea of being a rock and roll musician was absolutely preposterous to them, and I took that on to some extent. My father was always very supportive but everybody else in my life was sort of like, "Are you out of your mind?"

I had friends who believed in me. John Popper believed in me. But I had an environment that was just like, "Your chances of being a rock and roll musician are like one in a million." But I was like, "No, your chances are one in a million, mine are like one in 100,000 because I actually do this and I'm into it and I seem to have a penchant for it."

So, I tried to be a cook and I tried to be a potter and I tried to go to college, but the opportunities that came my way were musical. You certainly make an excellent point about the circumstances I was in and my stepmother's influence - there's no doubt that she lit a fire in my belly for me to do this - but there's also some other internal pressure. When I was 12 we were learning about similes in English class and my teacher said, "Chris, give me a simile." And I was like, "In the distance, a bell tolls like a lonely sentinel of happier time."

My English teacher was like, "Where did you read that?"

"I just made it up."

"No, you didn't."

"No, I did make it up."

He's like, "Very good, Chris."

So, I've had a very serious penchant for songwriting and a very serious penchant for writing my whole life. I wake up in the morning and I just want to write. I don't know which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Songfacts: You clearly have a tolerance for struggle. When you were on the road, even after the album took off and you guys were popular, you were still playing places that I thought were way beneath you. It was kind of ridiculous some of these venues you played for so very long.

Chris: Well, you have like a lag in your career. We had a relatively meteoric rise but it doesn't feel as fast as all that when it's happening. But you have like a year in your career where you're shooting up the charts but when you booked the gigs you were where you were, so suddenly you're doing a gig in a place that's way too small for you, but when you booked it, it was the right size place.

But we had a great work ethic as a band. We all agreed that our goal was to be working musicians. If we become big rock stars, great. And if we make a lot of money, great. And if we have hits on the radio, great. But what we really wanted to do was play tunes that were good enough to be people's favorite songs and make a living playing music. That was our stated objective.

But, I do have a very high tolerance for struggle. I moved to Australia when I was 8 years old and got my ass kicked every day for being American. [His dad was an executive with Avon cosmetics.] There's a lot of people who've had it a lot tougher than me, but I traveled a lot as a kid, I experienced a lot of alienation. I came back to the United States and thought everything was going to be cool, but I'd spent from 8 to 12 in Australia, so I didn't really know how to be an American kid. I was just as screwed-up when I got back as when I went to Australia because I was still the weird, different kid. All of that prepared me to do like 50 thousand miles in a van before cell phones, just sitting in the dark when the sun went down, sitting in the dark in a van listening to the radio and just traveling and traveling and traveling.

Songfacts: In 1994 you did Farm Aid, Glastonbury and Woodstock all in the same year. Which of those was the best and most memorable for you?

Chris: I would say Glastonbury was the one. We were touring so heavily I just wanted to stay so bad. It was so much fun. We came in on the bus, I took a little walk around and drank this apple cider stuff in England they call scrumpy. They put it in like a plastic milk jug. So, I walked around drinking scrumpy and meeting people. You could just wear a coat and walk around.

I was pretty famous at the time but not so crazy famous that I got mobbed, so I just walked around the tents and met people. I felt like that scene in Henry V when he's walking around the camp. We played, and then we hung out and we had to leave two hours later, but that was the one where I wish we could have hung out and partied. I could have spent the night and watched the other bands and stuff like that.

Farm Aid was really, really memorable because I met Willie Nelson. I grew up with country music so I really loved country music. I was walking around and this lady with a clipboard was like, "Willie would like to meet you." I get in this golf cart, go to his bus, and his bus has freaking shingles on it. We walk in and the lights are out, he's sitting at the banquet in the front lounge underneath the glow of this light. The rest of the bus is dark and it's just him, freaking wizened, bearded Willie Nelson sitting at the table.

I sit down at the other side of the table from him and he's rolling a joint with one of those hand cigarette rollers. And his court, his posse, is all off in the gloom, around the periphery of the banquet, just shadowy figures.

I sit down with him and we're talking. We're smoking this huge joint and there's this vibe of, "Oh, this is the rock and roll guy, he's not going to know anything about country music." But Willie is super friendly and just wanted to thank me for coming. So, we chat a little bit and I said, "You wrote 'Crazy,'" and he looks at me like, "Yeah." At the time I didn't know that he had sold the rights to "Crazy" for like $150 and subsequently lay down in the highway trying to kill himself in Nashville. I just knew he'd written "Crazy."

