Category Archives: Interviews

Kung Fu & Twiddle: A Dirty Dozen Interview

DSC00040Backstage at the Rex Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA following sound check, members of Kung Fu, keyboardist Todd Stoops and bassist Chris DeAngelis, and Twiddle, drummer Brook Jordan and guitarist Mihali Savoulidis sat down with Honest Tune to talk about their highly-successful joint Dirty Dozen Tour, which finds both bands collaborating throughout each show with a series of “Super Jams.”

The interview was much like one of the nightly Super Jams.  The guys were talking, joking, and riffing with each other seamlessly and forgetting at times about the interview.  Much like a runaway jam on stage, it was wise to not try and stop the positive energy that seemed to be building up in the room, and instead just allow the room full of musicians to do like they do on stage, improvise and create.


Honest Tune:  What brought Kung Fu and Twiddle together for the Dirty Dozen Tour?

DSC09126Brook Jordan:  We’ve had respect for these guys [Kung Fu] for a long time. Hopefully we gained their respect.

Todd Stoops:  We don’t hang with bros we don’t respect!

BJ:  It was an idea that we talked about for a long time. We enjoy each other’s music.  Also we enjoy each other as people.  It just made sense.  We knew it would be fun and that our fans would enjoy it.


Mihali Savoulidis:  We have been wanting to do a tour together for a while.  Then it was how do we make it not like what two bands normally do.  I think it started with let’s not tell anyone who is playing first or second.

TS:  What Mahali said.  We were talking about this idea of not wanting to tell anybody what band was going first.  Then it just evolved into the idea of both the bands playing together multiple times through the night.  Each band has people sitting in with each other.  Instead of two bands showing up and playing a show, it’s turning into an event.  We’re creating stuff on the spot, where each little section -drums, bass, keys, and guitar – is having their moments.  The end result is a much more creative product. Me, if I wasn’t playing in the band, I would pay to see this show.  I would probably come multiple nights. Some of the Twiddle fans, who are a little younger than the average Kung Fu fans, have been on tour for a week and a half.  They’ve seen every show and it blows me away.  Something really cool is going on.

BJ:  We start every night with a Super Jam and end every night with a Super Jam.  We start with me and Adrian [Tramontano, Kung Fu’s drummer] on drums and each set of instruments come out together.


DSC09387HT:  Chris, you and Todd, have all been in other bands and projects over the years.  How have those projects shaped your sound now?  Do you feel that the band you’re in now is where you have always wanted to be?

Chris DeAngelis:  Whatever project you are in at the moment is a culmination of where you come from.   I’m happy with the music I’m playing.  It’s an outlet for me to write and express myself.  Also, I get to play with a bunch of monsters that I’m used to playing with.  That makes it a very comfortable situation. We can stretch out.  There are a lot of liberties that can be taken.  All the other projects strengthen what you’ve got going on.



MS:  From an outsider’s point of view, we’re all musicians.  I watched Stoops in RAQ.  I saw these guys in The Breakfast.  I don’t know if this is the band they have always strived for, but as musicians, these guys are playing some serious music.  It’s not to be messed around with.  I mean every musician I have ever been with at a festival while these guys are on stage; their jaws are dropped and everyone is like, “What the hell are they doing.”

DSC00178TS:  To append what Mihali was saying, the Twiddle guys have gained so much respect from other musicians in the past few years.  Not that they didn’t have it before but with their song writing, stage presence, and the way they control a crowd, it blows me away.  I have been doing this a long time, I’m not going to say how long, and when I watch a Twiddle crowd and the front row is crying, singing the songs.  It gives me goose bumps.  The whole crowd, a thousand people in New York City the other night singing along.  Brings a tear to my eyes and is fucking awesome.   It’s a pleasure to know these guys and if I didn’t know them I would be a fan of theirs. This tour has been fantastic.


DSC08475-EditHT:  Mihali and Brooks, you used Kickstarter to help fund your new album Plump. Can you explain why you went that route to ask for your fans support and how that may have influenced the album?

MS:  The Kickstarter ended before we went into the studio.  We had a plan going in.  We hope our fans are happy with the final product.  It may have put a little more pressure on us to get it right but we’re sticklers for that already.  We want it to be a very good product for them to enjoy.


BJ:  I think that if we had done the Kickstarter before the music was written it may have been different but the music was ready to go.  It blew us away how quickly it happened.  It’s like a double edge sword at the same time.  We got a lot of backlash from people that don’t understand what Kickstarter is.  They were claiming that the band was asking for money from our fans and then selling the CD back to them. And that is completely wrong.  Everything we did with Kickstarter has incentives.  It’s the amount of money you want to pay.  Like, if you pay twenty bucks you get the CD.  So, it’s more like your just pre-ordering the CD months in advance.  Some people were saying, “Why don’t you just go play a weekend of shows to make the $20,000 you need. Why are they asking their fans for money?”  I was like, “Oh My God.”

CD:  Some people don’t understand how much money goes into making an album.  Like everything we make touring is a 100% profit.

DSC00161TS:  You know I personally harpooned that guy (a negative comment guy).  I messaged that guy and said to him, “What about the fifteen years it takes to make the band?  The half million we have spent on failed relationships, careers, and everything that has gone into it.”  I laid into him about that comment. He private messaged me back and said that he was sorry for his comments and didn’t mean to come off like that.  Some people just don’t understand the big picture sometimes and what all goes into what we do.

BJ:  Kickstarter was amazing but it breeds stuff like that.  People don’t understand.  If they just took time to look at it they would get it.  We tried to make it as cool as possible.  Depending on what you donate you could get your name on the album, CD, and the craziest one was if you gave $3,000 you would get merchandise for life.  Everything we have now, shirts, CDs, posters, stickers and everything we ever make in the future; which we had one person do who is an old friend of ours.  I talked to him on the phone about it.  He said he didn’t want any of the merchandise and just wanted to help make the album. He came in after we already reached our goal and still gave anyways.

CD:  That’s just a testament to their incredible fans.

TS:  Like I said they have an amazing fan base.


HT:  Twiddle, you’re with Madison House. What went into your decision to join with them and how has Madison been for you?

DSC09927BJ:  At about the same time we were contacted by Madison House and another agency.  At the time we felt that we could go with a smaller agency and be a big fish in a smaller pond or we could go with Madison House and be a smaller fish in a bigger pond.  So the thing that changed my mind was when we did the interviews.  (With) Madison, when we were talking with them, we didn’t have to ask a question. They told us what they were thinking, how they felt about us.  Just very on point about how things would go.  When we talked to the other agency, I was asking all of the questions and they didn’t have the answers we were looking for.  So, we went back and talked to Madison House.  We told them that we didn’t want to be a band that’s over looked since they have some big, big acts.  They said that they wouldn’t be contacting us if they didn’t believe in what we’re doing.  That won us over and it’s been great ever since.

MS:  We love Madison House!


HT:  So I see a small cargo van out front that Kung Fu came in and a real nice travel RV on the side that brought Twiddle. How does that work out?

MS:  [With a huge smile and a large dose of sarcasm] We are a bunch of prima donna fucks!

DSC09947TS:  That thing [the RV] cost a lot of money and we are willing to sacrifice our comfort to get paid more at the end of the tour.  We’d rather dog it out. So these guys [Twiddle] are sort of like Divas.  Brooks also has his salon quality hair and needs room for his products to be all set up.

{BJ to TS as he points at his hair}:  You have the products!

BJ:  I can sum it up in one word; Kids.  That’s literally the bottom line. Only one of us in Twiddle is married.

TS:  Kung Fu has ten children.

BJ:  We have some dogs.  That’s about it.

