Interview: Mick Barr

In today’s edition of The Daily Note, Hank Shteamer talks about the fertile cross-pollination between jazz and metal in New York City. To coincide with the feature, we asked Hank to talk at length with Mick Barr about what makes these two genres so compatible.

Mick Barr’s path to the world of improvisation has been a strange one. The guitarist started out in the early ’90s playing in Connecticut hardcore bands, then moved to D.C. and cofounded Crom-Tech, the first in a series of a bizarre, hyperexacting duos. The second of these, Orthrelm, reimagined metal as a secret code. Their output ranged from witheringly complex, nonrepeating miniatures to grand-scale minimalism. In recent years, the guitarist's work has expanded in a number of fascinating directions. Currently based in Weehawken, New Jersey, Barr divides his time between playing in the progressive black-metal band Krallice, composing avant-garde chamber music, performing diverse, introspective solo sets, familiarizing himself with the Azerbaijani tar and improvising with jazz-steeped luminaries such as saxophonist Jon Irabagon, and drummers Marc Edwards, Mike Pride and Weasel Walter.

This past March, I met with Mick Barr at his apartment to talk about his gradual acclimation to the world of spontaneous music-making and his enduring love for the most esoteric reaches of the extreme-metal underground.

During my last interview with you, in 2005, we talked a bit about your interest in improvising, but it wasn't something you were doing publicly at that time. When did that really begin?

Honestly, one of the first times I felt comfortable improvising was with Zach Hill, on the Shred Earthship record. Because prior to that, every person that I had tried to do improvised music with, it was always too quiet and spatial. And I can't do quiet and spatial, or I couldn’t at the time, and I’d just feel so self-conscious because I wouldn’t stop playing. But with Zach, he doesn’t stop playing, so that was good. And then playing with Weasel Walter out in San Francisco, too, because there was a little bit of improv in The Flying Luttenbachers. So yeah, those two things.

But even when I moved back, I still didn’t really open up to it wholly until last year – pretty much around when I first played with Jon Irabagon and Mike Pride [in the I Don’t Hear Nothin’ but the Blues project], and then all of the sudden, most of the shows I played last year were improv shows, and it's just been flooding since then. It's been really fun, really good.

Can you pinpoint what it was, either in terms of your own work or the specific experience of playing with Jon and Mike, that made you want to get more into it?

A big part of it was probably that I got crazy-deep into Azerbaijani music, which is mostly improv-based. It’s Eastern music, so it has a lot of improv in it, but it’s still based on an ancient model. There’s a lot of room for expression in that. So I was just listening to tons of that and the feeling of that stuff just kind of led toward feeling more comfortable, or maybe understanding more what to do in the moment, as opposed to wanting everything written.

In the past couple years, you've been moving back and forth between improvisational projects and Krallice. Do you think those two modes inform one another?

Well, at Krallice practice, at least me and the drummer, Lev [Weinstein], will do a lot of jamming between songs. We actually have an improv duo that only plays at Krallice practices, and it’s mainly just, like, thrash improv. And a lot of how me and Colin [Marston, guitarist] write together is that either Colin will have a riff or I’ll have a riff, and we’ll bring it to the table, and one of us will play a riff and the other just improvises on top of it until something coalesces. Improvising is just a way to write music in general; that’s how ideas come – for me, at least. As far as the other way around, I don't know; I’m not sure if playing composed music informs [improvising]. I guess it does, because everything informs improv music to a certain extent, because it’s just what you’re pulling out of thin air at that moment.

I know that when we talked before you'd said you had certain jazz touchstones, like Interstellar Space. Has jazz become any more a part of your listening diet?

I don’t really know anything about the jazz world other than the super-famous shit.

No. Honestly, I don’t listen to much jazz at all, with the exception of the radio, when I’m out driving around. I don’t really know anything about the jazz world other than the super-famous shit. I know and love most of the late-period Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra. Those three are my favorites. And then other than that, I follow Walter Weasel’s work, just because it’s Weasel and I want to support Weasel and he’s been putting out tons of amazing CDs recently. I listen to all those, but I definitely haven’t dove more into jazz.

So this pursuit hasn’t been accompanied by research into that music?

No, I’m not really sure why I opened up to [improvisation]. One thing I was thinking about is, every time I play solo shows or anything else, it’s just constant rehearsals leading up to it – I need to play these things 100 times. Whereas with all these improv shows, there’s no rehearsals. So I can play music without sweating it.

Or the “sweating it” is in real time.

Yeah, rather than in pre-time. It’s not like I have to hammer out an idea for hours on end the day before the show. And it’s a bit freer in the moment. That’s one thing I actually want more of in Krallice and even in my solo shows – I’ve been doing more on-the-spot changes. I like being able to do that, just switch it up. And you can’t do that so much with written music.

You could almost call some of these improv projects proper bands at this point – the Edwards duo, BarrSheaDahl, IDHNBTB. Do those project evolve in the way that composition-oriented bands evolve? Do you talk through that with the other musicians, how you’d like these groups to develop over time?

