By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious.
The Barr Brothers are luminaries of the burgeoning anglophone indie music scene in Montreal, a city long considered the “upstart younger sibling” to Toronto, with its rich history of producing kick-ass bands and musicians. But the Barrs are convinced that they are witness to (and part of) something special – a collaborative creative environment that can bring out the best in local artists and musicians, all pushing to make their mark.
That being said, Brad Barr is taking it all in as it comes: the enthusiastic reception on both sides of the Atlantic for their new album Sleeping Operator; the accompanying whirlwind transatlantic tour that his band is on; the long, and on the day we speak, a boring train rides through the German countryside as they make their way from Hamburg to Amsterdam for another performance. Traveling as a band means you take the good with the bad, and I find him on a particularly uninteresting stretch of track in Lower Saxony. However, Brad seemingly switches on as soon as we begin talking about the Barr Brother’s new record, crackling with energy and excitement over the phone.
What was the creative process for Sleeping Operator? Did it differ from your debut album?
On the first album, we weren’t really even a band yet. It was just my brother [Andrew] and I experimenting, recording, kind of trying some songs out. We didn’t really have a band identity. We were recording with Sarah [Page] and playing some shows with Sarah, so we knew there was some kind of semblance of a foundation, but it wasn’t fully formed yet.
For Sleeping Operator, we were really already working as a band, and had brought on Andres [Vial] full-time. We tried to just tackle as many songs as we could. We’ve got a great engineer, and a pretty good studio, and we tried to knock through that. We worked really quickly in getting basic tracks down – maybe three or four tunes a day – and then after that we took it down to our own studio and maybe played around with it way too much, for almost a year. We stripped it all down, and built it back up. What we ended up with on the record is actually mostly songs that were cut within the first couple of weeks. They were not really that different from what they were in their original state.
It’s fascinating you guys did so much with it, but ended up going back to basics.
That’s kind of what happened. We definitely learned a lot, and we recorded about three or four times as many songs as ended up on that record. Even the stuff that didn’t make it on that record is just sitting there. We clearly produced a lot of songs, which I wouldn’t recommend to any band – it wasn’t necessarily a process I would want to repeat. [Laughs] We went down way too many rabbit holes, but in the end, it was really hard to know what songs to put on this record. As much fun as it was, and how rewarding it felt, it stretched out the process a lot longer than it needed to be. Well, clearly it needed to be this long, and I’d try and tackle less songs next time, but it was still fun.
You guys wrote forty songs for Sleeping Operator, but the album clocks in at a relatively svelte 13 tracks. What was the criteria for selecting which tracks made the final mix?
We ended up producing and mixing about twenty five out of the forty that we actually recorded. As to the tracks that went on the album, we just tried to be intuitive and pick songs that felt like they went well together. As I mentioned, it was after even the record was mastered that I looked at those tunes and noticed that these were all almost live “off the floor” takes without a lot of overdub. I think that ended up being the criteria, even though we didn’t even know it at the time.
What are your plans for the leftover songs? Will we be getting a Sleeping Operator b-sides collection?
Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping is gonna happen. We tried to convince the record label to release another record nine months down the road. We’ve been talking about a lot of things – maybe a deluxe edition for the holidays, I’m not sure. Something’s gotta come up. I know that if we wait, we’re not going to want to release these songs in three years. We’ll have moved on from that. If you have any ideas, let me know. [Laughs]
I say you give it the full Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness treatment: one double album, each side with a different concept.
[Laughs] That was my first thought: Let’s just put the entire thing out. Is that what that record was? A double record, a triple record, or something?
It was a double record. Just very decadent, very 90s, and very Billy Corgan. I don’t know if people are still doing that kind of thing though.
That record was huge. Actually, we were recently at the Village Studio in LA, where most of that album was recorded.
Even though these songs are the least overdubbed, this album has a heavier, denser rock sound than the first album. What motivated that shift in dynamics?
Part of what influenced the decision of where to go with these songs is that this band has so much potential to be more than just a gentle, floating sound. There’s a lot of potential for our sound to explode. The harp can be more than just an embellishing, ambient, pleasant sound – it can be be a really driving instrument. We’re just really being true to what’s moving us at the time, and what felt good. There’s definitely a lot of live playing on the first record, but it was put together in a piecemeal way. We’re going to be touring with these songs for the next year and a half, so we wanted to make sure they had room to explode. It was definitely a conscientious move towards this kind of sound.
It seems like you’ve found some pretty big success in Europe and Canada – at a much faster rate than in the United States. Is there anywhere you really enjoy playing, or any experience that’s been really rewarding for you?
I like that we’re walking into places and still don’t really know what we’re going to get. We’re playing really small rooms here in Europe – two hundred or three hundred max seat places, at least for a few of these shows. Right before we left for Europe, we played an incredible show in Colorado. They just cultivated an amazing audience, and it was a great crowd.
We did a secret show at one of the first clubs we ever played at in Montreal, and we had a great send off and celebration of the album’s completion, and that was really good. I’m just stoked to be on the road with this music, and the band has been changing up quite a bit from town to town – we’ve had great bass players, and keyboard players, and steel guitar players linking up with us from different bands and different parts of North America, and it’s been a super cool experience. Collaborating with these people proves that these songs can be real nice jumping-off places for a live band to jam on.
What have you enjoyed the most out of having Montreal be your home base? Is there anything about the city and its arts and culture scene that you have found inspirational?
For sure. I think one of the reasons this record sounds the way it does has to do with the people in the space that we’re sharing. A number of people joined us to play on this record, and it really works with who we are as a band. A lot of it comes from the shared experience, being a minority in a minority – the anglophone music scene in Quebec, in a French province in Canada. There’s a lot of mixing it up, and friends dropping in on each other and inspiring each other. Some of our best friends are making records, or putting out records, bands like Timber Timbre, Little Scream, and you go on and on. Our friends are releasing great music, so you want to release great music, too. I dunno. It makes you want to be better, and surprise them, and maybe get them playing on the record, too. It’s super cool, and an ideal situation for a guy like me. That’s why we moved here – the first time I came to Montreal, I had that feeling that stuff was going on there, and that it would be an inspiring place.
Do you ever consider putting together a show or festival with these bands you’ve mentioned?
Oh yeah. We’re just waiting for someone to figure out the logistics and finance of it [laughs]. It comes up every couple of months. “Why don’t we get our own tent, a PA system, get all these bands together, and do a month long summer thing?” Maybe take a big train across Canada, or something. I think it probably has to happen in Canada, because with that many musicians I don’t know how many visas we can get, but, yeah, I would love that. It’s one of those things that we talk about all the time, and we have to actually get around to doing this. I’m glad that you reminded me, because that’s something that we really need to do soon.
It would be an incredible musical experience, particularly the train across Canada.
A train would be especially fun. It would be amazing.
It’s quintessentially Canadian. Speaking of things that are really Canadian, where should I go for poutine when in Montreal?
Easy. Go to a place called “Patati Patata” on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. And you should also get a mini bacon-cheeseburger, too. If that’s a possibility, let me know, and I’ll bring you down myself.