The Future in The Present Tense: Brad Barr and The Slip
The Slip has been delivering spectacular shows for close to a decade. Their songs are rich with meaning and purity and their adventurous approach to improvisation has made them one of the most compelling bands to follow. They blend music from all over the world into their sound with striking cohesiveness, and consistently successful results.
2005 was a year of re-evaluation for the band, as they played considerably less gigs than they have in recent years. However, they weren’t sitting in their living rooms watching obscure cable TV during this time; they were diving full-force into other projects. The Barr Brothers (guitarist Brad and drummer Andrew) co-produced Leslie “Serpentfly” Helpert’s forthcoming record. The band (which also includes talented bassist Marc Friedman) rejoined forces for a number of gigs with the brilliant songwriter and magnetic performer Nathan Moore a unit that is known as Surprise Me Mr. Davis. SMMD also recorded a record that will eventually be released as a truly digital-free vinyl product, but for those that can’t wait a chunk of it is available as an EP. Also, Brad Barr recorded a solo instrumental work that will appear on Tompkins Square Records.
Most significantly the band has reportedly painted their masterpiece with a now complete fourth studio album. Widely celebrated songs like “Even Rats,” “Children of December” and “The Soft Machine,” which have been live staples recently will now finally get the studio treatment. However, they are still unsure of how they will unveil this disc to the musical world and they find themselves at a crossroads at a time when their next move the band makes is absolutely vital to their future.
At the center of it all is Brad Barr. He is quietly one of the most brilliant guitarists around. He composes or co-composes the lion’s share of the band’s music. This is one of the few bands that I pursue just about any live recording I can get my hands on, and Barr’s seemingly endless creativity is a large part why this is of interest to me. Whether he is shredding, improvising, conjuring sonic wizardry out of his foot pedals, or even moving through gentle passages with style and grace the guy is an absolute monster. He has a low key personality, a healthy lifestyle, a rich gratitude for those who have helped the band along the way and a serious view of his craft. He has been doing a lot of soul searching lately, as have the other band members.
R – So, you’re up north now?
B I am. We’ll see how permanent of a thing it is. I want to make it through the winter at least and enjoy the spring here that’s for sure. [Author’s Note: “Even Rats” from their forthcoming CD has the line “the spring, is nice, in Canada.”]
R – Did your disenchantment with “Old George” (a Slip song which is stridently critical of our commander in chief) have anything to do with the move?
B I’d love to say that it did because I couldn’t stand the political climate in the US anymore. But no, it was more of a personal, artistic and “excited to live somewhere other than Boston” thing. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, and I’ve always loved this city. Not to mention that Andrew’s girlfriend is living here and I knew that he was leaning this way. We just decided we would move together.
R – Where does Marc live?
B Marc stayed down in Boston. Marc has a great situation there. He lives in a great..there’s two houses side-by-side, everyone who lives there is a friend and an artist whether into theater, music or graphic design. If I were Marc, I wouldn’t move either. Andrew and I had to leave a house. If it hadn’t been for the fact that our landlord pulled the house, we might not have gotten of our asses so quickly.
R I’m sure you’ve thought about what influence that distance may have on the band.
B I certainly think it will affect the band but to date it has only been a positive influence for two reasons. One, we’ve actually gotten more done at our practices because at this point know we have to schedule them. So, they are falling into a more concrete schedule. If we do schedule them, they are for three days, and they happen. When we were living in Boston we kind of felt like we were together all the time. So we didn’t even practice all that much or all that effectively. And then I just think the second reason is that a little distance from each other has been nice after having been together in the band for ten years, and really having it guide every aspect of our lives, and having it dictate that we have to live in the same city together because we’re in a band. It’s a good feeling to feel that I’ve actually got my own life as well. I can actually choose to live somewhere else, and the band can still work successfully.
R – Who produced the tracks you have now?
B The two tracks that we have up on our site and on MySpace we did, the three of us.
R Those are both self-produced?
