By Nick Millevoi
Of the many times I’ve seen guitarist Mick Barr perform, one of the most memorable was in the mid-2010s at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn, New York. Barr played alongside force-in-nature drummer Marc Edwards. During thirty minutes of screaming improvisation, the duo made a hole in the musical cosmos. Sheets of sound flowed from Barr’s Boss Metal Zone Gibson SG and met Edwards’ dense, punchy explosions with an intense, unified vision that reminded me of a darker, sharper version of the masterpiece. of free-jazz by John Coltrane and Rashied Ali Interstellar space.
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This set was only one of many aspects of Barr’s musical personality, but his sound is still recognizable. He has long been a staple of various experimental New York music scenes, equally at home shredding improvisation with free jazz legends, ripping black metal with Krallice, writing chamber music for bands such as Wet Ink Ensemble and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, or composing half of the group Orthrelm, whose extremely complicated and extremely fast riffing established him as one of the most visionary electric guitarists of the late 20th century.
While he’s been applying his signature vocabulary to a wide range of musical situations for some time, it wasn’t until recently that Barr, who is in his mid-forties, thought about making an acoustic record. In late 2020, when one of his neighbors suffered an apartment fire that damaged the guitarist’s own apartment, Barr and his partner found themselves in a nearly empty apartment building waiting to move out. He decided to take advantage of a large room in the apartment damaged by fire and recorded a set of solo pieces as well as a pair of multitrack pieces featuring a matching collection of inexpensive acoustic instruments.
âI didn’t really like acoustic guitars; I found the shapes boring for the way I like to play.
Taken as a whole, these versions speak to the breadth of Barr’s sound. On what is not is a vast and meditative record which shows a new, more intimate and patient side to the guitarist. He captured a warm, full-bodied tone of his Yamaha G-231 Nylon Rope as he performed through a set of compositions that carry the hallmarks of his sound – repetitive chromatic passages, unresolved musical tension, and dissonant, sustained harmonies – but which feel as though they have been honed to the point of their most essential parts.
On the other hand, Blwch-ariam / Eiraddfa is an avant-garde tour de force. Released in a single digital package on Barr’s Bandcamp page, the guitarist sees them as two separate albums with two completely different instrumentations. Recorded using only acoustic instruments, although guitar only appears on Eiraddfaâthe sound of these records conveys the heavier and harsher side of Barr’s music while also making reference to Azerbaijani folk music and imaginary motifs from the Middle East.
Through these three versions, Barr opened up worlds of possibilities. We discussed how he eventually came to love the acoustic guitar.
How did you end up making an acoustic guitar record?
I didn’t really like acoustic guitars; I found the shapes boring for the way I like to play. For years I tried to play songs I had written in electric over acoustic, and the shape of the guitar made it difficult to get into the upper register. But I’ve always hated amps too, so I mostly played my unplugged electric guitar; for years that’s how I wrote most of my music. After writing something I would try it out on an amp and it sounded totally different but I just went with it.
I wanted something that would definitely sound while I played it unplugged and give me a better feel for the sound of the instrument. At first I didn’t want to have an acoustic guitar, and I was into all this Azerbaijani and Persian music, so I found a tar. But with all of those moving frets, it was hard to work with. Then I switched to a 12 string banjo and liked it, but it was so heavy and hard to carry.
About four or five years ago I traded Colin Marston [Barrâs bandmate in Krallice] an old Crate amp for a Yamaha G-231. I immediately started to write music on it.
Why did you prefer to play unplugged?
It was more about the factors in my life, not so much that I was in the sound. I haven’t owned an amp for a long time – every time I played concerts, I would borrow an amp or plug it directly into the sound system. And, for many years, I really didn’t live anywhere. I stayed with people for months and was in their space and didn’t want to racketeer, but had to write stuff, so I would sit in a corner and play unplugged. Also, I have never been able to understand the sound, I have a strange blockage in my ears where I am unable to get a good sound.
I would like to politely disagree! I have always considered your guitar sound to be definitive, coherent and decisive. Speaking of tone, your sound is on On what is not It is so good. How did you record this?
After the fire, there was a huge hole in the ceiling of our old room and we had to move everything out of there, so I just had this big, open, empty room. I had written these songs before and loved the sound of this guitar, especially the bass response, so I asked Colin which mic I should buy and he recommended an Audio-Technica AT4033. I set it up and started playing the songs in that room and it sounded great from the start; I didn’t have to do a lot of exploring, luckily, because that’s not really my thing. Normally, I just settle in and go for it. I sent the recording to Colin and he put the finishing touches on it. Most of the reverberation is the natural reverberation of the room. I don’t think it did a lot of processing, but I didn’t really look at the final files. Colin tries to keep things as real as they are now.
What tuning do you use on these songs?
When I got this guitar, I just wanted to write something entirely about it. For the past two years, I’ve played in this cover band called Black Sabbath Cover Band Rehearsal and about half of the songs in the set are in standard C #. [standard tuning, down a minor third]. It was a setting I had never tried before. From the start, it started to inspire new riffs and new ways of thinking.
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Blwch-ariam / Eiraddfa is an output on your Bandcamp page, but is actually two separate recordings. What makes them different?
They were both made simultaneously, but they were both made with different concepts in mind and different instrumentation. Over the years, I have been offered instruments or found instruments very cheaply in thrift stores. In the first semester, Blwch-ariam, there’s a dulcimer, which I found for eight dollars at a thrift store, a Judy Harp my sister gave me, a wall art piece with strings that I use as a drum, the tar, and banjo. On the second half is the Yamaha, the banjo and a frame drum.
The songs on the acoustic guitar record were written over time and I had been working on them slowly for a year or two, but for these every day I walked into the room, wrote a few riffs on one. instruments, follow them and layer all other instruments on top of them. There was much less planning; every day I did a song or two.
We were still in this apartment in this huge open room and all I had was a microphone and a chair and all those instruments and I just followed. At the time, all of our neighbors had left the building, so I was able to be as strong as I wanted. I wanted to take advantage of the situation as long as I had it.
Also, I wanted to get rid of all those instruments and thought I had to make a record with them first. Of course, so I thought maybe I should just keep them and do something else with them – and now I’m stuck owning that really shitty old dulcimer!
The vibe of these records involves a lot of cultural traditions without copying anything specific.
As far as inspiration goes, I can’t really point anything out, I just tried to make sure each song isn’t just one riff. I listen to a lot of Azerbaijani and Persian music, but I have not studied this music academically. I don’t know any of the modes or scales or any of this world. I’ve always liked listening to it, but it’s more of a sonic influence. There’s a problem with culturally appropriating things for their own gain, but there’s also a side that wants to be inspired by everything in the world. There’s a lot of that in Sun Ra’s work, which I adore – it’s one of my favorite things about him, when he walks into the world of weird exoticism. But I wasn’t trying to do something like that; it was just the instruments I had and that’s what came out.