Interview: Kyle Waldron on Creating Barbarosa’s ‘Loud and Pretty’ Sound

There is no greater joy in life than discovering music that resonates with the soul, sending spirits soaring into heights of ecstasy. I recently found myself captivated by a performance by Barbarosa. The self-described “loud and pretty” Rochester band combines both male and female vocals over intricately arranged instrumentation. The overall effect is like being guided through a labyrinth in the dewy haze of dawn. I met up with the band’s founder, Kyle Waldron, to discover more about the origin and evolution of this captivating band. 

Paula Cummings: What sparked your interest in music?

Kyle Waldron: I’ve always liked music a lot. My dad was a bass player back in the 70’s. He had a lot of instruments. I learned to play bass, I learned to play guitar. I got super into it. It feels like something I was supposed to do. And I used to go to church. That’s how I learned to play in band, in the church. After a while, it was like ‘I want to start my own band.’ I started Barbarosa while I was in college. I’ve always been obsessed with it. There’s nothing in life I’ve ever felt so strongly about.

PC: Why the name Barbarosa?

KW: We were looking for a name for the band and my bass player in college came up with the name Barbarossa. It means red beard. I took out the extra “s” because of copyright with a band in the UK. I’m really into history – I was a history major in college. It’s got historical significance. Barbarossa was an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the name of the Nazi invasion in Russia in WWII. It comes back to my interests and what I look like.

PC: So you and Hannah Gouldrick take turns on vocals on the songs?

KW: Hannah has been helpful with writing vocals. That’s not really my strong suit. I like to come up with songs and guitar parts. Lately it’s been fun. We’ve actually started taking vocal lessons with a coach. So now I feel like “Oh, I can do this harmony.” I just couldn’t do that before. Now I like it a lot.

PC: What is your songwriting process?

KW: Almost always it will start with an idea I came up with on guitar and then I’ll record it. I’ll have someone make drums for the song. And then I’ll go back and flesh it out with bass and vocals. Usually vocals come last. I’ve started changing that. I realized some of the best songs have integrated vocal and instrumental parts. I used to be into post-rock instrumental. Lately I’ve been trying to write vocals, simple songs with chords and then add everything else. I’ve experimented a lot with how I write songs. I strive for not just doing things the same way.

PC: Do you think the changes in the songwriting process have been the result of taking vocal lessons?

KW: I feel like for a lot of musicians, you have a preconceived notion of how you think people write songs. Then you go through it and do it for a while. Then you’re like “Oh, I think there’s a bunch of ways that people do this.” It changes how you think. The more you do it, the more the process shifts. I realized that if I do the vocals first, it would make them more prominent in the song. I think that’s what most people identify with is vocals. I’ve tried hard at improving. Like I said, it was always an afterthought. It’s still a work in progress.

PC: And it’s probably changed as the dynamics of the band has changed.

KW: That’s another major change is getting away from guitar music and into synth – keyboards. I was really into guitar amps for a while but now with the synth… I’m really into gear, so it’s a whole new world to explore. That’s changed a lot too because my friend Nick Maynard did the first two songs on the new EP and he’s a master at that stuff. He has cool synth stuff, vintage gear, and he knows what he’s doing. That helped me out a lot. Nick’s not into doing the live stuff. He loves writing music. He was instrumental in helping me learn that stuff. My roommate also plays keys. Dave Heeks is really into that stuff. He’s going to probably end up being our keyboard player. We’ll be adding keys on more songs. It’s cool because there’s progress. I’ve had three different people work on drums. Matt Battle (of Oh Manitou) was the original drummer. He was on the first song I recorded, “Colorblind.” Then I did another song with him. Then Frank Dicesare, who’s more into hip-hop, which was kind of cool. He plays groovy, and adds stuff you wouldn’t normally hear in indie rock. And then Greg Best. He’s done all the live shows with us. He did the last two songs we put out. Greg is amazing. He went to Nazareth for performance and studied under a famous jazz drummer. He comes up with things in no time at all.

Barbarosa at Wicked Squid Studios

PC: I saw you last month, and you did a cover of a No Doubt song, which was different.

KW: That was Hannah’s idea. We kind of changed it around so it sounded more like Barbarosa. It came together. That’s one of Hannah’s biggest influences in music and she was happy to be able to do that song. Now it’s in our repertoire. Now that we’ve done that, I can see where Hannah gets a lot of her melodies from.

PC: What was the first concert you went to?

KW: It was at Madison Square Garden. It was a Christian music festival. TobyMac and Jars of Clay. That was 5th grade. I didn’t know what was going on. It ended up being “Woah!” It was loud, and you get the adrenalin for the first time. I got into more shows in high school. I saw Balance and Composure in Philadelphia. It woke me up to crowd involvement. And punk shows where people were going nuts and piling onto each other, moshing and stuff like that. That set up my whole idea of playing music. It was a community thing. It was so cool to see so many people in one area connecting. I didn’t know that was possible at that point. That it can make them happy or make them sad. That’s when I realized I want to do this. I want to start a band.

PC: Where do you get inspiration?

KW: There’s a podcast called Song Exploder. They interview artists and go through their songwriting process. It changed my songwriting process. For one of the songs on the EP, I was reading. I was on a history binge. I was going through a bunch of books about the WWII era. I was reading about the Nazis and how they were on drugs. But it was legal. They had these crazy pharmacies in Germany. Nobody knew what heroin was yet. They were just like, “I take this drug and work all night.” It was basically heroin. It probably helped spur WWII. Hitler was an opiate addict, and I’m sure a lot of the terrible decisions he made had to do with that. The drug was called Pervetin. It was the miracle drug of their day. I took a bunch of quotes from that book, mixed them all up, and picked lines that sounded the best. Then we picked the melodies and crafted the song. And it sounded awesome. It was a lot of fun. I got the idea from the Rivers Cuomo episode on Song Exploder. I never would have thought to do that.

PC: Music is meant to be fun, right?

KW: It got me out of my rut of songwriting. I was like “I’ve got to sit down and write some lyrics.” Some of it you can’t force. When it comes to art, you have to let it burst out of you. If I’m sitting there having fun and trying new stuff, it comes out. I try to do that more often. (At the EP Release show) I’ll be playing in Brotherless, too. For Brotherless, we’re going to be covering a Nirvana song. We’re playing this song and it’s so fun. I get to slam power chords and sing harmonies. It’s so much more carefree. I’ve also been pushing a lot of my music in that direction. I’ve learned to simplify because you realize that no one is going to notice. If you can write a simple song that is entertaining that’s so much more important than being able to write a ten minute song full of guitar solos and technicality. I’ve really toned down the riffage and time signatures. I still want it to be creative, but like a mix or creative but also easy to understand and accessible. Like the first song on the EP is not in 4/4, it’s in 7/8. That’s what I want to do is find ways to impress musicians but also at the same time doing it in a way that people who don’t know these things will understand. If you reel yourself in, then you’re a little more within your capabilities, everything’s a little tighter. People underestimate how important the basics are.

Barbarosa is available on Bandcamp. Physical copies on CD will be on sale at the EP Release Show on November 25 at The Bug Jar in Rochester and at their show on December 7 at Bushwick Party House in Brooklyn