in conversation // Charlie Barnes

Interviews We speak with Charlie Barnes ahead of his Hot Numbers gig on October 23rd

Talented singer & multi-instrumentalist Charlie Barnes released his debut album ‘More Stately Mansions’ earlier this year, with The Independent UK calling it “soulful lonesome melancholic singing with grandiose alternative rock bombast”. Charlie was also recently announced as a touring member of English indie-pop band Bastille, and was seen on festival stages throughout Summer including Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds, Rock Am Ring & many more.

Disorientating and captivating in equal measure during early appearances in Student Union bars and basement venues either side of the Pennines, as well as at European festivals Melt and Reeperbahn, the Leeds-based artist’s early performances took on the guise of a man vs. machine solo rock opera. Songs were constructed on stage as he writhed about on his stool like Silver Apples on uppers – the transmissions from his web of loop pedals, keyboards, pads and samplers seemingly coursing through his body’s contortions. More Stately Mansions hasn’t changed the process much, it’s just that – as he puts it – “the extra pairs of hands aren’t channels on a loopstation or sample libraries anymore, they’re owned by other people with their own ideas.”

Mostly recorded at Chapel Studios in Lincolnshire, with vocals put down in an isolated cottage in the middle of Wales, More Stately Mansions deals with unashamedly bold brush strokes. Songs like ‘Sing To God’s’ gossamer strings strike delicately amidst rumbling percussion and several moments of histrionic guitar malevolence that recall those aforementioned teenage influences; the title track’s layered vocals hark back to Queen in their mid-70’s pomp, while ‘Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth’ rises and falls on a series of scything post-hardcore riff acrobatics. All of this is cut through with a climactic vocal that bores out vestiges of Jeff Buckley, or even Freddie Mercury, delivered with an overwhelming sincerity that goads its audience out of apathy and into a reaction, an expressive way of performing that Barnes has embraced since childhood.

With a new single on the way and a UK tour this October, which includes a Cambridge leg at Hot Numbers on October 23rd, we had a chat with Charlie Barnes…

Hey Charlie, how has 2015 been treating you so far?
Prettay, prettay, prettayyyy, prettay good. I’ve ticked a lot of things off the list in my head. A bumper year. A real knockout 8.8 months. I have every assumption that the remaining 3.2 months of 2015 are more than likely to follow suit.

You’re Cambridge bound on a tour in October, how are preparations going for the tour? This summer you’ve played some huge shows with Bastille, how do you handle the change in dynamic in playing on larger scales versus the intimate venues?
I’m really excited to be playing in Cambridge this time round. I’ve never actually been to Cambridge at all, so if you’ve any tips for a budding tourist that’d be grand. Preparations for the tour are going swimmingly. I’ve been at home getting keyboards and computers and various clever footswitches to talk to each other. I’m playing shows in a completely new way this time round, so I’m really looking forward to that. Extra pressure. Gets me going.

The shows with Bastille this summer have been absolutely mind-blowing. Up until starting with them, my biggest audience ever had been two or three thousand odd (and that was a BIG one-off, we’re normally talking more like 20 or 30 people in a pub somewhere…) and immediately I played to at least 50 or 60 thousand people across my first run of dates with them (that’s probably a modest estimation and all). Uncharted territory. I did have a festival appearance with my band this summer in Manchester between Bastille duties, and I absolutely loved the shift in dynamic. Back to the half empty pub, lugging gear up two flights of stairs, dressing room shared with eight other bands and the furniture that occupies the gig room by day, struggling to find parking that doesn’t cost a small fortune because you’re already over your budget just by getting in the van. I loved it. The phrase I keep coming back to is that I’m having my cake and eating it. In a way, still having the experience of toiling around in dives and struggling to make ends meet with my own project makes me all the more appreciative of everything that comes with my….’job’….I absolutely do not take anything for granted. This might be the only time in my life I get to experience the high-end touring world, and I don’t want to waste it.

The album came out earlier this year, how did you find its reception?
I’ve been really pleased with the reaction. To tell the truth, the album was in its ‘rough mix’ stage for about 18 months, so I’d already had a lot of reactions from close friends and fellow musicians a long time before it actually came out. A lot of the guys I really looked up to as a teenager have had some of the most amazing things to say about the record, which means a hell of a lot. Friends who’ve been really closely linked with my music over the years, and family members who know how important all of this stuff is to me; they all really ‘got’ it, I think. There have been some great press reactions too, and a lot of really lovely compliments coming through on all of the social media sites etc.

One of the parts of the record we like is how emotional it is, how much of you and your experiences went into the songs?
For the most part, the album is proper ‘heart on sleeve’ stuff. There are a couple of moments on there that aren’t particularly autobiographical, but the rest of it is all me. Cliché as it may be, songwriting has been an escape for me ever since I was a teenager. Actually, maybe it’s less of an escape and more like catharsis; it’s somewhere that I can let everything out. I’ve always been the sort of person to throw myself headfirst into whatever it is I’m feeling, often to great embarrassment or glaring error. I don’t really see much wrong with that though. For me, emotions are there to be experienced with intensity. I’m very sentimental and emotionally driven, so it’s always going to end up in my music.