DSC09089TS:  We have been doing this a long time.  We’ve done the bus thing and right now we’d rather save on that and be able to get hotel rooms to have more space and relax more.

BJ:  For us it just makes sense right now.  It’s a lot of strain to always have someone that is rested and sober to drive to the next city.  The extra money is worth it so that we can have fun and still make it to the next city and be ready for load in.

MS:  There is a big trade off to having a nice hotel room every night.  We want to live on a bus with several smelly dudes and only be able to shower at venues.  Are we on time at every show? Yes.

TS:  The way Kung Fu does it is that we like to have nice rooms.  I like to sleep in a bed with 1000 count Egyptian cotton sheets.  I like to use a bidet.  I like crab meat on top of my filet in a restaurant. When you stay in a van it is fast food.


HT:  What show or festivals are each of you most looking forward to playing or being a part of this summer?

BJ and MS:  We’re super pumped for Red Rocks.  Bonnaroo is huge and of course and The Friendly Gatherings in Vermont.  I mean we’re doing everything we love too, like Catskill Chill, Gathering of the Vibes, Wakarusa, and All Good.

DSC08987TS:  Honestly if you play Red Rocks you can just quit music.  I feel there is Madison Square Garden, Red Rocks and something else.

MS:  The Gorge!

TS:  We on the other hand are playing a few good festivals, The U.S.S Chowder Pot III festival, The Boston Baked Beans Festival, Pizza Fest that’s in Milwaukee. We’ve decided to go into the whole food festival thing.

Tim Palmieri:  Don’t forget Garlic Fest.

CD:  Soup Stock…Obviously we are very excited for Gathering of the Vibes because that is in our home town.  We love the Vibes.  We have been doing it for the last six or seven years.  We did a main stage set last year and are back on it this year.  We are also doing Summer Camp too.

Chelsea ViaCava: Houses of the Holy, Swift Technique, and The Blockley

Chelsea ViaCava (2)Powerhouse vocalist Chelsea ViaCava from Philadelphia soul-funksters, The Swift Technique, recently checked in with Honest Tune.  She discussed the moment she knew she was meant to be a singer, what’s on tap for her band the Swift Technique, and some tips for singers everywhere.



Honest Tune:  At what point did you know you want to be a singer?

Chelsea ViaCava:  My whole childhood was purely music.  I was a theater nerd to the fullest. It wasn’t until I was fourteen and started vocal lessons with a woman named, Britten Reid. After hearing me sing for the first time, Britt said to me, “you’re not meant for theater, honey. You are a blues vocalist.”  After that lesson, something clicked and I definitely found my wheelhouse.


Chelsea ViaCava (3)HT:  After you found your calling musically and moved on from the theater who influenced you the most?

CV:  I’ve pretty much learned everything I’ve ever needed to know about singing from Robert Plant and Etta James.  Man, I listened to Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy so much my CD stopped playing.  I literally wore that album out!  Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, Janis Joplin.  I owe a lot to that woman.  Janis epitomized “soul” in every sense of the word.  I’m often told that I carry a bit of a Janis persona when performing.  For me, there is no greater compliment than that.


HT:  You have such range vocally and seem able to do so much, what is your favorite style of music to sing? Why?

CV:  I’ve certainly found “home” in singing blues music.  So many different vocal genres are based on blues singing. Once I’ve honed in on that style, I’ve definitely been able to develop a love for other styles, such as, rock and R&B. Anything soulful really fuels my fire.


HT:  You joined the Swift Technique a few years back; can you give a little history of the band?

CV:  I’m one of the newest members of Swift Technique, so it’s difficult for me to accurately tell the tale. I started singing for Swift a little over two years ago, but the core has been together since 2007. The band has transitioned a lot over the past eight years. When they first started up they had a hip-hop MC fronting the band.  Eventually that MC left the group and Swift became primarily instrumental.  It wasn’t until I came into the group that they sort of revamped the feel of the music.  One thing that I love about this group is that they’ve always stayed consistent in keeping an authentic Philadelphia funk sound in every variation that they’ve seen over the years.  We definitely all have a strong bond to each other.  Swift is like a brotherhood and I think that kind of camaraderie is apparent when you see us in a live setting.  Swift Technique has always been extremely high energy, quirky, and a little bit unconventional, but we all just love having fun and making music, and that’s what it’s all about.


HT:  Over the years, you have played in many projects in many different venues throughout the Chelsea ViaCava (1)Philadelphia region. Is there one that stands out for?

CV:  Hands down, The Blockley.  The live music scene in Philly has not been the same since its closing.  Swift Technique actually played the last show ever at The Blockley in 2013.  I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who was there would say that it was one of the best nights of their lives.  The Blockley consistently put on such great shows and there was such a rare feeling of community at that spot.  God I miss that place.  However, I’m starting to hold the new Ardmore Music Hall in a similar regard.  Ardmore Music Hall is like The Blockley, but all grown up.


HT:  What advice would you pass on to aspiring singers?

CV:  Meet as many people as you can.  Perform in public every chance you get.  Don’t believe that a TV singing contest is the only way to make it as a singer.  Never stop perfecting your craft and never try to sing like someone else.  It is so important to hone in on finding the individuality of your voice and own it!


HT:  What does the future hold for Chelsea ViaCava?

CV:  I would love to be a background vocalist on a national tour.  It would be awesome if the future granted that wish.  Otherwise, I’ll continue moving onward and upward with Swift Technique, work with as many musicians as possible, and develop my career as a vocal coach.

Catching up with Bryan Dondero

dondero3Bassist Bryan Dondero was an original member of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals during which time he became known for both his upright and electric bass work. He played with the band from 2002 until a messy-split with the group in 2009, appearing on the band’s first three studio albums. Since his departure from the band Dondero has kept a relatively low musical profile.


Honest Tune had the chance recently to catch up with Dondero to reminisce about some of his favorite memories from his time on the road with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and to find out what is in store in the future for the bassist.



Honest Tune: When was the first time you played the bass in a live setting?

Bryan Dondero: The first time I played bass live was during my first semester at Penn State. I was eighteen-years-old at the time, and aside from a few talent shows, had never played in front of people. I was actually really new to the bass. A couple of friends of mine were forming a band and they needed a bass player. I had played guitar for a number of years, so I figured I would give it a try. My philosophy Professor loaned me his bass since he wasn’t using it. I think I learned eight or nine songs in two rehearsals with those guys, so needless to say I was really nervous. It turned out that the bar was a biker bar and the crowd was pretty rowdy. The band before us was really good too. I remember them rocking out some heavier tunes, and here we were about to get on stage to play some Dave Matthews and a few originals. I thought for sure they would eat us alive. It turned out great actually. The crowd was really supportive. It definitely helped that our drummer was a monster behind the kit and our singer had a really great voice. We played there a few more times and made a bit of a name for ourselves.


DonderoHT: When you were first starting out on the bass who were the influences you looked towards?

BD: Well, I got to break this down by upright and electric. For upright I would say Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, and Chris Wood. I am really lucky to have gotten to tour and learn some things from Chris. I was a huge Medeski Martin & Wood fan in college, so his upright and electric playing was definitely a big influence.

For electric I would have to say that John Paul Jones, Duck Dunn, and George Porter Jr are the biggies. Sharing the stage with George Porter Jr was a major highlight of my musical career too. I’ve been revisiting some of the old Zeppelin tunes recently. I absolutely love John Paul Jones’ fingerstyle, but recently I’ve been trying to emulate some of his picking style. His tone on “Heartbreaker” where he runs the bass through a Leslie is fucking amazing. It’s got such a heavy dirty sound on top of the chorus that he gets from the Leslie. It would be hard to emulate that tone with just pedals, but I am determined to find a way.


