Slipping out Solo (Interview With Brad Barr)

Over a couple of cappuccinos in the historic North End neighborhood of Boston, Brad Barr and I discussed the recently released album Angels Come On Time, the colorful history of The Slip, his upcoming solo gig, and the possibility of a solo record.

Jambands have historically had difficulty crafting a constructed album, but it seems as the bands and the audiences get older, the recording process is becoming as important as the live show. Are you trying to solidify yourselves as accomplished recording artists?

We’re trying to grow as a recording artist. It’s such a part of the music world…it’s been such a big part of my world growing up, listening to records. And I think I’ve listened, all of us have listened to records to kind of get an idea of what we like. Angels was probably our biggest step as a band in the recording world because we didn’t try to play like a three piece band, a three piece jazz band per se. We didn’t want it be just a dry recording, and I think the albums from here on out are all gonna be pretty interesting that way. I just started thinking about a lot of different stuff, different ways to record the drums and the bass. And kind of the main thing for me is getting those sounds to be you know, really be warm, and I guess just texturally you know…there’s a lot of ways we have to grow as far as that goes.

Most bands in the scene are labeled as strictly Jambands, even though they may or may not be exactly what people think that label infers. But The Slip has primarily been known as a jazz band. Has straddling both genre titles benefited the band.

That’s a tough one because…when the word gets spread around that we’re a jazz band, and then you go and see us, you’re not really seeing a jazz band exactly. (laughs) Although we all dedicate a lot of time to playing music that’s called jazz. I mean jazz has always been, to me jazz musicians and jazz music has always been the music that was able to incorporate the most…from any area of music around the world. So I think it does benefit us.

Even calling you a jazz band kind of limits the uninitiated, because for instance “Stomping Grounds” to me is a pure Mississippi Delta sound. Is that a music you recently discovered or something you always wanted to try?

When I first started playing guitar, the Blues was the thing I gravitated to the most. So Blues music is something I’ve always kind of considered one of the things in my foundation. One of the core elements of my playing…and also for Andrew (Barr) and Marc (Friedman) too. I guess as a guitar player, it’s kind of, when you’re a young kid and you’re first listening to guitarists, for me…maybe it was just my, you know, my household…my dad loved Blues. But recording that song actually I didn’t even think about it. I did that one by myself in my house, just on a little unit that you could layer things on. It’s called a JamMan…and it’s a looping device where you lay down one track, you know, you have like seven seconds. That entire track is just a seven second loop that keeps going over. I think I put the first thing down without even thinking and just stacked on top and got that real sorta Delta Roadhouse feeling.

It’s a great song

Yeah, it’s a cool song…I kind of wish it went on longer. (both of us laugh)

But then on the album there’s “Sometimes True to Nothing”, and that gets, instrumentally, not lyrically, gets a little dark, and I think that’s an untypical Slip style. Is that your Angus Young coming out?

(Laughs) No, I would think that if I had Angus Young for an afternoon, I probably wouldn’t play him that song. I think, oh, but you mean in the end of it, it gets kind of rowdy and kind of much harder edged. To me that song represents more of a, sort of late night, reflecting kind of mood. I write alot of songs like that, but I don’t always get to play them for people. Cause I do a lot of writing late at night, you know when everyone else is asleep and I’m just sitting up and I have to play kind of quietly. That song, it just became apparent that it felt really good to…in certain points of the song, just to really rock out I guess would be the expression. Just sort of a cathartic unleashing of energy. But it’s also got some of the more sensitive points on the whole album. I like that song because it goes from real quiet, real ethereal, to very hard rock, to a beautiful bass solo by Marc. That one covers a lot of ground I think.

Rykodisc is a label mostly known for issuing remasters, but recently they have started to add a lot of talent to their roster. I’m wondering how you ended up there?

They had approached us a couple of years ago when we had finished Does. They thought about taking that album. We had some friends working there. Actually our soundman now Sam Leonard, he worked for Ryko. Another nice guy, Mike King, he worked for Ryko. They brought the music to their bosses. I mean, I’ve always had a few Ryko discs in my collection, and I always thought they were a label with a lot of integrity. They seem to put out things that other record labels wouldn’t put out. They put out music that is not easily marketable…which is kind of how we saw ourselves. (laughs) And we kind of still see ourselves.

The production of Angels is a real step up…it’s superb. I know you have recorded in Vermont in the past, but how’d you end up at The Barn?

A simple phone call really. We had made a connection with Jason Colton who is one of the guys in Dionysian Productions. We connected with him when we did The Great Went. We we’re thrilled to do that, and make that connection with those guys. And then it was just a phone call. We knew they had that studio, and we knew that they were on break. We knew that they probably didn’t have much going on up there, and maybe they’d let us use it. So we called ’em up and got a phone call back, and they said sure.

