Bass Drum of Death Discuss Their Dark New Album, the Rigors of Road and the Influence of Nirvana and Waylon Jennings
John Barrett’s recent show at a Brooklyn warehouse ironically called Shea Stadium was a drunk, sweaty mess. Dressed up like a squatter’s paradise, Shea is a spray-painted factory loft in industrial North Brooklyn, and as Barrett’s garage-rock band, Bass Drum of Death, bashed away, girls and boys fell into each other’s wet arms and threw themselves into the stage. Barrett’s hair obscured his face, and his wallpaper-blue Fender Jaguar bounced along with the music.
But as he presides over such crowds of drunk, pretty, jerking kids, Barrett aims to offer more than mere beer-soaked madness. He writes actual songs — ones he hopes continue to grow more durable with each release. Last month, Bass Drum of Death dropped their sophomore LP, a self-titled record Barrett recorded entirely by himself. It’s a darker record than its predecessor, ‘GB City,’ and Barrett wrote much of the material during the long stretches of downtime in between shows.
Hailing from Oxford, Miss., Bass Drum of Death have essentially been on the road for three years, and chatting with Diffuser.fm days before the Shea melee, Barrett discussed the rigors of the road and wide range of influences — everything from ’60s garage to ’90s grunge — reflected on ‘Bass Drum of Death.’ He also explained his shift toward making more ambitious music and revealed his fondness for classic country — a sound that may well surface on his next album.
This album has a classic garage-rock feel. For example, the opening riff from ‘Such a Bore’ sounds like it could fit on the first ‘Nuggets’ compilation, or another classic garage record. Were you inspired by that ’60s sound?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been influenced by that ‘Nuggets’-type stuff for a long time. And it came out in my really early stuff, the one-man-band-type stuff. There was a lot more of that influence there. But on my first record, there was much more of a punk sort of influence. I kinda wanted to make a song that was jammier, more psychedelic than other stuff I was doing. So yeah, I think you’re spot-on with that.
Are you listening to that stuff more now? Is there a classic garage or psych record you consider essential?
Not offhand, but there are certain songs that I hear, and I’m like, “Whoa.” I don’t have a particular record, really, that does it for me. But one song that does it for me is a song called ‘She Needs Me’ by the Grains of Sand. The song is amazing, but the thing that stuck out to me is the tone – how sharp the guitars are, sharp and kind of treble-y. Just the right amount of reverb.
The sound of some of those songs influenced me recording-wise. Just trying to get that down a little bit and to get it sounding similar to that but to put my own stamp on it as well.
That comes across – that maybe there are more influences behind this record. Was there anything you were listening to that had a particularly strong influence on this record?
Not anything in particular, but it’s a combo of being out on the road and touring with different bands for a year and a half. So I like to think I picked up a bit hearing Japandroids’ set every night for a month, and same goes for the Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Toro Y Moi. It wasn’t really conscious. It wasn’t like, “I really like this record, so I’m going to make something that sounds like this.” It was more about picking up little bits and pieces and trying to filter it through my lens, and seeing what happens.
The other thing is that with this record, I really, like, focused on making all the songs a little different from each other … In terms of song structure and melodies, I tried to branch out and make the songs sound different, so that people wouldn’t get bored over the course of listening to the record.
There are a couple songs on the record, like ‘Fine Lies’ or ‘Crawling After You,’ that suggest a frustrated or depressed tone, whereas the tone on the first record was a little more happy-go-lucky.
Yeah. I mean, the first record had some depressing stuff, lyrically, but the first record is more of a party record … It’s just one of those things, you get older. Writing became a form of therapy for me. The subject matter on this record is a little darker. But I didn’t want it to sound like that from the songs. I didn’t want to write a cry-yourself-to-sleep singer-songwriter record. I feel like the songs and the music can sound happy, but you can be talking about some super dark s—.
Was there anything that happened to you in the last couple of years that really affected your songwriting?
Not really, just being gone for a really long time and forfeiting any kind of a normal life. When you’re away from home for nine months of the year, you know, you don’t really see your friends at home. And you make new friends, but you don’t really see them much. And I’ve had a girlfriend for awhile, and we did the long-distance thing. You know, we broke up and got back together twice. And a lot of stuff like that.
The other thing is that when you’re gone on tour, it’s really boring and really lonely at times. And I’ve always had a tendency to get into my head too much. So yeah, stuff like that. When I sat down to write stuff, I’m just sort of reflecting on all that stuff. And I’d been working on stuff the whole time. I really didn’t realize how f—ed up my last few years were until I listened to all my lyrics from song to song.
Was there a particular song that stuck out when you did that?
It’s just pieces of certain things. You know, some stuff in my lyrics only makes sense to me. I know exactly what I’m talking about. I know people can apply it to whatever is going on with them, but there are a few lines in there that people will never know what I mean.
We won’t ask you to explain what every line in your songs mean, but there are a couple in the single ‘Shattered Me’ betray real emotion, if you don’t know what they’re about.
Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons that before the album came out, I posted all the lyrics. You know, in the past, I’ve always been real shy about sharing the lyrics, and not very comfortable with people knowing exactly what I was saying. But more and more I was going on the Internet and reading lyrics people posted that were completely wrong. And after a while, I was just like, “Well, I’ll post mine so people know what I’m saying and not be getting bullshit.”
