Rick Barton talks Boston punk scene, painting Frank Black’s house and more

“Any kind of underground original music, no matter what it is, it’s good if people get into it and follow it. It’s kind of a dying thing, you know what I mean?”

And so began our recent interview with Rick Barton, frontman of the Quincy, MA-based Continental. The band, which also features Barton’s son Stephen on bass, is getting set to hit the road for most of the second half of 2013, while somehow finding time to record a follow-up to their 2012 debut full length, “All A Man Can Do.” Barton, who may be better known from his stint as the original guitarist for the Dropkick Murphys, took some time out of his busy schedule painting houses to talk with us about what it’s like to be in a working band, and to spend six months a year on the road.

Barton was particularly engaging when discussing the concept of being in a band with your own kid. We also discuss what’s happened to the Boston punk scene, what’s happening to the FM359 project (which features Barton teaming up with Street Dogs Mike McColgan and Johnny Rioux), and what it was like to paint Frank Black’s house. It’s a pretty entertaining, enlightening read: check it out here.

Rick Barton: Any kind of underground original music, no matter what it is, it’s good if people get into it and follow it. It’s kind of a dying thing, you know what I mean?

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Absolutely, hence the name of our website, unfortunately.

I know, right? But you never know, there could be a resurgence like there was in the mid-90s…you never know.

Right, and you never know what it’ll actually take to spawn something like that again. I don’t think anyone saw the mid-90s movement coming…

I didn’t! I was shocked! (Both laugh) I was like ‘where’d all these punk rock people come from? I thought that was dead like ten years ago?’ Next thing you know I find myself in one of the premier bands and I’m pulling up to places all over the country and the world and there’s all of these kids with Mohawks. It was really bizarre.

That’s actually one of the things I wanted to talk about, to sort of fast-forward a little bit…maybe this is just seems this way to me because I’m sort of local, but it seems like there’s the old guard in the Boston punk scene seems to be seeing a little bit of a resurgence. The Welch Boys are putting out a new album, the Ducky Boys are always still doing things and I think Mark (Lind) put out, like, seventeen albums in the last year,  Street Dogs are obviously still working, you’ve got Continental going. Is it just me or does it seem like there is a resurgence in that Boston punk old guard if you will?

Partially, but it’s not as concentrated, because you don’t have the all-ages shows, like at The Rat (legendary Boston nightclub located on the spot of what is now a fancy hotel). I think that in order to keep an underground scene going, you need the proper venue where everyone goes. That’s what my son was saying to me, like “what did you guys (Dropkick Murphys) do, did you play a lot of local shows when you started?” And I said “Yeah, there were always these sort of local shows, and they were usually at The Rat downstairs and it was kind of interesting.” Everybody knew that that’s where they were going on a Sunday afternoon. Back in the ’80s they had The Channel, and that supported all ages shows on Sundays too. So, I don’t know, I’m not really into ‘the scene’ anymore. I’m too old to be hanging around with kids. I have to hang around with the kids in my band 180 days a year, so the last thing I want to do is go hang out with a bunch of kids. Is there a certain venue? Is there a place now in Boston?

You know, I don’t know. I think you’re right, it is more fractured now. I know that there’s been people that try to get the basement show or the house show thing going, but I know that Boston Police specifically have really cracked down on that sort of thing. And actually, I’ve got a friend who’s in a band from out in Pennsylvania, and they are trying to book a show in Boston, but it looks like they are going to have to play New Hampshire or somewhere because there’s no place to actually do a basement show. Everyone is so nervous about the cops shutting it down.

Right.

So maybe a little bit, places like O’Brien’s and Great Scott, but you’re right, there is no central movement among at least the new bands. I was sorta thinking about the older bands that are still keeping out there and staying productive or even starting up again..

Yeah, that is going well. And that’s important too. Longevity is good in anything I think. I like to see everybody out there still playing, that’s for sure. Better than guitars collecting dust in someone’s corner when they are really talented, there shouldn’t be too much of that. I come from the first generation, and so many of those guys or girls just feel there’s no place for them to play and now they’re all old. It’s kinda sad sometimes when I think about it.

Do you think it’s harder to make a living now doing it than it was even say, fifteen or eighteen years ago when bands like Dropkick Murphys were starting out?

I think it’s always been incredibly difficult to make a living playing music. If you historically go back through time over the last forty years in Boston, say since Aerosmith started, I think you could count on both hands the number of bands who have actually been able to make a living playing music.