Did the element of relaxation up there add to the overall cohesiveness of the album?

For sure. The setting up there, you kind of just have to picture it. You drive like a half hour out of Burlington, and you’re getting further and further into the woods, and the hills, and finally you hit their driveway, and it’s like, you go up the driveway, and you’re really surrounded by nothing but trees and snow…and there’s this barn right there. And we lived in it for almost a week. And it’s just all wood, all dark wood, big open space…and it was very relaxing. We felt there, some of the best we ever felt as a band. Just to be working on a project, seeing it come together. Yeah, I think that whole setting there added to it a lot.

(Peter) Carini and (Rob) Pemberton acted as engineers…did they remain strictly engineers, or did they facilitate with the song process?

Carini was more of an engineer. It was nice, every now and then he would throw in his .02. We’d record a couple of takes of a song, and we’d all discuss which one we liked better, and then we’d all look at Pete (laughs) and he would sort of be like, oh, you want to know my opinion…and he’s very sure. He wouldn’t speak his mind that often, but when we asked his opinion, he was always very much like “that one”…no doubt about it.

And then Rob Pemberton is a really interesting guy. He’s from Sound Station Seven in Providence…no connection to Pete Carini at all. He’s an interesting guy…very excited about recording. He’s excited about recording the way a drummer is about playing the drums. It’s really his art, and his passion, and his love. So Rob has a hard time just being an engineer. We were really tempted to give him some production credits as far as being a producer, because we were fairly inexperienced in the studio…we’d only been in there a few times. And we kind of talked about what we wanted and Rob would just lay out all these options. Play it for us with a different effect on it. Just the subtlest things…he knew what he was doing. So Rob influenced a lot more in that setting. Rob is just really a master at what he does.

Looking at Angels as a snapshot of The Slip, where do you see the band going next?

I think we’ve done a few albums now that sort of display a collage of the different things that we like, the different areas we come from. Most reviews of those albums talk about how they’re a big mix of sounds of different genres…you know, it incorporates some Bluegrass, Funk, some Jazz. I think the albums we make in the future are going to be more, sounds unto themselves. Not that we ever felt the need to show all these different styles, but we just didn’t know any better. Angels was more the beginning. Really trying to make an album that had a vibe all the way through, but we didn’t really succeed in that. It jumps around a lot…and like you said, you got the “Stomping Grounds”, and “Sometimes True to Nothing” and “(Take A) Beetle to the Badlands”. I think the albums we make from here on out are gonna be more…have a more continuous feeling throughout them. More like, the way when you think about different albums that you love…a lot of them have a feeling throughout it, and you want to put that album on because you want to feel that way. I think that’s how we’re gonna focus.

In contrast, looking at your first record Gecko…if and when you listen to that at all, what are your reflections on it six years later? That’s a classic debut.

I’m always surprised when people say that’s one of their favorite albums. To me, I think it was just The Slip getting into the studio for the first time. Actually the whole recording of that album spanned about a year. And I am always surprised when people say how much they love that album. I guess I just see it as us just kind of learning about the studio. Maybe that’s what people love about it.

Well, I think that with some bands, their first album has such a purity and innocence that really comes off, and I think that’s what really gives that album strength. When you listen to Angels, it’s a great album, but when you listen to Gecko, it’s so fresh. I don’t think any band can really capture that debut essence. And I guess sometimes that debut album sucks (laughs), because perhaps it’s forced, but Gecko has some sort of infancy that really gives it strength.

Well, that’s nice to hear. I guess that never really occurred to me. Probably because, well back then we thought we knew what we were doing (laughs). I like From the Gecko, I know I never real listen to it you know, I haven’t heard it in probably a year, two years maybe, but I’m glad it’s out there. I like the songs on it alot. I mean, alot of those songs, pretty much all of them we still play.

We’ll they’re crowd favorites…but not just because of the history, but because they stand the test of time.

Yeah, I agree with that…I completely agree.

Playing with a brother has made for some classic rock legend stories, but the two of you seem to separate yourselves from the ego battles. How do you balance a level of personal and business?

Well, we don’t really. Andrew and I, we just kind of coexist as does the business and personal stuff. Throughout the day, when we’re home together we talk about The Slip, we talk about the business side of it, we talk about some new music, and we play together. I mean, little things come out I suppose, but Andrew is really one of the purist individuals I know. I kind of owe everything to Andrew…his presence in my life. And I just have to remember to respect that all the time. I think if everyone tried to live the way that he does, you would really see a different place.

