“I will pay you $200 to come to Tunica with me.”
We’re in my truck, idling outside a closed gas station on South Lamar Boulevard one November night in 2013. A nondescript white van parked next to us is filled with Oxford, Mississippi’s drunken finest — record-shop managers, young lawyers, staffers from the homegrown Fat Possum record label, and John Barrett, aka Bass Drum of Death. They’ve been drinking for the past 36 hours, ever since Missouri beat Ole Miss on Saturday, so for the third time tonight I tell John I have work the next day.
“You know what? That’s your problem, man. You don’t live it up.”
“Oh, I don’t live it up?”
“No, you don’t. You say you’re a fucking writer or whatever. How are you gonna write with no stories?”
“I’m not going to Tunica tonight.”
A couple of the casino-bound alternate between slapping their hands against the passenger-side window and cupping them over their eyes, peering inside like “Mad Max” bandits, wearing sweatshirts and Converse All-Stars in lieu of leather bandoliers and steel-toed boots.
“I’m offering you $200 to come with me to Tunica and have some fun. Pay me back whenever you can. Two weeks, two years, whatever. I trust you.”
“I just can’t tonight. Let’s go after Thanksgiving.”
John opens the door against the guys banging on the window.
“I told you guys to find me drugs and I’d go to the casinos,” John says to them as he exits. “So let’s go to the casinos.”
He turns around and leans in the cab.
I reiterate. John sighs and shakes his head.
“Fuck off.” He holds his hand up for a high-five. “Love you.”
We high-five, and John closes the door behind him. I drive back to the house, open a beer, and turn on Netflix. I’m in bed by midnight.
John Barrett loves money. He’s enamored. You see it in his boyhood heroes — characters molded by cash, defined by it. James Bond. The legendary Memphis rappers Three 6 Mafia. Countless soccer stars. But his punk idols seem to be framed antithetically, the garage-rock renunciations of worldly goods and wealth.
This contrast is evident anytime his personal history comes up in conversation. John dropped out of college during his second semester, forgoing Sigma Nu fraternity parties, a baseball scholarship, and his parents’ dime for three years of moving furniture to support his solo sets. Bass Drum of Death was exactly what the name implied — John picking on a scuzzy guitar, stomping on a kick drum, singing about futility. Drowned reverb and smoke and howl.
The live act now includes a second guitarist, Josh Hunter, and a dedicated drummer, former Dead Gaze and Colour Revolt member Len Clark. Bass Drum of Death has swapped the dive bars for European festival circuits and the occasional larger dive bar. An American, up-by-your-bootstraps rock and roll story. Now Barrett writes, records or tours roughly eight months out of each year and has kept this regimen through two full-length LPs and one EP. As far as John is concerned, Bass Drum of Death earned this life.
So Barrett spends his time in Oxford as if he’s on shore leave. The first two weeks after these extended trips usually devolve into daylong, jittery video-game sessions propelled by chain-smoking, followed by whiskey-infused late nights. The restlessness dissipates as John begins writing new material, but still, rarely is he up before 11 in the morning. Even rarer does he rise without a slight hangover.
On the day after the 2013 Casino Bender Excursion, I go to my 9:30-to-5:30 job at the Oxford Public Library, where I earn about $60 a day. When I get back to the house, John is huddled on a living room couch squinting at the laptop resting on his chest.
“How was Tunica? Come out on top?” I ask.
“Nah. It was all right,” he says.
“How was your day?”
“Just got up.” He coughs, his eyes narrowing even more.
In Bass Drum of Death’s low-budget, homemade music video for “Shattered Me,” John heads to the Delta casinos in his beat-up Camry, scores big in a poker game, then pisses the winnings away on booze, a new ride, and hot, twin models in a ratty motel.
John coughs again, groans.
“I feel like shit. I think I’m coming down with something.”
I’ve been imbedded in Oxford with John at the Cat’s Purring Dude Ranch for almost two years. A former Boys and Girls Club, the Dude Ranch is a hovel home and rehearsal space for local artists, occasionally serving as a house-show venue for groups like Real Estate, Youth Lagoon, and Grimes.
John and I talk about getting out of Mississippi, away from the college-town quarantine of Oxford and the Ranch. The electrical outlets are faulty, two of the five bedrooms lack central heat and air (one of which is mine), and our tap water tastes like rust. But the rent is so cheap here.
The doorbell rings, and John launches up from his seat with surprising focus. He returns to the living room with a package and rips it open like it’s his birthday. He rifles through the box, lifting out, among other things, three T-shirts, an engraved Zippo lighter, and a Grand Theft Auto V keychain.
“Where the fuck is the game, though?” John says, slumping back into the couch cushions.
“They didn’t send you a copy?” I ask.
“No. I’m on one of the fucking car radio stations, and they don’t send a game?”
John whips out his iPhone, begins texting furiously.
“Goddamn. I wanted to blow some shit up with you.”
On Saturdays, the bars in Oxford close at midnight, so we’re at some after-party hosted by a French physicist employed by the university.
It’s an ugly scene on a miserable winter evening — broken glass, combative couples, strange sounds coming from behind locked bathroom doors. The living room is almost devoid of dancing. When no one is looking, John plugs an auxiliary stereo cable into his iPhone, and the opening bars to Rich Homie Quan’s “ Type of Way” come on the speakers. People slowly make their way back to the living room and sway to the bass thuds. John smirks and nods his head on the downbeats.
“I can’t find Zach. I’m worried about him,” my friend tells me in the adjacent dining room, referring to a fellow Ranch tenant.
“He’s fine,” I say, watching John fist bump in the middle of a newly formed dance circle.
“Maybe you should text him. I don’t think he called a cab; he just started walking down the street,” the friend says.
“Zach can fend for himself. I’m sure he’s all right.”
“It’s freezing outside.”
“Maybe he got a ride from someone.”
The friend wades through the bodies in the living room, and leans in to talk with John over the music. A few moments later, John gives him a thumbs-up as he takes his phone out of his jacket pocket and begins texting.
Around 3:30 in the morning, I drive John back to the Ranch. We don’t talk for most of the ride. The truck is dark except for the glow of his iPhone, and I can hear his fingers tapping the glass over the radio.
We walk inside as I hear a bedroom door close.
“Zach got a cab,” John says.
I throw my coat off and head through the kitchen toward my room.
“Want a beer?” John asks, already at the fridge.
“Nah, I’m tired. Thanks, though.”
“Want a beer,” he commands, handing over a Bud Light. “And you’re finishing these airplane bottles of Fireball with me, too.”
There are nights when John can’t drink alone, times when he’s withdrawn so deeply into his head that he needs someone to help him find a way out. I take a swig from my mini-bottle of the cinnamon whiskey and try not to wobble on a kitchen counter barstool. It tastes like fermented Big Red gum.
“How was L.A.?” I ask, referring to his recent visit for his label’s holiday party.
“It was good. Weird, you know?”
“Yeah, I do.”
I don’t. He’s vaguely referred to bad news from Los Angeles over the past couple weeks, but he’s never gotten specific. There’s a pause.
“Happy with your haircut?” I ask.
John swears he only gets a trim when he’s in L.A., and that he trusts only one person there to do it. This last time, he emailed me asking for a photo of the stylist’s business card because John lost her number. The salon’s available services include something called a “Beachwave.”
I ask him how much an L.A. cut costs. He tells me at least $45. Forty-fucking-five?
“Forty-five dollars is not much when you have long hair.”
John stresses the last words like he’s debating complex, obtuse philosophical theory with me. Long. Hair.
Long-haired, bad-boy punk John Barrett. It’s all part of the Bass Drum of Death brand. The cigarettes and denim, the fuck-you motifs and the washed-out promo photos. Flasks engraved with “Bass Drum of Death Hates You” sold through his website. John has final say in all his marketing to obvious success, so I’ve tried mimicking this aesthetic in my writing, with my online presence.
“No one says that. No one says ‘online presence’,” John tells me when I mention it.
“What do they say?”
“They don’t. This is something I’ve noticed lately with your stuff, man. It comes across as, I don’t know,” he trails off.
Arrogant? Presumptuous? I brace for the descriptor.
“Try-hard?” I suggest.
“No, no, not that.” John looks surprised. “You just got to let the actions do the work, you know? You need to experience some stories to write about them. Like Tunica. You should have come to Tunica with me.”
“I couldn’t have taken all that money from you.”
“You weren’t taking it. I was giving it to you. I wanted you to have a good time. You don’t live. You try. But you don’t need to try for anything.”
I ask how that philosophy has gone for him. John lights a cigarette and ashes it into his second beer can. Where did that one even come from? I don’t remember him going to the fridge again.
“I don’t know. I put up this whole ‘image’ thing, but you know how I am.”
He pauses, and I nod without initially realizing it.
“Maybe that’s how I used to be, how I sometimes am, but not all the time. I walk around swinging my dick or whatever, but I’ve created that expectation. I feel like I have to live up to something now.”
He stares at the ash settling around the empty can’s rim for a moment.
“I think I’ve reined it in since last summer, but I don’t know. Maybe not.”
The praise surrounding Bass Drum of Death’s self-titled second album, released in the summer of 2013, was somewhat overshadowed by a couple of particularly vicious takedowns from the indie blog gods. Among other things, they accused him of all but musical theft from Off!, Trash Talk, and Ty Segall, as if hardcore and punk music hadn’t existed before its recent resurgence.
Anyway, John built Bass Drum of Death away from the insular garage-rock world. Why melt into the West Coast mosh pits when he could help an underappreciated scene in North Mississippi with an $80 Snowball microphone and a wi-fi connection? Bass Drum of Death is forged outside the outsiders, and yet John is routinely criticized for living outside the pack. He shrugged it off at the time, viewing it as incentive to push harder, but it all eventually caught up to him in Madrid.
John played a show in the city at the tail end of weeks of cross-continental touring. By his accounts, he was worn as thin as he’d ever been — sleepless, dehydrated, suppressing the anxiety attacks he’s struggled with for years. Tunnel vision and breathing problems left him nearly collapsed on stage, but he finished the show. I ask if the shrink he’s been seeing suggested medication.
“No, no, no. I can’t do that. Pharmaceuticals weird me out. I should be able to handle this stuff on my own. I self-medicate, obviously.” John tips his beer towards me before sipping. “Those days after Tunica, I wasn’t sick. Not with a bug or anything, I mean. But that sort of shit rarely happens.”
He pauses to scroll through his phone.
“Hey, do me a favor. After, like, 1 a.m. for the next few weeks, just ask me every once and awhile, ‘Who are you texting?’” he says, his eyes still on his phone.
“Just ask that?”
“Yeah. Just remind me.”
“OK,” I say.
My head is spinning from the night’s worth of drinking. I take the lull in conversation to pour the remainder of the cinnamon whiskey into my empty beer can under the counter. I look up to see John typing away.
“Who are you texting?” I ask.
“I’m not texting. I’m tweeting. And you’re not drinking your whiskey.”
It’s five in the morning. I tell him I’ve got to go to bed.
“Alright, yeah. Love you, man,” he says, raising his hand for a high-five.
The next morning I wake up late and hurting to a flurry of messages from my friends back home in Jackson, all with relatively the same question.
“What did The Weeks do to John?” one of them says.
I scroll through the previous night’s Twitter feed. At some point, John launched a surprise tweet-assault on Mississippi natives and Kings of Leon protégés, The Weeks, accusing them of falsely representing the South and their home state, of selling out, and various other genre faux pas. Then he went and shot fish in a barrel by picking on The Weeks’ fans who took to their defense. Bass Drum of Death hates you.
