INTERVIEW: Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers chats their #albumnightly shows, the band’s creative process and their approach to their career
There are flash in the pan artists, ones that have a few years of being a household name then disappear into the oblivion. Then there are bands like Montreal’s The Barr Brothers, a band that has developed a dedicated following and continue to put out beautiful records. While in Brad Barr’s words, there has never been that one gigantic song, “Although, I still try to write that one song. Still shoot for it’, the band still has tracks that have netted tens of millions of plays. And it shows with the band starting their two night run at the Sinclair just hours after our interview took place.
While the band lives in Montreal now and has lived in Montreal since around 2005, the bands’ roots are in Providence/Boston, with Brad even, after learning I lived in Allston, able to draw me a map around the street I first lived on to where his favorite spot for food used to be. Before The Barr Brothers, Brad and his band mate/brother Andrew made up ⅔ of The Slip, a Providence institution that played together for several years. So obviously some time was spent in Boston, Brad even mentioning in conversation that after playing so many shows here, the band liked to identify as a Boston band just as much as being from Providence.
But The Barr Brothers are in full force right now. They just came off incredibly successful #albumnightly three night gigs in Montreal and Toronto with the same gig planned for San Fransisco. Post those shows, they did a short US run which concluded here in town. Find my interview below where Brad and I sat down in the coffee shop next door to the venue for a one on one to chat the #albumnightly shows, have a look at the creative process for the band over the three record journey they’ve had so far and the balance of family with the band!
I know you just did these #Albumnightly shows. You did Montreal, you did it in Toronto, you’re doing it in San Francisco in June. Obviously those albums are over years of you writing together for so long, but when it came to preparing for those shows. Was it something where some of the songs you had never played before live off these albums, maybe rare ones? How did you go about the preparations?
There were no songs that Andrew and I had never played before. Most of the songs, the rest of the band had never played before because let’s see, Eveline, our harp player has only been with us since last September. Morgan our bass player, he’s been with us about five years so there’s a lot of songs off the first and second record that he’s never played. Brett, our pedal player, he’s been with us about a year, year and a half. So yeah, a lot of music that those guys hadn’t played.
Preparing for it, we did one like full day rehearsal for each record. The first two had a string section, second record had a horn section so it took a lot of considering of writing parts for those guys. I would do stuff like play it on midi keyboard, the parts I wanted to hear, and send them to this friend of ours who arranges for strings and arranges for horns. With a lot of it, I would just be like write what you hear for this but everyone is really good at picking up on stuff. And I’ve got kind of a trap door for remembering lyrics. Luckily for me, it wasn’t a whole lot of remembering. It all gets stored in there pretty well. And then there was a lot we just couldn’t predict. Like how a record feels being played in a live context. Start to finish, they’re not sequenced for a live show they’re sequenced for sitting in a car or in your house. That was sort of this “X Factor” we couldn’t really predict. And fortunately it all kind of worked out.
The second record I would say was ultimately maybe too long for a show. It’s really long, but maybe that was just from my perspective. I was like I would never write a set like this. It’s just on and on and on, another song? There’s three more songs? I feel like the show was over twenty minutes ago. But yeah, it was a lot of psychological preparation that went into it. I had to have extra guitars there, tuning configurations that I have never done before. Like okay, we’ll set up the sets so I can stay on one guitar for three songs before changing it. I’m going to have like eight guitars up there. The last record was easiest as far as a flow. The least amount of changes of instruments and we didn’t have a lot of special guests on that. Because we had been jamming those tunes out together as a band for the last year. They’re most familiar.
Obviously you’re not going to plan out having these three albums, but was it something that was a long time in the plans for you? To do this?
Not at all.
Not at all?
No, it came from the idea of let’s do our next shows in Montreal and Toronto as a run in smaller venues instead of trying to notch up to the biggest next venue we could. Let’s do some more intimate shows and do like a three night run. Then Andrew’s wife, Meghan, who’s also our manager, she proposed doing an album a night. I think we all just agreed right away and then started to realize how daunting the task was. I may have objected after the wheels were in motion and realized that it can’t turn back. I had some sort of philosophical grievances with it too. Just where we were, I’m ready to move forward. The idea of looking back, repeating, doing this show suddenly just seemed at odds with artistic notions of my own sort of progress. But I’m glad we did it. By the time we had the whole band there, it all felt like new music to me in a way. It had been so long since I approached a lot of those songs. They felt new, and with the string arrangements, it made it feel totally inspired.
And Cambridge kind of gets a taste of that tonight for these shows. You have some special guests tonight playing with you. Two shows back to back and sold out tonight.
We’ve got a three piece horn section, Dana Colley from Morphine, and Jim and TBo from The Fully Celebrated Orchestra, really old friends of ours. We were asking ourselves should we try and do like two full records or something and I just couldn’t really decide which ones we’d do. So I think tonight, Friday night, will probably be more our normal set that we’ve been doing and then tomorrow night will probably be a collection of stuff we haven’t touched on in a while. Probably be a little more for the fans that know our older stuff. I’m guessing anyone that knows our music probably knows the repertoire. I assume at this point that most people coming to shows know the band.
I know at least from who I know are fans I’m sure they’ve been there for the full ride. All of them actually are musicians themselves and I’m sure that’s why they’re drawn to your band because of how much effort gets put in. They’re not just, ‘oh that last album‘.
Yeah we haven’t had that kind of hype, trendy success. Ours is a long, slow burn and I’m cool with that. There’s a lot to be thankful for. You could wish for, hope for some break through moment with a song or suddenly you become a household name for however long it lasts. But there’s a lot of good that comes out of that never happening. I always feel like a) a lot of freedom to do whatever we want and that our audience is there because they know our history. They respect whatever it is aesthetics that we’ve created and it has nothing to do with this one song. Although, I still try to write that one song. Still shoot for it.