But, there's this murmur that goes through the court of, "Oh, he knows Willie Nelson wrote 'Crazy.' He knows the tune." I said, "I like your version even better than Patsy Cline's."

I'm not kissing his ass - I'm too high to kiss ass - I'm just trying to talk, and he's like, "Well, thank you Chris," and this murmur of approval goes through the bus. I was in.

But that's my memory of Farm Aid. You know, Farm Aid was definitely a big one for me because meeting Willie was really cool. And Woodstock was a disappointment. Woodstock, we got photographed by Herb Ritts, which was amazing. It was very muddy and I wore all white and didn't get any mud on me, which I came away feeling was some sort of miracle. But, it was just a super-high-adrenaline situation. Our guitar player turned every knob on his amp up to 10, so I couldn't really hear myself and it was just sort of a blind panic moment. That and Glastonbury were the most people I ever played for. I'm not sure which one had more, probably Glastonbury had more people. Both gigs were like if you stand at the beach and you look out at the ocean. That's what the people looked like - it was people as far as you could see.

Songfacts: Even more than on one of your Rolling Stones gigs?

Chris: Yeah, because in the Rolling Stones gigs you're in an arena and it's a fuck-load of people but it's a defined space. So the arena is full of people but there is an end to it: The arena is an oval and at the end of the oval the people end. You can sense that beyond them is the infinite space of the rest of the world with a normal amount of people in it, whereas Glastonbury you're just looking out and the people go on forever. Same with Woodstock.

The best part of Woodstock was, we went on two acts before Dylan and I got to sit on the side of the stage. I could have tossed an apple underhanded and it would have landed at Dylan's feet. And that was the greatest performance of anything I ever saw ever. That changed the way I performed for the rest of my life, because I never played for that many people before so my instinct was to make my performance as big as possible. If you were to YouTube that performance you'd see I'm overdoing it... not overdoing it but I'm playing to a quarter of a million people and I'm playing as if I'm playing for a quarter of a million people. Whereas Dylan went out and he made his performance so small. He was playing so quiet and singing really sweet, and he would just stand there during an instrumental break and slowly kind of indent one knee towards his center of gravity and turn the neck of the guitar like five degrees and bend his shoulder, and the crowd would go nuts. He'd just do this subtle gestural kind of stuff and subtly change the dynamics of the way he was singing, and the crowd was with him every single change of timbre, every note, every gesture. I hadn't realized that small and vulnerable is as powerful or more powerful than large gestures, and bigness is not always more powerful than smallness.

Songfacts: Almost like when you were on the Willie Nelson bus and the murmur travels to the back of the bus. Because Dylan must have to send a wave all the way back there for people to really get that reaction.

Chris: Absolutely, and it was reading. The little stuff he was doing was reading because he was pulling them in with the smallness - he was making them lean in. They were coming to him rather than him coming to them.

Songfacts: That's interesting. I've never heard anybody describe Dylan as a performer like that.

Chris: I've seen him play probably 10 times and that's the best I ever saw him. But, he'll do a gig and I don't know what the hell is going on and it's not the greatest thing you ever saw, but when he wants to or the mood strikes him, it's utterly magnificent. The guy can do it if he wants to.

Songfacts: Do you have a home studio?

Chris: No, I don't. I had one for a while and I'm like the worst engineer in the world... I'm actually not the worst engineer in the world. I can make stuff sound terrific but I don't like it and when something stops working I go berserk.

I'm OK with computers but I don't like them and I get frustrated really fast. So, I recorded a few things that actually sounded terrific but after about a year all of my software expired and it was going to cost like $5,000 just to keep using all my plugins. It was a misdirection of effort and funds. I'm better off working in studios and working with engineers. It just wasn't worth it for me to keep that going. It's something I would look into doing again, but I also really like working in studios.

Songfacts: Has the way you've written songs changed over the years?

Chris: That's a good question. Yes, but it's sort of vacillated. More than changing I think I've become more focused. When I was a kid I wrote like a kid - it was very intuitive. I wrote stuff with intuition and I followed hunches and went down a lot of rabbit holes, and sometimes found great things in those rabbit holes. I wrote "Two Princes" like that, I wrote "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" like that. I was just having fun and I wrote those tunes from a very childlike kind of standpoint.

And then I had this huge hit and I had a lot of pressure from the record company to write another hit, and I put a lot of pressure on myself because I was still very young and I hadn't learned to separate artistic success from business success. So, for a couple of years, every time I sat down to write, I was really putting a lot of pressure on myself and thinking, "Is this going to be the next 'Two Princes'? Is this tune going to be a hit?" You know, the bad voices in my head. I was trying to write the Great American Tune for a while.

