All Things Considered: An Interview with Dicky Barrett of
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Dicky Barrett is one of the good guys. As frontman of the enduring Boston-based Mighty Mighty Bosstones, he’s a bona fide rock star, has sold millions of records and regularly plays before thousands of people at a time, even headlining big festivals like the Warped Tour. A lot of people might expect that level of success and adulation would go to his head, but to the contrary, Barrett is a down-to-earth, personable guy, and treats people with dignity and respect. For example, though I hadn’t talked to him in over three years (when he was one of the first few people I’d ever interviewed!), he immediately remembered me by name and voice alone when I got him on the phone to discuss life for the Bosstones in the year 2000.
And it’s a good life, but a hectic one. In the three years since we’d last talked, the Bosstones had the biggest success of their careers so far with the platinum-selling Let’s Face It, released a live album (Live From the Middle East), and Dicky even had the chance to stretch his acting muscles, appearing as rock pioneer Bill Haley in the miniseries Shake, Rattle, and Roll: An American Love Story. They also had something of a membership shuffle: saxophonist Kevin Lenear departed, replaced by ex-Hippos/King 7 & the Soulsonics saxophonist Roman Fleysher, prior to the recording of the new album, Pay Attention, and while longtime guitarist Nate Albert and trombonist Dennis Brockenborough played on the album, they departed prior to its release, replaced by guitarist Lawrence Katz and ex-Spring Heeled Jack USA trombonist Chris Rhodes. Longtime Bosstones Joe Sirois (drums), Tim Burton (sax), Joe Gittleman (bass), and Ben Carr (Bosstone) remain, as does Barrett, of course.
The change-up doesn’t really seem to have affected the band’s momentum – Pay Attention‘s first single, “So Sad To Say,” has been all over the radio this summer, and the band is coming off another headlining stint on the Warped Tour. More important to the band, though, is that they’ve made an album they’re proud of, and one that allows them to once again explore new territory, be it the Irish punk rock of “Riot on Broad Street” or the island riddims of “She Just Happened.” As we talked one morning during the Warped Tour, Dicky spoke of changes, stereotypes, and reaffirmed his commitment that the Bosstones will never make the same record twice.
Since the last time we talked, you had a phenomenal amount of success with the Let’s Face It album. Has that success changed anything for you?
Let’s just get to it, Julio. Last time we talked, you were asking me, “how does it feel now that ska’s the next big thing?” Now you want to ask me “how does it feel now that ska’s dead?”
It’s not dead, by any means!
It’ll never die in my heart. You want my answer?
Yeah. For real.
I didn’t care about it then, I don’t care about it now. Trends are trends, and I don’t really pay attention to them.
Did you have any pressure, either from within or from the label, to make another album that was just like Let’s Face It?
We wouldn’t even try that. No way. We can’t make another album like Let’s Face It. We made a great album, and people don’t want another Let’s Face It.
You’ve also gone through a lot of membership changes since then, and I wondered how all the changes were affecting the group dynamic, and how the new guys are working out.
New guys are working out excellent. There’s a whole new excitement. I miss playing with Dave, I miss Nate, but it’s fun having Lawrence play the guitar.
I know Roman – not well, but casually – from when he was in a band called King 7 & the Soulsonics here in Florida. He’s a great guy.
Great guy, and a great horn player.
Does it bother or affect you that Mercury disappeared in the huge Universal merger?
It’s fine. I kind of stay away from that. I like the people from Island, they’re really nice.
You guys have done more big festival tours than probably any other band around – in fact, you’re on the Warped Tour now. Is there still a lot of camaraderie on those big festivals, or has it become a big business thing?
Certainly, on this Warped Tour I’m having a lot of fun. I’m having a blast, everyone’s getting along great, we’re happy to be out here.
Why did you choose to title the new record Pay Attention?
We named it Pay Attention just because of the end of the millennium. Just the classic “no sense in going on unless we learn from what we’ve been through.” It’s not “pay attention to me,” or “pay attention to the Bosstones,” it’s more pay attention in a more general sense. And it’s probably something that people suffer from, myself included.
Pay Attention sounds a little slicker and sweeter that previous Bosstones records have. Was that something you were consciously shooting for?
