An Interview with Paul Barker (11/20/15)

Puscifer (Mat Mitchell, Juliette Commagere, Carina Round, Paul Barker, Maynard James Keenan, Jeff Friedl) (Photo: Robin Laananen)
Although not yet a household name, the band Puscifer -- fronted by Carina Round and Maynard James Keenan -- will be playing the Fox Theater in Oakland on Tuesday, December 8th in support of their new album, Money $hot (iTunes). Very limited tickets still remain as of this writing.

Joining the band on tour is the legendary bassist, and I'd go as far as calling him the godfather of industrial music, Paul Barker. Paul spent nearly 20 years in the band Ministry, and has had a hand in remixing, producing, writing, and performing with just about any industrial artist you can think of! (KMFDM, Skinny Puppy, Front 242, Nine Inch Nails / Trent Reznor, Frontline Assembly, 1000 Homo DJs, Revolting Cocks, Pigface, etc.) This guy's an absolute legend, and his driving bass lines punctuate so many classic industrial tracks that I grew up listening to. Since leaving Ministry, he's co-founded a specialty guitar pedal and synth module manufacturing company called Malekko Heavy Industry Corporation. Needless to say, we were extremely humbled and grateful that Paul was able to carve out time while on tour to speak with us!

SFBAC: Thanks for making the time to speak with us Paul. I’ve been a fan of yours since 1990 when I first heard In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up (iTunes) and all this time, I imagined that you were a Chicago-native, but in doing research for this call, I read on Wikipedia that you were actually born here in the SF Bay Area — in Palo Alto! How long did you spend in the region and how do you think the Bay Area influenced your music, if at all?

Paul Barker: I was born in Palo Alto! Well… My parents split up and I moved to Seattle, so I say that I grew-up in Seattle. I lived with my aunt and uncle from 6 to 16, so those were my formative years. However, I went to Menlo School after I left Seattle at 16, and you know, it’s a prep school there. So, I didn’t grow up there, but I was there for a while during high school and was a typical teenager... practiced a bunch, moped around a bunch, saw a bunch of awesome shows…

SFBAC: What were your musical interests at the time? Did the region itself shape any of those?

Paul Barker: Well… I don’t know… it’s funny, because... ok, I’m 56 now so… every once in a while I wonder if that is in fact an influence? Specifically, thinking about my involvement in industrial music and whether you grew up next to a fucking train yard makes a difference or not. And I always thought as a kid, that made zero difference whatsoever. If you want to make the music you want to make, you’re gonna make it! And it doesn’t matter where you are. You can apply the same reasons, if you will, to blues as you can to choosing to decide to make avante-garde noise music or electronic dance music. You see what I’m saying? When I step back and look at the big picture, I think, well, perhaps there is something to do with that, because if you’re inundated with certain kinds of sounds, then maybe it’ll filter subconsciously through your art. But I keep going back to, well this is just a bunch of bull shit. What if you want to make sleepy-time music, meditation music, or whatever? If that’s what you want to make, you’re going to make it. My personal opinion is that I put less stock in that than a person’s free will to want to do something interesting or creative or challenging, you know? To themselveses… For themselves!  OK, to answer your question, I grew up listening to prog-rock… Then a few friends of mine turned me on to Funhouse and Rob Hauer and it all went downhill from there.

SFBAC: When did you decide to pick up the bass?

Paul Barker: Well, I started playing trumpet in elementary school, back when elementary schools still had music programs. And, bass? Probably 13, 14? So seventh or eighth grade, something like that… And then I was in stage band back in high school.

SFBAC: How did you decide to pick up the bass? Were there musicians that you were turned on by and who influenced the decision?

Paul Barker: Well, I don’t know… Killer Kane I loved from the New York Dolls, for whatever reason, cuz’ it was so absurd. But, yeah, I distinctly remember in the 6th grade really being into prog-rock like Yes and King Crimson. And I don’t know if I necessarily aspired to play like that per se, but I don’t know… I was just interested in music that wasn’t blues. And I grew up with my Aunt and Uncle's family, and there were 3 kids who were older than I, so there was a pretty good music collection in the house… Lots of stuff like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and the Beatles… All of that shit was in the house; I had access to listen to all of that… And I don’t know, it just didn’t turn me on as much as something a little more technical.

SFBAC: Well, jumping up to present day… You’ve worked with just a ton of different artists over your career so far. First I want to ask how you first met Maynard James Keenan, but then ask if any of the other countless artists you’ve worked with stand out and why?

