DS Interview: Rick Barton opens up on writing new Continental music, early Dropkick Murphys days, and being the best man he can be

Rick Barton is always searching.

The longtime veteran of the Boston punk rock scene finds himself on the perpetual quest to be the best man that he could be. To be brutally honest, this quest has come with its fair share of trials and tribulations. As Barton sings on “Busted,” which appears on his band Continental‘s upcoming album Millionaires,  he may have “been dumb more times than (he has) been smart.” And yet, with age of course comes wisdom. The original Dropkick Murphys‘ guitarist has taken his lumps over the years, but seems to continue to learn from his mistakes from an unlikely source: Facebook?

Boston-area music fans may know of the maelstrom that Barton created in a serious of rather opinionated posts on the social networking site last Spring (the details of which will not be discussed here…ask around). “Anybody can do whatever the hell they want,” Barton recounts. “That’s the one thing I learned about my debacle on Facebook; anyone can do whatever they want, I don’t even care. I just know that I have to do what I have to do for myself.”

And that’s what Barton continues to do. Dying Scene caught up with Barton a few times over the last week or so to discuss Continental’s upcoming album, to get a little bit into his history as a songwriter, particularly with Continental and Dropkick Murphys, and to discuss his goals for his current project (which, as you should know, features his son Stephen on bass). The result, as to be expected, was as straight-forward, honest and compelling as you’d expect. Barton continues to wear his heart on his sleeve, which we generally celebrate as a scene. Unless, of course, that heart makes us uncomfortable, which is on us, not on him. Check out our conversation below!

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So Millionaires officially hits the streets in October (editor’s note: official date is October 14th via East Grand Record Company). You must be excited to finally get it out there. I know this has been such a work in progress for a long time.

Rick Barton (Continental): Um…yeah, I guess. We’re kinda preparing for the tour now. I haven’t really listened to the album, so I don’t know if I’m excited. I’ve been checking out a lot of reviews; we’ve been getting a lot of reviews from over in Europe. They’re really good! (*laughs*) I can’t understand any of the language; all I can understand is Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and then, for some reason, the European press always pits us against Flogging Molly. I don’t know why they do that.

Really?

Yeah! I don’t know why they do that. Like, one review said “even more danceable than Flogging Molly.” And I’m like…that’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever read, because number one, I don’t think we’re very danceable and secondly, I never knew that we were even close to Flogging Molly in style or anything like that. So that’s really weird…several of the reviews mention Flogging Molly.

How long has the album been done for? Have you just not listened to it because it’s been done for so long and you’re on to other things?

Yeah, exactly. We finished in March. You know, it always takes at least six months to come out, we had to raise up all the funds to put it out. This one is 100% self-financed by you know who. I put all my sweat equity into it, which I love to do anyway. Where else am I going to put my money? I don’t have much, so I just put it into music. I’ve always done that my entire life. Whenever I have a little extra it always goes into music recording or whatever.

So all that money you save from painting houses goes into the next album.

Yeah…every dime I make aside from the basic costs of living. I always have put that money right back in…in fact, our van just broke down yesterday, Stephen (Barton, Rick’s son and Continental’s bass player) just told me.

Oh no.

Yeah, and tour starts in about a month when we have to head out west. But we’ll get it fixed.

I feel like that’s always the way it is, the van always breaks down a week before tour or a month before a tour…

I was going to take it in and have everything checked out because it’s an old van, it’s got over 200,000 miles on it, it’s pulled us to a lot of paint gigs and a lot of tours. I was just about ready to have it serviced, put some new tires on it and all of that and then Stephen said last night the whole thing overheated and just completely shut down. I think it’s a radiator issue, I don’t know.  We’re getting it towed in to my garage tomorrow so we’ll find out.

Good luck with that. Although I guess better for it to do that now a month before a tour than when you’re out trekking through Wyoming or something.

Oh yeah, absolutely. Stephen would have been pissed, because he’s been trying to get me to rent a van, like a really nice van, and I’m like, “Dude, we don’t have any more money, we can’t rent a really nice van. We’re gonna take the old War Horse out there again!” (*both laugh*)

The lineup for the band has been a little bit retooled over the last couple years, I think certainly at least since the last time we talked on the record for Dying Scene. Is the lineup that made the album the lineup that’s going out on tour?

Nope! I can tell you all about that. On our last tour, we actually had our original band do the tour. This kid Kyle was on drums and Zach was on guitar. They were like the original band; we never even put anything out with those guys, but those are the two kids that we started the band with. Basically, we have a revolving door or drummers and guitar players. I decided early on that that’s the way I wanted it. Because I’ve been around so many bands and I’ve seen so much trouble…bands are just trouble, and I didn’t want the burden or the responsibility of having to carry a band and the trouble goes with it.

