Q&A with Rob Barbato of Darker My Love

Will it go 'round in circles?
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Bassist/vocalist Rob Barbato of Darker My Love initially seemed reticent to show much of himself during an interview for a September 25 Westword profile of his band. But with a little prodding, he began sharing background about himself and his band in what turned out to be a revealing and entertaining Q&A, accessible below.

The conversation begins with Barbato sharing details about his Massachusetts upbringing and early musical influences such as The Band's Music From Big Pink and the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba -- both of which occupied him when he wasn't destroying defensive lineman as a center on his high school football team. After that, he details the reason he ultimately sided with music over sports; his move to Los Angeles and early job at a studio that attracted lots of old-school Hollywood stars; the formation of Darker My Love; his interactions with, and stylistic differences from, fellow DML songwriter Tim Presley; the sonic progress he hears in the group's latest CD, 2; and the displeasure he feels when his band is catalogued as psychedelic -- a descriptor that suits most listeners just fine.

And now, take a trip on the Darker side.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Tell me a little bit about your background. Are you originally from Boston?

Rob Barbato: Yeah, I grew up about 45 minutes outside of Boston.

WW: Did you come from a musical family?

RB: I was more of a football player growing up, although I did mess around with a bunch of different instruments. And my sister played music and wrote songs.

WW: What kind of music did she play?

RB: I don’t know how you’d describe it. She’s only a couple of years older than me. So we kind of listened to the same stuff. And she was really into sports, too. She played basketball. And my parents didn’t really listen to music when I was growing up. Like, the only record my dad ever played was the Band’s Music From Big Pink.

WW: That was it?

RB: Yeah. That was a really influential record for me.

WW: I guess it would have to be if it was the only one he played…

RB: Yeah, exactly. During high school, I played in some bands, but I was really concentrating on sports at that time. I got offered some scholarships to play college football.

WW: What position did you play? And what schools offered you scholarships?

RB: I played center, and I got offered full scholarships to mainly AAA-type schools – not like Syracuse or BC [Boston College] or anything like that. Like U-Mass [University of Massachusetts] and Northeastern [in Boston] and UNH [the University of New Hampshire].

WW: Those are very substantial schools. Why did you decide not to play football at the college level?

RB: Well, I was looking into studying music, and none of those schools had recording programs, music technology programs. So I ended up going to Berklee [Berklee College of Music, also in the Boston area]. Plus, playing college athletics really takes up a lot of your time. It wouldn’t have enabled me to be creative, which was a pretty important part of my life.

WW: I imagine Berklee couldn’t have a college football team because you wouldn’t want any musicians breaking their fingers…

RB: (Laughs.) Not at all…

WW: You mentioned playing a lot of different instruments. Usually the bass isn’t most people’s first choice. Did you come to it after trying some other things?

RB: Yeah, I was a guitarist primarily. And then I got really into music synthesis, got into keyboards. I’m not really the most proficient keyboard player, but I like to make noise and stuff. I just kind of tried everything out. Guitar was my principal instrument, but now I really love playing bass. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

WW: At what point did you originally start playing guitar?

RB: About sixth grade, seventh grade. I don’t know how old you are then – eleven, twelve, thirteen, somewhere around there. Actually, I first tried when I was really, really young, after seeing La Bamba. It was funny: When I was working at a recording studio in L.A., Lou Diamond Phillips [who starred in La Bamba as the late Ritchie Valens] to do a voiceover on something. And I was like, “Listen, man, you’re the reason I play music.” And he was like, “Ah, thanks, but that’s ridiculous” (laughs). He was a really nice guy. But yeah, I tried to play when I was younger, when I was six or seven, and the guy who was teaching me wasn’t teaching what I wanted to play. I wanted to learn to play “La Bamba”! And he wanted to teach me “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

WW: At what point did you master “La Bamba”?

RB: You know, I still don’t know if I’ve learned the song yet (laughs). Maybe we’ll bust it out when we’re in Denver. We’ll learn it on tour. I know Jared’s girlfriend knows all the lyrics. [He's referencing Darker My Love guitarist Jared Everett.] She could text them to us while we’re playing. It’d be a simulcast (laughs).

WW: What kind of bands did you play in during high school?

RB: None of them were really more than just bedroom or garage acts. We didn’t really play anything too serious.

WW: You didn’t play out?

RB: Not really. [Darker My Love vocalist/guitarist] Tim [Presley] and [drummer] Andy [Granelli], their band in high school toured and stuff. Mine were just kind of like jamming around, having fun – dreaming about doing that stuff but not really knowing how to do it. Whereas Tim and Andy, those guys just went out there and did it, and got labels to put out their records. And when I was younger, I didn’t really know how to do that. But I don’t think they could possibly snap a football fourteen yards in front of a 270 pound guy (laughs). Although Andy probably could. He was a big guy. He played football, too.

WW: Were you writing songs back then?

RB: Yeah, I’d been writing songs since I was probably a freshman in high school, and recording them personally. Not really giving them to too many people other than the people I was playing with. That was one of my favorite parts of music – the creative aspect where, with recording, you can layer stuff and just write whatever you want to. So yeah, I was writing a lot then, but not really playing too many shows.