Not really, no. That’s one thing I don’t like to do too much; I don’t like to plan changes. I like to let things be a natural evolution. That being said, as far as these projects, I wouldn’t want to do another record with Jon and Mike that’s in the same sort of presentation. But I don’t think that’s the plan, because IDHNBTB is a concept for Jon; he wants to add members and stuff. So we'll see what happens with that.

A lot of techy, brutal death metal sounds improvised because the riffs are constantly changing and evolving.

I also have this other project; we've done one show. It’s called Procatrocist. We basically did one show that was just straight improv death metal; that was the concept: improv brutal death metal. It went over great; it went over a lot better than I thought it was going to. It probably won’t happen anytime soon, but we talked about writing a couple songs. Just because, why not? [laughs] Yeah, but that whole band is all about Eston [Browne], the singer. That was the point of that band, was that I really wanted to play with Eston. He’s just this fucking amazing vocalist and a total head for death metal. And I don’t think he’s done any sort of improvising before; that was his first thing, and he killed it. I was totally blown away by him at that show. He’s not really doing much right now; he’s just been working a job real hard. I'm not sure if and when we’ll do that project again, but I’m hoping we do.

Those two worlds, improv and death metal, seem so opposed. In a way, something like Khanate contains elements of both.

That’s not really death metal, though. But as for Khanate, that has what I was talking before, the space and the atmosphere. Why I really wanted to do Procatrocist was that I listen to a lot of techy, brutal death metal. And a lot of it just sounds like it was improvised because the riffs are constantly changing and evolving; a lot of times they won’t repeat more than one time. Like a lot of the old Nile stuff. So yeah, I just wanted to try that. And I know that Weasel has a background in that style. I figured that if I found people who just knew death metal well, it would just flow. And as for Joe [Merolla, bassist], he doesn’t know death metal that well, but he just kind of hopped on board, and I like Joe a lot, so… [laughs] It was just really fun.

Credit: Justina Villanueva

I think the concept of Procatrocist is interesting, that you could consume so much of a genre as a listener that you could just…

Pull it out of your ass? [laughs] Well, I will say, with all respect to death metal, what we did didn’t hold a candle to real death metal. That shit to me is the pinnacle of metal music at this point in time. Have you ever heard of a band called Guttural Secrete? Really intense, brutal death metal, most of the time with the gnarliest lyrics – filled with rape and shit like that.

I haven't heard them, but I’ve listened to stuff like Malignancy.

OK, yeah. I didn't really like the last Malignancy album, the most recent one, but all their stuff before that kind of falls under that category: all the weird pinch harmonics constantly and shit. That to me is the pinnacle of music. Because it’s such a dedication, where you have to hone your craft just to perfection, but it’s in this presentation that will never appeal to mass audiences. It’s a really intense, crazy statement of music. It’s just like, “Fuck you. I’m going to play the craziest music anyone’s doing right now, and I’m going to sing about the most horrible things so that everyone avoids it and it’s a personal experience.” At least that's part of how I see it. A lot of it is just because these guys are fucked-up dudes. [laughs]

You were talking about that chaotic, nonrepeating aspect of some brutal death metal. I’m realizing more and more I’m looking for something else: the bands with memorable songs, like Suffocation, Immolation...

All the “-tions” of New York. That's the best death metal. [laughs]

That’s why I got into Morbid Angel in the beginning, because it was catchy. I’m really into that idea of strong songwriting values even within that format. And I know there’s a whole other wing where it’s not as much about that.

Songs versus music is always a bit of a weird point for me. I’ve never been concerned with proper songwriting or catchy songs. But that’s something which is very important to a lot of music heads.

It may have something to do with why death metal always meant more to me than black metal, because black metal was more of an atmosphere and a vibe music. Maybe that’s an unfair generalization.

The best black metal is, for me, the original atmospheric trance music.

No, honestly that is the best black metal; the best black metal is, for me, the original atmospheric trance music. And just to talk more about death metal, that's one of my favorite aspects about really technical, non-song-oriented death metal, is just the trance that comes with it. It’s just swirling riffs. Do you ever listen to Disgorge from California? They put out four albums and occasionally I’ll just listen to all four in a row from start to finish, because there's never any variation. It's just constant [imitates fast, intricate riff]; all low; the only variations will be, like, an occasional pick squeal, and a real short breakdown slam part. Otherwise, it's just swirling riffs. I love it. [laughs]

Your range of experience is pretty fascinating. There are people that cross these lines, but it’s always interesting when you have people that have worked in almost what you'd call an orthodox metal context, and you’ve also done free improv.

As for Krallice, though, that was my first experience being in an orthodox metal band. And that was a part of the focus of the band. After we first started playing, I think we did one show with Lightning Bolt, but then we decided we kind of just wanted to focus on playing metal shows. At the time, I just kind of wanted to walk away from that stuff. A lot of those old bands [i.e., non-metal underground rock bands] were following a path I wasn’t on.

