Canadian Brad Barr is a folk-rock explorer always seeking creative ways to conjure fresh sounds from traditional sources, and much can be learned from his many discoveries. He and his drummer/multi-instrumentalist brother Andrew are the core of the Barr Brothers with harpist Sara Page, as well as The Slip with bassist Marc Friedman, and Surprise Me Mr. Davis with keyboardist Marco Benevento.
But the Barr Brothers has been the focus, since its debut album in 2011 led to high-profile television and radio appearances including The Late Show and KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, concerts with the likes of My Morning Jacket and Emmylou Harris, and headlining the Montreal International Jazz Festival. In 2014, the breakthrough release, Sleeping Operator, racked up tens of millions of combined streams, and the Barr Brothers are back with Queens of the Breakers [Secret City], weaving a tapestry made of classic folk, psychedelia, and garage rock.
The video of your recent TEDx Talk is insightful because it’s just you and your acoustic gear—other than the solidbody Danelectro used for your signature “Vibration Transference” trick at the start. How does that work?
I learned that from watching a movie called Latcho Drome, which has no dialogue, but it’s worth checking out, because it chronicles the path of gypsy music from its Indian origins to France where it becomes hot jazz, and down to Spain where it becomes flamenco. There’s a scene where a Romanian violinist Nicolae Neacsu from the group Taraf de Haïdouks attaches a single horsehair taken from his bow to a violin string via a little knot. As he pulls his fingers down the horsehair, the frictional vibration transfers to his violin string, and it sounds like he’s playing it with a bow. You can achieve a similar sound on any guitar using polyester thread—cotton doesn’t work because it’s too smooth—attached with a double knot to a wound string. It works great to get a drone going. To start the TEDx performance, I looped the drone using a Boomerang Plus—which I like because of how quickly the footpads react—and then I picked up my Oahu to play slide blues on “Half Crazy” from Sleeping Operator.
What’s the story on that old Oahu?
I found it in an antique store—not a music store. It was made in the mid ’30s or early ’40s by the Oahu Publishing Company—hilariously based in Cleveland, Ohio—attempting to capitalize on the popularity of the Hawaiian slack-key craze. The Oahu is a squareneck with a raised nut, so it’s meant to be played lap style, but I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that technique, so I play it up against my body like a standard acoustic using a metal Dunlop slide on my third finger. I like to put an extra heavy string on the bottom—.058-.060—so the Oahu doesn’t slack out in lowered tunings. For “Half Crazy,” I tune to a low open C tuning that goes C, G, C, E, G, C [low to high]. It’s great for blues, because even though you’re focused on the minor pentatonic, there’s always that one major third to bounce off. I love playing the blues in-between major and minor, rather than all one way.
What’s your line of thinking as you progress from Eastern-flavored, modal stuff, and gradually morph towards American Delta blues?
“Half Crazy” is based on a North African trance blues, where I feel most blues tonalities originated, but it also feels like Muddy Waters to me. I wanted to explore that connection. For me to stay interested in the blues, I had to get beyond the riffs everyone knows. Blues actually exists all over the world, from India to Japan, where music played on the shamisen sometimes sounds like Jimi Hendrix riffs. I like to incorporate embellishments I’ve picked up from Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan—such as hitting a note, and then re-approaching it from below by climbing up the pentatonic scale. Malian guitar is also a big inspiration, from Ali Farka Toure to current stuff from Omara “Bombino” Moctar. It’s based on cyclical patterns using only a few notes repeated with interesting rhythms, and making it exciting with the drummer. I grew up playing with my brother on drums, so trying to group notes in patterns that will throw him off his sense of the one is something I’ve been developing—for fun—my whole life.
How do you get the Oahu’s signal loud enough to hear over a drummer without feeding back?
