Richard Barone, frontman for New Jersey-based power-pop act The Bongos, describes his career as centered around the theme of “full circle.” This year, Barone has revisited a lot of captivating and familiar territory from his lengthy career.
The Bongos were the closing act at legendary Hoboken club Maxwell’s in July, having (as members of the band “a”) been the venue’s first act. Onstage, they announced the release of a “lost” Bongos album, Phantom Train, recorded primarily at Compass Point Studios with producer Eric “E.T.” Thorngren in 1986 but unreleased until this week. The album was released by the reactivated Jem Recordings, whose founder, Marty Scott, first distributed the band in the United States through the original Jem’s PVC label. (Jem also released this week physical CD reissues of Barone’s acclaimed 1987 solo debut Cool Blue Halo and a 2CD/1DVD concert/documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of that album in 2012 – all of which was a real treat for Barone, whose birthday was the same day as the October 1 release date.)
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to Richard about Phantom Train as well as his storied past, present and future in the business. I hope you enjoy it, and heartily recommend giving Phantom Train a spin. It’s a killer pop record from the past that doesn’t require a time machine to enjoy.
Before Phantom Train, The Bongos spent time on both an independent label (U.K. based Fetish Records, distributed in the U.S. by Jem’s PVC label), and later signed to RCA.
It seemed like a long time at the time. We signed with RCA in 1982 and stayed with them for about three years. During that time we recorded two albums and toured constantly – 300 shows a year. It seemed like a decade!
What was the major label experience like, compared to being independent?
Oh, it was all good. I’m an indie person, and if you look at my catalogue, you’ll see I bounce back and forth between majors and indies. There’s a best of both somewhere in there – I like working with labels that have a huge team, so you can really reach all over the country. There’s benefits to both, and I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to experience both kinds of labels. My students [Barone teaches at New York University] are just breaking into the industry, and I’m able to share a lot of experiences on both sides of that coin.
The indie scene is fantastic, I love it and support it in every way, but it’s also a vortex. You start thinking in small terms, but music can be very widespread. You can really reach a lot of people with your music. So it’s kind of good to apply what the majors do and play their game, but on a scale that puts you in control.
Phantom Train was recorded at Compass Point Studios, owned by Chris Blackwell. Were you near a deal with Island instead?
We were never signed to Island. It came out of friendships and associations that you build along the way. The Bongos are very spontaneous guys, still. Someone said, “Oh, you should go to Compass Point and record.” We’d just come off a tour, and it sounded like a great idea. But there was nothing on paper. There was no formal arrangement.
Tell us a little bit about the album.
Phantom Train is my favorite of our albums, in a few ways. We were just experimenting and were able to do whatever we wanted without any kind of restraints. We wanted to just play music in great studios.
It’s the only album where we recorded songs many different ways. We give fans a taste of that with “My Wildest Dreams” beginning and ending the album two different ways. We labeled the last one “demo” for indexing purposes, but it really was a different take on the song. The hardest thing about putting this together now was to choose which versions are on the album. It was very diverse.
We were experimenting with different tape formats. We of course did 24 and 48-track, but we really also liked the sound of eight-track tape. Songs like “Run to the Wild” and “I Belong to Me,” those were done on eight-track.
We spent the summer at Shelter Island going through all these tapes. They all had to be baked, and there were hundred of takes on these tapes. Maybe about 30 or 40 reels of tape. But it all came together – I think it might be our most consistent record.
There’s more from Richard after the jump!
The things I like about this record are its sound and its spontaneity. It is a very consistent album, although it’s sort of made from a lot of different directions – being recorded then, completed now and so on. Do you see that as a testament to the band’s skill or something more?
There’s a tarot card called “The Fool,” who stumbles along and meets people. The Bongos were in that spirit, which is not a negative thing at all. You let things happen, and we were fortunate. We were able to associate with the smartest and most creative people in the industry. Think of a cover design by Emil Schult, who did designs for Kraftwerk – he happened to be at Compass Point while we were there. I think sometimes it’s best to just let things happen, sometimes.
Hearing the record, it seemed like a great, creative time for the band, which is interesting considering it’s only being heard now.
As much as it was creative, it was not the greatest time for me, personally. I was at a point where I was experimenting with things other than music. So there were psychological issues going on that were difficult for me. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad for some of the songs that went on the record – some of the paranoia and issues I was going through are really in the lyrics of this album. And I listen to it now…it has a lot of doubt and escape, the feeling of wanting to get out. Combined with the creative rush The Bongos were on as a group, the combination of that yin-yang was very good for the album, as much as it was detrimental to my personal health.
What are some of your favorite cuts off Phantom Train?
Honestly, I like them all on this record. When “My Wildest Dreams” emerged, I couldn’t have been happier with a song that we could have come up with for a single. I’m adding “One Bold Stroke” to my acoustic shows – it’s fun to play.
I really like that song – it helps sum up what I like about the production on this album. Eric “E.T.” Thorngren’s production sounds of its time but not dated. The drum sound on that song, in particular, is great.
We had access to a lot of technology. On this record, we were able to combine the garage rock sound of the early Bongos with a little more of a technological thing, which I love.
