Reel Time: Brad Barr

Mike Greenhaus on August 25, 2020
Reel Time: Brad Barr

“Like everyone during those first few weeks of the quarantine, we felt the need to reach out and connect,” guitarist Brad Barr says in late May, more than two months into Montreal’s COVID-19 lockdown. “You get this feeling like, ‘I haven’t talked to them in a while.’ A lot of artists I know started recording songs to put out quickly—everyone was looking for something to do while they were stuck at home. Especially when the days feel like the same thing over and over again and you’re spending so much time on your computer, just hearing a few new tracks could be a perk in someone’s day. It could make a big difference.”

While much of the music-world remained on pause, Brad and his younger brother, drummer Andrew Barr, decided the best way they could connect with their community was by releasing the Red Moth Solar Companion, an addendum to The Barr Brothers’ latest LP, 2017’s Queens of the Breakers. The B-side release consists of two tracks recorded during those sessions, the Blonde On Blonde-leaning “Saint Cecilia” and the instrumental rave-up title track.

“Both of them were contenders for the final sequence,” Brad says. “They’d already been mixed by Ryan Freeland, who engineered and mixed Queens of the Breakers and [2014’s] Sleeping Operator, so we just had to master them. I loved ‘Red Moth Solar Companion’ more than the other guys because it’s one giant guitar solo. It was just so effortless. We recorded that song at Wild Studios, which is very remote. It’s about two hours northeast of Montreal. The owner of the studio had to meet us with a snowmobile to get us there. There’s this lake there, and we watched it change while we were recording—it froze up, thawed and then, around the last session, we went swimming in it. I played this Harmony Stratotone that [Big Light frontman] Fred Torphy mailed me. It’s really good for fuzz. Andrew had also just returned from India and a lot of the rhythms he’s doing are from the mridangam manual.”

Like Queens of the Breakers, the Red Moth songs were captured when harpist Sarah Pagé was still a full-time member of The Barr Brothers. But her 2018 departure has allowed Andrew and Brad to reconsider what their project could look like, both socially and sonically. “‘Saint Cecilia’ is one of those songs that’s just very easy for me to deliver vocally,” Brad says of the album’s other selection. “It’s this very laid-back blues tune. Sarah plays sārangī on that, which brings the Indian theme around. Before we recorded it, Andrew and his wife decided that this was the year that they were going to have a kid, and they wanted to travel to some of the places that they’d always wanted to visit. They wanted to see the most beautiful and culturally inspiring things they could. They went to these tea farms and, of course, Andrew is always hunting around for new music.”

In addition to fine-tuning The Barr Brothers’ studio oasis and spending some well-deserved downtime at home with his wife and children, Brad has used the quarantine to work on a new solo album, which he describes as a spiritual sequel to 2008’s The Fall Apartment—and to lay the groundwork for The Barr Brothers’ next full-length project. He’s also holding out hope that The Slip, his beloved avant-garde trio with Andrew and bassist Marc Friedman, can still pull off their first East Coast dates in almost a decade this fall. The Slip were supposed to play their first public show in five years at The Peach Music Festival in July— after reuniting for a private gig at JamBase’s 20th anniversary party last spring—but that reunion was jettisoned along with the rest of the summer festival season. However, after years of hesitation, Brad is finally ready to think about The Slip again, even as he inches toward new music with his other songwriting vehicles.

“I’ll hear one or two lines that I know I can build off of, but then filling everything else in takes me a little while and, a lot of times, I’m finishing my songs right at the end,” Brad says of his process. “It’s just like all my high school reports.”

Throwing Down Ideas

After Queens came out, we toured into the beginning of 2019. We did a run with The War On Drugs, we did a bunch of shows on our own, we went back to Europe a few times and then we did a few album shows, where we played our three records—over three nights—in three different cities. And, during the last year, we’ve been doing a lot of work in our studio. A few projects have kept us really busy—a documentary film that we finished, a Montreal-based live sound and light installation that is now up in Arkansas. We just knocked down a bunch of walls in the studio—we bought a bunch of new gear and set ourselves up in a way that we never have before. And, all the while, Andrew and I have been tracking, jamming and throwing down scratch vocals. I’m hoping the songs will come together by September so that we can record and put out a new record next spring.

A More Modular Band

[The exact configuration of The Barr Brothers currently] is a good question and one that we have been asking ourselves a lot over the last year. And there’s not really a great answer yet. For our last tour, we had Eveline Gregoire-Rousseau on the harp, Brett Lanier—who plays with Ryan Montbleau and a bunch of other guys—on the pedal steel and Morgan Moore on the bass. That was one of the best versions of The Barr Brothers that we’ve had. It also became clear to us that, for a lot of reasons, working as a duo might be easier—not the least of which is the fact that it’s so expensive to move five people, rent a harp, rent an upright bass, have a tour manager, have a lighting guy. We love doing it, but the thought was: “The Barr Brothers could be more of a modular band, where sometimes it’s a duo, sometimes it’s a trio and sometimes it’s a full band.” We’re not really sure. The music has always dictated what the band looks like and the relationships we have with our friends have also dictated what the band is gonna sound like. I’ve always been inspired by the friends that are in the band with us. But it is fair to say that in this phase, between albums—as we are figuring out our next wave of music—we’re operating as a two-man team. When Sarah was a full-time member of the band, she definitely weighed in a lot more, but that was the only time that The Barr Brothers was a legitimate trio.

When we started The Barr Brothers, the whole challenge was: “How do we get a harp into an electric folk-rock band? How do we make it work creatively? How do we make it work technically? How do we make it work statistically?” Sarah’s a very different person than us—we had to navigate that whole thing. It was a challenge, but it was very exciting to us. And that’s not to imply that we ever, with any confidence, totally figured it out. But I’d say we got ourselves to a place where we were like, “Alright, I know how to do this music.” And now, 12 or so years later, what I’m compelled by is working as a duo with Andrew. My concern would just be that we’d murder each other—having other people around certainly gives us a buffer from each other. So it is a challenge, but it gives me a little bit of that same feeling of, “How do we figure out how to do this as a duo? How do we get a guitar to fill all that space? How do we write in a way where we can convey everything we want to convey as just two people?”

Solo Trips

I’ve been working on a second volume of The Fall Apartment, which was solo instrumental guitar music—no overdubs, just one person, one guitar. I just finished it last night, actually. But it took about eight months to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. I gave myself a lot of freedom. I didn’t have a schedule or plan for how I was going to release it. [When the quarantine first started,] I felt the need to reach out and make a connection—to make myself visible and try to entertain people when they needed entertainment. Andrew and I have spent at least a month and a half trying to figure out how to route our whole sound system into an iPad in the hopes of being more prolific in the streaming world. But I’ve also been on a guitar trip lately. With The Barr Brothers, I’ve always felt a lot of pressure to write my songs—to finish my songs and perform them all together. But for the past few months, I’ve been on more of an instrumental trip with the solo record and the stuff I have been doing with Andrew. Lately, I haven’t put as much pressure on myself to write lyrics, which has always been the hardest part of my job; I’ve just removed that pressure. I don’t know if that’s any specific response to the quarantine—to the pandemic—but it’s just where my head’s been. I’ve been inspired to hone it in a lot more this year. But, for me, everything is a response to something, and I’m sure—after spending a year doing instrumental music—in the coming months I’ll come up with some lyrics more effortlessly. It’s a good sign for me.

Ambitious Virtues

The Slip hasn’t done an East Coast run since 2011, when we had Sam Cohen as the fourth member of the band, which was pretty fun. I was looking forward to The Peach Music Festival. I can’t say that we had begun to do much work preparation-wise, but we started passing around tunes that we thought we could pull off—that we maybe didn’t play as much when we were touring more often for whatever reason, or that we just wanted to play. And we had started to book some other shows for this November that we were psyched about. After we did the JamBase 20 party, we started to get some offers for others gigs. Maybe someone from The Peach Music Festival heard about that party and thought that we were bookable. But what I can say is that the JamBase party made us—made me—feel really relaxed and cool about The Slip. For a while, I had this association with The Slip. It was like, “Oh, god—three guys trying to pull off improvised music and these ambitious songs.” It was a lot of work and there was a lot to consider up there. When it hit—when it got there—it was the best thing, but there weren’t too many relaxing moments onstage, which I think is a virtue. When I go to a show, I wanna see someone working, I wanna see someone taking risks and sometimes failing. But I’ll say that when I played the JamBase party, I actually felt like I had a new way of approaching Slip music. I was just relaxed and present and involved. It opened us up to accepting new opportunities—like, “Alright, if someone’s got an offer, we’re down.” Where before it was like, “Not going to happen.”