Get to know Barfield with us. We sat down with The Tyrant after Sinners Brunch at Jo’s. The team this time was John Grubbs , Caity Shaffer and I. We had a good time. Make sure you see the Barfield show live. Trust me, you will be entertained! **This interview was updated by Russ Hartman and Greg Etter. There’s lessons to be found if you’re paying attention.**
**AustinDaze: How do you stay healthy on the road?
I stay healthy on the road by drinking lots of coffee in the morning and salty snacks after the show.
AustinDaze: What do you think about SXSW?
SXSW has become harder to navigate after Austin’s growth but I still enjoy playing a couple of events and catching up with friends. It’s also a great time to hear a variety of good music. **
Daze: When and how did you know that you’d be a channel for funky soul music? Tell me a story of how it all started?
Barfield: It kind of morphed over years. I started out in a garage band when I was in junior high school. I came from the school of thought of how the classic 60’s guys like Mick Jagger and James Brown fronted those kind of bands. Then I grew to love country music too, so I sang in some country bands, country rock bands.
I was born in Houston and was around a lot of that kind of music–high school soul, funk. It was all mixed, everything was kind of no holds barred. It was like you can like anything. So my dad didn’t play an instrument, but he liked whatever he liked. He might like a rock song, and he might like some classic jazz song or something. I grew up with that, but I think as time went on…
I was playing in Wisconsin with a little band when I broke off on my own, doing more R&B and blues and soul, and a little bit of funk with my other stuff. This guy billed me as Mike Barfield and said, “Hey, I hope you don’t mind, but I called you “The Tyrant of Texas Funk.” I said, “No. That sounds good.”
When I came back here, that’s been ten years ago I guess, I told Steve about it. That’s how I became billed as that. I gradually started doing more and more of it, and met Johnny Moeller, the guitar player and Mike Flannigan, who plays organ upstairs. Mike was originally in the band with me too, and when I was doing the funk thing we wrote songs together. It just kind of came that way–we didn’t really consciously plan it as such. We got into R&B and soul, then gradually started to morph it into the funk thing. I think with me it’s like if I had horns and all, all the time, you’d watch it and someone with my persona would get lumped into Blues Brother things. What we do, it’s not really pure funk and soul, it’s more of a garage approach, a small combo. I love all that stuff. The fun of it is just doing it I guess. Just being able to live life and enjoy it as much as you can.
Daze: You’ve always had a great band. How did you meet all those people?
Barfield: When I first moved back in here, in 2000, I was still playing with the Hollisters, and I was on Hightone. We had a record, and the guitar player moved to Seattle. I had to grab somebody, and I grabbed Chris Miller. He left the Marcia Ball band and came with me. Chris’s kind of open, in the genre sense, and came up liking the same things even though he was from Portland, and I’m from Texas. We did that for a couple years and I started wanting to make a record on my own. I made a record called Living Stereo with Fort Horton Studios, and it had some covers on it, some country songs I wrote, and soul, R&B, a couple blues tunes. That was kind of my stepping out thing. I did a soul tune by a friend of mine and Chris and Dave Miller were on that.
I was playing one night with Chris Miller doing a little thing I don’t normally do, playing an acoustic gig at Flipnotics. And Chris said, “Oh, Johnny Moeller is here, “ and was talking about Johnny’s guitar playing. So, I went out to the Poodle Dog Lounge where Johnny happened to be playing and Lazy Lester came out. That was the first time I met Johnny and his brother Jay, and Mike Flannigan. I started hiring Johnny a couple times, and we just got to know each other. I never believed that much in cornball destiny things; but, in some ways, you wonder why you connect with certain people or not. It’s just happenstance. I don’t know, but as soon as I saw him play, I just knew I’d be playing with him, or I wanted to.
I met Nick Curran years ago too when he first moved to town; that’s how I met Damien. Nick and Damien were playing together, and Damien goes “hey man, I’d like playing with you, give me a call.” And, I called him. I was a big champion of Nick and Gary Clark Jr. I did a show opening up for Southern Culture on the Skids one time. It was just me, Gary Clark, Jr., and Jay Moeller; we all set up in the front–the drums, and then Gary, and then me. We had no bass player; I just played maracas and sang. We did the opening show and called ourselves The Solution. I’m proud of those moments.
It’s all kind of a good friendly big camaraderie here and that’s what I like–a lot of that kind of intermingling from people that play in different groups.
They (the band) are all inspiring to me. They are younger than me, and you naturally feed off that energy. I’m always looking for somebody that wants to have fun on stage too. That wants to be original. That is my thing as the band leader or front man- to have that freedom where you know that the guys you’re working with are all good at what they do. You don’t want to press on anybody too much like, “I want you to it play exactly this way,” which would be more of the James Brown approach probably. He was more of an architect in his way. My blueprint is different. I have to let somebody do their thing and thereby get even more out of it, I think. They enjoy it more ’cause everybody can take a little advice or something, but nobody wants to be told to play just “that.” They might take it for a while, but it’s more enjoyable to have freedom in music. I call it just playing from the gut. It’s strictly from your soul and from your insides. Why would you want to hold that back in anybody?
Daze: You don’t hold back much.
Barfield: That’s great because I’m hoping that’s what’s happening. If you’re not feeling as good as you normally are…say you are feeling tired and what not, that will bring you up, make you feel better. It helps the audience have a good time if you are enjoying playing, and I like whoever plays for me to always feel that. You have parameters of course on the songs you are doing…
Daze: Do you have a preference between The Continental Club and C-Boys?
