Introducing…Charlie Barnes

I hadn’t planned on reviewing the night, but half an hour later after trying to scrape my brain off the ceiling it was a different story

It was a quiet Tuesday night in August 2009. Most of Manchester’s student population had long departed, people were on holiday, and struggling to fill slots at the night he was promoting with bands he actually knew and liked, Air Cav’s Mark Jones had decided to give a slot to a solo artist who’d contacted him online. Just down for a drink I hadn’t planned on reviewing the night, but half an hour later after trying to scrape my brain off the ceiling it was a different story: the world needed to know about Charlie Barnes.

"He’s the middle one of three acts tonight; the others are both post-punk-indie type guitar bands. It’s not really their fault that there are just too many bands like them around right now. The night belongs to one man and his laptop. And, of course, the requisite keyboard and table of cables and other vaguely electronics-laboratory looking stuff that is the toolbox of the modern day one-man band. When he starts off, making some rather weird gasping noises into the microphone, there’s absolutely no clue where this is going to end up; turns out he’s just beatboxing some percussion tracks. Next he slips in some rich synth parts that have the ebb and flow and structures of early-00s post-rock; if you can imagine Maps covering Oceansize you’re probably in the right sort of ballpark. Sounding good, then, but then he leans into the microphone again and he’s obviously about to sing, and for a split second there’s that worry that he could fuck it all up by emitting some sort of melancholy mumble, but no: suddenly it’s like the room is filled by a celestial choir of Thom Yorkes only with the nasally thing somehow excised. It’s round about this time that we lose the ability to form sentences. Now even if he just did this sort of thing four or five times it would still represent a combination of outrageously ambitious imagination and the skill to actually pull it off that’s pretty rare. But there are other sides to him too; almost ghostly vocal-and-piano moments that recall the quietly brooding side of Hope Of The States, so perfectly interspersed between the bigger stuff that the set as a whole is somehow even more than the sum of its parts." – 

I’d been looking for an opening act for a gig I was promoting under the Incendiary banner in Leeds and now I had one. Air Cav meanwhile booked him for their self-promoted In The City fringe show around the same time. More jaws dropped. A few months later and the amiable wunderkind is ready to release his debut album "Geekk" on his 21st birthday at the end of May, so we decided it was time for a chat. How does anyone end up making such an original and astonishing noise? Well, that seems as good a place as any to start…

CB: I learnt guitar when I was 12, played in some crap rock bands through my teenage years, but because I was in bands with people a bit older than me they all went to uni so I just started mucking around with a laptop and stuff, and eventually that became what I wanted to do. So I started doing the whole live looping thing when I went off to uni and just spent hours in my room every day working out how different songs could work in a kind of loopy format, then developed this little set that I’ve been playing for two years and that I’m bored shitless of!

IN: You’re still a student now then?

CB: Yeah, just finishing off my final year now, I’m submitting the album for my (adopts comedy "academic" voice) Individual Project which has to have a 2,500 word write up on various theories and all sorts of shit, so I’m doing it through uni and unsing various uni facilities but I’m doing the album more for me, and once all that’s finished I’m Freeeee!

IN: As the review quoted above attempts to explain, it’s quite a sound he’s got, so – what are the most important tools that go into making a Charlie Barnes?

CB: Last year I went on tour with Amplifier and a few weeks before I accidentally quite drunkenly spilled some cider on my laptop and killed it, and I realised in the week I was without a laptop how completely central it is to my entire life, which is a little bit depressing… and I get quite itchy fingers if I’m not around a piano for more than a couple of days… if I could have a laptop and piano wherever I went I’d be pretty happy I think…

IN: When we’ve watched you live you’re laying down loops and bringing in samples and some prepared stuff – what’s the anatomy of a live Charlie Barnes track?

CB: It kind of depends on the track. I always write away from the looper, I don’t want to think about the electronics when I’m writing a piece of music, I just write a song with the piano or guitar and voice; if it can work in a looped form I’ll work out a way of doing it. There’s some songs I’ll just play over a backing track or completely acoustically which adds a nice flow to the set. I used to do sets where every single song had looping in it and there was just too much of it, it’d take two minutes to get going. I like to think about that sort of structure when I’m playing, I’ll usually start off with something interesting and loopy, divert away a bit and then usualy finish off with the same two songs that have the most interesting looping bits in. I’ve never decided to write an extra bit for a song so it would sound really good with the looper.

IN: Time to talk about the album, then. Is this a completely solo effort or are there other people involved?

CB: There’s loads of people involved in it. I wrote everything for it, I had a ittle bit of help with the string arrangements from the guy who’s played most of the bass on the album, a guy called John Taylor who’s at Leeds College Of Music, a double-bassist so he’s much more familiar with a string quartet. I wrote the string arrangements by ear just on my computer and he went through them with me and made a few changes so they’d sound better on the instruments. The drums I laid down a rough idea of how I wanted the beats and then sent that to the drummer, a guy called Ste Anderson who plays in a Leeds band caled Hail Animator, then we’d meet up at his and he’d play through what he’d done with it and I’d act like a bandleader picking out bits I liked and bits I didn’t like… there’s a trumpet player called Joe who’s in a band called Maia; there’s the string quartet who I hired in for a lot of money but they were worth every penny, a friend plays clarinet on it; my sister plays the flute on it; I’ve got Neil from Amplifier playing bass on a track; and a possible other celebrity guest doing something on a track that I’m not going to talk about in case it falls through and I look like an idiot! So it’s not just me, but all the piano, guitar and voice is me…

IN: You’re putting the album out yourself?

