Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Conversation With The Black Twig Pickers

The Black Twig Pickers are keeping the tradition of old-time music vibrantly alive by releasing their own recordings and performing live whenever they can. The Pickers: Isak Howell, Nathan Bowles, and Mike Gangloff, listen to field recordings and old-time records, study with local old-time masters in Southwest Virginia and West Virginia respectively, and continue to challenge  themselves musically by exploring new instrumentation with each release.

With a deep respect for the old-time music and Appalachian life they so clearly admire, The Black Twig Pickers have collaborated with such contemporary masters and visionaries such as the late guitarist Jack Rose and songwriter Charlie Parr. In addition to their own individual side projects that each member contributes to outside of The Black Twig Pickers, the group has released an impressive lot of releases together, including their most recent long player, 2010's Ironto Special (one of my own personal top picks from last year).

I recently had the opportunity to interview the members of The Black Twig Pickers to discuss their musical philosophy, the group's collaborations with Jack Rose and Charlie Parr, and to explore their deep respect and admiration for the music they so passionately believe in.

How and when did you all decide to play music?

Mike Gangloff: I started playing when I was a kid, finger-picking hymns on a guitar in church.

Nathan Bowles: Mom proposed piano lessons when I was 5, thought that sounded fun. Turns out it was.

Isak Howell: I decided I wanted to play sax in middle school. Band director said my lips were too big. I figured my lips were not too big for guitar and so started there.

What drew you to listening, playing, and performing traditional music?

Isak: Same thing that drew me to non-traditional music: goodness.

Nathan: It wasn't long after I discovered the Harry Smith anthology in college that I met Mike, who introduced me to the specific world of old-time Appalachian stuff.

I think Brion Gysin said you'll know your music when you hear it, and that's what happened to me when I heard old-time fiddle and banjo music.

How and when did the band form?

Isak: Mike and Ralph Berrier played together informally at the Galax convention in '99; I went over to Mike's house for some clawhammer tips shortly thereafter. Pretty soon we were a trio and we started playing, recording, and going to conventions.

There has been some changes in personnel along the way throughout the band's history.  Can you briefly take us through the band's history of line up changes?

Isak: The brief version is that the band has always basically been a trio, with others called in for reinforcements at various times. The original trio was Ralph, Mike and me. Now the trio is me, Mike and Nathan. Sally Morgan (duo fiddle, dance calling, feet percussion) and Sam Linkous (bass) make up the reinforcements nowadays.

How would you say your other musical projects influence The Black Twig Pickers?

Pelt taught me that the music needs to have room to respond to the moment. Once you've been free, you can't really go back in the cage.

Nathan: Influences seem to run in all directions between all of the music that I play...

The Black Twig Pickers and Jack Rose

How did you connect with Jack Rose?

I met Jack a couple decades ago when we lived in Richmond. For a while he lived with me and Amy Shea, who I was married to. Then he joined Pelt in 1995 and played in the band for 11 years until his solo music really took off and we parted ways for a while.

Nathan: I met Jack through Mike... Good memories of getting drunk at Mikel's (Dimmick; Pelt and Spiral Joy Band) wedding and talking about Scott Walker's last couple of albums.

How andwhen did you decide to record together?

Mike: Jack and I wanted to do something after he'd stopped playing in Pelt. We'd played blues or old-time for years, at one point in a band called the Lick Mountain Ramblers with Amy. Jack had played shows with the Twigs and sometimes sat in with us. He asked me to play banjo on a 7-inch he had coming out on Sacred Harp, then Nathan and I joined him for some of the songs on his Dr. Ragtime & Pals album, then it seemed like a full Jack & Twigs session, with Isak on board, would be fun. We thought we'd make a 7-inch, then it turned into an EP, then a full album.

Can you discuss the recording process and some of the most memorable experiences working on the Jack Rose & The Black Twig Pickers album?

Isak: The recording process was both informal and very focused. It was done in Mike's woodshed with our own or borrowed equipment. With Jack, we always seemed to need only a take or two to get the version we wanted.

Mike: We made the album with Jack over most of a year, getting together whenever Jack's travels brought him near and banging out a few more songs. A few times we played a show with Jack the night before recording, which let us get an audience's perspective on any changes we'd made since the last time we'd been together. Other times Jack would arrive and we'd more or less just settle into it. I think we only broke Jack's rule of "no more than three or four takes" once, and we ended up using one of the initial takes anyhow.

I also wanted to ask you how you connected with Charlie Parr for the Glory In The Meeting House album. Could you describe your experiences working and recording with Charlie? How did that happen, and what was most memorable about making that record together for you?

Mike: Bonnie Koop Hundreiser, who's a banjo player in Minnesota and whose husband plays mouth harp and jaw harp with Charlie sometimes, emailed me to ask about a baritone banjo I'd built and played on a recording. We emailed back and forth a little and she told me I'd probably like Charlie Parr's music. I found some recordings and was promptly floored. Then I ordered some CDs from Charlie and it turned out he was into some of the Twigs' music. So we were sort of a mutual admiration society, but it took Bonnie's suggestion to bring us together.