Because just say you start making money, and they don’t understand that I’ve already spent, like $50,000 to get this thing up and running. I didn’t want to explain things to everybody. I wanted to take on new people. And plus, it’s musically exciting. Our main guitarist, Dave DePrest, has come and gone three times. They come back, then they go to school, then they go do something else, and then they yearn for the music one more time so they call us up and say “hey, you got any tours coming up?” And we’ll say “yeah, come on out.” Stephen didn’t buy into it at first because he wanted that band thing which I don’t blame him. When you’re younger, that’s the whole thing. But I also don’t like that insular band mentality of the band thinking that they’re, like, better than other bands or better than the people in the town. You know…I’m not going to mention names or anything, but bands just sometimes think they’re “better than,” you know?

I think “insular” is the perfect word for that.

Oh yeah. And I don’t want any part of that. When I come in to a town, I want to meet everyone, I want to talk to everyone, I want to know everyone. I don’t want to come in and have our band be exclusionary or to think we’re better than or any of that crap. I’ve been through that, and it creates a real disconnect in a way. It’s just something that I’m not into. So this way we’re just a bunch of guys getting together and having fun. That’s what I told Stephen: “take your friends, call up a couple guys and see if they want to go do a tour.” And they’ll come down and they’re usually like incredible musicians and BOOM, we go out and have some fun. That’s the way I’ve chosen to do it now. It’s not a life or death situation; we’re going to go play some songs and try to have some fun. I think that’s the best approach.

And all of those guys that you enlist for tours seem to be pretty cool with doing it that way, huh? I would imagine that might be a tough sell for some people because they, like Stephen, would want to do the “band thing.” But it seems like you attract the right sort of guys for the project.

Yeah! I mean Zach, our original guitarist, is going to be doing this tour, he did the last tour too. And we don’t even have the drummer yet! (*both laugh*)

Really?!?

Yeah, I’m auditioning another kid tomorrow. We’ve got two possibilities. They’re both like incredible drummers. One of the kids is only twenty years old, and I met up with his father here in Portland, and he was telling me how much his kid loves the music and he loves the Millionaires album. And the kid came down to the room and he was so good, I was blown away by how good he was. But then, when he started talking about the album with me and certain lyrics and certain lines; he said “this is like a concept album, Rick!” He knew exactly where I was coming from, and he’s only twenty years old. I was like, “Wow, this is unbelievable.” He really energized the room.

I don’t really like practicing anymore; that’s not to say that I’m too good to practice, it’s just that it’s boring for me. I basically keep myself in really good shape and I do my vocal exercises and I pick up my acoustic guitar and I play on my own every day. Then when we’re getting ready for the tour, I’ll make the band practice like three or four hours a night for five days before the tour to kinda get my wind and be prepared for the road and all that.  But when this particular kid came down, he brought an energy to the room that I haven’t felt in a long time. He knew the record inside and out on the drums, but he also knew it like I just described him, the lyrics and the story and all that. But the business of music is so brutal and tough, I suppose it’s good for bands that are really super successful, but for the bands that build up a small fanbase, you’ve got to take every little bit of joy that you can and treasure that. I’m speaking as a 53-year-old man. I don’t take things for granted at all in my life. But when it comes to music, if I can get any pleasure out of it at all, it’s an incredible moment.

And you need that; the vast majority of the people aren’t doing it for the paycheck anymore, so you have to get some enjoyment out of it. Otherwise, why would you do it, right?

Yeah, well…for me, it’s more than that. I do it because I’m not necessarily addicted to the lifestyle but I’m kind of addicted to the commitment that I made to myself to see my songs and my music all the way through to the end, whatever that end may be. I want to put out as many records as I can and totally go for it. Because as you know, I’ve quit a few bands

(*laughs*) I’ve heard that…

…and at the time when I quit these bands, I quit for good reasons and I don’t have any regrets about ending a band or quitting a band, because I know that I had to do that to move on in my life. But this particular project, I really wanted to give it everything I had, almost like one last time, then I’ll go to the front porch and just strum along with my lemonade and enjoy it that way (*laughs*)

Yeah, but this seems like the sort of a project that…I think that maybe some other projects have had a bit of a shorter realistic shelf life, but it feels like the Continental  project is one that you could keep going perpetually. I talked to Jason Cruz from the band Strung Out about his side project that he does that’s way, way more mellow than Strung Out. And he talked about how Strung Out has been a band for twenty-five years and that’s awesome, but there’s going to come a time where either he doesn’t want to do it anymore, or that it seems weird to do it anymore. But this other band he’s got is more mellow and he can picture doing it as an old guy. So I feel, and maybe I’m reading too far into it, but Continental seems like it’s that sort of a project; you could keep going.