Paul Barker: I first met Maynard in, I’m going to say Irvine, CA during the Lollapalooza tour that Ministry was on back in ’92, I believe. And we met him back stage, met the whole band backstage and had a good time, whatever. And I’ve bumped into Maynard on and off over the years, and always had a good time, but we lived in different cities, so there was no real musical interaction at the time… Hmm… Musicians that stand out? Well, everyone has their kinda specific flavor which is the reason why you want to work with them. So for the most part, those kinds of collaborations are a bit explorative, you know? Like, what can we get out of this situation where we are working together — 1 on 1, or 3 on 1, or however many people are there, or whatever the project’s goal is… I don’t really have any, I mean, I’m not really interested in putting a scale on what collaboration was better than others… Some were more fruitful than others, some were easier than others, but it’s so subjective. And I’m flattered and humbled and really thankful that I was in those circumstances and got to work with all those people. And of course it was a lot of fun — usually it was a lot of fun!

SFBAC: OK. So let me ask if there’s anyone who you’d like to work with in the future that you haven’t already?

Paul Barker: Well, OK. I don’t know… It’s a strange situation because, I feel like a lot of… I don’t know man… I know this is going to sound terrible, but I feel like I’m not interested in working with a lot of my peers. Now having said that, I don’t mean that as a blanket statement. What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of awesome, challenging music that’s happening that’s not written by my peers. Now, having said that. I don’t know if it’s just a matter of, I don’t know, not being in the limelight anymore, or what’s the point? Or not having an avenue to express yourself, or I don’t know, resting on your laurels. But I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t want to bad mouth anybody! I mean, fuck, I’m the first person to know how difficult the creative process is to complete anything! Whether it’s redundant, or derivative, or whatever… As a creative person, you’re always challenging yourself, and you’re never satisfied, and deadlines are the only thing that allow projects to be completed... Honestly… Did I answer your question? No? Ha! Wait a second, who would I like to work with today? Hmm… Fuck man…

SFBAC: Who are the artists that are exciting you then, if they’re not necessarily your peers?

Paul Barker: Well, I know… That’s the other thing! Every once in a while, I’ll hear something I think is just super bad… And like, man, that’s just… somebody’s got something going on here… But then I realized that it’s not necessarily the person, it’s the producer behind the thing… so well, what’s that all about? And in that case, it’s kinda like soundtrack music. Like this person’s writing music, and someone else is singing on it... But you know, that’s the way the industry works… I guess that’s a deluded expression you know? And the commercial aspect that’s necessary, and which is more and more difficult these days… yeah, I don’t know… Well, let me just say this… I really love the new Puscifer record, and my friend Mat Mitchell is the producer, song writer, engineer and it’s so badass. It’s sophisticated and cool, and not… not forced… it’s refreshing in so many ways.

SFBAC: That’s a perfect segue into my next question! How did you find yourself on tour with Puscifer?

Paul Barker: Well, I've known Mat Mitchell for many years. We both lived in Austin and shared a studio space together. So there’s that very immediate connection, but the reason the bass playing slot opened up is because Matt McJunkins is touring with Eagles of Death Metal -- and if that isn’t the most fucking horrific circumstance you can imagine, I mean, it’s among the most horrific, there’s no question about it. But thankfully, he’s alright. As a horrible aside, there’s that nonsense… [Editor's note: Eagles of Death Metal were performing at the Bataclan in Paris the night of the terror attacks on November 13th, 2015.] But that’s how the position became available. And out of the blue, Mat sent me a text message asking if I’d be interested in doing this and would be able to do it? Given the fact that Malekko Heavy Industry Corporation, my company, I mean that’s a full time job for me.. So of course, my business partner and I looked at each other and we’re like… ‘well, you gotta do it’… <chuckles> So we’re figuring it out. Yeah, it’s terrible in many ways… Malekko is in the middle of a co-production of modules with Roland Corporation of Japan, and it’s super badass, and we’re thrilled about it… And we’re completely swamped, and I’m not there… You know, laughingly, when I talk to Josh Holley my business partner, well, there’s actually no convenient time to not be there… It’s a business and we both run it, and of course we have people there with us… blah, blah, blah… Ok, I’m done rambling!

SFBAC: Your music with Ministry generally criticized organized religion and politics. Because you mentioned the recent terror attacks in Paris, could you share your thoughts or opinions on the attacks and/or the current presidential campaign?

