In the backroom of the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California, Henry Barnes is assessing dusty stringed instruments made out of dead animals. Barnes is a tall man with a footlong beard, and tangled gray hair that escapes from under a dilapidated denim cap. Scores of charangos and tiples, bass mandolins and banjos, some of them made from armadillo carcasses and turtle shells, line the walls. “This is just some cowboy’s idea,” he says, handling a guitarlike item adorned with rattlesnake skin. “It’s not real functional.” The 40-something Barnes is a sort of punk-rock Christian mystic who builds his own guitars, electric sitars and amplifiers. As Amps for Christ, he makes Appalachian and British Isles folk with “a hardcore influence.” Amps for Christ’s seventh album, The People at Large, is his mellowest excursion yet.
Started in 1958 by Charles and Dorothy Chase, the Folk Music Center is a polyethnic roots-music nexus where you can take banjo lessons, shop for African drums, or just scope the impressive collection of bouzoukis, dulcimers and guitars. Barnes works here as a luthier. “We couldn’t do it without Henry,” says Ellen Chase Verdries, the founders’ daughter and the current
proprietor. “Since he’s worked here, he’s picked up both the violin and the sitar, just because he can.”
Folk was Barnes’ first musical language, but noise-riddled hardcore punk was where he found his legs. His mother, Kate Barnes — an English teacher and a former poet laureate of Maine — raised Henry and his siblings on ’50s folkies like Jean Ritchie. His father, Dick Barnes, was a beatnik creative-writing professor at Pomona College who dabbled in jazz bands and was friends with Allen Ginsberg and John Cage.
Barnes started playing in rock bands when he was a teenager, and by his late 20s he was hanging around Darby Crash and the Germs crowd, soaking up the vibes of the Southern California punk and hardcore scenes. He was also devouring amplifier schematics and building unique musical equipment from scratch. In the late ’80s, he joined a noisy hardcore band called Man Is the Bastard, wherein he played sounds that he describes as “like a million bagpipes” on his homemade amplifiers. When Barnes left Bastard in 1997, he started Amps for Christ as a way to fuse his music with his faith in Jesus. It’s a mixture that works — a sound that comes off like Merzbow jamming with the Incredible String Band or Muslimgauze remixing John Fahey. All with humility in the light of the creator.
Barnes and I drive past the quaint college campuses of Claremont to an industrial park and his studio, which is crowded with oscillators and transistors, hot-wired organs and sawdust-spattered CDs. He likes getting into the guts of sound, whether via the fretboard of a 19th-century banjo or the vacuums of a tube amplifier — an interest he calls a form of spirituality. But his literal spirituality took root when he was 11, at an Agape gathering in Costa Mesa.
“It was this huge crowd, it was euphoric,” he says, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. “It didn’t keep me from drugs and fucking people over and making mistakes in my life. But it did change me. I remember coming away from there feeling purified.
“I don’t think you have to be a fundamentalist asshole to
be a Christian,” he muses. “And I don’t think you should be embarrassed to be a Christian just because there are so many jerks that are.”
Later, Barnes takes me to the house of Tara Tiki Tavi, a frequent Amps for Christ collaborator, for a demonstration of the obscure Chinese instruments she plays. When asked if she’s as devoted a believer as Barnes, she says, “I would say that I believe there’s some sort of higher power, but I don’t know if I would say it’s embodied in a figure.”
“I’m working on her,” says Barnes. Tiki Tavi is also in a sea-chantey band called Aye Aye Captain, so to close the interview on a less than evangelical note, he segues into bawdy verse. “Cabin boy, cabin boy, dirty little nipper,” he sings, grinning. “Lined his ass with broken glass, circumcised the skipper.”
Amps for Christ play the Smell on Sunday, March 21.