Interview with Mick Barr

Photo: Justina Villanueva

Mick Barr’s newest “12th Chamber” is not a soundtrack for one of Dario Argento’s movies. But easily could have become it. Despite the choice of instruments it seems that for the first time we have a chance to hear Barr’s composers skills. Purely. Starting with Krallice, Mick Barr used to combine technical aspect of his work with energetics of black-metallic-ambient-messa.

Inspired by hardcore scene, Mick Barr, somehow found the comfort zone for his “inner composer” – in between of tension and melody. In this sense, newest “12th Chamber” sounds like something already known. But at the same time, Barr keeps on surprising you with each chord and pause. And incredible moodiness of his universe.

In the interview for Metal Addicts, we spoke with Mick Barr – about structural aspects of writing and energetics of a composition, about Krallice and hardcore years, about chamber music and approaches to writing.

You just finished your work on chamber-music-record – “12th Chamber”. And we all know you, Mick Barr as musician of many styles and the guy working with various musical forms. Could you please tell me a little bit about the record itself – how it all came about and how hard it was for you to put it all together ?

Greetings, yes I’m finally going to be releasing a collection of my chamber music, titled “12th Chamber”. it features 3 pieces: a string trio, a trio for piano violin and cello, both performed by ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), and an organ and vocal piece performed by Judith Berkson. also included in the release is the guitar versions of each piece, titled “Qurotenthrough II”. this project began about 10 years ago when I was asked about writing a string quartet. I had been wanting to write “classical” music for a while, but it didn’t come very easy as I’m not very educated in music, mostly just a self-taught guitar player. But I found a method for composing the music on guitar and transposing it for the other instruments.

Within chamber format the energetics of songs would obviously be different. Doesn’t it feels like you’re changing your musical accents ?

Not necessarily, since I wrote most of it on guitar. I think it’s similar to my Ocrilim style of writing, just placed in a different setting on different instruments. I figured out the range of each instrument I was writing for and kept the parts in that range. and just tried to write what I imagined might sound good when played on that instrument. I tried consciously to not place too much emphasis on dynamics as I prefer classical music to not dip into the quiet realms too often. that seems to work best in a live setting, but doesn’t really translate onto recordings as well. listening to classical music at home I’m constantly having to turn the volume up and down.

Your recent records as Ocrilim released after a few years of silence sounds not like something you did before. But more of a journey through sound-landscapes. What drove you into that direction ?  

Yes, I recorded and released “Plvence Abrost R Msitloun”, and “The Great Silence And Emptiness” while in quarantine. honestly, my Ocrilim material has always been similar in my mind. It’s usually songs between 10 and 20 minutes long, with lots of different parts. usually just guitar, sometimes its distorted, sometimes It’s clean, occasionally I’ll add vocals or bass.

And how much your methods and approaches to work depends on creative tasks you have and even more – ideas, in the core of composition ?

I tend to avoid writing conceptually and try to keep things without any pre-conceived plan or outcome. I prefer to just let the music take its own shape using my few methods.

Over the years you’ve been frequently asked about improvisational component of your work. Do you have a strict division between improvisation and composing or the difference plays role when you’re performing life ?

Improvising and composing are very different disciplines, and I approach each very differently. And I tend to never mix the 2; my improvised music is usually entirely improvised and my composed music is usually entirely composed. Also, my improvised music is almost always a collaboration with other improvisers, as I don’t enjoy improvising alone, at least not when performing. It’s a nice freeing feeling to arrive at a show with no idea of what will happen, just start playing with someone and interacting on the spot.

You noticed once that with Krallice you mostly focus on writing rather than playing and performing life. While for some artists this connection with the listener is a consistent part of their creativity. How important is it for you personally or it varies ?

It varies as most things do, but in general having a connection with an audience has never been a vital part of my creative process. it seems like some bands and artists write music based on audience reaction, we tend to write based on internal reaction. and for me it seems the less we perform, the better it is for us. we tend to use performances as an excuse to push us to finish writing material. like we will decide to play 5 new songs at a show, so then we need to bust our asses to get them ready in time. and our very few tours have kind of been used as an excuse to practice material for recording when we return home. we like playing shows, and hanging out with people who come see us, but usually don’t play more than around 5 times a year, and usually just in New York.

You’ve been recording different minimalistic material since the early 2000’s. And then, in 2007 with Colin Marston you co-founded Krallice. But even though, you’ve always been exploring the boarders of the genre, what made you to get to something traditional, in a sense ?

