We had the distinct pleasure to speak with Bongo’s founder and front man Richard Barone about his solo work and his most recent productions. This unassuming artist flies mostly under the popular radar, but he is often found behind some of the most groundbreaking events and happenings on the music scene today. From staged productions at Carnegie hall to teaching performance at NYU, Richard is one of the most prolific artists of our day and we were honored to explore his world with him. Please enjoy this interview as we did. May you be inspired!
LBFH: So Richard what have you been working on?
RB: Well I’m always working on so many things. I’ve got multiple projects going on. So really they’ll be coming out as they’re ready. I don’t just only produce my own music; I’ve been working on producing a singer that I work with named Tracy Stark. She has an album that will be coming out soon, so we’re just getting that finished and ready to be released.
LBFH: You have such a diversified career and it’s very inspiring. You’re a musician, performer, producer and even author! You really seem to think outside the box as a career musician.
RB: I never thought that you had to do just one thing. I started out as a DJ on the radio and then as a producer, before I was really performing on stage. It’s nothing new to me to be producing other artists. During theBongos I was also producing artists; I started doing that at age 16.
LBFH: The Bongos were right in the center of the 80’s music scene. I’ve seen you a few times in the clubs back in the day. How did the Bongos come about?
RB: We created it! It didn’t come about. We were like-minded musicians, with similar musical tastes and friendships and we started a band. It wasn’t something I joined or something that kind of fell together. We planned it and said, let’s start a band that combines these elements. We were interested in combining music that you could dance to with a lot of garage rock elements from bands that had started before us. We also really loved the punk bands like the Ramones and some of the industrial stuff that was coming out of England. Rob the bass player was really into free form Jazz, so there was an element of improvisation in The Bongos that a lot of the other bands weren’t getting into too much. The different styles that came together that didn’t really seem to have a common ground, came together in The Bongos. So, we got signed to a major label pretty fast,
LBFH: Yeah, you guys always had a way of taking over the audience. It was a great sound.
RB: Thank you! We were fortunate to be the opening act for a lot of great acts, especially the B-52’s. We opened for their first US tour. A lot of the British act too, ones that we really admired. We were asked to be the opening acts. We loved that position of going on first and performing, we really loved it. I still love that. You don’t always have to be the front man or the headliner. You can work with music in a lot of different ways. Different ways serve different purposes, so we enjoyed being the new kids on the block, not the band (laughs), the new band on the block. We were given some great opportunities.
LBFH: That must have felt great. You know, you were young at the time and had this tight little act and all of a sudden you’re playing alongside of all the bands that you admire. What did that feel like?
RB: It felt great. It still does. For me, I try to keep a lot of that spirit from the early Bongos alive in all of my shows. With music and performance, there’s a lot of room for improvisation and keeping it in the moment. I’ve always had that view, not just back in the days of the Bongos.
LBFH: Your solo work really does reflect that spirit. You have such a diverse body of work, it’s super impressive. One of your interests is producing shows and you’ve produced concerts in some really interesting venues. Can you talk a little bit about what you get out of that personally?
RB: Sometimes it’s something that comes from my heart, like my desire to pay tribute to an artist that has inspired me in some way. That’s usually how it starts. My first really big show was in 2003 at Carnegie Hall with a tribute to Peggy Lee. That was something I really loved. I loved her voice and the songwriting especially. I got into the band arrangements. She had a really long career so there was so much material to work with. So it was a tribute show with as many of the actual players that she worked with on stage, as well. We had great singers to do her songs. I was helped greatly by George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival. He taught me a lot. I had done a few before that but never anything like Carnegie Hall. I love doing the larger venues like The Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie. There are places to do large events and I like creating events on a large scale. We did the Lou Reed tribute at the Paramount. It’s a great grand theatre in Austin, Texas. That show went almost 4 hours and because it was a rock show I was able to join in some of the music on stage. Peggy Lee really wasn’t my genre, so I kept away from performing (laughs) and was mainly the host. The Lou Reed show gave me the opportunity to play guitar with other musicians and sing. That was just a couple of months ago.
LBFH: It seems like you are good at manifesting situations to express your musical abilities.
