For starters, Mick Barr is not in Hella. Never was. Sure, the diminutive, scraggly-haired, baseball-capped experi-metal guitarist overlord has collabbed with the San Franisco spazz-proggers’ drummer, Zach Hill, on a slew of intense and brain-scorching shredders. But those were just one-offs. “I’m not a member of Hella,” volunteers Barr. “I just wanted to make sure, as more than a few times I’ve heard that I was a member of Hella.”
With that minutia aside, beardo Barr—whose dizzyingly gnarly six-string fingerfucks earned him an unrestricted grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts a few years back—is indeed in Brooklyn black metal wizards Krallice, and he’s also half of Orthrelm, the sole mastermind behind Octis and Ocrilim, and a veteran of stints with Weasel Walter’s brilliant “brutal prog” freaks the Flying Luttenbachers. Among others.
As of late, Barr has been ridiculously busy. In September, he released an LP under his own name for the first time (the overlooked Coiled Malescence (Safety Meeting), a 40-minute butchery of precisely constructed solo guitar mastery. He’s played gigs with Krallice and is now undertaking a hefty schedule of solo and collaborative sets with some of New York’s finest composers and improvisers, including drummer Mike Pride, Weasel Walter co-conspirator-slash-Cecil Taylor vet Marc Edwards and saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Sound of the City got the lowdown from Barr via email.
You’ve played with Mike Pride and Jon Irabagon several times. How did you originally meet Mike and Jon?
[Tuesday night’s show at Death by Audio] will actually be the third time we’ve played together. I met Mike many years ago, in 2003 or so, when Orthrelm played with an early duo version of his band Period. Me and him had been trying to organize a time to jam ever since but both kept dropping the ball. I met Jon just last year at moers festival in Germany, where Orthrelm played, as well as Jon’s trio. We hit it off and made plans to play together when we returned to NYC.
Are you now an “official” member of their I Don’t Hear Nothin’ but the Blues project or is this a new venture for the three of you? I’ve read you are working on an LP.
It is still Nothin’ but the Blues. What does official mean again? Yes, I think we are planning on releasing a CD of some sort next year. But “permanent” and “official” are kind of meaningless terms to me in the greater scheme of music. Nothing is ever permanent or official.
When you collaborate with two players like Mike and Jon (winner of 2008’s Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition), who have serious jazz roots, what is your approach to playing with them? Do you play differently? Is it prepared sets or purely improvised? What do you bring to the table?
The sets are purely improvised so far. I don’t have much of a different approach so much as I have to focus on the moment a bit more, as opposed to playing written and rehearsed material where I am focused on what’s coming next. I like playing with Mike and Jon as the vibe is to never stop going. I get uncomfortable with a lot of dead air in improvised music.
Do you get any flack from black metal fanatics who don’t “get” that you play with jazz figures?
No more than the usual Krallice shit-talk.
How much of a role does jazz/free jazz contribute to your own playing?
I think a lot. I’ve always been interested in trying to write music that sounded improvised but wasn’t.
Which are you more comfortable with: playing a solo set, playing with, say Jon and Mike or with [Talibam! drummer[ Kevin Shea or gigging with Krallice?
There is no one comfortable musical setting. Sometimes I want to play entirely composed music; other times I want to show up and wing it. Solo sets are great as I don’t have to coordinate gear or anything. I hate gear.
I read that your favorite jazz record is John Coltrane and Rashied Ali’s Interstellar Space. Have you heard Nels Cline and Greg Bendian’s interpretation of that album? Are there avant-garde/jazz guitarists that helped shape your own style?
I have not listened to the Nels Cline record yet; been meaning to for a long time. There’s not too many jazz guitarists I listen to other than a little Sonny Sharrock. In general, I’m not overly focused on guitarists and technique. Mike Eber from Zevious rules, though. I listen to a bit of oud and tar music, which are kind of like guitars. But I usually tend to focus a bit too much on metal.
You’ve played with some exceptional drummers: Pride, Shea, Nevai, Hill, Walter and Lev Weinstein [in Krallice].
Yes, I feel fortunate to have played with so many amazing drummers.
Mick Barr live in Connecticut, 2011
Sound of the City interviewed Nondor Nevai and he said this about playing with you: “It is quantum-physically impossible to keep up with Barr. Fortunately, I can (instantly) compose in 128th-note time, and perform 32nd notes on my feet while pressing 64th with my hands, so I can at least PLAY WITH him. Mick and I share an insectoid-thrash mind-meld wherein we can play our songs BEFORE THEY’RE WRITTEN. This method of writing has been designated as “free improvisation.” But I consider our oeuvre as mostly through-composed and stored in an extra personal memory bank we can access individually or together.”
Sounds about right. Except for the first line.
Walter’s ugEXPLODE label has released a number of duo CDs of you and Nondor, and you’ve played together live. What’s it like playing with him?
Nondor is a force of nature. Playing alongside him is a challenge, as well as a fulfillment. He has a very unique style of playing, down to how he holds the sticks, how he tunes his drums and how far apart he keeps his drums set up from each other.
Nondor is really out there. Do you have a story of a show or experience with Nondor that stands out?
We played a show at Issue Project Room sharing the bill with Melvin van Peebles doing a spoken-word set. He told some stories, took Q & A. Then me and Nondor awkwardly destroyed. Nondor threw a cinder block and made some off-color remarks. We’ve only performed twice.
What are the contrasts in playing with Weasel, Kevin and Nondor? Is there a level of different preparation you need to do when you play with each of them?
Weasel is a hyper-aware powerhouse, constantly reacting and building. Kevin plays on 10 at all times and fills space better than anybody. And Nondor I’ve already gone into. I haven’t played with Weasel in a while now, and that needs to be remedied.
As you get older, do you see yourself veering away from a solid band situation like Krallice and going into more of a jazz/experimental direction where you collaborate with tons of players and play show all over Brooklyn? It seems like that’s happening right now.
I don’t think so. I’ve been a bit more openminded to the jazz vibe recently. Playing improvised concerts is a bit less taxing as I don’t have to rehearse anything beforehand, whereas whenever I do a solo show, rehearsing pretty much takes over all my guitar time for a few days before. I can’t really forecast what I’ll want to do as I get older but I’ve got no interest in just being in a traditional rock band setting.
Thankfully, Krallice doesn’t fall into that category as we don’t tour much outside of the NYC area, and we tend to focus on writing music as opposed to performing. And I really value the time I get to play with those guys. Recently, I’ve been excited about composing for chamber ensembles. I’ve been working on a few things that will hopefully be performed next year.
Mick Barr plays Death by Audio tonight (with Marc Edwards) and tomorrow (with Jon Irabagon and Mike Pride).