Against the Grain
Bad blood ran as thick as Jägermeister that night at the Lion's Lair. After an infinitely long session by some crappy bar band from Pennsylvania -- culminating in an eight-minute, dual-guitar lead that succeeded in putting everyone to sleep, even as it blew the speakers -- Denver's d.biddle took the stage. Singer/guitarist Duncan Barlow looked particularly miffed. It was past midnight on a Tuesday. The crowd was restless. And the ragged chirp that dribbled from the sound system didn't do much to amplify Barlow's already whispery voice.
Then came the heckler. A couple songs into a set of shaky, atmospheric folk rock, the group -- Barlow, guitarist Jamie Smith, bassist Jeff Davenport, trumpeter Erin Roberts and drummer Ben Desoto -- found itself under attack by none other than the Lion's Lair's own door guy. A crusty punk veteran clearly under the influence of a Pabst or four, he started yelling at d.biddle, his harangues louder than the humble ensemble's collective sonic output. Barlow winced. But then he smiled. As he gathered his patience and strummed the intro to another rootsy yet otherworldly dirge, the heckler cut loose with a catcall that left bile splattered on the opposite wall of the bar: "MY GRANDMOTHER COULD PLAY FASTER THAN THAT!"
If only the heckler knew. Barlow, despite the soft-spoken demeanor of a doctoral student and teacher at DU, is a punk-rock vet himself. In fact, one of his previous bands, Louisville, Kentucky's Endpoint, was among the most popular and influential acts to come out of the straight-edge hardcore scene of the '80s. Back then, before Green Day won Grammys and the Clash made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, punk couldn't avoid conflict. Dressing weird and listening to Bad Religion didn't get you any cheerleaders; it attracted jeers, shoves and the occasional fist. Even as Barlow progressed through the lauded outfits Guilt and By the Grace of God in the '90s, his dedication to straight-edge -- an idealistic wing of hardcore whose followers vehemently abstained from drugs, meat and alcohol -- kept him well supplied with friction.
But friction, it turns out, flows through Barlow's veins -- and his group's name.
"I'm from Kentucky, and my father was the first generation of my family out of the hills," he recollects. "He had two feuding uncles. This is Kentucky -- you know how feuds go. One was Uncle Duncan, and one was Uncle Biddle. My dad tried to bring them together by naming me Duncan Biddle Barlow. But when they found out, both of them stopped talking to him. And they never talked to him again before they died.
"I'm a peace offering," he sums up, "gone terribly wrong."
Fittingly, Barlow grew up with a broad rebellious streak and a tendency to "harbor a grudge like nobody." Rock and roll, of course, was the perfect outlet for his aggression. "I would sit in a church and daydream about being in a rock video, singing songs about how much I hated church," he relates. "Then my sister got a record by Black Flag, Damaged, and she didn't like it. She played it for me, and I loved it. There's that song 'Wasted,' and after I listened to it, I thought. 'I need a skateboard.'"
It's ironic that one of the most prominent figures of the straight-edge movement was ushered into punk by Black Flag's paean to inebriation. But he was, and soon after, Barlow started his first outfit, the Imposters. "I wrote some really terrible lyrics, because at that point I was listening to the Meatmen a lot. They were all about hating everything," he says. "Then I actually got a band together, and we were terrible. People started marking up our fliers and being mean to us. These were college-age guys giving shit to eighth-graders. Now when I remember it, I think, 'Wow, that's a really horrible thing to do to a kid.'"
But band rivalry was the least threatening element of the mid-'80s Louisville scene. "There was always a little bit of violence," Barlow admits. "There was this guy, his name was Finko, who would pick one new person out of the crowd at every show and whup him. You just turned the other way, because you didn't want to get in the middle. Most of the violence would happen when outsiders, like drunk old men, would come into the club and grab a girl's ass. The crowd would turn on them, put them in the hospital. It was insane. When Ignition played in Louisville for the first time, everybody cleared out of the club in the middle of the set to beat up a couple guys who were harassing a girl. Me and one other guy were the only people who stayed and watched the band."
