Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #133. Subscribe to our print edition here!
No kids' songs, no soul standards... Jimmy Barnes has returned to the rock world, and with a little help from his friends, he's made one of his best albums yet. The legendary Barnesy – along with guitarist Danny Spencer and bassist/engineer Benjamin Rodgers – chats with David James Young to explain the making of the hardest, darkest Jimmy Barnes record in years.
You may consider yourself a busy person, and truthfully you may well be right. Here’s the real question, though: Are you Jimmy Barnes busy?
Here’s a brief highlight reel from the last four years: One new Cold Chisel album, a new solo album of soul covers, a collaboration with The Wiggles (resulting in an ARIA-winning children’s album and accompanying book), a cross-generational meme thanks to a cameo in Kirin J Callinan’s “Big Enough”, two best-selling memoirs, a documentary based on the first of those books, three national tours, and a partridge in a pear tree. How on earth Barnes found time to do anything, let alone write and record a brand new album, is anyone’s guess.
“I’ve always just liked to keep active and keep busy,” reasons the man himself, on the line to Australian Guitar from Sydney prior to a live performance taping. “I’ve started writing a third book, and I’ve just sent another kids’ book off to the publisher. We’re looking at doing another Chisel record in the next twelve months, plus me and some friends of mine are gonna make a rockabilly album as well. It’s good to keep busy – especially because I’ve got a lot to say.”
So much is apparent with My Criminal Record, Barnes’ 18th studio album and his first collection of primarily original songs since 2010. A rock album by nature, the LP was written and thematically structured in response to Barnes’ memoirs, Working Class Man and Working Class Boy.
“There were a few songs in their embryonic form before I wrote the books,” Barnes explains, “But the album itself was really made in response to the impact that writing them had on me. It’s not a continuation of the same story, but I had to tell that story in order to tell this one.”
Trainspotters will have noted a key similarity between the title of Barnes’ new solo album and the title of Cold Chisel’s most recent studio album, 2015’s The Perfect Crime. It’s not intended purely for literal interpretation, despite Barnes’ run-ins with the law through his teens and 20s. Rather, it’s a wider analogy for injustice within our immediate society.
“It was criminal the way we were brought up,” he says. “It’s criminal the way people like my family lived in poverty in this country. It’s criminal the way people are still living in poverty in this country. It’s about the ongoing impact of poverty, domestic violence and alcoholism – both on me growing up and on this country as a whole.”
My Criminal Record was recorded with mainstays of Barnes’ backing band, including veteran keyboardist Clayton Doley and drummer Warren Trout. On guitar is Danny Spencer, who lucked his way into the band back when he was just a kid out of high school.
“When I left school, I studied sound engineering,” he explains. “One of my teachers used to do sound for Jimmy, and he got me a job as a guitar tech for him. Within a year, I was playing guitar in the band – I felt like I snuck in through the side door.”
Someone with a more straightforward connection to the band, meanwhile, is guitarist, bassist, engineer and co-writer Benjamin Rodgers – who also happens to be Barnes’ son-in-law. “I was originally playing in the band for Mahalia [Barnes, Jimmy’s daughter and Rodgers’ wife],” he explains. “After about ten years of that, Jimmy asked me to play acoustic guitar on a couple of tracks – and, pretty much, one thing lead to another.”
Rodgers is now an all-rounder and multi-instrumentalist within the fold of the band; “They call me Jazz Boy,” he says with a laugh. “Whenever they need a different sort of instrument on a track, they’ll throw it to me to see if I can do it. ‘You can play mandolin, right?,’ they’ll ask – and I’ll say, ‘How hard can it be?’”
For My Criminal Record, Rodgers held down the low-end on bass, with his normal lead guitar role being filled by You Am I guitarist Davey Lane.
“I loved it,” says Rodgers of bringing in Lane for the recording process. “For me, Danny is such an American style of guitar player, while Davey has a totally British feel. When they’re playing together, it feels like perfect harmony.”
Indeed, the guitar plays a prominent part in the sound of My Criminal Record – whether that’s the hefty snarl of “I’m In A Bad Mood” or the twanging blues stomp of “My Demon (God Help Me),” the band seems to nail the tone just right.