CB: Yep, completely. My student loan is paying for the printing of it, I’m getting some packaging samples through at the moment, had one the other day and it was a load of shit, I’m working on the artwork which I’m doing all myself, selling it myself at the gigs, hopefully I’ll sell aload at the album launch so I can pay some of my rent for next year. I’m not putting it on I-Tunes yet cos I want people to buy the physical one cos it’s more exciting.

IN: We agree on that then: there’s just something more enjoyable about holding a record than just having it on the computer. We won’t bore you with the details of the incredibly geeky (geekky?) discussion which transpires, involving different records we have recently respectively purchased that came packed in handmade wooden boxes, but aren’t Young People meant to be all about the bit-torrents or I-Tunes these days? Not this one.

CB: I’ve got a couple of albums I’ve bought off I-Tunes and it doesn’t feel like I own it. I really like this thing where because record sales are dwindling there’s this new culture of people doing special things with their album packaging, you get more than just an album, you get extended artwork, DVDs, special boxes… I’ve got into David Sylvian recently, I hadn’t heard of him until last year and he’s done this album with loads of avant-garde improvisors and put his own vocals over the top of it and you could buy the album for 15 quid or you could buy this amazing box set thing with a documentary and hardback books for like 60 which obviously you go for cos it’s much more exciting. I like that kind of culture, it adds an extra dimension. So with mine there’ll only be about 400 copies of it for sale at first, and 50 of those will be in a stamped recycled paper bag with a bookmark and badges, and the artwork is this scribbled little drawing of a man and I’m going to be doing 50 of those of him doing different things on nice card with paint washes over it. I just want to create a more exciting package for people to hold.

IN: So you’ve mentioned Amplifier a couple of times, that’s a pretty impressive band to have been supporting when you were effectively just starting out, how did that happen?

CB: I’ve been a massive fan since I was 15, I went to one of their gigs when I was 17 and I was incredibly pissed, I was an absolute disgrace, I handed Sel (Balamir, Amplifier frontman) a CD in a very drunken manner and I think he thought it was alrght, when when I got round to doing that EP I got a message from Neil saying it’s amazing so I just asked them if I could support them! They were doing this one-off gig and Neil said he’d put it by the others and they decided they’d go for it. They thought it’d split the audience 50/50 but turned out to be more of a 90/10 – so they got me on tour with them cos I don’t take up very much room! It was really nice, just the three of them and me and this guy doing some filming, all in a van up and down the country doing tiny venues doing it all themselves. After that tour they asked me to come to the studio with them and I played a bit of piano for them. It’s just been this kind of constant link over the past year and a half – it’s kind of like they’re my musical uncles… I’ve got musical uncles, but they’re like my other musical uncles! And then at the end of last year they did that gig to celebrate being together ten years, a massive milestone, and they asked me to play keyboards for them for half the set which was just a massive honour. I listen to the tracks we played and the hairs on the back of the neck just go… they’re amazing people.

IN: This is leading straight for the part where we ask about influences. Obvious, I know, but let’s see how many we guessed right…

CB: Well there’s an easy link from them to Oceansize, I’ve been a massive Oceansize fan for years, I’ve seen them like 22 times or something geeky like that but I have got friend who’ve seen them more like 60 times. Radiohead – well, I was talking to my girlfriend the other day about how if I was to sum up music there’d be two kinds of music, pre-"OK Computer" and post-"OK Computer" and as I happen to fall into the second category I sound a bit like Radiohead. Some of the post-rock stuff but not too much cos it gets a bit wanky; Rufus Wainwright; Scott Walker who is the reason I have strings and brass on my album: Sigur Ros are a big influence as well – it’s generally kind of left-field slightly arty-farty big pop music. I’m not that much into electronic music apart from the ambient stuff.

IN: So you say you’ve been doing effectively the same live set for two years, are these the tracks that make up the album?

CB: They make up about half the album, there’s other tracks I can’t really play live in my kind of solo form; songs with a guitar which I can’t really do live cos it’s just another thing I have to lug around on the train, and stuff that wouldn’t work with the live looping thing so there’s a lot that people won’t have heard before, and the songs I do play live sound completely different on the album cos they’ve got strings and drums and all sorts of stuff. When I put the EP out and people would buy it after the show some of them would be disappointed that they don’t get a recording of the live loop set, I’ve sent people huge emails telling them why and generally I think people understand the fact that i want the two to be almost completely separate entities."

IN: OK, one last thing, this GEEKK business…

CB: I don’t really know. "No Offenkk" is definitely not a Brass Eye reference, just want to clear that one up, I hadn’t even seen Brass Etye at the time I did that… "Geekk" was probably a typo or something; I am of course a total geek, I play with all my electronic toys, I’m a bit of a music snob and it fits in quite nicely and it’s memorable that it’s got 2 K’s"

IN: The album’s out at the end of May, and shortly afterwards there’s graduation: what happens next?

CB: I move to Leeds, get a job in a cafe and try my hardest to make some more people interested in my music so they buy it and I can eat! I used to be really confident that I was going to get signed and take over the world by the time I was 20, but now it’s more about finding a niche of people who listen to your stuff and enjoy it and I’m gooing to just keep working at finding that niche. I don’t think I’ll ever be what’s cool at the moment – hopefully, anyway, I’d hate that…