Music

The Barr Brothers’ story: New England roots, northern exposure

Brad Barr (center), brother Andrew, and Sarah Pagé perform as the Barr Brothers.
Brigitte Henry
Brad Barr (center), brother Andrew, and Sarah Pagé perform as the Barr Brothers.

In a way, this is the age-old story of having to see about a girl.

There was also a fire involved. And thin apartment walls.

In the early 1990s, Brad and Andrew Barr were two-thirds of the Slip, an avant-rock jam-trio born at Tabor Academy in Marion.

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In the mid-’90s, as Berklee College students, they rocked the Middle East, the Paradise, and Somerville Theatre.

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Today, the Rhode Island natives are two-thirds of the Montreal-based alt-rock/folk-roots/blues trio the Barr Brothers — Canadian stars complete with two Juno nods and a headline billing at the Montreal International Jazz Fest.

Here’s where the girl comes in.

While playing a Slip show in Montreal in 2003, the club caught fire.

“Everyone had to run out of the venue. Alarms went off, fire trucks came. Outside, my brother met the waitress and offered her his coat,” says Brad Barr, 42. “That was it, but he remembered her. A year later, we were in Canada, and he said, ‘I’m gonna call that club and see if that waitress wants to have coffee.’ And he did. And she did. And in 2005, he said, ‘I want to move to Montreal to be with Meghan.’ She’s now our manager and the mother of their child.”

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When Andrew moved to Montreal, Brad followed. They were met with another twist of fate.

In his first apartment in Montreal, Brad Barr could hear his neighbor practicing the harp through his bedroom walls.

“Before I met her, I’d sit and listen to this beautiful harp,” he says.

That neighbor turned out to be Canadian Sarah Pagé, who fit right in with the New England boys’ psychedelia-meets-Americana vibe, and shared their love of sonic playfulness and the experimental.

At any time, any one of them might pick up anything that needs playing — and they do mean anything.

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Brad, for example, often rocks a fishing tackle box guitar, or threads a guitar to play like a violin. Andrew has made his own PVC-pipe xylophone. Pagé uses Kleenex-box signal-splitters and an electric sarangi, plays a mountain dulcimer like a violin, and built a pickup system for the bass end of her harp.

‘Our parents weren’t musical, just really nice. I started playing music when I was about 12. It was really just Andrew and I learning about instruments together that pushed us on.’

“As far as improvisation, we’ve just always been inclined to do it,” says Brad.

“You start to realize almost any sounds can be used musically,” says Andrew, 40. “The sounds of airplanes overhead and washing machines droning and birds chirping create rhythms and melodies.”

They might, for example, “throw dried corn inside a drum; tie thread to your guitar, [or wire] your harp through a wah-wah pedal,” Andrew says.

“As far back as I can remember, I would assemble little percussion set-ups out of pots and pans and soup spoons; I would build rubber-band guitars,” Andrew says

Their sound has left a mark in quite a few countries: They’ve spent the past month touring the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Belgium with the War on Drugs.

And aside from Juno nominations — the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys — in 2013 and 2015, they’ve played the Newport Folk Festival, filled Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, and twice appeared on David Letterman’s show. Just before his retirement, Letterman gushed after their performance of “Even the Darkness Has Arms,” “I would like to come to Montreal with you. . . . . Paul [Shaffer] and I will come up. We’d like to manage the band.”

The Barr Brothers are returning Wednesday to their old stamping grounds, at the Sinclair in Cambridge, in support of their new release “Queens of the Breakers” (the title track refers to Newport’s Breakers mansion in their home state).

As young boys, the brothers lived for a while in Tiverton, R.I. — the Slip song “Mothwing Bite” contains the refrain: “If you ever get back to Little Compton” — but they mostly grew up in Providence.

When Andrew was around 11, parents Nancy and Philip Barr sought out a drummer from Mali who was living in Providence to give him lessons.

“Our parents weren’t musical, just really nice,” Brad says with a laugh. “I started playing music when I was about 12. It was really just Andrew and I learning about instruments together that pushed us on. At some point, watching ‘Back to the Future,’ seeing Michael J. Fox rip [guitar] solos really got us into it.”

They attended Tabor Academy after Brad’s friends “sold me on the music department there. They had a crazy music program and I knew that’s what I wanted.”

Andrew followed, and the Slip was soon formed with classmate and bassist Marc Friedman.

Together, the band members attended Berklee College and played the Boston club scene.

“We’d open for bands, get to know them, get their mailers, and then say, ‘They’re going to North Carolina? Holy [expletive]! We should go to North Carolina!’ ’’ says Brad with a laugh. “We were inspired. We had faith in ourselves.”

The Barr Brothers’ sound has, naturally, matured over time. “It’s less precious,” Brad says. “I spend far less time trying to mimic my heroes,” says Andrew.

Having played together since their tennis racquet-
guitar days, the brothers share a natural connection.

“There’s a bit of extra telepathy between musical siblings,” says Andrew. “There’s so much that doesn’t need to be discussed.”

Though they’re now permanent residents of Quebec, they maintain US citizenship. And as they get ready to head back to Boston, Andrew waxes poetic about the old days downstairs at the Middle East.

“I remember one night when the Slip, the band Lettuce, a band called Actual Proof . . . and a West African drum troupe all packed in. We probably had music going from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. and basically never stopped. I just remember everybody playing in each other’s band,” he says. It was “a time of massive growth for all of the musicians coming up together in the mid-’90s in Boston.”

THE BARR BROTHERS

At the Sinclair, Cambridge, Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets $20, www.sinclaircambridge.com

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com.