HT: You have become known for your ability to switch seamlessly from the upright to electric bass, which do you prefer?

BD: I really like playing both. I enjoy playing a lot of different styles. I can get down with some “Whiskey before Breakfast” on the upright or be just as happy rocking out some Nirvana. Both of which were recent musical ventures for me. I love playing old R&B/Soul stuff too.


HT: Is there anyone you would like to share the stage with that you have not had the opportunity to yet?dondero4

BD: There are so many great bands out there now. I love the way their bass players play, so I’d almost rather watch them side stage. As far as backing up an artist goes, I’d love to back up M. Ward or Neko Case or maybe sit in for a few with the Alabama Shakes. There are a lot of great local artists here too that I’d love to sit in with as well. It would be a blast to sit in with Madaila or Rough Francis. Those guys are so good!


HT: During your time with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals you were constantly on the road, do you have any favorite memories from that time that really stand out for you?

BD: There are so many it’s hard to single out one.Some of the festivals that we did were really amazing.  Playing acoustic jams with Jay Farrar and Shannon McNally back at our RV at Bonnaroo was areally great time.We also dragged some of the guys from My Morning Jacket back with us to theRV once. Several bottles of bourbon were going around which culminated in us doing anappropriately inebriated version of “Every Rose has its Thorn.” Who knew Poison was such aninfluence on Jim James?


HT: What have you been up to lately? Are you still playing music?

BD: Right now I am in my second year of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of Vermont. It’s a very different lifestyle from my days with the band, but I am really happy withwhere I am.  I still play music regularly and look forward to being done with school so that I canplay even more of it.  I’d love to get an original band together again someday too.  I’m happy just playing whenever and wherever I can.

Pickin’ with Jesse Cobb

CobbJesse Cobb first burst on to the scene in 2006 as a founding member of the Infamous Stringdusters. Since leaving the band in 2011, Cobb’s extraordinary mandolin skills have been on display in number of settings, most recently as a duo with his brother Shad (who is one of the most in-demand fiddlers in Nashville) and as a part of the all-star line-up of the Noam Pikelny and Friends Band, which includes Pikelny on banjo, Barry Bales on bass, Luke Bulla on fiddle, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. Cobb also found time to release his first solo album, Solitude, in late 2013. Recently he has been performing as part of the online live music series, Concert Window.

Cobb checked in with Honest Tune to talk about some of his favorite musicians, Concert Window, and to share some musical tips and advice for mandolin pickers of all skills.


Honest Tune: When did you first start playing the mandolin?

Jesse Cobb: I switched from guitar to mandolin at about 11 or 12 years old. I played guitar for a year or so before my oldest brother took it from me! The only thing left to play around the house was the mandolin so I picked it up. We had this book called Bluegrass Mandolin by Jack Tottle and I dug in. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up so my dad wouldn’t buy strings until I learned the basic chord shapes, so I’d sit and change chords on the frets while they all played for a week or two before even getting strings. Weird way to start but I guess it worked out all right.


Cobb2HT: When you first started getting into the mandolin who were your early influences?

JC: The first mandolin I heard was an old live recording from Bean Blossom in 1973. The first song is Monroe doing “Mule Skinner Blues.” I liked the mandolin on that record a lot, Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, and I think a young Marty Stuart. I’d say that influenced me quite a bit, but I gravitated toward a more progressive sound early on. I heard Jethro Burns and was blown away. Jethro led me to this guy that was kind of local named Peter Ostrushko which in turn led me to Sam Bush. Once I heard Sam, I knew that all those things influenced him so I started copying everything about him. So in a short answer, Monroe, Jethro, Sam.


HT: Since first starting out playing a mandolin with no strings you seem to have really refined your style over the years. What advice would you give to someone who is picking up the mandolin for the first time?

JC: As I tell everyone I teach, any time spent listening to, or playing music is better than not. Listen to things you like and they will find their way into your own style. Don’t try to play too fast right out of the gate. I have taught a lot over the years and one consistent thing I see is people trying to go too fast too soon. Slow it down; perfect it, then up your tempo. We’d all like to play Bach Sonatas like Chris Thile, but the only way to get there is to be absolutely consumed with doing that. If you’re not, that’s ok. Be consumed by being good at an obtainable goal and move on from there. Most importantly, get that instrument in your hands every spare minute you have. Practice makes better!


HT: You have played with a number of bands over the years and at some amazing festivals, what stands out for you among all of them?

JC: One of my favorite memories is playing with the Stringdusters at FloydFest in Virginia when Sam Bush and Scott Vestal joined us for Shenandoah Breakdown, a real musical highlight. Also playing the main stage at Telluride for the first time. I was literally moved to tears after listening for so many years to the live tapes of Strength in Numbers and New Grass Revival from that stage. There are so many great ones including playing in an old dungeon in Germany, and a crazy sit in with Yonder at High Sierra.


DSCN2860editedHT: Are there any songs that stand out for you as being something special whenever you play it?

JC: I’ve been playing this song called “King of California” by Dave Alvin for quite a while now. It’s one of my favorite things we did on the Pikelny, Sutton, Bales, Bulla, Cobb runs. I really like the old time feel and drive we got out of it. One of those bouncy, feel good tunes with an uplifting lyric.



HT: You’re part of the “Bluegrass Roundup: Concert Window Festival.” This features some of the best pickers around such as Jim Lauderdale, Casey Driessen, and Bryan Sutton. What the experience like to be able to bring your playing into someone’s home so to speak?

JC: I really like the idea of playing some tunes at home and having people join me for a casual tune session. It gives me a chance to play some things I don’t usually get a chance to play for anyone. Concert Window has really done a cool thing with this “online festival” concept. In an age where it’s increasingly difficult to sell records, I see this as an opportunity to share music people otherwise wouldn’t hear. What a lineup!


HT: You seem to stay pretty busy with all your various endeavors, what does the rest of the year hold for you?

JC: I’ve recently been working with Billy Hume on some music for an upcoming album of mostly original music with an anticipated August release. We plan on recording in Nashville sometime in April with an extensive tour in the fall. While we’re still in the process of picking material, arranging, and digging in, it’s very safe to say that I am excited to be working with Hume on this. We have worked together on some things with the Stringdusters before and I really like the way he approaches the recording process. There will be more to come on this very soon, but expect some amazing guests and partners on this record. I’m also booking some solo/duo shows for the summer with some of my favorite musicians so stay tuned for announcements in the next month or so.


Russ Lawton: The Man Behind the Kit

Trey_Anastasio_The_Riv_02282011_20110227_IMG_8014Russ Lawton is known fondly as “the man behind the kit” for his time with The Trey Anastasio Band, Strangefolk, and extensive session work. While the Trey Band has some down time, Lawton has been focusing his attention on his latest project, the funk-duo Soul Monde with fellow Trey Band member, keyboardist Ray Paczkowski.


Lawton recently checked in with Honest Tune to discuss drumming, touring, and what the future holds for the hard-working drummer.


Honest Tune: When was the moment that you first knew you wanted be a drummer?

Russ Lawton: My first memory is being at the Portuguese Feast parade in New Bedford, MA with my parents where I grew up. You could hear the drummers coming down the street. It gave me chills and I didn’t understand what was going on, I was maybe nine-years old. Luckily there was a drum and bugle corp in my neighborhood that I joined soon after and then started saving for a drum kit.


unnamed-2HT: What drummers have you looked up to and idolized over the years?

RL: Steve Jordan; he has an amazing time, feel and tone that keeps the music fresh. John Bonham; again time and feel that swings. I go back and listen to him and he’s inspiring. Check out his isolated drum tracks on Youtube; you’ve got to hit the drums after that. And Tony Allen, Afro-Beat never gets old. His grooves are so inventive, slinky and heartfelt.