Those strings are high off the fretboard, so I use a Fishman Rare Earth magnetic humbucker. The Fishman’s tight bandwidth makes it less ambient than other pickups, and therefore less prone to feedback. I also crank up a Union Tube & Transistor MORE pedal to boost the signal. That’s my “desert island” pedal I use all the time, because the gain structure is so great. Surprisingly, it’s based on the gain stage from an old DigiTech rack multi-effects unit. It works well with all kinds of amplifiers. I like to use a Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb complemented with a low-wattage amp for extra bite. I have a Supro that has a nice snap, and a tweed Fender ’57 Custom Deluxe reissue that’s a little cushier. I use a Radial Engineering unit to split the signal, and I have both amps on all the time. Sometimes on Queens of the Breakers, I used a Gibson Super Medalist, because the reverb is amazing. I use the same gain strategy with my main acoustic, a 1951 Gibson J-45. I used that in the TEDx video to play “Song That I Heard” from the new record.
Can you offer any insights on the vintage Gibson, and specifics about “Song That I Heard”?
That J-45 is so light—it feels like there’s barely any wood in the bracing—which makes it really loud and resonant. I’ve always loved the low-mid growl germane to Gibson acoustics. I mostly use dropped D or dropped D with the fifth string tuned down to G on my guitars.
“Song That I Heard” is in dropped D, and I put a Kyser capo at the sixth fret, because the key of Ab seemed to work best. I use Travis picking for alternating bass, and I like to put the third or the fifth in the bass position because I appreciate Bach harmony. Another aspect is to take a major triad, and put the third up an octave to spread out the chord voicing.
The tune from Queens of the Breakers with the most unique-sounding chords is “Look Before It Changes.” Is there a connection?
I wrote both of those songs on a trip to Mexico, where I brought a 6-string ukulele. I may have started “Song That I Heard” on the uke, and transferred it to guitar, but “Look Before It Changes” was non-transferrable, because it’s very specific to that instrument. I have an aversion to the ukulele, because it has been overexposed commercially. But I found that Kala 6-string on a trip to Hawaii, and it’s really cool because the fourth and second strings are coupled with octave strings, so notes leap up and down in a way you don’t anticipate melodically or harmonically. Watching a group called Mogo Mogo in Mexico was inspiring. I had a couple of shots of Mescal afterwards, and I wrote “Look Before It Changes” on the beach with the Kala tuned down a bit—E, A, Cb, Fb [low to high]. As I can only play that song on that instrument, it stands out on the album.
What was the most interesting recording technique used on Queens of the Breakers?
We had a breakthrough on the title track that we also employed on “Hideous Glorious.” We retreated to a cabin in the woods near a lake for song development and preproduction. Engineer Graham Lasssard suggested that we record those songs acoustically, and then re-record right on top of them as an electric band. The first versions had acoustic guitar and harp, upright bass, and a basic drum beat. Then, everybody went full electric on the second pass. I tracked with the J-45 for the first pass, and then I used a Harmony Stratotone. I don’t know if any other bands have ever tried such a thing, but it really worked. I’d recommend it highly as a recording technique, because all you have to do is capture two great takes, and you’re done. You wind up playing with yourself [laughs], and find that you know how to accompany yourself better than you might think—maybe better than anyone else. I used dropped D tuning with a capo at the third fret for both takes of “Queens of the Breakers,” but on the second pass, I had a bunch of pedals jacked up for delay, reverb, and way more gain. I soloed with a wah pedal pressed all the way forward, utilizing its sustain.
What pedals do you use most?
The MORE pedal and an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb are always on. An Electro-Harmonix Memory Man is usually on, and I use the Boss Tremolo pedal a lot. I get otherworldly reverbs from the EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath pedal, and a ripping tone on the J-45 that has no business coming from an acoustic guitar via the Homebrew Electronics HBE UFO Ultimate Fuzz Octave. It has a built-in noise gate that automatically cuts the sound when it gets too hot, and you can utilize that to get the ripping effect. The solo on “Love Ain’t Enough” from Sleeping Operator is a great example. That Homebrew pedal was discontinued, but it helped define the early sound of the Barr Brothers.
What’s the status of The Slip, and Surprise Me Mr. Davis?
I have records in the can for both. Those projects were simply sidelined by geography and schedules when the Barr Brothers started gaining momentum, and my brother and I found ourselves with wives and children. Those records will come out. I’m just waiting for the right time.