Points North Eric Barnett: Shaaawing!

By Jeb Wright

Once in a while, a CD, or a digital download, makes its way to me that I simply can’t get enough of. In this case, it is the band Points North debut release Road Less Traveled. Lead guitarist is Eric Barnett achieved a second place finish in a contest that was judged by George Lynch, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, in other words guys who kinda have an idea of how to play the guitar, themselves. This may give you a hint that Points North are not a three-chord pop band grandstanding and looking for an MTV Award.

It is amazing that Barnett didn’t win the contest because one listen to Points North and you will discover that this guy is an amazing talent. He is very diverse in his playing and he is able to make it sound easy. To this writer, Barnett is the heart and soul of the band.

While he has an obvious love of the playing of Alex Lifeson of Rush, Barnett does what any good artist thrives on – being able to take what he needs and then move on and discover other influences. This approach to music keeps one from being a copycat. Instead of just copping licks, players that reach deep inside of the music, making it their own, are able to progress and add to their arsenal. Like Lifeson, however, Barnett has the ability to play complex or to play emotionally with just as must passion. Unlike Lifeson, Barnett travels down many other roads in his quest for the perfect song.

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Jeb: I am absolutely bowled over by Points North. This album is simply breathtaking. Please share with me how the band formed and what philosophy the band employed when making the album.

Eric: Points North formed online. Kevin Aiello, our drummer, posted an ad looking for players who wanted to create original instrumental music. He first met Damien Sisson, our former bass player, and the one who plays on the album. I saw the ad too, and went to respond to it the next day, but it had expired, so I wrote my own ad looking for the writer of the ad I had seen, and fortunately Kevin saw my posting, and responded. We met in person shortly thereafter. I had fairly recently moved to the Bay Area, and didn’t really know anyone in the music scene at the time.

Initially, when we got together, there really wasn’t any thought as to what we might do or where we might end up; it was all about music that that we created and played because it felt good to us - the product of our influences, what we heard in our head, as opposed, for example, to what we thought might sell or be the most commercial. For the first nine months, or so, of our existence, in fact, all we did was write and rehearse. Once we had enough material for a live set we thought it might be fun to try playing a show – though it was awfully hard to get our first gig, as an unknown band without a singer! We were more than pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive responses we got, though, and decided to stick with it. And it really just ballooned and blossomed from there until we were regularly playing to large audiences and opening for touring nationals.

And in making the album, it was really much the same philosophy, we figured we’d gotten as far as we had sticking to our “Road Less Traveled”, if you will. Our songs were already written and battle-tested live, so we thought it best, as much as possible, to try and capture the songs much as they were experienced at a show, with the studio more as a sweetening device – being able to add some rhythm guitar or keys in places, or control the mix in a different way than you can live as opposed to it being heavily produced and differing dramatically from what we’d done all along to that point. We’re very happy with all the amazingly positive responses, present company included. Maybe we should stick with it a bit longer?

Jeb: Before we go in too far with Points North I want to talk about Guitar Player and the contest you nearly won in 2008. First off, how in the hell did you lose? After hearing this music I think they made a mistake.

Eric: Ha ha, well, thank you very much Jeb. I think there were a few reasons why I didn’t win. First of all, the level of competition was extraordinary. The winner, Vicki Genfan, is world renowned, and really was even when she got there; she regularly performs with folks like Muriel Anderson, Lawence Juber and Jennifer Batten. She’s incredible. The third place winner, Makana, is possibly the most well known Hawaiian slack key player in the world and is also flat out amazing, as well. Another competitor, Mike Orlando, is now off playing with Adrenaline Mob with Mike Portnoy [ex-Dream Theatrer] and Russell Allen of Symphony X. So, it wasn’t exactly an easy draw and really everyone in the competition was totally worthy of winning.

The second reason was that I definitely didn’t play my best. Lastly, I was the “hometown” guy, the competition was in San Francisco, and while you’d think in some ways that would have worked for me – for example, the audience was incredibly vocal in support of me – it may have also worked against me. The first four judges, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Elliot Easton, and Brandon Small, were all very kind to me. Elliot Easton in particular was overwhelmingly positive; I carry what he said with him with me to this day.

The final judge, George Lynch, started his commentary on my performance by saying that he had some disagreements with the other judges and began to offer a bit more pointed of a critique. That didn’t go over so well with some of the audience and an off color and somewhat heated exchange then took place between George and the audience. I can’t say for sure whether or not that affected my score, but I can certainly say it didn’t help, though I did very much appreciate the support from the crowd.

