A Conversation with Neal Barnard

Verdun is one of those rare records that is indefinable -- other than to say it's Verdun music. As producer/composer/guitarist/keyboardist/
vocalist Neal Barnard says on the Verdun website: "I'm definitely not aiming for 'fusion' where you throw in a bit of this and a bit of that' where they all lose out." And he's right -- that is one of the dangers when you combine musical elements that don't traditionally sit together. Verdun not only avoids the fusion "trap" that Neal was talking about, but has succeeded in creating a cohesive and stirringly beautiful record.

Verdun, the band, consists of Neal (guitars, keyboards, vocals), Martha Roebuck (vocals), Ngoc Hoang (vocals) and Mike Stetina (drums). Verdun, the album, adds to the mix of musicians: Jon Best (bass), Bob Gray (saxophone), Viet (Bau) Nguyen (dan tranh, dan bau, dan co, dan nguyet), Carter Melin (cello) and Sam Dorsey (classical guitar). You could say this makes for quite an interesting (and talented!) group.

Jamie: Verdun has many of the things I enjoy listening to: a defined point-of-view/aesthetic, interesting and unexpected arrangements and great musicianship. But what stands out most to me, is that Verdun feels great! Odd time signatures in particular can feel "forced" in the wrong hands, but that's certainly not the case here. Was it difficult retaining the overall feel when dealing with odd/complex time signatures?

Neal: Thanks for that kind comment. I should say it's just impatience-it's too hard to wait around for that eighth beat in every measure, so I smacked the guitar after 7.

Seriously, I know what you mean. Odd meters-like 7 or 11, instead of the usual 4/4-tilt the song ever so slightly and give you that little jolt between the ears. And you can overlay time signatures on each other-one instrument plays in 4/4 over others playing in 3/4. The ear follows one track, and the rest affects the mood. But you know it's becoming heavy-handed and self-conscious if you find yourself counting out the beats or naming a song after the time signature or maybe having a sudden urge to do your taxes. You've lost the emotion, which is the blood of the music, and wandered into dull left-brain logic.

Same thing with lyrics. They have to be emotional, love-driven, angry, crazy-what Freud called the Primary Process. Step into logic and the music is dead.

I'm glad to hear you say it worked. I was lucky to find Mike Stetina, our drummer, who has such surgical precision, and Martha's and Ngoc's vocals just skate beautifully over the top.

Jamie: I definitely think Verdun works! The combination of players on the record is, in my view, perfectly balanced. Did you have a group/album sound in mind before you began recording?

Neal: The original intention was to combine two forces: Starting with a landscape of driving hormonal and somewhat dissonant rock, and then overlaying it with very light ethereal sounds. For that part I wanted delicate female vocals and Vietnamese instruments. Traditional Vietnamese music has such incredibly delicate sounds, and because it uses a pentatonic scale, it blends seamlessly with rock and blues.

But then things turned in a direction I didn't anticipate. I asked Martha Roebuck to sing rough drafts that I would then translate into Vietnamese. But Martha's singing was just so pure and angelic, I left a lot of it in English and started writing with that in mind. The first track on the album has Martha singing the English part, which I'd based on a very old Vietnamese song, and then Ngoc and Bau come in with the actual traditional song in the middle, before we cut back to the more modern version.

I love this group of musicians. In addition to Mike on drums, Bob Gray played sax and Jon Best played bass, both of whom are fantastic. Ngoc Hoang is a wonderful singer, originally from Saigon, who now lives in Houston. And Bau has a hardcore band in Atlanta and is also very skilled on traditional stringed instruments. His nickname, "Bau," is actually the name of the one-stringed instrument that is so characteristic of Vietnamese music. It is plucked with one hand, while the palm rests lightly on the string, creating a harmonic, and the other hand adjusts the string's tension with a little lever. You'll hear just a tiny touch of it on this album. The opening sounds of the album are the dan tranh, which is like a Japanese koto, and Bau is playing an electronic version of this as a keyboard instrument.

And on the classical side of things, Carter Melin's cello blends so beautifully with Martha's voice on "Song to a Sparrow." I wrote the song for Ngoc, and she felt it needed classical guitar, which Sam Dorsey played for us. He is really something. In addition to his solo work, Sam has a group of twelve classical guitarists who play simultaneously, and they are as clear as crystal. You have to hear it to believe it.

Anyway, yes, I had a sound in mind, but it got pushed around by the talents of the musicians.

Jamie: And they certainly are talented players. Just to do a little shop talk... the sound quality on Verdun is terrific. The various elements in the mix are distinct but also blend well. The challenge, I would imagine, in combining these sounds, was not to lose the physicality of the "driving hormonal and somewhat dissonant rock" or the delicate quality of the "very light ethereal sounds". To not have the two sonic worlds act against, or diminish, one another. How important was Jon Best's engineering in the recording and mixing of Verdun?

Neal: A good engineer sets the mikes in the right place and turns the dials on the mixing board or computer to get the best possible sound. But a great engineer also turns the intrapsychic dials of the musicians. When it's 11:30 at night and the recording is not quite where you want it to be, the ability to hear what's slightly off and communicate it in a way that pumps up the musicians is a real gift. Jon is great at that, as well as being a heck of musician himself. He played several of the bass lines on the record.

