An Interview With Musician Brad Barr: Transcendence Through Music & Living Without a Backup Plan

+ Thriving as an introvert, and the impact of brotherhood  … by David TanklefskyScreen Shot 2014-04-03 at 10.01.19 PM

We live in a world of cacophonous noise. The 24/7 bleating drone of cable news. The bluster of talk radio hosts, all trying to drown each other out.  The nervous tapping of keyboards and phones. The wail of sirens. The feedback of guitar amplifiers. It’s all pumped up and pushed out at us before we have any time to process the gaping maw of any of it, the sheer unending noise.

Less than 24 hours after a drunk driver slammed into a line of concertgoers at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Brad Barr, of the Barr Brothers, found himself in a familiar place: on stage in front of a roomful of noisey people. He called for a moment of quiet for the victims of the crash, shut off his amplifier and stood in silence.

For someone who makes a living by making noises, I’ve always been fascinated with Brad’s attention to the absence of it—the space between notes, the words that don’t need to be spoken. I’ve been watching him play for more than a decade and yet there’s still something mysterious at work, a not knowing surrounding what he does that makes his music stand out from anyone else I’ve ever listened to.  He leaves out everything superfluous and says just enough.

The noise of South by Southwest engulfed us as we sat down on a bench on 2nd Street outside Lambert’s BBQ. It was  Friday night. The festival was in full swing. All around us the noise of bashing drums, screeching guitars and people self-proclaiming their own importance. But as we sat and chatted I felt like we were the only people on the street.

We all have artists we admire. It’s sadly a little bit surprising when they meet our expectations as people too. It’s a gift when they surpass them. The following is an edited transcript of my interview with Brad Barr:

This is my first memory of The Slip [Brad and his brother Andrew’s long time band]: 2002, the Rhodes-on-Pawtucket Ballroom in Cranston, Rhode Island. The room is full of people. You get on stage. The audience is going nuts.  You just look at your brother and take a deep breath…no “What’s up Rhode Island!?!” nothing like that. It immediately just seemed like a completely different approach. Was that something that was just innate or was it something you guys discussed?

Probably a mix of the two I’m guessing. At that time we were seeing a lot of music in Boston. Our favorite band to see at that time was [jazz trio] The Fringe.  The memory of them that is the strongest is them getting up there, positioning themselves, taking a look around, looking at each other, everyone makes some eye contact and then they really did start with a breath. It was as simple as that. A deep breath in and then whatever comes out is what happened. That’s something we aspire to. That idea that a show could open with that air-clearing. That’s what a show is meant to do. As much as it’s a form of entertainment, the possibilities for some kind of a transcendental experience are there, sort of written into the code of music and what people come to music for. And then my brother and I are also just a little bit shy.  Our nature is a little more reserved up there.

As an artist, do you struggle with being an inherently introverted person yet doing something so public when you perform?

For sure. Someone who is naturally extroverted can approach the area of the stage as something very natural feeling. It’s very natural for some people to be the center of attention and to constantly command it and constantly have something to say and keep it rolling. It was really inspiring for me as a young musician to see someone like [guitarist] Bill Frisell come out, who was clearly very shy.  You felt kind of awkward and embarrassed for him for how shy he seemed but the minute he started playing you were just drawn in. He commanded your attention with what he was doing. I remember seeing him and thinking, “Oh, you don’t have to talk at all.” In the end you just be yourself. That’s what wins anyways.

You guys have been lucky to have an audience that’s willing to follow you for years and let your music evolve, take risks with you. Where do these people come from?

There’s a sort of rising middle class of music appreciators that aren’t necessary ex-Dead Heads or Phish Heads but also aren’t necessarily tuning in to top 40 radio. There’s a huge audience for bands on the fringes doing something interesting. For me, I don’t write it and I don’t perform it unless I really believe in it.  I think what you have as a result is an audience of people that gravitate to that dynamic and that inspiration. That’s where I think they come from. People that have a pretty eclectic collection of music themselves, people that are pretty open-minded. People that kind of want all the things from a show that I would want. I feel really comfortable meeting the people that come to our shows. I feel confident in what we’re doing because I feel like I can have a genuinely good conversation with just about anyone that comes up to me at one of our shows. That makes me feel good. I feel like, “Ok, I can relate to this person.”

You and your brother have always struck me as lifelong musicians, not just people who are in it to get famous or chase some ephemeral dream. What do you see yourself doing 20 years from now? 

Hopefully I’ll be coming to South by Southwest with an invitation from the festival and a money guarantee and maybe they’ll put me up in the Hilton over there. But if not, I’ll probably be out here on the street talking to someone like yourself.

Can you see yourself ever doing something else for a living or is this it?

This has always been it. I’ve always known it. My mom always wanted me to have a backup plan and I never wanted to give myself a backup plan. I knew this was it. It’s helped to have a partner in Andrew. To have a brother to go through it with so when it’s not working you’ve got someone there with you to talk through it instead of going psycho in your own mind. So the answer is yeah, I’m here for the long haul.

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