By Tony Mellor
Barrence Whitfield is a walkin’, talkin’, hollerin’, howlin’ repository of pure American music. So full of rock ’n’ roll knowledge, he’s even been offered to lecture in college! His dedication to hippin’ the masses of the world to this country’s rich heritage of primal chest-pounding beats and the lewd, lascivious mixture of sacred and profane bellowing from doomsday hungry leather lungs has spanned 30 years and eight albums. Not to mention collaborations with Tom Russell, the Boston Horns, and being a Mercy Brother, among many other projects. Now, he has returned to his garage-rawkin’ rhythm ’n’ blues roots with original Savages Peter Greenberg and Phil Lenker, reunited for the first time in over 25 years! The new album Savage Kings is a monster, the fall tour in Europe was a success, and the homecoming gig at the Middle East Downstairs back in December was a historical night, to say the least! Let’s chat with the man himself!
Noise: You’d already been re-exploring the first two Savages records (1984’s self-titled debut and 1985’s Dig Yourself) and smashing it up with the excellent band, the Monkey Hips—what planets aligned to allow yourself, Peter, and Phil to rejoin forces as the Savages after so much time apart?
Barrence Whitfield: What happened was, there was interest in the first album being reissued, and I’d been wanting to get that reissued for so many years, so we finally got a bite from a record label in London called Ace Records—great, great label—and they wanted to put out the record. So we all got together and discussed the financial terms—which wasn’t a whole lot of money, but it was money, and we had to sign contracts and stuff like that. Actually, Peter came out about four or five years ago to do the DMZ reunion, so we got together and we talked—it was good to see him. I hadn’t seen him in years—and then he called me about putting out the Ace record. He was doing music in Santa Fe and Taos with the band Manby’s Head, so I said, “Hey man, I’d love to come out there and do some shows with you guys.” I got a call a week later, “I’m putting together some shows… and I’ll get Phil to come out too,” so he flew us both out to Taos and we did some shows in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos. We had so much fun playing all those old tunes. After we got the rust off he said, “Let’s do another record.” And when he has his mind made up, he goes all the way. So we went down to Cincinnati to rehearse and record this Savage Kings record and then one thing led to another. Next thing you know, he’s got a booking agent to do Europe. I got Munster Records in Spain to put out the record— I made the call and one of the owners emailed me back two days later and said, “We’d be honored to put the record out—let’s get it together,” and that’s where it started.
Noise: You spent very little time in the studio and made this excellent, raw record that practically picked up where Dig Yourself left off—could this be attributed to the great chemistry between you guys even after 25 years apart?
Barrence: You just don’t lose it… even after 25 years. We knew exactly what we need to get on stage and do, so once that formula gets back together, it just clicks. That’s what happened. We’ve got two new members of the band —Andy Jody and Tom Quartulli—young guys who are slap-happy, drinking, wanna-have-fun kind of guys. They’re what we were 20-some-odd years ago, and here we are: the senior editors of staff. But we still have the energy and we still run around like crazy fools! Peter has a way of getting guys together—he is a leader among men. It’s a collaboration—he knows what he’s doing, and I let him go ahead and do it. Then he says it’s okay, and I say it’s okay. We’re pretty good like that.
Noise: How long did it take for the album to be prepared, including rehearsals?
Barrence: It didn’t take very long. Peter sent us the music, we listened to it for a little bit of time, and then when went to Cincinnati. It took us a week to get down the songs and then the next week we did all the recordings. We did the basic tracks in a day.
Noise: Were any of these songs written and performed by you guys in the old days, or are they all new selections?
Barrence: All new selections. There’s nothing on this record that was done twenty years ago, it’s all brand new stuff.
Noise: At the time of this writing, you’ve already played shows in Europe to promote Savage Kings—is it the same band on the road as on the album?
Barrence: Yes—same band, except for Jim Cole, who couldn’t come with us, he played the keyboard, but he wasn’t really in the band—he was more or less one of the guest musicians, one of the record session guys. He also played with Peter many years ago in a band called the Customs which was a very very revered band in Cincinnati.
Noise: For years, you’ve been huge around the globe, especially Europe. Why does it seem that the Europeans devour the rock ’n’ roll with more gusto, and even replicate it better, than we Americans who created the whole damn thing?
Barrence: You know, it’s funny. When you go to Europe, you’re the real thing. When they come over here and do it, it’s like they’re kinda mimicking what we do. So when you go over there and give it to them legitimately… we’re the real thing, and that’s what they really like about it. It goes all the way back to the jazz guys of the ’30s and ’40s going over to France, England, or Scandinavia to play there. When they get to see the real thing, their strengths and energy really come to be. When they go out, they wanna listen to the music, they wanna play, they wanna look, they wanna act the same way, no matter how you look at it, American music its influence all over the world. Everyone talks about the Beatles, but it goes way back to blues and gospel. And the Europeans admit that, it’s not something that they created. American music is very revered in Europe.
Noise: To my knowledge, I’ve only seen one song with your writing credit on it, and I know you certainly have a way with words—don’t you ever get the bug to write a song?
Barrence: Oh, everybody’s bugging me to write a song, and you know what? I should. Everyone says “I know you got at least five or six songs in you.” It’s just me sitting down and wanting to, because I’m so used to interpreting other songs, and I do it well. I did write lyrics for one song on Dig Yourself and I never did anything (else). I usually come in and I mold songs together, and that’s about it, but, I think I’m gonna have to write a song so everyone can say, “Barrence finally wrote a song!”