Yeah…that’s exactly right. It’s not even so much the actual physicality of playing hard punk rock or hardcore music, it’s almost like the look of it; I think if the Ramones were all still alive, they could look good doing it for a long, long time. But some of those guys just don’t look good with the guitar slung down low and trying to “look” like punk rockers. Even though they may be way better now musically and way more proficient on their instruments, there’s just something that looks weird about it. And then they have to sing songs that were written when they were twenty. And the scene isn’t quite there. I wouldn’t want to sing a song that I wrote when I was twenty years old. That would seem weird to me…oh, here I go again with my thing about the old bands coming back (*both laugh*). Some of them are doing it for the paycheck, but whatever. Anybody can do whatever the hell they want. That’s the one thing I learned about my debacle on Facebook (*both laugh*); anyone can do whatever they want, I don’t even care. I just know that I have to do what I have to do for myself.

Well, right. There’s a few lines on the album that I thought sort of curious at least to hear after the whole sorta social media explosion of a couple of months ago. It seems that the lyrics that you picked for Millionaires seem a little bit more introspective than maybe the stuff on “All A Man Can Do.” And maybe that’s reading too much into it, but I feel like songs like “She’s Gone,” “1000 Miles,” “Free,” I feel like those are songs where you really sorta turned the mirror inward more than usual. There’s something about those songs in particular that seem like maybe you’re trying to exorcise a few demons in there.  Is that accurate, or is that journalism psychoanalysis?

Um…it’s probably accurate, except that, and I’ve told this story so many times, the lyrics come flowing out of me, I don’t give them that much thought. So it’s kind of about what I’m feeling at the time the song comes out of me, I think. I very rarely go back and change any words or any lines. In fact, when I’ve done that, I always find that the original was better or at least that I think it sounds better. But I don’t know…I am mostly in a constant struggle and search for my purpose in life. I don’t even think that’s just as a songwriter

…just as a person…

…yeah, the struggle and search is to find my identity as a person, first and foremost. I think that the whole songwriting thing and “the guy in the band” is just something that I’m growing in to. I don’t think that was my calling. There are certain people on this planet, for instance Frank Black or Paul Westerberg or Bob Dylan that were probably put on this planet for one reason only. I really consider myself a B-level songwriter, but that’s really good. I consider myself a really good songwriter, so I get satisfaction out of that. When I write a song, I get chills up and down my spine. When I write a chorus that I really love and write the songs…or make them up, really. “Writing songs” makes it sounds like I’m classically trained. When I “make stuff up,” the singer in my head is always either Paul Westerberg or Evan Dando. That’s who sings my songs in my head when I’m writing them. And man, are they beautiful when Westerberg or Evan Dando is singing my songs in my head! It makes for the most beautiful song that I’ve ever heard. And then I listen back on my iPhone and I realize that no, it’s me again, but that’s okay too! (*both laugh*) So, in a way, what I’ve become is a man in search of his soul and his identity, which I may never find, but taking the next best thing. Like, okay, I write these songs, and that’s good enough for now, I’ll roll with that and be that guy, that’s cool. I don’t have an issue with that. It’s kind of a good fallback! (*laughs*). So I’ll always be searching. I do a lot of personal work on myself, I’m constantly trying to better myself as a man.

Did you write at all with Stephen on this album or is it still just you?

Always me. I can’t…really, the last guys that I wrote with…even in Everybody Out was all me. Mike (McColgan) and Kenny (Casey) were pretty much the only two guys that I’ve ever written songs with. And at one point, I mentioned to Ken fairly recently that we’d have to make an album together and he kinda said “we could.” He might have just been joking around, but I think him and I came up with some really good stuff. I wouldn’t mind trying that again, but that would be completely up to him. But I’d give it a shot because when Mike and I got back together (for FM359) it worked out pretty good! So maybe Kenny and I would have the magic touch! And he can keep all the money, ‘cuz I’m not good with money. (*both laugh*)

I feel like he’s got enough to go around

Well, he’s like Mick Jagger. There are certain guys in music that understand the business of making money, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, you know? They just know how to do it. They understand it. Kenny’s one of those guys, and I was just never one of those guys.

I wonder if that maybe came from starting later for him. Because Dropkick Murphys didn’t really start until Kenny was (in his) late 20s or 30 or something like that, right?

Yeah…27 or 28 when he started that thing up. Him and Mike were both around that age. Yeah, maybe that’s it?

Yeah, I wonder if that just comes from being a little bit more experienced, not so much in the ways of music but in the ways of living and surviving up until that point rather than being 17, 18, 19 and starting a band. I don’t know…I never thought about it until literally right now.

