*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #37, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
As soon as the word broke, it was all over town — after 12 years of inactivity, Avail was reforming to play their hometown once again. The quintessential Richmond, VA punk band, who’d spent their entire career proclaiming their love for the city, Avail was once every bit as synonymous with Richmond as GWAR and Municipal Waste.
But with their classic albums two decades in the past, did the love Richmond once had for Avail still hold true? The answer to that question came quickly, as their initial reunion show at The National sold out in under ten seconds. The band announced a second show, put tickets on sale a few days later, and that one also sold out within a couple of hours. Clearly, Avail is still beloved in their hometown.
One listen to 1998’s Over The James, which celebrated its 21st anniversary this year, is more than enough to demonstrate why that is. Melodic, anthemic, yet full of punk rock rage and hardcore power, Avail’s difficult-to-categorize sound retains a broad and undeniable appeal. In the weeks before the reunion, we caught up with Avail frontman Tim Barry, a popular folk singer in his own right, to talk about the legacy of Over The James and what’s been going on with Avail, and Richmond, in the years since it was released.
Let’s start with the most obvious question. What inspired Avail to get back together?
Music. [laughs] There’s really not much more to it. Avail put out a record in 1998 called Over The James. The 20-year anniversary of that record popped up, and there was a fair amount of talk about it. I revisited the record, [and] it was kind of shocking how good it sounded. That music sparked a conversation between us, to revisit the record at its 21st anniversary and do some shows. When we talked about revisiting our old songs, we didn’t tell anyone until we had practiced first — because lord knows it’s very possible for word to get out. If we can’t still play our instruments or sing, it would certainly be embarrassing to pull the plug because we were so awful. [laughs]
In the 12 years since Avail last played live, you focused on solo folk music, and Joe, Erik, and [former Avail bassist] Chuck McCauley had a band called Freeman at one point, with Freeman Martin singing instead of you. Was there a reason you stepped away back then? What’s changed now that made you want to sing punk rock again?
There’s not many layers to why we weren’t playing shows. It just wasn’t as fun as it once was. There’s no reason to do something if it’s not enjoyable, if it doesn’t create something personally for you that’s challenging or memorable. I didn’t hear about Erik, Joe, Chuck, and Freeman doing their music until after they’d stopped. I love Freeman himself, and the music was fantastic. But I caught that a little late.
I do play folk music, and I have for many years. That’s where I’m happiest. But I’m an old punk. Even the music that I play is sort of abrasive, not unlike punk music. It’s not that I decided to start singing punk rock again — I kind of never stopped. I just do it in my own way.
I always say if it’s not anxious right when you walk onstage, why bother anymore? That’s certainly where I was at with Avail. And now, 12 years later, I get to revisit that anxiousness and excitement that I lost in the monotony of playing a lot.
Tickets to the first show at the National were on sale for about a minute before they were sold out. Were you expecting that strong a reaction?
They said that it sold out in 10 seconds, officially, which is fucking hilarious. When Avail was touring, even when we were packing places, Beau and I would bet with the venue how many people we thought would show up… We’ve never had big expectations. We had multiple venues held for both nights –The National, The Broadberry — because we didn’t know if we were going to sell anything out. But it wasn’t about ticket sales — it was about revisiting something that was exciting for us. I knew this was going to be special.
That morning I went fishing at 6 AM. I turned my phone off intentionally, and didn’t turn it back on until about 11:30. And I had hundreds of [messages] on my phone. I was taken aback. But here’s where it really gets exciting — a handful of the tickets for the first show were sold in person, to people standing in line at the National on the morning that they went on sale. And we were like, if most of these ticket sales are from out of town, people around here aren’t going to be able to go. That’s who we thought we were gonna be playing for. So [for] the second show, we made those tickets available personally, so they would have to go to the National and pick them up.
That morning, I was with my daughters. We drove past the National, and I could not believe how many fucking people were out there standing in line, waiting for tickets to see Avail play. I stopped and talked to a couple people, just to say hi. And I think Larry Floyd said it best, when he said: “Fuck the reunion show. This is the greatest reunion I’ve seen in years.” And what I saw was a lot of mutual friends, a lot of acquaintances, a lot of people who haven’t seen each other in so many years, all standing on Broad Street, talking, sharing food, bringing waters around… It was a really neat thing to see.
That show sold out by people buying tickets physically. That’s when music becomes something bigger than what it is, more like a movement. Avail plays the same three chords everyone plays; the lyrics are the same words everyone uses in songs. So it’s not that we as a band are any different than any other band. It wasn’t Avail that created that hype — a lot of other bands could have done it. It just happened the way it did, and we’re very thankful. We’re working our asses off and practicing five days a week to make sure that we give it our all, but we know it’s not just about us. It’s about everybody hanging out.