Noise: Right, just to shut them up… My second part to that question was if songwriting is maybe against your modus operandi as an entertainer?
Barrence: No, you know, it shouldn’t, but I never think about it. I never put myself in a songwriting position. I think I can, I’ve always got ideas for this, ideas for that. I’m always full of ideas, but I just need to sit down and write some lyrics. Someone needs to take my neck and my hand and get it going!
Noise: In addition to your work on stage and in the studio, you’ve worked record stores for years—would you say Barrence Whitfield the performer and Barrence the record store clerk are on the same mission—to hip music lovers to the best music that they’ve never heard?
Barrence: I love turning people on to music, and I like people tuning me on to music. And I travel a lot, so I’m always being exposed to a lot of music. I went to Australia and I came home with all this stuff, and I went to Europe and somebody threw some music at me or mades me a CD or something like that… I’m always learning! I’m always hearing new things that were recorded 30-some-odd years ago. We never get to hear it here because we’ve heard all the American and British music, soul music, and blues. I got to hear some Norwegian band that I’ve never heard of—but a really good Norwegian band! It was amazing—as we traveled this past tour, so many people were big fans of Peter Greenberg. I shouldn’t be amazed, because he was in Lyres and DMZ, and those bands were really building blocks for a lot of young bands. There’s this band called King Salami from England—they covered seven Savages songs! They are big Savages fans and they just finished a 45. They do a version of “Bloody Mary”! And if you look on YouTube, you’ll notice that there are European bands covering Barrence Whitfield & the Savages songs. We’ve influenced a lot of bands, and when someone says, “We’ve learned one of your songs,” that’s a great compliment! It’s a wonderful compliment to know that somebody 3,000, 4,000 miles away is copping your shit!
Noise: You’ve had a number of famous fans over the years—one you finally met recently was Robert Plant. How did that meeting turn out? He seems like he’d be a pretty cool guy for a rock legend.
Barrence: He was cool! Everyone has always told me that he’s one of the coolest guys and he was, no question about it. When I introduced myself, the first thing he said was, “Bloody hell! Barrence Whitfield, how are ya?!?” He’s been a big fan from the first album, and I’ve gotta send him this (album) if I get a chance… and there have been other big fans through the years—Elvis Costello, Jools Holland… I was actually reading something last night on John Peel, the great DJ in England at the BBC for so many years, and I just closed my eyes for a minute, just remembering being in the same room with the guy, talking about Eddie Cochran—his first time he ever seen rock ‘n’ roll, he’d seen Eddie Cochran…thinking about things that I’ve experienced through my years of being a musician, which one day will be probably in some tell-all book.
Noise: Which leads me to another question: I know you have 8,000,000 of these rock ‘n’ roll stories—have you ever thought about publishing them in some form or maybe working up a spoken-word act?
Barrence: You know, a spoken-word act is not a bad idea, because I have done that, and people usually just sit there and go, “Wow!” But a book would be just great. I’ve experienced so much since we put this thing together back in 1983, from the United States all the way to the Canary Islands—places I thought I’d never play. There’s a lot of stories, there’s a lot of anecdotes, and there’s a lot of musical things that have happened in my career—it needs to be told!
Noise: It’s getting to be 10 years since Joe Strummer died. I know you have a crazy what-if story about him—would you mind relating this story to the Noise readers?
Barrence: Oh, that’s a bad one! It should have happened. Joe Strummer was a good friend of (British DJ) Andy Kershaw’s who called my house one time and said, “A friend of mine’s coming to Boston and he’d love to meet you, you should show him around town, show him to some record shops,” and I go, “Who?” He said, “Joe Strummer” and I go, “Get out of here! Joe Strummer?” He said, “Yeah, Joe Strummer! He’s a big fan, I’ve played some of your music and he knows who you are!” But we never got together. He did come to Boston—we just never got together. I was out of town, and so it couldn’t happen. But I’m hoping the next time someone like that comes to town, I will not hesitate to jump over hurdles to hang out because Joe Strummer’s no longer with us.
Noise: Your singing voice can range from practically Tuvan throat singing to virtually a heavy-metal shriek, and it shows no sign of deterioration in the almost 30 years you’ve been doing it—is there a secret formula you use to conserve your voice, or is it just all in the genes?
Barrence: It’s all in the genes, brother! You know, it’s amazing that I’m able to scream in the way I’ve screamed for all these years, but you know what, another thing that has helped me through the years—I don’t drink, and I don’t smoke. So that’s a few things that have helped me through the years. I think it’s also just the energy, just the Savage in me, just to do this kind of stuff. Once I get on the stage, I can be a complete madman! Some nights I can be regular, but some nights… there’s a story that I have… I performed in Bologna, Italy this past tour and during the night this guy was on the right-hand side and he kept heckling me, he said, “You’re not a true bluesman!” I just lost it! So what happened was, I took off my shoes, took off my pants, and I continued to perform the rest of the night in my skivvies! I had black underwear, and that was cool, but for the whole show, I performed… and the guy came over after the show and said, “You are the one! You are the one! You are the one! I did not mean anything, but you are the one, you are the one!”
Noise: That’s great! Well, that’s the thing with hecklers—if you don’t let them get to you, they can step up your performance.
Barrence: Oh yeah, he did! But I think he was doing it because he’s a fan—and so he was heckling me because he just wanted me to do something outrageous. I did something outrageous, and it made his night! He was with his friend, he was drunk, said, “Barrence, I love you, you’re so great!”