Track By Track: The Barr Brothers’ _Queens of the Breakers_
“On all the other records, I’d pretty much written all the songs by myself, either in a bedroom or down in the studio. But, this time, we decided to try something different,” Brad Barr muses while tracing the creation of Queens of the Breakers, the third full-length record from The Barr Brothers. The Montreal-based singer/ guitarist explains that—along with his drumming sibling Andrew and harpist Sarah Page—on this album, they “decided to go off and see how we play together. It had been over seven years, and we decided to check back in with the three of us to see how we’d play together without any songs, to see if we can develop the music out of that. In the past, Andrew and Sarah and whoever else was in the band would tailor their approach to what the song called for, crafting their parts around a song that I wrote with a lot of room to be as impressionistic as they wanted to be. But this time, we wanted to develop the music out of that kind of playing instead of the inverse.”
DEFIBRILLATION (FEAT. LUCIUS)
This was the last song to be conceived, written and recorded for the album. Andrew’s opening drum beat was the impetus for the tune. Our mother had a small, not-really-consequential fall, but she needed stitches in her head. He went to the emergency room with her at 1 a.m., and overheard two EKG machines pulsing. They were lining up and then going out of sync, and then lining up. I assume that they were monitoring two patients on the wing. When we got back to Montreal, he was like, “I’m gonna try and make a beat based off of that.” He emailed that beat to me—we’d already started mixing the record— and I pinned the song on top of it really quickly. Then, we got the Lucius girls to sing the bridge and they just sent the song to the next level. It was the last tune to come to us and probably the one we spent the least amount of time laboring over.
LOOK BEFORE IT CHANGES
I wrote this one while I was working on a six-string ukulele that I brought with me to Mexico in the winter of 2015. Then, it all came together during our first session for the record. We went to this cabin in the woods of Northern Quebec and we were doing these improvisations and just trying things out. When we took a break, I tracked that little song just as is. For the first take, I sang and played the ukulele. The next time we took a break, Andrew went in and did a drum pass on it—pretty much just cymbals. And then, during the next break, we recorded Sarah.
We felt that we should just build this little song off on the side while we were writing the songs that were gonna be on our record. And it ended up being an easy and delightful experience. It feels really good and it reminds me of Lhasa de Sela, one of our friends from Montreal. She was an icon up here. Her voice was something just totally otherworldly and influential on all of us. Her band was The Barr Brothers band, minus me. She had Andrew on drums, Sarah on harp, our first bass player Miles [Perkin] and Joe Grass, who plays pedal steel with us. And then she got cancer in 2009, and she passed away on New Year’s Day 2010.
SONG THAT I HEARD
I started the song on the same beach in Mexico at the same time as “Look Before It Changes.” I knew it was exactly the kind of song I wanted to deliver, but it took me a while. I tried to shake that lyric “song that I heard” for a long time. I thought it was kind of corny: “Already changed by the song that I heard/ already claimed by the song that I heard.” I felt a little embarrassed by that lyric and finally I just gave over to it and started riffing around it. Once I accepted that one line, the rest of the song came into place.
I reference the Great Antonio, who was a strongman back in the ‘40s–‘60s when you had these strongmen at carnivals. He dragged four city buses filled with people and also a train. He ended up living in Montreal on the streets [after growing up in Yugoslavia]— he had huge dreadlocks. He had this sign, which said: “I will pick up your family for money!” He’s an icon here and an early symbol of the city, but he is relatively unknown outside of here.
This is the only cover on the record. It’s a Nathan Moore song that was recorded by Surprise Me Mr. Davis. [The group features Moore, the Barrs, their Slip bandmate Marc Friedman and Marco Benevento.] We improvised on it at the cabin. Sarah came up with the guitar riffs—that’s her on guitar.
It’s the only recording I’ve ever made or released where I’m not playing guitar. Andrew championed that. It reminded us of funk music from the ‘70s. It’s a really innocent, naïve spin on what’s funky with Sarah riffing on the guitar. Funk is not really in her musical vocabulary, but she came up with this oblong, crazy little riff that Andrew pushed forward. Then, we tried putting “Maybe Someday” on top of that, and it worked. It’s fun for me to sing it, trying to invoke Hugh Mundell, who’s an early ska, rocksteady singer—a Studio One guy—and a little bit of Elvis Costello.
That one came out of a really true improv with Andrew at the cabin in Northern Quebec. It was just us jamming together, feeling really loose, feeling really free and having that sort of main riff come out. Andrew discovered the word “kompromat.” [The word refers to compromising material used to injure the reputation of a public figure—the term gained notoriety in reference to the dossier that purported to chronicle Donald Trump’s transgressions in Russia.]
The song had been taking a more political/social critique format that Dylan called a “finger-pointing song.” For me, that was what the song seemed to call for lyrically and, when Andrew heard my first verses, he said, “Do you think you could find some way to fit in kompromat?” I said, “I don’t think I can fit the word kompromat in there but I can just name the song ‘Kompromat.’” So that’s what we did. I’ve made some pretty feeble, awful stabs at writing more social commentary-type songs in the past. This is the first one where I at least did it in a more graceful way that I could live with in the future.