Yeah, I guess that’s true.

In the whole New England area, think of how many bands in those forty years started up. It is a real crapshoot. The chances of making a living playing original music is probably no better than getting a winning Powerball number whenever they have that drawing, you know what I mean? The Bosstones did it, Dropkicks did it, the Lemonheads could have done it if Evan wasn’t so wasted (*both laugh*), and Evan (Dando) comes from money so he doesn’t have to worry about that. The Pixies, but they disintegrated. Charles (aka Frank Black) still does really well on royalties and stuff, and you know I painted his house last summer?

Really?

Yeah, me and my kids out in Northampton. It was incredible.

Whoa, that’s funny.

It was…the very first day he showed up in a pair of white BVDs and a pair of sunglasses and said “whatever you guys need, just let me know.” And my two sons, we absolutely worship Frank Black. More the stuff that he did with Frank Black and the Catholics and a lot of his solo stuff more than the Pixies. I mean, I love the Pixies, they’re a great little band. But he’s one of those guys that I think keeps getting better. A lot of people don’t do that, they do their best stuff when they’re younger. But anyway my kids were frozen.

My youngest son who plays in Continental with me, he couldn’t say more than “hi” to him the whole two or three weeks we were there.  He was just paralyzed with fear. I got to talking to him quite a bit, and I think he’s a genius. My son kept saying “don’t talk to him about music.” And I said “I’m gonna try not to, but I just want to tell him about certain songs and the impact they’ve had.” Finally, on the last day I started talking to him. It’s a funny story, I was up on his porch doing touch-ups on a couple of windows and I saw all the kids, he has like five kids, they were all on the screened-in porch and I was out on the roof. And then I heard “Hey Rick!” And there he was laying down in the screened in porch, and I was talking to him, and I wanted to know about a certain song called “Fitzgerald” on one of his solo albums. He described the whole song and this guy Fitzy that used to go to his father’s bar, because his father used to own a bar in Dedham (Massachusetts). And we talked about a lot of things, we talked about how hard it is to keep a band together. And he said that The Catholics were a horror show personality-wise, just like The Pixies. And he’s probably the common denominator in that horror show…

Well, right…

But, you know, that’s just the way it is. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. When you’re in a touring band, it’s so much different because you have to live with the people and it is brutally difficult to do. But anyway, finally, he kinda knew who he was but he wasn’t quite sure, and I had talked a bit to his wife Violet and I told her about our band and everything. So at the end of the whole conversation he goes, “So, you used to play with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones?” (*both laugh*) And I said, “no, no, the Dropkick Murphys.” And he said “Oh, yeah, sure,  the Dropkick Murphys.” It was funny. You know Joe the Kid (Sirois), the drummer from the Bosstones, did a tour with Frank Black and The Catholics because their drummer couldn’t tour, and he said it was quite an experience. Joe loves the Catholics too. Have you ever gotten into their music?

Not a lot, honestly. Only peripherally, you know, friends that have had them on at times. I’m not all that well-versed in The Catholics specifically.

They did five or six albums that are all recorded live to two-track, and they are just incredible. They are just raw and straight-up rock and roll. A lot of the songs are mind-blowing. If you ever get a chance, just pick up one album. I don’t know how you get your music, but just check out an album and I guarantee you’ll love it. One of the questions I had for him was “How’d you know which was the right take, you know what I mean?” And he said “well, that was part of the problem.” Because I said “it’s all about the vocals, right?” And he said “yeah, it’s all about the vocals. And some of the guys would be ripshit because they didn’t like the parts they had played or didn’t think they’d done a good enough job.”

Anyway…do you have anymore questions, I guess this iced coffee is having its desired effect (*both laugh*)

You guys are, what, ten months removed from All A Man Can Do coming out? Looking back, what were your expectations for it at the time and do you think it did better or worse or just different?

No expectations whatsoever. I don’t look at albums that way. First of all, I don’t even know who bought it. I know we sold a shitload of them on the road. We’re a completely unknown band still, we’re not on a big label. Some friends of ours started up a label with our record. No expectations. We’re still at the point now where people are just starting to recognize our songs. So in a way that first album was just basically to have product. We had put out an EP a couple years ago and that was the same thing. We were getting ready to go on tour with Street Dogs and we just needed product to sell. Now, you don’t really make money off of…people don’t buy music that much, so basically we use the album much like a t-shirt almost on the road. It keeps us in gas money. But I love the album.