B They’re all self-produced. We’re probably going to give co-production credits to our engineer. The area of production it gets blurry for me, and I’m not really sure. We basically built the songs. We used the sounds that we wanted. He helped us in terms of booking studio rooms. After the tracks were recorded in the main studio, he worked out the rental of a really nice microphone and of a loft space to record vocals and overdubs. Not only that, but he was helpful with getting the vocal takes down. He sat right there with me, literally for hours, and when I finally had it, he let me know, but it was after a lot of “do it again’s.” In that sense, we are going to give him co-producer credit just because he really helped make the thing sound GREAT. Songs were written and arranged by The Slip and he just came in with great sounds and a great and discerning ear.
R The new material has been described as a radical departure for the band. While it sounds fresh, and you’ve tightened things up a bit, even to the point of being a tad Indy-rock-ish it still, to me, sounds very much like The Slip. What do you think about the current sound and where do you think it might take you?
B That’s a good question. I can honestly say that I think it will bring us to some kind of cool compromise. I don’t think we’ve really nailed it yet. Which is good I mean on one hand that makes me feel a little bit crazy because we’ve been doing it for ten years. I think there is so much we are trying to incorporate into our sound that it has just taken this long to figure it out. We still have to find a way to make the songs that we are writing right now, which have tighter chord progressions and more vocals, just sort of catch the past up with that. We want to bring the exploratory compositions and performing style up to date with the modern songwriting. I think there are some songs that have captured that. There are some songs that we’ve hit that have really done it well. That’s the way I see it going. I see the songwriting has reached a much better place, a much better level. We’re always finding ways to experiment, and a real solid marriage of those two is still on the horizon for us.
R – The feeling among certain parts of your fan base right now reminds me of one of your own quotes after a Boston show “it seems to be about like a can of soda that is shaken up but the top is still on.” Are you cognizant of the anticipation within The Slip community about this release?
B I’ve talked to a lot of people. I know as a fan of music myself I can sort of gauge that feeling. I have a feeling it will really be a time when some people who have been on the fence will come wholeheartedly toward the music and really embrace it. I also feel that at the same time there are a lot of people who have doubted what we’ve been doing and when they hear the record they may make up their mind that The Slip is not for them. I’m sure of it, actually. But for me, I’m absolutely convinced about the music on it; that it is the best record we’ve ever made, and that we really did the best job that we could have in the studio. I’m also convinced that it is not our last record. We are all feeling that this will be the point from which a more mature sound will stem out from. Here’s a good explanation about how I feel. Someone went onto our web page about a month ago and put a post up there saying he had a promotional copy of our new record, and that he was sick of waiting around for them to release it. He told people to email him and he would copy it and send it out.
B Everyone’s heart sank. This was our worst fear with this record, even though as it turns out it was probably a joke anyway. We had been worried that in the promoting of this record it would somehow get leaked. But within minutes, the feeling that came over me at the time was total relief. Finally I don’t have to think about how we’re going to release this record, or when it was going to come out.
R It’s just out there.
B Yes, it’s just out there, and I thought “cool, they have it.” I am near the point that I just want to get it out there. I’m totally skeptical of the music industry right now. Any model that has “worked” in the past seems to be failing everybody. Some incredibly intelligent friends of ours have been talking with the three of us about some creative ways of getting it out there, some other channels. There have been a lot of discussions, literally daily. A few hours of every day in the last two weeks have been dedicated to how we’re going to get it out there. It is starting to take up more time for me than I would like. I would like to be playing more music right now. But it is that important to us. There have been days I’ve been just tempted to do whatever it takes to get it to the people as fast as possible.
R So, it’s done, no more tweaking. It is mastered and everything.
B No, it hasn’t been mastered but other than that it is done. It’s a done record. It’s been put into order it is a done record. Mastering is the last step and it will be happening in the next couple of weeks or so.
R Some of these songs have been in your repertoire for a while. You performed “The Soft Machine” at Bonnaroo a few years back. Could you talk about how it has evolved as a song?
