Local Wire

Electric Violinist Barry Smith Returns After Taking a Slightly Different Path

Longtime Phoenix music fans will remember Barry Smith of Gentlemen AfterDark, Arizona's new wave/post-glam legends from the early '80s. Smith played keyboards, saxophone, and violin for the band, which also featured his brother Brian Smith, former New Times staffer and Beat Angels lead singer.

Barry Smith left Gentlemen AfterDark in 1984 to pursue his solo work on the electric violin music.

Barry Smith forged a nice little career for himself as a solo artist for several years before seeking a somewhat more hands-on role in life when he became a father to his son Travis in 1993. The desire to play music never left, though, and after 23 years of staying almost completely out of the music world, (Gentlemen AfterDark reunited for a couple of shows in 2014), Barry Smith is back playing his solo material again.

In fact, the native Arizonan, now in his late 50s, is doing music full-time and playing the valley this Friday at the opening reception for Marilyn Szabo's latest photography exhibition at monOrchid, as well as working on a new album and getting ready for several upcoming collaborations. We caught up with Smith last week and this is how the conversation went down.

New Times: How did the gig on December 2 come about?
Barry Smith: I saw Marilyn Szabo, the photographer, at Maggie Keane's Halloween party. I've played at a Szabo gallery opening many years ago. So she asked me, and since I respect her work and I am just getting back into playing and performing my music again, I jumped at the chance.

Why did you take time off from performing?
I got a real job 23 years ago as a bicycle mechanic in Phoenix when my son was born. Then later, I worked as entertainer on Grand Canyon Railway. Now I'm doing my music full-time.

Wow. Has it really been 23 years? That is mindboggling to me. I guess I just always assumed you continued to play on the side. What type of entertaining were you doing on the Railway?
I played fiddle, ran up and back in the cars gettin' the passengers to party! As a feature, I invited kids up to play; I made it look like they were really playing. ...The crowd and parents ate it up.

I bet. That doesn't sound half bad. So you're back to playing full-time now. How is that going?
It was a blast [working on the railroad]. I am very excited about the future now. I'm in control of everything in my life once again, which is a scary feeling as I acquired lazy habits from the gravy train.
But day to day I am learning discipline again. Writing, rehearsing, doing all the business — it's work.
As well as doing my own thing, I want to collaborate with others, my brother Brian, especially. I've also been asked to play on records, and some excellent performances have come my way.

Who has asked you to play on records?
Everyone's favorite vampire, Doug Clark, graciously asked me to play on a couple things he has coming out. Also a couple of friends as well.

Incidentally, after listening to some of the solo electric violin music I put out years ago, I've decided that I really like it.  So I will put it out myself on CD and online as soon as I can.

What inspired you to play music for people?
Heck, I had to play. ... It started when my late, wonderful father put a saxophone in my hands at 9 years old. After years of school marching and jazz bands, he invited me to sit third alto in his full-on big band cranking out Glenn Miller and Count Basie standards. Concurrently, I was digging the early '70s revival of soulful old-time fiddle music, while losing all conventions of violin to Jean-Luc Ponty, Doug Kershaw, and other incredible violin players with, most importantly, their own style. So I borrowed a fiddle from a dear old friend and sat in my bedroom for hours and hours learning from books and records. My poor mom was not amused.

How did you get into the fiddle music? Was there a certain film or piece of music that sucked you in?
Hmmm... Good question. It all happened at once. Much like falling hard for your first true love, where all sense of reality is suspended. FM radio was playing it in Tucson with Chip Curry's bluegrass hour. I saw my friend win a fiddle contest, and I later entered a bunch of contests as well. I got books and records at that time, also. The moment the violin grabbed my ear was easier to remember. My good friend, James Moore, played me ELO's On The Third Day album from 1973. The strings were actually playing strong rhythms, counter melodies, and all-around kicking serious ass!

Did you take any heat in the rock 'n' roll scene for bringing a fiddle to the party?
Yes. Sure did, at first, especially since I sucked at it. I had a red violin I put a pickup on and cranked through an old Kustom Lead III amp. Sounded terrible. Dudes at my house jams would turn off my amp.
Later, in the Tucson punk scene, it was much more accepted. I played in a band, then did my own Loudness One [a band] deal. My brother Brian even asked me to jam with The Suspects. I think it was to the Sex Pistols' "EMI."

What was your first official band?

You mean where they let me actually play?  Model Patients.

What year was that?
Late 1979. ... Pearl's Hurricane and Tumbleweeds were the punk cabaret at that time in Tucson.

How long did Model Patients last?
A few months maybe. We were terrible.

What came after Model Patients?
I started playing with a primitive drum machine and a synth with [effects-heavy] violin. It was a collaboration with an 8 mm filmmaker, Bob Lorenzen. I played live soundtracks and songs on stage to his original and edited horror films.

What was it like working with Brian originally? Was Gentlemen Afterdark the first time you guys were in the same band?
Brian asked me to join The Pills after Mark Smythe left. I was a fan and anxious to enter, as I'd not played in good rock band before. Brian was great; he encouraged me and it was our first time together ever. A summit meeting of sorts. The Pills shortly thereafter changed the name to Gentlemen Afterdark.

So it was all your fault, haha. What do you remember most about the Gentlemen Afterdark days?

(Laughs) I think that's a compliment. I remember the feeling of playing in a great band.
To walk out to a dark stage, pick up a violin or sax, or stand at a keyboard while our entrance tape of "Amazing Grace" blasted. (Pauses.) Nothing better. We had all the ingredients in place, you know?
Songwriting was there. Brian wrote all the lyrics. We collaborated on the music, youthful energy, collective musical vibe, and we were musically unique enough to set us apart.

Did you do any other bands after GA or were you just solo?
No bands, really. ... But I began focusing on electric violin solo while still in Phoenix. The late, wonderful artist, Rose Johnson, asked me to play at Ashland Gallery for the opening of her new work. That was the impetus to focus on a violin sound of greater power, texture, and dynamics.

I loved that set up you had of effects.... How did you figure out how to marry the fiddle with all those delays and such? How much experimentation/practice time were you doing in the 90s?
The effects were largely from my days in Gentlemen Afterdark, just expanded on, mostly.

To be honest, I took a lot from Billy Currie, the violin/keyboard player from the insanely prolific Ultravox. His amazing sound was an orchestra from one violin. And I kinda merged with Nash The Slash's use of echo that he said was based on the Edge of U2. ... And L. [short for Lakshminarayana] Shankar, [distant relative of Ravi Shankar], the brilliant Indian violin player, has a great sense of space and openness.

I experimented through the early '90s by playing at Crash, Gallery X, and Metropophobobia, the venues of the world's weirdness. Those gigs were contrasted by refined establishments like Nelson Fine Art Center at ASU, Tempe Art Center, and various downtown Phoenix galleries like Mars and Alwun House. So trial by fire, really.

Anything else you'd like to add?
Arizona is my birthplace. ... The last couple decades were spent in the land of snow and ice in Northern Arizona. Winter being my favorite season, it's a nice place to be. Up here it's a great 180-degree turn from the desert. I love them both so much. It's actually reflected in the title of my CD, The Diary of Fire and Ice. [Smith is still working on the disc. There are roughly eight tracks at this point.]
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon