Interview: Kris Barras

Kris Barras Band are set to drop their fourth studio album ‘Death Valley Paradise’ any day now, and we spoke to Kris himself about the recording process and what fans can expect when they drop the needle on the album. Other topics discussed include: working with outside writers, playing the Royal Albert Hall, giving smaller, local bands a leg-up on the imminent UK tour…and wise words from a certain Billy F. Gibbons.

Studio album number four, ‘Death Valley Paradise’, lands March 4th, you could say that you are an old hand at this, but do you get nervous just before a new album is released?

No! [laughs], no, for me it is exciting! I’ve not got any nerves, I put so much time and effort into this that it is good to just get it out there. You have an inclination of how well the album is going to go down by how well the singles are doing, and we have had more singles this time than ever before…we’ve just released our fourth and every one of them has gone down really well, so I suppose that takes the nerves away a little bit! [laughs] If everyone thought that they were crap then maybe I would be a bit more nervous!

One thing that a lot of people are picking up on is that the new material has a bigger sound, is more modern, and there is a lot of big hitters on the album; ‘These Voices’ for example has a very punchy sound…would you say that the heavier feel to the album is a result of the last two years that everybody has had to endure?

I can’t really attribute the heaviness to the period because I actually started writing some of the heavier songs before the pandemic. Maybe some of the subject matter for sure, like most people, I went through some pretty dark times during the pandemic, a lot of uncertainty, not even knowing if I was going to be able to play live music again. It was a bit of a weird time, lot’s of soul-searching which I’ve never had to do before in my life.

For me, I started off playing rock music when I was a kid, that’s what got me into playing guitar. And I got into blues by playing the rock stuff as I was a fan of Gary Moore, and I was actually a fan of his rock material before his blues material, and I discovered the blues from what he was doing with the blues. But in my teens, I was playing in metal bands, and I’ve got such a wide range of influences so I don’t like being pigeonholed into one genre…I’ve never been a traditional blues guy, and I feel that the heaviness has been a natural progression. I started writing the songs for this album in 2019 and everything that I was writing was coming out really heavy, once Billy [Billy Hammett, drums] and Kelpie [Kelpie Mackenzie, bass] joined the band [completed by Josiah J. Manning, rhythm guitars/vocals], and we were jamming, everything was coming out with more energy, heavier…and then I tried to reign it in and I was like…”Bloody hell, I’m supposed to be a blues-rock artist and this is too heavy!”, we were doing songs in drop-B flat and we were sounding like Korn! I tried to write in a different way and it didn’t feel or sound natural, so I went to the record label and showed them what I had, told them that this was the direction I wanted to go in and what they thought…and they were super supportive and they loved it. The band is such a tight unit – not just playing-wise, but also personality-wise – and it works really well, everyone is on the same page and likes the same thing, and that is coming out in the music.

The album was produced by Dan Weller, someone who is known for working with heavier bands (Enter Shikari, Bury Tomorrow, SiKth) and producing a heavy sound…

Dan is a genius. From the very first phone conversation that we had together I just knew that he got where we were coming from. We were on the phone for about 90 minutes and everything that he was saying was exactly what I had in my head; we wanted to go for a modern sound, we wanted to change things up…I don’t want to be one of these artists that does the same fucking thing for ten albums, I don’t understand that, especially in the blues world where most of the time they are playing the same three chords for twelve songs on ten albums…it’s just boring, and that’s not me. I want to progress and want to try different stuff, but that’s not to say that in a few years’ time I won’t come back and do a blues album. But for this album, we wanted to do something with a bigger more modern sound and it was working with the songs that I was writing.

Lyrically, ‘These Voices’ comes across as quite a personal song, what can you tell us about this one?

I call this one “My Christmas song” because I wrote that over the Christmas 2020 period, I started it on Christmas Eve and I had it finished by the 27th. It’s just about that sense of doubt that we get…those little niggling voices in our head that tell us that we can’t do something, and it’s about battling that and pushing on through really.

You mentioned the more modern sound on the album, ‘Who Needs Enemies’ for instance, there is a great juxtaposition with this one because it’s quite light in places as well as hard-hitting at times, was this something that happened organically in the studio during recording?

Not really, no. We were well-prepared by the time that we got to the studio. With a song like ‘Who Needs Enemies’, a lot of colours were added that crafted it into the modern sound, and that was done in the studio. The energy and the pace of the song were always there from the start, and that’s one of our favourite songs to play live because of all the unison riffs and all three of us together playing the same thing; it’s good fun. There is quite a bit of electronic stuff in this one, some of which Dan did, and also a friend of his that he works with…a guy in the states called Randy, who does a lot of stuff with big, big bands, and he put a lot of electronic stuff on as well. Just some soundscapes stuff, just to mix it up really, and kind of polish it off.

When you are in the studio working on songs, do you have one eye on what they will sound like when performed live? 

I tend to write songs with how they will sound live in mind. So I don’t do anything that I can’t do live, and I’ve always got that in mind because the real reason that I do music is that I like performing live. If I couldn’t tour and perform live…I’d still record stuff but whether or not I would release it…I don’t know? For me, my love is in the live side of things, that connection when you are in a room with how many people, and they are all singing the words back to you…and that’s something that I think is always with me subconsciously when I’m writing songs. Obviously, there are things going on in the new tracks, soundscapes, and other things, using samples like a lot of modern rock bands do…

On this album there are several co-writes with outside writers, was there some reluctance on your part in the past to collaborate with outside writers?