I walk out into the living room to find John playing one of the three copies of Grand Theft Auto V that Rockstar Games finally sent him.
“What the fuck? What happened to dialing it back?” I ask him, holding up my phone.
“Oh, yeah. Whoops,” he says, grinning. “Maybe not my best move.”
I sit on the couch nearby, push away two full ashtrays.
“Have you played this yet?” John asks.
He finished the game’s storyline in about a week. Now he just runs around the virtual city, buying new suits to wear while blowing up helicopters, then sniping the cops that show up to arrest him.
“Haven’t gotten around to it,” I say.
“You should. I think you’ll like it.”
He tries crashing his motorcycle into a nearby pedestrian, but miscalculates and throws himself off a bridge, splattering his avatar.
“Fuck,” he says, waiting for the character to respawn at the nearest video-game hospital.
A couple days later, all Weeks-related messages and potshots are deleted from his Twitter account. No apologies, just a blank-slate reset.
John closed out a brief, 10-day tour in Jackson, Miss., on Feb. 8.
Martin’s Lounge is one of the last true dives in town, and one of the only places around here where you can still light up a cigarette inside. John takes full advantage of this, chain-smoking as he paces from table to table, pausing for no more than five minutes at a time to talk to friends and fans.
An attractive woman approaches John. She politely refuses to take a seat as she explains she was born in France, and now lives in Houston. Two days ago she heard Bass Drum of Death was playing in Jackson, and booked a flight.
“No shit,” John says.
“No what?” she asks.
“That’s just impressive, is what I mean. Well, fuck. Thanks for coming out here.”
John finishes his cigarette and excuses himself for a last-minute sound-check.
A crowd including the French Houstonian is already gathered near the stage by the time I make my way to the back of the bar. John stands near an exit staring at his phone, finishes his beer and ducks out the fire exit. A kid in front of me lights a blunt and passes it around to his friends. He looks at me and smiles.
“GB City,” he says, referring to, among other things, the name of John’s first album.
John quit getting blazed shortly after the LP’s release. Weed gives him panic attacks now.
Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” begins as Bass Drum of Death reenters the room and walks on stage. As the song’s low-end kicks in, John situates himself and looks around the room. The French Houstonian is losing her shit.
“We’re Bass Drum of Death from Oxford, Mississippi. Thank you guys so much for coming out tonight,” he says.
John plays fast as his echoing drawl slides through “Get Found,” “I Wanna be Forgotten” and “Bad Reputation.” He sings himself hoarse. “Well, I’ve wasted all my time / trying to make you mine,” he sings during “Shattered Me,” “and I know it’s not OK / I can’t find that perfect line.”
Bass Drum of Death plays a few, early versions of songs that will eventually wind up on John’s fourth release, “Rip This,” which comes out this week. This latest album is his most focused, most concise so far. It’s somehow both lean and large-scale, with all the sincerity he’s been looking for over the past three records. The blog gods may sneer, but the ones who care, the ones John hopes for, won’t.
He thanks the crowd repeatedly, and at one point jokes with a friend in the front row. Two years ago, when I first saw Bass Drum of Death, John was silent apart from his lyrics, glowering from the stage when his hair wasn’t obscuring his face. He wants you to know who he is now.
In a few months both of us will move out of the Ranch for good, John heading to New York to try out big city life and me heading to New Orleans with no real aim in mind. Right now, though, the bar lights come on after the set as John hops off stage to talk to people. The panic and the nerves are pushed back. The crowd makes its way toward the bar for last call, and I ask John if he wants to come to a late-night house party I heard about during the show. He seems hesitant at the idea.
“Come on, it’s our only night in this town. And I just got paid. Let’s fucking drink,” I slur.
“I dunno, probably not. I’m exhausted,” he tells me.
I roll my eyes and head for the exit. In my truck, I finish the remnants of the flask I took from the Ranch and stare at its engraved logo: Bass Drum of Death Hates You. But John Barrett doesn’t. Or, at least, he’s trying not to.