Raising the BARR

Pub date February 27, 2007
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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"I haven’t lived anywhere since April for more than 12 days." Brendan Fowler tells me this on the phone from New York, where he’s dug in to prepare for a national tour — his first with a live band — supporting BARR’s new album, Summary (5 Rue Christine). He’s a little out of breath from racing up apartment stairs while hyping the band ("I think it’s going to be bananas. I totally started crying the other day when we were playing songs for the first time. It sounds nuts"), but our interview remains hectic as he runs through his different projects and enthusiasms. It’s been a busy couple years for Fowler, even by the industrious standards of the DIY community, from which he draws inspiration — several BARR tours, including opening slots for Xiu Xiu and Animal Collective; a profile in Artforum; performances at prestigious venues such as New York’s the Kitchen and Los Angeles’s David Kordansky Gallery; the publication and proliferation of art and culture magazine ANP Quarterly; and now the new record, a rousing confessional several bounds ahead of 2005’s Beyond Reinforced Jewel Case (5RC).

As BARR, Fowler doesn’t really sing lyrics so much as spit them out — pages and pages of them — and this often seems to trip up reviewers. The music doesn’t quite have the measured flow of rap or the hard-bitten enunciation of spoken word. The twin spirits of hardcore and hip-hop loom large, but Fowler’s channeling is defiantly personal. There’s performance-art bravura akin to that of BARR’s first tourmates, Tracy and the Plastics, and Fowler’s unflinching intimacy reminds me some of the DIY, self-documenting impulse in Jonathan Caouette’s 2004 film, Tarnation.

Summary tightens the screws of Fowler’s sonic palette: his choppy drumbeats find balance with top-heavy piano chords and brainy bass lines. "The Song Is the Single" is a splashy party jam in the LCD Soundsystem mold, though elsewhere Fowler continues to tow his own line, whether on introspective confessionals such as "Complete Consumption of Us Both" or political rave-ups such as "Half of Two Times Two." Though Fowler studied free jazz drumming in college, the directness of his approach naturally blooms in performance, when he can, quite literally, reach out and touch someone. He performed at the Mama Buzz Café last spring and totally ruled the space, careening up and down, thinking aloud.

BARR is obviously Fowler’s personal outlet, though one could easily argue his larger contribution lies in his talent as a facilitator. Indeed, his generous, motivating artist’s spirit makes him something of a latter-day Wallace Berman. Berman cohered an eclectic circle of like-minded artist-explorers in his handsome homemade magazine, Semina, the subject of a recent, effusive show at the Berkeley Art Museum. A similar sensibility is cast in ANP Quarterly, the ad-free and free glossy Fowler coedits with Ed Templeton and Aaron Rose for LA skate-art-clothes magnate RVCA. Each ANP casts a wide net of coverage, profiling skateboarders, activists, and idiosyncratic entrepreneurs as well as outsider artists looking in and insider artists looking out. Perhaps most refreshing is the way ANP cuts such a wide swath across the country, with an eye for what’s happening in Phoenix and Iowa City as well as NYC and LA. Check out all these people doing their own thing, ANP tells us. It’s a spirited vision of America, one that Fowler rhapsodizes in "Half of Two Times Two" as being made of those "rebelling from the systems, and the norms that are saying ‘be bummed’ and ‘be bored,’ and they’re taking matters into their own hands, and that’s what matters."

Fowler articulates this free-thinking position more. "I do think about the outside world and bigger things but with an intimate, fine lens…. But I would hope that, on some level, the stuff that’s more intimate and fine would speak to the larger picture."

He laughs at his own seriousness and closes, "Fingers crossed." *


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