WW: Do you remember the first song you wrote.

RB: Yeah, I do. (Long pause.)

WW: I notice you’re not mentioning the name of it.

RB: (Laughs.) I know, I know. There are recordings of it out there somewhere. I don’t think it was really more than me looking around a room and picking out the imagery and writing about it. It wasn’t really angsty stuff. I wasn’t angry. It was more like, “I’m here.” I don’t think the song really had a meaning or whatever. But towards college is when I started trying harder. It’s tough: When you write songs, you have to have a lot of confidence to do it, and I think everyone who writes songs doesn’t have a lot of confidence in their music at first. And then after a while they feel more comfortable with what they’re doing.

WW: I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years who attended Berklee, and I’ve heard widely varied opinions about what it was like. Either it was the greatest place in the world or it was too structured and too restrictive. What was your experience like?

RB: I would say the best part of it was all the people I met. My major was music synthesis, so it’s kind of an isolated thing in some ways. I was concentrating on that a lot. But I met a lot of really good people and made a lot of good friends who are awesome musicians. It gets a good rap and a bad rap depending on where you are. I don’t know: It was what it was. I did it, and it’s not necessarily like your normal college experience. It’s not even really an art-school experience.

WW: Did you do a lot of playing out once you hit college?

RB: No, not really. Probably like ten shows – a handful of shows. Not really anything too crazy. Really, this band is the first real band I’ve ever been in.

WW: I understand you moved to L.A. with a couple of friends. Was Jared one of them?

RB: Yeah, Jared was one of them. I’d met Jared – he worked at a record store on Newbury Street in Boston, and I’d met him through there. He was like, “Yeah, I’ll move to L.A.” – and then we moved out (laughs).

WW: So there wasn’t a lot of debate about it? He kind of just shrugged and said, “Okay”?

RB: Yeah. It was sort of a manifest destiny thing. Jared grew up in Pennsylvania, and I think when you grow up in the East, or on the East Coast, you kind of see California as the place you need to get to – or at least the west in general.

WW: What were your biggest preconceptions about living in L.A.? And how many of them were accurate once you got there?

RB: I didn’t really know that much about it. We moved into a spot when we first moved to L.A. that was kind of downtownish – so we were really far from the glitz-and-glamour kind of thing. We were in the Echo Park area. So just the fact it’s so spread out and you need a car to get anywhere – that was the shocking part of L.A. for me. And that you can kind of exist there without working too hard. I don’t want to sound lazy, because I work really hard. But a lot of people in Los Angeles live the kind of Big Lebowski lifestyle. I like L.A. It’s really hot, though (laughs).

WW: You mentioned working at a studio. Which one? And what did you do there?

RB: I worked at this studio called Wilder Bros. It was in Century City. It was a studio built in the ‘70s. The Eagles did stuff there. But we weren’t recording too much music there. We did a lot of voiceover stuff, and I did a lot of file transfers and scheduling and stuff like that. I wasn’t engineering too much. But I got to go in over the weekends and get some free time. It was a cool place.

WW: What celebrities did you bump into other than Lou Diamond Phillips?

RB: Bob Newhart used to come in constantly, and it was really cool. I had a really good relationship with Bob Newhart, which you wouldn’t really expect to have, you know? Who else came in there? Fred Willard. Dionne Warwick. Charo (laughs). The weirdest people, kind of. It wasn’t like a normal studio where you’d be like, “There’s…”

WW: Slash.

RB: (Laughs.) Yeah, exactly. “There’s Slash!” Or, “There’s Steve Tyler!” It was really strange. It was kind of near Beverly Hills, you know.

WW: How did you meet Tim and Andy?

RB: Jared had mutual friends with Tim and Andy from Boston. Their bands had toured together when they were younger. And Tim and Andy had recorded an EP, and Tim and Jared met out at CMJ, and Tim was like, “I need people to play with.” He’d just moved to L.A. And Jared was like, “Sweet.” And then Tim said, “I need a bass player.” And I was like, “I’ll play bass.” And we just started playing and it was really natural and fun, which is the main thing. It wasn’t overly intense or overly directioned. Not like those kinds of bands that are like, “We’re gonna fucking do this!” Pardon my French…

WW: Don’t worry about it. We’re a newspaper that prints French. Feel free to use French whenever you’d like.

RB: (Laughs.) Well, we weren’t like, “We’re gonna do this! We’re gonna get a record deal! We’re gonna make it!” And we were more like, “Let’s just play music together and see what happens.”

WW: So it was a very casual thing.

RB: Yeah. I think most bands start off like that. Well, maybe in a place like L.A., there are more bands that have motives of playing music professionally. But we started off as friends having fun.

WW: Did you guys connect musically right from the beginning? I’m thinking of your vocal harmonies, which are a big part of your sound. Did they lock in immediately? Or did you really have to work on them?

