The Barrens – Bold & Outrageous

Something is remarkable about The Barrens today. These four friends from Astoria, Queens, whose lives have crossed like an artistic weaving done with outrageous colors and patterns, are more aware, more mature and more confident than ever before. More importantly, their sound has evolved dramatically.

 “There are no motives in The Barrens other than the simple joy of creating the best songs we can. In some ways that hurts us…other bands have great clothes and snappy beards, or are just more into their style than us, and of course that can get them noticed,” says lead singer Colin Fitzgerald, who also holds down rhythm guitar.

The band has come a long way since their move to New York. Today, the group has lost its inhibitions, connecting further with the audience. They seem to feel freer to roam around the stage.

 With her sweet, sensual sound, Debbie Chou take turns on vocals with Fitzgerald while maintaining keyboards; Chris Gersbeck, a controlled, yet highly energetic drummer, remains powerful and observant; and Mike Koene, on lead guitar, is confident with his playing, as feral as his sound may be.

 Koene, a man of many hats (literally and figuratively), explores the colors of music like the painter he is. His experimentation with guitar includes a search for organic-sounding arrangements. He wrote “Bottom of a Well,” a song about opposing relationships between things in a very broad sense and finding your place in the world. And of course, love.

 “We want people to like our music, but I don’t think any imagined outside perceptions inform the musical decisions we make,” Koene says, donning wide-rimmed sunglasses and a newsboy-style hat.

“For myself, I enjoy letting my musical, artistic and philosophical interests at a given time lead the way.”

The band strives for spontaneity during their live performances. There is a possibility Fitzgerald, in his Superman cape, will climb up on the speakers for a song or two. An innovative element is likely to be added like the live, trippy light show from friend Steve Pavlovsky (a k a Liquid Light Lab). Imagine a psychedelic painting brought to life with colored oils and dye, illuminating patches of soft purple, turquoise and orange. Silhouettes appear against the crimson scene.

 When Debbie is not standing at her keyboards, she is dancing across the stage. Find her decked out in a ‘60s-inspired vintage dress with a simple strand of classic pearls, bright red lipstick and pin curls in that long black hair. On another night, this stunning beauty may get decked out in a mini-skirt, knee-highs and Drive Shaft T-shirt.

The Barrens perform about twice monthly at local dives and well-known rock venues throughout New York. Intimate crowds consist of loyal friends and curious strangers often in the East Village and Lower East Side. Additional audiences find them in Long Island City in Queens, Brooklyn and most recently nearby cities like Philadelphia, Rochester, N.Y., and Wilmington, Del.

The band is defying genres now. Debbie, with her charisma and vocal chops, brings poppier elements to the quartet. Chris and Mike’s love of dance and electronic music is showcased among the group’s recordings. Colin brings a love of heavier rock songs to the band. His gritty, powerful voice is full of emotion when he belts out lyrics. In the chorus for his new song “Felt,” Colin demands the audience’s attention as he pleads with them, “my hands are tied” about desperation, loneliness and internal struggle.

The Barrens are working on their first full-length LP in the first half of 2010, its first recording with the current lineup (their original bassist recently quit amid personal tensions). These songs highlight a newfound assurance.

 With this album, they want to tighten up their sound. The goal is a more distinctive sound of polished guitar, stronger bass and propulsive drumming. The bass lines on the entire album are shared amongst the four members and session bassists. Putting the songs in the right order on the album will be tricky.

 Fitzgerald says he is actively trying to play as little guitar as possible. “I love the Beatles albums where there is a rhythm guitar playing kind of in the background, keeping the songs moving along.” The singer is enthusiastic at the prospect of putting out music he feels is truer to the band, but also a lot bolder and daring—adjectives that he thinks The Barrens first official EP release in 2008, “Worming,” lacked. “It’s safe,” he declares.

The band has strengthened as a team. When The Barrens first stepped into the studio with producer Jim Bentley in Brooklyn, it was a new experience for Chou because she had never recorded in a studio with a band. She didn’t know what to expect.

 “We rehearsed the songs over and over before we went in, but this time around we included songs that we only learned one week before,” she says of her experience at Bentley’s studio known as The Fort. “It’s a different attitude, because now we’re ready to experiment in the studio, knowing what our goal is, who our engineer is. Our songs and songwriting have also matured, and we’re a lot more free and open minded.”

Inspirations for lyrics are found everywhere. The newest music is a melting of romantic and heavy rock. There is sorrow in some songs. There is hope in “Better.” Life’s emotions of discouragement mixed with optimism are present in the music. Chou’s songs often showcase her inner thoughts about personal relationships. Her voice seduces the listener. “‘Leave of Absence’ is about long-distance relationships and the anguish of temporarily leaving your loved one. Even if it’s not for a really long time, it will always feel like a long time.”

 Chris, a native New Yorker, speaks easily about discovering lyrics and ideas anywhere.

 “I wrote the lyrics for ‘Yellow Cigarette’ while standing over the kitchen counter after practice one night in about two minutes,” he recounts. He admits that all the band members must earn a living to have the freedom to create. Although he maintains a day job as a temp, he uses every moment of his spare time to work on music, whether it’s spinning vinyl with DCD Collective or writing drumbeats for new tunes.

 “As exhausting as it can be, I always feel great after working really hard in the band. If it’s just practicing every night of the week before a gig or before going into the studio, or spending an entire night working on a three-second part of one song…it’s tiring but you’re creating something that really means something to you so at the end of the day it’s very fulfilling.”

The Barrens believe in their words and their music, incorporating rock into every stop along the way. “We’ve got a good circle of friends going now and everyone is very supportive,” Koene adds. “I’m just going to see where this road takes us and try to enjoy the ride.”

Currently, the unsigned band is anticipating its first performance at NXNE in Toronto, where such musical greats as Iggy and the Stooges, the Raveonettes and Mudhoney will grace the stage. The Barrens are slated to play Thursday, June 17 at 10 p.m. at the Bovine Sex Club. Also, on Saturday, June 19, look for them to rock the Production Lounge in Brooklyn for “Rapid Eye Movement,” a night of music, performance art and the shared work of several local artists. The event, a multimedia dream-themed extravaganza, begins at 9 p.m.

Photos by Sam Kessler


The Barrens on MySpace

Liquid Light Lab

DCD Collective

Rapid Eye Movement

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