The duo's discography includes last year's Back Up and Push, as well as 2009's Shout Monah, which was a collaboration with Erynn Marshall, calling themselves The Haints Old Time Stringband. Pharis and Jason's excellent new album, A Passing Glimpse, was recently released in July.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to interview Pharis and Jason. We discussed everything from how and when they met, to their experiences playing music together and building banjos. We also talked about their teaching and their own biggest musical influences. As a newcomer to their work, I was eager to ask them many questions and to learn more about them. I am very excited to share this feature with fellow newcomers to their work, as well as to loyal fans who have been following the impressive artistry of the J Romero Banjo Company, and to those have been enjoying the duo's discography.
Can you each describe your own musical histories before meeting in 2007?
Pharis Romero: I've been playing music my entire life. My dad is a great singer and songwriter in the classic country and folk tradition, and my younger sisters and I would get up on stage with him to sing along on his songs, which he'd been singing to us since we were born. This morphed into playing country music festivals and locals events as the Patenaude Family band, singing my father's songs and the great country classics; my dad on guitar, us three girls on vocals and various instruments (and yup, mom did dress us up in matching outfits sometimes). Later, my little brother would join on drums and vocals. We listened to a lot of Johnny Horton and Merle Haggard and Hank Williams at home, but my mom's influences would come through when The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt or the Rolling Stones were put on.
And then, on the other side of the spectrum, there was Murray Perahia and other interpreters of the great composers. I studied classical piano and voice from the age of 4 until around 18. Our family would drive around the province, competing at music festivals as either solo acts or as parts of choirs or ensembles. I picked up the acoustic guitar at I think around 16 - I can clearly remember the day I could first play a 12th fret harmonic. That made me crazy.
In the late '90s in university in Victoria I took a couple of songwriting classes for credit (I was a biology geek, so these and the university choir were a welcome diversion), but I didn't play a lot of music publicly through my early 20s. I started thinking I was a bluegrass guitarist then, listening to a ton of Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and Tony Rice, trying to learn flatpicking. To keep up with my learning, I went to a bluegrass camp in British Columbia; this changed my life.
After the camp, a friend took me to a local old time fiddle jam in Victoria, and I was totally hooked by the sound; the sound and playing of old time guitar made so much sense. I kept writing songs, and they were definitely influenced by the sounds of the new music I was listening to - early 78s, the scratchier the better - but I couldn't quite bring myself to write about little hollers or lost loves in a coal mine, having no personal experience with that. So I wrote in the style of the music I was listening to, but with stories from mostly my family's or close friends' experiences - sawmills, addictions, crashed cars, lost loves but you're recovering ok, poor times, rich times - all those things from growing up in a very small, resource-rich community.
Jason Romero: I started playing banjo when I was 20, living in Chico, CA, going to college. Before then, I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Cream - a lot of good classic rock - but I didn't play any music. I heard a traditional Irish band with a banjo, and I was so drawn to the sound of the banjo that I got one right after that and started taking lessons. I was a closet picker for the next 10 years, diving into all the modern banjo greats like Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck, and then earlier players like Earl Scruggs and Don Reno.
When I moved to Humboldt County in 1997, I started playing banjo with a few bluegrass bands and listening to more early bluegrass, which led me straight to old time. After focusing on clawhammer playing for a while, I started looking for old time fiddlers - and a few of those first fiddlers I played with are on the Back Up & Push album that Pharis and I put out last year. I had an old time band and a bluegrass band, playing weekly, and left those when I moved up to Canada to start playing with the Haints and with Pharis as a duo. In the last few years I've picked up the fiddle and guitar, and on most of A Passing Glimpse I play a steel body guitar.
Can you describe how you both first connected both musically, and as a couple?
Pharis: We met at an old time jam in Victoria. Jason took an 8 hour detour from a fly fishing trip to meet me after a mutual friend had been trying to set them us for over a year. I was playing fiddle and guitar, Jason brought in his banjo, and two days later we knew we'd be together a long time. Old time music, specifically the old time from the southeastern part of the US, definitely was the first connection for us.