And then, a couple years went by and I had an epiphany: "This is stupid. You've got to get back to writing the way you did when you were a kid. When you wrote those tunes you weren't thinking about writing a hit, you just wanted to write a good song."

So, I went back to writing the way I did when I was a kid. I lost my voice for a while and when my voice came back I was afraid that if I didn't have some kind of financial security, if I lost my voice again I'd be screwed. So, I started doing the professional songwriting thing and trying to write hits for like Faith Hill and crap like that. I found a cassette from that period of time and it's the worst shit. Some stuff I wrote in my career was not successful artistically, but you could see what I was going after. That's the only period in my life - it was about a year - where I just wrote absolute shit. It's the only time when there were things I was writing where I was like, "That just sucks."

The stuff that I liked that I would pitch to people, they'd be like, "You know, I could hear you singing that but it's a little too clever, it's too poetic. I couldn't really hear any of our artists doing that."

In the end I was like, "You know what, fuck this. I'm going to go back to writing the way I used to write and I'm going to write my weird poetic shit and I'm just going to record it. And I really don't care about that kind of success. I just want to go back to making a living writing songs and playing songs. I don't need to write hit tunes, I just want to write good songs."

Songfacts: Yes, easier said than done, saying just go back to the way you were and write that way, because your head is far more full than it used to be. But it sounds like you've been through the process and you have arrived at a state where you can get to at least a pure motivation again and a place of authenticity.

Chris: Well, I came from a school of writing. I was really into a book by Natalie Goldberg called Writing Down the Bones. She's a proponent of bulk writing: timed writing exercises or picking an amount of pages to write and just moving the pen. And then there's also a book called The Artist's Way. I never got through the whole book but there's a morning pages thing where you write three pages every morning, and that I really liked. So, I write three pages every morning.

When I've been writing my best I've always been writing consistently - I've been practicing writing. The same way you watch a wide receiver at a football game and they make this fabulous catch, but behind that fabulous catch that's so entertaining there's so many hundreds and thousands of hours of exercises that you never saw and wouldn't be nearly as entertaining to watch as the catch they made.

I have shelves of notebooks full of the crap I write in the morning. I think of writing as a musculature, and I suppose my writing has changed in that I have come to trust that idea more and more. So, what I did to get out of that headspace of having to write the greatest thing ever was to hone in on my own voice as a writer, and the way I did that was to just write tons and tons and tons of crap. Every morning I write three pages and I give myself permission to write anything. If I have to sit there and write, "You're such a douche, what is wrong with you, I have nothing to say today," I do. I don't usually end up writing that because I have been doing this for such a long time that I start to delve into whatever it is I'm thinking about or whatever I'm sort of obsessed with, and if I can't think of anything I just describe the light coming through the window or the texture of the wood on the table where I'm writing, or the smell of my coffee, or what my cats are doing, or whatever. So, that's sort of how I got through that.

Songfacts: It's equivalent to the wide receiver doing drills.

Chris: Yeah, it's exactly what it is. No different.

Songfacts: You've always have a lot literary influences. Was there a specific story that inspired "Two Princes"?

Chris: Directly, no, but I loved The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I was really into fantasy fiction and stuff like that. I wrote that song when I was 19, so I was still coming out of childhood, and as a child I loved wizards and kings and queens and princess and princesses and stuff like that. And I loved Shakespeare - I already was way into Shakespeare. So I gravitated towards that kind of imagery just because I liked books and poems from that period of time.

But that tune, I ran into my friend Mickett Wilder who was Dave Wilder's big brother. Dave is my age and he's actually an amazing bass player - he's worked with Liz Phair and Macy Gray. Now he's like a studio guy in LA and just works his ass off. Amazing musician. His big brother, we called him Mickett - Michael. Mickett was super nice to all of us and we just thought he was the coolest. We would use the same slang as him and we would dress the same. I ran into him on the street and we had this conversation about this young woman I had a big crush on throughout middle school and high school who had asked me to meet her. I said, "I just talked to this girl," and he was like, "Well you should go ahead with that."

"Yeah, but I think she might be mad at me."

He said, "Well, just go ahead now."

"Maybe she's got a crush on me, because she wants to meet me tonight."

"Well, go ahead with that, man, just go ahead now."

Everything I was saying he was just going, "Just go ahead with that. Go ahead now." So, I went home and I was like, "Just go ahead now." And that's really how that song got written. But it wasn't really based on any literary source.

Songfacts: Was "You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast" about a real person?