YOU WOULD HAVE TO LOSE YOUR MIND
I came up with the chord pattern, rhythmic pattern and melody [for this song] during the end of the Sleeping Operator sessions. I thought about putting it on Sleeping Operator at the time, but I was spent lyrically—or I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to sing about. So one of the first things we did when we started improvising for this record was say, “Let’s check out this thing; let’s see what it feels like.”
The version that’s on the record was directly from the cabin. We tried to recreate it in another studio here in Montreal and weren’t really successful, in our minds, at beating whatever we got out in the woods. Something about the openness of the room, the feeling of having the water right next to us—the cabin was very remote, about 30 minutes from the nearest market and right next to a lake. So the consistency of water just sort of seemed to permeate those recordings, and that’s what I feel when I listen to the song.
QUEENS OF THE BREAKERS
We had a breakthrough with this: We recorded an acoustic version in the cabin and then, once we got a take we liked, we went in and overdubbed a full electric band on top of the acoustic band. It just knocked us out. We were really excited with what happened, and it became our guiding song. We felt that way for about a month and then we started second-guessing it, thinking, “Maybe this doesn’t sound like us. Maybe it’s somebody else’s song. Maybe it sounds too much like this other band. It doesn’t feel like The Barr Brothers.”
We tried it almost a dozen different times in several different studios over a year. One of the sessions has 60 drum patterns—we just muted the drums to let Andrew try different patterns. In the end, we said, “Let’s just use the original one. It has something that made us really happy. And to hell with it—let’s just ride that feeling.”
I still feel great about it, but it has been one of the trickiest tunes for us to own. Maybe that’s because it’s one of the more straightforward rock-and-roll songs that we’ve ever tried to record. There’s no big left turns in it, there’s nothing idiosyncratic or eccentric about it, but it was very refreshing to play and it sounded easy and fun.
Lyrically, “Queens of the Breakers” is a reference to my old gang of friends—those early teenage friends who, at 13, 14, 15, you first smoked weed with and went to your first Grateful Dead shows with and started really getting into music with on a more cerebral level. We used to do weird shit like dressing up in my friend’s mother’s clothing, which were loud, colorful dresses. We’d raid her closet, put her dresses on, and sort of maraud in Providence—like go to restaurants and just sit down. I remember, one time, we went to The Breakers Mansion in Newport, R.I., dressed in his mother’s clothing, and took a tour of the place. I was thinking about those guys and those times, and I dubbed us Queens of the Breakers almost 30 years later.
IT CAME TO ME
This one began as an afterthought. Sarah had gone to bed, and Andrew and I were playing really loud at the end of the day. It was probably 2 or 3 a.m., and we just started rocking out. The lyrics came quickly, which is what I always look for when coming up with stuff. The best possible scenario for me is that a lyric hits at the same time as the music, and that gives me something I can work with. Otherwise, if I just have the music, I’m fishing for a long time.
It all came easily, but I never thought it would be one that The Barr Brothers would use. I couldn’t imagine how Sarah was gonna treat that one. It felt a little bit too abrasive for what I assumed she would be willing to put up with, volume-wise. But she jumped all over it. She really dove in.
That’s another thing I want to say about this record—Sarah took a huge leap forward from Sleeping Operator. There’s some ambient stuff you hear that almost sounds like synthesizers or trippy guitar and a lot of that is the harp. She went deep with the sonic possibilities of the harp and emerged with a setup that allowed her to be a lot louder and sustain her sound—that was the big thing because the harp dies out quickly. She made a lot of discoveries, and I would say she’s the MVP of the record. It’s been her personal mission to open up the possibilities for the harp.
On “Hideous Glorious,” we used the same approach as “Queens of the Breakers”—we recorded as an acoustic band and then overdubbed as an electric band. It’s one of those tunes that felt good, but I also thought that, if we were going to leave a song off the record because the record felt too long, this probably would have been the first one we’d cut. It sits in a funny place. It’s at odds with what I had thought made The Barr Brothers a unique band—it’s got that meat-and-potatoes, rock-and-roll thing—but it’s another one that feels really good to play. It’s got an openness to it. I love the drum sounds on it, the parts are all well laid out and it just kind of fell together. It was another one where I was like, “Well, OK, we can play more anthemic, epic rock-and-roll that I thought was maybe off-limits to us.”
READY FOR WAR
“Ready for War” is another one I’d been kicking around for at least five years. I’d given up on it ever being on a record, or even just being finished compositionally. There was a point in [making] this record where Andrew felt it needed “one of those heart songs.” We had “Queens of the Breakers,” “Kompromat” and “Maybe Someday,” and these things that were either a bit more rocking or a bit more mysterious, but he felt we were missing that “heart song.” Then he was like, “What about that song you’ve been writing for a little while called ‘Ready for War?’ What do you think about that?”
So I took it back to the drawing board and penned it out. I felt like there was still a lot to be discovered in this song, and then we came up with this cool little time shift. The entrance of the drums felt kind of undeniable to us as a moment. And lyrically, it was really impressionistic for me. It was way less concrete than anything else on the record and I’m OK with that. I like having a couple of those songs on the record, where I listen a few years down the road and I’m like, “Oh, maybe that’s what this one is about.” It’s something open-ended to discover later.