Brad Barr is quiet and calm on the phone. Contemplative. Then there are little microbursts of enthusiasm‚ accenting his speech‚ followed by pauses of consideration before he continues describing a song or a piece of advice given by a musician friend. He is best known as a singer‚ songwriter‚ and guitarist for both The Slip and Surprise Me Mr. Davis‚ two bands with whom he has crossed the country dozens of times playing mostly electric‚ passionate rock shows to each band's dedicated‚ sweaty following.
In 2005‚ Brad's life was not so certain. His band‚ The Slip‚ was in flux. He had decided to leave his longtime home‚ Boston‚ and his longtime girl‚ for Montreal. Luckily‚ before he left‚ he was given a mission by Josh Rosenthal‚ owner of Tompkins Square Records. Josh had used one of Brad's solo acoustic guitar instrumentals on a record called Imaginational Anthems Vol. 1‚ and he liked it so much he asked Brad to record a whole album of solo guitar pieces. That fall‚ new to Montreal‚ Brad recorded nearly 20 instrumentals by himself in a small apartment with a mic and some guitars. By the spring of 2006‚ the album‚ aptly named The Fall Apartment‚ was ready. Though it took nearly two years for Tompkins Square to release it‚ the album is now available.
While I spoke with Brad‚ on September 18‚ he opened an email that told him that both and Newberry Comics had sold out of The Fall Apartment. His voice raised in pitch a bit; he was surprised and happy. He paused‚ and within moments‚ he was back to talking about playing solo guitar and what it taught him.
Brad: I had decided to leave Boston and split up with the girl I had been with for a long time. The Slip was undergoing a transition; we didn't know what our next move was. In fact‚ we had just started recording Eisenhower‚ which‚ for all we knew‚ was going to be our farewell record. All we knew was we needed a change. I was leaving the city I had been in for ten years‚ leaving the girl I had been with for seven years‚ and who knew what was going to happen with the band I had been in for forever. So I got to Montreal‚ and I just had a little room‚ one microphone and a few guitars‚ and I just started recording these songs.
The first few were the cover songs. I always loved this version of "Maria La O‚" off this great compilation of Cuban music‚ The Songs of Ernesto Lecuona. He was one of the great rumba bandleaders of the '40s. And then "Gin Gin‚" by Le Trio Ferret‚ which is French gypsy music. I think I recorded 15 or 20 little guitar works‚ more or less to keep myself busy as fall gave way to winter; you really gotta have something to keep you occupied in Montreal. If you don't have something to keep you going indoors‚ you might just go out of your mind or run outside naked.
It was fun. Just me and the guitar. A couple of overdubs here and there‚ but the thing for me was to be able to play a song from start to finish‚ because I wasn't really going to be doctoring them up at all -- to know these songs so well that I could be loose with them but play them from start to finish the way I wanted them. It was just like an exercise. That was sort of my process. And by spring of 2006‚ I had the whole album together‚ and I gave it to Josh and he was happy with it. We were going to try to release it in the following fall‚ 2006‚ but things got crazy with the Slip‚ and things got crazy with him‚ and all of a sudden two years went by‚ and now the record's coming out now. But it was definitely a record made in this transition period. These songs were kind of just there to take my mind off the struggle of transitioning out of one mode of life…. And really‚ transitioning from one identity to another. In a way. And I say that -- identity -- I mean‚ when you're with somebody for a long time and you separate‚ you kind of have to let something die.
Moving to a new city‚ all of your easy default places to go and people to see‚ suddenly that changes‚ and these instrumental songs were sort of‚ they proved to be a continuum for me. They stayed true. Whereas a lot of the songs I'd written before that‚ in the years before‚ suddenly didn't make a lot of sense to me. Music that I recorded with The Slip‚ stuff we had done‚ I didn't know what to do with it. I was feeling like a bit of a different person. But this music seemed like something that had been with me all along‚ and made a lot of sense to me. Even now‚ three years after it was recorded‚ it still makes a lot of sense to me. It's got a lot of personality‚ but it's also got a lot of room for people to…. It's kind of a blank slate in a way. I don't know if that makes sense to you. But to me‚ my voice isn't on there‚ so I don't have to sit there and listen to how I would have sung it better. I feel like they're all just these folk songs that came out sounding like folk songs‚ so in a way they're a bit timeless.
