Analogue Music | Brad Barr

Brad Barr

By Matt Conner

The only challenge in front of Brad Barr was anything established by Brad Barr. That's what made things so difficult.

While no one knew that a global pandemic was on the way back in the latter months of 2019, All For One Theater director Michael Wolk approached Barr with a potential commission to create a new set of compositions for use on and off stage. It was an ideal assignment to have in hand for the moment the world shut down, yet for Barr, it was also a formidable task. That's because he set all the rules himself.

For a commissioned piece, Wolk was surprisingly hands-off. His goal was to simply encourage Barr to follow his own interests wherever they might take him. From there, Barr says things got much more interesting and intimidating.

The end result is The Winter Mission, a beautiful solo instrumental record with 12 thoughtfully considered pieces for use at the AFO Theater. They're also available for your listening pleasure. They are simple and complex, tender and aggressive. They're also an excellent glimpse into the creative process and considerable talents of a man already known for his meaningful work in The Barr Brothers and The Slip.

We recently sat down with Brad to discuss this new project and what he learned from the whole process that applies to his art going forward.

Analogue: Coming through the pandemic with The Winter Mission now in hand, is his something that was born because of that time?

Brad Barr: When the Barr Brothers suddenly had a clear schedule, when there were no shows or nobody asking us for an album, it freed up a lot of time. Coincidentally, I’d synced up with Michael Wolf from the All For One Theater who commissioned this new work. He came to me just before the pandemic hit, I think, so I’d not foreseen what was about to come and had agreed to it. Then the conditions became perfect for making a solo record. It was really just coincidental that I was given this request at the same time that the world shut down.

Analogue: Do you think that was healthy going into this whole sheltering in place rather than having to figure out what to do with the downtime?

Brad: At first, I was relieved to have some income. It became apparent that we had to stop taking our salary from the band because we would deplete that quickly without any gigs on the horizon. I’ve done work-for-hire before and it can be easy to fulfill a request. I sent them a couple of tracks asking, ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’ I was looking for approval and direction.

But Michael told me pretty quickly, ‘I want to explain something. There’s no approval for this. There’s no context that this has to fit. This is for you to really go deep and feel free. This is just for you to make the kind of music you want to make.’ Suddenly the challenge became much clearer and greater, because now there’s nobody but me to decide if this is good, and that’s harder actually. So it became a deeper but ultimately more satisfying effort.

Analogue: Did you know all along it would be instrumental or did that change there?

Brad: No, I knew all along. I had two criteria or prerequisites that it would be instrumental and that every song would be a single performance. No overdubs. Everything had to be played at the moment as you hear it and can be performed by one person. From that point, I don’t want to say it was easy, but I was in my element just playing the guitar. It was looking from my arsenal of guitar approaches, from loud feedback to gentle classical stuff to heavy syncopated polyrhythmic groove things—these things are all unified by those two criteria I mentioned earlier. That’s different from Barr Brothers records where things jump stylistically where this one maintains its character throughout.

"One of the best things you can do when you’re driving at something but not necessarily figuring it out is to step back from it."

Analogue: Is this something Michael was giving input into at all or do you just present at the end with a sort of “Here it is!”?

Brad: He would have given input, but he just encouraged me really. From knowing him the last couple of years, I’ve known him to be someone who really loves to encourage people to follow their ideas.

When he approached me for this music, they said they needed music for the theater company that the performers can use in their shows because they’d been licensing music. They realized it would cost them just as much to license existing music as it would cost them to commission the work. He knew my previous record, The Fall Apartment, so he said, ‘Instead of licensing music, I’ll find an artist that I like and try to inspire them to create some new music.’ I was fortunate enough to be standing in the way there.

Analogue: What does this mean for the music you make on the other side of something like this?

Brad: Good question. I think it reminded me that I thrive when I have the balance of cooperative creativity with the band, with my brother, with a group of musicians, and very solitary creativity. When Michael contacted me, it’d been about two years since our last record was put out and we were spinning our wheels a little. We were trying to figure out what the next batch of music would be. There was a bit of tunnel vision there and not seeing the forest for the trees. Then I was given this new creative task and it let me step away from making music for The Barr Brothers.

One of the best things you can do when you’re driving at something but not necessarily figuring it out is to step back from it. It gave me some fresh air. It’s a balance for me and it’s necessary to have both of the creative processes going on, and this just gave me the excuse and help of getting a little distance from what I was driving at.

VISIT: Brad Barr