Hitting Rock Bottom With Dave Barry

The literary over-achievers known as the Rock Bottom Remainders hit the road once again, playing a series of dates on the East Coast. Often described as “not as bad as you expect,” the Remainders started out in 1992 and has since become the biggest band composed of authors the world has ever known.

This year’s edition of the Remainders features two lead guitarists – humorist Dave Barry and novelist Greg Iles – as well as Amy Tan, Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Scott Turow on vocals, keyboardist Mitch Albom, James McBride playing saxophone, bassist Ridley Pearson, self-proclaimed “crowd pleaser” Roy Blount Jr. and a musician some of you might know by the name of Roger McGuinn.

While the Rock Bottom Remainders might strike some as a joke, the band’s charity efforts are no laughing matter. Over the years the group has raised close to $2 million for charities, and will continue its philanthropic efforts on a short tour beginning April 20.

To learn more about the Rock Bottom Remainders we turned to guitarist / sometimes lead guitarist Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose years as a columnist for the Miami Herald formed the foundation for the 1990s CBS sitcom “Dave’s World” starring Harry Anderson. During the conversation, Barry talked about what it means to be a Remainder, lamented the demise of “Pop 40” and reminded us that talent isn’t everything when it comes to music, although it does sometimes help. Oh, and he knows his state capitals – a rarity in music.

Are the Rock Bottom Remainders taking up most of your time right now?

The centerpiece of my entire existence – the Remainders and how to be a part of this group.

Was this always the master plan?

You mean, to be a part of a really mediocre rock band? Why wouldn’t it be?

Did you see the entire writing career as merely a stepping stone to being in this band?

Exactly. It’s funny. The Remainders over the years have developed this sort of cachet, which is weird, if you’ve ever heard us. There are people, a lot of writers, who would love to be in the Remainders. The mistake they make is they tell us how good they are. They say, “You know, I could play a pretty mean saxophone,” or whatever, and that disqualifies them immediately. We don’t need that. We don’t need talent.

How are the band members handling their newfound fame in the music world?

We manage to control our egos. We have to listen to ourselves. We shouldn’t be too proud of ourselves.

But doesn’t a little bit of ego come with being the lead guitarist?

Well, I’m only the lead guitarist when Greg Iles doesn’t show up. I’m really what you call the auxiliary lead guitarist when Greg is there, which fortunately he will be on this tour – Greg’s actually a pretty good guitar player – then I become just a guitarist and I turn my volume way down.

There’s a guy in Spinal Tap who had an amp that went to 11. I have a guitar that goes to minus 4 when actual guitarists are on the stage with us.

Does the band ever mix you down, like Metallica supposedly did to Jason Newsted on … And Justice For All?

We have a sound guy – Gary is his name. We don’t really know what he does, but often people tell us, “Hey, you guys sounded better than I thought.”

And I think, “gosh, that’s not what I was hearing from the stage.” That’s the wonderful thing about modern stage electronics. They can sort of control what the audience is actually, directly exposed to.

“I’m only the lead guitarist when Greg Iles doesn’t show up.” – Dave Barry

There have been a lot of people through the Rock Bottom Remainders over the years, like Stephen King and Joel Selvin. Are they still members who just aren’t appearing on this tour, or are they completely out of the band?

No one is ever out. Anybody who ever wants to rejoin at any time can. We never really know for sure who will show up at any given gig, but Joel and Stephen are welcome to join us. Matt Groening still sometimes gets on stage with us. Barbara Kingsolver was in the very beginning of the Remainders, but she decided to have babies and stuff and be an adult. But we stay in touch with almost all these people and let them know and, when they want to, they show up.

Didn’t Scott Turow join after the band formed?

Scott is an example of a guy who was allowed in the band. Not too many people were allowed into the band after it formed. Scott is one of the few. I believe it was at Miami Book Fair when he first got up on stage. We like to have guest authors come up on stage with us.

And he was so enthusiastic – and when I say “enthusiastic,” I am using it as a term of “bad.” We said this man has got to be a part of the Remainders. The only stipulation we told him was we were short one chick singer. We have two and we needed three, because you have to have three chick singers. So Scott agreed to be one of the chick singers, and he was in.

And the fact that Turow is a practicing lawyer didn’t scare you off at all?

No, I think it sort of helps us in case of any audience liability lawsuit.

Does he look over your contracts?

We don’t have any contracts.

Then we can probably toss this next question about band riders – those additions added to contracts specifying band needs.

We’re pretty free and easy going. But we do require kazoos. I don’t think too many bands, maybe The Stones, require kazoos. But we require full kazooage in every venue. And beer. Of course, there’s beer. Kazoos and beer are our demands. And an audience, too, when it’s possible. It’s not always possible, but we shoot for it.

Your set is filled with rock classics.