The Slip is one of the more politically and socially conscience bands in the scene. While most bands try to refrain from getting too involved, why are you willing to put yourselves right out there?

I think that’s just another area where the personal and business mix together. Things weren’t that political back with Gecko or Does, and that’s because I wasn’t thinking about those things as much in those days. As it became increasingly obvious to me that there are thousands of people across America who visit to The Slip website, come to The Slip concerts, and get together to talk about things there, that maybe I should be doing something to increase my knowledge about what’s going on in the political world. So that these forums, whether it be the website or the concert, can actually gain more momentum. I guess it’s a challenge to bring it into the music itself. That’s a big challenge for me. Bob Marley was amazing at doing it…he just did it naturally. For me to bring it into the music is a little more of a challenge, because it’s not always the subject matter that’s on the tip of my tongue when I play my guitar and sing. I just think it’s important on some level. And then on other days I think it’s important to keep these two forms separate. I mean, most of my favorite music doesn’t really dive into that area. I don’t think being political has to necessarily negatively effect the music you make. And I say being political, I just mean thinking consciously and allowing that to cross into you music, or your art, or your life.

Pop music has had such a negative stigma attached to it for so long, but recently the charts are full of artists such as Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Dave Matthews and Norah Jones who even played Bonnaroo. Aside from the T&A that will always sell, do you see pop as having a positive future?

Yeah, I’d say so. I think people are steering away from this high production, you know…record companies spending 20 million dollars on a record. Like a band like The White Stripes have come to such a huge success. I think the hardest thing for bands like that is going to be to deal with what was once an underground thing, just them keeping it real, and now it is going to be selling. There’s always going to be a difficulty when you have a company or a conglomerate whose objective is to make money off of the artist. There’s always going to be a conflict there. In that sense, it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better because the corporations are just getting more solidified. So that part is a little bit scary, but when it comes to music I think that people have to naturally react to their instincts. From my own personal experience I’ve come to appreciate pop music a lot more.

I remember back in April of ’97, I went to see you guys at the Karma Club (Boston), and Moon Boot Lover and The String Cheese Incident were playing with you. That was the first time I had actually ever heard of String Cheese. There were like 40 people there that night. That’s like a dream triple bill nowadays that would sellout like The Mullins Center. (laughs) It seems you and String Cheese have had some sort of long connection…how’d that happen? I mean that was their first time ever playing Boston.

That was our first time meeting them. Our first connection with them. During our sound check we were playing something and their drummer Travis came up and was really psyched about whatever it was we were playing…he really liked it. Then we got a call from them, I don’t know, maybe like a year later, or not even, maybe like nine months later, that they wanted a band to open for them for about ten shows. So we were more than psyched to do that. I think our appreciation for them has always been the fact that they really do it themselves. Down to every show…they come into these empty rooms that aren’t necessarily clubs or venues, at least that tour, and they would bring in their own PA, their own lights, everything…and that was really inspiring for us to see.

Now recently you opened up for Vida Blue. There sound being organ driven, and more techno sounding, I don’t want to label them as techno, but…that side of things. And that sound is not really a Slip sound. How did that culmination happen?

They presented us with a run of shows in a bunch of areas that we didn’t feel were our strongest. Mostly through the Midwest. I think we went from St. Louis, through towns in Ohio, Pennsylvania….and then you know, Boston and New York. We always feel confident that if we do some shows with an audience that is going to draw a thousand or so people, that it’s a good thing for us to do because, we are confident enough in the music that it’s going to resonate with some people. It always seems like a good opportunity to open for a band that we respect. Any project Oteil (Burbridge) goes near is really cool. I just love to hear him play. He’s really a fine musician.

Another early ’97 story I have was a show you guys did at M80 (this was a dance club that was connected to the Paradise). That was a night you asked everybody to bring drums with them. That really struck a chord with me. Alot of bands talk about “the community around the band”, but that was a true demonstration of the band and audience connection. Obviously that type of participation gets more difficult as the venues get bigger, but is there still that emphasis to keep the community involved?

In that time period, I think we did like five or six shows at M80 between ’96 and ’97. Our experience playing in Boston was born from this group of friends that would get together on like every other Thursday in Allston to play music, listen to poetry and play drums. And the M80 shows were a friend of ours from that house who would put up some money to rent that room out, and get everyone who would ever show up at that house, The Red House, to come down to that place. And it just seemed very logical for the night to end with everyone drumming. We’re always looking for ways to get the audience involved somehow. That was just a particularly great way for us that was available at the time.

But now you have like the skating rink type events. There aren’t too many bands doing that.

(Laughs) No, definitely not.