B Without giving too much away about the version of it that is on the album – we basically pulled the song apart when we made the record. It used to very much build up from the chord progression and explode. It would go from verses to a big improvisation section in the middle and then come back to the verse. I felt that it was one of the strongest melodies we had, and one of the most driving and upbeat chord progressions. I really wanted to see it make the record. So, in the studio we decided to take the improv that happens in the middle, and put it at the beginning. We ended up creating this whole new life for the song. There is a whole new section that came out of a total improvisation in the studio. It was the most pure moment of improv we had in the studio. It was a pretty long part, a spontaneous composition. We walked away thinking that we had written a whole new composition that leads into that song, and that really pushed us to figure out how to do it live. So, that’s what has been happening lately. It is sort of a bummer, because I wanted to drop the record, let people hear the new version and then go to the concert and be able to hear it there. Now they’ve heard it live already, and when they hear the record it will already be familiar. Oh well, that’s the way we work in this band.R – I noticed that you busted out some old, old stuff at Matt Murphy’s last Tuesday (“Autobody Experience” and “Trane-ing”). Someone recently mentioned to me though that some of your older fans were upset about the temporary setting aside of much of your older material and the night-to-night repetition of your set list what is your feeling with regard to this? B I don’t blame them for feeling that way. I certainly can see where they are coming from. Talk like that only irritated me when people suggested that our intentions for doing that were part of some business strategy. They said it was a strategic move on our part to make more money or more fans. As far as the repetition of the sets goes, this is our new material we’re playing it. If you went to see Louis Armstrong back in the fifties, he was gonna play “Wonderful World” every night. If you went to the show and he didn’t play that, you would be like “what the hell?”
We were on the road with John Scofield back in 1999 or 2000; he played the same set every single night. Every once in a while he threw in a different old song. That’s what we do because we have played our old songs night after night for years before that. People are holding us up to the example that Phish or The Grateful Dead set which is you have to mix it up every night with old songs. Those guys were constantly playing their old songs. There are just different kinds of bands in the world. I don’t think we are one kind or another. I just think we are a band that really loves to play our new stuff that really gets off on the way these songs fold into each other and make for a consistent show and keep the energy up. Then we’ll throw in an old song here and there as a treat for us and our audience.
I just hope people are making their decisions because of a genuine feel from having seen four shows in a row, rather than just going on our web site, looking at the set lists and getting angry even though they weren’t at the shows because the model they are used to is one already established by Phish, The Grateful Dead or these other bands in that genre. I’m just saying that there is an entire history of music that they are ignoring where that doesn’t occur.
But I think that this year will find us bringing back a lot of songs. We’ve been rediscovering songs from the repertoire. There is kind of a lost era of Slip music. After Angels Come On Time came out until just about the time we started writing the new batch of songs around 2004. In those years there is a whole little subset of music that I think stands to be revisited. We did “Reddish Moon” the other night that would be one of them “Dear Molina,” “Cut From The Cloth” – there’s a bunch of songs that certainly have a life.
R In general, when you’re writing is there a “Slip feel” that you consciously try to maintain, or do you just pen the material and after the fact “tweak” it in a way that you want it to fit in with your catalog?
B – I would have to say it is the latter. Most of the music I write has gone toward The Slip since the mid-nineties. But these days I’m more conscious of writing songs for something I might do in a solo situation. Most of the time, a song comes out and I will either sit with it or give it to the guys and see what their response is. Actually, I guess that is where the second stage happens, I look to get the response from Andrew and Marc. I never approach songwriting as “I’m gonna write the next Slip song.” I just write it, and I usually feel The Slip could do just about anything with it if it wanted to from classical stuff that I write to folk music songs to straight rock stuff. I feel The Slip would know what to do with it if it got it.
R I know that you guys collaborate on a lot of songs from the get-go. However, when it is a situation where one of you has come up with a something and is bringing it to the others, to what extent does the songwriter say “I want it to be this way” and to what extent is it understood that the song is malleable and the other two are welcome to inject their musical personalities as they see fit?
B With the three of us it usually goes three different ways. Marc, for example, will write a bunch of songs, record them and he will decide that one or two of them is/are good for The Slip. He has a good sense about that. He’s quiet about it. He won’t reveal that at the beginning of practice. It might be two days into a four day rehearsal session before he drops the new song on us. It is always surprising. It is always different. For example, he has been writing a lot of ukulele songs lately. He plays the ukulele which uses his food pedals with the combination of the two he writes these songs, that ah
R Did “Proud” come out of that?
