A couple weeks ago, I was speaking with my friend Phil Tarr online, I didn’t know it at the time but the hours following our conversation would be the last ones he would spend in this world. Most people knew him as the shit-disturbing eccentric behind the Sydney, Nova Scotia band Mess Folk, but I remember him best as the reason I felt a little less claustrophobic and alienated being a weirdo kid living in rural Maritime Canada.
When I first met him, we were smoking outside a show of his in Halifax sometime in the fall of 2009. I ditched classes that day to take a three-hour bus ride from Sackville, New Brunswick where I went to university just to see his band. When I mentioned that to him, he went back inside the bar right away. I thought I'd scared him off, but a minute later, he came out with an armful of records and handed them to me for free. We were instant buds.
We saw each other around the Maritimes here and there. After that, like a lot of people involved with him musically that didn’t happen to live in Sydney, the majority of our correspondences weren’t in person. Phil was known not only for his prolific musical output, but also for his ability to forge connections with people from a distance, through letters, online, and over the phone. Him living so far away from the music scenes in places like Halifax or Montreal seemed to constantly bug him.
Anyone who’s ever seen a Mess Folk show probably noticed that he had a strange way of drawing people in, while simultaneously giving off this quasi-frightening aura that pushed people away. That push-pull dynamic carried over into his personal life. Aside from run-ins with the law or his struggles with drugs, Phil had a penchant for straight-up rubbing people the wrong way. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind or get a little crazy sometimes, and I liked that about him. He used this gruff exterior to weed out the boring and shitty people. Anyone who realized that, loved the guy all the more for it.
In one of our conversations, he told me he felt “hated by everyone except for sick, weird, fucked up people with a taste for shit-fi punk. We played a show the other day and it was so loud and noisy and fucked up that even punks were freaked out and pissed off about it.” In fact, a couple years ago in an interview with VICE, he pissed off his entire hometown for saying it was a shithole.
He was a tough nut to crack for all his misanthropic leanings, but he still showed love and support for his family and friends in an it’s-us-versus-the-world kind of way. He would talk at length about all the shenanigans him and his twin brother (and best friend) James used to get into while growing up in Sydney. Between swimming in the town’s toxic tar ponds and getting in trouble at school talent shows for playing offensive grindcore music, they totally ruled.
Our discussions eventually progressed from a mutual love for really fucked up music to really fucked up things that were actually happening in our lives. After he spent a few months in jail for robbery he told me that “people get the flesh-eating disease there” and that his “cellmate had full-blown AIDS.” Despite that heaviness, he never lost his sense of humour, joking about how badly new country sucked because apparently that’s all they play in Nova Scotia’s prisons.
Although a few news outlets have reported briefly on his passing, nothing has really been published about what he was actually like. A lot of people don’t really know what to make of him because of the sheer intensity he displayed at times, in and out of playing music. But it was that intensity that made him the creative, prolific guy that believed wholeheartedly in all of his work. It's really hard to find people like that.
I’m just as bummed now as I was a few weeks ago when I first heard the news. His name still comes up in the chat window every time I log onto Facebook and for half a second, I get pumped to talked about how Napalm Death’s Scum is the greatest record of all time or about which horror movies are the grossest. Then I remember he's gone.
You can leave a message for Philip and his family by clicking here.
Grab the MP3 of Mess Folk - If I Don't Get Out, over here.