The Barr Brothers is the most recent project from Brad and Andrew Barr of The Slip and Surprise Me Mr. Davis. On their debut self-titled release, the brothers enter new waters, exploring a stripped-down acoustic folk sound that relies heavily on poetic lyrics and beautiful melodies. Shortly before they went off to perform New Year’s shows with their other outfits, The Slip and Surprise Me Mr. Davis, they took some time to talk to jambands.com about realizing The Barr Brothers was a possibility, the new album, their ongoing musical evolution, and even a life lesson handed down from Trey Anastasio that remains with them until this day.
Can you talk about what the process was like going from recording an album like Eisenhower to recording the Davis EP to recording The Barr Brothers album? How did you approach each of these projects and what was the main the difference in the process?
Brad: The main difference between all of those records is time. The Surprise Me Mr. Davis EP was, for the most part, recorded and mixed in two days, maybe three. But pretty much the whole thing was done in three days. Eisenhower spanned about five months maybe. And The Barr Brothers record was almost two years. That would probably be the biggest, most immediate difference. And then, the different ways that we collaborate—the chemistry between the people involved—is a big difference.
And then, the type of studios that they were done in… Eisenhower we probably spent the most money on, because we were doing it in a nice studio with an engineer/producer. The Slip was ready to make a record like that. Surprise Me Mr. Davis was done in two days because we were supposed to record it in our studio in Montreal and then we couldn’t get Nathan over the border, so we found a friend in Burlington who had a barn and we just spent two days up there in his barn studio. And then the Barr Brothers’ record was made in our own studio so obviously we had all the time in the world to tweak and add, and we built it up and stripped it down and tried six different versions of the songs, not even really aware that we were making a record. We just thought we were just laying down tracks for the hell of it and I guess that would be the first thing—the intention behind it. The Davis EP was meant to be a demo in the future, Eisenhower was very much intended to be a record, and The Barr Brothers thing was just something that we recorded for fun. That’s a lot of info, but that’s pretty much it.
In terms of the actual songwriting, The Barr Brothers material is much more revealing, whereas The Slip is more progressive and the Surprise Me Mr. Davis has more of a folky Americana type sound. Is the songwriting process very different in each group or do you follow a similar routine in all three?
Andrew: Brad does most of the songwriting in The Barr Brothers and The Slip and in Surprise Me Mr. Davis it’s usually a combination between Nathan and Brad. In Davis, it seems like both Brad and Nathan will have songs that they write that just seem like they fit that Davis mold. And there’s something classic about the Davis songbook. There’s something when you write a song it harkens back to a simple kind of rock song, something that anybody could learn one time through. I think Davis kind of has that because we never really had time. We always just kind of got together before tours and learned twelve songs and went out and played them. Some piano player got up and sat in with us and learned them halfway through. Davis always kind of had that simple vibe. Although, the newest record we did spend a little longer working out arrangements. Then The Barr Brothers was all songs that Brad had written over the course of The Slip taking time off and Brad and I moving to Montreal which was a big shift. And like he said, it wasn’t necessarily meant to be a record it was just a bunch of songs that Brad had written. It was a pretty major time in our lives, I mean it was a big shift in our lives…The Slip was going to stop touring indefinitely…and deciding to make this big move. So those songs came out very naturally, it wasn’t like “Ok, we have a record to make. We have to finish 20 songs.” It just kind of came out of necessity of being the songwriter that Brad is, and the way that he operates.
Brad: it’s a pretty intuitive thing of knowing which group the song is going to go to. And only with a few songs have I had conflicts like “Who should play this one? Maybe we should try playing it in a couple of the groups or in all three.” But it’s kind of this intuitive thing. Usually a song comes out and it’s fairly clear who’s going to get it. But yeah, the more progressive and electric tunes end up in The Slip repertoire; the stuff that feels like the kind of good-times, gold old boy but still sensitive and poetic stuff ends up in Davis; and in The Barr Brothers I’m thinking a lot about the instrumentation—the harp, the pump organ, Andrew’s array of quieter sounds. I think about that stuff when songs emerge that seem like they’re a Barr Brothers’ song. It’s like “Yeah, I can really see the harp enjoying this.” But just to add a footnote, it’s also really interesting for me to think of a song that I would naturally think is a Davis song and imagine trying that in The Barr Brothers or something. Something like that just to keep it interesting.
Do you find these simpler songs come to you with greater ease as oppose to something like a Slip song that requires a heavier and more technical arrangement?
Andrew: The Slip stuff was definitely the result of three people working a lot together. And a lot of the Slip’s material was less the arrangement than the people playing the instrument. I think that the progressive thing that we talked about really comes from three people that are really into exploring sounds on their instruments. But we do that in all the bands.
Brad: [In] The Slip we’d be really just throwing the kitchen sink at it. I mean, Marc has a lot of big ideas with synthesizers and there was not really any way that [The Slip] was defined, in a sense. We could really just do whatever. The boundaries were very limited. With Davis there’s a bit more of a confine, which is a really nice parameter to work with. The limitations that we have with Davis, whether it’s just the character of what Mr. Davis himself would do, are really nice parameters to work with and they prevent us from doing a lot of that more progressive stuff, which is nice for us—the simplicity of it. The Barr Brothers could fall under a lot of that area because everyone in the band is fairly proficient on their instruments. It’s the idea of making that sound easy is kind of what The Barr Brothers like to do.