 

Jeb: Why do you feel you didn’t do as well as you could have?

Eric: The year I was in the competition the finalists were all hand selected by Guitar Player magazine editors, from an overwhelming multitude of submissions. I was really on the fence about entering – I’m not a big fan of contests, music isn’t a competition, in my opinion – and submitted my entry about an hour or two before the deadline. Shortly thereafter, Michael Molenda, editor-in-chief of the magazine, was on the phone with me letting me know I made the finals.

Each artist got to perform one song with a house band comprised primarily of Guitar Player editors and contributors. I met Jude Gold, who is now the Director of the Guitar Program at Musician’s Institute, and frankly ought to have won one of these things himself, as he’s an amazing player. We had to submit a recording of the song we wanted to play and sheet music where possible/applicable. I chose “The Source,” which is, of course, on the Road Less Traveled, though with a slightly different arrangement that I had demoed out myself at home.

All the competitors met in San Francisco the night before the competition and we each had 15 minutes of rehearsal with the house band, basically, a couple of minutes to try and dial in a tone and a run-through of the song with a brief chance to give a little feedback. Fortunately, the house band killed, but it was pretty high pressure for sure. I really liked my performance at sound check.

Before the show, backstage, all the judges arrived and we got a little bit of face time with them all, which was nice. They were all great; Joe Satriani in particular is just the nicest guy, though they were all very gracious and welcoming. Then it was performance time; it was sold out, the place was just packed, and the judges all sat up in the balcony watching us. After each performer played, they would give their feedback. The host was Andy Summers of the Police, who opened the show by saying, “it’s been a long time since I’ve been on this small a stage.”

As far as my performance, well, Points North is my first and only instrumental gig; prior to that I was in bands with singers, or working as a sideman, or in the studio. The competition was the first time I had played a solo guitar song in front of an audience that big, and they were going nuts too.

I believe, looking back on it, that I made the mistake of playing too much to the performance and the crowd, and getting caught up in the moment and not paying attention to the competition aspect and that I was being judged on my playing. I played much better at sound check than during the show itself. And that was what George’s comments were about, and in retrospect, I think I agree with him. I kind of wish I could get a do-over; I’ve played Points North material to many audiences that size now and I also have a much better sense in the show when I need to plant my feet and put my head down and play, as opposed to perform more freely, though I do like to put on a show. It was a learning experience, for sure, and I’m grateful for the experience itself, and all the doors it has opened since.

Jeb: How does it feel, at that time as an unknown player in the Universe of Guitarists, to be judged by people like Joe Satriani and Andy Summers?

Eric: Honestly, it was pretty terrifying at the time. Since then, I’ve met and opened for and played for many of my heroes, players I grew listening to, but at the time, it was really the first experience that I’d had at that level, though I’d met a number of famous people along the way. I definitely wasn’t a huge fan of the competition aspect and it was hard to be judged, but honestly I’d still do it again in a heartbeat.

Jeb: Who are your main guitar influences?

Eric: Not the easiest question to answer. I would say the three that tend to rise above the rest are Eric Johnson, Alex Lifeson, and Steve Morse. Eric Johnson really just totally redefined to me what a guitar could sound like and how it could carry a song. Alex Lifeson, well, Rush was everything to me growing up and I’ve probably learned every song through Power Windows at some point in my life. Steve Morse was a little different. I didn’t listen to him as much growing up but found once my style had developed a bit, a lot of what felt to me like commonality and familiarity. From there I learned a lot from his music about what you could do in an instrumental format, which has specifically had a large influence on Points North.

There are just so many other players that I would say were hugely influential like Joe Satriani, the best instrumental songsmith of all time and Steve Vai and Eddie Van Halen who pushed the envelope and mde guitar fun and entertaining. How can I leave out Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Yngwie Malmsteen, who connected with my classical roots? Paul Gilbert took technique to its logical conclusion. Then there are lyrical guys like Neal Schon and Michael Schenker, who combined power with impeccable sense of drama and melody. Some of the neo-classical and fusion guys, like Tony MacAlpine, Greg Howe, Allan Holdsworth are amazing. I could go on for an hour and probably still miss a ton of great players that have had an impact on me in some way over the years.