RB: When we write songs, Tim will write the words and sing or I’ll write the words and sing and usually one of us just hears where to do a harmony – or we do it together. That’s kind of how the harmonies happen. It’s pretty natural. I think we’re all fans of music with harmony. And I think this maybe goes back to a confidence thing: If you have two voices singing, it sounds more powerful than one.

WW: Can you draw a distinction between your style of songwriting and Tim’s? What kind of stylistic differences do you see between the two of you?

RB: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I think we have pretty similar styles, but I think Tim is maybe a little more abstract with his writing style.

WW: That’s really close to the word I was going to use. I was going to say “dreamier.”

RB: Yeah, exactly. He’s a little dreamier than I am.

WW: And your songs strike me as a little more classically structured.

RB: Yeah. I agree with you on that.

WW: Do those minor differences enhance the music in your opinion? Give it a little more tension and character?

RB: Yeah, I think so. It keeps it from being just one thing, one concept – although, overall, it is one concept. It gives the music a little flavor. Throws in a couple of curve balls.

WW: Do you tend to write together? Or is it more common that you bring in your own songs and then work on them together as a band?

RB: Some of them we write together. Some of them are our own songs that we bring in. But generally, once we bring them into the band, things get changed and turned around. Arrangements get re-arranged, if you will (laughs). It’s both a collaborative thing at times and at times it’s just one person coming up with things.

WW: So there are no set rules or patterns…

RB: Exactly. It’s about what works best for the song. However the song happens happens. There’s no formula for us. It’s not like, “I’m going to do this and we’ll hand it over to that guy for this.” It’s everyone throwing in their two cents to make it the best that it can be.

WW: How do you see the evolution of the music from your debut album to your latest one? And are there things you consciously set out to do differently on 2 than you did on the first one?

RB: I think the first record, we were doing it pretty much for free with friends, and just trying to get it done. Some of the songs were written while we were recording it – so we were just trying to get something done. On the new record, we spent more time on the songwriting and really thought it out. The first record’s a little more smeared sonically than this record. There’s a little more clarity on the new record.

WW: You came up with a very big sound. Did it take a while to arrive at that sound?

RB: It’s kind of always been there. Andy is a really awesome, hard-hitting drummer. I think that, coupled with the two guitars and now adding Will [Canzoneri] on the organ and clavinet, has made a big difference. It’s become a really big thing. It does take time to figure that out, but we’ve never been a thin-sounding band. It’s always been really thick and lush.

WW: When you play live, do you try to stick to the template of the songs as they were recorded? Or do you look at that as more of a starting point?

RB: No, it’s more of a starting point. We do all sorts of different arrangements and different stuff. We’ll improvise from time to time.

WW: Is there a distinction between that and more of a jam-band approach – leaving the original melody behind and heading into the ether?

RB: We don’t do that so much – although sometimes we do. It depends on how we feel. But for the most part, we stick to the songs. You’re definitely going to recognize the songs unless we totally rearrange it, which has happened to a couple of songs.

WW: Are there examples of that with songs from the new album?

RB: Yeah. “All the Hurry & Wait” – that one people might not recognize at first. Or they’ll be like, “Oh, that’s different. It’s a little bit more rocking.” Different songs translate differently in live situations, so you do what you can to make them as much fun to play as possible.

WW: You guys are frequently described as a psychedelic band, or at least a psychedelic-influenced band. Does that description mean anything to you? Or did it surprise you when you started hearing it?

RB: I can understand why people do that. We’re from Los Angeles and San Francisco, and so many ‘60s and ‘90s psych bands, per say, came from L.A. and San Francisco. But we see ourselves more as a regular rock band. I think in this day and age, people feel the need to label things using the easiest tactics, and for some of them, when you have a guitar solo or something, that means you’re a psychedelic-rock band. It’s the same thing as calling a band an indie-rock band. What does that mean? And what does a noise band mean? It doesn’t make too much sense. We’re just ourselves. We’re just trying to do something honest.

WW: It’s not as if you’re going out there wearing puffy paisley shirts…

RB: Yeah. We do what we do, and if people call us a psych-rock band, that’s their opinion – man. (Laughs.)

WW: You’re not on any kind of nostalgia trip…

RB: No, we’re not trying to do any kind of a throwback. You’re influenced by what you’re influenced by. We just make the music we make together – the five of us. We’re not trying to jump on any scene or anything, you know? If we were trying to do that, we’re like a decade late.

WW: Do you see the music evolving in a way that it’s going to be harder and harder to categorize you in the future?

RB: Oh yeah. I don’t know for sure. We’ve only written one new song in the past few months because we’ve been so busy prepping to go out on these tours with the new record coming out. But I think with the new stuff, it’s going to be harder for people to be like, “They’re a psych-rock band.” It seems like lazy journalism to me to do that. Just like, “They’re psych-rock. They sound like blah-blah-blah.” But I understand that most of the other journalists just look at other reviews or Google something on the Internet. They don’t really want to write or make up their own opinion on stuff.

WW: When something winds up on your Wikipedia page, you’re doomed to live with it forever…

RB: Exactly. It’s the age of instant information. It’s like CliffsNotes for writers.

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