Lynn Lipton recently asked me if I would be willing to interview Mike Barber. I am not a journalist and I have never attempted something like this, however, as a bluegrass bass player I greatly admire Mike’s playing and I jumped at the opportunity. Mike caught my attention when I first heard the Gibson Brothers’ album Bona Fide about seven years ago. He plays with tremendous drive and energy. He is a master of what I refer to as the three T’s: Taste, Tone, and Timing. Mike is a great bass player and I thoroughly enjoyed having this conversation with this extremely gracious musician.
RB: I understand you have been with the Gibsons for almost 20 years.
MB: It will be 17 years in the spring.
RB: I was thinking that is pretty remarkable given all the changes you see in bluegrass bands today. How do you explain the longevity and relatively few personnel changes in the Gibson Brothers?
MB: I can only speak for myself, but the Gibson Brothers grew up in the area about 20 miles from where I went to school. I had always heard of the Gibson Brothers and realized they liked the old rootsy music. I grew up liking rootsy music, although at the time, in high school, I played rock ‘n roll because that seemed like the only thing I could do with the people I was around. That’s all people wanted to play, which I enjoyed doing myself but I was always based in the roots, so when I got hooked up with the Gibson Brothers we hit it off because they like old country. I like old country. We never get tired of talking about the music. We can still drive down the road talking about music after 17 years as if we just met each other. We still find things to analyze and talk about. We all seem to have the same kind of thinking. I think in that regard it works well for us because we each have respect for each other’s musical tastes.
RB: So, where you grew up there weren’t a whole lot of people into roots music, bluegrass and old country?
MB: No, I wouldn’t say that. There were definitely people around. I used to hang out in Standish, NY and get together with people every Friday and Saturday at a camp and play bluegrass music. This is where I learned to play bluegrass bass. This was my introduction to bluegrass. There were all kinds of people around, but most people who live up here have steady jobs and going out on the road to play music is really not an option. It just happened to be that the Gibson Brothers and myself all had the same goal of wanting to go out and play music for a living. Along with my dad, Junior Barber, who was in the band with the Gibson Brothers back then, we all had the same goal that we wanted to be on the road playing music.
RB: So your father was an early part of the Gibson Brothers?
MB: Yes, he plays dobro or resophonic guitar. Any of the Gibsons’ early records, that’s my dad playing on them. Back then we used to get Mike Compton to play mandolin and Aubrie Haynie to play fiddle. Back then we made records, but when we went out to support the record we were just a four-piece band with banjo and dobro.
RB: So tell me, why bluegrass bass?
MB: Why bluegrass bass? Hmm. Well, I like upright bass in general. I’m also drawn to jazz bass. You never know when someone might pull out a jazz standard in a bluegrass jam so I like to challenge myself by learning some of that too. But I don’t want to be misinterpreted. I never try to use jazz bass lines in bluegrass because I feel it would interfere with what we do. Another style of music that uses upright bass is old country music and they had a wonderful way of mic-ing upright bass through an Ampeg amp and getting this big fat tone that was just beautiful. To me it’s a beautiful sound. That’s why I play upright bass.
RB: I hear a lot of different influences in your playing. Between what I perceive as a rock sensibility, and lots of dynamics in what you do, and also some percussive techniques, how did you develop the repertoire of techniques that you use in your playing?
MB: That’s a tricky question. I guess I started playing bluegrass bass in this bluegrass band in 1993 and I still had a rock ‘n roll edge. Whether you like rock or not, one thing that is not arguable is the fact that the rhythm of rock is dead on, it doesn’t waver very much. And if it does it’s usually intentional. And then there is the dynamics of rock where it can be blazing loud and then drop down to nothing. I had that thinking when I began playing bluegrass. And I realized it works to do that, it’s great to add that dynamic. If you listen to the Stanley Brothers the banjo was that thing, like when a rock band gets loud, that was the banjo. In bluegrass, when the banjo comes in, the band can play really loud because that is by far the loudest instrument. It’s like the drums in rock. It’s the loudest instrument in your band. When Eric plays his break, I’m pretty much playing at full volume. When other instruments are playing I change my volume regarding whatever the volume of that instrument is and how the player wants to play it. If the player wants to play sensitive you really have to quiet down for them.
