Daniel Barnes is one of Toronto’s top drummers, by some estimates he is in the top fifteen. Barnes can be heard on numerous recordings; his discography numbers thirty-eight albums, including the 1996 Juno award winning Africville Suite by pianist Joe Sealy. Barnes works regularly at live and studio gigs, he also works on composing and arranging music. Barnes is a hard guy to track down. I recently managed to meet up with him at a café in the west end of Toronto. I wanted to ask Barnes about drumming, the music business and rumors that he is about to release a new CD Culmination, a follow up from his successful, independent debut recording as leader released in 2003.
I asked Barnes if there was merit to the rumour. "Well, I hope to bring the new record out in the spring of 2007. The follow up album looks like its going to be called Classic Beauties. It’s all original songs that I’ve written, and it focuses on hard-bop, cool-bop and bebop sounds. There are a couple of diversions into other areas--there is a more contemporary mainstream type of track. There is also a fun, funky style track, a high-energy type of tune. It’s mostly a mainstream acoustic vibe as opposed to my first record, which as you heard, had quite a bit of different styles on it."
There were some great tunes on the Culmination record. The album was rated in the top ten by several radio stations in Canada. I particularly liked the bop style tunes "Five O-Clock Shadow" and "Blues for the Wicket."
"My career has been involved in some diverse musical genres," says Barnes. "I wanted to spend some more time delving into the bop and the jazz tradition, especially from the composition point of view. That’s primarily the reason I decided on the new album. I wanted to spend time with tradition," he says.
It’s not often you find drummers composing songs. I wanted to find out from Barnes how he comes about being such a fine composer? "It comes down to improvising in your head. When I play the drums, I’m improvising most of the time. It comes down to hearing different melodies and feels in your head--things that you like enough to write down or play with the people you work with. That happens when I’m drumming. Things come to mind, also in everyday life. Just walking down the street, it just comes to you," says Barnes. "I play enough piano that I can sit down and figure out chords. I can figure out what it is I’m hearing in my head and put that together. When I bring the songs to the band, they are finished products, excepting of course, for the solos, energy and spirit each player brings to the session. That is what really finalizes the product," he adds.
Daniel was raised in a very artistic environment with a wealth of musical talent to inspire him. Barnes explained, "Music entered my life while I was still in the womb. My father, Milton Barnes, spent his life in music. He played jazz drums and guitar. Later in his life, he became interested in classical music, took up conducting and was a classical concert composer. Around the time I was conceived, my father was conducting and was involved with the Niagara Falls and St. Catharine’s symphony orchestras. My mom would go out to these performances and I was in her belly, so I think that was the beginning for me."
"As for drumming," says Barnes, "when I was a young boy I discovered my father’s drums. My parents had a party one night and the kit was set up in the living room. When I got up the next morning, the kit was still there so I tried them and I liked them. They were left set up because my mom thought I took to them extremely well. I knew by the time I was five that drumming is what I wanted to do. I just kept playing. That was further encouraged by my older brother, Micah Barnes (formerly of the Nylons, a pop acappella group). He is five years older [than me] and he was singing and playing piano," he explains. "He and I would play in the house. As a matter of fact, I played in my brother’s band from the time I was sixteen until around the age of twenty-nine or so. That was The Micah Barnes Band. We were playing the Toronto, Queen Street scene of the 80s."
I suppose asking Daniel Barnes to name the musician who most influenced him was unfair, but I figured it was worth a try. "Some of my favorite records, the pillars of my musical influences? Wow! Just one, okay? Sonny Rollins with Herbie Hancock, Thad Jones, Bob Cranshaw and Roy McCurdy on drums. That drumming was very important to me. I would really find it hard to nail down just one. Charlie Parker and Dizzy with Max Roach soloing. That became a real influence. It showed me that drums could be a solo instrument."
"I was exposed to good stuff early," says Barnes. "My stepfather had a good jazz collection and I would listen to that music--Coltrane. The classic Coltrane quartet was in the house,Mitch Mitchell, Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. That is still one of my favorite records," he adds. "Another album that was a pivotal album for me was Aretha Franklin, Live at the Filmore East with Bernard Purdie on drums. You would hear Bernard on all kinds of records. He was the root of my R&B interests. One time when I was visiting New York, I sat in on a class he was giving at the New School. He told his students, 'write the songs.' That was a good lesson for me."
