All week we’re counting down to Kent’s Ramblin’ Man Fair and for those who enjoy their blues hard, heavy and with a broad brushstrokes of Southern Rock and country…look no further than Kris Barras.
The man himself caught up with HRH Mag ahead of Sunday’s Blues Stage slot.
Kris Barras might sing the blues but don’t suggest he’s feeling down. Not these days. Not after so many false starts, scores of brutal fights, the death of his father and more. With his glass half full and his guitar for company, the former Mixed Martial Artist is a man on a mission. Armed with a riotous new record, a string of live dates and the self-confidence borne out of scrapping – often literally – for every last chance, Barras is a musician reborn. “I’ve gone full circle,” he explained. “I know who I am now.”
Who Barras is depends on where you look. Cage fighter, author, lecturer, columnist, gym owner, motivator, songwriter and, according to Music Radar, one of the best 15 Blues Guitarists in the World. Take your pick and prepare to be amazed.
Right now, Barras is the band leader. The ace performer. The mesmerising musician and the face of modern blues. Barras has gone back to the future and the future is bright.
“I was heavily involved in music before I became an established fighter,” added a musician who started playing guitar aged six and never looked back. “I toured the States at the age of 18 and I was working for a lot of different companies doing online stuff within the music industry.
“But I’d also done martial arts all my life – I had a couple of years off when it was all about the music but I reached a point where I needed another outlet where I could vent my frustration.
“I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall with the music and I suddenly realised I was a little bit lost. I went bankrupt and at the same time I was getting more and more into the fighting world and getting nowhere fast with my music.
“I just went with the option that gave me the most opportunities to get back on my feet. At the time my band was playing shit weddings and dodgy pubs and it was just soul destroying. The fighting gave me that excitement that was missing in my life back then. And it paid the bills.”
Barras went with his head, rather than his heart. The rough stuff rather than the riffs. And with the offers of big money fights – as far afield as Thailand and Las Vegas – coming thick and fast it was no surprise that a bout in front of 8,000 baying fans proved a far bigger draw than a pokey gig in front of a few pissed punters in the arse end of nowhere.
“To start with the guitar was a way to earn money to support my fight career,” he added. “Then the fights funded the music. I was caught in a bit of a trap. There were one or two good gigs and music-wise I felt like I could be doing so much more but I just never knew how to go about it. When I decided I wanted to go back to writing music again I had a much clearer plan of what I wanted to achieve and how I could achieve it.
“In the end it wasn’t hard to step down from MMA. Not at all. I did it for a long time – I was fighting for 10 years. I just felt like I’d reached the point where I’d achieved everything that I set out to in MMA. I don’t think I’d have gone any further and I just felt as if it was time to stop competing. The one thing I knew I’d miss was the thrill and the buzz but that’s where the music has come in. That’s what I get out of my music now.”
Barras is – and always has been – an adrenaline junkie. The constant craving for living life on the edge has taken him halfway around the world and back but listen to the multi-talented musician in 2018 and it’s quite obvious he’s never been in a better place. The Kris Barras Band released their Mascot Label Group debut, The Divine And Dirty, to critical acclaim in March and a return to Ramblin’ Man this summer is another stepping stone on the road to success.
“I think it’s actually a better feeling playing guitar on stage than it is pulling on the gloves and stepping into the ring,” added Barras. “I definitely get that same adrenaline surge when I step onto the stage. I put a lot into my performance. And when I’m warming up backstage – immediately before a show – I get the same nerves that I used to feel as a fighter.
“At the same time I’m not worried about someone whacking me in the face. I much prefer to play my guitar for 8,000 people than to fight in front of them. The fighting served its purpose and it’s what I wanted to do at the time. But it’s in the past.”
Barras puts on a brave face as he recounts his decade-long stint battling brutal rivals and inner demons. For every victory (and he won 14 of his 17 professional MMA bouts) there was the fear of career-threatening defeat. And the very real prospect that one mistimed punch could put a permanent end to the rock and roll dream.
“I did get anxious every time I went into the ring,” added Barras. “But as far as worrying whether I’d get injured so badly doing MMA that I couldn’t play my guitar again? There was a time when I was more worried that I’d hurt my hands so badly that I couldn’t punch anyone properly!
