Q+A: Dicky Barrett
Ska is the Michael Myers of music: No matter how many times it appears to be dead and buried, it pops right up again. For 20-plus years Boston’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones have been an integral part in keeping the ska scene alive, even if their punk- and metal-influenced brand of ska-core bears little resemblance to the two-tone sounds of bands like the Specials. And the loudest of the band’s growls have always come from its frontman, Dicky Barrett. Underneath the clashing plaid suits he’s known for, Barrett wears another fashion statement: sleeves of ink. When getting tattooed, he fully understood the art would be there forever, so he didn’t go about it haphazardly. “Once I realized I was going to do that to my arms, it wasn’t enough to just go, ‘Okay, shamrock; okay, now skull.’ It had to be more meaningful than that.”
In 2004, Barrett left Boston for sunny L.A., where he has a day job working on Jimmy Kimmel Live!—but this has done nothing to stop the band. In December 2011, the Bosstones released their eighth album, The Magic of Youth.
We talked with Barrett about the perils of writing an album thousands of miles away from the other band members, having to explain his tattoos to his daughter, and the recent successes and failures of the sports teams he lives and dies with.
INKED: How did The Magic of Youth come together?
Dicky Barrett: The pressure was on, and I feel great relief now that it’s done. I’m always worried we’ll put out a new album and the longtime supporters of the band will come up to me and say, “You know, not quite this time.” Luckily, like always, this one seems to be their favorite. You can now get the immediate satisfaction through the social networking to know what people think about it right away. That’s kind of nice for an old guy like me. It’s cool to use the new technology to learn that people still like the music you make. On top of that we are getting the best [critic] reviews of our career, which is real, real nice.
You talk about the immediate response from fans—isn’t it true that the album leaked a few weeks prior to when it was going to be released?
[Laughs.] I think that was a planned leak, a strategic leak. A guy named Jon Pebsworth, who you may know from Buck-O-Nine, has been helping us with the release. So I think that release was a little more calculated than, “Oops.”
The Bosstones have always had a strong connection to their hometown of Boston, but nowadays you are living out in L.A.
We’re all scattered to the wind. We make our way all around. Although Boston is the greatest place on earth, it is a great big world and there are plenty of places to experience, and we recommend that.
After years of suffering, Boston has had a wealth of sports championships in the last 10 years. Which was the most meaningful for you?
It’s a bit tough to pick just one, but it would probably have to be the Red Sox in 2004. That erased everything. Although the Patriots were pretty damn exciting and that went down first—and, good God, I love those Celtics so much. For the recent championships, it still has to be Red Sox.
It must have been an enormous thrill to play at Fenway Park.
It was unbelievable. We were drinking with the team in the clubhouse—it was all kinds of crazy. [Laughs.] Nah, I’m kidding. This was before anyone knew what buffoons the Sox were and before the monumental fucking nosedive.
Back to the recording, does it make it difficult to write songs and record while separated from the rest of the band?
You would think that it would be harder, but it is actually much easier. It’s not that it’s easier because we are spread out, but it’s easier because of what I was referring to before, the modern technology. I think we would still write and create a record this way even if we were next-door neighbors. There’s nothing easier than coming up with a lyrical idea and writing it on your cell phone, sending it over to your writing partner, and then him telling you immediately whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. The same goes for music now. I can e-mail a complete musical idea instantly. In the old days when we were making Devil’s Night Out and Don’t Know How to Party, if you had a musical idea you had to find a piece of paper, write it down, then run across town with it to find your buddy and hope he has his guitar with him. Do people want to think of us sitting in some practice space somewhere strumming guitars because it’s a much more romantic notion? Sure. I feel like I’m writing more now than I ever did before. Now we’ve been steadily working on this record and passing ideas around all the time. It’s more collaborative than it’s ever been before. I know it’s strange. We’ve got a guy who lives in Norway and he wrote a lot of the horn parts there, whereas in the old days he wouldn’t have even known what the music was until we hit the studio because there was no way to get it to him. It’s crazy and a lot of the romanticism is taken out of it, but the proof is in the pudding—and in my opinion it’s a great record, and that’s how it was made. It was two years of us working, trading, swapping, planning, writing, and that’s what came out.
What do you think of the current state of music? It seems as if there are very few rock bands left. And finding a new ska band is damn near impossible.
It’s more important to be a good band than it is to be a good ska band. A lack of better words is the only reason why we were called a ska band. We loved ska music and we were influenced by it and you can hear it in what we do, but are we a traditional ska band in the sense of the Skatalites? No, we’re a good hundred miles away from that, at an estimate. There are probably some fantastic punk bands out there, but with the current state of things I don’t think there are the same opportunities out there. When we were coming up as a band and touring that’s what it was all about, and doing that doesn’t exist anymore. I think there is nothing better than loading the van, reading the atlas, and figuring out where Ohio is. Then once you get to Ohio, figuring out where the club is and doing that was how people knew you.
Lyrically this album seems a little different than ones past. Was there a greater emphasis on the lyrics?