Chris: Yeah. It was about the young woman who everyone thought "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" was about, because I wrote "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" right after I broke up with Heather - Heather McKearnan. Little Heather, as we called her. Heather was not a "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" at all. She was an extremely agreeable person and she and I didn't break up under acrimonious circumstances at all. The scene was very small and everybody knew that we had broken up, but not everybody knew the details of what happened.

So, three weeks later or something I played "Little Miss" and everybody thought it was about Heather. Everybody talked and it was a little bit high school, but kind of in a good way. Everybody thought it was about Heather McKearnan, but, actually, "You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast" was about Heather, and it was about me and another friend of mine - we both liked Heather at the same time.

Songfacts: Was there a real "Hungry Hamed's"?

Chris: Yes. It's a Dunkin Donuts now or something like that, but it was a donut shop in Brooklyn in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bank Tower. It's on, I want to say 4th Avenue and three blocks from Bergen Street. It's 4th Avenue, just off of Flatbush. It wasn't on Flatbush but I don't remember what street it was on.

Songfacts: What's going on in "What Time Is It?"

Chris: Time has been amazing to that song - the decades, you know. In the beginning we played around with the whole political thing because we were called Spin Doctors, a political phenomenon. We were playing a party at Delta Phi, Columbia. We played a couple of parties for these guys, and it actually was 4:30 in the morning and we were like, "Should we play some more?," and the crowd was like, "Yeah!"

I turned to Darren Green, who was a friend of the band, and I was like, "What time is it?" He said, "4:30," and then Eric just busted into that riff. I started singing, "What time is it? 4:30," and then off the top of my head, "It's not late, it's early."

Then I wrote the verses later on because it struck me as a really good Spin Doctors song. I was basically talking about Bush the first - the whole Iran-Contra affair was still fresh in my mind. Then we had the first Gulf War and we're bombing Baghdad and it was like holy shit! And then there was another Gulf War and I actually ended up going to Iraq twice. I was in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 playing for the troops.

There's all those lines about, "President, he sweats through his talcum, newspaper man, he watch like a falcon." Every time there's a new president, I always am re-interpreting those lines in my head. Now, it's amazing with all this cohesive shit that's going on with this fucking administration. I've been singing it for the first time live since the election and it's really funny.

You know, you write a song and you have your idea of what it's about. Very early on I realized that having people share your interpretation of the song is by no means a measure of the success of the song. People will come up with another interpretation of the song or see part of the song in a different sense. That doesn't mean you didn't write the song right, sometimes it's really kind of cool that you wrote something that's specific enough but open-ended enough to where people can come up with another intact interpretation of the song.

To me it's a satire and a comment on America's political and military adventures in the Middle East, but the political situation has grown more and more outlandish as time has gone on, so the song, for me, has been really interesting.

You write a song and then it gets up one day and walks away. It's not your song anymore - it belongs to the people who hear it. The interpretation of the song is much more in the ears of the listeners - they outnumber the author. Every single new person who hears the song adds to the ranks of the people who outnumber the author of the song.

Songfacts: Your career started long before the internet came around. Then you had to go through the experience of logging in and Yahoo-ing or AltaVista-ing yourself and figuring out what people were saying about you. What was that like?

Chris: I've never done that. I've never Googled myself. I'll Google specific things, like a video or a YouTube thing or something like that, but I don't Google myself. There are things I like about this age and there are things I don't like about it. What I don't like is how impersonal things are. How old are you, do you mind me asking?

Songfacts: I'm 46.

Chris: Okay, so you're two years younger than me, so we're from the same epoch. I always think about Mark White, the bass player of the Spin Doctors. The first couple of years of the internet, with forums and stuff like that, he was very, very computer savvy. So, he was on all these forums and he walked around in a lather of rage for a couple of years. I was like, "Mark, what's wrong with you?" And he'd be like, "I'm going to go find baseball1974 and I'm going to beat the fuck out of him with his own baseball bat. He said I was a pussy."

And I realized that Marcus is a big intimidating brother from the Bronx and no one had ever talked to him like that before. There, if you talked like that, it was time to throw down. But, there was this new era of people who would say whatever they wanted and there were no repercussions. You could just say anything that you wanted to people.

I think the internet has seriously corroded people's personal sense of courtesy, people's sense of society and interconnectedness. The irony is that everybody is interconnected but there's this artificial connection. The connection is artificial and people don't have the same kind of stop-and-chat sense of courtesy they once did. People address each other over the internet in ways that they never would have addressed each other in person. Very few people would sit down to write a letter like that. If you had to get out a pen and a piece of paper and then put it in an envelope and put a stamp on it, by the time you did that you'd be like, "Wait, what am I doing? I am not going to send this."