“People ask me now ‘don’t you wish you were doing this when you were 21?’. I was doing it but I didn’t think I was ready. Part of what is behind The Kris Barras Band in 2018 is that I’ve been there, done that and got the T shirt. I’m old enough to not give a fuck. I just write music that I want to write. I’m quite happy doing my thing.”
Barras’s ‘thing’ proved to be a big hit at last summer’s Ramblin’ Man Fair. Initially appearing in country star Caitlin Koch’s house band, the bluesman reappeared on the festival’s Rising Stage with a set screaming attitude and raw potential. It caught the attention of fans and record label bosses alike.
“I think Ramblin’ Man was definitely one of the catalysts that helped me go up a notch as a musician,” added Barras. “I met a lot of people and played in front of even more. It was my first meeting with the Mascot Label Group and it kicked things off as far as my relationship with the label goes.
“It meant that I started to take things a bit more seriously – I’d been getting into a few blues festivals but Ramblin’ Man was a huge platform for me. It was important to play to a mainstream audience. I think the gigs we played in Maidstone put a bit of weight behind us as a band.
“This summer I’ll be playing on the blues stage and it will be great to go back there with an album deal and a new record and to be able to play the new songs live. It’s a chance to do more.”
Barras might be pitched as a blues artist but The Divine And Dirty brazenly stretches the genre’s accepted boundaries – and then some. Appealing to fans of Blackberry Smoke as much as Buddy Guy, it’s a record that takes the blues as its starting point before delivering a set as expansive as it is exciting.
“I’m not writing to conform,” added Barras. “I’m not trying to write an album that blues geeks will think is perfect. I love the blues and I see it as a major influence on my music but there’s a Southern rock vibe there too. Blues is the underlying sound but I’m never going to write an album of 12 bar blues – it’s been done before and done by people who are far better at it than me.”
Maybe so. But Barras has a knack for writing heartfelt rock that gets the pulse racing and tugs at the heartstrings. It’s music rooted in a life spent juggling the good, the bad and the ugly and it’s almost autobiographical in its honesty.
“Not all of the songs on The Divine And The Dirty are about me,” countered Barras. “Some of the things that I wrote about could have happened to me or maybe a friend of mine. The main song that I wrote that I really relate to is a tribute to my late dad called Watching Over Me. He died fairly suddenly, of cancer. He was only 54-years-old. That’s a really emotional song for me. I think he’d be proud of what I’m doing.
“I’ve had a very interesting life so far so I’m not short of material: I’m fortunate that, for now, songwriting comes very easily to me. I don’t have a problem with baring my soul as a songwriter – at least I don’t think I do. I try not to overthink it to be honest. It certainly doesn’t bother me being honest in my songwriting.”
The honesty, the experience, the knock backs and the triumphs: Barras can draw on myriad examples of success and failure when shaping his band’s lyrical and musical direction. And he no longer has to do it alone.
“These days I’m very fortunate that I have good management, booking agents and a great label behind me,” he added. “It really has made a difference. The line-ups in The Kris Barras Band have also been incredibly supportive.
“In the past, it has all been down to me to get things sorted and particularly financially. And it doesn’t help when you’re based at least two hours away from the nearest major city. We’re a long way from anywhere and when you’re doing everything yourself it can feel isolated.
“I don’t find it hard at all to let other people help me! But I did become used to being independent and self-sufficient. One of the reasons I formed The Kris Barras Band was that I wasn’t beholden to anyone. I also knew from day one that there had to be a 100% commitment to the band and not everyone who’s been in the various line-ups has been able to commit to that extent. I don’t hold that against them but I had to move on.”
Barras moved on and moved forward. But it’s only now that the pace is finally quickening as he turns his sole attention to the music.
“I was doing everything for a while – from designing posters to booking shows and editing videos,” he added. “But it wasn’t anything to do with being single-minded or some kind of control freak. I just couldn’t afford to do it any other way! It was purely out of necessity.
“I don’t have to be in charge and I actually quite like being told what to do. It’s a refreshing change. That’s why, when I signed with Mascot, I really wanted to hand over the responsibility of producing the record to someone else. I just wanted to concentrate on what I do best. It was a breath of fresh air to be able to let go of the reins in the studio for the first time. I realised that this is what it meant to be a musician!”
*This feature originally appeared in Volume V of HRH Mag – OUT NOW!
*Images courtesy of Andrew Knowles and Marcin Kaniak