As do I!

For me, it’s great, it’s the best I’ve ever sung in my life. I’m 52, so I was 51 at the time, and I’ve never really been a singer anyway. So I’m very happy with the record and I think there’s some good songs on it. We just have to keep moving forward and keep getting the music out there.

Speaking of which, that’s a good segue into that this interview was obviously put together by Felix from Flix Records. Which is sort of weird to have both of us living probably 20 miles apart to go through a guy from Austria to set up an interview…

I know, I thought of that (*both laugh*)

How did that relationship come about and what exactly do you guys have coming out? Or is that still under wraps?

No, we’re just doing a slightly modified European release of All A Man Can Do. It’s gonna have some additional tracks. They took care of the artwork. I think it’s going to be coming out right around July 1st possibly. So we’ll see. We’re heading over; they’ve already booked two months worth of dates for us. From October 8th until right around December 8th we’re going to be hitting it hard in Europe. We’re going to be doing about 20 countries and it’s going to be a phenomenal tour.

That’s great! Good for you guys!

Yeah, we’re lucky, we’re fortunate. And prior to that we’re doing our own headlining tour up and down the East Coast and through the Midwest. And some Canadian dates too. From August 8th until September 20th we’re going to be flat out.

Oh nice. I don’t think we knew that yet, because I wanted to ask about the band’s Summer plans; if you were taking the Summer off to get ready for Europe or if you were plugging away stateside…

No, right now, me and my kids are working painting (houses) to make the money so we can go make music! (*both laugh*) We just decided to book a tour, and the first date is August 8th in, I think, Rochester, New York. The first leg of the tour is a little over three weeks and it ends up in Boston at the Middle East on August 31st. And then the next date after that we head up to Montreal.  The first part of the tour starts in New York and goes all the way down to Atlanta and then it comes back up. Then we start in Canada and through the Midwest and we head back here again. Then a little time off and we head to Europe. And then…wait, what am I saying? When we get back from that tour, we’re recording our next album.

Oh great!

Yeah, we’re just going in to a local studio and banging it out.

Has the songwriting process changed now that you guys have been around for a few years? Because I would imagine, and you can obviously correct me, but I would imagine that All A Man Can Do was primarily you, and maybe stuff you had built up over the years? Was the process different for writing number two, or was there an untapped reservoir of stuff that you had in mind over the years that you’re still drawing from?

Wow, that was a really good question, and you’re spot on with your analysis. Exactly. All A Man Can Do was exactly what you just described. And then the next album, we’ve already been playing about seven or eight of the songs live, so it’s going to be really easy to do. So it’s still pretty much my experience, and I do have a huge reservoir of songs. So what we do is we’ll research some old, unreleased stuff to see if there’s anything we think is fun or that’ll be good to play. Like, my son will say “why don’t we do that song?”

Because from the last ten years I’ve got about 120 songs recorded really good on two-inch tape, like back in the old days. Some good, quality recordings. So then we put our own twist on it; I’ll give the music to the band, and they are all really accomplished, and then they create their own parts and bring a lot of stuff to the song. But I’m always writing. I’ve been down here (in Provincetown) painting and I’ve already written three or four songs in the last week.  I bring the songs in, and if the kids hate the songs then we just move on. If they like it then we explore it and we work it out.

Has the novelty of being in a band with your kid worn off yet? Because that’s obviously not…

A long time ago!

Oh really?

Oh, a long, long time ago! He used to worship me. Then when he saw that I was a regular human being, it just disintegrated. It was awful. We spent about two years just in constant conflict. Battling…battling… I used to fight with Kenny (Casey, Dropkick Murphys) all the time. When there’s powerful personalities, they just clash. Not always, but a lot of times they do. So for me and my son, the thing is that we continued to work through it. We’re at the point where we understand and accept each other, for whatever that’s worth. I think it was an important learning process to come to that kind of an understanding.

Most kids don’t know their fathers that intimately, you know what I mean? I wouldn’t want to know my father that closely! (*both laugh*) It was definitely hard. But now we work together all the time; he’s on his way down here right now.  We’ve just come to a better understanding. But yeah, the novelty wore off a long time ago. In the band context, I kind of don’t even look at him as my son, I look at him as another bandmate. It’s like: “Stevie, you’ve gotta set up the merch.” And then he yells at me, or then we high five each other if it’s a good show. It’s kind of reduced to that. But I’m cool with that. And every once in a while I give him a big hug and tell him I love him.

