Streets of San Francisco: Benjamin Barnes


Benjamin Barnes is one of the street musicians interviewed within our "Streets of San Francisco" issue. He's played with Mr. Bungle, DJ Disk, and a host of other musicians and bands, and he teaches music. His current group Swindlefish is playing a show on Sunday, May 16 at 2 p.m. at Caffeinated Comics Company. It's the store's first live music show, though they also have karaoke. Treat your eyes to some comics and your ears to some music.

Name Benjamin Barnes

What styles of music do you play? I play guitar and viola, but violin projects better than those and I know a lot of repertory. I've got maybe three hours of Bach memorized. It's a meditative thing.

There's six sonatas and and six cello suites and I play the cello suites on viola and violin. They're nice profound pieces and sometimes people will stop and listen.
I was playing the Bach Chaconne and this guy stopped and listened to the whole piece and tipped me afterward. Several times when I play someone will stop and listen for a while. That's why I do it.

Where are your favorite sites to play? The first place I played was Powell Street station. It was 1989. I remember I put my can down and basically practiced and made 15 dollars. I packed it all up and went home and threw the money on my bed and laughed. I was working at a coffee shop and putting myself through school and I realized I didn't have to work at the coffee shop.
In college I had a string quartet [Rilke String Quartet]. We used to play at Montgomery and Embarcadero and people enjoyed it and would hire us out to gigs like weddings and street fairs. We called it practicing guerrilla warfare -- we were guerrilla musicians. We'd set up and play for a few hours and sell a lot of CDs at the street fair.
I like to play at 24th Street station. The acoustics aren't bad -- you get a little reverb like you would in a hall sometimes. Now I'm not out there just trying to make a buck, it's a personal thing.

How long have you been playing in the streets or underground? For several years I didn't -- I just recently started playing again. I also sometimes play with my brother, he plays guitar. We play jazz songs and Beatles songs and David Bowie songs.

What do you like about it, and why do you do it? I used to get stressed out if I didn't make any money, because I was using it to pay my rent. Now I have students -- sometimes they'll stop by. I do a lot of teaching and I'm not tied to needing to make the money at the BART station. When I do make money it's always nice, but I can't be in the mindset where I have to make money -- your playing suffers because you're not playing from the heart.
The Pacbell Canon will bring in tips. The [Rilke] String Quartet would play it for a few hours at Embarcadero and Montgomery and we'd make a fair amount of money. What I'm doing now is a little more artistic. I've been working on memorizing all these pieces and finding new ways to interpret them as I play them. If people stop and listen I might get nervous and get some adrenaline going. These pieces are masterpieces for the violin, I have five of the six cello suites memorized.
There's a few fiddle players [playing outside in SF] and sometimes it's hard to get a spot. It's first come, first served. In order to get the spot you have to have the right attitude. It's good to have extra spending money because times are rough. This buys me coffee and allows me to take my girlfriend someplace nice. I try to put away about half the money I make and save it for special occasions.
I was just in New York and I saw people busking in Central Park and Greenwich Village, but not on the subway because people were rushing by. There's a famous violinist, Joshua Bell, who played in the New York subway for a couple of hours, and no one recognized him, or that he was playing on a Stradivarius. Most people walked by, or gave him a dollar, and one kid played air violin. He made 26 dollars.

Do you have recordings and/or a website? If anyone's interested I have a lot of songs and string quartet and solo viola stuff that I've written and played on the website. You can download it for free. There's a spot where you can make a donation. I've gotten 26 dollars (laughs).
I think some people have become students because they liked the music, or gone to shows by my band. I'm playing a free show at Caffeinated Comics on the 16th. It's a great place. We're going to play an acoustic show, with songs I wrote, Bowie covers, Beatles covers, Led Zep and "Devil Went Down to Georgia." We have an upright bass, two guitars, and an excellent singer who does lead and backup.

What are your best and worst experiences playing? I've had a lot of great experiences and bad ones. Lately I've been playing really well and there's one guy that tips me a 20 every couple months. One time a junkie tried to brush me away from my spot and started yelling at me with a story of how long I'd been there. I get a little worried sometimes. You get some pretty rough-looking characters, but most will like what you're doing. Mostly I'm out here because I have fun and I like people and I've spent my life on music. It's nice to be appreciated and have people enjoy what your're doing.


Sun/16, 2 p.m.

Caffeinated Comics Company

3188 Mission, SF

(415) 829-7530

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