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Assembling the Whole Kit: Bass Drum of Death Founder John Barrett Surrenders to the Benefits and Beauty of Collaboration

Ahead of the band’s cross-country headlining tour to promote their new album Say I Won’t, John Barrett tells SPIN about going from a one-man band to a collaboration advocate
(Credit: Steve Gullick)

“I had kind of just run out of ideas doing things completely by myself.”

This is what John Barrett, the founder of Bass Drum of Death, tells me when I ask why his fifth full-length album is the first non-solo LP from the often one-man band.

Say I Won’t was written, demoed, and recorded with Barret’s guitarist brother Jim and drummer Ian Kirkpatrick – BDOD’s official touring team. Appropriately, the album’s name comes from a schoolyard provocation used solely in group settings.

“It’s basically an inside joke between my friends and me. It’s one of those things that you would say in, like, middle school when you were trying to fight somebody or pressing someone to dare you to do something. It’s like, ‘say I won’t do it.’”

For the incoming collection of boisterous yet sonically fastidious songs, Barrett also recruited Patrick Carney of the Black Keys to implement some production genius. What resulted is an inspired assemblage of songs with mainstream competence and purposeful scuzziness that keeps the music grounded in its roots. However, handing over the reins wasn’t always an easy feat for Barrett who had long become accustomed to consulting with himself.

Bass Drum of Death
(Credit: Steve Gullick)

“I’ve always been pretty possessive of my songs, and, you know, that’s just kind of been one of the habits I acquired from doing it by myself for so long. But doing it this way really taught me to let go and let other people do their thing. It was kind of hard for me, but [everyone I worked with on this] is really good at what they do, so I had to say to myself, like, “Yo, just let them be good. Stop trying to micromanage everything.’”

An Oxford, Miss. native, Barrett moved to New York before releasing Bass Drum of Death’s first album GB City in 2011 with Fat Possum Records. Through the next decade, Barrett and the band would experience the common ebbs and flows that often define the life of musicians – new labels, member turnover, releasing albums, touring, etc.

Then, the pandemic hit. It was during this time that Barrett returned to Mississippi to reset and reassess, ultimately finishing up the fifth full-length that BDOD had started writing in Brooklyn in 2020 and re-signing with Fat Possum Records.

“When I started, I just wanted to play in a punk band and drink beers and travel around. I didn’t really think much past that. And I got really burned out. When I moved back home, I started writing songs again, just for fun. I realized I wanted this record to have more of a hometown feel. The switch back to Fat Possum was easy. It’s much better working with people I know and love and love everything they do.”

Regarding his favorite track from the album, Barrett tells me that while it’s a difficult verdict, the titular track – a heavily-rhythmic song that incites an involuntary stank face within seconds – may take the cake.

“Say I Won’t’ came from a super loose demo. That one and ‘Swerving’ were two tracks that we took from almost nothing – just a verse and a chorus – and developed entirely in the studio. The way we did it was so different and so fun because the rest of the songs were kind of mapped out.”

What’s more, “Say Your Prayers,” a collaboration with Mike Kerr of Royal Blood, showcases Bass Drum of Death’s propensity for inspiring raw emotion. Quick rhymes layer atop one another, swelling with anticipation, before spilling – nay, gushing – into a masterfully enjambed chorus.

Bass Drum of Death
(Credit: Steve Gullick)

As the garage-rock band gears up for a cross-country tour starting Feb. 8 – the latter half of which features Brooklyn band Dead Tooth – I probe Barrett about the band’s affinity for globetrotting. Bass Drum of Death has, after all, rarely missed an opportunity to travel its tracks.

“My first two records were made quickly and cheaply as an excuse to tour. Growing up in Mississippi and then kind of staying around Oxford after high school, touring was a way for me to get out, you know? Now, as I’ve gotten older, it’s kind of flipped a little bit; I really enjoy making songs and figuring things out in the studio. But we’re really excited to get back out there and play some new and old stuff.”

Say I Won’t – which is out Jan. 27 – closes with a song called “Too Cold to Hold,” a common exclamation when referring to a freezing beer in a chilled glass (though that’s not what the song is about). But, these days, the full-time musician has a more sober perspective.

“This time around, I’m not getting caught up in any unnecessary stuff. I’m focused on devoting the right amount of time and mental resources to make sure that the music is good.”