Like we always do, we let the songs sound the way they want to sound. We’re not trying to force any square pegs into any round holes, it’s just the way it came out and the way it sounded. We get accused of that, [as far back as] from More Noise and Other Disturbances after Devil’s Night Out. We’re not going to make the same album twice. We don’t go into an album saying “what have we done, and let’s do that again,” we go in saying “what haven’t we done, and let’s try that.” All the albums are different from each other. We don’t want to cookie-cut albums, we want to experiment and enjoy and try to see how far our tentacles can reach.
There’s definitely some stuff on Pay Attention that struck me as kind of a departure for you guys that I wanted to ask about…
I can’t believe I’m getting this from you! Listen to your old albums, from More Noise and Other Disturbances to Don’t Know How to Party that’s a departure for us. Departing is what we do!
Well, I don’t mean so much that someone like myself, as a longtime fan who knows what you guys are into was surprised you’d do…
Have you ever gotten an album and not been surprised?
No, I can’t say that.
Thank you. Write down the things you want us to do on the next album, so we don’t surprise you. [laughs]. I’m tired of surprising you.
It’s not so much that I’m personally surprised, like I’m not personally surprised by a song like “Riot on Broad Street,” but I think some people would say, “well, this is something that the Bosstones really haven’t done before.” Specifically with that song…
How many albums do we have to make? They’re always different, there’s always going to be something on there where people [are going to be surprised]. Expect the unexpected, you know? We did that on our very first album. Never heard anything like this before. We’re not trying to fall into a hole…
No, and I’m not trying to say you should, I’m not trying to put you into a box and say “this is all that you should expect of the Bosstones,” at all. But I think a lot of people probably do try to put you into that “ska-core” box, and then when you do something like “Riot on Broad Street,” that’s more of an Irish punk rock song, they’re really astonished. I guess I’m approaching this…
Like what you hear from someone who really doesn’t know.
So they’re gonna put us in the ska-core box. We built that box, too [laughs]. You know, it goes back to that we’re one thing, we’re the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. That’s the label – if you need a label, there it is.
One of the songs that I really like on the new record is “She Just Happened.”
I really like the flavor on that song, and I was wondering what your inspiration was.
I was inspired by a girl I was in love with, years and years ago. I wanted a kind of story-song, but I wanted it to be more of a memory song, and I wanted it to sound like “island,” like a breeze, and I wanted the song to sound as breezy as the memory. You’re making me answer corny. [laughs]
Sorry about that.
It’s OK. We want [our songs] to really, really be what they want to be, and what they should be. If I handed you the lyrics to “Riot on Broad Street,” you’d have read them, and instantly it would’ve been an Irish song in your head.
Was doing that song something that came out of hanging out with the Dropkick Murphys?
Oh, yeah. But, you know, I also grew up in Boston, and I’m also an Irish Catholic. My father’s name is William Francis Barrett, you know?
I heard that you really enjoyed playing Bill Haley in the miniseries Shake, Rattle, and Roll, and I was wondering if you had any plans for any more acting.
I may act in the future, I don’t know if I’ve done any in the past [laughs]. If you’re gonna call that acting, OK.
One of the things that impresses me about you is that you’re extremely personable – for example, you remembered me although we only met once, three years ago. You obviously make an effort to bring that kind of attitude across to your fans. A lot of people wouldn’t expect that kind of personable, friendly attitude from someone who’s sold as many records as you have. Is it hard to keep up, or is that just your personality?
I think it’s just my personality. If it was hard to do, I’m sure I wouldn’t do it. [laughs] That’s been my M.O. my whole life: if it’s difficult, avoid it. And there’s a nice message for the kids. [laughs]
I was reading a chat transcript on your website (http://www.bosstones.com) recently, and I wanted to ask you about a comment you’d made about Taang! Records. You mentioned that you’re still friends with Curtis, but that he’s ripped the Bosstones off a lot, too. How do you reconcile that?
I don’t know if I’ve ever really reconciled it, and there’s always, whenever I see him, when we cross paths, there’s all these jokes, and I just keep trying to throw another log on the fire and go on. I remember promising him “you can do this, you can behave this way, but you won’t hold me down or fuck me up.” You can measure his success in music, and you can measure mine. He has a history of ripping people off, [but] he has to go to sleep every night being himself, [and] I gotta go to sleep night being myself. We’re successful, and I got it the honest way. That seems to be enough for me.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones return to the southeast early in October. Catch them at 99X’s Big Day Out in Atlanta on October 1 and at the House of Blues in Orlando on October 3.