We love pretty much any scratchy early 78s from that "Hillbilly" or "race" records period, the golden days of radio - Emmett Miller, Seven Foot Dilly, Carter Family, Riley Puckett, Jimmie Rodgers, Dave Macon, Hank Williams - and then later country recordings - Kittie Wells, Jean Shepherd, Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb; all those incredible musicians, this whole interview space could be taken up with talking about the music and musicians we love to listen to. We really lucked out with having pretty similar taste - though Jason doesn't like minor chords much, and I can sometimes gravitate towards them. Jason's coming around....
Jason, can you talk about your experiences as a banjo player, and as a builder and how these two interests fused and led you to building them?
Jason: I really believe that being a player makes me a better builder, more able to interpret each customer's particular needs into a tone and a look. As my own playing styles change, the tones and aesthetics of my banjos change as well - and what I think of as good banjo tone broadens with each new custom order, and with each song or style I learn.
When and how did you begin the J Romero Banjo Co.?
Jason: Even though I'd been playing banjo for years, I hadn't thought about being a builder until I moved to Arcata in 1997. I quickly realized I needed a real career, so I went back to school for fine woodworking and cabinetmaking. Wildwood, a banjo company, was in Arcata, and that seemed a natural place to start looking for work.
The owner hired me before I finished my degree; believe it or not, I was the first banjo player to ever work there. The company also built thousands of electric guitar and bass bodies and necks, so I learned how to do things quickly and efficiently. I would often find myself making 100 electric guitar necks or telecaster bodies in a week, and this repetition really helped develop my eye and skills.
As a player and as a woodworking artist, I knew what I wanted banjos to sound, play and look like. This led to me slowly starting my own building business on the side, and after a few years of that I left Wildwood to focus on my own business full time. Now, even though we're building four or five different, custom one-off banjos for folks every month, I'm able to keep my production schedule pretty tight and efficient. We don't use CNC machines in our shop, everything is done by hand.
What has been most rewarding for you as a banjo player and builder? How do these experiences influence each other?
Jason: We wake up every morning grateful for the way we earn our living. We spend our days together, at home, on a piece of property out in the woods, doing what we would be doing anyways, whether we were getting paid for it or not. It is remarkable and strange how two of our major passions in life are so intertwined.
When we're not home, we're out playing music, meeting incredible musicians, and seeing beautiful places. We're often torn as we'd love to be out playing more, but we love being home and the banjo orders keep piling up. When we are out performing, playing banjos that I've made always keep the J. Romero Banjos as part of our story.
Can you discuss a memorable experience(s) with recording artist(s) that you have worked with as a banjo builder?
Jason: I've worked with a few recording artists on banjos, and this isn't quite that, but it's a very memorable experience. I was at Strawberry Music Festival, probably around 2002. The Reeltime Travellers were there, and I'd known Roy Andrade for a while (he was interested in the first fretless banjo that I ever made). Dirk Powell was also there, and Tim O'Brien was playing with him. I hadn't met either of them yet, and after their show I waited in line at the CD tent, met Dirk, and mentioned that I had a few banjos I'd like to show him.
Dirk and Tim graciously agreed to look at them, and we headed backstage. I'd never been backstage at a big festival before, and while they were both playing my banjos and saying nice things about them, I was nervous as hell because I was in a room with two of my musical heroes, and they were playing MY banjos. While sitting and listening to them, I spilled beer all over myself, right in front of them.
A few years later, Dirk was playing with the Foghorn Stringband at the Golden Old Time Music Festival (Yreka, CA). I had a booth there and Dirk played a few of my banjos and asked to borrow one for his set with Foghorn. I hadn't made PT Grover his banjo yet (PT was the original banjo player for Foghorn). During the set Dirk picked up his fiddle and leaned my banjo up against the back of the stage. In the middle of the tune, those boys got rocking so hard that the banjo fell strings down onto the stage, and made the most horrible sound you've ever heard. I was horrified, but then one of the Foghorn guys grabbed the banjo, played it, and it was still in tune - he then announced this to the whole festival. You can't pay for that kind of promotion.
