By Nick Millevoi
Of the many times I’ve seen guitarist Mick Barr perform, one of the most memorable was sometime in the mid-2010s at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn, New York. Barr was playing alongside force-of-nature drummer Marc Edwards. Over the course of 30 or so screaming minutes of improv, the duo ripped a hole through the musical cosmos. Sheets of sound flowed from Barr’s Boss Metal Zone–soaked Gibson SG and met Edwards’ dense, percussive blasts with an intense, unified vision that reminded me of a darker and more cutting version of John Coltrane and Rashied Ali’s free-jazz masterpiece Interstellar Space.
This set represented just one of many sides of Barr’s musical personality, but his sound is always recognizable. He’s long been a fixture of various New York experimental music scenes, equally at home shredding improv with free-jazz legends, ripping black metal with Krallice, writing chamber music for groups such as Wet Ink Ensemble and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, or making up half of the band Orthrelm, whose extremely complicated and extremely fast riffage 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 quite some time, it was only recently that Barr, who is in his mid-40s, thought to make an acoustic record. Late in 2020, when one of his neighbors suffered an apartment fire that damaged the guitarist’s own apartment, Barr and his partner were left living in a mostly empty building as they waited to move out. He decided to take advantage of a large, fire-damaged room in the apartment and recorded a set of solo pieces as well as a pair of multi-tracked pieces featuring an assorted collection of inexpensive acoustic instruments.
“I didn’t really like acoustic guitars; I found the shapes to be annoying for how I like to play.”—Mick Barr
Taken as a whole, these releases speak to the breadth of Barr’s sound. Upon That Which Is Not is a vast and meditative record that shows a new, more intimate, and patient side to the guitarist. He captured a warm, full-bodied tone from his Yamaha G-231 nylon-string as he played through a set of compositions that carry the hallmarks of his sound—repetitive chromatic passages, unresolved musical tension, and dissonant, sustained harmonies—but feel as though they’ve been refined down to only 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 considers them to be two separate albums with two completely different instrumentations. Recorded using only acoustic instruments—though guitar only appears on Eiraddfa—the sound of these records conveys the heavier and harsher side of Barr’s music while referencing Azerbaijani folk music and imaginary Middle Eastern motifs.
Across these three releases, Barr has opened up worlds of possibility. We chatted about how he came to finally 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 to be annoying for how I like to play. For years, I would be trying to play songs I wrote on electric on acoustic and the shape of the guitar would make it hard to get into the upper register. But I’ve always hated amps, too, so I’d mainly play my electric guitar unplugged; for years, that was how I wrote most of my music. After I’d written something, I’d try it on an amp and it would sound totally different but I’d just go with it.
I wanted something that would sound final while I was playing 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 music and Persian music, so I found a tar. But having all these movable frets, it was hard to work with. Then I went to a 12-string banjo and I liked that but it was just so heavy and hard to travel with.
About four or five years ago, I traded Colin Marston [Barr’s bandmate in Krallice] an old Crate amp for a Yamaha G-231. I instantly started writing music on it.
Why was it that you preferred to play unplugged?
It was more about factors of my life, not so much that I was into the sound of it. I didn’t actually own an amp for a long time—anytime that I played shows I’d either borrow an amp or plug straight into the PA. And, for a lot of years, I didn’t really live anywhere. I’d stay with people for months at a time and be in their space and didn’t want to make a racket, but had to write stuff, so I’d sit in a corner and play unplugged. Also, I’ve never been able to figure out tone at all, I have a weird block in my ears where I am unable to get a good tone.
I’d like to politely disagree! I’ve always thought of your guitar tone as definitive, consistent, and decisive. Speaking of tone, your sound on Upon That Which Is Not is so good. How did you record that?
After the fire, there was a huge hole in the ceiling in our old bedroom and we had to move everything out of there, so I just had this large, open, empty room. I’d already been writing these songs and I liked the sound of this guitar, especially the bass response, so I asked Colin which mic I should get and he recommended an Audio-Technica AT4033. I set it up and started playing the songs in this room and it just sounded great right off the bat; I didn’t have to do much exploring, thankfully, because that’s not really my thing. I normally just set up and go for it. I sent the recording over to Colin and he put all the finishing touches on it. Most of the reverb is the natural room reverb. I don’t think he did much processing, but I haven’t actually looked at the final files. Colin tries to keep things as real as they are in the moment.
What tuning are you using on these songs?
When I got this guitar, I just wanted to write something entirely on this. For the past couple years, I’ve been playing in this cover band called Black Sabbath Cover Band Rehearsal and about half the songs in the set are in C# standard [standard tuning, down a minor third]. That was a tuning I’d never tried before. So right off the bat, it began to inspire new riffs and new ways of thinking about it.
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Blwch-ariam/Eiraddfa is one release on your Bandcamp page, but is in fact two separate records. 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’ve been gifted instruments or found some instruments for very cheap at thrift stores. On the first half, Blwch-ariam, there’s a dulcimer, which I found for like eight dollars at a thrift store, a Judy Harp that my sister gave to me, a piece of wall art that has strings on it and that I use like a drum, the tar, and banjo. On the second half is the Yamaha, banjo, and a frame drum.
The songs on the acoustic guitar record were written over time and I’d been slowly working on them for the past year or two, but for these, everyday I’d walk into the room, write a few riffs on one of the instruments, track them, and overdub all of the other instruments on top of it. A lot less planning went into it; every day I was making one or two songs.
We were still at that apartment in that huge open room and all I had was a mic and a chair and all these instruments and I’d just track. At the time, all of our neighbors had left the building, so I was able to be as loud as I wanted. I wanted to take advantage of the situation while I had it.
Also, I wanted to get rid of all those instruments and thought I should first make a record with them. Of course, then I thought maybe I should keep them and do something else with them—and now I’m stuck owning this really crappy old dulcimer!
The vibe of these records implies a lot of cultural traditions without copying anything specific.
As far as inspiration, I can’t really point to anything, I just tried to make sure every song is not just one riff. I listen to a lot of Azerbaijani and Persian stuff, but I haven’t studied that music in any sort of academic way. I don’t know any of the modes or scales or any of that world. I’ve always liked to listen to it, but it’s more of a sonic influence. There’s a problem with culturally appropriating stuff with for own gain, but there’s also a side that’s wanting to be inspired by everything in the world. There’s a lot of that in Sun Ra’s work, which I love—it’s some of my favorite stuff of his, when he gets into the world of weird exotica. But I wasn’t trying to do anything like that; these were just the instruments that I had and that’s what came out.