Micah Barnes (seen at right in the photo above, at left in the photo at the bottom) has been the voice behind some of the best music you might have never heard if you live outside Tennessee and its neighboring states ... unless you're a longtime listener to Dancing Mattress Productions programming. He's the lead singer of sorta bluegrass-ish band Colossal Head and sang lead in the jam-rock quintet 27B-6 before that ... there have been other bands out there, too, including a shoegaze trio called Uva Mala that I only got to see live once. (No idea whether they put out an album.)
In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that Micah and I have known each other since our freshman year of college, when we were in an Honors English Composition class together. And I'm pretty sure I still owe him beer money from later on in college.
I sent him these questions a while back on Gmail, he replied a while later, and it's taken me ridiculously long to get them posted. So here I present my interview with "The 27 Man" with both apologies and thanks. :)
How long have you been playing music, and what was your first instrument? I played a little, a very little, in elementary school on piano. But I did develop a rudimentary understanding that would be the foundation for me learning every instrument since then.
About 10th grade, I started strumming a little guitar. As a senior in high school, I joined the color guard to get our of study hall to help pick up flags and such, which led to a lot of free time just messing around the band room closet. I went through all the instruments one by one and learned how they worked and how to play them.
When marching season was up, I had to learn an instrument over Christmas break or go back to study hall, so I took a trumpet home. That became my first scholarship.
I signed up for college as a guitar major. In '92, I decided to switch over to bass. A friend of mine had a fretless, so I learned on that, thus when I got a bass, I got a fretless and that was the only thing I played for about 10 years.
These days, I mainly play piano, cavaquinho, banjo, and guitar. And kazoo. Lord, I love kazoo.
Who are some of your major artistic influences? Kurt Vonnegut, Jim Henson, John Coltrane, John Scofield, Robert Pirsig, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young ... and ... um ... um ... you know this list could change dramatically depending on what day it is, but I would say these guys would always be on there.
All in all, my influences were not those who played the same instrument(s) by far. Often, they weren't even people that played instruments at all to my knowledge. I was always much more affected by people's philosophy and attitude in how they approached things. Even with the musicians, I never tried so much to emulate their sound as much as i tried to understand their approach. To misquote the Tao Te Ching: Do not seek to be like the master, but seek what the master sought.
Are you working exclusively with Colossal Head these days, or are there any other projects out there? Have we heard the last from 27B-6, for example? I'm working mostly with Colossal Head, but even that is in a state of rebuild at the moment. We have an unreleased album that was laid down about a year ago, and there has been an entire lineup change due to geographical restructuring (i.e., everyone moved).
I'm also drumming for a punk group called Bad Sailor. We are finishing up an album in my studio. I've recorded their last four or five albums, so when they needed another player, it just made sense for me to join since I already knew the bulk of their material and what their sound was.
And there are always other ongoing projects that resurface from time to time. I was the drummer and studio bassist for Jason Phelan's The Electric Servants of Righteousness, and we still get together on occasion to lay down some of his latest material.
I'm also thinking of doing a demo album, which is basically just a bunch of my songs as I recorded them prior to the band hearing them. The band usually plays the parts pretty close to what I originally recorded, but there's always some grand cumulative change once everyone has put their own signature on their part, so for posterity's sake, I thought I would compile a few albums of the stuff as it first appeared in my head.
As for 27, we get together when we can. We were hoping to do some more shows soon, but everyone's schedule and location makes it difficult, which is why we stopped playing in the first place.
Our current rehearsal spot is at Julie's place. She's got a nice studio/bar downstairs. It's a great place to practice and catch up with one another. Plus, it's "back home" for most of us, so that's an added perk.
What's the first album you ever bought? Hahahahaha. The Jackson Victory Tour. It was when I was 11 or 12.
I don't know what possessed me to buy that. Up until then, I had been on a steady diet of my parents' and my brother's albums. I don't recall really ever listening to it that much. I guess because Michael was just so huge at the time.
Ultimately, I just went back to listening to "rock'n'roll is here to stay" (the golden oldies my parents had) and KISS, Rush, Elton John, Queen, and whatever else I could snag from my brother's platter collection.
What was the first concert you ever attended? Mike and the Mechanics. Whoo whoo! I just happened to be at Mud Island, and there was a free show.
What have you enjoyed listening to lately? In my car CD player at the moment is Os Ingenous. It's an acoustic band from Brazil. But to be frank, I don't listen to a lot of music. Not idly anyhow. Never really have. I'm not one to leave the radio/stereo on for background. But when I do, it's usually some menagerie of stuff since I am accommodated by high-speed internet.
It's rare that a band puts out an album anymore; the 80's taught us that it's better to make a single and a bunch of filler. Meh. When I do sit down to listen to music, I usually put on the album and let it roll. I think that's why I still enjoy Pink Floyd, Cake, Beastie Boys, Whale, Roger Miller, Nina Simone, and so forth. XTC's Skylarking is amazing because of this. It's an album, not a collection of songs.
(Editorial note: WORD.)
What was the last concert you attended? Wow. That's actually a tough question. I don't do the concert thing that much. And by concert, I mean "show that requires a ticket to get in" as opposed to "cover charge." Joanna Newsom, maybe? I prefer smaller venues. Personally, I hope the small venue show makes a comeback. I much prefer the grittiness of a dive bar performance over the glitzy, clean, sterile performances done on large stages.