RB: I find your playing really exciting in terms of dynamics because you have a way of propelling the rhythm and drive of the band through some of those rhythmic techniques. For example, you might get more of a click off the fingerboard or add some eighth note lead-ins, all those kind of things that make your bass playing more exciting.
MB: Any bass player that wants to do stuff like I do, and I’m guilty of it too, you have to be careful not to be too busy. I try to make anything that bounces make sense. Like with the vocal, if the vocal line bounces I try to bump with it. It’s a really tricky avenue to play bass and not come off as being too busy and try to get the spotlight. Because you never want that, the bass shouldn’t be that way. You want to keep it underlying but supportive, that’s the way I would put it.
RB: That makes a lot of sense to me as a bass player.
MB: And playing with Leigh Gibson on rhythm guitar for 17 years when he hammers on that G note with the G chord, I try to accent that with him with a ghost note (imitates sound with “ba-dumm, ba-dumm”). And it just gives the band that little kick on that section. And it’s a matter of keying on what the other players are doing. Like I noticed Joe Walsh (mandolin) does the same thing where he tries to accent what the other players are doing. Clayton Campbell (fiddle) does the same thing. He knows he has his places where he comes in strong and then others where his playing is more underlying at times. So if the whole band works with that same idea that, OK we’re going to have those moments where we solo and we can shine, but also when we’re not doing that we’re going to support that rhythm sound. And I think it’s that thinking that makes us play a little differently I guess.
“Just An Old Rambler”
RB: Well it definitely creates an exciting band sound where there is a lot of drive and you can hear all those rhythmic shifts that you guys are so locked in on and I guess it comes from playing all those years together–17 years and you guys are not even that old.
MB: No, I’m 39 and I’m actually older than either one of the Gibson brothers. Laugh. People say, “Who is that kid running around with the Gibson Brothers?” It’s pretty funny. I get a big kick out of that.
RB: Hey, I was looking at some pictures of you playing, some that I took and some from different blogs. And I noticed that you actually have two microphones pointed at you.
MB: Yeah, that’s a microphone system that I use. I tried using different mics throughout the years. When I first started playing bass I used a pickup, a Fishman pickup, like many people do. And I actually carried an amp with me. I really got sick of lugging a bass around and an amp so I figured this had to change. So I went to microphones and I started using an AKG like a C1000. I used that for quite some time. And then I actually met a fellow down in the south who I work with quite often now named Gene Daniels. And he said that’s a fine mic if you want to use a fiddle mic on a bass. Laugh. And I was like, yeah, that makes sense if you think about it because it’s a small diaphragm mic. I was fortunate because I had a loud bass and it kind of worked, but then I said, well I would use a large diaphragm, but it’s too woofy, too much bottom end going on. So I combined the two and that’s when I got the sound I liked and I realized when I recorded in the studio that’s also the way they mic’d my bass.
RB: So you have a large condenser?
MB: Yeah, large condenser that’s near the F-hole, not exactly in front of it, but off to the side in the front of it. Then the other microphone I have up a little higher so it picks up the sound of your fingers coming off the strings. And the combination of those two together gives you, I guess, if you were to stand about 3 feet from the bass and listened to what it sounded like. That’s probably what you would be hearing, those two sections of the bass. I thought by mic-ing it that way you’d get that same idea through the house system, which would be wonderful. Then the ideal thing about it is when you do your monitors, you just use the fingers microphone and give that to everybody in the band so they hear the absolute very front of your note. They’re not hearing the echo of that note coming back to you or the band throughout the room. When your finger leaves the string they hear that and it really helps them key in on what they’re doing.
RB: So, you could play ahead of the beat and that’s what everyone’s hearing through the monitors?
