The Barr Brothers The Art of Restraint

The Barr Brothers The Art of Restraint
Photo: John Londono
"When restraint and courtesy are added to strength," Mahatma Gandhi is said to have observed, "the latter becomes irresistible."

You know what? Gandhi would have made for a pretty good rock critic. In an era defined by bands whose instinct is to turn all their compositions into anthems, often with the result of flattening out the effect, sometimes it feels like we could use a little more moderation.

Enter Montreal's the Barr Brothers.

"Restraint is a word we use a lot," explains singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Brad Barr when asked about his band's contemplative approach to Americana. "It was written into the blueprint for the band from the beginning, just by virtue of the instrumentation that we adopted, or that adopted us, depending on how you look at it."

What he's referring to is the fact that the Barr Brothers features Sarah Pagé, a classically trained harpist. Which, let's face it, is kinda weird.

But it's also crucial. For it is the presence of this unlikely instrument that drives the sound of the Barr Brothers away from the ordinary, forcing the band to innovate, to develop creative arrangements that will amplify Pagé's elegant tones. As such, the songs on their sophomore album, Sleeping Operator, reflect a diversity of influences and a tremendous degree of musical acuity. They move nimbly between classic folk and blues and even West African forms, seeking space to explore. Theirs is a balancing act, a collaborative enterprise to be both true to the songs and to the instruments themselves.

"I don't want to give too much weight to the word limitations, but it is a challenge to figure out how to use this instrument," admits the soft-spoken guitarist. "The Barr Brothers stuff requires us to be a lot more restrained because the instruments call for that. But that's also an obstacle that we look for ways around. We look for ways to break through the composition, to open it up."

Back in the late 1980s, when Brad and his drummer brother Andrew first joined forces in a band, they were all about that "opening up." As two-thirds of the impressive Boston-based outfit the Slip, the Barrs toured relentlessly through the '90s and early 2000s, developing a cult following among fans of experimental, improv rock music. Like a cross between Medeski, Martin & Wood, Do Make Say Think and the Flaming Lips, the Slip were all about jamming, stretching out, searching for the sound. Their shows were unpredictable, exciting and expansive affairs attracting hippie twirlers and earnest music students in equal measure.

They found critical success, but they could never break through commercially. By the early 2000s, the band's identity felt unstable, as they tried out new ideas without a clear sense of what they wanted to sound like. By the end, they seemed to have lost the plot. When the Slip went on hiatus after 16 years and eight albums, the Barrs turned inward, eschewing the electric chaos of improvisation for the challenge of structure.

The results have been quietly triumphant.

Barr figures that forming the Barr Brothers in 2006 was "a challenge to myself to craft songs that I was proud of rather than just the mind-glob of improvisation. I wanted to slow it down, get into the craft a little more." Their 2011 self-titled debut reflected this effort, offering a series of carefully arranged, deeply assured songs, each one representing a step forward for his songwriting. Tracks like "Old Mythologies" and "Beggar in the Morning" (which the band would eventually play on Late Show with David Letterman and record live on the edge of the Grand Canyon) reflected a commitment to melody, lyric and mood that was less apparent in his earlier writing. But, there was a slightly mixed bag feel to that album too, largely due to its having been recorded piecemeal, and over a period of several years.

Not so Sleeping Operator, which came together much more quickly and with a far clearer sense of purpose. Despite having come to the band with almost 50 songs to choose from, and the band having recorded over 30 of them — "That's the one part of our process that I would do differently next time," he confides. "It probably wasn't necessary" — the album feels coherent and deliberate. What's more, it features songs (like the gorgeous "Even the Darkness Has Arms" and the groovy, propulsive "Love Ain't Enough") that easily surpass the high points on that previous record.

Fully 25 years into their career, Brad and Andrew Barr are making their best music yet.

As origin stories go, theirs is pretty excellent. "When we arrived in Montreal almost ten years ago," reflects Brad Barr, "it was like intuition had brought us here." Well, intuition and the fact that his brother had fallen for a server at Montreal's Le Swimming. Seems the Slip were playing that old McGill University haunt on the Main when a fire broke out. Everyone spilled out the front door onto the street and in the milling confusion, Andrew Barr met a woman, offered her his coat, and a whole 'nother fire flared up. A year later, both brothers had moved to the happening Mile End neighbourhood and the former waitress had become one of their managers.

