- by Tom Dumarey
You may not have heard of Washington DC’s Foxhall Stacks just yet, but you definitely know its members. I mean, this band’s line-up reads like a who’s who of awesomeness: Bill Barbot (Jawbox, Burning Airlines), Jim Spellman (The High-Back Chairs, Velocity Girl), Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion) and Peter Moffett (Government Issue, Burning Airlines). All together in one band with the sole purpose of cranking out excellent “’70s power pop drenched in ’80s punk”. It's exactly what they did on last year's debut album 'The Coming Collapse' and it's what they did once again on the recently released 4-song EP, 'The Half Stack'. We caught up with guitarist/vocalist Bill Barbot to talk about all things Foxhall Stacks.
PRT: First of all, how did Foxhall Stacks come about?
Bill: Jim, Pete, and Brian started jamming I believe in 2015, mostly (or almost entirely?) on songs that Jim had kicking around for year before that. One day out of nowhere I got a text from Jim. I hadn’t seen him in about 20 years—we were friends back in the day but had fallen out of touch apart from Facebook. He said, “Hey, got your number from Adam [Wade, Jawbox’s first drummer and a mutual friend], and was wondering if you’re interested in being the lead singer of my band.” I was daunted at first as I hadn’t been a front person since college in the late 80’s, and further, I had mostly retired from performing at all since I left Burning Airlines in 1999. And while I’d been in a band with Pete Moffett before, I was terrified of being in a band with Brian Baker who’s been a hero of mine since I was in high school and first heard Minor Threat. But my wife persuaded me to give it a shot and next thing I knew, we were working on both Jim’s old material like “Turntable Exiles,” as well as a song I had been kicking around for years, which eventually became “Law of Averages.”
PRT: With all of you involved with legendary bands, you immediately get the ‘supergroup’ label. Do you see that title as a compliment or is it something you’d rather just not see at all?
Bill: I think it’s a bit contrived. Jim really put the band the band together to be a bunch of old friends making music together rather than some contrived “let’s leverage our fame from past projects to sell millions of records” kind of move. Not that all “supergroups” are motivated by that, but the first supergroup I remember from when I was a kid was Asia, which just felt like an A&R dude’s money-making juggernaut rather than a real band (again, they may all have been friends, but the point was what it felt like to me). I take it as a compliment, I guess, but it’s a loaded term for sure.
PRT: Another way I have seen Foxhall Stacks described - mostly in your own Facebook posts - is as ‘the grumpiest band in rock’. Any truth to that? How high would you rate yourself on a scale from 1 to Larry David?
Bill: The grumpy thing mostly came from me writing social media posts in my very limited spare time and just making stuff up to fill the space, but it was also spawned from the fact that while we’re all really genial people, for some reason all of our press photos look like we’re pretty Larry David.
PRT: Would I be right in saying that Foxhall Stacks is a band free of big dreams / expectations / outside pressures? Just a couple of friends making music for the hell of it?
Bill: Totally correct. We’d love nothing more than to write and record another record and play a bunch of shows, but our lives at this point are pretty complex. Jim and I both have kids, I own a digital agency, Jim’s a reporter, Brian (who has since left the band to move to New Jersey with his wife) is in about six other bands, and Pete is both in a couple other bands and often on the road with his main gig, drum tech for Lester Estelle of Kelly Clarkson’s band.
PRT: People who only know you from your other bands, might be surprised what Foxhall Stacks sounds like. Is that love of power-pop something that has always been there but left unexplored until now? Or is it a more recent love affair?
Bill: We all grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and before there was “punk rock,” there was just “rock,” and we were omnivores. So-called hard rock bands like Slade, AC/DC, or The Sweet were as important to us as The Records or Cheap Trick as kids and teens, and as we aged, bands like the Replacements or the Buzzcocks unabashedly pulled their sounds and songs from the same record collection. So power pop comes really naturally to us as songwriters. Besides, it’s easy to focus on Minor Threat or Bad Religion or Government Issue or Jawbox in our pedigree but not remember that Jim was in Velocity Girl and the High Back Chairs, two bands that were way more pop than punk.
PRT: Lyrically, ‘The Coming Collapse’ deals with the collapse of both personal relationships as well as the collapse of the country. All of which is then juxtaposed against these bright and shiny melodies, hooks and harmonies. What is about that combination that appeals to you so much?
Bill: I don’t know that it was intentional, as much as what Jim was writing about (before I was even in the band) and what I was writing about (both before and during the band) ended up both being in the same cultural space. We’ve both been through divorces, we’ve both recognized just how hard it is to keep relationships on track, and of course, we both are living in this same incredibly maddening time, politically speaking. As over-fifty-year-old white straight liberal American guys, these are pretty natural subjects for us as songwriters, and when we stood back and looked at collection, the lyric “The Coming Collapse” from the album’s last track, “Rough Sailors,” just jumped out as the obvious title.
PRT: It took you three years to release your debut album ‘The Coming Collapse’. Was that simply a matter of different priorities and busy schedules or about you all wanting to get it just right?
Bill: The former. As mentioned before we all have pretty busy lives, and we also basically begged/borrowed our producer, Geoff Sanoff, from his real life running Renegade Studios in NY. So between finding time when we could all be in the studio to track and finding time when Geoff was available to travel down to DC to engineer, and then time to mix, it just took a loooong time.
PRT: Are the Foxhall Stacks songs newly written by the four of you? Or do you also pull from ideas for songs that you have been sitting on for some time that didn’t quite fit with your other projects?
Bill: A combination of both. Jim and I tend to bring 80% complete concepts to the group, and then we work them together to get them where we need to be. As mentioned above, some are really old—like almost a decade?—while others were assembled in the studio. Like, I demoed several songs (“Take Control,” “Failure,” “Do It Yesterday,” and from the EP, “Surround”) and brought them to the studio to finish, as we never managed to get rehearsals in to workshop them before we were in with Geoff. I liked the freewheeling approach to having studio tools at our disposal to let them really take shape, and Geoff’s contributions to arrangements were dynamite.
PRT: You just released a 4-song EP with songs that stem from the same recording session. How come they didn’t make the cut first time round? Because they are just as good as anything on ‘The Coming Collapse’.
Bill: Well thanks! We were debating just dumping everything into the LP, but decided that 10 songs was long enough. We wanted the EP to have strong material and not just be B-sides, so we left some good stuff over for the extra release.
PRT: With pretty much the whole world at home and no shows or tours in the immediate future, what is up next for Foxhall Stacks and you personally?
Bill: Writing! Jim and I have both been busy with new material, and we already have enough tunes composed for another LP. The next trick is how to get into the studio to knock them out!