HT: Do you have a favorite drumming style to use?

RL: My favorite style is a cross between rock-funk and Afro beat. Kind of what you hear with Soule Monde and Trey Band.


Trey_Anastasio_The_Riv_02282011_20110227_IMG_7748HT: How did you connect with Trey Anastasio? What makes this project different from ones in the past?

RL: I meet Trey through Tony Markellis, the bass player in the Trey Band. When Trey was looking to put together the Trey Anastasio Band, he wanted Tony to be in the band. He asked Tony who he would like to play drums, Tony suggested me and thankfully it clicked. What makes this project different is that it was the first time I had worked with an established artist. I’ve been in original bands my whole life, slugging it out in the clubs so it is great to play at the theater level.


HT: How did you first meet Ray Paczkowski? How did Soule Monde come about?

RL: The first time I meet Ray was in 2001 when he joined the Trey Band. Soule Monde got together in Sugarbush, VT at a little club called Slide Brook. They have a house Hammond Organ, so I called Ray and asked if he wanted to play there. We came in with a few songs of his and some grooves of mine and made stuff up that turned into songs. Slide Brook kept asking us to come back to play every month and we started making home recordings and we saw the potential. It really has grown little by little. Ray’s great to collaborate with too.



HT: You call Vermont home. Are there any venues that hold special meaning to you in the Green Mountain State?

RL: There’s two. Nectar’s has special meaning because I’ve been playing there for a long time and its always felt like home. I just played at their 40th anniversary party. Years ago we would play four nights in a row, once a month. It really helped get your band tight. People came out to support you and it paid the rent too.

Higher Ground is a great club too, bringing in the next level of national acts. It would be less cutting edge around Burlington if the club was not around. Some of my early Trey shows were at the old and new Higher Ground.


HT: What does the future hold for Russ Lawton?

RL: I’m hoping the future will be as it is now; Trey Band, Soule Monde, releasing some of my vocal rock

songs, playing and recording with other musicians and always working to become a better drummer.

Interview! Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman and Billy Payne


Words and Images by Tim Newby

This New Year’s Eve Leftover Salmon celebrated twenty-five years as a band.  In that time they have established themselves as true-leaders of the jam-grass scene with their influential and unique mix of sounds and styles that has branded them as a truly special one-of-a-kind band that is beyond description.  For many bands entering their 25th year they seem to be on cruise control, coasting towards retirement.  But Leftover Salmon is not one of those bands.  Since their return from a brief three-year hiatus from 2004-2007 following the death of founding member and banjo picker extraordinaire Mark Vann, the band has been anything but coasting.  The addition of Andy Thorn in 2010 on banjo seemed to push the band to new, exciting,  innovative heights.  The release of the 2012 album, Aquatic Hitchhiker, only confirmed this.

As the band enters its 25th year it continues to reach brand new heights and never seems to rest on past achievements.  Much like the addition of Thorn  a few years prior, a new band member added in 2014, legendary keyboardist Billy Payne from Little Feat, heralded new musical  peaks for a band that only seems to be getting better with age.  Following the addition of Payne, Leftover Salmon released their eighth album, High Country.

Following the release of their newest album Leftover Salmon founder, guitarist and singer Vince Herman, and newest addition Billy Payne checked in with Honest Tune to discuss the band’s twenty-five years, the addition of Payne, their newest album, and what the future holds for Leftover Salmon.










Honest Tune: Thanks for checking in with us, what have you been up to lately?

Vince Herman: Playing music. [laughs} If they weren’t paying us for this I would be out doing it anyway. It has been almost twenty-five years, it will be twenty-five years this New Years. We are just ridiculously and incredibly lucky that we have been doing this for long and we have played with many of the good kind of people. Now we got Bill Payne in the band. He is one of the most recorded keyboardists in rock n roll.


HT: How did it come about to have Bill join the band full time?

 VH: He produced a record of ours (2004’s Leftover Salmon) right before we went on hiatus. We had a great relationship with him and we did a bunch of shows with Little Feat. I have been going to Jamaica to the last five or six years to be part of the Little Feat fan fest. We have just played music in a bunch of different situations with Bill and we have good friendship and camaraderie on a number of different levels. He is a great writer and he is a good guy to sit around with on the bus.

DSCN2593editedBill Payne: I worked on a record with them. I produced a record for them that followed the concerts in tribute to Mark Vann. Paul Barrere and I were both part of those gigs. It was a bunch of people. It is a small enough world. Dave Miller was the monitor engineer at those shows and he had worked with Little Feat so there are just a lot of connections that happens with bands.

The guys got in touch with me a few years about playing a gig in Laramie, Wyoming. Andy Hall was playing, Sam Bush, and a couple of other folks and they asked me to play and I said sure I will play. So we kind of hit it off there. From there it just sort of blossomed into a gig about a year ago at Thanksgiving. I played with them in Boulder for two nights and then they asked if I wanted to go to Mexico with them (for Strings & Sol 2013). I said sure. Then I started doing dates regularly around New Years with them.

I just think they are a great band and the way these things work is I know I bring my own stamp in, but it works both ways. Leftover Salmon is a wonderful group of musicians and I love their material. They have three really great singers in Vince, Drew, and Andy. I can sing too. So we are really opening up what we can do. I think Vince recognized the best way to see what we could do would be to just ask me to join the band.


DSCN2611editedHT: I was at those shows in Mexico and it really worked.  I think you are such a natural fit with Salmon.  There are so many similarities that can be drawn between Little Feat and Leftover Salmon. Was there any thought at that time on your part that you might like to join full time?

BP: The thought had crossed all of our minds I’m pretty sure. I kind of held off because I wanted to see how everything would fit. I think I said why don’t we just consider that we are dating and took it in that direction. There is no rush. Little Feat is not doing anything right now. We might be in Jamaica in March. I am hoping Paul Barrere is healthy enough to make it down with us.


HT: What does Bill bring to the band that’s different?

VH: It is really cool to see our rhythm section go off on these improvs with Bill and go somewhere that Drew and Andy and I could never lead and Bill can. His vocabulary is so ridiculously large and when he improvises he can go absolutely anywhere. Those improvs are something that I don’t think the band has hit so consistently.


HT: Bill, what has it been like for you to join these guys?

BP: I liken playing with these guys to being in the middle of a lake., and you are on your water-skis and you are going to be pulled out of the water at a moment’s notice by the world’s fastest boat so you better just hang on. That is how it is playing with these cats. They can play just about anything. Alwyn Robinson on drums and Greg Garrison on bass, those two cats as far as their musicianship and being able to take it to a lot of different places whether on a jazz level or other areas makes it a great experience for all us. Drew is phenomenal with his mandolin, guitar, and violin playing. Each and every one of these cats on their own is very strong. It reminds me of Little Feat in that regard because that was the way we were as a band. We were all pretty strong in our respective areas as well. And I think that’s what really makes a great group and enables them to generate a lot of momentum.


HT: Vince, it must be great to bring in someone who has such a large musical vocabulary and can speak so many musical languages.

VH: Yeah, you know we think it’s a pretty good fit. {laughs} He has really unique things to add. I just feel lucky as hell that I play with these cats, Drew and Andy, and all the guys that have been in the band over the years. I have a personal philosophy to always be the worst player in your band. It has worked for me.