Jeb: You use the lead guitar on Points North, at times, like a vocalist. Instead of lyrics, notes cut through like musical lyrics. How do you approach this type of playing? It is one thing to shred, it is another to craft.

Eric: It’s all about the songwriting. I don’t see writing an instrumental song as any different than writing a vocal song except that the guitar, as the melody instrument, has the responsibility to do the “singing.”

All of the aspects that you find in a good vocal song – emotion, drama, melody – they should all be there in an instrumental song too; technique for me is secondary. If I play fast, it’s because that’s how I feel that part of the song and the speed is conveying a feeling or energy not in service of showing my physical capabilities. It’s this way in classical music where more often than not there aren’t words; somehow in rock music, instrumental composition, especially guitar music, too often focuses on dexterity and speed of the guitarist rather than songwriting and composition. I mean, as a guitar player, I’m as floored as anyone when I see someone with amazing technique but ultimately if it isn’t making me feel anything, it’s more of a novelty than something that sticks with me.

And I’m really happy that you pointed that out, because that’s probably the thing I’m personally most proud of about the record.

Jeb: I know all the songs are like your musical children but pick you top three musical moments on the album.

Eric: “The Source” is the song I’m most proud of, in terms of composition, playing, and feeling. After that I’d have to say “Sweet Solitude”; that was the last song written and the last song recorded, and I really stretched myself in a number of ways as a player, like with my approach to time, and phrasing. And then lastly, “The Phoenix,” which is really a bit of a guitar showcase in a way, but wrapped in a composition I really like. I’m pretty happy with the whole record, there really isn’t anything I wish I could take back and this is really the first recording I’ve done in my life where I feel that way.

Jeb: I can tell you like Rush. I love Rush up to Moving Pictures. I like Rush after that. I think Alex is a great guitar player but he seems to not play as many leads. Does this bother you or intrigue you, as a fan of the band?

Eric: I love the period from Signals through Hold Your Fire a lot too, even though Alex’s role in the band changed. That said, I hear you, as a guitarist, there’s definitely something different with regards to my feelings about the band’s songs as they shifted away from their guitar-centric focus.

On the other hand, I wonder what I would do if my career had that kind of longevity; I really respect that they are always trying to push themselves and broaden their musical horizons, even to this day. I think they would probably agree that in later periods the results were a bit mixed from time to time but there are those who would argue – as in the case of, say, Caress of Steel, where you can find a lot of different opinions – that they’ve had various course corrections through their entire catalog. If they’d just done 30 albums that sounded like 2112 or Moving Pictures, I think they wouldn’t be nearly as interesting musically, either to themselves, or to us as listeners.

Jeb: How long does an album like your take to make? It sounds as if there is a lot of perfection going on…were rehearsals intense?

Eric: It took a while, for sure. It wasn’t so much rehearsals because all of these songs had been played pretty extensively live before we went to record them, so the “pre-production” in essence came out of being a working band.

The bar we set for the record itself was pretty high and getting the right takes wasn’t always so easy. I produced the album as well and what I learned from the experience is that I never want to produce another Points North record! I’m definitely a perfectionist and sometimes a lot of hours went in to getting the right performance and I would second guess myself a lot.

We didn’t record every day because that’s not the kind of studio arrangement we had but it did take several months, start to finish, in calendar time and there was a lot of work in the tracking. I felt bad for the engineers sometimes, as I’m not quite sure they knew what they were getting into with me! I’d like to take a minute to offer thanks to some of the folks who stuck with it, too; Dave De Villers, chief engineer, Chris Refino and Ken Kilen, who did a lot of the tracking, Robert Heacock who helped with drums, bz lewis who was our mixing engineer, and Danny Danzi, who not only did mastering but really showed up with regards to helping us craft the record’s sound from a sonic perspective. The record wouldn’t have happened without their hard work and dedication.

Jeb: Describe your style?

Eric: Wow, that’s a really hard question. How’s song-oriented, guitar-driven instrumental progressive rock? I’m not really a marketer, so I think I’d refer you to Magna Carta Records, they’ll do a much better job than I!

Jeb: You have made instructional videos. What do you recommend to younger players in terms of a practice regiment? Is technique more important than feel? Is feeling more important than technique? Should a person master one and then the other? What is the best way to get as good as you are?

Eric: I actually don’t teach much one-on-one. I did have a lot of fun doing video for the folks at GuitarTricks.com, which is probably what you are referring to and would like to do more of that, schedule permitting.