B I don’t think so. I think “Proud” came out of a guitar riff he had going. He’s a really good guitar player. In fact, that was his first instrument. When I first met Marc, he was playing guitar. He tends to write really epic feeling songs, they almost feel like U2 sometimes. I know he has a love for that band. They are also usually pretty emotional, or they are pretty quirky pretty strange. It took me a little while to get used to Marc’s songwriting style. There’s always a little curve in there, some little loop. I think I was kind of resistant to his style for a while, at least through the nineties, it was hard to accept Marc’s songs. Not that I was the deciding vote or anything. We would learn them and play them live even – it was still hard to have a love for them. But in the last five years he has contributed some of the real gems, some of my favorite ones to play, like “Proud.”
Andrew is a much different songwriter. They come out of a real innocence, kind of like “I’m not really sure what I’m doing but I’ve discovered this great thing, can you guys please help me to realize this, cuz I think it’s gonna be something good.”
R I remember him telling me he had learned a bass line that was played on a drum by a friend he had met in Africa, and you guys ended up framing a song around it.
B Yes, exactly that was “Wolof.”
R So, he brought that bass line back to you and kind of “threw it into the pen” and you guys collaborated on the song?
B That’s it. He said, “I have a four beat phrase, that’s all I’ve got, and it’s not much but I really think we can do something with this. And it turned out to be one of the more powerful and sound-defining moments for us. Perhaps it was because it was such a raw, primitive notion for songwriting. It allowed us to do whatever we felt like doing on it. It can be hard, like calisthenics that song is a lot of beats.
I tend to just write. I try not to edit myself too much. I focus more on lyrics than either of those guys. So, I will chisel away at a song until I’ve got the lyrics and the phrasing and the chord progression just right. I usually get it all set (in other words, get the verses and the choruses if that’s the kind of song it is) then bring it to them.
Where we collaborate a lot is when I have a hole. Like, I need something to get me from the bridge to the chorus. I need a verse, or a new section. Sometimes I’ll ask them about sections of songs that we’ve tried or I’ve heard them play, for example I will say to Marc, “How about that song that you played, I remember you had those really cool riffs”
That’s how “Even Rats” was born. Marc had that intro and outro bass line for about two years and we had never been able to write a song around it. Then I wrote the whole middle, I guess “song” part of it with the lyrics. It just worked that way. Andrew wrote the melody in the end. That song was a total collaboration.
R “Even Rats” is now on the Play Station “Guitar Hero” game, how did that happen?
B We have a friend named Jason Booth. He was the first person to help us create a web page back in 1996. He worked for some very successful game companies over the years. He came to us near the end of our sessions, sometime in September, and said he was part of this new game called Guitar Hero. He explained it to us and it sounded pretty cool and he suggested that it would be wise if we contributed a track to it. It turned out to be one of the best things we’ve ever done. It almost didn’t happen because we didn’t take the whole idea seriously in the beginning, cuz it was for a video game and.well, you know…so we almost didn’t get the track in on time. But Jason got the song on the game and it came out and the game has sold out in stores all around the world. It has become one of the top five selling games ever for PlayStation. We have had many more hits at our web site in the last four months because of it. It is totally astounding. I would not have seen that one coming. It’s really cool.
I have one now that he gave me. I’ve got all my neighbors hooked on it. I came back home to Montreal last night and it’s gone. I know the guy who took it, and he’s got it in his house right now. He’s probably sitting in there playing it right now. It’s a pretty addictive game. Be careful if you decide to go get one.
R I hear you incorporated the game into your New Year’s Eve show, could you walk through that for anyone who wasn’t there?
B Jason came down with the game and a projector, and he projected it onto a big screen behind us. We invited a girl we know named Viva from the audience. We hadn’t seen her in a while but we had heard that she was kicking ass on Guitar Hero. You know, we felt if the fans were gonna send one fan forward it would be Viva.
R She’s like the Bobby Fischer of the Guitar Hero game?