No, not at all. I just didn’t really have the opportunity before. I have done bits with Josiah before, we’ve co-written some tunes on earlier albums, and actually, he’s getting into writing more and more now so we’ll probably do more in the future. Songwriting is something that I’ve never struggled with, I enjoy writing, but the one thing that the pandemic did give us was time and I found that I had the time to sit down and try things. So I gave co-writing a go and there was a couple of guys that I connected with in particular and I loved the process. There are still songs on the album that I wrote myself, you mentioned ‘These Voices’; I wrote that completely by myself. These guys are elite-level songwriters, they write 250 songs a year with the biggest artists in the world…and every big artist, they have co-writes…these guys write with Black Stone Cherry, Shinedown, Alter Bridge, Nickleback, etc. They are very good with artists, it was all about the sounds that I was coming up with, what kind of lyrics I was writing, what type of direction I was going in, and then they would make suggestions…I found it very inspiring. Blair [Blair Daly] who I wrote the most with, he’s in Nashville, and I would wake up in the morning and he would have emailed me a quick recording asking “What do think to this riff?”…and I would be like “Oh, that is fucking cool!” and it would usually be something that I hadn’t thought to play and I would go play it and it would inspire me to write a verse and maybe change a riff from how I had it.

There is no hiding place when it’s your own name on the album sleeve, and up there in lights; how tough are you on yourself during the writing and recording process? Do you find yourself beating yourself up?

I don’t know if “beating myself up” is the word, but I’m very much a realist, I don’t kid myself and I know what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. If I have flaws then I will work my hardest to make them better; I was having vocal-coaching ahead of the album, Zoom lessons to try and take my voice to another level. I really worked on my guitar playing and brought out some different things that I hadn’t done on record before. I’m not going to all of a sudden be able to sing like Nathan James [Inglorious], I know what I can do and what I can’t do.

You mentioned earlier about the chemistry amongst the band at the minute, anyone who has caught the band live over the last few months won’t have failed to have picked up on that chemistry?

For sure. We are all on the same page. We all like the same kind of music, we’ve all got the same passion for what we do, and that just comes through. Technically, I’m signed as a solo artist, but now it really feels like a proper band and I like that. I’ve had numerous line-ups that I’ve played with live, and this is one that I don’t ever want to change as these guys are phenomenal.

The tour starts March 8th and it is a cracking bill that you have put together; not only are Florence Black along as special guests but each night see’s a smaller, local act opening up. Are you paying forward the goodwill that you got from artists like Black Stone Cherry and Beth Hart when you opened from them?

Yes, I mean, Black Stone Cherry and Beth Hart were pretty big tours…but I had to earn them rather than I was gifted them! [laughs] You don’t just get onto tours like those…you’ve got to be able to prove that you can sell tickets, and both of those tours were absolute game-changers for me.

I didn’t do much support…I did one support gig for Stevie Nimmo at The Robin back in 2016 or something like that, and I was so excited to get it. That was the only support gig that I ever did before I was signed, and then things started moving for me. I never had support slots and I always wanted to have that opportunity, I would do my best and would be met by things like “Well, you have to pay this amount to get on the tour”…I was quoted by a band – and I won’t name them because I don’t think it was anything to do with them – £1,500 to support them on 7 dates, and I didn’t do it. Playing in places that were much smaller than the ones that I play now. I didn’t get these support opportunities, so if I can give bands the chance to stand on stages like The Electric Ballroom, or Rock City, then I think that is cool.

It’s becoming more widespread now; Reef have just announced that their Spring UK tour will be opened by a local act and of course, you are also on the bill when Thunder performs with Ugly Kid Joe in London, at Wembley of all places…

And that’s an amazing opportunity for me, to get that opportunity to play in an arena, that’s the same kind of step-up for a smaller local band to play The Electric Ballroom or Rock City. But yeah, Thunder, I’m giddy about that one!

Kris BarrasWhile we are on the subject of playing iconic venues, it would be remiss of me not to mention you playing the Royal Albert Hall with Black Stone Cherry…that must have been insane?!

It was amazing. It was quite surreal, I’ve played arenas before and they are obviously vast, but the thing about Royal Albert Hall is how high it is! When you stand on the stage you feel like you are in this cavern, it’s a really weird feeling. When you are a support act, it’s not your gig, you’ve got to win over the crowd, it’s earlier in the evening and people might have just arrived, or might be just a beer or two into the night. So that was quite daunting; a place as vast as that, and stepping out there and trying to win them over…it was surreal, but it was amazing! That’s one that I’m not going to forget!

Lastly, you are of course part of all-star jam band Supersonic Blues Machine and have shared the stage with none other than Billy F. Gibbons; what do you take from an experience like that?

Billy is such an inspiration. He’s been top of the industry for 50-odd years, and he still loves it…still chooses to do it. We do some crazy schedules in that band; we’ll be in Spain and have to get to Norway but there are no direct flights, so we have to go to Germany to go to Norway. It’s carnage. Sometimes we come straight off the stage and have to grab our stuff for a three-hour drive to the airport, fly, then another five-hour drive at the other end…and then go on stage. And I’m like fucked! [laughs] And Billy is just up for it! The best thing that I’ve learned from him…touring can be hard, the music industry is hard and it can get you down at times…but Billy has a saying: “We don’t have to do this, we get to do it” and to me, that is the best. We are privileged to stand on a stage and do this for people who have paid hard-earned cash to come and see us – we are lucky. Whenever I am feeling tired – like you do in any job – I remember Billy’s words and they give me the spurt to go out and give 110%.


‘Death Valley Paradise’ is available March 4th via Mascot Records/Mascot Label Group, pre-order here.

The Kris Barras Band will also be taking on their biggest UK headline tour to date in March 2022 for 14-nights, starting on 8 March in Exeter and finishing in the Electric Ballroom in London on 26th March. Tickets Here: 

Interview – Dave

Portrait photo credits – John McMurtrie

Live photo credits – Rob Wilkins

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