You’re doing several other shows after Richmond. Did you always plan to do that many, or did the interest in Richmond make you want to do more?
We planned on doing a couple shows in Richmond, and a few others. But I can honestly say it’s not a money grab like most people think. It would be nice to get paid, because we stuck to our guns, and we walked out broke! [laughs] People will hear about these incredible payouts from festivals — those go to the big bands. But I don’t even know where we’re going with this. We certainly don’t have the intent of becoming a band again, full-time. Right now, the shows that we have announced is what we’re doing. Everybody has kids except for Gwomper, and we’re all busy. I have another [solo] record coming out in October, and that’s right when the Avail stuff tails down. We have no idea what we’re doing, but it’s definitely not being a tour-the-U.S. type band ever again.
I feel like a lot of bands get back together for a tour and then they stick around.
[Laughs] I don’t mean to quote myself, because that’s ridiculous, but I have a line in a song where I say, “Damn, Beau, we both should have quit at age 24. I can’t stand bands on their third reunion tour.” There’s no reason I need to focus on criticizing bands doing what they love, but I always think it’s a little weird that a band would have a reunion tour, and then three months later have another reunion tour. And then put out a record, and then do another reunion tour. [laughs] Oh my gosh, y’all!
Avail stopped playing right when the internet started taking over, so not a lot of those shows are well-documented, and it just becomes a legend. So do we blow it? Do we ruin your fucking great memories of what it was like to go to an Avail show by doing it in our middle age? It’s possible! Some bands should just stay broken up, and it’s possible Avail is one of them.
On Over The James in particular, there’s a lot of real heavy, emotional shit on that record in songs like “Lombardy St” and “August.” What’s it like to come back to songs like that, and contemplate singing about a particular thing at a particular time in your life? Do you still feel those things 20 years later?
I have this weird way of singing songs. I go back to where I wrote them. I’m back at that spot. If I’m not in the spot where I wrote it, I’m relating it to something more recent. There’s a song on Over The James called “Cross Tie,” and when I sing that song, I am on the freight train that I was riding when I wrote those lyrics. It’s so clear — the colors, the smells… I’ve never sang that song and not been on that train. Those places are gone now, but they’re in my head like a photograph. So I certainly can’t go up there and bullshit it. And if that’s what practice was for me, the first time I went in, just bullshitting through the lyrics, I wouldn’t do it. That’s not who I am.
Another Over The James song, “Scuffle Town,” the classic about Richmond, mentions the murder rate and crime in the city. Richmond has a whole different vibe now; on paper at least, people present it as an up-and-coming city full of craft breweries, loft condos, and fancy hotels. Meanwhile, it seems the struggle, crime, and poverty has just been pushed out to the margins of the city. I feel like “Scuffletown” is still relevant today, but I don’t know if a lot of people think it is. What’s your take on that?
I don’t know. I could be critical of the new wave of people, but older people could have been critical of our wave of youth movement in the early 90s. These cycles in cities are pretty consistent. Because of the political climate, people aren’t often comfortable living in places that they are physically opposed, so they go to city centers to live with people who are open to them. And that’s great, but with the population growth comes the demographic shift, where poverty gets pushed out.
In the 90s, which was the tail end of the crack epidemic, Richmond looked like a bombed-out shell. And the reason artists and musicians clamored to Richmond is because, for example, the house that Avail lived in on Main St at one point was $425 a month for seven bedrooms. That allowed us to tour without making very much money. Avail at its start would not exist if it was 2019 and we were living in town homes for $1500 a month. We wouldn’t have had the ability to tour around the country.
I was thinking about the line “Ethyl dosed the planet,” and I’m not sure anyone knows what I’m talking about. The Daily Planet was a social service and gathering place for the homeless on Belvidere St. It was my view that when the Daily Planet got run out and bulldozed, that it was Ethyl Corporation [whose offices were a few blocks away] behind the thing. That it didn’t like the eyesore there. Who knows whether, as a young man, I was right or not? It was complete speculation. But we took that stuff really personally, because as a bunch of white kids from the suburbs, we’re running around town watching everybody get rooted out, and feeling this sort of guilt for it. Like, here we are, taking over. Here we are trying to function with high crime rates — shit, our next-door neighbor got killed. People would rob our houses. People would just walk into your house, take the TV and walk out, while you were fucking watching it! It was insane.
But things change. And to glamorize the old Richmond, vs RVA, I’m not sure I’m ready to fall for that divide. Would I want to raise my two young daughters in the old Richmond, in the city? I’m not sure. But can I raise my two young daughters in RVA? Well, I’m not sure! We almost had to move because we couldn’t afford the rent.
Photos by Ken Penn
Music Sponsored By Graduate Richmond