published Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Q&A with banjo maestro Noam Pikelny

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with banjo maestro Noam Pikelny about why he took seven years to make his second album, what is so comfortable about playing in Punch Brothers and how he celebrated his ninth birthday.

CP: When you first started playing, what attracted you to the banjo?

NP: I wasn't playing a musical instrument. I was about 9 years old, but my brother was playing mandolin. He heard a bluegrass band play at his school as part of a monthly rotating arts program where they had different bands play live in front of him. He fell in love with the mandolin and started taking lessons.

After two years, I got jealous of his hobby and I wanted to learn an instrument. I wasn't drawn to the sound of the banjo. I really didn't know which instrument to pick; I just wanted something to play. My folks suggested the banjo because if I figured out how to play, my brother and I could share tunes together, as opposed to something like the tuba.

It was random, in some sense, expect that it was associated with what my brother was playing. My folks rented me a banjo and signed me up for lessons on my ninth birthday and I fell in love with it quite fast and never questioned the instrument. It's only now that I'm questioning the instrument.

CP: Why do you say that?

NP: I'm drawn to a lot of instruments that have the capabilities to do certain things the banjo can't. For instance, the infinite sustain of the pedal steel to me is one of the most attractive sounds.

Some of the things that helped me develop my voice on the instrument have been the result of trying to coax sounds out of the banjo that are traditionally difficult to get out of the banjo, to get something sustained or warm sounding. A lot of that has been guided by instruments that are very different from the banjo where I try and simulate that effect or incorporate that idea.

CP: Chris Thile said something similar. It seems like when you get to a certain level on an instrument, you start reaching out beyond what it's thought of being capable of.

NP: I think you try to push the instrument. As a student of the instrument, you push yourself to explore different areas of it. Just for balance, I guess, I listen to less and less banjo. It's no offense to the incredible banjo players out there these days, but you're constantly hearing banjo when you're playing it yourself. I hear it all the time, so when I'm listening to music, I tend to gravitate to things that are very different from it or have some things I can't do. I think that's just part of the process.

Being around Chris Thile has helped inform that approach. When I started playing with him, he was already at this level of musicianship where he was already doing things people didn't think were possible on the mandolin.

He has this belief in his routine or his work ethic where I've never seen him turn down an idea thinking it was impossible. He'll pursue it and somehow will it to be. Coming in and starting with Punch Brothers six years ago seeing that from him and the other members of the band had a profound impact on me.

CP: You mentioned trying to play with sustain on the banjo. Did you consider using something like an Ebow to achieve that?

NP: I've thought about it. When we were preparing for the new Punch Brothers record, we were experimenting with all kinds of different sounds, and we went and bought an Ebow during rehearsal. I tried it on the banjo, and it was a neat sound, but it sounded electronic, almost. It had sustain, but you couldn't tell it was coming from a banjo instead of a synthesizer.

Over the years, I've refined the set up of my instrument, referring to how tightly the head is tightened down and the mass of all these other parts. On acoustic instruments, the way things are adjusted, you can have almost tone control on the banjo almost like you would on a Fender electric guitar where you have a tone knob.

By tightening or loosening the head or using a thicker bridge or picking at a different angle, you can get all these different effects that typically on an electric instrument could be made with an equalizer or pedal or a different amp. There's a wide palate, but you can't make adjustments on the fly.

CP: Which banjo players were you listening to, growing up?

NP: When I first started playing, I was exposed to the great folk banjo players playing in the clawhammer style, who were based in Chicago or had made their mark on the Chicago folk scene.

Early on, there were guys like Michael Miles, who is a really wonderful banjo player, and Stephen Wade and Fleming Brown, who is a great Chicago folk musician. He passed away before I picked up the banjo but had a great album that was the first one I ever considered my own called “Little Rosewood Casket and Other Songs of Joy.” Those guys were the first people I was listening to.

Maybe when I was 11, I went to a record store with my dad to buy my brother a birthday present. There was a salesperson there who was helping us find music for my brother, and we ended up getting my brother an acoustic Jerry Garcia record, but he said, “Have you guys heard of this band called The Flecktones.” I hadn't heard of The Flecktones or of Bela Fleck at that point, and the guy sold us on this debut Flecktones album. I brought it home, and I couldn't' believe what I was hearing.

