The Black Twig Pickers have a new recording out called Rough Carpenters (via Thrill Jockey). The album was recorded during the same sessions as their recent Whompyjawed EP (a sprawling 2-track jam), which was released last fall.
Since I interviewed the band when their last album, the magnificent Ironto Special, was released, a lot has changed. The biggest change for the Twigs (Mike, Isak, and Nathan) is that they added fiddle player/ dancer Sally Anne Morgan to the lineup for these new recordings.
Your new record, Rough Carpenters, was recorded during the same two-day session as your Whompyjawed EP. I'd like to begin by asking you if you can discuss the Whompyjawed EP. It is composed of two long takes. Can you discuss these compositions in regards to writing, arranging, recording?
Mike: Patrick from Pelt told us our songs ended too quickly and we started talking about the trance that can happen when you let a song cycle on and on, especially if there are dancers involved. I liked the idea of trying to let a song move through different arrangements, different sorts of sonic spaces, within a longer take, and of doing it all live and spontaneously.
It was a bit of a stretch to try to record it properly and not everyone who was involved was familiar with more freeform music. But once we decided what songs we wanted to try, we talked out a sort of order of parts, then just jumped in. It was a great process to be part of. It’d be wonderful to take that ensemble out for shows.
For Rough Carpenters and Whompyjawed, you added Sally Anne Morgan to the lineup. Can you discuss how you connected and began working together?
Mike: For me, the "Origins of Sally" story has two main parts: how when a house party we were playing with Charlie Parr was being shut down and Sally and her friend Kim, who dances on Whompyjawed, stepped in and invited the whole party to their house, where we ended up playing all night; and a few years later when we were playing at a mountain-top removal protester camp and found Kim was one of the organizers and Sally was there with her fiddle. After our show, Sally gave us some dance lessons and we played fiddles around a bonfire for a long time.
What would you say are her biggest contributions and assets to the BTP trio and the recordings?
Isak: Sally's fiddling is very compatible with Mike's fiddling, but it is very different. Not only do the Twigs get that energetic double-fiddle sound, but the band gets a certain sassy zip that is part of Sally's personal fiddling style. Add in her dancing and singing, and the result for the band is much more power and more versatility. For us that means more fun.
The fiddle-banjo-washboard-guitar lineup is a very different sound from the fiddle-fiddle-banjo-guitar lineup, which sounds nothing like the fiddle-harmonica-fiddlesticks-boots arrangement. So we get to move through a bunch of combinations that we like.
Sally, can you share some of your previous musical experiences before joining Black Twig Pickers?
Sally: I played in the orchestra in middle school and pretty well hated it. There was a brief foray into bluegrass fiddle in high school, but I was drawn to old time music when I moved to Blacksburg. The Twigs are the first official band I've played with, everything else had been in a pick-up, open jam kind of manner.
Can you discuss your experiences connecting with and performing/ recording with BTP?
Sally: It has been amazing to work together with these guys over the last couple of years and to experience the sound of the band as a whole changing and developing. Spending so much time playing music together has lent a connectedness that I don't have with anyone else that I play with. We can really dig in and find the groove, even if we haven't seen each other in a couple weeks or on a totally new tune. We know how to listen and respond to what each other are playing. Performing with the Black Twig Pickers has taught me a lot, about how to draw in energy from a crowd instead of just expending it, how to drive a tune, how to make people dance.
How has working with BTPs influenced your own individual sensibilities? What has been most rewarding for you through collaborating with the group, and what has it meant most to you artistically and personally?
Sally: It has meant a lot to be a part of a band that I respect so much, and to learn an approach to music and sensibility that a lot of other old time bands (I think) do not share. The other Twigs have been a huge influence, from their recording philosophy, to tapping in to the music on a deeper energy level, to particular tunes and sources. It has definitely carried through to when I play music, mostly informally, with other people.
Being on some records, having traveled over-seas, and having a group of people to share my thoughts and sounds has all been fantastic. Even their recommendations of other non old-time music has been great. And of course I now have a greater appreciation for experimental improvisational drone music, and even participated in a Pelt show once.
How has dance become more of a prominent element in your recordings and/ or live performances?
Isak: Dance is actually part of the live performance now, since Sally dances during some tunes. Beyond that, our playing for dancers has pushed us to tighten our rhythm and drive and has forced us to maintain energy and variety using only dance-friendly songs.
How does this connect to your past work as BTPs, and what are some of the biggest differences?
Isak: We always played dance-able stuff from the very beginning, maybe just not as much as now. One big difference is that we used to play some extended, slower, improv-y pieces like "This War is Killing Me" more often. We don't pull that stuff out as much now. On the other end, the biggest difference is that we are just a tighter, more energetic outfit.
