Tommy Byrnes - December 28, 2004

What got you so interested in music?

I think that probably the thing that started it, I got a guitar for my 10th birthday. It was one of those things where within a very short period of time, I knew what I wanted and wanted to do. It was great. It was like "good, I found my future." I'm 10 years old and I know what I want to do. I don't want to be a fireman or a policeman. I want to be a guitar player. It just kept going from there. It was pretty straightforward. There had always been music in our house although nobody played an instrument. Everybody in my family, I have a pretty large Irish family, listened to music and my sisters were really big into what was on the radio at the time so there was always music around. My parents were constantly listening to music. For whatever reason, I wanted a guitar when I was 10 and it went from there. There are times where I've cursed my mother for giving me a guitar. It was like "why couldn't you have given me a sled?" I would have turned into a bobsledder or something.

You went from blues music through rock and roll and all of a sudden went into Celtic music.

Yeah, that was when I was in sixth grade. This kid turned me onto blues music. He just brought in a record for a music class and I got the bug. I was like "wow, this is great." I just gobbled it up. The same kid that actually turned me onto Jethro Tull not too long after that. Yeah, it was just the basic '70s evolution of I don't play blues, learn your chops, and then I got into Hendrix and the whole progressive rock scene that was going on. I played in a bunch of bands in high school and stuff. I stumbled upon Celtic music completely out of the blue. It was an accident and it was an epiphany. It was something I had never really heard before and the second I heard it, I knew that's what I was supposed to be playing.

You formed the band Ockham's Razor which I've heard of before.

That's neat.

I stumble across these things.

That was quite a stumble. You came across Ockham's Razor in Texas. I didn't think we got quite that far. Yeah, I had hooked up with a couple of friends of mine. One guy named Brad Hurley who is one of the best Irish flute players in North America and we had actually played in a band together in the early '80s. We just started booking a few gigs and it just kept going. It was nice because everybody was very open into exploring all the members' influences. Our bass player was a straight up folk kind of player but he also grew up listening to the same music that I did. So he had that bent to it. Our drummer, actually we had two drummers over the time, and they came from very different worlds. One was really a punk drummer more than anything else although he was incredibly tasteful with the stuff that we did. The other guy was more of a groove rock kind of jam band drummer but he did the same thing. He got what we were supposed to be doing. It was great.

You had the opportunity to spend some time in Ireland.

Yeah, when I really got into Irish music in high school, I got accepted to music college and I was going to go and do that whole traditional scene. I decided that the best thing for me to do is get the hell out of here and go drink Guinness and play music. When I graduated from high school, I didn't go to college. I actually moved to Ireland which was a very sobering experience for a wide-eyed, wet behind the ears 18 year old. I'll just go there and leprechauns will bring me breakfast and people will offer me potatoes. It'll be great. Ah, no. It was definitely a very interesting experience.

Especially considering that's a dangerous place.

It sure was. In the late '70s, it was a really dangerous place. The only time I have ever been in Northern Ireland was the first time I went there. I swiped an ashtray from a pub in Belfast which I still have just as a little keepsake. A week later somebody blew the pub up. I decided I wasn't going back. I guess it's very different now but it was very rough. The economy was terrible there at the time and if you ever saw The Commitments, that's what Dublin was like in the late '70s. It was just rundown and dirty but the music was unbelievable.

It usually is in times of strife and trouble.

Yeah, you're right. You're right.

It usually is but they shouldn't take it out on the ale, man. Leave the pub standing please.

That's a good point. Somebody had a gripe I guess. One hell of a gripe. "We have this leftover explosive. What do you want to do?" "I don't know. I got a lousy pint of beer in that pub. Let's blow that up." "Okay." It was very interesting and I came back and then in 1983 I went back again. It's one of those places that I guess everybody's got a home and that seems to be mine. It's much warmer than New England in December too.

I bet it is. You came out with an album called Alehouse Insurrections. I'm so open-minded to music and I really got into some of the songs, especially "First Light". My father is Choctaw and it kind of reminded me of the Indians and their struggle.