I was playing the banjo clawhammer and what was coming out of this record didn't sound like Earl Scruggs-style bluegrass. I didn't believe it. I was really just astonished by it and wanted to see with my own eyes how Bela was making these sounds. Luckily enough, he was scheduled to play in Chicago a few months later, and I went to see The Flecktones at Navy Pier. There he was playing with three finger picks using the same accessories as Earl Scruggs, but he was getting this very modern sound.

I was convinced that's what I wanted to do, but I was told by all the players in the Chicago scene that if I wanted to play that modern style, I had to learn to play bluegrass. Just like any guy who charted a new path, all those guys started first with the traditional Scruggs style, which formed the basis for them continuing to explore the instrument.

I bought the Earl Scruggs book, a set of finger picks and a resonator banjo. At first, I was just going through the motions for a week thinking I would play jazz banjo, but a couple weeks later, I forgot what the original goal was with that, and I had fallen in love with the music of Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe. I got completely caught up in bluegrass.

That was when Nashville Bluegrass Band was in its hey day. I fell in love with this style. It was only many years later that I started experimenting with playing non-bluegrass on the banjo. Throughout high school and junior high, I was playing with straight ahead traditional bluegrass bands, some of which I had to wear a uniform in. [Laughs.]

CP: What revived that interest in nontraditional banjo?

NP: When I was 16, I started playing guitar. I was really getting interested in bluegrass guitar playing with guys like David Grier and Tony Rice and Clarence White. I got a flattop guitar, and from that, I transitioned into electric guitar. I had a Telecaster and was learning country electric guitar.

This was all happening at the same time as when I was needing to make up my mind of what I wanted to do post-high school. I felt like I was at this crossroads where I would either study music in college or study engineering. I hadn't picked up the guitar out of any kind of opportunism. It was definitely a real passion for this style of flat picking in country electric guitar, but I think there was also this sense that, if I wanted to study music in college and make a living playing music, I would be better off playing guitar that there were more people out there who needed guitar players than banjos. I had put the banjo down for a couple of years.

Long story short, I ended up going to the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana. That was short-lived, but I got there and everyone in the town was playing guitar. I wanted to meet new people and have a new group of friends. Throughout my life, I've mostly gravitated towards hanging out with musicians, and everyone already had a guitar, so there were too many guitar players in the room as it was, so I got out my banjo again.

I was surprised to see how, after playing guitar for two or three years, I was able to incorporate these more guitar-esque ideas into my banjo playing with a lot of ease. I think that was almost this accidental realization that, “Oh, I can also do this on the instrument” or “Now, I can try playing lines in this fashion.”

I wasn't spending years trying to break out of the box on the banjo. I just played guitar, picked up the banjo and I had this ability to play things the way I never could without much work to integrate it. It came very naturally. I started playing banjo again in college. That was really when I picked the banjo back up, and I haven't picked the guitar up since then.

I was playing in college bands, and a lot of it was all about the spectacle of it. To gain attention from people our age who weren't bluegrass fans, we had to do something crazy. We were playing things that were fast and furious and, at times, tasteless. We were doing things like covers of Madonna songs in a bluegrass way. That was the beginning of forcing myself to play differently and figuring out different ways to play the music.

Through those connections in Champagne-Urbana, I got hooked up with a bunch of musicians in the Colorado music scene and eventually started playing banjo with Leftover Salmon, which is another kind of oddball setting for the banjo. On half the material, I was playing an electric banjo, which is an interesting hybrid between a banjo and a Telecaster.

I think I had been honing these skills to play banjo in unusual situations, but then, there was a certain amount of expansion to the musical toolbox, as far as my technical abilities that went along with that. As a banjo student I always - and still to this day - try to transcribe music from other instruments. When I was coming up the pike, I was learning Chris Thile mandolin melodies on the banjo and Scott Nygaard melodies on the banjo and forcing myself to move around the banjo neck in ways that weren't necessarily obvious. All those things were what prepped me for the eventual meeting of the different Punch Brothers characters and that ensemble.

The banjo has such closely tuned intervals and such a long scale as far as the length of the neck that, to play an idea that a mandolin or guitar player could play with barely moving their left hand, a banjo player would have to traverse the entire neck of the instrument to play that same range. From early on, I was transcribing this music from other instruments as way of developing methods to cover that ground in a way that wasn't too laborious, that could be implemented in everyday playing and work organically.

