They might play nuanced, rootsy folk, but don’t mistake Montreal’s Barr Brothers for the tepid, alt-indie pretenders who populate the Canadian rockosphere. Andrew and Brad Barr spent years refining their aesthetic in noisy, improv-heavy post-something act The Slip. Their music-school musicianship, too, sets them apart: Harp player Sarah Page, for example, adds an electrifying element to their music. And the summery sweetness of “Beggar in the Morning,” a song which landed them on Late Night With David Letterman, hardly represents their music; their Secret City-released debut veers into swampy blues, smoke-thick stoner rock and even swooning psychedelia.
It’s atmospheric folk for the restless, something that singer Brad says is a direct result of relocating from Boston to Montreal. (His brother, Andrew, relocated after forging a long-distance relationship with a local bartender from Le Swimming, a jazz-blues bar.)
“Boston was a real growth period, and it gave us a more intellectual approach to music,” says Brad. “We moved there when we were 19, and we submerged ourselves in an institutional situation — a jazz and experimental scene. But there was an established method of doing things: You studied with this person. You played this venue. There were established channels you plugged into to continue your growth as a musician.”
But moving to Montreal, he says, allowed him to loosen the reins on his musical career. “Montreal reminded me of Providence, RI [where the Barrs were raised]. It was a DIY approach; people took a lot of risks and invented their own way of doing things. And it was refreshing.”
It’s partially why the Barrs are so different than The Slip, which veered from free-jazz to noise rock — but they’re also plenty different from contempo-folk. It’s telling that Brad frequently refers to his band as an “ensemble”: The Barrs, he says, attempt to use unconventional instrumentation in a rock context. (See: Page’s ever-present harp, the live use of a bicycle wheel and the marimba, whose last appearance in rock ’n’ roll was on Spencer Krug’s Dreamland.) Their live set, he says, is engineered towards being played softly — in order to not overwhelm its quieter instruments — as opposed to bombastically. And, of course, their improvisational roots are persistent — but in a tactful, not masturbatory, form.
“All music should be present, aware,” says Brad. “You should be injecting songs with something you’re feeling in the moment.” He laughs, purportedly at how hippie-esque he sounds. “Our songs are constant, linear, but they’re helped by a present, creative focus. We don’t improvise like we used to [with The Slip], but we have a framework that we add to. It’s very subtle.”
What isn’t subtle, however, is the band’s penchant for out-innovating itself. While accolades continue to pour in for their debut LP, Barr says the band’s been recording demos since January, while they enter the studio proper in September. Their setlist in Calgary, he promises, will feature half new songs, half rejigged Barr standards — proof that they continue to evolve their work long after it’s been finished.
“We play the guitar and harp, of West African groove, outside of a classical context,” Brad says. “And there’s not too many books written about that. It gives us a lot more freedom; we can’t teach someone to play one of our songs in 10 minutes [because they exist outside of folk conventions]. Each song takes a lot of consideration, and it’s a great challenge.”
And for that reason, they’re one of the few acts on the folk fest circuit who can boast that they’re legitimately innovative. “And that,” he adds. “Is what it’s all about.”