Barr Brothers talk 'Queens of the Breakers', recording in isolation, touring with War on Drugs and more
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers talks about the recording process of their latest album 'Queens of the Breakers', touring with The War on Drugs, musical influences and more.
Jam-based folk band The Barr Brothers have been constantly raising the bar for the Canadian indie scene for the last half-decade. With an eclectic mix of slide guitars, homemade percussion instruments, influences from the blues, Celtic and Appalachian folk traditions, and Malian rhythms, The Barr Brothers have carved a unique, genre-skirting sound for themselves.
Although based in Montreal, the band is spearheaded by two brothers: drummer Andrew Barr and songwriter/guitarist Brad Barr, both from Providence, Rhode Island. After touring for roughly a decade as two-thirds of the avant-rock trio The Slip, the brothers moved to Montreal to pursue a fresh approach to their musical career. While there, they met the third original member of the band, harpist Sarah Pagé, who was their neighbor in their new apartment in Montreal. The trio teamed up with bassist Morgan Moore, pedal steel guitarist Brett Lanier to launch their self-titled debut album in 2011, which focused on acoustic and electrified songs rooted in Appalachian folk. Their sophomore record, 2014's 'Sleeping Operator' further explored the connections between the Delta blues and its West and North African ancestry.
Last year, the brothers unveiled their third studio effort 'Queens of the Breakers', arguably their most earnest and intimate record so far, recorded after they isolated themselves in a remote cabin to gain some clarity and perspective. The album got them long-listed for Canada's prestigious Polaris Prize and saw them go on a sprawling tour across North America as well as Europe, opening for Grammy-winners The War on Drugs. Fresh off their tour, The Barr Brothers are not slowing down and return to the UK this July as part of a wider European summer tour which includes festival appearances in Greece (Summer Nostos), Latvia (Positivus), and Germany (Haldern Pop). The UK leg of the tour will then take in headline shows in Liverpool, Birmingham, Cambridge, and Bristol, as well as a festival set at Citadel in London and Larmer Tree in Salisbury. Find full listings on their official website.
Recently, the brothers shared a stunning live performance video of the single 'Defibrilation', (which you can watch below) filmed at their sold-out Union Chapel show earlier this year. The track is the opener from their latest album ‘Queens of the Breakers’ and the video showcases a breathtaking performance featuring an additional horn section brought in especially for the occasion.
Meaww had the chance to catch up with Brad Barr via email for a brief interview where we discussed the recording process for their latest album, touring with The War on Drugs, their eclectic influences and more. Read the full interview below.
‘Queens of the Breakers’ is a curiously titled delight. What’s the story behind the name?
It refers to some antics I would get into with some of my earliest, closest friends…formative years, the guys with whom I went through all my "firsts". In one instance we took some mind-expanding drugs, dressed up in our mother's clothing, and descended upon The Breakers mansion in Newport RI. They were clearly suspicious, but let us roam through the gardens anyway.
I learnt that the opening track Defibrillation, which starts with drums mimicking two out-of-sync heartbeats, has a very personal connection to Andrew. What’s the full story there?
Our mother had a fall on Christmas Eve a couple years ago….nothing serious but she needed stitches. Andrew was there and took her to the hospital. While sitting in the fluorescent-lit waiting room, he overheard a couple of heart monitors, presumably monitoring two different patients on the wing. He was compelled and lured in by their repetitive, dithering cycles, falling in and out of alignment with each other. I think the extraneous circumstances left him vulnerable and open to these impressions of mortality. It inspired the drumbeat for that song.
From Appalachian Folk to the Delta Blues to Malian street music and everything in between, ‘Queens of the Breakers’ has it all woven so unexpectedly well together. How do you guys successfully tap into such a wide pool of influences?
Maybe its because we started playing together at such an early age, and have spent so much of our lives seeking and listening to music from all corners of the Earth... The connections and similarities between different styles or eras or traditions of music have begun to feel more apparent than the differences. I hear Fred MacDowell in Japanese shamisen music. I hear Muddy Waters in Gnawa music from Morocco. I hear Chopin in the early rumba music from Cuba. The more you listen, the more characteristics you pick up on and resonate with, and those confluences become your thing
What kind of music were you exposed to when you were growing up?
Early on it was whatever was playing on MTV in the mid-eighties--MJ, GNR, Summer of 69, The Cars, AC/DC, The Beastie Boys... In our early teens we started getting into classic rock and more improvised music, learned about Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band. Hearing the John Coltrane Quartet for the first time around 16 years old was about as big a revelation as a young musician could have.
From your days with The Slip, you come from a tradition of jam-based, improvisational music. How does that translate when you step into the studio to make an album?
I'd say all those years of pulling things out of thin air have left us with an affinity for looseness and unpredictability. It can be a tricky line to ride, as brevity and succinctness are virtues in the studio. But our compositional instincts, at best, tend to leave room for reinterpretation on each take, while maintaining the simplicity that's at the heart of what we're conveying.
You isolated yourself in a remote cabin to record your new material. In retrospect now, how do you think the process affected the band?
In hindsight, it feels like a very meditative and healthy time. The impression I have is that we were communing with the water, the lake that was looking back at us every day through the windows of the live room. It was challenging at times, but immersing ourselves that deeply (up to a week at a time) was one of the more productive things we've done as a band.
You toured extensively with The War on Drugs on both sides of the pond. What did you take home with you from the trek?
We were invigorated by them. For me, aside from the thrill of watching a killer live band every night, they reinforced the virtues and rewards of being tenacious, holding on to your convictions no matter how long you've been at it or whether the world embraces you or not.
You’re on your way to a string of festival appearances and headlining gigs across Europe. Do you like life on the road?
We still love it. With the families at home now, it becomes increasingly harder to leave, but getting the chance, night-to-night, to connect with a new audience in a new city makes it all pan out. We also enjoy each others company a lot, so that helps.
What’s different about touring through Europe as compared to touring back home?
It's a little easier to leave Cleveland than it is to leave Riga or Geneva or Barcelona... that is, sometimes it's fun to be a tourist!