It's funny. It was from the first time that I went to Ireland and you can walk right up to the general post office where that was the seed of the Easter Rebellion in 1916. Although the interior has been rebuilt because it was gutted during the siege. It was blown to pieces. The frame of the building, the facade of the building, is intact and you can walk up and it's just pocked with bullet holes. It's very eerie to realize what had taken place there. The first time, I was this green kid being over there and had heard stories of the Easter rising from the music that I had been listening to, and then to actually be standing there going "wow, this is weird." Irish history is so unbelievably tragic and the more time I spent there, the more I got involved with the music which is very historical as well. It amazes me because the Irish are the best people on earth. They're the friendliest, funniest, nicest most optimistic people you'll ever meet. These people have been persecuted for 800 years. How is this possible? Nobody has a chip on their shoulder and nobody is angry. Collectively as a people, they're amazingly upbeat and it was one of those things that it's always piqued my curiosity about 20th century history of that little event. As the album was coming out, I began to think to myself "oh my God, I hope people don't misinterpret this as some kind of powerful political stand I'm making against the war in Iraq. I hope this isn't misinterpreted."

A lot of that has to do with a little island called England and people's desire to dominate everything. At the bottom of every war there is power and greed.

I absolutely agree with you. The root of everything is always money but it's also religion.

Yeah, religion plays a big role in many things.

It's so unbelievably complicated because my people are from Ireland and I have my great-grandfather's Civil War pistol and his discharge. He escaped Ireland as a young man and ended up here and enlisted in the Union army. That's what so many Irish did because they were starved out of their own country. There was plenty of food during the potato famine in Ireland. There were tons of food. There was corn and wheat and cattle. There were tons of food to feed the population. The English chose to take the food. They were all tenant farmers and they chose to send the food to England. It was going to teach the Irish a lesson of character. That was Parliament's decision.

It rather reminds me of how the Cavalry killed most of the buffalo to starve the Indians. My father could never understand why they killed the buffalo and brought over beef cattle. Buffalo meat is so much better. Your lyrics are just so intense. You sit here and read them and you just see all this imagery in your mind. How long did it take you to write all this?

Thanks. As far as the song "First Light" and "Open Your Eyes", the funny thing about those two songs is I had done pretty much all of the principal recording for the album and had begun mixing the record in April. The main piece for the album was a song that I had written called "Insurrection" which really wasn't about anything. It was more of a stand up on your own. The lyrics didn't really pertain to any specific event and I really loved the song. I couldn't get it. I couldn't get the mix to work. There was something just not right about it and I re-recorded part of it and it didn't feel right. When I realized that I wasn't going to be able to use that tune for the record, the entire feeling of the record changed. I actually wrote "First Light" and "Open Your Eyes", arranged them, and recorded them in about two weeks. I got a couple of friends of mine to help me out. Carrie Ferguson who is a phenomenal singer and songwriter from my neck in the woods up here in Massachusetts. Just a tremendous talent. And a fiddle player by the name of John Reynolds and they're both very good friends of mine. I hustled them into the studio and asked them if they could play this and sing this. They just came and got their parts down and the songs actually came together very quickly. The rest of the stuff, the whole project overall took about three years to get done. I recorded over 20 tunes and ended up picking nine of them for the record.

That must have been difficult.

Yeah, but it's the way I've always worked. It's just write like crazy and then try and record. Fortunately I've always had my own recording equipment so I tend to use the studio over the last 20 years or so. I've just used the studio as almost another instrument. It's a place I can come in and I can try out ideas and come up with little slivers of guitar parts and then build off them or come up with a lyric and see what I can build around it. It was just the way I've always worked. Finding the songs that worked for this project was difficult. Especially when that song "Insurrection" didn't work. The record was actually a lot more rock then it turned out to be. A lot more electric guitar stuff. A lot of the songs that didn't make it were kind of metallish almost in nature. Those two songs made me think that the record needed to go in a different direction I think.

You could always use the metal stuff for something else.

Absolutely. You bet. Some of that stuff I really liked. It's very weird because I love that stuff and I play and I also do some guitar teaching up here. Fortunately most of the kids that I come in contact with are the people that I teach and tend to want to learn to play classic '70s rock pieces which is great because that's the stuff I grew up playing. It's an interesting way of looking at it so I love playing that stuff and Ockham's Razor always teetered on the brink of becoming a full blown hard rock borderline metal band and people just kept having to smack me on the back of the head and tell me to turn the distortion off please. I didn't want to. Please, it's really fun. "No, could you not because there are 20 80 year old women in the audience and you'll kill them." I think one of the things that's really great about the independent music scene is that if you're not looking to score big and become the next Britney, and I'm definitely not because I just don't have the body for it. The independent music scene and being able to release our own records, the thing that's nice is that you can follow your muse with a lot more clarity and with a lot more honesty than when you have a producer telling you "the label wants this and that song would be pretty good except we don't want it." It lets me be a little more schizophrenic than I would be if I was under contract to a major label.