Because the road…(then we spent a couple minutes talking about that we crossed paths once in like 1996; probably a cooler story for me than for you to read)…Anyway, the dynamic on the road is incredible. On day one, everyone’s in high spirits, and you’re heading out Route 90 or down Route 95 and everything’s good. And it gradually disintegrates over the course of four, five, six weeks, however long you’re out there. And also, I don’t know if this sounds crazy, but time seems to stop. When you’re into the tour three weeks and you think back to the first date, that seems like it was about a year ago. It’s really strange. It has this weird effect where time almost slows down to nothing and you’re basically consumed each day by the white lines on the road and four guys packed in a van tightly. These strange things start to happen. Space in the van becomes valuable. People start to…somebody’s clothing will be in a certain area and people will be throwing the clothing around. Everyone starts freaking out.

I worked with the Street Dogs on a couple of records, and one time I hooked up with those guys to ride from Texas to Boston when they were doing a run. And I knew they were a volatile fucking bunch. Of course I know Johnny and Mike, I know the band well. So I said, “I’m gonna make a resentment list and I’m going to post it so you guys can see what you’re fighting about all the time.” And it was everything from food to pussy to not getting the right amount of beers, just crazy stuff where you’re like kids in the eighth grade, not grown men in their thirties and forties. And it’s wild just watching it. And I’ve seen many, many bands broken down psychologically from the road.

So what I’m trying to do is maintain some level of sanity in this Continental project. And we’re trying to do that any way possible, whether it’s through our scheduling, or trying to be respectful of each other, trying to understand each person rather than have that thing where everyone tries to get one-up on the other person. That’s what a lot of people do, and it becomes a psychological battleground. And it really doesn’t have to be that way, but we’ve all been so conditioned to look out for number one… It’s a tough life, so me and my son have kind of, over the last three years, mastered it. And that’s really good news. We’ve really come to a full understanding of each other and we talk everything out and we don’t keep anything in. That’s the best part about him; he confronts me immediately on everything. There’s no lingering resentments. He goes right after me; he knows when I’m not being right. So it’s kinda cool.

That’s awfully well-evolved for a punk rock band! To actually work on their problems and keep things in perspective and move things forward…

It is, it’s great. Because the alternative to that is puking on each other and full-out brawls and fist fights and all of that. And I surely don’t want to have that.

You mentioned Mike (McColgan) and Johnny (Rioux), I had the privilege of talking to Mike a month or so ago when the Street Dogs came off hiatus, and there was talk then of the FM359 project with you and Mike and Johnny. Is that still going to be ‘a thing,’ or now that you guys are in full swing and Street Dogs are back, is that going to be an inevitable back-burner?

I’m hoping that what we did down there is going to be used primarily as demos. Johnny has a tendency to rush ahead and put things out (*both laugh*). We wrote and recorded twelve songs, and I think they’re all good and it’s interesting material. But that’s something that’s going to come to fruition at a later date. Those guys are going through a lot of shit, and they had to put their primary band back together. And Continental is running along smoothly, so I don’t really see the need, I just wanted to try to do some different…actually, to tell you the truth, it was the middle of the winter and I wanted to get out of Boston and go down to Texas! (*both laugh*) Then they just whipped out all these songs and Mike was coming up with lyrics, and it was some interesting shit, I’ll tell ya, that we did.

I’m really, really looking forward to hearing that stuff some day.

Yeah, someday that stuff will surface and we’ll go into a real recording studio and we’ll make an album. Because Mike and I always talk, it’s just that the timing has to be right. Because like I said, (Street Dogs) had a lot of work putting their band back together, which I think is going well. Have you heard anything?

When I talked to Mike at the time, it sounded like it was going well. And I’ve talked to Lenny Lashley briefly a couple times; I think I’m actually interviewing him coming up surrounding the solo album he’s got coming out. But it sounds like it’s going well, that hiatus didn’t last very long at all. I think the quote from Mike was that they had too much on their plate, too many things they still wanted to do. Which, as a Street Dogs fan, that’s good. Hopefully it means they got together what they needed to get together. And obviously Lenny brings a real interesting element to the band too.

Absolutely, on one hand, I think that’s a brilliant maneuver, and on the other hand… I don’t think there’s any middle ground on that maneuver, it’s going to be brilliant or it’s going (go the other way).


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