The members of Bark, a duo from Knoxville, Tennessee, have figured out how to prevent their band from flaming out. They’re lifers—they’re in a long-term relationship. And, it’s just the two of them, which simplifies things. It’s not easy keeping a band together. Having three or four grown-ups (or not) with jobs (or not), relationships (or not), independent schedules, lives outside of music (or not), and other mundane responsibilities (or not) makes the whole operation — organizing practices, writing sessions, recording and doing live shows — a big headache. There’s always someone who wants to practice more (or less) than everyone else. There’s always someone whose ego gets bruised. There are a million very good reasons why bands don’t exist for the long haul.
It helps if you have a duo, like Bark, made up of partners who’ve grown familiar with each others’ strengths, weaknesses, quirks, fears, anxieties and hopes.
I spoke to Tim Lee, one half of Bark, last week while he was driving from Tennessee to Mississippi, on his way to celebrate his father’s 90th birthday. Bark returns to Heyday Guitars in Winston-Salem on Saturday, March 14. Tim has some connection to Winston-Salem, having toured with Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active in the mid-’80s. That gives you a sense of how music-making, the college-rock scene of the pre-grunge era, and the DIY spirit have shaped Tim’s life.
Tim just turned 60 this year, and he’s one of those artists who just thrives on staying productive.
“The expectations for me are non-existent, and I’m never disappointed,” Tim said. “I’m really, really curious about what does happen, more so than having any kind of expectations.”
What happens in Bark is that Tim Lee and Susan Bauer Lee make solid and stripped-down rock that points back to bands like the Stooges, X, and Southern Culture on the Skids. You might also hear a connection to artists as varied as Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Codeine. When I mention some of those similarities, Tim isn’t exactly surprised.
“That stuff is totally in our DNA,” he said.
Tim plays something called a Bass VI, which is basically a six-string bass-like instrument tuned an octave lower than a guitar. You can play it a little like a guitar, but mostly it functions like a bass. Susan plays drums. They both sing, with Susan generally adding harmony vocals to Tim’s leads. Bark is not a two-piece in the style of the White Stripes or the Black Keys. They do not play blues-rock exactly. Instead, they play the kinds of songs that a lot of indie college rock bands might play, but with an open space where the mid-range and high treble sounds might normally be. This is no-nonsense music, pared down to its essence.
Bark keeps busy. They play shows around the region, and periodically dart up to New York City and to places in the mid-West. “I’m not smart enough to not keep climbing in the van,” Lee said. They can do that because they have a scrappy old-school attitude.
“We’re very much a DIY operation,” he added. “We do all our own stuff.”
Bark’s most recent record, Terminal Everything, is something of a meditation on death and the end times. It’s an album of songs about taking stock of loss, processing grief, acknowledging the limited time we have here on earth and making a game plan based on all of that. The album cover is a mix of cute and grim—a woodcut-style rendering of two hands affectionately intertwined, with fingers laced together, making a big V framing a giant mushroom cloud in the background. It’s an apocalyptic image about dark times, but also about the value of companionship. Everything may be going up in flames, but at least we’ve got each other, so let’s enjoy ourselves while we can, the cover seems to say.
Some of the songs have a similar message. “Yeah, there’s been a lot of loss here lately/Yeah, it’s gettin’ kinda hard to take/Man, we oughta throw a big old party/We oughta do it before it’s too late,” Tim sings on “Big Ol’ Party.” It’s a sentiment that runs through Bark’s recent record. There’s the sense that big things are happening, and we need to orient our minds toward the task of maximizing our finite number of days and making the most of whatever comes our way. Make a joyous noise before the lights go out.
Another track, “Do We,” has this nicely phrased chorus: “Maybe everything won’t turn out fine,” with a nice long pause before the kicker, “But we don’t know now, do we?” It’s a funny reminder that all of the forecasting of doom that we see everywhere around us is just a kind of guesswork and a projection of anxiety (maybe). It’s possible that things will turn out fine. And while there is a darkness to Terminal Everything, there’s also a strong smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em attitude. And the two players in Bark obviously find plenty of release and pleasure in making the music, collaborating, pounding out the rough-hewn jams of perseverance into the impending void.
Tim sums up the band’s philosophy, which partly explains why music helps them power through life’s hardship, “rock’n’roll is joy.”
See Bark at Heyday Guitars, 414 Brookstown Ave., Winston-Salem, on Saturday, March 14, at 7 p.m.