by Kevin Finn
Those who follow Boston punk rock know Rick Barton as one of the scene’s biggest heroes. From playing on such great Outlets’ tunes as “Knock Me Down” to co-founding The Dropkick Murphys and playing on their best records, Rick has a resume that few in this town can touch. These days, he’s joined forces with his son, Stephen, in Continental, an extremely versatile outfit that takes the fire of punk rock and filters it through a lens of folk, country, and straight-ahead rock. The band’s second album, Millionaires, was released on October 14 by East Grand Record Co. Rick graciously sat down with me for a few questions in a South End bakery following a day of house painting.
Noise: Let’s talk a little about the recording process for the new record.
Rick: We did it at Woolly Mammoth with Dave Westner. Dave is an incredible engineer and musician in his own right. He made the process quite easy. I recommend people work with him because he’s quick and efficient. He does not fuck around.
We toured Europe for all of November and some of December. We made sure we played almost the entire album every night. We basically used that as pre-production. I wanted to give the record a live feel instead of scrutinizing every bit.
We self-financed the album. We went into the studio, cut all the basic tracks, ran out of money, went back to work for January and February. Then we did a little tour with The Tossers. When we came back from that in the middle of March, we went back in and did all the overdubs, vocals, guitars. In fact, I did my rhythm guitars and vocals for all 11 songs in one day. Like four takes each on vocals. That’s the way I do it. I live with that. That’s what I sounded like at that moment. I can listen back and think, oh, I didn’t do that well, but it doesn’t matter.
Noise: Obviously, one of the super cool things about the band is that you get to play with your son.
Rick: That is either question number one or question number two in every interview. I will try as succinctly as possible to tell the story. Stephen heard me playing the lead song on our first album. He heard it, and was like, Dad, that’s a great song; what else do you have? Well, I have hundreds and hundreds of songs. He says, can we use some of them? I said, who’s we? They were 17-, 18-year-old kids. They said, come down and jam with us. I’m thinking, this sounds like Ken Casey when he wanted me to start The Dropkick Murphys. Just come down and show us a few songs. That’s how The Dropkick Murphys started. I think Kenny had the idea in mind the whole time that I was going to be the guitar player.
My son plays bass and is actually a lot like Kenny. He’s very business-like. Get it done. Don’t do too much talking. I’m a chatterbox. I’m aloof. I go off on tangents. I get down to the basement, and these guys are proficient musicians.
In my day, kids 17, 18, 19, just weren’t that good. I said this is pretty cool; why don’t we just start a band? The writer of a song is going to be more genuine than anyone else singing it.
Noise: The record has kind of a rock feel, kind of folk feel, kind of a country feel. Do you find that people who know you mostly from punk bands are taken aback a little by the sound?
Rick: Unfortunately, Kevin, I only hear the positive stuff. If people say the new music by Barton sucks, they’re not going to tell me. I only hear the good stuff. Some old friends of mine, like this one guy Dave Smith, who was in Jaya the Cat, said this is the music that is suited for me. This is what I should be doing.
Noise: A lot of these songs like “She’s Gone” and “Punk Rock Girl” are really personal. Do you write strictly autobiographically?
Rick: Autobiographically is the only way I know how to write. I can’t write the topical song. I can’t write the political songs. I can’t write what I don’t know. The only thing I know is my inner search and what has happened to me in my experience.
The best songwriters all say the same thing, that the songs flow out. For better or worse, that’s how it is with me, and I consider that a great gift. Even if my songs aren’t at the highest level, I get an incredible rush. It’s the single most pleasurable thing I do in my life.
Noise: People far less advanced in their careers have burned out, and you can hear that as a listener. It’s nice to know that it’s not a matter of going through the motions with you. How about touring? Does that become a drag of a routine over time, or is it still exciting?
Rick: That’s my second favorite thing. We leave on tour soon. The kids will help me load up the van, and then I’m driving by myself from Boston to San Diego, where the kids will meet me. I love driving. I love moving forward. I love seeing new places, meeting new people. Sometimes the music and the performance is almost secondary to the experience.
Noise: Do you guys usually get a pretty responsive crowd?
Rick: Let’s put it this way. We are the greatest unknown band in the world. Sound men love us. They come running up to us after the set, shaking our hands, telling us that we were incredible. It’s unbelievable because sound men are the most jaded men on the planet. If the sound men are the barometer, we’re like The Rolling Stones. Unfortunately, honestly, there aren’t always many people there. When we’ve done really strong support tours like with The Reverend Horton Heat or The Tossers, people have loved us, especially middle-aged people. They love the story. They love how talented the kids are.
Noise: I imagine one of the silver linings of playing to smaller audiences is that you’re probably attracting the type of people who really get what you’re doing.
Rick: I don’t know if my son wants to be famous or not, but he definitely wants to be playing at a higher level. But I actually revel in what you just said. I love going into a room when there’s twenty people there and trying to win them over. I think that’s the best part. He’d be like, Dad, we’ve played too many of those shows. I get his point because then you’re able to make a living doing it. I used to want to be a rock star, too. When I was eighteen, I was playing in The Outlets, and we had just put out a single called “Knock Me Down.” I was up on a ladder painting in Quincy, and I heard a car go by with that song blaring out of the radio. I was like, rock stardom is on its way, baby. This is going to be my last summer painting, no doubt about it. That was my first summer painting, and I said I’d never be painting again. Here I am, thirty-five years later, and I’m still painting.
Noise: Sticking with the theme of the live shows, I remember last year when you guys played The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Hometown Throwdown, I was waiting in the coat check line and you were saying hello to everyone, shaking hands and passing out stickers. How important is it to you to put that personal touch on things?
Rick: I do it every night. One night I just started passing out stickers or buttons or whatever instead of staying backstage. Now it’s like a pilgrimage every night. I wrap up my cords as fast as possible and run over to the merchandise table, grab all the stuff and try to meet as many people as possible. It makes me feel good.
I have a therapist up in Portland. I do everything I can to help myself feel better. His theory, and I buy into it, is that our only purpose in life is to experience love and to experience interaction with other humans. Sometimes, of course, people think you’re a kook, but I don’t care about them because I engage people in conversation. If they don’t want it, then I’ll move on. Say we’re doing our laundry, I’ll say, what’s going on, and shoot the shit. I try not to get too personal. I don’t go for the jugular, but I’ll tell them a bit about myself and see if they’ll open up to me. Sometimes you have these incredible experiences, and you’ll never see that person again.
Noise: That is a very non-New England thing to do. Last question, is there anything in particular you want the listener to take away from the record?
Rick: That’s a good question, but a tough one. I think I would like them to take from the record that they can have the hope to pursue a challenge. I’m no better than anyone out there. I’m no better than any person trying to do something artistically or creatively or even down other avenues. I pour everything I have into that music. Everything. Last night I was in the practice room, and there were two people waiting to use that room, very gifted people. One of the people waiting was actually on The Voice or one of those shows. I’m thinking to myself they must think I’m a hack, but I don’t care because if everyone waited until they were great at something, they would never get there. If people listen to this Continental record and it gives them hope to pursue something in their life, that’s what I want. I want people to do something, to make themselves happy, to try to enjoy happiness in their life.
Continental will be at Firehouse 13 in Providence on November 8. Because there is no Boston stop on the tour, the band will be providing all Massachusetts residents with either a free T-shirt or copy of Millionaires.