I think when Chris Thile met all of us who went on to become Punch Brothers, he was looking for guys who could conquer this piece he was dreaming up, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” this extremely ambitious string quartet he had scored out for all these instruments. I think he recognized something in my playing, in that he could put anything down on paper and I would eventually figure out a way to play it, maybe not immediately, but I would somehow find a path to realizing the idea. A lot of that is thanks to studying his music and music of other guys like him.

CP: Banjo players tend to be the subject of a lot of light-hearted ridicule. Did you have to endure a lot of banjo player jokes when you started?

NP: I didn't necessarily endure many banjo player jokes, but looking back, I do see what a freak I must have seemed like to my friends, especially when I was really young. I remember when I was 9. I had just gotten this banjo for my birthday, and I had a birthday party at my house. My parents asked what my dream birthday idea was. Did I want to take my friends to a batting cage or to a movie? I said I wanted a banjo concert.

They hired my teacher to put on a little banjo concert in my basement for all my friends. There's a video that exists with me sitting there in the front row just the happiest kid in the world and as the camcorder scans the room, you can see how bored everyone else was. They looked miserable, and this was supposedly a party.

I was fascinated. To me, it was something magical, and I think early on, it was something pretty weird to my friends at least. I enjoy the banjo jokes as a genre, and they're all the same for different instruments.

CP: You've spent a lot of time playing as a sideman. What has it been like heading up your own group?

NP: That's a good question. It's been really rewarding and simultaneously, it's been intimidating. I'd say the time that we've put in over the last five or six years in Punch Brothers has created an extremely powerful range for us, between the members of the band. The music that we create nowadays is extremely collaborative. Everything since “The Blind Leading the Blind” in the Punch Brothers repertoire has been created with everyone in the room and is part of a musical conversation of exploring and writing music together. It's a really strong group of guys to be around.

The reason it took seven years to follow up my first solo record was the fact that I couldn't have been more comfortable in any other situation than I had become in Punch Brothers and couldn't have dreamed of a more musically fulfilling musical ensemble to be part of. That's absolutely been a blessing.

When my first solo album came out in May 2004, I was a sideman. I had been playing in Leftover Salmon and with John Cowan. I cherish those years playing with those guys. I learned a tremendous amount from those experiences. But that album was a declaration of musical independence from what I was doing with Leftover Salmon. I wanted to do something that was more listening music, less about the fast and the furious and a little more introspective. I had to create an opportunity for doing that, and a solo record seemed to be the right platform for that.

Never have I really felt the need to do something on the side from Punch Brothers because I was bored or felt that there was a certain side of my musicianship that was being squashed or anything like that. Most of the time, I've come home from Punch Brothers tours or recording stints and just wanted to relax or maintain and prepare for whatever was next on the schedule.

This record was born because I came to the realization that seven years had gone by since my last record, and the last record came out just months before Punch Brothers starte rehearsing and playing together. I was shocked that much time had passed by. I needed to find an angle to make a record that was different from Punch Brothers and find a way to showcase what has changed in my playing over the last seven years. The last seven years being associated with Punch Brothers, I owe a lot to that band in terms of how my playing and musicianship has been defined of late.

I had been itching to play music that was more closely related to bluegrass. Moving to New York from Nashville, I felt a little bit detached from the acoustic scene in Nashville that I was surrounded by when I was home from Punch Brothers activities. I still had these more rootsy opportunities available to me when I lived in Nashville.

Since moving to New York, those opportunities aren't there. I started missing those people and felt this itch to play this music that was closer to my roots of what I grew up playing and loving.

This record was an opportunity to showcase my playing in a more traditional setting but also a chance to get into the studio with a bunch of my musical heroes in Nashville who I had been jonesing for an opportunity to play with in a more formal setting.

All this was coming into focus from a realization that my playing had changed. The work I'd done for Punch Brothers, even though it was geared towards music that was very distant from bluegrass, made an impact on my playing to the extent that even when I played something more folky, I could hear the difference. At first, I thought learning “The Blind Leading the Blind” and other Punch Brothers material, when I returned to playing a fiddle tune or banjo tune that I would be unchanged, but that wasn't the case.

I felt like, as a banjo player within that more traditional setting, I had something to say, and I had these tunes that were starting to stack up and also this sense of wanting to kind of force myself back into the Nashville scene and find a way to get these guys on my record and into the studio together. That was the guiding force behind it all.

I mention it was intimidating to do this outside of Punch Brothers. It was the first thing outside the band in six or seven years. In many ways, it was more challenging, despite the fact that the music isn't as ambitious, as far as a technical challenge. Conceptually, I think it's a little more grounded than some of the music Punch Brothers is pursuing, but it was challenging not to have this musical board there at every step of the way.

