John Kraus is sitting in the same place he was 10 years ago—the garage of a tree-lined street in suburban Fullerton—which is not to say he hasn't gotten anywhere. "Yeah, I'd say I've played bigger, better rooms," Kraus says dryly, surrounded by refrigerators, packing boxes and the assorted debris of many moves and returns, as well as his band mates—drummer David Dutton, rhythm guitarist Ian Miller and bassist Steve Parks. They barely have room to stretch their legs.
Though cramped, these quarters nonetheless afford Kraus and his colleagues plenty of space to stretch their artistic imaginations and explore the unique musical vision that is Barnacle. The band produces a sound difficult to pigeonhole, but it echoes with everything from sea shanties and Appalachian folk to country and psychedelic-tinged jams.
Like we said, Kraus has been in this place before. Ten years ago, as a 21-year-old guitarist rehearsing in this Fullerton garage, his former band—Trip the Spring—was showing great promise: getting a sniff from record labels and planning a trip to the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin. But despite releasing two of OC's most critically heralded independent records of the past decade—and playing hundreds of gigs, from cockroach-infested shit holes to the Coach House (or was that the same place?)—Trip the Spring is dead.
Not Kraus, though. He's excited about the far-flung music he is making with Barnacle. So are his band mates. "I say we're eclectic," Miller says.
"I think we're old-timey and new-timey," Dutton said. "Led Zeppelin meets the hillbillies."
Kraus describes the band as Appalachian punk.
The critics have just as much fun labeling the sound. Last September, the Weekly's Rich Kane reviewed Barnacle's eponymous EP, using such phrases as "a jovial blend of alterna-country stomp and drunken sea shanty," "sweet, piercing, Crazy Horse-style guitar licks," "mellow cocktail jazz," and "spry and sumptuous." Another song made him think, for some reason, of bullfighting.
Exploring and refining that sound brings Barnacle to this garage twice a week. They insist it's not about the big record deal. "We couldn't give a fuck about that," says the Scottish-born Miller, amply demonstrating his Glasgowian no-bullshit sensibilities. At this point, it ain't even about the pussy anymore: two members of the band are married, and another has a daughter. Nonetheless, Kraus will admit that he'd like to be the Beatles "for just an hour." Failing that, however, the members of Barnacle are simply enjoying the arts of creation and communication. After the day jobs, after those beautiful, screaming babies, after all the bullshit, this garage serves as an oasis, a place where words and ideas take a back seat to music and emotion.
"What we're doing here isn't much different than 10,000 years ago, when drums were the only instrument," says Dutton, attempting to flex his anthropological knowledge. "Some guy would be in a village banging out a rhythm, like, 'Send over 12 women so we can have them.'"
"Yeah," says Miller, picking up on the prehistoric riff, "and then the second guy would drum a message back: 'I'll send 'em over when I'm through with 'em.'"
Barnacle does get out of its garage. Often. After releasing a five-track CD last summer, the band has been stepping up its live gigs over the past three months, playing from Detroit in Costa Mesa to Molly Malone's in Hollywood. And getting out is what the Barnacle does best. The band thrives in live performance.
Barnacle is less progressively inclined than Trip the Spring, but the band's textured rhythms and non-traditional structure are very Trip-like. (That should surprise no one: Kraus and Dutton were founding members, Miller produced both Trip albums, and Parks was the band's last bass player.) The real difference is in Kraus. He wrote and sang a few songs for Trip the Spring, but he was principally a guitarist—expressive, fluid and tastefully creative—not a front man.
Now Kraus is one of the more engaging and interesting lead singers around. He has an understated theatrical flair, both physically and vocally, and as his confidence grows, he supplies an unpretentious but commanding presence.
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Those qualities permeate the rest of the band. Barnacle doesn't seem desperate. They'd be lying if they denied the rush of validation they feel when playing for people who are truly digging them, but they are believable when they say—to a person—that they don't have anything or anyone else to live up to any longer.
"I don't know how long this band will continue," Miller said. "But the truth is as long as it's exciting and fresh, I'll still be here."
Check back in another 10 years. If Barnacle is stilljamming in that garage, then something must be going right.
Barnacle plays with Giant Sucking Sound at the Back Alley Bar and Grill, 116 1/2 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-3032. Sat., 9:30 p.m. Free. 21+.