B – Exactly sort of their dark horse. She’s a really cute girl [author’s note: Bobby Fischer, by contrast, is in fact NOT a cute girl] – really sweet and funny. So, we thought it would be fun to get her up there to challenge Marc, because you can put it on dual player mode. To be honest, it was a hectic moment for me because I wasn’t sure if it was working. Everybody thought it was a cool idea but we weren’t sure if it would work as a live gag. I was kind of conscious of that the whole time. I was wondering if it would have been better if we just played the song. But it turned out to be really funny to sit up there and watch these two go at it. The trouble is it’s kind of a long song. Six minutes is a long time to watch people play a video game on stage. So, I can’t say that as a gag it went over as well as it could have. At least it was fun for a few minutes, and I’m sure some people went right from there out to try the thing out. Not that we were trying to sell the game at all, but it was fun.
R -Are you making any sort of statement with this album?
B Not as of yet. We’ll see. As far as artistic statement goes a lot of it is just reaching out to people just trying to get some feeling, maybe get people’s emotions aligned. Whether it is a song that puts them in a good mood in the morning, or if they are feeling bummed out they can put a song on and they can relate to it. It’s not a concept album in any way, although all of the songs were born at a time when the three of us were going through some of the bigger transitions in our lives. We were at a time when after ten years together, and we had not really succeeded in creating a sustainable life for ourselves. None of us thought we had. It was at the point that we realized that at the rate we were going, we were going to have to stay on the road our whole lives just to earn enough money to live or have a family. If we wanted to have a family, we would have to stay on the road forever. So we decided we would put The Slip down for a while. That was back in December of 2004.
We decided we would just record this new record. We had all of these new songs and we knew some of them would sound great in the studio. We said, “Let’s just record the songs and then that will be it we’ll just put it down. We won’t worry about it. We won’t even try to “work” the record. We’ll just record it and put it out there.” So, we went into the studio with an unattached mind frame. We had enough money saved up and no big expenses coming up since we weren’t doing a lot of shows it was very care free. That was how the record was made. By the end of tracking.by July or so, we were totally reinvigorated. We had a new energy and love of and commitment to the music that was way stronger than at any point before.
R – Do you see yourself spending more time recording and touring with Nathan Moore?
B Yes. Hopefully, yes. That will be a project that I always put all of myself towards if we create the opportunity. We recorded with him recently in Montreal. Mr. Davis is cool, we get to do what we want in that band, there’s no pressure. It’s just a good time. We recorded nine or ten songs up in a great studio in Montreal onto two inch tape, mixed it down to half-inch tape and then we were going to release it on vinyl so that the songs would never go through the digital world. Once you get the vinyl you would know that the songs had never gone through digital. But, with finances the way they were, and having to divide the time up between The Slip and Mr. Davis, we decided to just release a little EP with those songs, some of our favorites from that session. That is just to tide everyone over until ideally our plan can go through. We’ll see. But I can safely say that any chance we get to do Mr. Davis, we will do. Nathan right now is back in Virginia and I think is just sort of chilling with his brothers and parents taking it slow and trying to imagine what a more sedentary life might be like. I think he’s just sort of, “playing house.”
R I think you guys should really consider releasing the High Sierra set during which he tells a story of a run-in with the police, but stretches it over the course of the set. I even think you guys could tailor a set around a Moore story, and given the nature of the material you already have with that band, you could play songs that fit each part of the story appropriately.
B – I think Nathan is one step ahead of you. He has been doing that, apparently, down in his home town of Staunton. He’s been taking some gigs at coffee shops and little bars solo sets. The last time I talked to him he told me that’s what he had been doing. He’s been doing sets where he takes a look at the songs from above, finds the story and connects them. One had something to do with the misadventures of a curious kid. It sounded awesome. It’s good to know that you feel that way too. It sort of makes it an inherent truth, I think.
R It’s interesting to me that the live versions of “I Hate Love” seem to have a “Madame George” feelbut in the studio version, you seem to have moved away from that, was that a conscious move?
B No. I didn’t realize that it sounded that way. That’s interesting. Maybe it was a matter of time what versions did you hear?
R I believe I’m referring to versions from about a year ago, maybe less.