Obviously you have a strong Northeast following, but you seem to continuously play places like Eureka, Arcata, and other remote Northwest places. You aren’t touring in luxury liners or with a major budget. What keeps you going back to that region?

If you could imagine an image of the country, with a glowing red hue in the places that you realize are Slip-friendly, and that we could go to, that would be one. I traveled to Eureka in about ’94, just by myself, just riding around the whole Northwest, and I got a feeling for that whole area. From San Francisco all the way up to Portland. I just sort of new that when we have a band, and we are touring, this is a place I want to come through. I just kind of new those would be good towns for us, and I just wanted to go back. While I was traveling solo, I just met a lot of good people and folks I wanted to play for. So when we started to hit the road, that was one of the first places. Maybe it was just out of me purely wanting to go back there and make connections with people again.

So your first ever solo appearance is scheduled for later this month, and alot of people are getting really excited about the possibilities. What can we expect?

Right now what I’ve been thinking is I’ll get up there, I’ll have my boomerangs, I’ll be able to do some looping, but I also want to just do some solo guitar stuff. I’ve been working this month with some different tuning. Really enjoying having a really low register on the guitar. Tuning everything down. It kind of opens up the possibilities of the guitar as a solo instrument because it fills up a lot of the bass area. And I have some songs that have been on the backburner.

That doesn’t fit into The Slip?

Yeah, exactly…but you know, The Slip is more and more becoming something that can encompass the songs that I didn’t think that we would be able to play, because they were too folk, or singer/songwriter. But I’d like to do a mixture of that. Acoustic songs, textural, spontaneous creations and some deep guitar. I’ve really been enjoying some Moroccan music lately. So maybe some of that too. I really hope to give people a full experience in that sense, and then also just raw, acoustic guitar. Just cover a lot of ground that I just like doing by myself.

When you team up with Marco Benevento (keys) and Joe Russo (drums), now you’ve got essentially two top layers. How do you go about playing with a trio that is bass lacking.

Well usually when I’m playing with The Slip and Marc is covering the low end, I’m thinking of melody and harmony and filling both of those areas. If you think of the bass down here and the melody up here, to keep that middle space interesting you have to constantly try and fill in. But when I’m playing with Marco, he’s got a lot of that covered, so in a way it frees me up to just be pure melody. And he and I like chords alot so we have to give each other that space. Playing with Joe is really interesting too. He’s really full on. He’s a really intense player. He just loves to explore it all.

Marco is also really challenging to play with. He listens harder than just about any musician I’ve ever played with. He has such a response. And the biggest thing for me playing with Marco is his sense of humor, which he is able to put into his music, effortlessly. It’s amazing to me when someone can do that. Really translate their sense of humor into their music. When it’s improviastion, and you can put humor into it as easily as Marco does, it really pushes me to be more expressive.

What about the whole vibe of New York City, and the aura of Tribeca?

Yeah, it always sort of ups the drama for me when I go to New York City to play. Here’s this place, you can’t have a more melting pot than New York. The amount of music that has come out of this place. It’s the same as when we go to New Orleans. Those two towns especially. You get there, and it’s like “here we go”.

So there is word of some live Slip to be released on Rykodisc, but what about a solo Brad album?

Well, it’s not that far off. I recently got a computer. For the first time in my life, I have a computer. I’m a little behind the game. (laughs) Actually I had the computer sent to Jason Booth’s place first and he put all this software on it. All these programs to make music, and so I’ve been doing alot of that. That’s what I’ve pretty much spent the last month doing. I think a lot of the stuff, to me, there’s no point in trying to recreate this with The Slip. Maybe some of the stuff would be cool. And it’s mostly kind of organic. I’m not like doing alot of like techno beats, but I’ll find a next texture, a nice background. He gave me alot of these real industrial sounds, and I’m just trying to make these little pieces. Like I’ve been playing alot of slide on it…deep acoustic and slide. Just these little guitar pieces that I think could make a cool album.

And then looping?

Yup, some looping…a little bit of looping. I’ve been recording my piano, recording my furnace. Like all these sounds in my house. We’ve got all this percussion stuff. It’s something I’d like to see happen. I’d like to see it happen with Ryko. You know, maybe in a year…I’ve only had it for a month, so once I get it a little more together…record myself, keep the production costs low. People say that you know, the digital, you can hear the difference…but it can be so warm sounding to me. I mean I record something and listen back, and I just love it. I can’t wait to get home after this to get home and do some more. So it’s been just amazing. Yeah, I think it’s something we could see in the near future.

Brad’s solo gig will at Tribeca in New York City on February 27

All photos courtesy of Nick Fitanides

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