BP: [laughs} Vince is a wonderful player. He is just such a diamond in the rough. He is in a very good place to discover who he is. He knows who is, but he is still in that place of not quite believing he can play the guitar. He never comes off like he is shy, but when you play in this band you better be ready to step up. The rhythm section he has is a very good cushion, maybe better than what he had before.   I think that’s what we are doing now. It’s the dichotomy of feeling comfort and going to comfort zones, but still challenging each other. And that’s what keeps bands together for a good length of time. And it’s what keeps bands and their audience on a level where they keep progresses together, and are able to see it grow which makes it exciting for everyone.


HT: Is Bill on the new record (High Country, released November 2014)?

 VH: Yeah Bill is on the new record.









HT: Did he contribute any songs?

VH: Just one called “Bluegrass Pines.” He wrote it with Robert Hunter. He has been writing with Robert Hunter lately.

BP: It’s like a lot of stuff I would do with Little Feat. Robert does the lyrics and I do the music and the melody. He is such a wonderful cat to write with.


HT: How was the approach to High Country? Any different than what you have done in the past?

VH: On this one we wrote some tunes together, mostly though we each kind of each showed up with tunes. The next album is going to be real New Orleans-centric. I think it will be more of a concept. Whereas High Country there is a thread running through it still has a whole lot of variety of ideas and topics running through it. It is definitely a Salmon record.











HT: And Salmon records are always a party. You guys seem to really be enjoying what you are doing right now and the addition of Bill seems to have invigorated you even more.

 VH: Yeah we are really psyched about the new record, High Country. We might also have a live release coming out soon. And then we are going to go to New Orleans to work on a new record and we are starting to write for that now. Writing with Bill is a really fun process.


HT: Will that new album be out this year?

 VH: No, we will try and record it in the fall so it will probably be 2016. I guess I bring it up because we are fired up as we look down the road and we are making these cool plans. We got a trip to Hawaii going on. We are going to Alaska, Strings and Sol in Mexico. Ski tour in the winter. Then we start festival stuff up. It’s pretty exciting to be going into year twenty-five and have so much to do. It is a good place to be.


los6475HT: Besides the lineup of the band what do you think has changed for you over the last twenty-five years, Vince?

VH: There have been so many different phases of this band that I have liked. I started playing with Drew when I was just out of college. It was pretty footloose and hippie van when we first started. There was my first marriage and then there was another marriage. You go through all these periods of your life and somehow the band kept going constantly right through them all. It has changed a lot over that time. We used to do a five or six week tour. I can’t imagine doing that now. At one point we were playing like 230-240 shows a year.














HT: As a band you seem to be in a really good place, you can go where you want, when you want, and be the life of the party at every festival you go to. At this point twenty-five years in is there anyone you still look to as an idol or whose career you look to emulate?

 VH: Probably Lorde. {laughs} It’s like wow she’s 17. I guess Tim Obrien comes to mind. He was my inspiration to move from West Virginia to Colorado in the early eighties to see Hot Rize and be part of that bluegrass scene. Tim has always been an inspiration to me. You find your musical niche that you love playing and bluegrass was that niche for me. You don’t make Lady Gaga money in bluegrass but you can have a long career in this music. It’s not like you are burnt out with the audience because of over exposure.


HT: And bluegrass fans are very faithful.

 VH: They are. And I love what John Hartford said, “If bluegrass music was any more popular I would have to play it to people I don’t even know.”

Watch Leftover Salmon celebrate 25 years at the Vic Theatre in Chicago 12/13/14





Nels Cline: Polyglot Tendencies


Nels1From his work with seminal-alt-rockers Wilco, to his work with his solo band the Nels Cline Singer, to collaborations with a diverse roster of musicians including Julian Lage, Mike Watt, and Thurston Moore, Nels Cline has quietly established himself as one of the most versatile, inventive guitarist around today.  Since first picking up the guitar at age 12, Cline has created a sound that is wholly unique and like no other but that still has the ability to meld and mesh seamlessly into any environment in which he plays, yet at the same time retaining that distinct style that sounds like no other.


 In anticipation of his brand new album, MACROSCOPE, due out April 29, Cline checked in with Honest Tune Magazine to discuss his latest album, his collaboration with Medeski, Martin, and Wood, his musical tool box, and much more.  To help us with this, Honest Tune recruited Felix Lighter guitarist/ singer and noted audio gear /effects head Paul Skozilas to help us dig deep with Cline.


Honest Tune:  I think there’s a lot of personality to the way you play guitar, more so, than most contemporary guitar players. Can you attribute that to any aspects of how you learned to play?

 Nels Cline:  Good question! I have no clue, actually. Maybe it has something to do with all the various interests/directions that have attracted and inspired me over the years coupled with what I didn’t learn. I had no significant guitar instruction coming up and absolutely no training in guitar technique. I have had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about this most of my life. But at times I have been able to see the value of being able to embrace my so-called primitive tendencies. My playing may in some way embrace certain degrees of sophistication combined with a love of rawness and the emotional potential of that. So perhaps this explains some degree of musical personality that you are hearing? My ultimate goal is just to keep up with and participate fully in whatever is happening when I am playing.


Nels3HT:  Has it always been that way? Was there a maturation process?

 NC:  Absolutely. I was certainly not a prodigy, (have you listened to me on recordings?) and I still find music to be challenging and generally difficult. I have now been trying to play the guitar for over 40 years and I am still daunted by what I perceive of as my shortcomings, yet I have so many wonderful opportunities to play with so many gifted individuals I just keep pressing forward and try not to let insecurities derail me. I think that the long haul has been a sort of automatic maturing process. I am not very disciplined when it comes to studying and practicing, and as stated before, I was never instructed in technique.


HT:  As a musician involved in multiple projects do you cater your tonal palette to each project, mentally assigning and/or potentially excluding certain styles, modes etc. before you show up?

 NC:  In some instances yes. For example, playing with Wilco I tend to eschew “flashy” playing even though my head is usually buzzing with 16th notes. Learning economy in playing has been valuable and not all that easy for me! Another example for you might be tone choices with different music’s. With Wilco and with, say – Joan Osborne, with whom I recently recorded, the brighter sound of true bridge pickup is often what the music seems to be asking for. I tend to shy away from trebly sounds in my own music in spite of all that strident distortion you may associate with me. Using these other tones is also a challenge at times, and these parameters tend to affect how I play, not just the tone with which I am playing. In the duo I play in with guitarist Julian Lage, we specifically chose to limit our palette to effect-less electric and acoustic guitars, and this can be freeing – not confining. It then becomes all about note choices, dynamics, and articulation in very direct yet subtle ways. I like all of the above! The guitar – particularly the electric guitar – is a malleable instrument, perhaps more than any other. This is may be why someone like me with such polyglot tendencies loves it so much.


Macroscope_LP_front-webHT:  What did you assign or exclude on MACROSCOPE?

 NC:  When writing and structuring music for my own band (The Singers), I tend to follow what the compositions seem to require. Nothing is excluded except what I deem unnecessary to make the composition sound right. If you listen to all of our records over the years, I think you may come across virtually every guitar style and sound except for maybe ragtime and bluegrass. This is not intentional. The songs exist to both create moods and feelings as well as to explore the musical languages and relationships between the band members (and our periodic guests). So really anything goes except for what doesn’t work in a particular moment on a particular song. Sorry if that’s vague.


HT:  On the tech side I think a similar question could be asked. Any intentional limiting or reconfiguring to your arsenal between projects or is more like bring the whole tool box to every job?

