Gabe Barnett: I can only write about what I know, and I know the Twin Cities

Gabe Barnett: I can only write about what I know, and I know the Twin Cities
Photo by Amy Waksmonski

With a touch of country and bluegrass in the sound, Gabe Barnett and the Big House Rounders rock out a good bit too. The Minneapolis group have created an album that gets under your skin: Old as the Stars connects the listener to ghosts from his past and his home.

Before the group's album release on Thursday, Gimme Noise spoke with Barnett about his history with the Twin Cities and the area's influence on the music and the aforementioned ghosts on this album.

Band Members: Gabe Barnett - vocals, guitar; Midwest Paul Cook - tenor banjo; Chris Cashin - mandolin; Dain "Maynerd" Arnold - harmonica; "Sleepy" G. Justice Roy - washboard; Rich Yaeger - trumpet; Liz Draper - upright bass

Gimme Noise: You have a sort of country/bluesy element in your music. Where do you think this came from?
Well, I personally think the Rounders and I make music of a strictly urban variety, but I know some folks hear the banjo and immediately their thoughts turn to that of the rural and pastoral. Frankly, I am a songwriter, and I was told long ago that a good song is a good song, and a good song can be done in any genre. If the basic songwriting is there, a song can be performed as a reggae song or a speed-metal song, as punk or R&B or country-western.

Over the course of my "career," I have chosen the basic template provided by the American folk musics to best express my thoughts, feelings, and ideas -- simply because folk music is that: a basic template, the basic template for all popular modern music. From there it can be done any way you like it. I would love to hear an EDM version of "Circus Someday," or "Detective Blues" as opera.

The Big House Rounders and I play acoustic instruments like mandolins and trumpets and washboards simply for ease of math. You can play them anywhere. It's easy to set up and tear down. We can perform on a street corner all afternoon, throw our instruments on our backs, hop on our bicycles and cruise across town to play a noisy indie-rock club, then cruise over to the after-party and jam all night. We can sit by the river and play, we can climb to the roof of a warehouse and play. Maynerd's got it real easy with his little bag of harmonicas.

There are also many local references in the music. What made you include those in the album?
What am I supposed to write about, Paris? I've never been to Paris, but I've lived in this part of the world most of my life. I can only write what I know, and I know the Twin Cities. I know the upper Midwest, and I think if you listen carefully you'll hear bits of New York and New Orleans, the Southwest and the West Coast in this latest batch of songs -- not just my beloved Minneapolis. I don't purposely include anything in my songs; songwriting is like fishing, you cast your line in the stream and what snags your hook snags your hook. You just hope it's edible.

The album is dedicated to your father. Can you tell me about him? How is he reflected in the music?
I don't wanna go too into detail about my personal affairs, but I will tell you that while working on this album -- over a two-year period from concept to release -- I had something like 14 people who I was either very close to or who had a huge influence on me, or both, die.

Most died suddenly and unexpectedly, including my (step)dad, who was, and continues to be, the single most important figure in my life. Dad instilled in me a work ethic, critical thinking skills, and a strangely logic-based compassion that have shaped who I am, and therefore what I write. He was my biggest fan and most fervent champion. We were very different from each other -- he a small-town, hard-ass good ol' boy and me a sensitive, city-kid goofball -- and he didn't always understand what I was doing with my life, be it making art and writing songs or hitchhiking around the country, dabbling in philosophies and drugs. But we could talk about it, all of it, as peers as much as father and son, and he knew I'm not fucking around. I'm not just pissing it all away or looking for the most slack. He was supportive of whatever I did, so long as I did it with passion and honesty. It's strange. All of the songs were at least sketched out, and the majority of the songs were fully written, before people I love started dropping like flies.

If there is an overarching theme to this album it is: overcoming the fear of death and rejection by embracing and celebrating life in the moment, in the now. I wrote these songs and then Existence was like: "Oh yeah? Bam! Prove it. Fucking prove it." It's been hard; it's been really damn hard.


When you write, is it collaborative with the band, or do you bring the pieces to them already finished? How do they help shape the songs?
I bring the songs mostly finished to the band, the lyrics and basic chord progressions are always all mine, but them Rounders are a talented bunch, and real musicians -- which I cannot say for myself. They have solid ears for melody and bring a lot to the arrangements, they come up with their parts for their instruments, and I don't have much say in what that is gonna be. The dancing interplay between the instruments is all them. I don't know how to properly begin or end a song, so after jamming on a new tune enough times, or at least in time to secure it permanently to record, the band usually has that figured out too. They've made me a better musician, they make my songs listenable, and they're my best friends. Lucky me!

Who is SquishSlap!?
SquishSlap! is the greatest musical force the Twin Cities has never known. Period. Ha!

What song do you feel represents you now? Can you tell me the story behind that particular piece? 
I would say they all represent me now. That's the point; I write my songs for me. Usually there is a song I wanna hear that I've never heard before. I figure if I'm gonna hear it, I gotta write it. So I cast my line back into that stream and magically what comes out is what I wanted to hear, I don't always know that's what I was yearning to hear, but there it is.

Musically, it's what I wish I was hearing when I listen to a favorite record. It ends, the needle arm lifts, and I'm still not fully satisfied. Lyrically, I fish out mantras for myself -- mantras to get me through the day to day. My last album was seen as heavily political, as an attack on the financial institutions that run our economy and a call to arms to get people to leave behind their convenience-based American-lifestyles, but that's not the case. Y'all can have your lifestyles; people can keep fucking up this pretty little garden-planet. I'm not here to change your mind; I can only change me. The songs on this album are the same: mantras for me. Gifted from the stream to get me through. Right now I'd say "Until I Die" is my mantra du jour. "Mythological Shuffle" and "Old As the Stars" too. I sing them to myself when I'm scared.

Any favorite tracks off this album? 
I love them all. They're my babies. The 50 or so songs I've written over the past decade are all I have to show for my time here on earth. But I know the band particularly likes performing "Lowry Ave Shakedown" probably because it's an instrumental and they get some respite from me barking over their beautiful and very musical tones.

For those who have not seen you and your band perform before, what can we expect to see at the album release show? 
Oh, it's gonna be a hot mess! It usually is with this bunch, plus we have a few extra pals joining us on stage to add to the confusion: Steven Hobert on piano, Paul Fonfara on clarinet, some of the most talented folks in town. Who knows who else. It'll be grand! Live, it is jazz. We know where the songs supposedly go, and then we get a little drunky and a little stoney and we all look around the stage and smirk at each other, and then go running off in opposite directions -- and it always works out. We find each other just in time for the next verse. Maybe.

God, and we're gonna do it five times in May! Every Thursday in May at the "Tre-Tre," but the first one, May 1, that'll be the one to see! Mike Gunther is gonna open the night, the Bookhouse Trio is gonna close down the bar, and in the middle, us Rounders are gonna get naked and piss off the neighbors. Just bring your dancing shoes, and you'll be fine.

Gabe Barnett will release Old As the Stars at the 331 Club on Thursday, May 1, with Bookhouse and Mike Gunther.
21+, Free, 9:30 p.m.

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