Also, the CD was mastered by Brent Lambert at The Kitchen, in Chapel Hill. It's just a joy to watch Brent focus on the music coming out of the speakers like a bloodhound sniffing the wind, twisting the dials faster than a kid playing foosball.

Jamie: HaHaHa -- that's great! Sounds like you like to have fun in the studio and with music in general. You also seem to be someone who likes to colour outside of the lines -- putting your own spin on things -- which brings me to your cover of "Purple Haze". Personally, I think a good, or successful, cover is one that gives the listener a taste of the original but still allows the personality of the artist, who is covering the song, to come through. And this is a lot tougher with some material. Hendrix, for example, has such a powerful musical voice that some artists covering his tunes cannot seem to break away from the original recording -- which is definitely not the case here! Could you talk a bit about the recording of this track?

Neal: Well, obviously the song is a classic. But sometimes, when you change a song's tempo, it becomes something entirely different. I kept hearing it very, very slow--letting the guitar really linger and bringing out the drums.

Now, most Hendrix covers make you want to hang yourself: the arty quartet, the tuba version, the marching band, you name it. They just really don't work, it seems to me. But in "Purple Haze", Jimi's solo was like an oration where he really had something to say, but he sped through so quickly that you couldn't concentrate. So, for better or worse, we used a very slow beat with lots of drums and shunted it into 7/4 time. The guitar part is the original, note-for-note, except very slow.

Although it might be a bit odd to hear a plaintive woman's voice handle the lyrics, somehow it works. We recorded it very late at night, and I asked Martha to give it as little energy as possible--just a whisper of a vocal weaving into the instruments.

By the way, slowing down or speeding up a song can be very handy. If you're writing a song and it's just not quite working, take it into a different gear, and it can just transform.

Jamie: And switching gears totally here... I was just looking through your website and I didn't see any mention of live performances. Does Verdun perform live or is it strictly a studio/recording project?

Neal: We would love to perform live and have envisioned that from the start. With the wide-ranging mixture of instruments, it would really be something. But it will be quite an undertaking, and so far we've focused on the studio side of things.

Jamie: Well if you ever take the band out live, please think about heading up to Toronto!

So I have to ask...is it sometimes "hard to be a woman giving all your love to just one man"?

Neal: In other words, why did we turn a country music classic into a Verdun song? Well, years ago, I was up very early one morning, walking around the neighborhood, thinking through a set of lyrics for a slow, churning, minor key piece of music I had written. Now, lyrics evolve in tangents, and in this case, perhaps because I was working very hard at the time and sleeping very little, the lyrical stream wandered toward the notion of being abused and beaten up. An image of Tammy Wynette started to plant itself into the song. She had reportedly been abducted and beaten up, although it was later suggested that the abduction had been a ruse to cover up the abuse meted out by her husband. Anyway, the lyrics she sang in "Stand By Your Man"--which basically say, you might have a miserable time at the hands of the lout you're married to, but just hang in their anyway--kept playing in my mind, and eventually took over the song.

The song is not intended as a polemic. It simply unearths a piece of cultural shrapnel and shines a bit of a cold neon light on it.

Recording this song was wonderful. Mike did the drums in one take--7/4 time, fills and all. And Bob Gray's horn just wailed over the top with such mournful simplicity, and then these words sort of come out of nowhere.

Jamie: I hope my last question didn't take away from the seriousness of the song -- that wasn't my intent. It's just that I hear a tongue in cheek/sense of humour in the track.

Neal: I liked your question. The song really IS tongue in cheek, in a way, and I was hoping that a bit of odd humor would come through. It puts the abusive parts in sharp contrast with the message to "stand by," and having a male voice sing it makes it all the weirder. I didn't want to be too didactic with it, and I do hope that it has that mixture of humor and morosity that makes for good art.

Jamie: I'd sure say it does -- it's one of my favourite tracks on the record!

I know you just released Verdun this year, but do you have any plans to start recording a follow-up record any time soon?

Neal: Well, does 2012 count as soon? Seriously, I've been writing some new material with fairly odd vocal harmonies and some harder edged bits, and I'm really looking forward to getting back into the studio. But there is a step between writing and recording, which I think of as a culling process. I throw away everything that strikes me as good, but not REALLY good.

One of the great temptations in writing is to get swept up with things you want to say, rather than things you want to hear. So songs of angst, anger, shock, lectures disguised as poetry can proliferate--these are things people want to throw into music--but you don't necessarily want to be on the receiving end of it. It is important to write, not as a musician, but as the listener. It's easy to violate that rule, and that's when it's important to throw your creations away. And that takes time, because you can't be objective about something until you have a little distance from it.

Jamie: Perfect... truly astute. And yes, at least from my take-as-long-as-necessary-between-albums perspective, 2012 is soon.

So besides writing and culling, do you have anything else on the go that you'd like to talk about?

Neal: Just two quick things: I've been surprised to find that this CD is a bit of a Rorschach ink blot. The same song can be described as wildly aggressive, anxiety-provoking, or serene, depending on who is telling me about it. I'm blaming these varying reactions on their parents or maybe their caffeine levels.

Also, I wanted to let readers know that our Web site is VerdunMusic.com, and they will find the CD at Amazon.com and CDBaby.com.

Jamie: HaHaHa! You really can't lose blaming parents and caffeine, can you? A bit like shooting fish in a barrel...

Thanks for taking the time to do this artist-to-artist conversation.