I think that lyrically I really thought about it, I put a lot into it. I credit having worked on the Jimmy Kimmel show for the last eight years for that. With the people I work with—like Cousin Sal or Adam Carolla, who is a good friend of mine—they are all very clever people, as are the Bosstones. I’m not hanging out with a bunch of dumb people. If I said I had a new record out and there is nothing but a lot of dumb, un-thought-out lyrics, I think I would take shit from them, on top of all the shit I would take from Joe Gittleman and the band. I am really proud of it and I didn’t settle. I never said that this was good enough. I’ve always thought that I write better lyrics than I sing them. On top of that, I will say that no one can sing a Bosstones song better than me. No one would want to.
With that growl in your voice people thought that you had to have throat surgery a few years back.
No, I never did. That’s a great old rumor. I might have even started it. If I growl a little less now it’s because I’m a bit older. Also, if you are doing 300-plus Bosstones shows a year for 10 to 15 years, the growling definitely takes its toll. That’s the voice I’ve always liked and enjoyed—I never wanted to sound like the Backstreet Boys. I think time and rest have helped, but no, I’ve never had surgery. It’s cool that people think that. Sometimes the bullshit is better than the real stuff. I heard that one time I got in a bar fight and someone slashed my throat—I should play that up, right?
What if people ask to see the scar?
They’ll think, “He lives in Hollywood, he’s got a real good plastic surgeon.”
So the motivation for your art is to avoid having your friends give you shit about the quality…
I want to avoid being given shit, but they also really inspire me. I can’t be lazy. Jimmy Kimmel is a really hard worker, and the people he hires are really hard workers. So when I’m doing something, I know he’ll tell me right to my face if it’s horrible. I would tell him too, if I ever thought the show sucked, which I don’t—he does a really good job. But that’s the kind of friends we are. Plus, the people that work there are very young and very talented. Of all the late-night shows it’s the smallest writing staff, but for my money it’s the best.
I don’t want my friends to think that I suck. That’s all-inclusive—that means my wife, the band, and all of the people at the Kimmel show. With the social media there are going to be people that say you suck anyway, whether they heard the album or not. That’s fine—you’re going to get some of that.
Tell us a little about your ink and what artists have worked on you.
I love tattoos and I’ve gotten them all over the world. My biggest regret is that I never wrote down who did what. A lot of famous tattoo artists have given me tattoos, I just can’t remember which ones, and I feel bad about it. I had a radio show on Indie 103.1 [in Los Angeles]. It was my first year working with Jimmy and living out here. The guy who was putting the station together asked me if I wanted to do a morning show. I had the time in the morning, so why not? I could create the show and play whatever I wanted, so I said sure. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I figured I wouldn’t last long because all I can really talk about is Boston and punk rock. A few weeks before the show was going to start, Jimmy calls me into his office and asks, “What are you going to do on this radio show?”
“Well, I don’t know,” I told him.
Now, Jimmy is a lifetime radio guy. So I’m getting nervous because I don’t really have any plans, and he says, “If you don’t know what kind of show it’s going to be, I can tell you: It’s going to be a bad show.” I then told him that on Tuesdays I’m going to give tattoos. This was the only thing I could think of right on the spot.
Radio doesn’t seem like it would be the best outlet for a visual medium like tattooing.
It was a really horrible idea because all morning long you would hear EEEEEEEHHHHHHH [imitates a tattoo machine] while I’m interviewing people. Yet somehow it caught on. We had Kat [Von D] before she had her own TV show, we had lots of really interesting tattoo artists. We had the guy from Shamrock Tattoo, really great guy, [Mark] Mahoney. We learned how to keep the gun lower so we could keep it out of the mix, and it ended up a pretty good idea. It got to the point when people would ask to come on the show I would ask, “Are you willing to get a tattoo?” It was great. I ended up getting extra tattoos that I didn’t really need or want.
If you didn’t book a guest you still wanted to keep tattooing on Tuesday?
Exactly. It was really funny, you would get all these artists who had never been up that early before. Tattoo guys were the absolute coolest guys to have in the studio. They weren’t dicks, they were happy to be there and had no agenda. I’d always ask how they got into it because the mentality of tattooing impresses me, the “I’m going to be an artist but I’m going to draw on somebody’s skin.” The balls it takes amazes me. Nine times out of 10 they were a quality person. As I said, my biggest regret is that I never wrote down who did what. I wish I had so I could go through my arms and say, “This is from this guy,” because tattoos really are kind of stickers on a suitcase.
It’s a marker of a place I’ve been and where I was at that time in my life. Ninety-five percent of everything I have done has a deeper meaning to me. I have a huge swan on my arm that I got when we were recording Jackknife to a Swan. A lot of the tattoos are from songs and lyrics and where we were as a band. It’s real personal shit. I go through my tattoos and think about how someday I’m probably going to have to explain to my daughter what every single thing on my arm means.
Are you afraid of that discussion?
Do I fear it? I don’t know if I fear it. It seems like a chore to me. It seems exhausting. I think that the “whys” are going to be the problem. … As I was getting them I wasn’t planning on having to explain them. I guess that’s a bridge I’ll have to cross in the future.