Creating original music for over a decade, Bass Drum of Death is the brainchild of Oxford, Mississippi native and multi-instrumentalist John Barrett. The band started as a one-man-band playing guitar and bass drum by himself; a formula incorporated on to the first official release, 2011’s “GB City.” The self-titled 2013 release and 2014’s “Rip This” solidified Bass Drum of Death’s infectious punk-influenced, hard rock sound. The band’s music was featured in national H&M ad campaigns as well as licensed by NASCAR. In 2018, Barrett has been penning the next chapter of the band’s history with Bass Drum of Death’s ambitious new album, “Just Business,” via RED MUSIC on July 27.
In recent years, Barrett traded up the leisurely pace of a musician’s life in the Deep South for the crush-and-grind pace of the New York City. Like The Big Apple itself, “Just Business” is bigger and deeper in scope than anything Bass Drum of Death has done before. Co-produced by Barrett and producers Jason Bell and Jordan Miller (AKA “The Heavy”: Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, The Dirty Heads), “Just Business,” makes sonic moves often light years beyond the blueprint Barrett forged on his debut album, the one-man-honed “GB City,” which garnered instant critical kudos. Recorded over the span of a year in a studio space overlooking the congestion and hustle of Times Square, the album is packed with every bit of the feedback-soaked, garage wallop of past BDoD fare while exploring new territory. From the instantly-catchy guitar riff of opener “Third Coast Dreaming,” a nod to John’s Gulf Coast home, to the bombastic outro of aptly-titled closer “Leaving,” “Just Business” showcases the depth and growth of Barrett’s songwriting.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with John Barrett to discuss the evolution of Bass Drum of Death, the making of “Just Business” and what the future holds for him creatively.
How did music first come into your life and begin to take hold?
My mom, who deserves all the credit for this, made me take cello lessons when I was 4 years old. The method they taught was the Suzuki method, which is learning by ear. I think I only had one or one-and-a-half years but that mindset stuck with me and allowed me to teach myself guitar and drums.
Well, ya know, that’s the thing. I’m terrible at guitar and drums but I’m really good at playing my shit, if ya know what I mean! [laughs] IfI play anybody else’s stuff, it’s like, “What are you doing?” [laughs] So, I wouldn’t say I’m a great musician but I’m a great musician when it comes to my shit!
Who are some influences that impacted you early on?
My top three when I was coming up and getting into my shit, guitar player-wise, was Jack White, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jamie Hince from The Kills, in terms of how they played and what they played. They were always able to make something simple stand out and it was always very syncopated. Those were the influences from a music standpoint. From the other side was Matthew and Bruce from Fat Possum because they took a chance on me! They didn’t have a really great track record of releasing records by bands from Oxford, which is where they are based. They took a chance on me and I’ve always appreciated that. It’s been the thing that allows me to move forward and keep doing it for as long as I’ve been able to.
You’ve been at this for a long time. What are some lessons you learned early on that carried forward?
It took a while to learn this, probably three or four years, but I learned that no one really gives a shit about seven inches. It took a lot of touring in my Corolla before I finally wised up! [laughs] That’s when I finally realized that I needed to make a full-length. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with seven inches. When I started I just wanted to get out of town and play shows. After a while I realized nobody was coming to the shows, so I decided to focus on aspects of recording and putting a record together. It’s been a slow learning process but it’s good! I wouldn’t take any of it back, that’s for sure!
It’s been four years since your last record. Bring us up to speed on what’s been happening in your world.
Yeah! Well, I moved to New York. That’s something I wanted to do ever since I was a kid. Then we switched labels. Both of those things will put a hitch in putting stuff out. It just turns into a long process. I also hit it pretty hard and pretty nonstop for a while, so I wanted to make sure I have some downtime and was able to live a little bit of a normal life. If you don’t allow yourself to do that, you just got writing songs about being in a band on tour! So, I took it easy in building up these songs for the record. I whittled it down from 30 demos. It’s one of the first records I’ve ever done that for. I really try to take my time and get to the stuff that I felt was the most quality. I think it worked out pretty well, but I do know that I don’t want to take this long on the next one.
Was moving to New York an easy transition and how did it impact you creatively?
It was fairly easy just because I had a bunch of friends up here but at the same time, I’d never lived outside of Mississippi. There definitely were and are times where I’m like, “What am I doing here?” [laughs] Every day is an adventure and that’s kind of why I moved here. Creatively, it was super different because my place in Mississippi was a big enough spot where all of my stuff was set up and ready to go at all hours. Here in New York, you have to rent a practice space and get in someone’s Google calendar! Making noise is really hard! [laughs] If you were doing stuff at your house you have to be kind of quiet. It’s really just a different way of working, a lot of the time. At the same time, living in New York has given me a lot to write about and explore. Mississippi is a little slower and sleepier whereas, in New York, any night out could become an inspiration for a song.
Tell us about your headspace when you went into the creative process for “Just Business.” Did you have goals?
Not necessarily, except for the fact that I wanted it to be a fun record for me to listen to. I wanted to showcase some different stuff and sides of me, songwriting-wise, that maybe I hadn’t done yet. I just wanted it to be a versatile record that plays well all the way through. I think that sometimes, in the past, that some of my stuff, especially to people who aren’t familiar, can sound a little samey. I wanted to try to be aware of that and make sure that there was something for everyone. But first and foremost, I wanted to keep myself interested.