MB: Right. Yeah. Well, if I’m playing ahead of the beat it’s definitely going to push the band up because they’re going to hear my note coming right out. I don’t know if you play on stage a lot indoors, I’m sure you have. Indoors is especially tricky because a lot of the time the sound coming back to you from the bass, from the back of the room, will be louder than the sound the bass is emitting. Not only are you hearing it, that’s one thing, but the band is hearing your bass note after you actually hit it.
RB: Yeah, that’s no good in bluegrass.
MB: And that’s a struggle because all of a sudden they’re playing to a sound you’re not making and you’re trying to compensate for that. And the only way I found you can do that is to speed up and then really what that ends up sounding like is just the band is always shifting. So the rhythm is not steady. Not that the mic over my fingers is an absolute cure for that, but it helps. It helps the band hear what you’re playing. And that’s the idea. For the band to play in time, everyone has to hear what’s going on.
RB: Right, that’s a very subtle thing. And that mic setup really explains why out front you can hear all the nuances of that percussive attack that you have.
MB: Oh absolutely. To be honest with you Rick, I never tell the soundman how to mix it out front. When he asks me, “How do you mix it out front?” I say, “I’ll let you be the judge of that. However you think it sounds good.” I just need that top mic for monitors for the band and usually everyone comes up and compliments the sound of my bass. And I attribute that to the way it’s picked up. You actually hear the natural sound coming out of the instrument. That’s always been my hope. Just to get that tone. Because when you play bass you don’t really get the spotlight. Not that you need that or anything, but if you have that good sound, you enjoy that so much. If you can generate that sound out for everyone else to hear, they really seem to enjoy it a lot more.
RB: Well, you’re certainly doing that. Just to shift gears a little bit, it seems like in the bluegrass community all the top bands, and I certainly include the Gibson Brothers in that category, so many people make their home around Nashville somehow. They either live there in Nashville or West Nashville and they are constantly flying in or out or they have a tour bus ready to leave from there on the weekend. But you guys seemed to have setup a very different lifestyle, yet you’re right on the cutting edge and you’re right at the top of the charts. How did you guys work all that out?
MB: Laugh. I don’t how we worked it out. We obviously like to travel a lot further than most people would. That’s what I would attribute it to. Someone from another band recently said, “You know you guys could live in a more centrally located place.” We were looking forward to an 18-hour drive home the next day–we were in Georgia. The reason why we live where we live is because our family is here and everything we know is here and we really like the area we live in. It would take a lot for me to move from my area. I have thought about it and toyed with the idea of moving to Nashville, but it always comes back to, I’m just liking being where I grew up and where my family is.
RB: In a way that’s really refreshing. In a way it points to the values that you all hold. You can also hear it in the themes of the songs. So many of the Gibson Brothers songs are written about where you guys come from in upstate New York and how important your growing up in that area was.
MB: Yeah. The guys are writing great songs all the time. I’m not a songwriter so to me it’s just fascinating how they keep coming up with such great stuff. You take Clinton Mills. I drive by Clinton Mills all the time and I never dreamed that someone would write a song about the area and have it be so factual. You know, an old railroad community over there when the railroad was there and now it’s gone. Actually, to me, a song like that is nicer than a plaque on the side of the road saying that there was a town over here. A lot of people have investigated the history of that town because of that song. The Gibson Brothers are also very good at explaining in their liner notes what influenced them to write a song. And people will start to look it up on the internet. To me it’s pretty neat to think about all of that.
RB: Well Mike, I really appreciate all your time.
MB: Well, I appreciate you asking me all these questions.
RB: I look forward to hearing the band again, this time in Poughkeepsie, NY on April 17th at the Poughkeepsie Day School. Our friends from Too Blue are opening the show. I think it’s going to be a great day. And I hope at some point we can connect again and maybe I can learn a few things from you.
MB: We’ll definitely get together again. I look forward to seeing you on April 17th.