I think our most ’80s album was deliberately Beat Hotel. We were right in the middle of a decade that had a specific sound, and we hadn’t really made any record that “sounded ’80s.” It’s not everyone’s favorite, but it was an interesting experiment. Everything about that record, even the way the band looked, was deliberately and consciously ’80s. And it was so much fun to do that for once, but Phantom Train was sort of our reaction to that.
We loved Eric. He was kind of like a big pirate, with a ponytail, sort of a big alpha male character. And we kind of arm wrestled with him in a way, so this album is a nice mix of two attitudes. We matched him, and he did it in a way that made everyone very happy.
When we went to go make this album, we’d never taken a break from our previous tour. We were still on the road, mentally. It was creatively good, but not very stable. And it was a very hazy time, coming back to New York. We’d never chosen what mixes we’d liked, and at that time, a mix I’d now do in three hours would take a week. “Tangled in Your Web” took seven days to mix.
And how did Cool Blue Halo come about from that time period?
Even though I live in the West Village, I was never here. So when I came back from Phantom Train, I was actually home for a minute. And there were all these clubs around me, and I thought it would be fun to play there. Something very low-key – The Bongos required a whole team. It was quite a production. So I thought, “Wow, how much fun would it be to get my guitar, walk to this club and perform?” [But] one of the reasons the Cool Blue Halo band was the way it was, is that I didn’t want to replace anybody. I don’t think any of us felt weird about that – I just wanted to do something different. It wasn’t a nightmare scenario.
It’s interesting to hear several of the songs on Phantom Train, which you ended up recording and releasing on your own solo albums. At the time, what was it like, recasting these songs into your repertoire as a solo artist?
It didn’t require much, because the songs exist within themselves. When I play these songs – “Tangled in Your Web” is a good example, because the solo version is so far afield of The Bongos version. But in my mind, it isn’t – when I’m singing, I have the same intent. One good test of a song is if you can play it with different people and it sounds intact. These songs still sound intact. I sing it the same way, and I mean the same thing when I sing it. I try to build them like houses, and the wind won’t blow them down.
When I do a song like “The Bulrushes,” or any song that we did as a band first, I think of myself as covering The Bongos. By considering the song a cover, even if it’s one of mine, it frees me. It’ll loosen me up. If you write something, it could be personal and make you feel uptight, singing a song about a relationship quirk, a fear or a paranoia. But if you cover somebody, you’re free of that. So I like to cover my own songs.
The Bongos made history this summer as the first and last performers on stage at Maxwell’s. What was that like?
It was a really great night. We talked about “full circle” earlier, there was a lot of that. It was a night of mixed emotions. It was a really happy performance. It was only at the very end, when we did “Thank You Friends” by Big Star…which seemed like an obvious song. Even though it may be sarcastic on the Big Star version, I thought it would convert well to a sincere statement when put at the end of a set. That’s when things got a little melancholy. But generally it was a clear-eyed farewell to Maxwell’s.
My favorite thing was at the very, very end of the night. One of my students was there – to say it was a really festive night, he was overly festive, and was the last person to be bounced from Maxwell’s. And I was really proud of him – that’s carrying on the tradition!
How did you reconnect with Marty Scott to release Phantom Train through the new Jem Recordings?
There was never really a disconnect with Marty. We’d stayed in touch, and when Facebook emerged, we kept in touch that way, too. What really brought it all together was last year, when I did the 25th anniversary of Cool Blue Halo. I was asked by Digsin to recreate the original concert and film it as a concert movie. And Marty was there! He’s a real record guy – the way Seymour Stein or Chris Blackwell was. He’s one of them, and that’s what I like about him. What drove the industry to its highest successes were those real record guys.
He’s been a part of my life since college. I’d seek out Jem-related recordings when I was a teenager. When The Bongos recorded for Fetish Records in England and needed to get an album out in the United States, the first place I thought of was Jem. I couldn’t have been happier to connect with them.
What’s next for you and The Bongos?
There are some more things in the pipeline. I’m on the road, playing the CBGB Festival in New York on October 10 and the O Positive Music Festival in Kingston, NY on October 12. Then The Bongos are playing the CMJ Festival for a Loft Session with Sirius XM on October 15. I’m collecting songs for my next solo album – it’s a bit of a departure for me. I’m approaching it in a different way. I work with so many musicians now who are so great – I’m going to open the door to them on this album more than I ever have. If you look at my recent collaborations, that might give you a clue. But I’m thrilled to work with so many people who inspired me when I was growing up, and I’d like to invite them to perform with on my next album. I’ve never really done that. And I may not record it all in the United States, either – I may travel a bit and record it in different countries.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Richard. You have quite an impressive career that’s taken you a lot of interesting places!
I’m very fortunate to work with people I admire. I learn so much from them, and I hope that I can offer something to them. On Phantom Train, we recorded Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” – and that was done before I really knew Donovan. And I don’t think he’s heard it yet. I might’ve told him we’d recorded it but it never came out.
I’m honored and thrilled to work with who I’m able to work with, and The Bongos are one of those situations. When we play these songs, they come to life in a certain way that doesn’t exist in any other way.