Then speaking to that, your band mate , Andrew, is your brother. You played in a band in Providence together, saw yourself as a Boston band but you have families now. You’re married, you have a kid so maybe the balance of that. From talking to a lot of artists lately that are fathers, do have families, maybe the balance of it? You guys have had career longevity but how you balance still doing the band but you also have the family as you get older. The balance for the two of you.
Well, it helps to have a partner that understands what you’ve gotten into. And in my case, a son who understands what I’m doing. He’s only five, not even five.
Yeah he knows. He’ll be like ‘You’re going to work? You’re going to go play music? Okay’. And apparently after I leave the house, he pretends he’s me and he gets a guitar and packs a little bag and pretends he’s going to work. And my wife, among other things, has designed our last two album covers. All the video projections that we have in the show, that’s all her design.
Yeah! And Andrew’s wife, Meghan, she’s our manager. So it feels like everyone’s got something invested in it. Meghan manages other bands and Brigitte does all this other work as well with other companies. Everyone’s got something invested in it. It’s not like she thinks I’m just out partying. Like ‘Going out with your friends again for the weekend. Leaving me with the kid’. She’s about to go to China in April for almost three weeks and I’m like okay don’t book anything in April, I’ve got Eli at home. Just trying to balance it. It’s just all about respecting each other. And trying not to go out for two months straight. We used to go out for two or three months in the early days of The Barr Brothers and The Slip, which is when we had nobody to be accountable to. I think the longest we’ll do now is a month. We’ll do a month now and it will feel like a long time. Thank god for Skype and Facetime. But that’s about it. Curb your drinking near the end of tour. Start preparing a soft landing. Those little tricks.
Then looking at the writing, I know the last record was only out in 2017, so it wasn’t that long ago.
Yeah, still new! The two of you, writing for so long, do you feel that the writing process sometimes still changes, or is it like a steady rhythm that you guys have just tended to always go to?
It definitely has changed over the last three records. From the first record, it was really just me writing songs. This is talking back in 2007, I think I even started writing those songs for the first record around 2005, 2006. It was more me in a solo situation, not even really conceiving of the other instruments.
So the first songs for The Barr Brothers, the first few songs for the project.
Yeah the first songs, “Beggar in the Morning”, “Oh, Belle”, “Let There Be Horses” off that record. I wasn’t really conceiving a band. Second record, there was a band to consider. And personalities and instruments but I was still kind of writing in the same way. Still kind of composing in an isolated situation and bringing them to people. The last record, the feels, the kind of main ideas of the songs, like the images for the songs would come out of improvisation. We went out to a cabin in the woods where we had a studio and we would just kind of jam there for a week or two at a time. Then I would take those ideas and go back and write them. Which was kind of the inverse opposed to where I’d have this little idea. Wasn’t very expansive musically, bring that to the band and see how everybody liked to play on it. This was more like we started playing the music together then I went back and wrote the songs to them in most cases. There’s a few exceptions on the record where I still kind of wrote in a room style.
And now I don’t know what the next sort of process is going to be. I’m just about to shake off the road and the whole trajectory of the last album. Which in my opinion is still new. And especially live, the songs are still being explored. We’re still learning ways to play them. Still learning the best approach and adapting them and making little changes and figuring out where they can open up. Still very relevant for us as a band. In fact, all of it is. I guess that’s subconscious after years of writing, playing with a kind of improv rock trio, there’s a healthy amount of improvisation and freedom built in terms of these songs. Inherently built into these songs, the way we record them, knowing that they’ll be played live. They’ll have this plasticity to them that keeps them new. So that part of the writing process I hope always sticks around. And it keeps me from doing too much work in the beginning because I think it’s a secret that I don’t stress too much. My brother stresses out a little more than I do about arrangements and stuff like that. I kind of know that these things are going to have a life of their own once they get put on a record. And I enjoy not being so specific that they have to go this way or that way.
And then to kind of end it off, from looking online, you have the San Francisco shows, you have a few festival dates. I believe one is in Halifax but not too much more announced right now. So maybe focuses or goals for The Barr Brothers over these next few months? You just did the Canadian run, you’re doing these shows.
Discover a process that’s an inspiring way to write and record the next record. That’s kind of it. I would like to see a few more summer festivals on the radar but also, what we really need is to kind of chill at home, work in our studio. Go on some little trips with the family. For me, it’s about finding a process this time. I’m always focused on writing the songs first with the exception being the last record, it really became a process for us. The process essentially was a space, finding a space to go to, and it was just Andrew, myself, and Sarah, our original harp player. Just kind of bringing it down to that trio in that sense. A place, giving ourselves some time, some limitations and I guess that’s what I’m hunting for now. Talked about going into a theatre, like using a theatre as a recording space. I’ve been mentioning this. I think I’ve said this in interviews before every single record because it’s still this idea I’d like to do. I’ve always wanted to do it. One of these days, I’m just going to be like ‘Let’s just fucking do it.’ and just stop talking about it. But like take over a theatre for a week or two and put a bunch of mic’s in there. Because we know how to play in rooms like that. Like a nice small theatre, a thousand seat theatre or something. We know how to play in those rooms, we’re comfortable in there. Dealing with the kind of space that comes back, the sound in the room that comes back. Why not put ourselves in a room that we’re all comfortable in, on a stage we know. Maybe put some people in the audience but not like a live show. Do takes. A process something like that.
Or maybe it’s a process that could be as simple as I’m only going to play this miniature guitar for this whole record and I don’t get any overdubs and I have to deliver everything. So searching for something like that is inspiring. That’s kind of my goal. Is to find that out. Maybe travel, getting out of our comfort zone, going somewhere else.