It's cool in a sense, like digital music and having all this music in your phone. It's convenient to be able to do a playlist of Chet Baker and just walk around listening to Chet Baker. But at the same time, we lose that sense of interconnectedness.

When you listen to a vinyl record, the groove in that record is the direct impression of the sound that was made in the moment that whatever was being recorded was recorded. So, you listen to a Keith Richards riff and his guitar came out of the speaker in the moment that he was making that music and it went into the microphone and it moved the film in the microphone and created this impression. Then eventually, at the other end of the process, the lathe that made that record moved exactly the same way. So it's an impression, like if you take a cast to someone's face. It's absolutely analogous. Analog comes from the same word as analogous. It's an analog of the actual impression that the sound made in that moment, whereas digital is a translation: You're translating the sound into a digital language and then retranslating it back into a sound. And, I just think there's something about holding the music in your hand.

I came into this business and my job was selling pieces of plastic and vinyl with music on them. And once the medium became ephemeral, once it became something that people had in a digital sense that was folded up into a bunch of information inside a piece of electronics that you then unfolded and listened to on ear buds, it all fell into this loss of the tactile in this world.

It's a really interesting moment in history in that reality is changing. The sense of what is real and what's virtual and where do your senses stop and where does reality begin? Because it used to be if you can experience something, it's real, but there's so much that is so phony now, because there's this whole new world inside of the world - this whole cyber world.

I love golf. I think golf is such a cool game. A gigantic garden where you play this game in the garden. Now, people play golf on the Wii. My little brother was playing Guitar Hero when he was a kid. I said, "Don't play Guitar Hero, play guitar! If you spend all that time with a guitar in your hand that you spend playing Guitar Hero, you'd know how to play guitar now."

Now he's in his 20s, and he's like, "Damn, man, you were right, all that time I could have been learning to really play guitar."

Songfacts: Did you get paid to do Sesame Street?

Chris: Yeah, I think we got paid like double scale or something like that. We got paid like union scale.

Songfacts: They put your performance on at least one of the DVDs that's out there, and I didn't know if that show paid the guests.

Chris: Yeah, they do everything by the book. I'm sure that we've been compensated for that.

Songfacts: Have you ever looked in any of those rock encyclopedias and looked yourself up?

Chris: No.

Songfacts: What band do you think is right next to you?

Chris: Bruce Springsteen?

Songfacts: No, Spinal Tap. I wonder if there's something going on there. Did you guys have a Spinal Tap moment at one point?

Chris: I think what's happening is a little thing we call alphabetical order.

Songfacts: Well, yes, but you clearly didn't think about this when you chose the name.

Chris: No. Spinal Tap moment? When we're worried that we're going to get lost on our way to the stage, we always say, "Hello Cleveland!"

Rock and roll is very, very silly and opening up for the Stones, we learned those guys are silly. The Beatles were silly, Spin Doctors are silly. There's a lot of down time and a lot of boredom, but it's show business and showbiz people are funny.

April 4, 2017. Chris' Kickstarter is here.
More Songwriter Interviews


Be the first to comment...

Editor's Picks

Yoko Ono

Yoko OnoSongwriter Interviews

At 80 years old, Yoko has 10 #1 Dance hits. She discusses some of her songs and explains what inspired John Lennon's return to music in 1980.

Tom Johnston from The Doobie Brothers

Tom Johnston from The Doobie BrothersSongwriter Interviews

The Doobies guitarist and lead singer, Tom wrote the classics "Listen To The Music," "Long Train Runnin'" and "China Grove."

Chris Rea

Chris ReaSongwriter Interviews

It took him seven years to recover from his American hit "Fool (If You Think It's Over)," but Chris Rea became one of the top singer-songwriters in his native UK.

Roger McGuinn of The Byrds

Roger McGuinn of The ByrdsSongwriter Interviews

Roger reveals the songwriting formula Clive Davis told him, and if "Eight Miles High" is really about drugs.

Stand By Me: The Perfect Song-Movie Combination

Stand By Me: The Perfect Song-Movie CombinationSong Writing

In 1986, a Stephen King novella was made into a movie, with a classic song serving as title, soundtrack and tone.

Allen Toussaint - "Southern Nights"

Allen Toussaint - "Southern Nights"They're Playing My Song

A song he wrote and recorded from "sheer spiritual inspiration," Allen's didn't think "Southern Nights" had hit potential until Glen Campbell took it to #1 two years later.