(Editor's note: My take on a "concert" could be a stadium full of thousands or a performance in front of a few dozen people. But I might re-phrase this question in future interviews so it's a more open-ended question.)
How do you think your music fits in with the "Nashville scene," and how does it stand apart? I'm going to assume that by the "Nashville scene" that you are probably referring to the East Nashville and/or indie band scene. That being said, if Colossal Head fits in, it's due to the fact that we're unsigned and low-fi. As for standing apart, we're not playing 3-chord guitar rock wearing ironic clothing.
I know we've been referred to as "novelty" because our songs are orchestrated, incorporate style and tempo changes, and often have a wide range of instruments that many of the crowds never see on stage or often have never heard of. We usually get a pretty good response when we do play in Nashville, although it's hard to gauge at times. In most places, people whoop it up or clap or do things that speak of approval on a primal level, but in Nashville, they tend to stand right in front of the band with their arms crossed as if scrutinizing a Rubik's Cube with 7 colours on it. I've been told that this is the sign of approval from the indie crowd.
Do you and the band support any specific charities there in Nashvegas? No. Unfortunately. We have never really developed the magnitude of a following that would benefit a charity, whether it be by way of a cut from our sales or by the draw of our name.
But should that occasion arise, my first charity would obviously be for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. One of the last shows that 27 did was for St. Jude at the Red Rose in Murfreesboro (no longer there, but by far my favourite place to hang out and play shows).
What news story have you been following lately? Our president is a man of colour, planes float, The Crow is a better album than movie, and politicians are patently crooked.
What's your favorite place to perform? What's your favorite Nashville hangout? The Boro (in Murfreesboro) is probably one of the best venues. Likewise, Liquid Smoke. In Nashville, The Alley Cat (until they closed last week) was a great place. I like to hit the Bongo Java when I can (went and saw Jeff Holmes play there a few weeks ago).
I usually don't venture into Nashville more than I have to. I did play a show at a groovy little place called The Family Wash. (It was a jazz ensemble. I got a cold call to fill in on bass. The group had just started as I walked in, so I ran up on stage, played a set, and then made introductions at our first break.)
But for anyone looking to play Nashville, I would recommend starting at The End. It's a quirky place on Elliston, but it's possibly the best sound you will ever get. And don't argue with Brad; he knows what he's doing.
If you were a superhero, what would be your name and powers? What other musician would be your nemesis? Johannes Factotum (aka The Chameleon), whose powers enable him to play any instrument and style with the inevitable pitfall of mastering none. My nemesis would be Tinear Danari, who has no musical ability but is truly adept in the business end of things, turning massive profits by churning out bland and lifeless music.
Do you find yourself carrying over songs from your previous projects into current shows? What cover songs are you playing these days? As a rule of thumb, I leave each song with the band for which it was written. This may not be a very lucrative move on my part, but it's not as if I'm at any lack of songs. I always write.
In fact, Colossal Head was started for the purpose of playing the songs that didn't really seem to fit 27. Even now, there are songs for which Colossal Head doesn't seem to be suited, so we don't play them.
As for covers, none. We do not play a single cover. 27 played a lot of Paul Simon and some classic rock, but 27 is more of a jam band and high energy. Party time. Colossal Head is Sunday afternoon armchair rock. Folkadelic funkytonk.
Where can the listeners pick up some of your music? A lot of the tunes can be heard or downloaded at our sites: http://colossalhead.net or http://myspace.com/colossalhead or http://27bstroke6.com or http://myspace.com/27b6 ... if you want a CD, I still have some of the last 27 album, but that's about it. Besides, CDs are so early-2000's. I think the next albums will be coming out on thumb drives.
If you could create a music festival with any musicians living or dead, who would be your top six headliners? G Love and Special Sauce, John Coltrane, Asylum Street Spankers, John Scofield, Michael Hedges, and the Gray Boy All Stars. I would so go to that show. But it would have to start at noon on a Saturday in a field.
Suppose you're hungry but down to your last five bucks. What do you eat? Soup. Store brand chicken noodle. Full of nutrients and tasty to boot.
What's the last good book you read? Well, I re-read Good Omens ... because it's just that good.
Do you have a favorite magazine? I don't think so. I've never been much for periodicals. They're usually so fleeting as to prove inapplicable or passe by the next issue. Granted, I do like a good copy of Wired or Popular Mechanics from time to time.
What's your most memorable gig experience? Wow. There are some real doozies, but I say the Battle of the Bands with 27. There was so much build-up and positive energy in the room. Everyone seemed to be mutually enthralled with what was transpiring. I was amongst great friends and having such a great time. It was like all these great things that had been going on in my life were crossing paths at once in the same room, all of us there to share the experience together.
It's funny, too, because I really don't remember playing. I just remember that collective high and anticipation. We were all in college, looking to the future with wide eyes, and here was this little gold nugget of a stepping stone for the future for everyone involved. It was a great personal validation for all the effort we had put forth: the band and the individuals in the band.
And I remember that great sensation of having so many great friends who were so amazingly supportive. There have been much bigger (and better) shows since then, but never one that accomplished so much in one fell swoop, relatively speaking. Having been together for only a month, this was our first gig. We had that rare opportunity as a band to go from complete infancy to regional renown in the course of an evening.
(And we won a bunch of money and prizes!)
Finally, a burning question for any Tennessean, and it's about barbecue: Pork, beef or chicken? Pork, baby! I mean, come on!