One album in, and seemingly busy as a band could be, Montréal’s The Barr Brothers continue to ride an exceptional wave of success. On a blistering hot day at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Stylus sat down with Brad Barr after their workshop with The Head and The Heart, Blitzen Trapper, and Bahamas. The following is an edited transcript of the interview, covering everything from the band’s inception to playing on David Letterman. by darcy penner
Stylus: So you’re on your summer tour right now, how many shows have you played up until now and how is it going so far?
Brad Barr: I think we’ve done maybe four or five. We did the Ottawa Jazz Festival, the Wanderlust Festival. We’ve played at Metropolis in Montréal and then this one. It’s different because on the road you get to sort of build up momentum, you are cruising, and it is a straight line. You’re going in one direction and you’re building this speed and enthusiasm. This summer is going to be a different kind of tour because we’re constantly returning home after the weekend. So I hope that doesn’t feel like this stop-start thing. Like, diving into it and then coming back out. There is something when you get on the road and you’re staying on the road and you just get that momentum and it keeps you moving.
S: And then so how do you compare: do you prefer the festival hopping thing over the traditional club pounding out, are they comparable?
BB: Well this will be really our first festival season as The Barr Brothers.
S: Right, since it’s just been since September since your first release.
BB: Yeah, it hasn’t even been a year. So far it actually is pretty exhausting. I was in California this morning, and –
S: You were in California this morning?!
BB: We finished playing at 2 AM last night in California, got on a plane there, didn’t sleep, you know, crashed out on the plane, and basically walked right on stage. We pulled up and walked right on stage. So, I hope that the whole summer’s not quite as intense and crazy as that. But actually, I like that, I like kind of stretching it, a little bit of delirium—it kind of helps the music I think sometimes.
D: Reading your press release and your bio – your bio in particular – makes your band seem like a series of cute coincidences that brought this band together. However, reading up on you guys, you are anything but: you are on Secret City and you have a full industry team lined up, a really good one. And you have a really well lined up summer tour. Is this credited to your time spent as The Slip, or how did you guys come out of the gate so well with one record not even a year running right now?
BB: I guess we chalk up a lot to coincidence, probably as much as any other band. I mean I heard the guy from The Head And The Heart, “I moved from Virginia to Seattle and fell in with these people, these musicians and made friends,” and that’s pretty much our story as well. My brother and I moved to Montréal and Sarah was my neighbour in my first apartment, you know all that. But I think it’s kind of like a thing after you do something for so long, like touring with The Slip it was a lot of years spent on the road learning about the road and learning about music and how we like to make music.
So when we started recording this record, not really knowing what it was, not setting out to make a record as a band or anything, and then it fell into this situation that Secret City, I think you’re right to say a lot of it is just that so many years of doing it one way, and finally kind of knowing that if we’re going to do this we want to do it right. Like The Slip had a very niche audience and it was never going to become something that really we could make a living. In your 20s it’s fine living, but you get older and it isn’t really sustainable. So with this we, even though it was kind of coincidental, we knew we had good music and if we wanted to do it we were going to do it well and get a good team together. Good management, booking, and all that stuff. And that’s just sort of what we set out to do with it.
S: This project’s first full length got Polaris long listed. What does that mean to you as a songwriter and musician?
BB: Well it’s funny because I wasn’t even aware of the Polaris until I moved to Montréal. Then I started hearing people say Polaris, and I started asking “What is that?” And, I hate to say it but I’m still not even really quite sure what it means actually. I don’t really know, I know I should probably be pretty excited about, so I am honoured and I am. Everyone in our management is pretty psyched about it, and that’s awesome. The people around us have more reason to keep pushing forward and feel confident with it all. And for me I’m just honoured, but I don’t know who Polaris is. Mr. Polaris? Haven’t met him yet. I’m sure they’ve got a great record collection.
S: It seems like you folks put a lot of effort and resources into videos. You’ve got, I think 25, on your website. A lot of it is you folks live in radio studios and these types of things. Do you have a preference for that medium of getting music out there or is that more of, “This is where the marketing trends are going, this is what we have to do”? Or do you dig the video thing?