You both teach music as well as build instruments. Can you discuss how teaching influences your own work? What is most rewarding for you as teachers?
Pharis: Teaching always pushes me learn more about this music, so I can give as whole a picture as possible. The more I know about music, the more it turns me on, and the more excited I get about learning new songs and finding new musicians to play them with. Seeing a group of students freak out when they sing a Carter Family or Boswell Sisters song in full harmony, tight and on pitch, is incredible, but knowing that they are getting into the music and feeling excited about it, that's what I'm there for.
Jason: You learn how to be a better teacher, the more you teach. Recognizing that everyone learns in a different way, you're always being challenged to figure out how to present what you're teaching in a way that a given person can learn it. This is turn makes me think differently about how I play, and how I use what I know in my playing. I think this is also a feature in the banjo building business, because I play and teach I understand players' styles and what they're looking for in tone, even if they can't quite describe it. That problem-solving is indispensable both in teaching and building instruments.
You live in a remote cabin in British Columbia. When I listen to your music and begin thinking of your geographical location, the music you play, the banjos you build, your teaching, and the records that you record- I can't help but wonder about your own story. Can you describe your own personal philosophy of how your musical work and personal lives intersect?
Pharis: We both grew up in the country, and one of the things we saw in each other was a mutual love of wild places. Our work and our lives are completely intertwined in the ideas of self-sufficiency and old-world craftsmanship, and for us, the natural location for that is out in the woods, where we can't see our neighbors every day but we can go there for a couple eggs when we run out. Throw a rock in any direction and you'll hit a creek, river or lake full of trout; Jason often describes the town of Horsefly as a perfect blend of The Andy Griffith Show and Northern Exposure.
We also both really believe in communities - the one in our small town, at the end of the road and in the foothills of the Cariboo Mountains, and also the larger musical community that we love to travel out to. Our work and our loves are totally linked, and most nights, after a day of doing inlay or oiling banjo necks, we'll go for a walk around the property and then work on some new song.
Let's dig into your recordings:
I'd like to start with your experiences in The Haints Old Time Stringband (with Erynn Marshall and Carl Jones). How did you all connect? Can you discuss the writing, arranging and recording of Shout Monah?
Pharis: Erynn and I knew each other for a while through the Victoria old time scene, and had wanted to form an old time band, but couldn't find a banjo player. Along came Jason, in 2007, and the band was made. It was an easy band, right from the start, and the music always seemed effortless when we played together. We all brought individual tunes to the band, and if they jelled, we kept them. A lot of the fiddle tunes come from Erynn's study of the old fiddlers from the southeast, and we brought songs from more old recordings.
"Milwaukee Blues" was one of the first old songs I learned when I got into old time, and "Baptist Shout" was one of the first early fingerstyle banjo tunes that Jason learned when he got into old time banjo. And then Erynn wrote the beautiful waltz, the last track, for our wedding. The songs of the record, and the band, focused on music from the early days of radio and before. Carl isn't on Shout Monah, but The Haints started playing shows with him not too long after Erynn moved to Virginia (just after we finished that record). Carl makes everything he plays better.
How did those experiences prepare you two for your Back Up and Push album?
Jason: We both had an idea of how we liked the guitar and banjo to work together with a fiddle, especially from playing with a great fiddle player like Erynn. This cemented our liking for fiddle-banjo-guitar trios. A friend described it as "surfing" - where the fiddle rides over the top of the banjo and guitar; the banjo and guitar need to be right in with each other, and making that happen seems to be helped by us spending a lot of time together.
I am intrigued by the concept behind the "Back Up and Push" record. Can you share your inspiration for this album?
Pharis: It's "19 west coast old time fiddlers" playing their favorite old time tunes. We have had so many great jams with the wonderful fiddle players who live on the west coast, people that we meet on a regular basis at gatherings throughout the year.
Jason came up with the idea of trying to capture the spirit and intimate nature of a great banjo-fiddle-guitar jam. The community of old time musicians is vast and well informed, and one of the wonderful things about this style of old time playing is that we share a lot of common tunes, or at least a common love for the style.