Mike: Just playing for dancers regularly for years now has made us a much better band, I think.
Can you speak to your regional and local influences that were specific to these recordings?
Mike: We learned a lot of these songs from players around us, whether it’s Chris Via and the Reed family and their history, or Richard Bowman, who taught us “Where the Whipoorwills Are Whispering Goodnight” and so many others. The regional traditions of old-time music are something we spend a lot of time thinking about and digging into, both through sitting down with players we admire and by delving into archival recordings, mostly home recordings of folks who were gone before our time, or at least before we knew about them.
I read that you thrive on spontaneity and "unrehearsalness" as a band. Can you share your thoughts on this philosophy, and how does it push you into new and unexpected territory (as well as add to your accumulation and versatility over time)?
Nathan: Unrehearsalness... sounds like a word we should've coined ourselves. Part of that working method is based just on the reality of our jobs and physical distance from each other. As of right now, the four of us are divided into three states, and we still get together almost weekly to gig around the tri-state area: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia. The other part of our, er, roughness, revolves around our general insistence on playing in the now and honoring the spontaneity of the moment. Every time we play out is a chance to try new songs or come at a tune from a different angle.
At this point we've played so much together and sure such a common language that the conversation can pick up again fairly quickly, as long as we have some time to warm up the digits and shake the rust off, as it were. There's no doubt that we could be a much slicker unit if the four of us could get together every day and hack it out. But giving it our all once a week or so, and obsessing over optimizing our drive and swing (as opposed to, I dunno, harmonic or melodic perfection) keeps us lean and hungry enough that I'm not sure I'd want it any other way.
Isak: It's not that we thrive on not knowing how to play to the songs, but we try to remain open to each rendition opening up something new in that song. I like to actually spend the song trying to come with ways to hear/play it that really juice the performance. Even the same tune can catch fire in different ways at different times depending on the setting, time of day, etc.
So I think we all try to respond to what each other are doing in that particular rendition of that tune. That goes a long way towards killing the sound of complacency, which is no fun to listen to. Auto-pilot sucks and is not music. We also tend to go without much of a set list. This allows us to respond better to what is happening in the room in terms of mood and energy.
You are known to allow absolutely no overdubs and to capture your recordings in the least amount of takes as possible. What are your goals for working this way and how would you say this shines through in the final recordings?
Isak: I'd say the goal for working that way is to capture as much real musical interaction and energy as we can. If you lay down a part afterwards in an overdub, no other bandmate has a chance to respond to that overdub. So the overdub will be in tune and on beat and everything, but you won't be building something together in real time, and that's when the songs really take off. Doing it this way means accepting some flubs and such, but the trade-off is worth it.
Did you have a pre-conceived vision for the new recordings?
Isak: I think the vision was just to capture the band at its best at this moment. A certain set of songs was well-oiled and we wanted to capture that. In the past we took much longer to record a record. We would actually use the recording process to work out songs, arrangements, etc. It would happen over many months of home recording at Mike's. This time we tried to record our best material over a couple of intense days. We weeded out the recordings that did not work, and then set about building a song order that felt cohesive.
Was there a tune(s) that set the direction for the EP & LP recordings?
Mike: It was more of an energy. We wanted both records to capture the interactions the songs pulled out of us.
I also wanted to ask you how you connected with Thrill Jockey and what keeps the relationship going?
Mike: We connected with Thrill Jockey through Jack Rose, from playing on and recording some of his Luck in the Valley album that Thrill Jockey put out. After Jack passed away, Bettina Richards reached out to a bunch of us who’d been connected to Jack and to that album and the Ragged But Right record that was his other Thrill Jockey release. You’d have to ask Bettina what keeps the relationship going on her end, but for us, working with Thrill Jockey has been a wonderful connection to people who probably don’t spend a lot of time with our sort of music and probably wouldn’t hear us otherwise.
What have you been listening to lately?
Nathan: Jim Sullivan's U.F.O., Tommy Flanders' Moonstone, Michael Nesmith's Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash.
Sally: I've been on a Charlie Poole kick lately.
Mike: Augusta Heritage Center just reissued Delbert Hughes’ home fiddle recordings and they’re incredible. I’ve been listening to that, and to Nancy Sluys and the Pilot Mountain Bobcats, and to Terry Riley and John Fahey and the Dagars.
Any plans to tour nationally in 2013? Any shot of you heading over to the Northwest (Portland, OR)?
Mike: It looks like we’ll be making lots of short tours. We’ve been up to Minnesota already this year, and will be heading to Canada this summer, and lots of other places. Getting over to Portland and the Northwest would be amazing.