BB: I definitely dig it, and if you asked me “How do you feel about your video presence,” I probably would have said it’s not comprehensive enough. I would have thought we didn’t have enough videos out there. So its kind of interesting to hear you say we have a large video presence. We did put some energy towards the two sort of singles, “The Beggar in the Morning” and “Old Mythologies.” I love that medium. I’m always feeling like I would like to do more with it, like I like to get Final Cut on my computer and start editing stuff. But a lot of it is come through our management applying for grants, and saying “Hey we suddenly have a little bit of cash to play with and make a video.” That’s probably one side of it, then all the radio stations stuff was just from our publicist getting us spots on that. And then there’s the sort of little homemade videos that there’s a few of. Those are what I would like to do more. Yeah, those are really fun and I always feel like that’s what I like to see from a band, if I’m going to check out a band. I don’t really love seeing, like, high quality high definition videos, although the one we made for “Old Mythologies” was really fun, and I enjoyed that. But I’d like to do more homemade videos and start editing that stuff. I think that would a fun little project on the road.
S: Easy question. What was it like playing Letterman? I’ve never met someone who has, so this is a first. What was it like?
BB: My brother would say if asked that, it’s kind of like sky diving without a parachute. [laughs] You jump and then you know you’re going to come to the end at some moment, you just kind of hope it’s going to be a soft landing. We’d done Conan with the Slip, and so I knew that I had the potential to get really nervous, because I did on that show. Even my friends and family were like, “Hey we saw you on Conan, man you looked really nervous.” So I was like, “Alright, I don’t want that to happen again, just whatever psychological games I have to play to remind myself that I’m just playing music and there aren’t millions of people watching at home.” But the minute I got up there, of course I got pretty nervous, and my first few lines were kind of choked. And then a few verses in, I looked over and saw Paul Shaffer and he had this smile on his face. He was kind of nodding and grooving, and I was like, “Man this guy does this every night, and you know, he’s Paul Shaffer.“ And so that cooled my nerves right there and I actually enjoyed myself for the rest of the performance. Of course in the end it felt like it lasted 30 seconds. All this build up and it was over really quickly. But they were all really nice, everyone who worked in that building and on that team were incredibly sweet. Treated us like we were U2 or something, just like had the same consideration and made sure we were comfortable, and they were wonderful. So it was actually a really nice experience.
S: After this summer of tours and festivals, what are your plans for the fall, and leading on.
BB: We’re going to record another record. That’s sort of the plan. Any spare minute we have we’ve been recording demo stuff in our studio, and writing, so that’s the next big thing for me. That’s sort of, for me, the measure of where things are going to be and where they are going to go. Because the record we made that is out now was made when we weren’t really a band, it was just me and my brother experimenting in the studio and Sarah—sometimes we would bring the gear over to her house, record her playing harp and then bring it back and mix it ourselves. And not knowing that this was to be an album by a band called The Barr Brothers, just us learning how to record and trying it. So this again will be a very different, knowing it’s a band, it’s the four of us, we’re going to work this out together. And there’s some people now waiting for a second record. So many different conditions to record under, but we’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be a good record. I’m very hopeful.
S: Do you like the pressure of an anticipated second release, combined with the elephant in the room of the sophomore slump? Do you like that, does it make working conditions better or worse for you?
BB: I guess I probably would say I do my best not to think about any of those notions. I mean, I feel like the first record was made without considering any of that stuff, and any record we make should be made without those considerations. I’d almost like to simulate the kind of naïve approach as best as we can. I’d say I think we’re going to be all right, because we just have high standards of ourselves and what we want to put out. Yeah, I’m not too worried.
S: My last question: Can you name three records or three artists in general, not obvious ones, that you think people who are into your band should check out?
BB: Dear Puppeteer by Nathan Moore. Man, I haven’t heard it, but I’m sure when I buy that Bahamas record, I’m going to probably flip out. That stuff is so good, but that is fresh on my brain, that is a cop out. I don’t know why this comes to mind, John Jacob Niles, any anthology by him or Mississippi Fred McDowell. I’ve only bought anthologies by him, so any anthology by Mississippi Fred McDowell.