 NC:  I bring the whole tool box to recording sessions when possible, but “live” with my own band and with the various improvisers I play with I must limit the repertoire to pieces that are played on one guitar (my Jazzmaster) because of traveling limitations. This said, I use electric 12-string on much of MACROSCOPE – more than usual – and I think I may have been intentionally creating the necessity to include it on my travels. So I am going to just suck it up and pay the overage and bring a 12-string on future Singers gigs. Also, I have “an electric guitar in decent working order” on my equipment rider, which is to open up the possibility of playing songs in open tunings like “Thurston County”. If we are traveling in a van with no flights, I can bring 2 or 3 guitars easily, but that happens less and less these days. As for pedals, though I own zillions at this point, I have a fairly consistent compliment that I bring out for everything. The only variation is wah-wah or no wah-wah – the new Singers material requires it, and I also brought it out for the recent gigs with Medeski, Martin, & Wood – plus I have decided to bring a Univibe-type pedal for The Singers even though it is rather cumbersome size-wise. I usually have a size limit on what I bring out so it can all break down into my not-so-big road case. Oh well, this new Singers stuff is asking for that sound, I feel.


Nels5HT:  With that how did you approach your latest album MACROSCOPE?  What was the process as you began working on it?

 NC:  Hmmm…there is no really interesting or singular “process”. I have some songs. I am bad at self-editing. I write them out, the band learns them. We record them. Then we see what works but usually include pretty much everything! On MACROSCOPE, as with much of Initiate, there was a deliberate attempt on my part to sort of “warm things up” mood-wise, use a lot of percussion, refer to or reflect my love of certain sonorities and harmonies that could be identified as relating to the music of places like Brazil and/or West Africa. I knew that I wanted Yuka (C. Honda) to play some electric piano, and since we were recording most of the record at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA, I could get Zeena Parkins to come play on some things – a dream team! I had written a massive, dark, troubling piece for Zeena called “Ghost Ship” which in no way fit on the record mood-wise or length-wise, so it’s not there, but we recorded it and I may mix it and throw it out there as a download possibility. But almost everything else we recorded is there on the record, from fuzzed-out garage rock to ethereal balladry. Making musical sense may not be my strength. Whether this is a “process” I do not know.


HT:  How did the “process” this time compare to your previous albums?

 NC:  It’s always pretty much the same. The earlier Singers records took so little time to record – we always ended up with extra time, and when we recorded Draw Breath we had so much time left we recorded a whole other improvised record that I wanted to dedicate to the late great Howard Roberts (never released). Initiate was really different in that I had the fewest number of finished songs, I had a desire to play some new/different styles and moods than usual (trying to dial down the whiteboy angst factor a bit), and I wanted Devin and Scott to really weigh in and help with the arranging/direction, but this seemed to ultimately make things a bit more arduous. So even though we worked/rehearsed for about five days leading up to the recording session (a record amount of rehearsal time for us), that session took every minute of the allotted three days to finish and it was pretty stressful. I attribute this more to my own rather scattered leadership than to the material, actually. MACROSCOPE is our first record with Trevor Dunn, and it was really relaxed. The only glitch for me was how hard it was for me to relax when soloing. Sometimes my neuroses get the better of me, and also playing in headphones seems to be getting harder instead of easier for some reason. But the process was basically the same as always with the difference that Josh Jones and Zeena came in on the first sessions, which was really fun.


HT:  Where do you draw your inspiration from musically?  What are you listening to right now that may have impacted your music?

 NC:  Inspiration is everywhere. But for the last couple of years or more I keep finding myself drifting back to my beloved early Weather Report jams, Herbie Hancock Septet, and the Tony Williams Lifetime. The latter band had a later iteration after the legendary first trio with John McLaughlin and Larry Young and before the fusion god version with Alan Holdsworth that made a record in 1971 called “Ego”. My brother and high school friend Michael Preussner and I used to listen to this record religiously, and it is criminally underrated to my mind. Anyway, the emergence of vintage footage of live gigs by these bands on YouTube has been blowing my mind for years now, so there’s that. Check it out.  But also I am currently inspired by the newest record by the band my wife is in called Cibo Matto – the record is Hotel Valentine, and I just love it. When the going gets rough I can always put on a Deerhoof record to cheer me up, or play something like “Canto de Iemanja” by Baden Powell. When I want have my mind quietly blown I can also listen to Jim Hall, Paul Desmond, Jimmy Giuffre. Frankly though, I don’t listen as much as I did when I was younger (and I don’t listen in ear buds like many who trade as much as I). I feel like I need to get back to more attentive listening.


HT:  What does MACROSCOPE say about you as a musician, and how does it fit into your large body of work?

 NC:  I think I will let others decide that one.


 Nels4HT:  Does you solo work impact what you bring to the table with Wilco, and if so how do you see MACROSCOPE impacting what you do with Wilco?

 NC:  I really am not sure. I play in various situations. I strive to be prepared, articulate, to not suck! How these various music’s cross-pollinate may be subtle and/or beyond me. I really find that I try to play and develop ideas that come out of my head/ears and wonder where it came from or how it all fits together later. Would I have ever written something like the ending section of “The Wedding Band” had I not played with Wilco? I don’t know. That simple melody/progression came to me one morning while half asleep and I got out of bed and wrote it down. My feeling about it was simply that it expresses happiness and/or celebration. The repetition is meant to induce a bit of trance, like a happy ritual. But the content and the inclusion of lap steel on it has already been called “Americana”. Ultimately, such distinctions are of no interest to me. And when I go back to playing with Wilco, I play Wilco music. I feel no need to interpolate some aspect of my improviser brain/style on that music. As such, MACROSCOPE may have no impact at all on what I do with Wilco, or it may be happening and I won’t know it!


HT:  What was it like to get together with Medeski, Martin, & Wood and create an album’s worth of music and improvisation live in front of audience?

 NC:  Playing and improvising (and later, touring) with those gentlemen was and is so natural and almost effortless. They understand how to play and listen, and it’s really like we all find ourselves on the same odd and wondrous planet as soon as we convene. In short, it was a blast and an honor.  


HT:  What’s on the horizon for you over the next couple of months?

 NC:  After this mini-tour with The Singers – and I must mention that Cyro Baptista is coming out with Scott, Trevor and me – I have duo gigs with Julian Lage at Canadian jazz festivals (our duo record is finished and will be out on Mack Ave. in the Fall), some recording in New York City with Mike Watt and Greg Saunier and a guitarist friend of Watt’s named Nick, recording with Anthony Braxton, a concert in Japan with Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band at Fuji Rock, my week in August at The Stone (NYC) wherein I play two shows per night with many different musicians to sort of re-tell my musical story in composition and improvisation, I have a few gigs here and in Austria with Ben Goldberg/Unfold Ordinary Mind, and a duo set in Austria (Saalfelden) with Marc Ribot.  That’s all I can think of at the moment.

Pontiak’s INNOCENCE: Thoughtful Intensity

Pontiak2Few bands play with the thoughtful intensity of Pontiak.  Built around the three Carney brothers, Jennings (bass), Lain (drums), and Van (guitar) from rural Virginia, Pontiak’s music is hard to pin down.  It is glides effortlessly from a sludgey stoner-rock feel to a swirling psychedelic rumble.  Their music is loud, complex, unsettling, and utterly intriguing. Quite simply it is the perfect music for a serious bout of headphone exploration.  But beneath all of that are gorgeously crafted songs that can exist just as easily in a wall of noise as they can in a simple acoustic strum.

First formed in 2004, Ponitak have released six full-length albums and three EPs.  Satisfying the wanderlust spirit of the three brothers who originally got their start in Baltimore, MD before moving back to their home in rural Virginia, each of their albums has been an adventurous approach to recording with the band always looking to shake up their artistic process to see what happens. Their latest album, INNOCENCE continues this trend.  Focusing, as guitarist and lead singer Van says, on the melodies and vocal lines of each song as opposed to the noise, textures, and ambient stuff, Pontiak have crafted their most accessible album yet, but one that stays true to murky, sludgy, soul-baring sound that is their music.

