Slipping Past Eisenhower: A Conversation with Brad Barr
The Slip was the first New Groove on the Month featured on Jambands.com back in 1998, which is probably around the same time I started to see their name pop up on a number of message boards and webzines associated with the then emerging jamband scene. At the time, the New England-bred trio was mostly an instrumental outfit, focusing on the type of free, experimental jazz-rock one would expect from a group of Berklee dropouts and The Slip was a featured attraction on both the official Jambands.com tour and at the inaugural Jammy Awards.
Over the past decade The Slip has grown along with the post-Grateful Dead hippie-rock scene, gradually embracing more lyric driven acoustic folk, world music, avant-garde experimentalism and, most recently, indie-rock, the results of which are documented on the group’s critically acclaimed, song-oriented late 2006 release Eisenhower. I had the opportunity to catch up with The Slip’s primary songwriter and guitarist Brad Barr a few months ago for my Core section in Relix and, as is often the case, we ended up talking about far too many topics to cram into under 1,000 words.
Like the best Slip songs, it took some time for a number of Barr’s thoughts to register, but, over the past few months, his words have gradually snuck into my scull, popping up now-and-again as the group has been featured on Grey’s Anatomy, appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and played seemingly every festival from Sasquatch! to Bonnaroo to High Sierra. Below, Barr discusses the making of Eisenhower, his friendship with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and how playing with Nathan Moore in Surprise Me Mr. Davis saved The Slip.
MG- Eisenhower was released in late 2006, but you had actually been working on the disc for quite some time before that, correct?
Brad Barr: I think we started writing and messing around with how were going to do this record around early 2004. I remember a demo we started passing around that had “Children of December” and “Suffocation Keep” on itthe songs we were trying out in our little home studios, which were pretty bare. We were figuring out how to make the drums sound cool and what songs were going to make the cut. There is probably an entirely different record that we imagined. We probably imagined most of the songs being different songs, but by about mid-2004, we sort of had it set, “Ok, this is the record.” We went in to record it at our friend’s studio, tracked maybe four or five songs and then decided “Well, this can go in a lot of directions.” I think it was in March of 2005 that we went into the studio with Matthew Ellard and that’s when that record started to take shape.
Some of these songs are really old, they go back four years. I think the idea when we started recording was just to kind of document what we were doing. We felt like we wanted to get these things down on tape before it became old. Songs come and go annually, so we wanted to make sure that we captured this stuff. And we started writing a few songs in the studio. There are even a couple of songs that didn’t make this version of this sequence that will probably come out in the next six to eight months, I’m guessing in some form, as EPs or B-sides or whatnot. That’s kind of a timeline, I guess. It’s been years since we started recording it. In that time, there’s been a lot of revising, a lot of going in, a couple of remixes and mastering. A lot of time was spent figuring out who was going to put the record out. There was a time when we really wanted to give the record away for free. That was somewhere around the summer. We thought “You know, this is crazy, we’ve been sitting on this record for over a year. What would be a model for just giving this record away?” So we thought about that. We tried to aim high, aim low, just tried to follow what our options were, as a band that had been in and out of record deals and around for a number of years.
MG: Since these songs were written a few years ago, do you feel that your live sound now is accurately represented on the disc?
BB: Actually, yeah. I think this disc, for me and Marc [Friedman] and Andrew [Barr] and for a lot of people who know us, it doesn’t feel like so much searching around. Even though the studio was very experimental, it was a different kind of experimenting. It wasn’t so much experimenting with what kind of record or what kind of sound we wanted, it was like, this record was really easy to make. There was no kind of questioning. And I think that’s a testament to us arriving at some point. There’s no doubt that there are some songs on the record that are going to be stretched out in the live settingyou know, there always are. But as far as really blending the songwriting and instrumental, interesting instrumentation and an interesting kind of sonic environment, I think this record nailed something that we’ve been thinking of for a long time. In that respect, I feel like it’s a sound that we can ride with for a while. And it’s true, the sound has changed with the band. At the same time, I don’t see it so much as turning left here and right there and backing up and going up and down. We’ve all kind of felt like it’s this trajectory, like a straight shot going up. It’s been a very public growth process.
MG: What role would you say Surprise Me Mr. Davis played in The Slip’s recent development?
BB: I think it probably played a bigger role than I’ve acknowledged in the past. Nathan’s [Moore] the kind of guy that sneaks past you sub-consciously. He was always an influential person for me, from the first time I met him and heard his songs. But when we formed the band [Surprise Me Mr. Davis], that band became sort of an outlet for us to play stuff that was more rocking, more loose with more focus on the songs. My guitar solos were shorter and I had to say more in a shorter amount of time. There was a general spirit of fun up there and I would always leave the stage feeling like “Man, that was good, that was fun, that’s how it’s supposed to feel.” And I think The Slip for a longtime took ourselves really, really seriously and in regards to the playing experience, it was as much of a challenge and a mental workout as it was a really fun experience. And a lot of times the shows were about us working really hard to get a great new sound out of ourselves. With Mr. Davis, it was just a much more fun project. Maybe having a new thing on the table just seems like more fun. So I think when we started touring again as The Slip, we brought a lot of that with us. We were like “We don’t have to worry so hard about creating these night to night spontaneous gems. Those things will happen if you’re loose with it.” And if you have songs that are still strong and are fun to play night to night, then it just kind of gives that spirit to the show. Maybe we’re getting older and starting to fear that our glory days areyou only have so much more time to jump around on stage. I think at sixty it looks a little funny.