It's interesting that you say you don't have to listen back and think of how you would have sung something differently. Do you ever feel that way about your playing‚ where you think‚ Oh‚ I should have done this or arranged this differently?
Oddly‚ no. Maybe it's because they're either songs that were tight little arrangements‚ like "Sarah Through the Wall" or "Gin Gin‚" where there wasn't really any improvising‚ so either it's‚ Did I get it right from start to finish? or‚ Does it have the right swing? Do I accent the notes the way I wanted? So it's all about the accents‚ and how do you make this almost feel like a voice without it being a voice? And I feel like I did that well. And then the rest of the record was more or less improvising on the spot. Just hitting record‚ maybe having an idea‚ a sort of tonal palette -- definitely a tonal palate‚ a sort of rough song form or really primitive melody idea‚ and just driving a straight line through it. Those are sort of the two different things represented there. For that reason‚ there wasn't a lot of room for me to be critical about it.
That must have been liberating.
Yeah‚ it was liberating‚ and revelatory‚ too. What elicits that kind of response‚ what frame of mind and recording technique -- not necessarily just the technique‚ but the frame of mind and style of music can elicit that kind of general contentedness with it‚ even three years down the road. It's something I consider now. It's something that's in the moment‚ and it's cold out‚ and you're almost in a dream state in your house. There's no pressure and you're making these recordings‚ in a big way‚ just for yourself. That's a bit piece of the puzzle‚ I think. As much as I knew Josh wanted some music‚ it was also just a big‚ not to sound cliché‚ but it was therapeutic for me in a real honest sense of the word. I had nothing else to do‚ really.

Are there acoustic guitar players that you've listened to or have influenced you and made you think you'd like to do something in this style‚ or did it come to you more gradually over the years?
I'd say a lot of both. There's a handful of people I could point to and events that got me going on this‚ but early on‚ in early high-school days‚ the first guitar player in The Slip‚ back when we were just a high school band‚ back in 1991‚ that was sort of his bag. He was a brilliant‚ brilliant guy -- and he still is‚ a friend of mine. We would just sit around and play fingerstyle acoustic guitars. I was still pretty much into a lot of Led Zeppelin‚ and Grateful Dead and stuff‚ and he wasn't into any of that‚ or anything in particular. He just liked music and liked how cool it felt to play it‚ and he and I used to sit around and play acoustics‚ not singing‚ just playing and riffing and jamming with each other‚ and I think that's where I first got a love for that. And being a guitarist‚ being a musician‚ I've always wanted to try to set it free. Tame the beast and then set it free‚ you know.
But there have also been some definite moments of acoustic guitar rocking that have been pivotal for me. Early on‚ definitely some of that Led Zeppelin stuff‚ the Jimmy Page solo guitar stuff. "Black Mountain Side." That might be on electric guitar‚ but…. And later on‚ actually I did a piece for State of Mind on Lenny Breau. He made a record called Cabin Fever. It's just him hanging out with a nylon-string classical guitar‚ just basically jamming with himself in the studio. Guys like D'Gary‚ who's an acoustic fingerstyle guitarist -- he may play with a pick sometimes‚ but I think he's mostly fingerstyle -- from Madagascar. That stuff a few years ago was really inspiring to me‚ just how the acoustic guitar is unlimiting. It has its limits‚ but when you start working with those‚ it's like a big bull‚ trying to ride that thing and wrestle it down. You develop different techniques to make it easier and play quicker.
There's another guitar player called Elliot Sharp. I don't know if you're familiar with him‚ but he's out of the downtown New York scene. I had a record of acoustic music by him‚ which was over the top. Just one guy with an acoustic‚ but just freak noise shit. He plays a lot with Nels Cline‚ John Zorn…. That record was really inspiring‚ in terms of‚ Oh shit‚ that guy is making the acoustic-guitar fucking hurricane. I want to check that out. And just listening to that stuff can be really freeing. It's the old adage: You imitate it‚ then you assimilate those techniques into your playing‚ and then you innovate on it and put your own spin on it.