While navigating the mud-covered roads on the farm where they live, Van checked in with Honest Tune to talk about INNOCENCE.


Honest Tune:  The new album is due out January 28, what’s the feeling among you guys in anticipation of the release?

Van Carney:  We are definitely excited.  It has been quite a process and a long time coming.  I think we spent more time working on this album than any other record we have done.  I think it is just more excitement to have it out and be able to sell it at shows.



HT:  Was it a plan to spend more time working on this one or is that just how things happened?

VC:  It was definitely a plan.  We worked on this album very differently.  We have had many different set-ups for our studio. This time we moved the studio out of the house where it used to be into a barn. We built that first and that took us like four or five months.  We planned on once we got in there on taking a whole new approach to writing the record.  We wrote it using melodies and vocal lines for the tracks and then writing music on top of it.  So it was something we wanted to give ourselves enough time with so we could have some reflection and meditate on it.


HT:  Was there a reason for that change in process?  Was it just time to shake things up?

VC: It was definitely that.  It was just part of the artistic process.  It is just listening to your gut and figuring out how are we going to navigate this and looking at the stars and going for it.  It was a case of if it feels right let’s do it this way.

The funny thing is that my brothers and I were just having a meeting and we were talking about the next record already which we have been talking about for a while already, and won’t come out for years – but it is one of those things we are constantly working on.  If I am not working on it I go nuts.  It’s just something I am constantly doing.


HT:  Did you enjoy this process more, less, or indifferent?

VC:  It was definitely different.  It was a great process.  It was hard work.  It was working through some scar tissue artistically.  Working with other people is a skill and talent.  Being able to collaborate and listen and go in a new direction when no one really knows where you are going is tough.  But you feel like let’s try this and see where it goes.  It’s like the old adage about too many cooks spoil the pot, but the thing is with us we always have three cooks all the time.  For us it is like, Ok, I am going to put on the salt, everyone come over here and taste it.  How does it taste? So for us it’s a lot of by committee.


photo by PJ Sykes

HT:  I always think the dynamic of brothers in a band can make things very interesting.  How does the dynamic of you guys being brothers impact your writing process?

VC: It’s a lot easier to fire someone you are not related to.  At the same time it is always probably easier to work with someone you are not related to.  I think what it has given us is the ability to not be able to run away from things and to have to work through issues.  But it can be really intense. A lot of bands go through line-up changes and figure out what will work and what won’t.  But with us that is not a possibility, so we have to work on things.  If you are stuck on something, you really have to work through that artistic difference in a way that is like, I trust you, you trust me, and we both want the fucking world for our band. We are both going for the same thing.  So we just have to recognize that. Once you can do that it’s pretty intense.  I think siblings can also go the other way where they want to kill each other or never speak to each again.


HT:  That seems to be the way lots of brothers in bands go, The Davies in The Kinks, The Gallaghers in Oasis, The Robinsons in the Black Crowes.  I am sure Christmas must be a nightmare at their houses.

VC:  [laughs] Yeah exactly.  To me that seems super depressing.


HT:  How do you feel about this new process?  Is it a continuation of what you have done before?  Is it a natural evolution for you guys as a band?

Pontiak - Photo by Lino Brunetti - Lino Brunetti BW

VC: It was a really cool process.  For all the previous albums, everything before [2012’s] Echo Ono, everything up to [2010’s] Living we had written in a really specific way.  We had written and recorded it in a first take.  We would go in with an idea and basically know where we are going to go.  It is not improve, but the whole point was to capture the spontaneity and immediacy of the artistic creation.  You are just looking at each other and playing, and you are not fucking around, you’re not noodling, you’re not wanking, you are just literally on the edge of can we keep this together.  All the albums up to Living were like that. It was just so much fun. It was something you were hanging on to that at any point could go widely out of control.  When we got to Living we thought we wanted to try something different after this.

I write a lot of songs by myself, which are more song orientated.  With Echo Ono we thought we would do it a little differently and focus on the song structure more and be a little more conventional and not just go for noise, textures, and ambient stuff.  With this album we said let’s just take that idea even further, let’s just keep on going.  On this album there were three songs I wrote, “Wildfires,” “Noble Head,” and the “Darkness is Coming” in my living room, months before and I brought them into the studio and we arranged them and used them.  We approached the other songs like that.  We said let’s cut out all the bullshit that is kind of cool, but is stuff that might be minimally engaging to someone not fully committed.  We wanted to know how can we do what we do with an audience and make it better.  We figured out what we think we do pretty well and we just minimized it to that.  We have this thing we do where we practice our songs acappella when we are in the van on tour.  We have problems with our stage sound sometimes because we are so loud and our vocals get lost.  That’s our fault because we are just playing to loud.  But when you practice these loud songs we have acappella everything becomes transparent.  And then you play them on an electric guitar not plugged in and Lain is just playing a little bit of snare and Jennings has his bass just barely turned up and you do your whole set like that when practicing it is kind of incredible.  You can see where everything is and what the song is really doing.  So that is how we wrote this album.  We stripped it down and saw what we were really doing.


HT:  Do we dare say we might see an acoustic tour?

VC: [laughs] An acoustic tour!  We actually have talked about that. We have a lot of acoustic songs and we are just waiting for the right opportunity to put an acoustic set together.  I love playing the acoustic guitar.  That is how I started.  I didn’t even own an electric guitar until I was like twenty.


HT:  With your past on the acoustic guitar, any influences or bands you really like that may shock people given the kind of music you make?

VC:  Good question. Nothing shocking, really standard stuff.  My dad was really into Leo Kotke’s first album.  I grew up listening to that.  I am into all kinds of old country music, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Hank and all those kind of people.  I can’t get away from Chuck Berry.  You have Elvis, but everything that came after that was informed by Chuck Berry.


HT:  The album is coming out the end of this month what are your plans?

VC:  We are basically going to be on tour the end of January through the end of June.  We will be at SXSW and a few other festivals after that.  Then we head over to Europe.  It is always a pleasure for us. Touring is definitely work but it is the easiest part of it.  Once you have your shit together and you have rehearsed and you have it down, you just go out and have fun. And that’s the thing we try and stay focused on is just having a good time.

Sam Cohen and Yellowbirds: Thoughtful and Wonderous

Yellowbirds-Sam-Cohen-by-Bernie-DeChantUpon the demise of Boston’s indie-darlings Apollo Sunshine, vocalist and guitarist Sam Cohen set out on his own.  He was playing and writing songs by himself and soon started Yellowbirds as a solo project and outlet for the musical experimentation he was going through.   He released Yellowbirds debut album The Color in 2011.  The Color was a powerful statement by Cohen. It was awash in psychedelic-indie-guitar glory and it announced Cohen’s presence as songwriter to take notice of.   He recruited friends Brian Kantor on drums, Annie Nero on bass and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman to help fill out a band so he could take the songs on the road.

The four musicians found an undeniable chemistry and Yellowbirds morphed from simply a Cohen solo project into a full-time band.   The new band released Yellowbirds second album, Songs From the Vanished Frontier earlier this year.  Songs From the Vanished Frontier reflects the addition of a full-time band with its fuller, more expansive sound. It still swims in the psychedelic glory of its predecessor, but the more expansive sound serves to subtly hide some of the simpler nuisances of Cohen’s folky based guitar and singing.  This makes for a more interesting aural trip for the listener as you have to dive deep to discover all the hidden secrets of Cohen’s adventurous, timeless songwriting.