Paul Barker: Yeah, I know Matt McJunkins personally and in fact, Eagles came by Malekko — our shop is in Portland, Oregon — and as you know Eagles of Death Metal went up the west coast about 6-8 weeks ago… And anyway, they came by the shop… Anyway, the attacks were just absolutely horrible… My comments on the presidential election… the problem is, that it’s a giant societal problem, and part of that is that money is the determining factor, and not the populations will… Bernie Sanders has no chance. He’s an awesome candidate, there’s no question about it. And it’s just… this is gonna sound super lame, but the military-industrial complex is literally the catalyst that determines what is happening with our society. Why else would we go to war in a foreign land, with no hope of actually “succeeding”, who knows what that is these days? You can’t just go in and wipe it out and walk out, and think that it’s going to recreate itself as a democratic society. There are fortunately, there are many different perspectives in the world whether we like them or not, and that’s what makes the world go round and keeps things interesting.

SFBAC: Looking back over your career, the recording process has changed dramatically. Is there any particular change that’s had the greatest impact on your recording, writing or performing?

Paul Barker: Well, certainly ProTools, Logic, digital recording… That has allowed me to have an infinite number of tracks with no concern of any restrictions whatsoever, well aside from maybe CPU power. I don’t know if that’s necessarily good, but now that’s no longer a consideration. Whereas in the past, you had to.. it’s like a chess game where, ‘so on this song, we need X number of sounds on this amount of tape, on these few tracks, and how do we do that?’ And this kind of thing… Those are no longer concerns… I don’t know, aside from the asthetic between tape versus digital, no one is going to refute that digital recording is not a more efficient way to record, or hasn’t changed music as we know it. As far as live performances go, in-ear monitors and these sorts of performance improvements are really rad. I mean, they’re really super comfortable, and I think they’re going to allow a lot of musicians to save their hearing for instance, and be able to perform better. If you, as a band, are in a position to use in-ears and have different mixes for everybody, that kind of thing. Those are the kind of technological advances… And now of course, PAs are incredible and they’re tiny… The basic, everybody lusting over 50’s technology as far as guitars and amps go, you know, that’s cool. The synthesizer revolution that’s happening now is of course super fucking badass, and I’m so happy about that. And I’m happy people are embracing it. Of course, the downside to all of this is the fact that, you know, creative people and musicians specifically, if they can’t earn a living with their art, then how is this going to work? I think that perhaps it’s just a societal thing, that everyone wants something for nothing. That no one's willing to support the artists, I mean, let’s take a look at corporations, don’t you think that investing in the country that you make your money in, is going to, in the long run, benefit the health of your company? I mean you know, people don’t have money to buy the shit that you manufacture, how is it that you're going to succeed as a fucking company? You know? Like what the fuck? I mean what?!? It’s just stupid common sense, realities that… whatever, I suppose they’re just platitudes in the short run, but if people honestly embraced it, I really think the quality of life would improve and I think you’d see societies that would want to support the artists and support corporations and social services and shit like this. I don’t understand how there can be a myopic survival of the fittest mentality, but at the same time bitch about how the society we’re living in is deteriorating into some kind of pre-civilized stage, or whatever the fuck these people are worried about. They’re looking at it the wrong way.

SFBAC: From your POV, what regions around the world that are more supportive of the arts and artists that the US could emulate?

Paul Barker: Look at it this way… We speak english. We’ve got about 350 million people. Take Denmark, 8 million people. Sweden, 8 million people. The percentage of people on the planet that speak those languages that are immersed in those cultures that will in fact propagate their culture within their society that’s a very small number… So they give a shit. Americans don’t give a shit. We’re like, ‘go west young man’, ‘leave your shit behind and start anew'. Well, in Europe, the cultures and the political boundaries are finite, and they’ve been finite for a long time. So it instills a sense of urgency, maybe not urgency, but a sense of caring about their society and all aspects of it. Not just manufacturing excellence, but artisanal excellence and what that means in the big picture. That’s reassuring. Yes, we have grants in this country, but I think for the most part, it’s a disposable concept. I mean, people want to eat fast food. Why the fuck would you want to eat fast food? What is it? It’s not even food. It’s barely food. Really? That’s what you want to do? OK, yes, it’s cheap, I understand. But don’t you give a shit about what you put in your body? It’s all part of the same kind of lowest common denominator. I don’t even know… What do you want to do every day? Do you wanna just get up and do nothing? Or do you want to get up and do something? And I don’t know if that’s part of our education system? I mean, I know when I was a kid, I didn’t want to go to school. Who wants to go to school? What a lame concept! Think about the parts of the world where kids actually want to learn. Why is it in America so many kids don’t give a shit about learning? That doesn’t make sense. Although I begrudgingly went to public school, I think fortunately I was able to educate myself outside of that. Or in spite of that stupidity. I mean, it’s weird. I think it all goes hand in hand, about caring about your society and caring about your people and culture as a whole.

SFBAC: You’ve accomplished so much already across your career; after this tour, is there a particular focus or project that you’d like to tackle next?