It's like when someone else owns you. This is how we want you to be and this is the way we want it to sound or we're not going to give you any money.

You must run into that a lot with the people that you've interviewed. I think all of us have to deal with the concept. It's almost like we have to sell our souls in a bizarre way to further it on and that kind of high wire act of deciding whether or not to stay true and poor or sell out and lose that musical clarity that we all supposedly had when we were just a bunch of struggling guys and playing in bars.

You lose sight of what got you into this in the first place.

When I was in high school, everybody played and everybody played to meet girls. That was the main reason why everybody, except for me because I started playing when I was 10, picked up a guitar because girls thought that was cool. If that was your motivation, that's not selling out.

You definitely had a goal and purpose in mind and you got to utilize that.

Yeah, I don't know whether or not that was a good thing or a bad thing but here I sit.

I noticed that you play a lot of different instruments. How did you have the patience to learn all of them?

I had no social life. Taking up various instruments was all a direct result of having my own recording equipment for the last 20 years or so. In the early '80s I actually started experimenting with very simple multi-track recording stuff and as I would write in the studio and start coming up with ideas and with pieces, I would hear other instruments but I didn't have anybody to play them. I would go out and learn how to play them myself. The studio was the engine that drove playing a lot of different instruments. I really liked the sound of a lot of different instruments and if you don't play in a band that has 28 members, you have to figure out how to play them yourself. After discovering Irish music, the guitar took a backseat for a little while where I learned how to play woodwind instruments so I could play Irish music. I didn't stop playing the guitar but my focus shifted to playing tin whistle and flute and stuff like that. Then bagpipes and everything because that was what I wanted to do at the time. Being a very earnest young man, I gave my 1970s Stratocaster to my best friend and my whole guitar rig and I gave all my rock and roll records to my best friend's girlfriend. Looking back, what a moron. I wish I still had all that stuff.

I was reading that wondering "is he crazy?"

What an idiot. I thought I would never need this again. I will never listen to a Led Zeppelin record for as long as I live because I have my two dollar tin whistle with me now. I got a little older and realized that was the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life. Of course my best friend promptly turned around and sold the Stratocaster that I gave him. He was like "hell man, thanks. I'm going to sell this. I hope you don't mind." "No I don't because now I play Irish music." Oh my God, unbelievable.

But now I've got my entire Led Zeppelin collection on CD.

Yeah, so take that. Actually I ended up going out and re-buying an awful lot of stuff on digital but still have this gigantic vinyl collection.

I still have a turntable and I will not part with it.

Me either. Absolutely not. It's funny, I brought my wife into our studio about a year ago and I had just been killing myself working on my record. We were just hanging out in the studio and we were trying to decide what we were going to do just hanging out. I said let's just listen to some old records. I put a CD of an old traditional record that I have on and the CD played and it's a great record. Then I said listen to this and I put this vinyl on the turntable. I put the LP on and she went "oh my God, I can't believe how unbelievably good it sounds." Minus the hamburger cooking noises in the background that you get. The little pops and crackles on vinyl and it sounds so much better. Unbelievable the difference. I guess I'm just an analog geek. My studio is all digital and up to date but I'm still an analog geek.

Analog man.

The mastering engineer that we used for the record, I absolutely had to make sure that he used analog gear to master the record with. He did an unbelievable job. He was one of those quirky, eccentric guys who hermit themselves away with recording projects as a mastering engineer and just does this phenomenal job. In a perfect world they'll figure out a way of making LPs so that they don't get pops and cracks in them. Dream on Byrnes, dream on.

You just recently released this CD. How has it been selling?

It's been selling okay. I have not gotten a band together and gone out and supported the record. I was fried by the time this thing got released and we used the strategy with the record label to try and use the Internet as our primary selling point. It's been selling okay. I don't think a lot of people know who the hell I am. That definitely has disadvantages. I think the sales will increase. I'm in the process of putting a new band together now.

Have you thought about going around playing different Renaissance fairs?