RB: That’s the way to do it. We all have that ability to do that and I really believe that. It comes from a deep place, like my heart. Lou Reed for example was such a great influence that the desire to pay tribute came from a real place of love. With Peggy Lee, she was such an unsung hero of American popular music and was often overshadowed in the popular music charts. Even though she had a tremendously long career, I think it was 6 decades long of successful records. She was such an inspiration to other singers. I wanted to make sure that she was recognized. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do that.
LBFH: Peggy was a very shrewd business woman. I studied Big Band music for a while and Peggy was one of the few singers that knew how to survive the Benny Goodman Band. Benny was very hard on his singers, but she knew how to leverage that experience.
RB: That’s right! She also survived Disney. She had a great sense of self respect. She was able to get royalties for Lady and the Tramp when that was released on DVD. It was a very important class action law suit. She helped all artists benefit from that situation. Movies that were made in the 60’s were released later on DVD, but the artists were never getting paid. So Peggy Lee initiated a class action suit that benefited all of us. She was a tough lady. She was also a great songwriter. I met her at her last performance at Carnegie Hall; it was a double bill with Mel Torme. I met her back stage and I promised her I would produce a tribute for her one day. She passed soon after, which was sad because I had hoped she would be at the tribute. I was able to stage it just as I had promised I would.
LBFH: Talk about your book, Front Man.
RB: It’s written for a younger audience. It illustrates some “red flags” to look out for and just some ideas about working with other musicians. These are experiences of mine that I wanted to share with younger readers. That’s why that book was picked up by NYU, where I’m now a professor. They asked me to lecture about it because of the tone of the book. In my class I teach stage presence and I try to incorporate many of the aspects of performance into it. The main thing I teach is individuality and uniqueness. Regardless of what it is and whether you like it or not. It’s that element of themselves that is unique and has something to say and to offer the public on a larger scale. That’s what interests me in working with the students. It’s to find out who they are. We do that in different ways in the class. Sometimes it’s by having them pretend to be someone else. We have a lot of exercises we’ve developed to help students identify what they can offer that’s different and to stand out in a very, very oversaturated music market place. That’s how I approach my class, you know?
LBFH: It’s probably the only thing you really can do to rise above what you call an oversaturated market. Ironically, it’s what’s lacking the most in that oversaturation of music.
RB: That’s right. And the record labels will look for that copycat act, like the new Lady Gaga. But by the time they find that person and develop them, the times and trends have changed and nobody wants that anymore. I found that out early on in my own career, that the labels would look for a copycat artist and by the time the first record comes out, the whole trend is over. So, look at it that way and you will see that way to have any hope at all, is to totally be yourself and to bring out your own unique quality. With the Bongos I felt that we were unique, because of those elements I described earlier it was able to come together in a way that was unique. The individual elements of the Bongos were not that unique, you know, we liked Buddy Holly and certain dance bands that were coming out like Devoand Throbbing Gristle. But it was the way we put it all together that was unique. That’s one way to go. Some people are born with something brand new to offer, others can combine things together to make something unique. Those are my theories. I can’t prove it, but I think it’s a legitimate starting point.
LBFH: That theme is recurring in many of the interviews we’ve done here. Do you think that with the digital revolution, home studios and social media artists are changing the roles that record labels and contracts play in musical careers?
RB: Everyone will have a different opinion on this. I happen to like the music industry and negotiating contracts and finding creative ways to work with labels. So for me, I have many active contracts and my own music is on several different labels. But for other artists, they may not need to do that. I just happen to like it. I was just talking about this to a friend the other night. Ii think you can have fun with it and have a creative experience. So I do not hate record labels, I think that you just have to work with them in a way that suits your needs and situation. Or not. If your thing is that you want to work totally independent then that’s what you should do. I like negotiating, it’s my nature. I’ve been on several major labels and enjoyed them all. I’ve tried to find ways to make it a better experience for the artists and the label. It’s like a marriage; both parties have to work at it.
LBFH: So you’re ok if a label has a different view on how your music should sound or appear?
RB: I look at it as standing for your rights and intentions. That’s the same situation in almost everything that you do. People will always try to tell you what to do. It is a job, the idea is to figure out how to work with them so that both parties benefit. I like that challenge. Some artists cannot stand to have that discussion about how to be or to present yourself. In that case, just do it yourself then. But if you enjoy the fight, like I do, and you want to get along then you can find ways to make it work. If you don’t enjoy that, then be single.
LBFH: What are your views on social media? How do you feel it impacts you and other artists?