With Punch Brothers, with the five of us there working on everything together, there was a certain sense of … invincibility. I don't mean that in a conceited way, but we all have this trust between the five of us that we feel like if a song or a lyric can get past all five of us, we can feel fairly confident that it's worthwhile - not necessarily great, but it's justified.

To not have that kind of system where you have a vote of confidence at every step of the way was a little startling at first. I lessened the shock by keeping the guys involved. Everyone from Punch Brothers is represented in one way or another on the record, whether through guest appearances or producing.

CP: You'll be playing with a few of the Brothers as well as some other guests for the show in Chattanooga. What were you looking for when you were putting together this lineup?

NP: I wanted to showcase the music from the album in an unadulterated way. I really wanted to keep it as close to the personnel of the record as possible. That unfortunately logistically wasn't possible.

Tim O'Brien is out for most of the winter recording with Mark Knopfler and couldn't make it happen. I pursued taking the original band on the road, but it wasn't possible to do, due to scheduling issues.

Stuart Duncan has been all over the country promoting the “Goat Rodeo” album with Thile and Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma. Those guys weren't available, but Gabe [Witcher] was a very natural choice for playing fiddle because he produced the record and knows the music in some ways better than anybody. We signed him on to play fiddle. Critter and Mark Schatz, who are both on the record, are both signed on for the record. The last step was filling the mandolin role.

The day I found out from Tim O'Brien that he couldn't do it because he was going to be tied up with these recordings and other things, I was at Four Corners Folk Festival in Colorado. That afternoon, there was a really fun backstage jam session with a few of the guys from Punch Brothers and a few of the guys from Infinite Stringdusters. It was the first time I'd gotten to play with Jesse Cobb in years. I had always been a fan of Jesse and thought extremely highly of the Cobb family. It was great playing with him, and I thought, “Boy, he would be perfect for this tour,” so I asked him then and there. That solidified the line up.

Having Aoife O'Donovan out for the duration of the night is really a luxury. She only sang one track on the album, the track “Fish and Bird,” but when I was imagining how we would tour this record, I thought, “This is mostly an instrumental record. We need to fill in the rest of the set with songs.” I wanted her to sing “Fish and Bird” but I thought that if she was there to sing “Fish and Bird,” why couldn't she sing another six or seven songs so the evening isn't purely instrumental? She'll be there. We'll work up a bunch of her original music and Gabe will sing some, so people can expect to hear the bulk of the music from “Beat the Devil, Carry the Rail,” some of my music from my first album, but we're excited to feature everyone on stage as well.

CP: At this point, winning the 2010 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass is kind of old news, but how has having that award affected your approach to playing or perception of yourself as a musician since you received it?

NP: It was a huge honor and an incredible surprise, especially since it was the inaugural year. There was no expectation of it. They didn't announce the award was going to happen, so there was no sitting around brainstorming who it would go to. I was blindsided by the whole thing. It was extremely special.

As far as how it's changed my approach to the banjo, I don't know if it's really changed anything, per se, about my relationship with the instrument. As far as how I think of myself as a banjo player, I feel like the award was validation and it was recognition. I'd say it's been an absolute boon, as far as publicity for the band is concerned. We have people coming up to us at almost every shows when we do a meet and greet, and it seems like at least one person says it was on the Letterman show that they first discovered my playing or Punch Brothers. It's been great with getting people out to shows and familiarizing people with our music.

I think it definitely had something to do with this record coming out finally. There may have been points over the last four or five years when I was complacent and never thought I would never make another solo record again because I felt like I'd found the perfect musical family in Punch Brothers. The banjo prize, the Steve Martin prize, brought so much attention toward me that it illuminated the fact that so many years had gone by since my last record and turned the heat up a bit, as far as finding a concept and finding a way to make another record happen. It helped convince me to skirt a little bit closer to the center and get out of my comfort zone, as far as being a band member, and be a leader on a project. That's a good thing.

I wouldn't say there wasn't an issue of not taking it seriously, the solo project or my playing, but with so much attention squarely focused on me, not having something to offer that was purely my own to offer, other than something from seven years ago, definitely helped motivate the recording and facilitated the recording. I would never have been able to make the record the way we made it or had the people on it who played or had as much time in the studio without the help of the cash. People ask what I spent the money on, and that was my main investment.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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