Interview – The Barr Brothers

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Montreal-based band The Barr Brothers are a folk quartet with a distinctive sound and are currently on tour supporting second album ‘Sleeping Operator’. The band headline Metropolis this week and we managed to catch up with Andrew Barr during their European tour

MR: So it seems that from the beginning, things for the band kind of came together quite naturally?

AB: My brother and I had been touring for ten years in a band called The Slip and at one of our last shows I met this girl at a bar in Montreal who was a bartender that caught my eye. Luckily there was a fire at the back of the venue and we all had to pile out onto the street where I got to talk to her and I just kinda fell in love with her. Brad and I also fell in love with Montreal and we felt like we needed a change of pace. So we moved to Montreal and that was the first time that we started doing separate things. I was doing a lot of playing with other people and other bands and Brad was starting to write a lot of music that was really different from things he had written before. He then moved into an apartment that shared a wall with Sarah, our harpist, he heard her playing through the wall and got the idea to start writing music for the guitar and harp and it all just came together.

MR: Its the last night of the UK leg of the tour tonight, how it the tour going so far?

AB: Its been great, we’re tired as hell but it’s actually been one of the best tours we’ve done, just in terms of actually showing up somewhere and there’s people in the room. We started off in London two weeks ago and then we’re in Bilbao tomorrow before we head back home.

MR: So how are the crowds in the UK? I guess they are smaller then back home.

AB: Yeah they are smaller than back home but still, the last time we came here there was hardly anybody, so just to show up and have a room be full is really nice, and the little things like they have a parking spot for you and there’s somebody there to help you carry your gear are great.

MR: How do the actual shows differ from the shows back home?

AB: Umm, they’re definitely a listening audience in the UK I’ve found. You can hear a pin drop which I’ve found takes some training back home and we always have to use some tricks to try and get people quiet, whereas here it seems that people are just ready to actually really listen to the songs.

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MR: You guys played to 30,000 people at The Montreal Jazz Festival earlier in the year. I imagine that was pretty insane for you.

AB: Yeah that was a whole different kind of thing and what we do is pretty dynamic, so that was the show where we realised that we can’t keep it too subtle, there’s a certain amount of volume and energy that you have to create on a big stage to get people involved.

MR: Does Montreal feel like home now for you and Brad now, and what do you love about the city?

AB: It does. It’s been like ten years now, and Brad and I both married Quebec girls so its become our home, and wow, what do I love about the city? Aside from our wives, the snow is pretty amazing actually. People probably think the winter is the hardest part about it, but it’s actually this amazing clearing that happens every year, you get ready for it and you know it’s coming and, for about four months, there’s snow as high as your waist and people are out in the bars with their Tooks, mits, coats and boots and all the windows are sweaty, there’s this certain feeling that we are all in it together.

MR: So the second album seems a lot more varied than the first one and it has a warmer sound to it. Was that intentional or was it a natural progression?

AB: Well the warmth of the record was intentional, we chose an engineer that we thought had a real sense of it. Because it was varied we wanted somebody that could record everything in a similar world and he’s a guy that records a lot of acoustic music but it always has kind of a dirty, warm sound to it, and it’s never bright or brash. He uses a lot of old ribbon mics, and also a lot of whiskey, and these kind of things that just mellow everything out. As far as it being varied, I think we did want to explore and we kind of wanted to keep zero where it was but then see how much bigger ten could be in respect of what we do, so it was intentionally a bit more dynamic.

MR: In terms of the songwriting process, how does that work for you as a band? I heard that you had over 40 songs for the album.

AB: On both of these records the songs that ended up making it were mostly Brad’s. I think he wrote like almost everything on the album, but yeah we had a lot of songs. The first record we recorded in our own studio and it was made over three years so by the time it came out, a lot of those songs had been sitting around for three years and then we toured that record for two years, so that’s five years of music and songwriting so it’s not as impressive as it seems. If you don’t record them and get them out then they’re just sitting in your closet so we had to let the songs out and get them on tape, and at least now we have more archives.

MR: Did that make for a shorter recording process because you had plenty to choose from or did it make it much harder to decide what to put on the album?

AB: Haha, yeah it could have made for a shorter process but, in fact, we went the long way round and we ended up producing all forty songs until they were absolutely done, I think maybe we overworked some of them and those are the ones that didn’t get put on the record and the stuff that made it on are more or less recorded live off the floor.

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MR: What’s next for The Barr Brothers when you finish this tour?

AB: I think we’re just going to keep circling until we feel the record has run its course and then we will start all over again. Hopefully it’ll be a little bit easier to make the next one. We are going to tour the US for the next two months, and Canada, and then hopefully take some time in the summer to go in the countryside and chill out.

MR: Who is on your radar at the moment in terms of music, who are you listening to?

AB: Let’s see, we just did a run of shows with The War on Drugs who are a good band from Philidelphia. They have been working it for a while and they just put out a record this year, I thinks its called ‘Lost In A Dream’ and it’s a fantastic record. It kinda has like an early Tom Petty, late Dillon, Dire Straits kind of thing but totally his own. What else? We were listening to Sam Amidon today in the car, he’s another guy thats doing some really cool stuff and Nico Muhly is another one to check out.

MR: And is there anyone on the scene in Montreal that we need to keep an eye out for?

AB: Have you guys heard on Patrick Watson? If not then check him out, he’s great and also the pedal steel player that’s with us tonight usually plays with him.

MR: Ok, well thanks for taking the time to chat to us.

AB: No worries at all man.

The Barr Brothers play Metropolis on November 6th.

Interview and live photos – John Dent

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