Mike: As far as working with Charlie, he's a force of nature, just a rock of a player and singer. It's hard to get him to work out material though. Charlie likes to just play something and see what happens. And he likes to put things in different keys than where he's played them before. Most of the recordings we've done with Charlie happened after maybe a couple run-throughs, often of songs we hadn't played before, or hadn't played recently. I guess the exception is the duet take on his "Warming by the Devil's Fire" that's on EastMont Syrup. On that one he sat down for awhile and let me fumble along until I came up with a banjo line.

Charlie Parr and The Black Twig Pickers

The Black Twig Pickers releases are filled with traditional tunes and originals. I read that members of the band have studied field recordings, rare recordings, as well as studied with local musicians in Virginia. Can you describe what draws you all to these traditional tunes and what drives you to passionately share and promote this music?

Mike: There's so much to say about this- but yes, we've done all that because it is a traditional music, and it's most powerfully played by people who are immersed in the tradition in one way or another. Without that, it's hard, maybe impossible, to pick up the shadings that make the music work.

We have been really, really fortunate to have older players take us under their wings a little and show us things, talk to us about where the music came from for them, and how to hang onto certain aspects of it. We're very, very much still learning, but hey, it's old-time.  We've still got a few decades before we'll be old enough to really hit our strides. And I say that as the elder Twig!

How does living in southwest Virginia influence your work, both singularly and as a collective?

Mike: Well, Isak's no longer in Southwest Virginia, he's stepped over the line into Southern West Virginia. But while there are differences from community to community, like anywhere, the area where Nathan and I live and the area where Isak lives are part of the same region. Living here affects every aspect of our lives and music.

How often do you play together?

Mike: As often as we can. Nathan and I live close to one another and play every week, often every couple days. With Isak living a little farther away than he did, we don't get to play with him as frequently, but we still do multiple times each month.

I admire your deep respect for traditional music, as well as your desire to grow individually as musicians. On Ironto Special, Mike has taken on fiddle duties, Isak has added much more harmonica on this record than before, and Nathan has moved to clawhammer banjo. Can you describe your experiences learning new instrumentation? What is your desire to grow as musicians and to expand your knowledge of this music, as well as to learn to play it?

Mike: Playing in Pelt taught me to follow sounds, and in that band we all tackled new instruments pretty frequently, trying to find how to make certain tones and certain sonic layers. Fiddle is what finally captured me. I'd tried to figure it out a few times over the years and couldn't do anything with it, and probably lots of listeners would say that's still true. But eventually something caught and I started getting it to do some of what I wanted it to. I'm hoping that in about a decade I'll have it sounding the way I want it to.

Nathan: Banjo has been incredibly rewarding. It combines my obsession with rapidly struck surfaces with the drone of the fifth string, and the reverberation of the open backed skin head. As someone who can barely play a chord shape on a standard tuned guitar, it's been rewarding to shape melodies and sounds on a fretted instrument. I have yet to combine washboard and drumkit in a way that is totally satisfying, though I've been playing full kit and percussion in a group called Pigeons that has been quenching that particular thirst.

Adding harmonica has been really fun, though I'm still definitely figuring it out. As far as growing as musicians, I feel like many folks have the impression that traditional music is about pure imitation and/ or replication, but I think that's not right, at least not for us. I am always looking for new rhythms and sounds that add to the music but are also personal and unique. I think it's very "old-time" to do things your own way.

Your records are casual and intimate to listen to. I was initially drawn to your work because of the lack of overdubs and the spirit of the performances that are captured (minor mistakes and all). Your records are recorded in living rooms, on porches, and sometimes in only one take. Can you describe your recording process and decisions to record as you do?

Isak: Well, we feel like music is at its best is an interactive, real-time process. We think it is impossible, at least for us, to capture that process with overdubs.

For your latest album, Ironto Special, you not only have recorded an album of largely traditional tunes, but you even went a large step farther, and included an insert that includes notes and tunings for each song. Why did you do this?

Mike: We wanted to explain something about why this music is so important to us, and try to describe a little of the network of stories and associations that surrounds it for us. And we wanted to help other people play it if they were interested.

The insert is is included in the vinyl version, and as both a file on the disc and in a version with fewer pictures tucked into the sleeve. It's also on our band website for anyone who bought the mp3 download and would want to see the notes.

How does the band decide what material to record?

Isak: It's a mix: Some tunes are our favorite live songs at that moment. Other songs are sort of born during the recording process as we feel around for different colors.

What have you been listening to lately?

Mike: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' newest, a Kentucky banjo collection on Rounder Records, Fiddling John Carson, Junior Kimbrough, Bill Orcutt, Tonight, MVEE, and Jeff Fuccillo (thanks, Charlie).

Nathan: Lil B, Angus Maclise, Jimmy Martin, Joe McPhee, "Hooker n' Heat"...

Isak: Dwight Diller, Gillian Welch, Neil Young, Joseph Spence, Group Doueh...

Any chance of seeing you guys in Brooklyn or NYC sometime?

Mike: I hope so.

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