Posted September 30, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

Carbon Leaf: No shortage of creativity, just time

Carbon Leaf
Carbon Leaf

Jam band Carbon Leaf has eclipsed the 20-year mark and shows no signs of letting up. In fact, the group released two albums this year. The first, Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle, is a Celtic-influenced collection of tunes and the follow-up, Constellation Prize, is a companion piece that sounds more bluegrass-inspired. We caught up with singer Barry Privett, who spoke about the band’s sudden spurt of creativity via phone from his Richmond, Virginia home.

When you left Vanguard in 2010, you said you wanted to release music more frequently. Talk about the situation with the label and how it was keeping you from putting out as much music as you wanted.
We released three albums on Vanguard, and the first one was really successful and the second one was half as successful and the third one had half of that success. We didn’t get the radio and marketing benefits. It’s pretty expensive if those things are trading off and you give up your rights and you’re in a holding pattern as to how often you can release albums. As the landscape was changing from terrestrial radio to CDs and online, we decided not to take the offer for the fourth release, which was literally $15,000. We decided to make the record on our own for half that. We didn’t see working with the label as being beneficial. We built our own studio and bought a bunch of gear. We’re about to release our fifth project in in something like two and a half years.

So it’s worked out.
Yeah, instead of the mentality of throwing the net everywhere but where your fan base in the hope that you catch more fish, we wanted to focus on our fan base and work with what we know. Maybe you sell less of each release, but it allows you to be more dexterous.

We have had two releases within six months apart. They explore roots music but from two sides of the Atlantic.

Talk about the two studio albums you have out. Start with Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle and your approach for that release.
Around the holidays of last year, we had all these ideas and started writing them down. A couple of those songs were of the Celtic persuasion. We had gotten away from that. The well had gotten dry so we left it for a while. We felt a pull back to it and we decided to make an album that was unabashedly Celtic in nature from stem to stern. We started with that in mind. We had a great time. It was fun because the pressure was off. We were just making it for our old school fans. At the same time we started writing an album as a companion to Ghost Dragon that had a rootsy, Americana, blue-grassy sound. So we decided to put that together right on the heels of Ghost Dragon. We have had two releases within six months apart. They explore roots music but from two sides of the Atlantic.

You didn’t record them at the same time, did you?
No. We focused our direction for Ghost Dragon and then shelved those songs and that flavor. A couple of weeks after Ghost Dragon was released we went back into the studio.

Are you playing songs from both albums on the current tour?
We’re going to pepper them in and try out a different ones. We won’t exhaust people with music they’ve never heard. We learned early on not to go on tour and play your new album back-to-back. It will be a mix of some classic Carbon Leaf and a sampling of other stuff.

How did you get interested in roots music and how you see your rootsier music connecting to the Celtic-inspired material?
There’s a wide appreciation for all styles. We’re a band-centric group in that people are pursuing their own musical thing and they bring that to the table. If Carter is learning fiddle tunes and he shows up with a song influenced by what he’s listening to, we bring that to the table. They’re ultimately rock songs and filtered into a rock band experience. It’s not like we play straight-up bluegrass or Celtic music. We pursue our interests and then see how we can make it our own.

Looking back on your 20-year career, what kept you going in the early days when you were playing parties?
It was bedlam when we first started out. We cut our teeth as a college band and we were in the last waning years when campuses were keg-based and fraternity parties were still where it was at. That’s where we started as a young dumb college band. I’m glad to have been a part of that. It took us a good six or seven years to get out of it. We wanted to be something that was going to tour and record and sustain itself. That was a hard time and I remember that transition when we went from being a cover band to writing our own material. It didn’t click right away. We lost our early fan base. It was a slow start to get leveled off.

We have 600 unfinished demos lying around. There’s no shortage of creativity or ideas. There’s just a shortage of time.

You have songs ready for another album?
We do. I need to go back through my notes and there are five or six songs that are finished and another 15 or 20 in various stages of being finished. I will spend some time getting it going when we get back from the road in March. Being on a label, you’re like a rotated crop. You release an album every two years and you have to wait your turn because there are other bands on the label. If you’re at home, what are you going to do? We have a regimented system. We’re either running office stuff during the day or we’re rehearsing. We have 600 unfinished demos lying around. There’s no shortage of creativity or ideas. There’s just a shortage of time. And how many years does a rock band have in them? It’s a race against the inevitable. You want to get as much of you out there before the logistics make it impossible. When we break up, it won’t be because we hate each other. It will be because life gets too busy. Even super successful bands aren’t out there that much. The trick is to find a way to stay creative.

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Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom

Chicago, IL @ City Winery

Bloomington, IL @ Castle Theatre

Milwaukee, WI @ Shank Hall

Minneapolis, MN @ Cedar Cultural Center

Ames, IA @ Maintenance Shop

Overland Park, KS @ Kanza Hall

Denver, CO @ The Bluebird Theater

Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge

Boise, ID @ Knitting Factory

Spokane, WA @ Knitting Factory

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Portland, OR @ Doug Fir

San Francisco, CA @ The Chapel

Los Angeles, CA @ Hotel Café

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Austin, TX @ The Parish

Dallas, TX @ The Kessler Theater

Conroe, TX @ Doesy Doe’s Music Café

Birmingham, AL @ WorkPlay Theatre

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Philadelphia, PA @ World Café Live

Bay Shore, NY @ Boulton Center for Performing Arts

Uncasville, CT @ The Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun Casino

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Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair

Winston-Salem, NC @ Ziggy’s

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Charlotte, NC @ Visulite Theater

Portland, ME @ Port City Music Hall

Londonderry, NH @ Tupelo Music Hall

Londonderry, NH @ Tupelo Music Hall

Alexandria, VA @ The Birchmere

Alexandria, VA @ The Birchmere

Richmond, VA @ The National


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].