Barfield: I like both. I like the small, relaxed hang out at C-Boys with the little deck in the back. So, that’s nice; it’s a little more intimate. But, the stage sound on stage at the Continental Club is one of my favorites in town. I love it, and I’m used to that site. It’s got the perfect size. The Continental has probably been my main stay and most favorite club in Austin for years. I’ve been really lucky because I’ve been working there for a long time. Without that club, I think I would have had a rough time. Steve Wertheimer is a great club owner, the guy that owns both C-Boys and Continental Club. He’s been very, very good to musicians.
Daze: When did you decide to drop the guitar and be a front man?
Barfield: I never really was a guitar player anyway, really. At first I started out as a front man only. Then, later on when I started playing with this other band, the Hollisters, I had to get a chord book and learn basic acoustic rhythm to do that music; and so I did that for years. I still enjoy that, still do it sometimes; but, when I’m doing this band, that just has no place at least right now. There is something freeing about not having that to worry about. Then, I can dance and I can do whatever I want to do.
Daze: Who taught you how to dance?
Barfield: Just watching TV. When I was a kid I used to love all of the dance shows on TV, even local in Houston–that would be the Larry Kane Show where they would just have dancers. It would be like the old Dick Clark show. You’d see kids dancing, and the bands would come on and play or they’d be taped and just had the music…and then Soul Train. I grew up with that, my age group. To me that was the epitome of free form dancing. My last years in high school, the white kids wore platform shoes, long hair, and blacks had fros, whites too. Those were the styles I grew up with in the 70s. I think it’s timeless–I don’t think it’s ever gone out of fashion.
You can be free and ridiculous; you quit worrying about what people think. If someone wants to laugh at me, that’s fine too. I don’t really care. It’s like I know that I’m going to enjoy my life as much as I can. You want to make fun of that, that’s fine. Some people just want to go “look at him” but I think it makes people relax too and they aren’t as inhibited about dancing. Some people need somebody to be that for them, so that’s what I tell them, “I’ll take care of the embarrassment for you. You don’t have to worry about it.”
Daze: Is that part of what’s behind lyrics like “Popping the Cooch?”
Barfield: Yeah, subconsciously, I’m sure that is a lot of what it is. I got that because one of my friends used to talk about this guy he worked with, who would brag, kind of joking around humor like, “This is how you pop that cooch,” and make that sound and do it (clicks his tongue). It’s nasty, but at the same time it’s harmless fun. I had a whole group of girls in Lincoln, Wisconsin. They came out and said, “We’ve got a surprise for you tonight.” I was like, what is it? “It’s about music.” And I thought, are you gonna bring me a record. So, I get to this show, and all of a sudden they’ve got this look on their face and they pull their shirts off and they all have tank top or a black t-shirt that said “Popping the Cooch” on the shirt. My point there is that some girls don’t find that offensive. It’s not my wife’s favorite song that’s for sure.
Daze: You mentioned James Brown before. How do you feel about being compared to him?
Barfield: I’m flattered if someone even thinks about comparing me to James Brown. There are only a few musicians that have been giants, Mount Rushmore type figures in music. He would be one to me. He took some musical form like rhythm and blues and soul music, and all of a sudden he accents it another way. Just by his natural instincts, and lack of formal training, comes up with this thing that nobody has come up with. He truly is the Godfather of Soul. He started out more as soul and became funk. I can’t think of anybody I would say has been more influential. There’s a movie coming out about him that Mick Jagger produced.
Daze: Did you ever get to meet James Brown?
Barfield: No. I saw him once in his later years, but even at that age, he was still very tough. He was like 70 years old and still doing a couple moves. Maybe he didn’t sing as good as he used to, but he was great. The band was machine tight. I mean, I wish I could have seen him way back. A lot of my favorite singers are people of that era. I wish I could have seen Jackie Wilson. I love him. He’s a singer, and his vocal range is so different from mine. I am naturally a baritone, but I kind of have a high end to my voice; so, I have always admired someone who has that higher range.
Daze: What is your writing process like?
Barfield: When I am writing for this band, or trying to, sometimes I will have an idea on my own; or, other times, Johnny will have an idea about a rhythm or chord progression, and I’ll put lyrics to that. Sometimes I’ll have both. “The Struggle” I wrote myself. “Popping the Cooch, I wrote. With the Struggle, I originally wanted a song that just stays on the one all the time. And that’s what that song was. Some stuff I will start off on the acoustic guitar. Lately, I am writing a lot with Johnny. And I used to write a lot with Mike Flannigan too. I like having a partner in crime. Sometimes the whole band will get in on it. Sometimes they just help arrange it. It just kind of depends.
That’s what’s fun about being in a group. Feeling like if it is really going good on stage, or if you come up with something good, you almost feel like you are part of a big wheel that’s turning. You’re making this whole thing go. At the same time, you’re just a big spoke in it, part of the thing that’s pushing it forward. When everybody is in that, and the whole band can feel it, there is nothing like that. I love that feeling. It is kind of like you are tripping in another way. You are physically involved, and mentally involved, but it’s relaxed. It’s just happening. All those things you’ve worked on before.
But “good’ and “bad’ you know. Some nights when I feel it’s not as great, that’s when everybody goes, “Man, that sounded so good!” And you’ll think, “Oh, I thought we were a little bit off.” It’s a strange thing. That makes you realize, “I don’t have a whole handle on it either. The people out there; they are the ones making it too.”
Daze: What’s next for you?
Barfield: We are trying to get a little EP out. We’ve got a recording we are waiting on to get mastered. Hopefully, we’ll make some vinyl. Some CDs. Have a release party. Try to get out more. I am looking forward to that. It’s always hard too—the waiting. I just try not to worry about things like this as much as I used to. Take it day by day…
Daze: Do you have a lot of gigs this week?
Barfield: Tuesday night, at the Continental. Just about every week.
Daze: Your gig is one that, definitely, everybody in Austin needs to go out and see. Thank you for doing this.
Barfield: Ah, you bet. Thank you, man.