I think it’s almost like what Weasel did with Behold… the Arctopus. There comes a time to step into the thing and do the thing, instead of being peripheral to it. Not that Cataclysm-era Flying Luttenbachers wasn’t “doing the thing,” per se. But just to be able hang with “real” musicians in a genre, to develop the necessary techniques and play a style as a style, rather than kind of angling at it.

Although with Krallice, actually being a band was never the point. That just kind of happened because it was fun. I didn’t think we were going to play more than one show; I just thought we were going to do one or two shows and then just go back to our other focuses. At the time, Colin was a lot busier with Arctopus and Dysrhythmia. I never thought it would’ve turned into what it did. That was all because we didn't have any sort of mission; we just said, “Why don’t we play shows we want to go to? As opposed to taking every possible gig.” And at the time, I only wanted to go to metal shows. [laughs] But now that’s flipped and I’m so sick of metal shows.

We talked a little bit about how jazz and metal have crossed in various ways over many years. In general, what do you think of as successful crossovers between these styles?

A band I really like, kind of surprisingly – I love the first album by Weather Report. Now I know that’s way less rock and that it’s kind of a different sort of a thing. But it is presented as fusion. Obviously that band made some horrible shit, some of the weakest, just garbage music, but the first three records are really trippy examples of a fusion of ideas. It’s definitely based in jazz, but it’s very open. So I feel like that’s a pretty successful example. I’ve got a Billy Cobham solo record that’s pretty rippin’.

Is that Spectrum?

I’ve got Spectrum and I’ve also got Life & Times. I think I’ve listened to Life & Times a bit more. I don’t really like it, but there was a Frank Zappa album that’s a bit more on the epic-jazz vibe called Waka/Jawaka. That was a tape that I had in high school that I listened to a bunch.

And then modern stuff: just all the people I play with. I’ve been trying to absorb that world a bit more. I feel like the part of this [i.e., the discussion of jazz/metal crossover] that’s really important is the improvised aspect. I can think of bands that take elements of jazz and work with them, but it will be, like, jazz written into something. And I feel like the most important part of this is the improvised aspect. I don't know why; I just do.

Having done a good bit of improvising at this point. What do you think makes a great improviser, and who among people you’ve played with do you think is a great improviser and why?

That’s a damn good question. Obviously, I love playing with everybody I play with. But two of the people that are the most sensitive in the moment... I feel like Mike Pride, definitely... I feel like that’s important – to be sensitive to the moment as opposed to doing your own thing. That’s why I don’t really like concepts to be introduced into improvised music, at least not yet; I like to just approach it blankly. Because when there’s a concept, it’s like you’re tied into that to a certain extent. So everything will be going smoothly and everyone’s playing together and then someone will do a total left turn and starts doing something that works with their concept. That’s more of a conscious direction change rather than an unconscious one. And I kind of prefer the unconscious; I just like to black out.

The last show I played with Jon and Mike in Downtown Brooklyn, there was nobody at the show. But I totally had a good five to ten minutes where I had no idea what happened. All of a sudden, I just kind of realized, “Whoa, wait a minute, I’m playing a show; I’m playing music right now.” And that to me is what I live for, so [I prefer] playing with people who can bring that about, and Mike definitely is very sensitive to that in the moment too.

I’m not into the traditional “everybody take a solo.”

Then there’s Nandor [Nevai]. We haven’t talked about Nandor at all in this. Playing with Nandor is crazy, because he’ll just throw you left turns constantly. That’s a part of the whole thing. Every few seconds he just switches to a different tempo, almost. One of the things that he does a lot, it’ll be going really fast and he just pushes it as fast as he can, and then he just stops. That's always pretty fun, just to kind of kill it. Like [imitates scream, thudding halt]. I guess that kind of comes from his personality too, just all-in.

And Tim Dahl, he doesn’t really bring much of a show-offy vibe, which is also part of being a true bass player. Actually being a true bass player, you realize there’s so much you can do without showing off. It’s like old soul music and shit; the bass is all over the place. Tim brings that element; he’s doing a lot but it doesn’t come off as any sort of showboating.

I’m not into the traditional “everybody take a solo.” Just because I’m usually playing hyperdistorted electric guitar, which can be very – I’m realizing – tiring to people's ears, I’ve been trying to take moments recently where I’ll stop the distortion and play clean or just play quieter. That’s been happening more with Mike and Jon and Chuck [Bettis]. I guess what I hold to be the most [important] thing is just the ability to play with [people]. Because it’s hard to play with more than two people, too. To improvise with four people all at once, that’s weird. I kind of only have the capacity to focus on two at once, just kind of go back and forth.

Read more interviews conducted by Hank Shteamer about jazz and metal at He covers music NYC music weekly for Time Out New York.

Header image: Justina Villanueva

By Hank Shteamer on May 1, 2013