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Published: 2014/12/30
by Mike Greenhaus

The Barr Brothers’ Slipstreams

The Barr Brothers had a long journey across the pond. Brothers Brad and Andrew Barr, who play guitar and drums respectively, have performed together since they were children in Rhode Island. In high school, they both joined The Slip—at the time a classic rock cover group performing on the New England prep school circuit—and, especially after enrolling at the Berklee College of Music, they started to steer the group into the open waters of improvisation and the avant-garde. Along with bassist Marc Friedman, the Barrs used The Slip to explore a number of sounds and styles from the mid-1990s to 2011, dipping their toes into jazz, rock, folk, world music, jam, blues, indie, Americana and all the many crevices between those styles.

The Slip slowed down in 2007, shortly after the release of their indie-leaning 2006 album Eisenhower, and have been largely dormant since 2012. In that time, both Andrew and Brad have explored a myriad of projects and truly immersed themselves in the local music scene surrounding their current hometown of Montreal. Brad also started writing more songwriting-driven solo material, partially inspired by the sounds he heard from his neighbor through the wall, harpist Sarah Page. Those initial solo sketches gradually evolved into The Barr Brothers, a partnership between Brad, Andrew, Page and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial. The group released their full-length, self-titled debut in 2011 and broke through to a new, international music community of open-earned listeners. In 2012, the band started working on their sophomore album, Sleeping Operator, which interjects The Barr Brothers’ acoustic-drive sound with the electric, eclectic energy The Slip were known for throughout their career (the record was released this fall on Secret City records). The album’s success introduced The Barr Brothers to a new audience of NPR listeners and helped them fulfill a dream of touring heavily in Europe.

Shortly after the album’s release, Andrew Barr took a break from his band’s European tour to discuss his latest recordings, roots in improvisation and how he almost played drums for the pop band fun.

While Sleeping Operator came out this fall, you have actually been working on the album for a number of years during a number of sessions. In fact, you started with about 40 songs and slowly chopped that number down to the 12 on this record. Can you start by giving us a little background on when you and Brad started working on this batch of material and how the initial sessions took shape?

It was a long timeline. Actually, around this time two years ago we were playing over in Iceland, and I had heard this record by Mikkil Muli that was recorded over in Iceland by a guy named Thouvier Siggerson. On a whim, I called him up and said, “We have a couple days off and we’re in Reykjavic. Is there any chance you could come into the studio and record?” He was totally open to it. So we went in there just for a day and ended up recording three songs.

Only one of the songs from that session, “How The Heroine Dies,” actually made it on the record but that session was pretty inspiring. I think we realized we were ready to just start kind of throwing paint at the wall ‘cause we didn’t really know what we were going to record when we went to work with him. But we came up with this process of recording a skeleton of a song and then going and in and layering another layer over it. So that was really the first session for Sleeping Operator and we kept continuing to tour working on some of the songs that we were hoping to record. Then, in April of last year, we went into a studio for two weeks with Ryan Freeland whose name I had seen on a Ray LaMontagne record, actually. I loved the drum sound he captured and being a drummer your ears really perk up when you hear something so unique and well recorded. I heard him engineering this Ray LaMontagne record with a guy named Jay Bellerose playing drums and I brought him to the band and everybody thought he was perfect for us. So we brought him to Montreal and recorded for two weeks with him at a studio call MixArt which is just this big, gigantic 1970s recording studio that really hasn’t changed much during the years. All of the mirrors and carpets make it pretty different from the boiler room studio that we made the first record in.

We did two weeks with him in April and then, Brad and I brought the sessions back to our old ratty studio and did a mix—just worked out some of the kinks and probably went way too far and overdubbed a bunch of stuff that we ended up getting rid of. When we pulled it all back about a year later it was actually pretty close to the way it had been when we left the studio—the tracks were pretty raw still but what were left were these kind of ghosty sound that we played with and layered in and turned into other things. When we finally finished we had recorded about 40 songs, and we ended up mixing about 17 songs with Ryan at his home studio is Los Angeles.

What was the process like of narrowing down the 40 songs to the tunes that appear on the record? Were you looking to capture a specific style or sound or just represent the strongest material?

It’s a little hard to say. We were looking definitely for what kind of told a story as a record, and we were looking for what kind of mood to kind of represent. Ultimately, we ended up with a wide range of moods and the songs we chose were ones that where we captured the most authentic performances—we didn’t really have to do much to them after they were recorded, didn’t have to fix them up or anything. They were just live off the floor performances. Brad was singing all live off the floor, which is something that we actually hadn’t done that much of in the past. We kept a lot of what we just thought really were the best takes.

Though Sleeping Operator feels spiritually connected to your first album as The Barr Brothers, it definitely also has a more, rock-oriented feel. Do you feel that was an intentional choice?

For sure. The first record in a lot of ways grew out of Brad’s solo performances. When The Slip took a break, Brad and I didn’t really played together much for a couple of years. I was playing with various projects and was in a band called Land of Talk. So while I was doing stuff in Montreal, Brad really was writing a lot of these songs on the first record as solo pieces. We ended up recording them together and embellishing them, but a lot of them started out as real solo works that Brad could perform on his own. Then when the band started touring and playing together, I think we developed a bit of a larger sound. So live I think a lot of the songs on the first album sound bigger than they do on the record.

So we developed this bigger, wider sound. I’d say dynamically the zero is still about the same but the ten is quite a bit bigger than it was before and it also came from just playing in front of audiences and needing a release ‘cause there’s only so much quieter, restrained music you want to play over the course of a show before you really need to let it out. It’s a great feeling when you can play really quietly and use that kind of restraint and it’s a great feeling when you explode. It feels big, it really has an impact. We’re just exploring those dynamics a little more on this record and seeing what “bigger” sounds like for this band. We are still being somewhat limited by the fact that the harp is an instrument that has a certain cap on how loud you can really play with that onstage, though.

In my mind, the contrast between those those really, really quiet down to the floor harp noises and the bigger sounds on the record is what really defines this record and, in a sense, has been a thread tied through all your work with Brad over the years.

Yeah, definitely. We have actually expanded the live band, too. We’ve been a five and sometimes six-person band. We’ve added a bass player and sometimes we also add a pedal steel player which is really fun. So it’s growing, but as I said, the dynamic zero is still pretty quiet. It has been getting quiet in a big way though. You need to be able to fill the space with those sounds fortunately at a few really gigantic festivals. When our first record out, I remember there were a few times onstage where we felt like, “Oh my God, we’re so quiet I don’t even know if the audience can hear us.” We’re used to playing these thirty person venues where you can play acoustically. That was a bit of an inspiration too that our sound be warm and large even if it was quieter.

Have you been playing any songs that didn’t make the record live?

Yeah. We’ve been mostly playing the music from the new album and some of the older songs but at most shows we will fit one song that didn’t make it on the record in there, just to kind of keep things fresh for ourselves.

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