I want to focus on your songwriting style. How do you capture your initial ideas? Is it voice notes, journaling, etc. and how do you build out from there?
Man, I have so many voice notes! Have a lot of voice notes and a lot of notes of just lines of this and that, here and there. [laughs] Whatever kind of hits me, I try to put it down in one way or another. Typically, when I sit down to start something it’s just me with the guitar or on the drums. Usually, I feel things out to see if there is something that grabs me melody-wise and feel it out from there and the lyrics come last. It’s almost like building with Legos — you start with one thing and then continue to piece it together to see what works. So, it’s like building a Lego set without any instructions! [laughs]
What were the biggest challenges throughout this process?
I’m pretty DIY, so I’m involved in every single aspect of the process. I’ve learned over the years that if I’m not involved, it ends up being something that I’m not necessarily stoked about. It’s just one of those things where you have to be able to wear a lot of different hats. Some days you don’t want to wear all those hats, in terms of the day-to-day stuff. I think the biggest challenge for me has been keeping up with the stuff that is not playing music. It’s hard to manage those aspects and be creative at the same time. It’s hard to find a balance. If you sit there and email back and forth about something for a while, it’s a lot harder to get stoked about going and writing a song. If you’re talking about it all day, it loses a little something in the process. So, it’s been hard to find that balance, do both and make sure everything gets taken care of.
You worked with The Heavy on this album. How did you cross paths and what did they bring to the table?
I demoed a few songs with a few different producers. I liked them immediately because we met up at my favorite bar and talked about music and took tequila shots! [laughs] We just kinda got drunk and I said, “Oh man! I like these guys! This is gonna work!” [laughs] I went in for the first session with them and brought in a rough idea of what I wanted to do. We ended up co-writing “Too High.” That went so well, that I said, “Yeah, we have to do this whole thing!” They were incredible to work with because they are equally adept at engineering, songwriting and arranging. Aside from drums on “Too High,” I played everything else on the record. One of them will be engineering and the other one would be helping me songwrite, arrange or get tones. Whenever one of them was tired, they would just switch up. That was really, really fun and productive because there was very little time spent in the studio just sitting around. That’s great because that’s the stuff that can be pretty tedious and working with them was never, ever tedious. They are both super creative guys and we got along super well from the jump!
Which songs came easiest and which were harder to mail down?
“Odds Are Good” was a challenge. I think there are eight or nine versions of that song floating around, so that one was a tough one. “Heavy” was tough because we didn’t know whether to expand it or to keep it simple. We opted for simple. It was such a different song from anything I have done in the past, which made it one of those that we worried over for a while. To be honest, everything else on the record was pretty much how I had it on the demos, only spruced up and with more ear candy bits. Like I said, it was a lot of fun and pretty easy, in terms of the execution. The whole process was creative, so during the recording there wasn’t anything that was hard or arduous but getting to that point wasn’t easy.
What’s the biggest lesson you took away from bringing this album to life?
Doing this record with Jason [Bell] and Jordan [Miller], The Heavy, opened me up to working with other people. I had never done that before with my stuff, so that was a big step and it worked out so well. I’m super stoked and I hope to do it more in the future. Honestly, I’m kind of kicking myself for not having done it sooner. I think I’ve done it enough myself at this point. I’m still going to continue to do it myself but I’m also going to try to bring other people in to spice things up in that way. That really keeps it fun for me.
While“Just Business” is new to listeners, you wrapped this album late last year. Where are you headed?
Yeah, it was definitely a long process getting to this point. I have a bunch of stuff written already and I definitely have a vibe I want to go with. It’s just one of those things; I’ve been so busy focusing on getting this thing out that I haven’t had the chance to do proper demos. I’m hoping that pretty soon I’ll be able to get in and begin to explore. Like I said, I already have a few good ones knocking about that I’m really excited about, so I want to get working on that as soon as possible.
You can hear creative growth over the course of your records. How have you evolved as an artist?
I think I’ve evolved in a few ways. In the beginning, I was kinda like “grip it and rip it. Do what sounds good.” Now, I’m more nuanced with the production and songwriting. More than anything, I’m just trying to not write the same song over and over. I really try to push myself and become more comfortable with stuff like falsetto on songs like “Heavy.” I’ve tried to implement a couple of new tricks because it’s very easy to get stuck in a certain mode of what people think you should be. I always want to surprise people little bit.
This album is full of surprises. I think your voice is one of those surprises.
Oh, thank you! That was another thing I wanted to do with this record. I wanted to strip down some of the effects. It took me three records to get comfortable with my voice, so it’s nice to hear kind words like that! It definitely wasn’t easy but I’m super proud of it! I really appreciate it, man!
What’s the best way to support you?
Honestly, just listen to the album as much as possible and come to shows. I’m pretty simple! [laughs] We got three T-shirts, a record and the CDs, so that’s the best way to do it! That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to the most. After taking this break and spending so much time on the record, I’ve gotten out of the live aspect of it. We’ve been rehearsing all week and I’m super excited to get back out on the road and start doing that again! I’m excited to be adding a different element to this record that I haven’t really experienced yet! I think we’ll be out on tour all of September and October.
That’s awesome! I can’t wait to see you live. Thanks again for your time today and I’m sure we’ll cross paths again soon!
“Just Business” will be released worldwide on July 27th via RED MUSIC – Get it here and crank it!