B That is me taking Nathan’s lyrics and putting it to my music. Three chords is just a way of putting it out there. Astral Weeks (Van Morrison album on which original version of “Madame George” appears) is probably one of my favorite vocal records ever. I would just imagine that it was a matter of over the course of time sort of settling into my own thing with it. Whereas in the beginning I would have been feeling like every line I would have sang would have been an emulation of Van Morrison of that era. It may just be that by the time we got into the studio I had settled into my own way of singing it. I don’t know which is better, it’s hard to say, but it wasn’t conscious enough that I would say that I edited myself.
R – Could you talk about the differences performing with SMMD and The Slip, other than the obvious?
B The differences are there and they are very clear but it can be tough to articulate them. I would say that The Slip is a much more concentrated thing. When I am in The Slip I am much more focused. So, I think it comes off as a more intense experience, maybe more serious a heavier vibe.
With SMMD it’s just a good time from the get-go. We’ve got Nathan up there, and a lot of the pressure now is taken off of me to sing and there is pressure off of Marc and Andrew as well. Nathan is a natural person up there on stage, even when he’s not feeling 100%; he lets you feel as though he’s there for you. When I’m on stage with him it’s like as something gets lighter, the intensity is diffused. Inside it serves me to have a good time.
With The Slip, all of the music is something I’ve written, or the three of us have written and we’re trying to find a way to play it. We’re experimenting every night and the improvisation factor is there. You have to really stay so focused. It’s more intense and sometimes more rewarding because of that. You certainly get into this language, this sort of almost psychic vector where we can arrive at places that we just don’t really with SMMD, but then again vice-versa. There are a few Mr. Davis shows were we end the show with everyone on stage and the band is on the ground, on the floor, and people are just feeling so warm and great about the night. Nathan could almost be like a Messiah kind of person. That’s as best as I can articulate it the differences.
R – I have always respected your uncompromising nature. It seems like everything you guys have done has been on your own terms. I also understand your current disenchantment with the music industry, to whatever degree that is. However, if a label approached you with interest, that could be challenged. What if they wanted stick you into some form of the traditional rock promotional schemes, would you guys be willing to go with it to some extent? Do you feel strong enough about wanting to have the material heard that you would do some of the things associated with more mainstream acts, making a video, being the house band on Carson Daly, opening for Dave Matthews Band – those sort of things?
B – I can tell you that when we finished in the studio, thoughts like that came into our minds. “Well, now we have to figure out a way to get this out there.” The only means we could really conceive of were really traditional. In the last couple of months, Rob, I would say there have been a few examples that.I would point to bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Arctic Monkeys.have really brought to light how powerful the Internet is in terms of accomplishing what some of these big labels and traditional methods have tried to achieve. It is very empowering for the artists to take that kind of thing into their own hands.
Right now I would say we are at a place of wanting to empower the band and dictate all those kinds of decisions. To tell you the truth, I can’t predict the outcome right now because if a label came to me with an offer I would want to hear it out. I certainly know what kind of a messy and unfortunate situation it can turn into when you look to this all-powerful entity to take your life from where it is and make a better life, whatever that means to the individual. In this band we are very set on having that power ourselves. I think it can be done within a traditional record label. I certainly wouldn’t object to going on Conan O’Brien at all, I like him very much, I never watch Carson Daly.
R That’s sort of what I mean, Conan and The Daily Show are examples of late night programs that are considered “hip,” and would seemingly be a delight to play. I mention Carson Daly because he is more of a mainstream guy (even though it is on later) his show is generally not as respected. Yet he has had moe., Mule and other bands as house bands and I could see a label pushing for a band like yours to do the same.
B There’s also the part of me that is wondering what that is like. It might be kind of cool. You never know. You kind of use your “shit sensor” to figure these things out, but then I know there is a contingent in the band that says, “What the hell, we’ve never done that before.” I would just say that it would all be about The Slip keeping its own control of its destiny and choosing what we want to give to our fans. I never want to lose the connection we have to the audience. I always want them to feel like they have a part in this process. Right now, that is our strongest card. We have an incredible, beautiful, loving audience who has been there for us. Right now we want to figure out how to let them help us do what it is they want to do which is spread our music. There is a lot on our table right now as far as all that goes. I would just say that something interesting is gonna happen in the next four months.