You are associated with a group of musicians who combine traditional Appalachian string music, drone, and raga/Eastern spiritual music. The result is sublime, but it is totally unexpected. What is it that ties those three elements together?
I guess I wouldn't think of those different strains of music being linked 'unexpectedly' -- the things that attract me to the sounds I love appear in lots of different musical idioms. Certainly, acoustically-produced sound with a heavy drone and/or deep harmonic element is something I try to chase after in my own playing, and that allows me to dip into different idioms that play with those particular qualities. More simply, it's just the stuff that lights my ear up, and it also tends to be music that relies heavily on improvisation and close listening in group-playing situations.
Of those three influences, the newest one to me is drone. What, in your opinion, makes a good drone composition?
We'd have to define exactly what we mean by 'drone' and 'composition.' The timbre of a particular sound, its duration, its volume, its interaction with other sounds, microtonal beats, difference tones, etc etc. Those are all things I consider to varying degrees when I'm playing pretty much any music, regardless of whether or not it's quote unquote drone. Any playing based on close-listening will take into account the ways sounds interact with each other and build upon themselves. I try and apply that way of listening/thinking/responding no matter what kind of music I'm playing or what instrument I'm using at the time.
I’ve read that your first instrument was piano. How did you get from such a classic beginning to playing drone?
Piano is such a harmonically rich instrument; I was drawn to the resonant qualities of piano even before I really understood what I was hearing or how it worked. I try and play piano when I can these days, especially when I'm working on ideas for a record.
You play with a lot of musicians and are involved in a lot of different projects. One of the most intriguing is Pelt, a band that seems to fly much further below the radar than, say, Steve Gunn or Michael Chapman. Is that by design?
Any design behind the visibility of Pelt is purely a function of the realities of our lives. We all live in different parts of the country and have other projects/responsibilities that keep us from playing more than a few times a year.
How did you end up playing with them in the first place?
I was familiar with their music shortly before I met Mike Gangloff in Blacksburg, Virgina. I was going to school there in the early 2000s and we met through mutual music friends. We hit it off pretty quickly and were soon collaborating in Spiral Joy Band, a sort-of Blacksburg-based Pelt offshoot. Soon I was playing percussion in the Black Twig Pickers with Mike, and he and Isak Howell convinced me to take up banjo. They were able to see that the clawhammer approach to open-back banjo was something that would appeal to my percussive and harmonic sensibilities, and for that I'm very grateful. It's been rewarding trying to expand my own language on that instrument.
I can't remember the exact circumstances surrounding playing with Pelt -- Jack Rose had bowed out of the lineup to focus on his solo music. Mike and Isak and I were doing a bit of playing with him in a more traditional context at that point, playing blues and old-time songs. I started playing with Pelt around that time as well.
Pelt was able to do a few shows overseas earlier this year; it felt great to dive back into that particular language the four of us share.
Your last two records - for Nansemond (2015) and Whole & Cloven (2016) - have been released by Paradise of Bachelors, one of Cream Puff’s favorite record labels. Those folks are not only responsible for introducing us to great music; they are also great to work with as a small business and have been supportive of us from the beginning. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with them? How did you meet them, and how did you decide that Paradise of Bachelors was the proper home for your solo releases?
I knew Chris Smith through Jack [Rose] and other Philly friends. Brendan Greaves I met through other music friends well before I moved down to Durham; I can't remember the exact circumstances.
We all ran generally in the same circles of art/music/lit/folk studies. By the time I recorded Nansemond, I had gotten to know both of them better and had contributed to a few different PoB releases. Both of those guys understood where I was coming from musically and conceptually, and they both encouraged me to pursue and nurture the material as I saw it developing. It all felt very organic, and it still does as I continue to work and collaborate with different people who find themselves under the PoB umbrella. [NOTE: Nathan features prominently on two excellent releases from PoB this year: Michael Chapman's 50 and Jake Xerxes Fussell's What In The Natural World.]
Cream Puff Records takes its name from an old Grateful Dead song, so I love to ask folks for their thoughts on the Dead. For this interview, I’ll get more specific. Have you spent much time listening to Jerry Garcia’s banjo playing? Where does he fall in the pantheon of great pickers?
I'm not too familiar with the Grateful Dead’s music beyond what I hear friends play on tour or at hangouts or whatever. I've definitely heard Jerry's more bluegrass-y stuff in different groups or jams, but it never really stuck with me. In general, his playing style has a real weird melodic bent that I find pretty cool, but I couldn't describe his banjo playing to you if I tried – I’m just not familiar enough with it.
If not Jerry – then who are your favorite banjo players?
It's funny -- I don't listen to very much banjo music. There are some records here and there that I really enjoy, and there are some contemporary players in the traditional scene who may not have records but are exceptional players and collaborators.
We are thrilled to be hosting you in Charlotte. You mentioned on Facebook that you may have new music to share. Can you give us a sense for what kind of set you have planned?
I'll mostly be playing tunes from Whole & Cloven, maybe one each from Nansemond and A Bottle, A Buckeye [2012; Soft Abuse], and a new tune or two of things I'm currently working on. The newer stuff suggests more group-playing to me, but I've been trying to find ways to present it solo. We'll see!
What’s in store for you for the rest of 2017? You’ve already toured with Jake Xerxes Fussell, and you’re on your way to Louisville for a set with Nathan Salsburg. What else do you have going on this year?
I am playing Nathan Salsburg’s space in Lousiville on Friday -- he's a good friend of mine. Jake is too! I'd like to do more collaborative touring with both of them in the future.
Jake and I and a few other Durham musicians have been practicing together and playing shows recently -- mostly Jake's songbook but also some of my stuff and odds and ends. It's a pretty damn good bar band; I hope we keep doing that. I'll probably try and nail down an overseas solo trip for the fall or winter, and there'll probably be some Steve Gunn band stuff later in the year, some recording, some new projects maybe, who knows...
I try and strike a balance of take-it-as-it-comes and keep-irons-in-the-fire when it comes to organizing my musical life. That's worked okay so far.