Ha! Yeah, that is part of it, but he also had the business acumen. He was on the ball. I remember one of our first gigs at The Rat (in Boston’s Kenmore Square), we sold like $800 worth of merchandise. I was like, “you gotta be kidding me! This is one of our first shows!”  When I was in The Outlets, we never sold a t-shirt! (*both laugh*) We were just partied and had fun and got fucked up and got chicks! Up until that day at The Rat playing with Kenny and the Dropkick Murphys, I thought that that’s what you played music for. I had no clue that about this manufacturing t-shirts and making money thing. I was like “oh my god, that’s unbelievable!” (*both laugh*) He just had that thing. Obviously guys like Brett Gurewitz had it, Fat Mike probably had it. (Those guys) just knew the business of music. I’m just not one of those guys! (*both laugh*)

(Editor’s Note: At this point in the conversation, we get interrupted by a rough-around-the-edges gentleman kindly asking Rick to call him an ambulance. Apparently the gentleman, who was a regular with the local paramedics, was as alright as he’s gonna be in the end. Anyway, we reconvened a few afternoons later.)

PART TWO

Getting back to the songwriting part again, I wonder if you’ve thought about bringing Stephen into the mix, or is songwriting that something that you just have to do to work through whatever you’re going through?

Well…that’s an interesting question. He’s never approached me. He’s never even suggested it. I mean, once in a while when we’re in the room he’ll say “I think you should go to that E chord instead of the G” or something like that. But he’s never…I think there’s an entirely different mentality to a band writing the music or a single guy writing the music. I think it becomes completely different. You know, they say that Lennon and McCartney never wrote a single song together.

I’ve heard that, yeah.

Every one that Paul sings are his songs and every one that John sings are his songs. So I don’t know. I don’t think Stephen and I would ever write a song together. I think that he might start writing songs eventually when he has a little more life experience and those (songs) will be included. But I can’t…I have a hard time doing it with someone else, now especially.

Is that a performance thing? Like if he were to write a song and it was really, really good, would you want him to sing it? Would you not feel comfortable singing something that somebody else wrote.

I can’t sing other peoples’ songs. I never do cover songs. I feel so awkward even trying to sing another person’s song. I just…any cover song I ‘d want to do would be by a master. You know what I mean? One of the greats. Trying to sing their songs seems so strange to me. I don’t know how people do it. I mean, I understand people that have really killer natural voices. But you ever go into a coffee shop and you hear someone do a Bob Dylan cover and they always sound terrible!

Absolutely.

I mean except, I suppose, The Byrds did “Mr. Tamourbine Man” really well. Hendrix did “All Along The Watchtower” really well, but he took that to another place. But contemporary artists of today, you hear it and it’s like “oh my god, they just ruined that song, even though their good at what they do.” That’s just one of my things. And I suppose live there are some bands that could do a real rocking Bob Dylan song, but when you hear it recorded (in a studio) it’s just not the same.

Well, and like you said, roughly a hundred times out of a hundred that you hear it at a coffee shop it’s awful too! (*both laugh*)

But I’d give Stephen, maybe if he wanted to do it, I’d say “hey, write two songs and sing ‘em yourself.” That would be something that would actually be interesting, thanks for the suggestion! (*both laugh*)

What do you think his stuff would sound like? If he were bringing his own unique influences to Continental’s sound, what do you think would change?

I have no idea what he’d come up with! I have no idea if he’d write something like me, or like Tom Petty, I don’t know where he’d be.

Getting back to the cover thing briefly…is it still the case that you wouldn’t want to try to a song even if there was a song that from the first time you heard it, you said “damn, I wish I had written that!”

It’s not the content and it’s not the song, it’s the singing style.

Ah, okay

It’s like, how would I sound? I ‘d feel awkward, I wouldn’t know how to sing it, because I’d be trying sing it and sound like the guy who wrote it. So I’ve never done it. I’ve never picked up a guitar and played another person’s song and sang the song. Ever. In my entire life.

Even if you’re just around a campfire or whatever?

Never. I’ve never done it.

Really? Wow!

It’s one of those things that I’d be afraid to do, especially in front of people, since I’ve never even done it on my own. In fact, I remember this. A long time ago when Stephen was little, he said he wanted to play guitar when he was a little kid, and I said “you should never play, like, a Green Day song,” because he loved Green Day, of course. I used to love Green Day too. I said never learn a cover song. Try to only play what you come up with. Of course, he totally rejected me! (both laugh) But I thought it would have been a really interesting experiment to see what a person would do without ever (learning someone else’s songs). Like, with my generation it was “Smoke On The Water.” Everybody knew “Smoke On The Water.” I’m probably the closes person that plays at the level I play at that doesn’t know cover songs. I just don’t know them, and I’m probably one of the only people. But Stephen rejected me and he learned all the Green Day songs and all of that.


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