The Bad Seeds and Magazine bassist on writing music for David Lynch, being ignored by Morrissey and moving to Moss Side to recuperate after the ’80s.
HI, BARRY! Your website describes you as a “singer-songwriter, composer, instrumentalist, film-maker, photographer”. And you’ve won awards for your short stories. Is there nothing you can’t do?
We live in a polymath era when everyone does lots of stuff. It’s easier now. You can take great photographs with an iPhone. I’ve embraced that as an idea, and found that I can write a song, make a short film, take a photograph. It’s like different paintings from the same brush.
Hence your new album, which started life as a photo book.
I got a call from Nick Cave to help the Bad Seeds out for a few months, which turned into a few years. I took a camera with me, and wherever I went between the soundcheck and the show, I’d go out and take a few snaps. Then I’d look at the photos and play around with a guitar. It wasn’t quite: “Here’s a song about being in Texas”. It was more about the feeling the pictures recalled: maybe on that day I was feeling particularly lonely, away from the family. It just grew from there.
The album spans everything from prog rock to psychedelia to crooning, but if there is a thread throughout your work, it’s an outsiderness — documenting desperate characters.
I’ve been called “the outsider’s outsider”: an observer. Growing up as a mixed-race kid in 1960s Moss Side, I tried to be anonymous, which gives you a journalistic quality, walking round, taking notes.
Is it true that you developed a talent for mimicry to avoid being bullied?
It was a way to endear myself to people, but it provided an observational tool. I used to floor people with my Rigsby from Rising Damp. I still impersonate people, but you’ve got to watch it. I did Nick in front of him and he sorta looked at me, knowing I was getting it right and mortally offended at the same time. But he saw the funny side and is probably plotting his revenge.
As an outsider, did punk bring an epiphany?
For the first time I felt in the right place, right time, right age. I was 17, [Buzzcocks’] Spiral Scratch had just come out, and so from being this lone figure I was suddenly involved in a movement. I auditioned for Magazine on a bass with two strings. I couldn’t play it, but I came up with the one-note bass line for ‘The Light Pours Out of Me’, so I was in.
And you ended on Top of the Pops doing ‘Shot By Both Sides’.
I remember sitting in the cafe with the cast from Blake’s 7, with this bloke dressed in tin foil ordering lasagne. Then we did The Old Grey Whistle Test and I took a pee next to Joey Ramone. I remember looking down at this size 15 shoe. “How ya doin’ kid?”
Did you have many encounters with the other Manchester misfits – Ian Curtis, Morrissey and so on?
It was a breeding ground for those people, so you’d see them all the time. I chatted to Ian Curtis a lot. Morrissey not so much. We once shared a dressing room, neither of us saying a word. Afterwards he said: “What was wrong with that guy? He wouldn’t talk to me.” I thought it was the other way round.
Then you replaced the infamous Tracy Pew in the Birthday Party.
An incredible experience. Nick [Cave] was turning himself inside out. You’d stay out of the way of a backflip and watch out for someone in the front row breathing fire on you. There was a chaos that we took into the early Bad Seeds. Freneticism, obsession, weird details, extraordinary alternatives — all the time.
Is it a bit calmer in the Seeds these days?
[Chuckles] I was playing Push the Sky Away in the studio before the tour, quietly working through songs. I couldn’t believe the difference between that and being in Hansa studios in the ’80s, out of my mind.
Isn’t that why you left the band in 1986, because of the chaotic lifestyle?
I had a series of deaths in the family and decided to slow down. By the time I was 30, I realised that if I didn’t make changes I’d be dead. It sounds funny, but the place I chose to relax and recuperate was actually Moss Side. I’d hear all these sirens and dissonance outside, and that fed into Moss Side Story.
That must have been one of the first soundtracks for an imaginary film, which subsequently became all the rage.
I wanted to get into film, but didn’t know where to start, so I did a soundtrack. I was so arrogant that I said to my girlfriend (who’s now my wife) that I was only going to work with people like David Lynch, Tarantino and Danny Boyle. She said: “Well, good luck with that …” But that’s what happened. I got a commission for Natural Born Killers [written by Tarantino], did some stuff with Derek Jarman …
Then David Lynch called…
My publisher’s daughter was working in his office, and he was looking for some music for a party scene, so she handed him Moss Side Story. I was in a wheelchair following a hip operation when the phone went. “Barry. This is David Lynch. I’ve been listening to your music for ten hours straight. I would like you to work on my new movie. I will send you a scene. Show it to no one.” And that was it. If you want a masterclass in film-making, work with David Lynch. I arrived in Los Angeles, still in the wheelchair. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll have my people carry you.”
It must have been very different working with Danny Boyle?
Very different — he’s from Lancashire. But with them both, it’s all about the film. I worked with him and Leonardo DiCaprio on The Beach. I saw Danny recently in Manchester and gave him a little nod, and he looked at me as if to say: “What the fuck happened to you?”
What inspired your love of film?
Nearly every film from 1960 to ’75, from Hitchcock to Scorsese. The ’70s particularly resonate with me. Very dark, reflective: art, as opposed to entertainment television.
Was it fun playing with Magazine again when the band reunited?
It’s funny: 30 years on, the dynamics were exactly the same. The photographer Steve Gullick described the audience as “a sea of bald heads, like looking at beans on toast”. But they’d brought their children, and the stuff sounded fantastic.
Your new album is called Know Where to Run. Do you know where to run, Barry?
I do now because they’ve closed off a bit of the pier, so you’re not allowed down there. I visited the Motown studios, and the song ‘Nowhere to Run’ was blasting out, so I started playing with that idea. I never quite switch off, but I try to down tools at weekends, otherwise my 11-year-old son will kick my ass.
© Dave Simpson, The Guardian, 15 February 2016