By the time Barlow formed Endpoint in 1987, at the age of sixteen, he had already been straight-edge for two years. When the group eventually began to gain international recognition, Barlow found himself straddling one of punk's widest fault lines.
"I thought at the time, 'That's the punkest thing I could do -- not drink.' And it just stuck," he explains. "We were never a fully straight-edge band, but I kind of wound up being the mouthpiece, even though I wasn't the singer. I was so into that movement at the time. I thought that it was a revolutionary movement. Unfortunately, it just boiled down to a way to act superior to other people. And I can't say that I didn't get that way at times."
Barlow tried to counteract some of the pessimism of Endpoint and Guilt with By the Grace of God. Harnessing the more positive energy of its hardcore past, the band appealed to an entirely new generation of fans. But Barlow started to be drawn to an altogether quieter and more complex sound. His next two projects, the Assee Lake and the Lull Account, dabbled in post-rock -- which makes sense, seeing as how the teenage Barlow had been tight with members of Louisville's post-rock progenitor, Slint. The Assee Lake released a split single and toured with up-and-comers At the Drive-In, but not much attention materialized. After graduating from college and suffering a bad breakup, Barlow decided to move to Colorado to work on his master's degree in creative writing at Naropa University in Boulder.
"The whole time, I had been writing acoustic songs," he recalls. "But they sounded horrible to me, like some kid who had just gotten his first Lynyrd Skynyrd record. Everything had a twang to it."
D.biddle's debut single, mostly a solo affair, was recorded in Louisville before Barlow's departure; it blended rustic songcraft with a tender indie-rock air. When he set about reconstituting the project in Colorado, though, he recruited a full and illustrious cast: Desoto is an alumnus of the Czars, Smith and Davenport eke out their own shambling majesty in Dang Head, and Roberts fronts her own folk-flecked outfit, Porlolo.
After Barlow moved to Denver in 2002, d.biddle solidified and began gigging in earnest. Early last year, the group entered Uneven Studios, run by Bryan Feuchtinger of Hot IQs, to recorded its self-titled full-length. Then the quintet trekked to San Diego to mix the album with Pall Jenkins of Black Heart Procession, an old acquaintance of both Barlow and Smith. The result is a plaintive, lushly textured work that flirts with Americana even as it rubs elbows with everything from Ida to Spiritualized. Layered with piano, organ, synthesizer, flute and clarinet, the songs twine around Barlow's tentative voice and hauntingly subliminal lyrics.
"Where punk rock and I intersect now is less aesthetically and more ethically," he says. "Most of my lyrics aren't about me. They're about politics. The song 'Restoration Son' on the record is like that. The Restoration period is the return of the rightful heir to the throne of England, and I'm kind of making that a play on George W. Bush. The song also talks about viruses, and that's borrowing from Gilles Deleuze's Capitalism and Schizophrenia. But with lyrics, I'm trying to just say something as quickly as possible. I don't have much time, so they're very vague. People ask me, 'Oh, I thought you were getting your Ph.D. in writing. How come your lyrics are so simple?' I tell them that it's two totally different things. Prose depends on prose, while lyrics depend on the music. Some of the most amazing lyrics that I love are some of the cheesiest lyrics in the world. Still, there are points in the middle of a show where I start really hearing my own words, and I'll turn around to Jeff and go, 'Is that a cheesy lyric?' And he'll be, like, 'Yeah.'"
Of course, as anyone who saw d.biddle that fateful night at the Lion's Lair can attest, Barlow doesn't have to resort to asking his bandmates for criticism. "I just found out the other day that it was the door guy who was heckling us that night," he admits. "I love it when people heckle in the spirit of heckling, not just to be assholes. There is an art to heckling, and I can appreciate it. There's always room for confrontation. I remember that guy was yelling something about goat fucking, so I incorporated the phrase 'goat fucking' into the lyrics of the next song."
When reminded of the heckler's claim that his grandmother could play faster than d.biddle, Barlow busts out in a grin. "Yeah," he concedes graciously. "She probably could."
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