Interview from the Bluegrass Situation's Chris Robley
When/ how did you begin learning and playing music?
I always really loved music and musical instruments as a kid, listening to records, and dancing. I formally started learning music when I was 8 years old on clarinet. I picked up guitar around 15, and banjo around 22.
What drew you to the banjo? Feel free to describe your desire to learn the instrument, artists/ albums/ live performances/ personal experiences that inspired you, etc.
I loved folk music but I actually ended up getting a degree in music on the clarinet and classical guitar (neither which I play much anymore). The practicing and studying of music in an educational setting was so intense I didn’t feel like I could be creative on either instrument. When I started playing banjo, It was like a release of creative emotion. I had an intense desire to write music and perform, and banjo just became my outlet.
When did you join the Jalopy Theater & School of Music? Can you talk about your experiences there (incl how you joined Jalopy, what keeps you involved, and how the community inspires you?)
I think it was back in 2006, I met Geoff and Lynette (the owners of Jalopy) at a bar called Bait & Tackle in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Jalopy was just a pile of dust and dreams at that time. They told me about their plans and asked if I wanted to teach banjo there one day. I of course said yes! I believe Jalopy has now become the placeholder for something greater happening in Brooklyn-it resembles the community it is in and the strength of music to hold people together. It is in the process of becoming one of the most influential music venues/schools of it’s time and I am proud to be a part of that.
How and when did you and Brian meet?
We met around 2006 playing with different folks and in different bands. I ended up doing a recording session that he was on, and we became friends after that!
When did you decide to get together and form Dubl Handi? What drew you together musically & personally? What were some of your strongest musical connections (artists, albums, playing sensibilities, etc)?
Brian is one of the most musical drummers I’ve ever played with. He is extremely creative and comes up with quirky ideas that are really entertaining to listen to. For example, he might take a solo and use the things on the walls as part of the sounds. If there is a metal sign, or something like that. He uses the materials around him to improvise.
We put Dubl Handi together as a way to make money busking at farmer’s markets. We’d get a nice crowd of folks around us every time and realized we had to make a CD.
Can you describe your songwriting processes? Both lyrically and musically (and how they culminate)? Please share a few examples of how some tunes came together.
My songwriting process. Well, Dubl Handi is mostly traditional music with a few originals, but I do have two other projects that I write quite a bit in like Hilary Hawke & the Flipsides and M Shanghai Stringband.
So, I do see some kind of a process here.
- I decide what kind of song I want to write, what is the feel I am going for. What would add to my set.
- I think about the intention of the song. Do I want to write a song for people to dance to? For people to listen closely. Or just to sway to while you sit at the bar. This makes a big difference and usually helps with how fast I can get it done.
- Then, I just shed lyrics. I just spill out thoughts on a page. I use a lot of imagery so this part is fun!
- Play around with chords and lyrics, experiment with ideas until something sticks. Record that idea quickly. Keep it and listen to it on the subway. Refine!
For example, on the album, Lonely Ghost is a fun tune in F tuning on the banjo. We were playing a weekly residency in Williamsburg and needed something up tempo to end our songs with. We’ve been playing with a wonderful guitar player, Ernie Vega, who has a strong blues background. So really had that in mind when writing the music for Lonely Ghost.
Can you briefly share some of your sources of inspiration (both musically and lyrically? Feel free to share some non-musical sources of inspiration too)?
I really am a music lover, I love hearing people play and there are so many people I admire. I get a lot of inspiration from hearing collaborations and seeing people sharing the stage, and sharing their voices without ego. I love seeing people be creative with their music in non-commercial ways.
Was there a tune(s) that set the course for what would become Up Like Clouds? Did you have a vision for the recording overall?
The main vision was to capture what we do live, even though some of the tracks have overdubbing and additional instruments. We wanted to capture that energy. And have an interesting choice of songs that would be uplifting and interesting to listen to.
Can you talk about your philosophy/ draw to/ inspiration behind bringing in such diverse instrumentation? Specifically banjo, snare drum percussion, mellotron, marxophone, washboard, etc.
It’s interesting because we really tried to preserve the original feel and spirit of each of these traditional tunes on the CD. That being said, I think we wanted to add a little extra spice to each tune while keeping a duo sound. So, in other words, I think we had a lot of ideas and were keeping some good boundaries with how far we wanted to stretch each tune.
I would also be interested in hearing your vision of combining the traditional with the contemporary (both as music-makers and what that means to the listener)?
I think traditional music should be played in a way that allows the perfomer to relate to it. I will never be Roscoe Holcomb, or Tommy Jarrell but I can make the music my own. I think, there is a fine line when relating to an audience-especially an audience of people that want to hear things played note-for-note. I play traditional banjo music, but some people find it odd that I enjoy playing both bluegrass and old time (clawhammer). I think all music in this genre shares similar roots and should be played if it relates to the performer.
Can you describe the recording set-up and process? What were you going for recording-wise? (Were there any artists and/ or specific albums that significantly influenced your process?)
Many of the songs were done live in the same room without headphones. Even the lead vocals were done live on most. After listening to each track we would add minimal things to keep each song unique or just give it a bit more dimension. We listen to a lot of music from our touring friends and successful bands here in Brooklyn. I think we are all kind of influencing eachother.
How does the Brooklyn community (Brooklyn Folk Scene, Jalopy Theater, etc.) inspire you and influence your work (as well as reward you both on a personal level)?
What have you been listening to lately?
Les Paul & Mary Ford-always!
New Lost City Ramblers
Mike Seeger, Bruce Molsky, Fred Cockerham, Snuffy Jenkins, tons of banjo players
Rev. Gary Davis,
Ian Drury and the Blockheads
A newer band called, Midwood.
A lot of our friends’ bands!
What are your plans for 2013? (Any plans to tour/ perform nationally?)
We’ve starting recording our next album and we’ll be adding fabulous guitar player Ernie Vega-making us a trio! We’re always playing a lot here in NYC and having a guitarist really fills out the sound, especially for larger venues. I’ll be graduating with my masters of music in May and really looking forward to sinking ourselves deeper into getting out of town and playing more shows/getting a booker/and meeting and playing with a lot of folks!
We are planning some touring in the UK, and working with a few folks over there already and sending our CD out. We’re excited!!!