The Barr Brothers: New Ways and Old Mythologies

By: Dennis Cook

The Barr Brothers by Andre Guerette
A subtle, seductive energy infuses the long-awaited studio debut from The Barr Brothers, a beggar’s banquet of worldly folk music, powerful songcraft, and utterly aware, imaginative musicianship. Neither Brad Barr (guitars, vocals) nor Andrew Barr are spring chickens, having plied their trade since the mid-90s in The Slip, Surprise Me Mr. Davis and many other groupings, but The Barr Brothers crystallizes their embrace of quietude and archetypal ideas in recent years. It’s an album that first tries to keep the Devil from their door before attempting to give Beelzebub back his heart. Dark and light compete for dominance in this song cycle, and the outcome is far from clear, flames rising high around our puppet show as immeasurably slinky guitar, whispering strings and heartbeat percussion echo in the distance.

Besides the Brothers Barr, this band’s other key ingredient is harpist Sarah Page, whose meeting their recent bio describes, “As tender and visceral as she is virtuosic, her melodies would seep through the cracks of the wall and into the music Brad was writing.” Page is an original, a voice on the harp akin to Anders Beck’s dobro in Greensky Bluegrass or Chris Combs’ lap steel in Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey that will reshape thinking about her instrument down the road. Add in multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial and you’ve got the lean, open-to-all-possibilities quartet currently engaged in The Barr Brothers first full-fledged North American tour (see dates here).

We grabbed a few minutes with Andrew Barr as he traveled along the highway after the group’s first show in St. Louis.

Andrew Barr by Jake Krolick
JamBase: How does this project differ from The Slip and other past efforts? What marks this as its own entity?

Andrew Barr: The Slip basically began in high school. So, the first time we played a show, The Slip had 15 years of repertoire and groove behind it, and that’s an entirely different feeling than starting a project with somewhat of a clear vision – there’s always room to develop and grow. This began with a pretty strong idea of what we wanted to achieve, and that alone is a pretty big difference. All the years of improvising with The Slip, Marco [Benevento] and others still comes out in this project, but for the most part, this is a more arranged set of music.

JamBase: The songwriting has a really careful hand to it. The thought that went into these songs is evident. How is that developing as you take these songs into the live setting?

Andrew Barr: For the most part, we’re trying to be true to the record. A lot of the songs were written by Brad in his bedroom with a guitar, and we felt we shouldn’t mess with these beautiful little vignettes too much. So, it’s a much more sparse approach than The Slip, where there’s a multilayered thing going on. There’s quaintness to it as well, an intimacy that’s really fun to try and achieve live. It’s amazing to bring a room full of people down to almost silence and the crowd stays with you in that silence. It gives you so much room to play with, and that’s been really fun for us.

The Barr Brothers
That’s a real achievement, especially with American audiences, to get people to shut up long enough for you to whisper musically. What are the challenges in accomplishing this, or is it that Barr Brothers crowds are just receptive to it?

Knock on wood, people have been very receptive to it so far. The harp onstage is kind of like a smack in the face that says, “Check this out. There’s a horse standing on an elephant, and you might not see this again.” People come in and adjust their ears, even if they’re not usually people who do that, in order to hear [the harp] and figure out what it is. It’s not the reason we have harp in the band, but I’ll admit it helps shut people up [laughs].

Tell me a bit about integrating an instrument like that into what is still ostensibly rock music.

The Barr Brothers by Andre Guerette
We’re just learning how limitless it is in many different contexts. If we want to play some West African stuff, Sarah is very inspired by the kora and that style of comping in that kind of linear, find-a-pattern way. Then, in terms of the choir, acoustic stuff, it has all this potential for blending with guitar and such. And when we rock out, she’s so good at finding a place to put the harp – and she and Brad are SO good at finding counterpart to put the guitar and harp together – that we can just throw in a distortion pedal and run it through an old Magnatone amp, which helps, too. She’s slowly becoming the Jimi Hendrix of the harp.

The way the harp is integrated on the album speaks to the way you discovered Sarah, i.e. faintly practicing on the other side of the wall in your apartment. Much of the time, the harp is a presence felt rather than something in the foreground.

That wasn’t necessarily something we were going for but I think it’s true. A lot of people can’t tell what is harp and what is guitar on the record, and that’s kinda nice. If it was really out front it might take over because it’s such a unique instrument. As it is, it weaves its way in and out, but she’s playing a lot of melody and ambient stuff on nearly every song. It’s a testament to her musicality that it doesn’t all sound like traditional harp.

The Barr Brothers Debut Album
The record is almost a sampler of the kinds of music you and Brad have been exploring for a spell now. There’s the blues, there’s more atmospheric stuff, and you name check one of the most unique singer-musicians of the past quarter century by including Lhasa in one of the song titles. Did it occur to you while recording this album that it would be a new calling card for you and Brad?

Sarah, Brad and I had the pleasure of befriending and playing music with Lhasa in Montreal. We miss her dearly and it felt right to dedicate “Cloud” to her. The song had been written before she left us, but it seemed like a fitting tribute to Brad and so it was dedicated in to our beloved friend.

The record wasn’t constructed as a new identity but more as a series of tests and experiments we did because we were searching. Brad and I are always searching for new sounds and new ways to have fun playing music. So, we booked a studio and experimented. We’d track a song, put stuff on top of it, and invite friends to come in and do their thing to it. It was a few years of doing that, and then we were asked to do a tour about two years ago and we looked at what we had and said, “I think we have a body of work that actually makes sense.” It is all over the place in some respects. It reflects the folk music we’ve been in love with, whether it’s Bob Dylan and Neil Young or Oumou Sangaré and her vision, the way she’s steadfast in preserving Malian music without drum machines and Peter Gabriel style production. There’s a lot of folk music from a lot of cultures that shines through on this record.

It suits you as a drummer who’s always had an accent from many realms, though the delicacy of this record presents your work in a different light.

The Barr Brothers by Andre Guerette
I was just trying to serve the songs, and I had a pretty deep relationship with most of this music before we started recording it. I’d heard Brad writing the songs, and I just tried to figure out what each song needed in order to stay as close to the source and raw as possible. Granted, there’s some grand ‘wah’ moments where it opens up into some huge places, but as a drummer, I mostly tried to keep it simple, like, “This song clearly doesn’t need a kick-snare backbeat, so what if we just slap on my knee and bang on a suitcase.” Those kind of choices are all over the record, where weird sound sources were used and kept it totally fun for me. The decision to plug the harp into a distortion pedal or make choices like that which reshape an instrument we’ve played for years run wild in this band. Our bass player/pump organist is actually a virtuosic jazz pianist. That’s how we met him. So we said, “You wanna play bass in this band?” And he said, “Sure.”

That drive to shift your perspective consciously runs throughout all your projects. It’s as if you’re eating a meal and think, “Hmmm, I don’t know if I can play that instrument with a spoon but I’m sure as hell gonna find out!” Or maybe, “I wonder what this would sound like on fire?”

That’s it. It’s not for everybody. Falling flat on your face can be devastating for a musician, but we’re good plastic surgeons or something [laughs]. We do like to have that element of “what the fuck is about to happen?”

That strikes to the heart of it. You’re not afraid to get bloodied.

That’s when the quantum leaps usually happen.

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