“I was using a 100-watt Marshall and a 100-watt Hiwatt, and I’d go between the two of them depending on what song we were tracking,” says Spencer. “All the acoustic stuff was done in the overdubs, so we were playing electrics live – in my case, that was a Goldtop Les Paul reissue for the most part. I also had my 1964 L-Series Strat, and for the slide parts I was using a copy of Ry Cooder’s guitar [the Coodercaster]. It’s got a lap steel pickup in the bridge, a Teisco Gold Foil in the neck and really heavy strings, so it goes really well for slide.”
Spencer goes on to note that it was really about letting the guitars speak for themselves in terms of sound: “When you’re using something like a Les Paul, and you’re running it through a Marshall, you don’t really need to do a lot more. There were a couple of drives here and there – a bit of Tubescreamer, a bit of tremolo – but that’s honestly about it.”
Rodgers took a similar approach to the bass for My Criminal Record, adapting the KISS principle to full effect. “I’ve got an old 1968 Ampeg [Portaflex] flip-top,
and it just sounds incredible,” he says. “We DI’d it into the desk with an TG preamp, which is kind of like the preamp on Abbey Road. It was very simple – the way Kevin [Shirley, producer] sees it, if it sounds good when you plug it in then that’s the sound for the album.”
Spencer, Rodgers and co. were tracked live, with the whole band performing together in the main room of the studio. A lot of what you hear on My Criminal Record is only the first or second time the full band had played the song – such was the rapid-fire approach of Shirley and the consummate professionalism of the band.
“Kevin works pretty quick,” says Spencer. “We’d all be charting our parts in the song based off an iPhone demo, and the next thing you know we’re fleshing it out on the spot. It gave us a lot of freedom to play to the feel of it, but it also didn’t leave much time for second-guessing or over-editing your parts.”
Barnes agrees that having the entire band in the room was instrumental to achieving a spontaneous, direct-hitting feel on each song. “I really wanted to make sure the songs fit with the way I wanted to play live,” he says. “It only made sense to cut this record with my band, and get us all into the one room to do it. I wanted to make sure the core of this record came across very raw and very live.”
My Criminal Record was a labour of love for everyone involved. Ask anyone who worked on it and they’ll sing its praises as if they were its biggest fan. “It’s a very direct and off-the-cuff record,” says Rodgers. “We didn’t rehearse all that much, and we’d only played a couple of the songs live.” Spencer, additionally, goes on to note that although this isn’t the way he normally works within the confines of the studio, it was a beneficial and rewarding experience for him and the band.
“A few years ago, I would have found the premise of doing a record like this quite daunting,” he says. “At this point, though, the band has played a lot together. It’s such a comfortable feeling when you’re recording together – you still have to be on your toes, but it’s an environment where everyone relies on one another. We’re all very instinctual, and I think that shows in the way we play on this record.”
For Barnes himself, it’s about putting lightning in a bottle. He wants this record to hit in the same way an album like Circus Animals or For The Working Class Man. He may be turning 64 this year, but he is in no way ready to be put out to pasture. “In the years since I last put out a rock record, my shows have changed a lot,” he says.
“They’re a lot simpler – and, in a way, I feel they’re a lot more organic. That’s the way I wanted this record to go. It’s this great contrast of songs with these dark, complex tones that are presented with these really stripped-back, simple arrangements. It’s an album where every song could slip seamlessly in- between any great song in my live show.”
Rodgers agrees. “It’s got a really rocking feel to it,” he concludes. “If you were going to capture the essence of what it’s like to watch Jimmy perform, you’d get this album.”
Wednesday September 18th - Entertainment Centre, Mackay QLD
Friday September 20th - Entertainment Centre, Townsville QLD
Saturday September 21st - Munro Martin Parklands, Cairns QLD
Wednesday September 25th - Town Hall, Dunedin NZ
Thursday September 26th - Town Hall, Christchurch NZ
Saturday September 28th - Spark Arena, Auckland NZ
Thursday October 3rd - WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong NSW
Saturday October 5th - Hordern Pavilion, Sydney NSW
Saturday October 12th - Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne VIC
Sunday October 13th - Entertainment Centre, Adelaide SA
Thursday October 17th - Empire Theatre, Toowoomba QLD
Saturday October 19th - Riverstage, Brisbane QLD
Sunday October 20th - HOTA, Surfers Paradise QLD
Friday October 25th - Entertainment Centre, Newcastle NSW
Saturday October 26th - Park Beach Reserve, Coffs Harbour NSW
Thursday October 31st - Royal Theatre, Canberra ACT
Saturday November 2nd - Pola Park, Tullamore NSW
Sunday November 10th - Racecourse, Ascot WA