MG: I remember seeing The Slip at Tonic the week of the 2004 Presidential election where you spoke out against George W. Bush and then I noticed that you moved to Montreal. Was that move prompted by our current political climate or was it just time for a change of scenery?
BB: I wish I could say that I had such strong feelings about the administration that I just couldn’t stand the political climate anymore, but I just wanted a change of scene from Boston. I love Boston but I had been there for ten years and I had been up here a bunch of times in the last five or six years and always recognized it as a city that held some kind of charm and beautyit always had something agreeable to me, so I thought, “Why not give it a try?” My brother, Andrew, was set on moving up here to be with his girlfriend, who’s from here. And I just pretty much said “Why not?” We talked about it, and wanted to stay together, we thought it was a good idea to be together, so that’s it really.
MG: Do any of your songs on Eisenhower have direct political connotations?
BB: I mean, it’s a tough question because I can end up drawing it back to the idea that what you do with your day and what you do with yourself and your own mind, how you choose to free your mind, use your imagination, what you think about and go along with, is political these days. Media and right wing politics almost go hand in hand. You can be political in so many practical day to day areas in your life. So overtly political, dealing with the state of the world and the government, no, there aren’t many direct references. But I always find that I’m less attracted to those kinds of sentiments. But there is one on the record, I think, on “Even Rats,” the line: “Maybe the men up on Capitol Hill need a little less Jack and a little more Jill.” It’s great because it’s kind of cute and cool that way. It’s not on my fingertips to really be able to work directly with politics as an art-form. I think there are people who are really good at that and do it really well.
MG: Have you become involved with the local Montreal music scene?
BB: I’ve gotten to know a lot of people who have done some shows up here. I’d like to get more involved. It’s really, really, fertile. There are so many great little venues here. Places that are coffee houses and bars and music venues all in one. They’re just really rootsy places to hang out and chill with people, get a drink. It feels like a real folk-art movement that sometimes has electric guitars and synthesizers, sometimes just a xylophone and drums. It all feels very organic and healthy. . I found a great little Brazilian bakery, and she sells very good espresso. I buy it ground. I take it home and put it in my French press.
MG: Nice. Real fresh.
BB: Yeah, although I’m drinking yesterday’s coffee. It’s still good, though.
MG: Sounds like it could be a greatest hits album or something. Yesterday’s Coffee.
BB: Great idea. Will you write that down?
MG: When we talked before Eisenhower was released. The Slip was considering taking a break from touring, but this album, in a lot of ways, made you want to move forward.
BB: There’s no doubt that the way these songs, in a lot ways, ended up sounding on this record kind of saved our enthusiasm after 12 years. I shouldn’t say it was waning, but it was becoming difficult to see how we were going to survive. That was becoming a question. And then writing these songs and recording, it became really clear. It was like “Ok, this is how we survive. We write songs and record them.” It gives me all the motivation and spirit I need to want to go out on the road and keep doing it. There are lots of things on this record. The whole record gives me inspiration. To me it was recorded the way a record should be. We certainly couldn’t go back and do the same thing, just because it was kind of like a dream. The sounds we were getting and the schedule we were working on, we were just working things out. It was a very cool process that way.
MG: Most people are more familiar with The Slip’s live show, so it’s cool to kind of move the focus into the studio.
BB: Yeah, that’s the funny thing that a lot of people might not gather from this record at first listen. We were just experimenting in the studio. You’ve got four keyboards, you’ve got mics set up all over the place, xylophones, you decide, “What would it sound like if you put a speaker in a trash can and played a flute through that?” Kind of like improvising at almost a scientific level that felt so cool and refreshing to do.
We just tried it to see if it would pan out. But there was some weird stuff. Like I said, it’s kind of a dream-like thing, going back and remembering. At one point, we were just beating on cardboard. And Andrew played the pillow. The idea that you can take a tiny little sound, a sound that would never be audible while a rock band is playing, like a crumpling piece of paper, and move that to the front of the mix; things like that. Playing with the dimensions and kind of illusions of sounds. The record has a sort of really cool headphone quality. Especially songs like “First Panda in Space” or the beginning of “Paper Birds” or “Even Rats” would be a pretty extreme song with headphones. There are lots of little things happening, dashing in and out.
MG: The Slip has definitely reached a new audience through its tours with My Morning Jacket. Can you talk a bit about how you met Jim James, who recently cited The Slip as one of his favorite bands in the New York Times.
