The Core: The Barr Brothers
Singer/guitarist Brad Barr reflects on his band's sophomore album Shining Operator.
Working on this record felt like moving toward this mountain in the distance that kept vanishing and reappearing again. We started fleshing out Sleeping Operator in December 2012 and were fully engaged in making it for over a year. A few months later we started working with Ryan Freeland, a great engineer who has worked with Ray LaMontagne and Bonnie Raitt. We wanted to make a modern-sounding roots record that wasn’t glossy but where everything felt like an event and everything had this richness. We recorded the beds for 30 songs with Ryan and then, went into our studio and did another
10 ourselves, and produced 25 of the tunes. [The record also contains one song recorded by Valgeir Sigurösson in Iceland and one song recorded by Graham Lessard in Alberta.] In choosing the songs that made the album, it was hard to put one finger on a shared theme, so we went with our gut feeling. All these songs shared some aspiration or yearning to be more compassionate people. It was this mammoth project—I had never done anything that engrossing.
What We Do Best
In my mind, we had not honed in on a sound or style that worked best for The Barr Brothers on our first record. Some of the songs I originally wrote for myself, and I even thought a number like “Give the Devil Back His Heart” could be used for [my longtime band] The Slip. So this is the first album we wrote for this specific lineup. We still don’t have a formal road map for how exactly to incorporate the harp into our songs or the marimba, but I have been playing a good amount of acoustic guitar on this record.
“Love Ain’t Enough” feels like a bigger rock song—it is more ambitious and brings together everyone’s divergent style choices. I’m always writing songs for myself—or at least there is that personal expression that goes into them and what will come out will come out. This record was an exercise in finding our sound and what we do best.
When we set out to start recording, we didn’t know what we were looking for. We haven’t been a band for that long and the only way to know what we do best is to record a lot of stuff and listen back to it and say, “Well, that sounds awesome.” We recorded a lot of songs that had more of a polyrhythmic, pentatonic, West African blues feel. Some of them almost had this Brazilian blues feel—somber stuff.
The heart of every performance on the record is a live take, which is also a little different than the first record. We played some of these songs live for years before recording them, and others we are just trying to figure out how to play live now. The newer songs were the ones that mostly made the album. It was a testament that we should record songs sooner rather than later. Sometimes, after playing a song on the road, it is harder to get a different version in the studio.
It feels like a war ended, and I’m just looking around at all the dead bodies. That’s not to say that it’s a bad experience, but it was intense. If we were to do it again, I think we’d take a different approach—I don’t think we’d try to record 40 songs and sort through them after. I probably would hire a producer, just to keep a perspective and help make certain hard decisions that for us felt like a crisis. We just went nuts over which songs we could or could not leave off the record. [My brother and drummer] Andrew and I would argue over all these things. It became chaotic, and we kind of wished that upon ourselves. We knew that in that kind of chaos, somehow things become enriched even though it’s really hard to tell at the time.
Once you look back with some distance, a year later, you say, “I don’t know where these sounds came from, but we are really happy with the way it all came out and I am part of this world that’s just beginning.” I just had a son—my first child—a month ago. He waited to come until just after we finished t record, so now I have a grace period of hanging out with my little guy before things go haywire, even though he doesn’t care about my existence at all right now [Laughter].
Surprise Me Perspectives
I keep coming back to The Slip songs we recorded a few years ago [before our break], and the Surprise Me Mr. Davis album we recorded in November 2010. We’re trying to do something with them once we get this Barr Brothers album out and promote it. But we have to figure out something to do with those recordings because the further you get from them, the happier you are with them.
With The Slip album, I kept saying to myself, “I need to redo this and that—the piano sounds thin and this sounds kind of cheesy.” But with a few years’ distance now I think, “This Slip record is pretty good!” Probably once a week I say to myself, “I should put one of these songs on and listen to it,” so I have been leaking songs to [Surprise Me Mr. Davis frontman] Nathan Moore’s radio show. I think I’ll probably just spend the next five years releasing music I already recorded.