What comes first for you, the lyrics or the music?
Music. Usually by a long, long way. I find writing lyrics a fairly massive struggle, probably because I place a lot of emphasis on the lyrics, so they’re the part of writing I’m the most scared about getting wrong. I’ve got a long list of essentially finished songs – chords, structure, melodies etc., all waiting for lyrics. They’ll come. I don’t like to rush it.

What was the hardest track on the album to finish and why?
Oooooooh. Good question. I found the vocals fairly nightmarish on a lot of the songs; again, the vocal performance is something I put a lot of pressure onto, and some of the songs (Ghosts and More Stately in particular) have some pretty histrionic warbling going on in there. Recording those wasn’t helped by the fact that I hadn’t actually tried to sing those songs properly before we recorded them, I’d only done scratch vocals. Probably won’t make that mistake again.

The hardest song though was definitely ‘Hammers’. Going into the studio we hadn’t actually made a proper arrangement for it, and I had it pegged as a throwaway b-side because I wasn’t happy with the lyrics. I stipulated in our plan that we were allowed 5 improvised takes on it and then we’d move onto something else, and hopefully I’d manage to cobble something together from it afterwards. Thankfully, the band and Steve, our producer, were having absolutely none of that. We spent most of one of the days in the studio re-writing the song’s arrangement (breaking budget album recording golden rule number one), and I’m so thankful that we did. Steve helped us come up with loads of cool little riffs to throw in under the vocals at the end, which heaped the pressure onto me to get the lyrics done. I finally got them together (with almost nothing from the original left in tact!) the day we recorded the vocals, and I think they’re amongst the best on the album.

Have you started to think about new material/next release? What did you learn from ‘More Stately Mansions’ that you’ll take into new material?
I certainly have. Given that we were sat on More Stately Mansions for such a long time, I ended up writing pretty much another album’s worth of material before I’d even signed with Superball. I was in a bit of a funny place in my head – I’d spent all of my time, and all of my money, making this record, and nothing was happening. Even though I knew that rationally this bore no resemblance to the truth, I felt like the album had been a failure. I also already knew what I wanted to do differently – although I’ve been taking a lot of pride in how much territory the album covers in terms of genre, it actually caused us quite a lot of grief when it came to deciding the final tracklisting. Getting a flow going on an album where you’ve got two piano ballads sandwiching a load of post-hardcore riffs and screaming is…well…challenging. So expect the next release to be a little more streamlined. And quite a bit more morbid…

Tell us the story behind the term ‘big morbid death pop’?
It’s been essentially a running joke for quite a few years. I used to call my music ‘big morbid pop’ and my drummer Ste suggested the ‘death pop’ addition. It just has a bit of a funny ring to it. I didn’t actually realise that it was going to turn up on all of the stickers and flyers etc for the album until they got delivered to me, so that was a funny surprise. I think it’ll stick. I like it.

Could you ever swap genres?
To be honest I think I already do too much genre-hopping…! I’ll probably always be like that though. I enjoy making different kinds of music, I’ve got a lot of different ways that I can play, and a lot of different things that I can do, so why not try and use them all? I really look up to people like Tom Waits, Paul Mullen, Ed Harcourt, Mike Patton; the sorts of musicians who can jump from one project or vibe to another. It’s something I definitely aim to do with my career. It’s a good way of not getting stuck.

How do you find playing in a band versus doing your own solo shows?
I love them both equally. I’ve had some wonderful times galavanting around the continent on my own playing in tiny cafés and stuff. I don’t really ever want to stop doing that, it’s too much fun. And unbelievably easy to organise and all…having said that, it’s no replacement for the energy of playing with the other guys. With my job keeping me as occupied as it does, it’s a bit tough to get the time to do things as a band, but essentially it’s a case of doing it when we can. The next record will still be a band record, and we’re still setting ourselves the rule that we HAVE to play at least a handful of decent shows each year. It’s a good rule to have.

If you weren’t Charlie Barnes, why would you like listening to Charlie Barnes’ music?
’cause it was produced by the chap from Oceansize…

What’s a lyric you’ll never get enough of?
‘Ages come and go’ from the song ‘Long Forgotten’ by Oceansize. At least, I hope I’ll never get enough of it, as it’s tattooed on my arm…

Which band/act should we be excited about?
I’ve turned into something of an Emma Ruth Rundle fanboy of late. I found out about her through the ArcTanGent lineup this year (unfortunately I wasn’t able to go myself), but then realised I’d been listening to her other band Red Sparrowes for years. I’ve fallen absolutely head over heels in love with her album from last year, and subsequently with her other band Marriages. She’s wicked. Everyone I’ve shown her album to has uniformly adored it.

Hypothetically you’re going to DJ a disco for us, what is your go to dancefloor filler track?
Only hypothetically? Shame. I’d have been well up for that.
At some point this summer, somewhere in Finland, I had the inimitable joy of joining one of my esteemed colleagues for a rousing karaoke performance of Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’. Needless to say, the place erupted. It was the only place to be in Eastern Finland that night. The great thing about that song is you can basically do whatever you want with it. It’s got a groove that welcomes equally the calm, bobbing head of a too-cool cat (the colleague), and the caffeine-fuelled over-excited fish out of water (me). And obviously, when it gets to the ‘THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL WIFE’ line, you can have a lot of fun with that.
That or Limp Bizkit anyway…

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