BB: Could you remind of that in ten years? But anyway, the first time I met them was at Mountain Jam at Hunter Mountain. We were playing a show and I looked out and I was like “Fuck, that’s Jim James standing in the audience. Does he have his eyes closed?” I was really kind of shocked. Then I convinced myself up there that it couldn’t have been. There are a lot of guys with beards out there. But later on we talked about it at the whole NEMO show when My Morning Jacket played with the Boston Pops and we were playing in a little sort of side-room. So I guess we first met at Hunter Mountain, talked at the symphony thing and after the symphony show we went out and got some drinks and shot the shit, and it was like “Yeah, dude. This is great.”
Then we met up again High Sierra, I guess. We hung out a bit there. They’re just really solid guys, really nice. Jim has been really generous to us. He’s obviously somebody in the public eye, somebody people have their eye on, so when he is like “Yeah, I like this band,” you know, people take note. I guess it’s just a little different than when someone else says it, only because he gets published in hundreds of thousands of magazines. It’s nice to get props from a guy like that, because everything he does has such integrity. I’d like to go and check out some of the old stuff those guys did. They have a lot of integrity, a lot of imagination and he’s got great pipes.
MG: I was listening to their live album Okonokos earlier today. He really uses his voice as an instrument.
BB: Yeah, it’s really cool and very different. It’s so different than everything else that’s going on but everyone recognizes that its an important thing. So I’m really stoked about it.
MG: Andrew and Marc recently played as the rhythm section for both Dan Bern and Natalie Merchant. How did those projects come about?
BB: The Natalie Merchant thing came through our engineer, Matthew Ellard, who knew Natalie through the Mermaid Avenue stuff. And Dan’s just a guy who we’ve been crossing paths with for about five years or so. He needed a band and he knew Andrew and Marc could cover it. They asked me to open the shows solo, so I got to do that, which was really cool, actually. There are some songs that I don’t really play with The Slip or have only played with The Slip a few times and that didn’t really make into our repertoire. I play some stuff that’s more experimental with sounds, washed-sound kind of stuff, like apocalyptic stuff. I try to create a cool backdrop to the folk songs I play. And then some songs that I recorded for my solo album, which is just instrumental acoustic guitar. For me, I don’t really get nervous before The Slip’s shows, but I get nervous before the solo shows, just because I’m out there on my own and I haven’t had as much experience, but it’s a rush and it’s great for me to do.
BB: Another band The Slip has been linked to both onstage and in the press is Apollo Sunshine. Can you talk a bit about how your relationship developed?
BB: The first time I met them was at a benefit show in Boston. They were the headliners, and I didn’t know them. I had never even heard of them. Andrew and I were playing with this African Group. It was really, really cool music to play with this guy. He loves to stretch out, just to jam on these rhythms that are hypnotic and cool. He plays three songs and it’s like an hour or more. It just kept kind of going on, and we were trying to tell him “We gotta go, we gotta go.” And it went on for like another twenty minutes and I think Apollo was really pissed. They only ended up having like a half hour to play. And I felt terrible. I was like “Oh, man.”I didn’t even know the guy, but I went backstage after their set, which blew me away, and tried to offer them a peace offering of whiskey, not having any idea at that point that we would be touring with them in the future. Sam Cohen is their guitar and he’s just one of my favorite guys to listen to. He’s got blues and the real experimental stuff, he’s got some country as wellhe’s all over it. He puts everything into every solo, he shakes it all out of the guitar. I guess we did a little New Year’s run with them and after that we asked them if they wanted to come on the road, which they did.
They’ve got their own scene that they’ve been building for a while and it exposed them to us. We were certainly making some big steps. It was great to see. People complain today about the state of musictoo much pop, emo stuffand that things are not real, but I for one am kind of thankful for that kind of shit because it gives way for a breeding ground for a really healthy underground music scene. I am actually always inspired and in awe of today’s music scene. When a band like The Shins can rise to the success they did, or even Broken Social Scene having the success that they did. It’s just like cool collectives of people that have really great songs and arranging great records. I think the music scene today is in a really healthy place.
MG: I think The Shins, in particular, really embody that. They have that kind of new, independent spirit that can still cross over into the mainstream and reach a larger audience.
BB: Yeah. I don’t love everything they do, but you can tell that it’s always a reaction. I would that undoubtedly the political climate would also give way to that. Anytime there is a force pushing from one side, the other side pushes back harder. It can be a great asset, something in the long run that people can look back and be thankful for. They can be thankful for the fact that we lived in a time when the Bush Administration were being such pricks around the world and making these policies that none of us agree with. It gives the artist a real reason to embrace being an artist, to feel like “If I don’t do something now, when am I going to say it?”
_Mike Greenhaus is the Associate Editor of Relix Magazine and the Senior Editor of Jambands.com. To hear Brad Barr play with Apollo Sunshine on his podcast, please click here