Danny Barnes

Danny Barnes

I’ve been at this a pretty long time. The main thing I use to get my ideas across has been the banjo, it has an unusual sound and is capable of a wide range of expression. However, it isn’t very developed yet, in terms of what is being done with it in a current macro sense. It’s untapped.

A lot of what I do was informed by punk rock and dub music from the 70’s, I bought those records when they were new, thus starting a lifelong obsession of buying records. I received a degree from the University of Texas [Austin] in audio production, and loved the classes there about the history of audio and recorded music. That’s where I first started hearing experimental music, that’s also where I learned to be very comfortable in a recording studio. Later I became the principle songwriter/producer/singer for Bad Livers, and eventually launched my own private record label ( Minner Bucket Records ), publishing company, and solo career in about 1998.

I have some good friends in bands of various sizes, some of them are these quite famous people, though I try to learn from anyone that has an “idea.” My whole thing is music, and trying to make my own sound. I have developed a specific technique I call barnyard electronics which is an aesthetic combining various bits of bluegrass, noise, rock, and electronic music. The live aspect involves a computer program I built in max/msp and a banjo. I do about 150 domestic shows a year with that set-up.

 Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass 2015
 Music and more from this Artist
 Artist Interview

ARTIST INTERVIEW — The Banjo Reserve interviewed Danny Barnes, here's what he had to say.

Q.  How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
 I learned from a fellow Maxie Roessler in Temple, TX, from slowing down records and watching Ed Shelton play, stuff like that. I think learning is like fishing, sometimes someone that has no idea what they are doing can use the most obtuse methods to fish and catch fish. Sometimes the pros get stumped, all that matters is, does your method work? It's hard to have a reductionist view of how everything should be done in terms of an art. If your method isn't working, get a new one. If it is working, stick with that.

Q.  During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
 Getting a good tone out of the the dang thing, and what to do when you weren't actually soloing. That's a very challenging study right there.

Q.  What challenges do you still hope to master today?
 I'm still working on my reading, improvising, composition, tone, being able to play other idioms and just general music i suppose. I would like to be a master someday. I would like to be able to make someone feel something.

Q.  Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
 There are a lot better players than me that I suppose would just jump in there and start answering, and I preface every utterance with, "I could be wrong about the whole thing," but, I don't really feel like there is such a thing as banjo music. I think the banjo is a medium like a pencil and a person can do whatever they want or are able to with a pencil. But, there really isn't a form called pencil art. I think the banjo is used to play music. If you have a thesis like "there is banjo music." you have to look at the antithesis which is, "there is no such thing as banjo music," and then synthesize the two. thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I feel like my role is to master the instrument and to play the music that is in my heart and head. For me the banjo is a tool, a tool with which to make art. There are so many great guys that play, I don't think I can really add much to that party. However, I do have my own experience, my own research into philosophy, poetry, sound, art and things like that. that's what I hope to bring out, using the banjo.

Q.  Your most recent album “Got Myself Together (Ten Years Later)” was released on November 27, 2015 to great reviews such as the one by Bluegrass Today. Do you have another project in the works or special event that you would like to share with readers?
 I'm still out there playing a lot of shows this year behind that record. So, I'm still kind of in that mode. I would think as well, it's a pretty fair bet I have about 15 other records the readers haven't heard yet, I have a LOT of art out there. As always, I'm working, writing and practicing. So, yes there's new stuff coming out all the time. I have a batch of new songs i'm writing, I have a pure banjo record coming out with some of my bluegrass pals ( Nick Forster, Mike Bub, Jason Carter, and Chris Henry ). I'm working on a suite of dodecaphonic ( 12-tone ) music for tuba and banjo. I'm working on a tuba / alto sax duet record with my friend Jacob Navarro whereby we are playing music by contemporary composers. The Test Apes are working on a new metal / noise / punk rock record ( I play a banjo tuned to E with an added bass string on a Les Paul frame called the "barnjo" ). Lots of stuff, I have more ideas than I have life left to do them in.

Q.  Throughout your career you have pushed the limits with the banjo, well known for crossing genres, writing, singing and playing with some of the music industry’s biggest names. Where are you most comfortable in this profession? Perhaps another way to ask this is “when are you most in your zone”?
 My degree is in Audio Production. I like making records, I'm very comfortable with computers and tape machines, that's what I like best is making records. I like machines, I'm more at home with a machine than a person. I feel like machines are my friends and have anthropomorphed them where I feel like they have personalities and stuff like that. I like how you can use them to make stuff and how you can have happy accidents.

Q.  How has winning the "Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass" changed your life and your musical career?
 Oh, that's been a tremendous blessing. I suppose the biggest thing is that I always feel like I'm kinda outside looking in, I've never really felt a part of things too much. Winning that award has really caused me to gather stock and think about things. There's people listening to my work even when I worry they don't. I'm friends with some of the biggest names in music, there's 7 or 8 people on my contact phone list that are zillionaires. I love to point this out when people say you can't make money with music. It has also caused me to take a fresh look at myself, to appreciate myself and my work a little more. I've sacrificed everything in order to learn to play the banjo, I never had kids, or a day job really ... since i got out of college anyway. I don't take vacations, all i do is work. This is not the life for everyone. My feeling is that most folks are afraid of work. A couple weeks ago I was working on a record and we did 72 hours in six days. Not up walking around making a sandwich, but 72 hours of straight busting. A 40 hour week is a very slow week for me, there's so much to do and learn.

Q.  You and Bob Bishline collaborated on the design and creation of the "Danny Barnes Amplified Woody" banjo. What were your goals with this design? Have you used it on a song that you have published?
 I play a lot of different ways on a banjo and we wanted to make something that could work in lots of different approaches. A little shorter scale for these long reaches and ergo you could run slightly thicker strings. Also, a minimalist design aesthetically, so a regular person could afford one. We've sold quite a few. I've used that banjo on lots of records, Pizza Box and Ambient Works Vol. 1. I've probably made about 8 of my own records with it and played it on about 200 records by others. I got a platinum record with it, and I used it on the Dave Matthews record Big Whiskey. I got a Bishline open-back from Rob recently and used that banjo exclusively on my newest "Got Myself Together". There is one overdub on that record with a Bishline Cardinal.

Q.  At this point in your banjo playing career, what work or event are you most proud of?
 I'm real proud of being in the Bad Livers, getting to tour with Bill Frisell, playing with Dave Matthews, lots of stuff. I'm the most proud of having a big body of work. If you dig around in there, there is a LOT of stuff, I have a huge catalog.

Q.  What other interests do you have?
 Reading philosophy, working on my old VW van, working in my yard, walking. I'm very active in the alcohol recovery community, meditation, and riding my motorcycle. I follow basketball and baseball, lots of stuff like that.

Q.  Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
 I got to know John Hartford a bit, and he was a brilliant guy. I think it would be good if we as a community, fostered creativity more. It's one thing to learn how to play something well, but it's a whole other idea to create new forms. If you don't know his work, you should dive in there. He had so many periods there is sure to be something there for you. My three favorite living banjo players to listen to are Charlie Cushman, Rob McCoury, and Reed Martin. If you don't know them, or one of those guys, you would enjoy digging in there.