Interview | The Barr Brothers return with Queens of the Breakers

This week the Barr Brothers’ new record Queens of the Breakers hits the shelves – the long-awaited follow-up to 2014’s Sleeping Operator. Plenty has happened to the band in the intervening three years, leading them to take a whole new approach to their third studio album. They retreated to a remote cabin to slave away on ideas until they came up with their most personal album to date. We got in touch with Brad Barr so he could talk us through the process.

What was behind the long lay-off [between ’Sleeping Operator’ and ‘Queens of the Breakers’]? Was it a full break or were there still ideas coming to you that you stored away for later? How do you come back from that time away and re-discover the rhythm of working?

We never really took a break, actually, except for maybe a month or so in early 2016. Our hope was to get a new record out quickly after Sleeping Operator. We pretty much rolled right out of the tour van and into the studio. But we learned quickly that this record would take longer than we expected to get it right. New family dynamics, time limitations, and the desire to break new ground, to not fall back on the same motifs we’d relied on in the past, all played a part in the slow and steady process that gave way to Queens of the Breakers. Ideas were always coming, but whether or not you’ll know what to do with them takes work. Our solution was to burrow ourselves in the middle of nowhere with our instruments and some food. It felt like how Return of the Jedi felt when it came out…same characters, new chapter.

Set the scene for us in the cabin… How long were you there, what was the schedule? What did you hope to get out of it – was it a case of ‘Let’s try this out and see what we get’ or did you lock yourselves away until you had what you needed?

The cabin/studio sits on a thin channel of a huge lake. Its about a 30-minute drive (or snowmobile ride in the winter) from the nearest grocery store. We did three sessions out there. Our goal was to immerse ourselves in a creative and non-distracting environment. After a few years touring and playing the same 20-30 songs every night, we figured the best thing we could do was to check back in with our impulses, and with the growth of our dynamic as a trio. We figured that whatever music we’d be playing in the coming years should be informed by that, and not adhere to whatever we thought the band had become. For the first two sessions, it was just the three of us, Brad, Andrew and Sarah. No engineers, no other musicians. We pretty much just sprawled….playing, recording, eating, fishing, playing, sleeping, wake up, repeat. Then we’d head back to our studio in Montreal and dig through those improvs, mostly looking for clues about the sound and direction and mining for song ideas. For the third session, we brought our friend Graham Lessard to engineer, brought Morgan Moore and Mishka Stein for some bass inspiration, and focused a bit more on trying to get takes of the bits we’d been shaping over the last eight months.

If I could say anything about how recording and creating in such a remote place influenced the record, I’d say it really slowed us down, in a good way….we felt more patient, liquid. And that the room itself took on a role in the recordings – big and open, looking out over the frozen, then moving, waters of the lake. Its character influenced the amount of space we chose to fill or not fill, and you could almost play its reverb like an instrument.

An album written out of improvisations – it seems to be a return to the style of (former band) The Slip. Was that deliberate? What’s the benefit of this process?

There is a narrative out there that all these songs were written out of moments culled from improvisations. That’s sort of half-true. Closer to the truth is that those sessions at the cabin served more as a way understand the direction of the sound, rather than the songs. A few song ideas were born out there in the woods (‘Kompromat’, ‘It Came to Me’, ‘Maybe Someday’), but mostly what we took away from there was how we were going to sound on this record. Once I got a sense of that, I began to sneak in song ideas I’d been kicking around, ones that I thought could absorb and live in this world we’d discovered out there. Basically, the first couple records had been, to me, very song oriented….troubadour-style, with arrangements based around the song. This time we wanted to base the arrangements around the sounds, and let the songs be more influenced by that aspect.

During the long break Andrew and yourself became fathers. Also, the drum beat on the opening song came from listening to a heart monitor during a visit to hospital – is this a more personal albums than previous ones?

It feels more personal, yes. I’m glad that translated.

Sarah’s latest inventions and contraptions – what do they bring to your sound?

Sarah really took a leap forward on this record, in terms of her technical setup and what it allows her to do. The most obvious revelation was her new ability to sustain notes and manipulate them. Whereas, previously, her sound (thanks to the nature of the harp) was mostly experienced as tighter sounds with fast decay, she can now provide expansive and modular ambient textures with a single gesture. Effectively, the harp becomes a trigger for a variety of synth effects. She also found a way to use guitar pickups to amplify the low-end of her instrument. You can really feel that on the songs ‘You Would Have to Lose Your Mind’ and ‘Defibrillation’.

There’s a quote in your press release – a question from you – ‘How do we make music when there is no song?’ Do you have the answer now?

I think we answered that question pretty well for ourselves, considering where we were at that time. And I think we mostly succeeded in capturing those discoveries on this record, even after steering them into song forms. But nothing is ever definitive with this band, so I’m sure we’ll be asking ourselves the same question in two years time!

Photo: Brigitte Henry