Paul Barker: It’s funny you say that, because I honestly don’t feel like I’ve created… that I’ve had… I don’t know… I feel like there’s so much more to do, and certainly within music. But for instance this morning, so I’m in Cincinnati, and I walked over to the Contemporary Arts Center, which is an art museum here in downtown Cincinatti. There is a Mark Mothersbaugh exhibit going on, and I’m under the impression that it’s going to travel around the country. Well, you know, that dude is not only creative, very creative, but also fairly prolific. So I’ve been walking around all morning thinking this is so badass, it’s all so great! It’s like, well, why do I even have a television in my room? I don’t even have a TV in my house, but here in the hotel, on tour, why do I want to watch TV when all it does is prevent you from doing creative stuff? You know? It’s just vegging out. So that is part of my personal challenge. So in Portland where I live now, I have a recording studio space, and I have been working on stuff, and I’ve been working on new Lead Into Gold material. Lead Into Gold is an ancient project of mine, that I actually performed about 45 minutes or 8 songs, I guess, at the Cold Waves festival in Chicago. So I decided that I was going to perform this music and it was a lot of fun, so I’m working on some new Lead Into Gold material… Whatever. Not as a plug, but as a personal challenge. So yes, I still want to make music. Outside of work, I have to force myself to go into the studio and make some noise. Although it’s a lot of fun, there’s only so many hours in the day. And then there’s the notion of how can you be the most efficient you can be? Developing deadlines forces you to get shit done… So I love it… I don’t have any deadlines however. Ha! <chuckles>

SFBAC: That’s fantastic to hear that you’re recording new Lead Into Gold material!

Paul Barker: Yeah, well, thank you! So the last batch of recording that I did when I lived in Austin, I recorded a bunch of music, some portion of which got completed… its the music that accompanied the Ministry documentary called Fix This!!!, so there were those tunes. And those tunes were very difficult to finish. And part of the reason is that, I want to challenge myself to, lets say, change the face of music, of rock music as we know it. Well, how do you do that? I don’t know how to do that. But you keep chissleling away at it, and hopefully something will happen. So when I decided I was going to do some Lead Into Gold material, I kinda realized, well, what’s cool about it? What’s cool about it, is it’s a sound, it’s all sampler based music. I have all those samples, I have tons of samples from the late 80’s and early 90’s. I’m going to kinda restrict my palate as far as Lead Into Gold goes, to those sounds. So that within these restrictions, I’ll be able to complete music faster. You know what I mean? Working within these parameters will allow me to complete music in a much more efficient manner with my limited time and resources.

SFBAC: Very cool. That’s great to hear! Bringing the conversation back to the SF Bay Area — of all the times you’ve played in the Bay Area, do you have a particular show or shows that stand out and why?

Paul Barker:  Maybe you don’t know this, but the Blackouts, the band that I played with from Seattle, we moved around a bunch and we ended up in SF in ’84 or ’85, and we played a handful of shows as the Blackouts. Minimal Man, those guys were there. I remember we did a gig with them that was a lot of fun, but I don’t remember where now. In terms of Ministry shows, we’ve had some fun gigs there… The Fillmore, that was pretty fun show…

SFBAC: Any reason why?

Paul Barker: Yeah, I don’t know… Just a lot of excitement, and it’s satisfying when people give a shit! Ah right, I just remembered, I’m going to say it was ’89 and it was a [Revolting] Cocks tour, and we played off of Broadway at the club called the Stone? It was next to Big Al’s on Broadway? So what happened at this event, so we were performing, and all of a sudden the club starting filling up with smoke and we were like, yeah, a smoke machine, alright, whatever…and it got worse and worse and worse.. Well, it turns out someone set off a smoke bomb! And so we had to stop playing, and everyone went outside, the club emptied out. I don’t remember how long it went on. Maybe 45 minutes to an hour? The club cleared out, and then everyone came back in, and we finished our set. And that was pretty awesome. That had to be the best worst show!

SFBAC: So as my last question, I wanted to ask about your current relationship with Al [Jourgensen] and if you think the two of you will work together again in the future?

Paul Barker: I’m fairly confident we will not work together. We have zero relationship now.

SFBAC: I guess I’m not familiar with what exactly happened between the two of you for you to leave the band?

Paul Barker: Well, it just became a situation where I was no longer willing to put up with the stupidity, and decided that was enough.

SFBAC: That was it?

Paul Barker: Yeah.

SFBAC: Well, OK. Paul, thanks again for making the time to speak with us and we’re looking forward to catching the Puscifer show at the Fox Theater in a few weeks!

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