Yeah, yeah, and I’m all about the Kurt Cobain way of writing lyrics: keep it obscure. Not every song has to be, like, straightforward, where you know exactly what they’re talking about. There’s a lot of my favorite songs where I never even know the lyrics until four or five years after they come out. In my opinion, it’s more fun to be able to mouth the words or whatever, but to sing along, you have to know the words.
Sometimes a good melody totally stops you from thinking about the words.
Yeah. And I don’t think everything needs to be cut and dried, lyrically. I don’t have to have a thesis statement and a conclusion and all that s—. I feel like I can say what I want, and when I do that, I try to make it so people can draw their own conclusions from what I’m saying and get something out of it. I try to balance between writing for me, personally, and writing stuff that’s, like, universal enough that everybody who listens to it can take something away from it.
Outside of Kurt Cobain, are there other songwriters who lyrics you read or pay attention to?
Well, I don’t even really read Nirvana lyrics, I just know what they are because I’ve been listening them for so long. Not really, honestly. I don’t get into lyrics that much. I’m, like, a music-first type of dude. But I really love old ’70s country lyrics, like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. I like story type of stuff, because that’s really hard to do. You listen to them, and they’re telling stories with every song. And I don’t do any of that. I like it because it seems so hard for me. So, I mean, I love listening to old Waylon Jennings songs and really taking something from the lyrics.
Was the recording process for this record different from the last?
The only thing that was different was that it was rushed. On the first one, you know, people knew our band, and we’d toured, but there wasn’t any pressure or anything. It took a lot of time to get recorded because I took my time and would just bang something out when I felt like it. And after a year or so, I just looked up and thought, “Well, s—, I’ve got a record now.”
This one was done within a month and a half, writing, recording and everything. But much like the last one, it was just me by myself. I’d had some stuff that I’d done during breaks, so it wasn’t like I was starting entirely from scratch, but four or five songs I had to come back; I had bits and pieces, so I had to record them again. But really it was just the amount of time.
That’s how it rolls – you put out your first record, and if it goes well you do a year and a half of touring, and then for your second one, you have a certain deadline, and you can’t really go under the radar for three years. Maybe some people can, but I don’t want to be like that. If I’m not out touring, I want to be at home working on music. The deadline was good. It made me work on stuff and not sit around at home and wait for things to magically be good.
When you aren’t writing and recording, are you usually in Oxford?
Yeah, I’m in Oxford or Los Angeles. My girlfriend lives in Los Angeles.
Oxford has a great vibe. People who aren’t from the South probably don’t expect it to be as great as it is.
Yeah, in my opinion it’s one of the last great small towns in the US. It’s got Ole Miss, too, so it’s got lots of college stuff. During the year, that’s what makes the economy go round here, and there’s a lot of people around, so it feels bigger than it is in the fall and in the spring.
But in the summer, there aren’t as many people in town, but there are enough that it’s fun, and there are things going on. The summer’s my favorite part of the year because it’s what Oxford kinda really is. You get the best of both worlds — all the perks that go along with it being a college town, with things going on and people around and stuff to do and you also get the slowed down chill kinda vibe. It’s a great vibe. It’s gonna be hard to leave here if I ever get around to it.
At this stage of the game, most bands would probably pick up and move to New York or L.A. What’s keeping you in Oxford?
Well, my family’s here, and Len [Clark, drummer for Bass Drum of Death] is here, and his family is here. I wouldn’t move for the band, really. I’d move because I felt like I needed something new. But I get to travel enough, and I spend time other places. So, this is a good place for me right now. And it’s cheap enough to live here that I don’t have to freak out about making tons of money on tour just to pay rent in a house that I’m not using.
As much as it sounds like touring wreaks havoc on your life, it’s obviously good for your career. Is there any upside to it, or does it just suck?
I used to really like it. And I still do, at certain points. But recently, I don’t know, it’s like, you’re on tour, and you’re so f—ing tired, and you look up, and there’s still a month until you go home. And you go home for two weeks and then there are three more tours. I’ve been thinking a lot, it’s just like, why kill yourself just to play some shows? I’m totally fine with touring at some points, but at the same time I’m trying to shift — I’ve always focused more on touring and kind of just focus more on that than on the records. I’ll spend a certain amount of time making the records, and during that time really focus on making the records.
But then, touring is just more of a marathon that you have to do. So I’m going to try to get it to where it’s an even split between time spent working on the records and time spent touring. Because records are something you can take home with you, something you can have. And the other reason is that if I keep going on for too much longer, it’s just going to run me into the ground, physically and mentally.
Is the girlfriend you have now the same one you had throughout the marathon of touring, or did this mess up that relationship forever?
Ah, no, it’s the same one. We’ve been through a lot but she still puts up with me.
What’s next for the band?
We’re booked touring-wise through the first week of December for this tour, and then we’re going to make another record. And we’re not going to do anything else ’til that record’s in the bag. So that’s what I’m focusing on now – making sure we can make the most of these next three tours that we’re on and trying to get out to as many places in the world as we can in the sixth months, and then sitting down and hammering out another record.
You were talking about country music influences – could you imagine putting a steel guitar on the next Bass Drum of Death album?
Yeah, actually! There are some Stones-y type country songs that I’ve written that I just haven’t gotten around to recording, and they’d definitely be cool to do. And like you said earlier, you thought you could hear more influences than on the first one — I listen to all sorts of s—. As long as I’m going to make stuff, I’m going to make stuff that makes me interested. I can definitely picture a steel guitar, maybe not all over the record, but on at least one song.