Meanwhile, Brad moved into a space that shared an adjoining wall with Sarah Pagé's apartment. As he sat strumming his guitar, he could hear her practicing the harp through the bricks. Before they had even properly met, they were sort of jamming together. The Barr Brothers were formed a few months later when bassist and multi-instrumentalist Andrés Vial joined the team.

"I think there was something about this city that we'd always felt connected to," reflects Barr. "And when we arrived it was just exactly what we were looking for. It had a neighbourhood energy that was so inspiring. Nine years ago Mile End had a really warm vibe. It was full of some of the most creative musicians and artists I'd ever seen. The Plants and Animals guys, Land of Talk, the Luyas, Patrick Watson… It felt like everyone was circling one another in the neighbourhood. We were roommates, friends, you'd walk down the street and a great musician was working at your coffee shop — it was beautiful and I wanted nothing more than to be able to contribute to this scene."

Perhaps the most important thing that the Barrs have contributed is their commitment to learning and mastering a wide breadth of musical languages. Because they refuse to be hemmed in by any particular songwriting structure, they have studied and practiced a wide range of musical forms and traditions, from country and traditional folk to Delta blues and arena rock. Their incorporation of elements of West African music, to take the most striking example, reflects not just a passing infatuation with this approach, but rather decades of concerted attention to the form.

When asked about the way he and his brother got into music from the regions around Mali and Senegal, Barr lights up. "I love answering that question," he exclaims. And, from the animation in his voice, the wistful quality to the story, it's clear that this is true.

"My dad is a dentist in Providence, RI," he recalls. "The university there brought over a couple of guys to teach West African drumming. This was in like 1991. Well, these guys needed serious dental work, and my dad, who has a really kind spirit, took on the job. I don't know if they just found him in the phonebook, but they showed up and he fixed their teeth. They couldn't really pay him, but my dad said 'My sons are musicians, maybe you could teach them something?' They couldn't have been happier, and they took us under their wings. Especially Andrew, my brother. He was thrilled. He had just started to play the drums and they took him on, almost like their little son, their American son. Eventually they brought him to Bamako [the capital of Mali] to study.

"This whole time I was hanging out with these guys, learning all about these rhythms, and the swing of it all, all the different ways to hear a 6/8 bell line, and it really got engrained in us. This music was exciting to us, it seemed endless, and when we applied our instruments to it we could get really great results."

Those results, especially on standout tracks like last album's "Give The Devil Back His Heart" and Sleeping Operator's "Half Crazy" and "Little Lover," are exhilarating. Riding Andrew Barr's complex, polyrhythmic percussion patterns and Pagé's innovative use of the harp — which she often plays like a kora, the 21-stringed West African instrument — what we hear is like a new skin on the old drum. Accessing the common bluesy current running through all traditional popular music in these syncopated rhythms, the Barr Brothers make these perhaps uncommon structures (to North American ears) feel familiar. What would almost certainly come across as a gimmick (or worse, an ill-conceived exercise in appropriation) in the hands of a less sensitive band instead marks their most noteworthy achievement. And when matched with Brad Barr's haunting, evocative lyrics, the result is all the more powerful.

"It is rare for me to do much narrative-based writing," says Barr of his impressionistic approach. Rather, he is keen to produce poetry that will resonate with the listener's own situation. When asked about a line like "Even the darkness has arms, but they ain't got you" (from the refrain to one of the loveliest songs on Sleeping Operator), he is happy to leave the reading up in the air. "What I'm shooting for with my lyrics, with my writing, is a space where the listener can connect whatever they are going through to the song. If it's a matter of love, of obsession, worry over the human condition, the condition of earth right now, I hope to leave an open-ended interpretation."

What isn't left up to interpretation is how popular the Barr Brothers have proven to be. Successful tours across North America and Europe, network TV appearances, critical raves and a spot on the long list for the Polaris Music Prize in 2012 have translated into more commercial attention than Andrew and Brad have had in years. Still, when asked about how he's enjoying this new level of success, Brad Barr demurs.

"It seems like a lot of the success of the Barr Brothers was hinged on a couple of songs from the last record," he reckons. "They were just a bit more accessible than anything the Slip had ever done. Success to us in the Slip was about sustaining our amusement, sustaining our ability to entertain ourselves on the road, to be able to play improvised music night after night for a modest audience. We never took the big picture approach — is this a sustainable life? — until the end, I suppose. Success now is being able to work with and transcend the limitations of our group. But, at the same time, if it yields some popular results, that's amazing."