Focusing on just west coast fiddlers felt like a way to keep the album cohesive. The hotbeds of old time music in Seattle, Portland and the San Francisco area are incredible, and trying to pick just 19 fiddlers was a challenge. Jason's a really versatile banjo player, playing a variety of clawhammer and fingerstyle, and we figured that between changing up the banjo style and the fiddler, hopefully that would keep the listener interested throughout all 19 instrumental tracks.... We're planning volume two, and hope to record it in 2012.
Can you describe your song selection, arrangements, and recording process for the album?
Pharis: The fiddlers picked the tunes and the keys, and in some cases sent us a recording beforehand so we could learn them. In other cases, the fiddler came to the recording session, played the tune, we joined in, and a few minutes later we'd sit down to do a take. Everything was recorded live with us sitting in a room together, we did a few takes, and then picked our favorite.
We recorded at five different studios along the way, and our incredible mixing engineer (and incidentally, the person who set us up, and also recorded A Passing Glimpse, Ivan Rosenberg, did a great job of taking all those differently recorded tracks and making them as cohesive as possible.
Moving on to A Passing Glimpse, did you have a preconceived direction for the album established before you began, or did it come together more organically?
Pharis: Very organically. It's a collection of our current favorite songs to play as a duo, without really a theme or concept. It's just songs we love to play together.
Can you briefly describe your process for choosing the sourced tunes for the album, as well as your own writing process for the album? Did you choose older tunes first and then write tunes to compliment them, or vice versa, or a little bit of both?
Jason: We perform mostly as a duo these days, and have been for the last couple years, so when Pharis writes or when we're listening to old source songs, that's mostly what we're thinking of in terms of making things fit. Duets are amazing, you're so naked, without a lot of instruments to fill in space.
We didn't really plan out complementary tunes on the album, but we both seem to have a sense of songs that needed learning or writing to fill what might have been otherwise a gap. A good example would be "My Flowers, My Companions, and Me" - that was the last song we learned before we recorded the album, because we realized that a vocal duet with just banjo accompaniment would be a great contrast to much of the other material. Mind you, contrary to that, Pharis wrote the song "A Passing Glimpse" a month or two before we recorded, and that ended up being the title track.
Who would you say are your biggest musical influences?
Pharis and Jason: Ha! In no particular order and with the disclaimer that the list keeps growing and that we're only mentioning a few:
- The countless artists who recorded in the 20s and 30s, who may have only put out 4 sides
- Robert Johnson: when that first box set came out, that changed everything. This was the window into so many other early recordings.
- Riley Puckett: his singing and guitar playing freak us out
- Carter Family: Maybelle's guitar playing, hers and Sara's duet singing, and the incredible songs (even though A.P. didn't write a lot of those songs that Ralph Peer took songwriting credits for)
- Bill Monroe: his singing and songwriting and sense of rhythm
- Stanley Brothers: Carter's lead singing, and Ralph's high tenor may be a touchstone
- Cooke Duet: some of the most bad-ass gospel singing that has or will ever be recorded
- Tim O'Brien: his singing and playing are heartbreaking, in every musical incarnation he's a part of
- Dirk Powell: his musical tastes and skills are just so what both of us want to hear in modern music
- Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: a perfect day would be hanging out with them and playing music all night
Over the years since you have been together as a married couple, and as a musical duo, what has changed the most since you have been playing together?
Pharis and Jason: Our singing, and how we look at songs when singing them as a duet. We sing better together every day, and seek out and write more music all the time.
How has playing music together influenced/ enhanced your own relationship, and what has been most rewarding to you from your experiences playing music together?
Pharis and Jason: To play music in a duet, we have to trust each other completely. We're a team, so we're learning more about each other all the time, every time we work on a new song, join a jam, or step on stage. We have so many shared experiences through playing music, and these really bring us closer; that reaffirmation that we've each found our person.
The positive response from our duet has been amazing and encouraging, and gives us a push to keep working and moving forward. We're always excited about new projects, and all those project ideas involve both of us, working together either as a duo or with other folks. There's so many songs to learn and write, so much more to do.....