I don’t want to get too technical here, but we like songs that don’t have too many chords in them. We find the chords can be a problem because they keep changing, and everybody supposed to change at the same time to the same chord. At least, that’s what we’re told. That’s how the big bands do it. But the fewer of those, the easier that process is. So, we try to cut down on chordage. We find the older rock tunes meet that criteria. Also, if they’re really old and familiar and have been played a lot, sometimes the audience will recognize them when we’re playing them. They’ll go, ‘Oh! That’s it!” And we think that’s a great moment when the audience figures out what song it is we’re playing.

So it’s kind of like a Bob Dylan concert.

I’m sorry, but it’s been 15 years since anyone knew what song Bob Dylan was playing. I sincerely doubt Bob Dylan knows which song he’s playing.

Since you said no one ever really leaves the Rock Bottom Remainders, what does someone like Roger McGuinn actually bring to the band? It seems as if you already have everything you need.

He brings a little thing we like to call “talent.” It really is amazing over the years the number of really good musicians who have been willing to get on stage with us. Warren Zevon played with us a lot over the years. We even had Bruce Springsteen get up on stage with us once. Judy Collins, Gloria … who did the song “I Will Survive?” Gloria Gaynor – she did a version of that song with us.

But Roger, lately when he can, likes to play with the band. He’s kind of a literate human and I think he likes us more as authors than as musicians. But what’s great about Roger is he’s so good when he gets on stage. And that’s when I’m talking about turning it down to minus 4, turning it way down.

“… people tell us, ‘Hey, you guys sounded better than I thought.’”

He sounds like The Byrds. And we have a pretty good drummer and a good bass player. The three of them are what you hear when Roger is on stage. There may be 40 of us up there, moving around and making motions with our instruments and opening our mouths and appearing to sing, but it’s really Roger, Ridley and Josh that you hear. And they sound remarkably like The Byrds. How he does it, I don’t know. He’s phenomenal.

If you had to choose between your day job and the band…

If I had to choose based on enjoyment, I would pick the band. If I had to choose on being paid, I’d have to stick with the day job.

When you were a regular columnist for the Miami Herald, you once asked your readers to submit what they thought was the worst song of all time, and they picked “MacArthur Park.” Have you found worse songs since then?

Yes. There are many worse songs now. I sometimes think most songs that are popular now are worse than “MacArthur Park.” The thing is, there are so many different strata now of music that nobody listens to. There’s no Pop 40 anymore. No one is listening to the same songs as everybody else. So you couldn’t really do that contest anymore. It sort of ended, I’m guessing, somewhere in the ‘80s. Everybody has an iPod or a Walkman or whatever, and started listening to their own stuff. There’s no sort of common musical knowledge anymore. But there’s a lot of crap. There’s a lot of great music, I’m sure, but it’s harder for an old person like me to figure out where the hell it is now. I end up listening to Beach Boys Greatest Hits Volume No. 300. Again.

“We play music as well as Metallica writes novels.”

What has influenced the Rock Bottom Remainders over the years?

The Kingsmen. That’s probably the biggest influence for the band. We can sound sort of like them. And Beethoven, because he died. We all appreciate that because we don’t have to compete with him any more. Um… We’re not really influenced because that would suggest we can somehow emulate somebody.

When you think of all the interviews you’ve done over the years, is there something you’d like to tell the world, but no one has asked the right question?

I think I’ve been asked every question … Nobody ever asks me the state capital of Vermont or anything like that, which, by the way, is Montpelier. And I would like to get that out there.

How about the capital of Montana?

Montana would be Bozeman.

Washington state?

Washington would be Olympia. Tell him what he’s won.

One more and we’ll call it a day.

I know I’m going to fail now.

Back to the band. Which is scarier, literary groupies or band groupies?

They’re sort of the same for us, and are kind of scary. We have had people throw underwear up on the stage, but they were really huge underwear. We sometimes find ourselves backing away from the audience if they’re liking us. Our stages are pretty small so we hide behind the drummer. Sometimes all you see is the drummer and eyes poking out from behind him like jungle animals.

“I’m only the lead guitarist when Greg Iles doesn’t show up.” – Dave Barry

Presented by the Pearson Foundation, The Rock Bottom Remainders begin their tour with two events in Washington, D.C.. The first one is April 20, at Sidney Harman Hall in the Harman Center For The Arts and will be hosted by Sam Donaldson. The second is April 21 at the 9:30 Club.

The next gig is April 22 at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory, which also benefits the Philadelphia Free Library. April 23 brings the band to New York City for a show at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square, benefiting the 92nd Street Y. Boston is the last city on the tour, as the Rock Bottom Remainders play at The Royale.

In addition to helping out local worthy causes, each performance will also help benefit Haiti earthquake relief efforts, World Vision and America’s Promise Alliance, while tour presenter The Pearson Foundation will donate books to local public schools. For more information on the Rock Bottom Remainders, click here to visit the band’s website.

A special thanks shout out to Pollstar’s Deborah Speer who helped arrange this interview.