Yeah, in years past Ockham's Razor did a number of more traditional events like that. Highland games and things like that. That's definitely on the horizon. The last thing I want to do is go out in support of this record and try and do a bunch of solo shows because it turned out so gigantic playing wise. I think people would be like "well, we saw this guy with a guitar and then we listened to his record and I blew the woofer out of my stereo. I'm really angry with him now." That probably wouldn't cut it. Hopefully I know within the next couple of months, we'll start primary rehearsals for getting the stuff together. The bass player from Ockham's Razor, a guy named Sean Cowhig that I've played music with for almost 20 years now, he's actually signed onboard to come back out on the road with me which is cool.

We have a big Renaissance fair out here called Scarborough Fair. Those people would go apeshit over something like that.

I've heard of that. That's the plan. To get back out there. As the first solo release and on a fledgling record label and really doing all of the legwork without a machine behind driving the record, we can't be that disappointed with the sales. They've been okay. I think once I get out on the road that they'll pick up. We've gotten a ton of airplay which is really good.

It's amazing that you literally did this whole thing yourself.

Again, the technology and the climate of the music industry at the moment allows obsessive-compulsive, strange people like myself to actually be able to do it. I'm not the only one. There are hundreds of people who are doing this. You must run into it all the time. People must be sending you CDs.

Yeah, I got something from a band called the Babylon Mystery Orchestra. It's just one guy playing all the instruments and it sounds like a symphony almost. I got something else called The Impossible Recording Machine that sounds like The Beatles meet Pink Floyd and it's just two guys.

There's a revolution brewing. With the ability for any musician to actually be able to produce high quality recordings and to be able to market. The Internet is where it's all starting to happen and you're way more aware of it than most. It's great. It's really neat. If somebody is determined enough or pigheaded enough, anybody can do this.

You figure you play all the instruments and you're all the band members, the only person you can get into an argument with is yourself.

And you should hear them. They're knock down, drag out. It's awful. I hate it when I have to come in and break myself up from the fights. "Alright you two, break it up." It's terrible.

It's terrible when I have to kick my own ass.

That's right but somebody has to kick my ass and it might as well be me. Sybil disobedience. Itís a wonderful thing. Iíve been doing this a really long time. I think musicians like myself who have been on the fringes of the music industry and we were pretty successful as far as Ockhamís Razor is concerned and we had a good following. We did a fair bit of touring and playing and played in Ireland. Itís always been on the fringes and the time finally became right to actually be able to do this. Itís all because of the new technology. As much as I bitch and moan about the sound of digital recordings, the truth is that it would have been impossible to try and do this even five or six years ago. Itís pretty neat and itís only getting better. I think that the big revolution in music in all of the genres of music, rock and alternative and metal and everything else, is going to come from people who are doing it themselves. Theyíre not waiting for the A&R guyís car to break down in front of the bar theyíre playing in that night which is pretty neat. The whole thing for the music business because itís gotten so contrived, especially popular music and rock music, so much of it is just awful. Itís just awful stuff.

I think part of the problem is that whenever you talk about music, you talk about the ďbusinessĒ and the ďindustryĒ and music shouldnít have that behind it. It shouldnít really be a business or an industry. It shouldnít be a corporation.

In a perfect world thatís the case. The truth is that itís always been a business from Stephen Foster selling his music pre-Civil War. Itís always been a business. Thatís okay. Harpers in ancient Ireland and Scotland got paid because they wrote tunes for people so thereís always been that element. I donít mind the business end of it because all of us would like to get paid for what we do.

Absolutely, but sometimes I think it gets a little overbearing.

Yeah, I think youíre right. I think the attitude of music as product is what gets to me. Thatís become a very pervasive attitude in the music business because and not to fault with the huge labels. Thereís only three major labels left anymore. Theyíve all been swallowed up which is really depressing. Oh my God, didnít Teddy Roosevelt fight against all this stuff 100 years ago? He was the trust buster. What the heck is going on? I think everything needs to sound the same and everything needs to fit into categories. I donít think that large record labels are willing to take chances on people like they were 20 or 30 years ago. The industry was very different and it seems a lot more sinister to me. Maybe itís just because Iím older. Iím not sure but it just seems like thereís this sinister edge to the mainstream music industry thatís distasteful. Being able to do it ourselves as musicians is awesome because then we donít have to have an A&R guy go ďweíre breaking your contract because youíre not the flavor of the week anymore.Ē After reading a lot of interviews with Aimee Mann and what she had to go through with A&M is just my God, no thank you.

Thatís pretty scary. Any other thoughts or comments?

I just thank you so much. Itís really cool. I love your site and I love what youíre doing. Itís just awesome. Itís well written. Iím very impressed.

Tommy Brynes