RB: I love it! I use it constantly. I use it 24 hours a day. I tweet and Instagram and use Facebook all the time. I wished it had been around back when the Bongos were around, we all would have used it. We used to love photographs and were always taking our own. We would have been posting all the time. There is a lot of misinformation that gets out there. I don’t like that. And I don’t like that everybody feels that their opinion is number 1 and the most important. They are not always correct either, but will post things to get into the main stream. But other than that I love the way that we can be in touch with fans and family and friends.
LBFH: You are a multi – instrumentalist? I noticed among your instruments is a Stylophone?
RB: I’m really a guitar player. I will play whatever I need to in the studio, but I’m no virtuoso on them. Tony Visconti, who I work with a lot, can just play that Stylophone like a violin. I really have to work at it. Among the many musicians I work with, he is truly a virtuoso. I try and I think that’s part of the do it yourself attitude that I love so much.
LBFH: Where do you even find an instrument like that, the Stylophone? Do they still make them?
RB: They do, they are popular again. The one I have is like a professional model and it was given to me by Tony. He used it when he would produce other bands Like Sparks and David Bowie records have a lot of Stylophone. Mine is I think from ‘77 or ’75.
LBFH: What kind of guitars do you play?
RB: I only play Gibson guitars. I play a Les Paul, Epiphone Swingster and different variations of Gibson guitars. I’m playing the Swingster on my most recent album that I did last year, Live at the City Winery.
LBFH: I was listening to your album, Primal Dream and noticed that you were using an E-bow. Do you still use this?
RB: I’ve always used an E-bow, even way back with The Bongos.
LBFH: Did you study music formally?
RB: I study a bit. I wish I had studied more. I took guitar lessons when I was about 8 years old. Now I use it more for arranging, but I did study a little. Generally I just pick up instruments and start playing them (laughs). Playing an instrument is like “audio envisioning”, you know like knowing what it should sound like and then trying to get that out of it, like manifesting the sound that you want. Studying is a little like cheating (laughs).
LBFH: How do you think people view you as an artist?
RB: I don’t know! I guess it depends on what part of my catalog people are listening to. Some might think I’m really pop, some might think I’m more acoustic, because I do a lot of live acoustic stuff. Oh, by the way I also play a Gibson J160 – E, which is the John Lennon model. Some people might say I’m a little “Folksy” because I worked with Pete Seeger and then some might think I’m a little punk, because of early Bongos. I don’t really have one particular genre, so I guess there would be a lot of opinions. I would hope that they would see me as an artist that was pretty true and pretty pure.
LBFH: What is your work space like; give us a little tour through your work space.
RB: Wherever I am. I was on the road for at least 7 years straight, 365 days a year. My work space was the back of a tour bus, hotel rooms, during sound checks, on a chair in the lobby. My work space doesn’t matter to me. I could work anywhere. I could put on headphones on a plane and write a song. I’m not that pressured about where I am or what kind of space I’m working in.
LBFH: Do you keep a home Studio, or do you prefer to work in the professional studios?
RB: Absolutely in a professional studio. My home studio is like an iPhone or my iPad or Mac Book pro. If I have an idea, the idea is there and I try to work on it as quickly as possible. Then when we go into the studio, that’s where we get the sound.
LBFH: How would you like to see music and the arts evolve in a “local” sense. You are someone who is based in New York and very rooted in that local scene.
RB: The reason for that is that New York offers pretty much everything you could possible want, from anywhere. So, New York is truly a city of choice. But, it doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate other places. It means that to me New York symbolizes every kind of venue and style for an artist and that just works best with me.
LBFH: Do you feel that the great venues of New York have changes a lot since the 80’s?
RB: Of course! There are a lot of reasons for that. For one thing, everything changes. Laws change. When I started, the drinking age in New York was 18 years old. When the Bongos started, we were playing dance clubs where everyone was under 25. We were the same age. That what inspired a lot of the sound, it was knowing that the audience was very young. So we were pushing the envelope in certain ways, but it was the intention to play to very young audiences. The audiences are more mature now and the better venues are now geared to people over 40. Like the City Winery which is one of my favorite venues. Shows are over $40.00, so you know there’s not going to be a lot of students there. Things have gotten more expensive too. Creatively speaking about venues, there is quite a bit that leaves to be desired. Younger acts really aren’t in Manhattan. It used to be.