Well, I suppose I had always wanted to do some traditional metal in a sense. I had been listening to it since I first got into music, but never found like-minded people to pursue it with. but that was fine, I just wanted to play music whatever the kind, and I was probably happier working on weirder less traditional music with my friends than I would have been doing something traditionally metal with strangers. but then in the early 2000’s I met Colin and I found a like-minded friend who was both into weirdo music and metal. He brought in Lev [Weinstein] and Nick[McMaster], and we found similar connections.

Hardcore-punk was an introduction for your musical career. You used to play a lot of hardcore being a teenager. How did you discovered the hardcore scene itself and what can you say about that primary stage of your career ?

When I was growing up, the hardcore scene was the only scene in town. It was a pretty open-minded scene at the time. Even though hardcore was the main thing happening, there were metal-bands, ska-bands, alternative rock, all sorts of music happening at the hardcore shows. I can say that the openness of it helped me feel like I could do whatever music I wanted at any time.

Even though hardcore and punk-rock are quite limited within their form, but there’s also such thing as attitude following it. And in the context of Krallice, there are some punk-components within your debut album. How important that hardcore-DIY-attitude for these days and how was it back then, when you just started your career as a band ?

It’s a part of me and my upbringing, so it’s very important but not something I can see objectively. But so are most other forms of music and experiences. I won’t say I’m ideologically attached to the DIY ethos, but it’s much easier and more freeing to not get too many outsiders involved in the music presentation and release. Also most labels didn’t want to release my music, so I was on my own to get my thing going. And that’s still the case.

Some of the artists I was lucky enough to interview noticed that the general intensity of their work reflects the writing process. So this intensity becomes a stylistic component of the music written. How much these factors influence you while writing ?  

Intensity is a bit of a by-product for me. I try to live as calm and quiet a life as I can. But I am also a pretty nervous and anxious person, and I think that aspect is reflected in the music. My writing process is usually me playing my electric guitar unplugged by myself, sometimes outside if possible. but metal on the whole generally calms me down. death metal is downright soothing, and I’m not exaggerating.

It seems to me that after a few records, “Diotima” became the one where you really find the balance between technical aspect of your work and atmosphere. It’s very heavy – emotionally. And within last record of yours – “Go Be Forgotten” you created something almost ambient. Is it important for you to have a certain idea about the sound of the whole record, or it usually comes as collection of a songs ?

It’s usually just a collection of songs from that time period. some records have songs that we started working on years before. but we also like to let things take their own shape in the moment, which generally helps to thematically link things. that and the recording process, which Colin may have more of a conceptual idea for.

And at the same time, looking through various releases of yours I can’t but notice how many components you usually add to your play. Whether these are progressive chords on “Years Past Matter” or your jazz-experiments. But are there any components you, as musician gravitate towards ? Some rhythmical structures or melodic lines that always present in your play no matter of style ?

Nothing that, I can consciously point too. I’ve been playing guitar for about 30 years and have developed a lot of different shapes and melodic tendencies in that time, but it’s always changing and evolving.

But at the same time, there are some releases of yours like “Wolf EP” that sounds quite different. As this record is pretty much defined by the souldside-journey-type-of-atmosphere. Is it a reference to your roots ? 

I think, it might sound different because I didn’t do any vocals on it, and my only song is a more traditional death metal song (the mound). nick wrote 3 of the songs, some of which were older songs of his from a more death metal minded approach. And Colin consciously wrote a song based on a classic heavy metal vibe. But I don’t think any of us thought of it as being any more of a reference than any of our other records. just what we felt like doing at the time.

For a number of times, you noticed that working with band format is different in comparison with your solo-work. And for a number of times I’ve seen your live performances I used to notice that the energetics there is obviously different. How different it feels to you ?

It’s incredibly different. From the preparation to the experience. When doing solo sets, I usually always open the shows, and I tend to just bring my guitar and use whatever amp is available, or even plug directly into the PA. I rehearse my solo material everyday for a week leading up to the performance. And I usually just start my set and don’t stop playing until the end. But Krallice plays songs with breaks in between, out of specific kinds of amps, with bass and drums and soundchecks and vocals and everythings all loud and in the metal tradition. Performing feels very different as well. mistakes might not shine as bright in Krallice because there’s so much other sound, but I also can’t change things on the spot like I can while doing solo sets. I won’t say one is better than the other and they both offer their own challenges and victories.

The process of writing music – how can you describe it ? Where it is usually starts and where ends ? 

My usual personal process for writing music is to play guitar everyday. I usually come up with a few riffs or ideas everytime I play and I record them. Eventually I attempt to organize the parts and ideas into categories and eventually assemble them into finished compositions. its time consuming and sometimes overwhelming. sometimes I’ll try different methods, but this has been the main process.