Since we were speaking of schools, I asked Daniel how his musical education progressed. This is what he said. "I’m largely a self-taught person. The people that were influential in my education were Jim Blackely; he laid the foundation of how to study. To this day, I follow his drills and ideas on practice. As a teenager, I wasn’t disciplined enough to stick with it. Claude Ranger, he was playing around town and I would see him perform and lead his band or play with others. He was friends with my folks and he would come over to the house and give me some pointers. I went to the Banff Summer School for two years. Both years, Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith was the drum instructor. I took piano from Bob Fenton and I studied music theory with Professor Paul Read. The rest of my musical education is on the ground."
When I asked Daniel what his most memorable musical experience has been to date, he was eager to talk about his time with singer Aster Aweke. "My tours with Aster have been the most memorable shows so far. Aster is an Ethiopian pop singer; she sings Ethiopian urban pop. Time magazine called her the Aretha Franklin of Ethiopia. She performed at world music festivals all over the world. Some of the largest shows I ever played were with Aster. We toured Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and through the U.S. I did a lot of touring with her through the 90s. We would play one-month tours twice a year, at festivals like WOMAD. These were huge world music festivals. We would play to crowds upwards of fifteen thousand people. There is a lot of energy in a crowd that size. We finished this forty-five minute set in Germany--there were fifteen thousand people going crazy for us and really loving it. After our set, we watched a band called The Super Rail Band. I didn’t think it was possible, but the crowd went even crazier for them. It was nuts, man. Those are memories I will never forget. I haven’t travelled as much in this decade. I hope I can do more traveling," he added.
You were telling me you were doing a show out of town, Budapest, Hungary is that correct? "Yes, I just got back from Budapest. I did one show with Holly Cole," he replied.
That’s too much man, travelling to Europe for one show. How do you cope with that, I asked? "Well it makes for an interesting weekend. You try to get the most out of it that you can, see the most stuff you can in the amount of time you’ve got. You try to stay strong for the show, you don’t sleep much and instead of sleeping, you have some beer, do some sightseeing. I don’t often plan for vacations. I just wait for these shows to come up and make the most out of them," he replied with a chuckle.
When I asked Barnes about products he endorses, he indicated that at present he was not endorsing any equipment although he would like to at some point. On his equipment preferences he said, "As far as drums go, I have spent a lot of years collecting. I have three Gretsch sets, two Yamaha sets and my father's 1952 Ludwig’s. I like any good quality set of drums. When you hit a good Gretsch drum though there is nothing quite like them. Lots of drum companies are trying for that Gretsch sound. As far as cymbals, I like Bosphorus. They are hand made, designer cymbals. I have three at the moment and I would like to have more. I also own Ufip, an Italian company that makes a really nice cymbal. I have some Zildjian cymbals as well. They have excellent cymbals and a wide variety. I’m happiest with my Bosphorus and Ufip cymbals though. They really do it for me. Jim Blackely got me into Powertip sticks. They are now known as Headhunters. I’ve been using this type of stick since I was eighteen. I’m forty-one now, [so] it would be really hard to change to a different stick. I like Regal Tip for brushes and mallets."
When I asked him what it takes to make it as a professional musician, Barnes didn’t hold back in detailing the requirements for success. He replied, "It’s a very hard go and you will fall by the wayside unless it is really the only thing that matters to you. You have to be so committed that all those bad odds don’t make a difference to you because you know it’s the only thing that you are supposed to be doing. It has to be the only thing you care enough about to throw yourself into it one hundred percent. You have to feel the rewards of doing it, even if they may be on some other level, not immediate financial rewards. Although sometimes you make really good money, you think, 'Oh my God, I just made a great pay cheque for having fun.' There are those times and then there are lots and lots of times, especially in the jazz world, where you make a lousy pay cheque. But you can still walk away saying you had fun. What you have to do to make it in this business is to have no interest in other things (laughing). That’s not accurate, really. If you have the capacity to excel in another career, you should probably explore that. There isn’t a lot of room in the music business."
What does the future look like for Daniel Barnes? "The new CD Classic Beauties, will be coming out in the spring," says Barnes. "I’ve got shows in Japan with Holly Cole--that’s in January '07. I’m co-writing compositions for a new project with my older brother. I’m also doing pre-production work on that, getting more involved in the recording process. I have to line up some shows with my band in support of the new record. That’s about it for now so it looks okay. I am a professional musician and I’m working steady and having fun. What else is there?" he replied.
Interviewed By Paul J. Youngman - KJA Jazz Advocate 2006