LBFH: It does look like the younger scene has migrated out of the city. I have a soft spot for the club scene in NY because I grew up in it through the 80’s, especially Irving Plaza and Club 57. I loved the club scene. Also the concerts now have become almost cost prohibitive and I think less people partake of live music.
RB: Sure. There’s nothing quite like those days anymore. The venues have become very expensive.
LBFH: What advice would you give to someone today who was looking to get into the music business?
RB: That’s what I talk to my students about every day. I teach that individuality and uniqueness is the most important thing to focus on. I myself hold those things in very high regard. Not everyone might, but I do. It’s about finding out what makes you unique and then maximizing that. Be more of yourself. My best producers have said the same thing to me. When I go to a microphone to sing and I do a first take, they say, can you make that more Richard, more me? That’s something I tapped into early on.
LBFH: What are some of the pop singers that you most admire?
RB: I think we covered that subject when we talked about Peggy Lee and Lou Reed. I mean, those two I find very inspirational for very different reasons. I don’t like to mention groups that are my peers, because if I mention one and don’t mention the other than it’s not fair. So I always mention the classics. The Beatles were a great influence on me, John Lennon of course. I work with people all the time, so I don’t like to mention peers because I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out. I don’t focus too much on peers; I’d rather focus on the classic inspirations that are more universal.
LBFH: Well said. Earlier you mentioned Pete Seeger, can you talk about what it was like to work with him.
RB: Pete Seeger was one of my biggest inspirations, always because his songs infiltrated the culture in different ways than most artists. I mean, you would sing his songs around campfires! Even though I think he wanted his songs to be viewed as pop songs. They often were, they were songs that could also be sung in groups. They taught me how a song can have a life of its own. I’ve recorded a few of them too and played them live. I did produce his last single and I was honored to do that with my collaborator Mathew Billy. It was unforgettable in every possible way, because he was such a master. Even just being with him as he was tuning his Banjo, it was just being his presence that was a learning experience in every possible way. When I called him about a benefit for local clean up of the BP oil spill that devastated the Gulf area a couple of years back, I got his home number and he actually picked up the phone! We started a conversation and I asked him to perform at the event and of course he said yes. He had just written a song about the spill, and that just really started a conversation that pretty much lasted until he passed. I was honored to perform with him a couple of times and we did concerts together. It was great for me coming from the punk & rock background to be able to work with Pete.
LBFH: I get the chills just listening to you talk about it. It would be like touching the purest part of the art, that uncensored expression of though and conscience.
RB: He was the absolute example of artistic integrity and not just artistic, but personal integrity. He was a great inspiration for me and always will be.
LBFH: There’s something special about a performer that people can truly love without ever having met them.
LBFH: So what is next for you?
RB: I’m not really one for making big 5 year plans or anything. I like letting things happen. I like meeting new people to collaborate with and recording in new places. I’m working on my new album that’s coming out this fall. It’s like Yoda says from Star Wars, “it’s hard to see the future, it is” It’s hard to see the universe in motion. I am writing songs all the time. I am planning to record some new songs in Sweden. I always have a new show in mind. I work with Tony Visconti quite a lot and we might have some interesting projects late in the year.
LBFH: He is an amazing producer!
RB: Yes he is. I’ve been honored to work with him in many ways and not just in the studio. I just performed at his 70th birthday party. It was wonderful to perform some of the classic songs he produced. David Bowie was there and others and it was a very intimate party. That was an idea for a show, to bring some of the music he’s produced over the years into an event.
LBFH: Please bring back Diamond Dogs!
RB: I love that one and he does too. It is a very special and unique album.
LBFH: I recently found the TV trailer for that album on you tube, years ago.
RB: I remember that. Can you send me the link? I was visiting my mother in Florida and I found the promotional wall poster from when they toured the album in Tampa. It was called the strangest living atrocities; remember the artwork inside of the album?
LBFH: Richard it was an absolute pleasure speaking with you and we’re glad to call you a friend of the site. I hope we can talk again soon.
RB: Yes here too. Please keep in touch!
To learn more about Richard please visit his links:
About the interviewer:
Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY. He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to professionals in film and media industries. He is also the founding member of the Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.
To learn more about Thomas, Please visit his website: Thomasmangano.com