I think the two of the most overlooked things, developing as a player, are to develop your ear and to play with other musicians. Practice and technique is important, for sure, and there are so many tools out there for guitarists nowadays; tab, video, and so forth, but to really develop a style, the ability to improvise, to speak through your instrument and compose, I think it’s more about connecting what you hear to what is in your heart; the stuff that’s in your head and in your fingers needs to go on auto-pilot at some point, which I think is the hardest thing to attain. I try to focus a lot on ear training and to encourage kids, and beginner players, to start bands and try to write original music, even as they are just learning their instruments. I wouldn’t advocate only spending time in the garage or bedroom practicing. That said, discipline is also important and I certainly had my days of wood-shedding several hours a day, for sure. I don’t mean to leave that out but, in and of itself, I think it only tells part of the story.

Jeb: Sometimes when players master their instrument, the way you have, they get too technical and lose emotion. Points North has both. How do you keep the balance?

Eric: I don’t know that I can answer that consciously. There certainly were times, as I was developing as a player, where I would say there was more focus on the technical, especially as I was learning. The amount of stuff I’ve forgotten is probably more than I actually apply in my playing. But the stuff that stuck, which ultimately became my “style”, at some point became second nature, for example, at a show, my most favorite performances, I tend not to remember a single note I played because I’m not in my head, I’m in the moment of performance. I think that’s really the goal, to be a conduit for the music as it happens in real-time, and that’s when the feelings come out. I feel when I have the opportunity for a moment like that; it’s a gift.

Jeb: What is next for the band? There is a bright future for Points North or at least I am hoping there is one!

Eric: Well, for the next year we’ll be supporting Road Less Traveled in any and every way we can. Our first video, for the song “High Wire”, is almost done and we’ll be touring, starting with Southern and Central California in June with more dates being scheduled as we speak. But we’ve also started writing the next record now that Uriah Duffy is in the band and we’ve been performing three of the new songs already at recent shows. So we’re really looking forward to recording those sometime next year.

Jeb: What goals do you have left to accomplish as a player?

Eric: If I really answered this question in detail, by the time I was done I would have put all your readers to sleep. I really feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of what there is to learn. Specifically right now, I’m working on some of my outside playing, bebop scales, more traditional jazz phrasing, trying to work a bit of that in to my natural phrasing tendencies. Uriah comes from a more diverse background than Damien and some of the chord progressions and ideas he’s bringing into the band are challenging some of my harmonic sensitivities. There’s a largely unknown player named Eric Glass, goes by the handle “Ender” on guitarwar.com, who has been a recent inspiration in this area, along with Scott Henderson and some of the other real fusion folks.

Jeb: Okay, this is a tough one. It is the old desert island question. You are going to be stranded on an island for five years. What five CDS do you take with you… greatest hits albums are NOT allowed!

Eric: Aaargh, I HATE the desert island question. Can I take the fifth? Ok…let’s try. These aren’t necessarily my five favorite albums, I just can’t pick that, but a list with enough diversity I hopefully wouldn’t go out of my head on the island. I could come up with probably 100 of these lists though, so let’s say, for this one, Eric Johnson, Ah Via Musicom, Rush Moving Pictures, Guns N Roses Appetite for Destruction, Stevie Ray Vaughn Couldn’t Stand the Weather and Moritz Moszkowski Suite in G Minor for 2 Violins and Piano, w/Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.

Jeb: Last one, what is the meaning of the name? No offence, but when I first heard it I did think it kind of sounded porno.

Eric: Really, wow, ya’know, I think that probably says more about you than it does us, your interpretation of the band name [laughter]. Actually, I’ve heard that once or twice before, or been asked, “Hey, does it point north?” which totally cracks me up. Yes, it’s true, you figured us out, we’re named after “Points”, Peter’s long lost brother [laughter].

As far as where the name really comes from - have you even been on a train, say, on the London Underground when they are announcing stations and they say something like, “Stopping at Mile End, Stratford, Leyton, and points north.”? We had a song, that we don’t play anymore, that at least to me had the feel of movement and a journey perhaps along with a slightly lonely feeling to it, and I named it “Points North”. It occurred to us that it was really more of a band name than a song name, though for a while we had both the band name as Points North as well as the song. On top of that, we’re from what’s known as the North Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area, so that was kind of a nice secondary reference.

www.pointsnorthband.com