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article imageThe Barr Brothers jump into sonic adventures Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Nov 5, 2014 in Music
With a mix of soul, folk, and desert blues going into their brand of rock and roll, the Barr Brothers are creating a space for their music that soars past tidy categorizations.
Featured on popular US radio program Morning Becomes Eclectic and praised by critics for their improv-friendly, folk-rock blend, the Barr Brothers have made a name for themselves as a heavy rock band with a myriad of musical influences that span the globe. Having just wrapped up a whirlwind European tour, the band are currently making their way through North America. Band co-founder Brad Barr is finding this particular round of touring special; along with his bandmates is his six-month-old son.
“He was born the day we mastered the record and pushed ‘eject’ on the computer,” Barr recalls, a smile creeping into his voice, “my wife went into labor right then — I knew that was going to happen too. He’s been on the road with us in Europe for three weeks, and traveling with us. It adds a whole other level of experimentation and exhaustion…”
The band’s latest album, Sleeping Operator (Secret City), features thirteen tracks that move between the epic and the intimate, the rockin’ and the romantic. There’s also a fair amount of sonic experimentation, with unique guitar sounds (produced via the use of thread on its strings) and bicycle-rim percussive elements. The sweeping, orchestral “Love Ain’t Enough” is complemented by the crescendo-like country-meets-soul sounds of the dramatic “Come In The Water.” The delicate opening strings of “Bring Me Your Love” give way to a brooding, cinematic-sounding tune colored by Morricone-style guitars and shuffling percussion that hauntingly recalls 1990s-era Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Brad Barr’s plaintive, Paul Simon-like vocals are contrasted by creative instrumentation and soulful arrangements that recall the newer sounds of artists like Coldplay and Ray LaMontagne while embracing classic references like Wilson Pickett and Stevie Wonder.
Born in the US but based out of Montreal, Brad and Andrew Barr first became interested in music when their parents bought them musical instruments as kids once Christmas. As Andrew remarked to NPR last month, “little things like the fight over the remote control became less important. And learning, you know, an AC/DC song took the reins."
The Barr Brothers mix up sounds and influences on  Sleeping Operator.
The Barr Brothers mix up sounds and influences on 'Sleeping Operator.'
John Londono
The brothers started out playing in jazzy alt-trio the Slip in the mid 1990s; in 2005 they played a concert in Montreal, where Andrew became involved with a Canadian, who later wound up becoming one of the band’s managers. Harpist Sarah Pagé joined the band after Brad, living in his first Montreal apartment, heard her playing in an adjacent space; friend and multi-instrumentalist Andrés Vial completed the lineup soon thereafter.
Their first release was a self-titled album released in 2011. Coming from the loose, improv-based band the Slip, Barr and his band felt it was important to change the approach creatively. “We brought the volume down and worked at something more refined,” he recently told NOW Magazine.
There’s a definite sense of refinement to their latest work, but also a sense of fun and adventure. Sleeping Operator wasn’t an easy birth, however. Done over the course of a year, the band initially brought in about 25 tunes to work on; they came out with over 40. “Toward the end it got difficult trying to choose songs,” Barr admits.
Engineered by Grammy winner Ryan Freeland (who’s worked with Bonnie Raitt, Neil Finn, Ray LaMontagne, Aimee Man, and Salif Keita), the band recorded at Mixart Studios in Montreal, where they brought in a roster of different bassists over the course of the recording process. Vial, who plays keyboards, bass, vibes, percussion, and also sings, helped out with bass duties as needed, though, as Barr notes, “he always sort of admitted he’d much rather be playing keyboards.” Much of what wound up on Sleeping Operator is in its original form, or, in Barr’s words, “unadulterated.” There’s an electric kind of looseness amidst the orchestra-meets-blues sounds that is discernible from the first listen.
“They’re all pretty much live takes,” Barr admits.
Part of what makes Sleeping Operator such a rich listen is its mix of Delta blues, orchestral sounds (harpist Pagé is classically-trained), heavy guitar sounds, and desert rock. That last influence comes through direct experience. As youngsters, Andrew and Brad Barr were given music and drum lessons by visiting Malians who’d gone to their father for dental work; in lieu of payment, had offered Mr. Barr free music instruction to the two rambunctious boys.
“It’s sunk in and become a part of our musical vocabulary,” Barr says of the Malian sound. “For years it’s something that’s been a lot of inspiration to us. We’ve gotten really comfortable in. I tend to really lean on it in my writing knowing that if it’s there that the songs all have that potential to be improvised upon — even if it’s kind of a simple folk song.”
He names the melodic “Valhallas” off the album as a good example of a song that captures the band’s various influences in one simple, integrated package. Featuring fine harp work and sonorous guitars, the song is a deeply gorgeous piece of folk-rock that . “It’s very simple but it’s got that swing to it,” he says of the song. “There's the possibility of getting loose and playful — that's kind of what it represents to me, the possibility to get rhythmically and melodically playful, and making some kind of discovery.”
 We’ve been focusing on figuring out how to play these songs live   says Brad Barr (far left) of t...
"We’ve been focusing on figuring out how to play these songs live," says Brad Barr (far left) of the songs on 'Sleeping Operator.' "In that process, each night of this last tour they’ve grown in different ways. We do leave a lot of room to improvise, and a lot of room to breathe and to let them discover themselves."
John Londono
The sonically exploratory aspect of the Barr Brothers’s music has meant that the band has defied easy categorization — which has its ups and downs.
“It’s the inevitable question,” he says, “you meet someone in an airport, they see your guitar and go, “What’s your band? What kind of music do you play?” I’ve never had a good response to that… I’ve started saying rock and roll, (because) in my mind, we do what any rock and roll band is supposed to do: reinterpret the blues in a way that’s kind of unique and unto itself.”
Though the band describes its sound as "sci-folk / mysterious roots" on their Facebook page, that doesn’t mean they're not serious about the folk-and-roots world as a whole.
“I think of ourselves as a folk group by virtue of the fact we try to get our point across acoustically,” Barr explains. “We only bring in the synth sounds when we really have to — we try to get everything acoustically if we can. I don’t blame anybody for saying it’s folk music — I hold myself accountable for any of those assumptions, but I also hope to blow those pigeonholes out of the water.”
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