As 2013 draws to a close, Cohen took some time to look back on the year that was for him and the Yellowbirds.  He reflects on the recording process for Songs From The Vanished Frontier, speaks of the joy he found serving as musical director for The Complete Last Waltz, and looks ahead to 2014.


Honest Tune:  How did the process in making Songs from the Vanished Frontier differ this time around as opposed to your last album?

Yellowbirds coverSam Cohen:   In certain ways it was similar, in others maybe more refined.  On The Color, we spent two days in the studio tracking the band and did the rest of the record at my apartment with really limited gear.  For Song From The Vanished Frontier, we again spent two days tracking in a studio focusing mainly on the drums, but had a great space to do the rest of the record.  Brian Kantor (drums), Josh Kaufman (guitar/organ), and Jim Smith (co-producer/engineer) were sharing a space in Dumbo at the time, pooling our gear and borrowing some great stuff, so the laboratory was much nicer.  Having Jim there for a lot of the recording was a big help and an important part of the sound of the record.  That space had a great energy that really influenced the record.



HT:  What is the songwriting process for you like? What inspires you during that process?

SC:  Writing comes in phases.  A few good songs show up, and an album comes together, and that stays fresh and fulfilling for a little while.  Then new sounds and ideas start to show up, and I realize I need a new set of material to make these new sounds happen.  Books and movies, sometimes poetry, inspire lyrical ideas. The music just shows up when it’s ready.  I’m more open during the writing process, so whatever happens, whatever I see or hear during that time, a great show, a show with a great moment; that will all seep into the album I’m working on.



HT:  The album has a timeless quality and feel to it. What do you attribute this to? Was it something you consciously tried to achieve when creating the album?

SC:  Thanks for saying so.  I’d feel incredibly lucky if my music were to actually span any significant amount of time.  A few generations?  That would be amazing!  As far as trying consciously to make it timeless: ideally, while making records, I wouldn’t do anything consciously.



HT:  You have had the chance since its release to live with the album for a bit and perhaps get away from the space you were in when you created it. Has your perception of the album changed with some distance between you and the actually making of it now?  What parts of it really stand out for you now, and what if anything would you like to go change?

yellowbirds_photo_vert_stripesSC:  The process of making a record is a great joy for me – it’s thoughtful and wondrous, and you go so deep inside it.  The process of finishing a record, when you go from broad strokes to fine ones and then try to step back and see it all, is tough because it’s almost arbitrary.  You can decide on things, but you know that soon you’re going to change.  I’m thankful the songs get to go on living through live performances.  The way we play together is always evolving, and it’s really special when our current selves bring improvements to older songs. I have to listen to my albums passively or not at all.  It’s like listening to someone else’s record.  I think, “this is cool, there’s a decision…ok.  I’d do that differently.”



HT:  You have a regular band that you played and recorded with for the new album, how did that impact the resulting album?

SC:  For how tight and familiar we’ve become as band, it’s not a particularly a band-ish record.  Everyone contributed, but the recording process was more like glorified four tracking than capturing a band.  We started with just Brian and I with Jim engineering. I added all the bass parts and started printing Echoplex drum tracks early on.   Everything on top was just peppering guitars, keyboards, vocals, experimenting toward the right mood.

The songs were really new when we started working on the record.  Most of them we’d never played live and many we’d never played in practice.  I didn’t demo the songs and send them around like I had on The Color.  That demo’ing process is a discovery process, and I wanted that process to BE the record for Songs From The Vanished Frontier.


Yellowbirds band shotHT:  How would you compare Songs from the Vanished Frontier and The Color?

SC:  The Color is Songs From The Vanished Frontier’s little brother.  The next record is going to be their ancient and majestic grandfather.



HT:  What are you currently listening to? Does what you are listening to impact your songwriting process, and if so what were you listening to while writing Songs from the Vanished Frontier and The Color?

SC:  Currently listening to a ton of The Band because I’m musical director for this concert that we just put on called The Complete Last Waltz where we play that entire show.  It’s an amazing experience.  I got to play with great friends who are some of the finest players I know and bring in guests who are some of the musicians I most enjoy and admire.  I was going through all The Band albums because some of their best stuff is not part of that concert.  “In a Station”, “To Kingdom Come”… oh my God!

The main record I remember listening to while writing the album was Duane Eddy’s Silky Strings, Twangy Guitars.  There’s a breezy vibe to the record, which maybe that accounts for.



HT:  Is there one album that for you stands out as pinnacle of songwriting and creativity, an album that is a big motivator for Sam Cohen liveyou?

SC:  More certain artists than a single album.  I’d like to have sculptured busts of Neil Young and Leonard Cohen flanking me in the studio.  They’re the guys that, for me, have set the bar, which I am always furiously flopping below.



HT:  As the year end is drawing near, what were the highlights of 2013 for you and Yellowbirds?

SC:  Touring as a duo in January opening for Guster was a really special experience.  It was amazing to perform for some of the largest audiences I’ve been in front of, and be so naked.  A real learning experience and they were a blast to travel with.

The Pickathon Festival in Portland was amazingly curated and a thrill to be a part of.  We toured down the west coast afterwards backing up our great friend, Eric D. Johnson from the Fruit Bats.  That was incredible.

The Complete Last Waltz, which Josh and Brian, were also part of, was a spiritually uplifting experience.  A huge amount of preparation, and four hours of playing with Nels Cline (Wilco),  Cass McCombs, Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), Marco Benevento, Joe Russo and Jeff Chimenti (Further), the Antibalas horns, Nicole Atkins,  Binky Griptite (Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings), Alecia Chakour, Dave Dreiwitz (Ween), Andy Cabic (Vetiver), Scott Metzger…  the list goes on and on and everyone was so wonderful.  That was last Wednesday (November 27), so I’m still reeling!



HT:  What are you most looking forward to in 2014?

SC:  Making a new Yellowbirds record and collaborating with as many friends as twelve months will allow.

Getting It With Tinsley Ellis: The Honest Tune Interview

Tinsley EllisWith a new all-instrumental album, the guitar slinging bluesman Tinsley Ellis delves into his influences while putting the spotlight on his expressive guitar playing. Though he’s been playing for decades and recorded more than a dozen records, Get It! Marks the first time he’s collected an album consisting solely of instrumental tunes. The choices he makes in the cover tunes (Booker T & The MGs, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry) speak to his influences, while his original tunes show a player adept at creating a variety of sonic spaces that are entwined together with his emotive skill. In this interview, Ellis discusses those influences, his writing process and of course, Col. Bruce Hampton.


What made you decide to do an all-instrumental album at this time?

It’s been my experience that it’s good to give everybody something to talk about with an album. Every album needs to have a story so there’s something you can say about it other than its just another studio album. I sort of had that philosophy in 2005 when we did the live album and that was a good angle to be able to say something about the record. With the instrumental approach, it’s something that fans have been asking for for literally decades. I do a lot of instrumentals in my show. I always have and I’ve always recorded them on albums as well.




Are these songs collected over the years or did you set out to write an instrumental album?

 Other than the two cover songs—the Bo Diddley song “Detour,” and the Freddie King song (“Freddy’s Nightmare Dream”)—the songs are songs that I recorded without releasing them and performed them, all the way back almost into the ‘70s and early ‘80s when I was in the Heartfixers. The original songs were written over the past 10 or 20 years. Some are really old and some are really new. I just sort of stockpiled them. One day I was going through my music files on my computer and dragged all my instrumentals into a folder. Then I looked at the folder and, lo and behold, I had about 20 or 30 songs that were instrumental. I started messing around to see which ones were the best ones and those are the ones on the album.


Did you re-record all those songs or use the versions you had?

 I re-recorded them because they were just demos. I have a home studio and when I write a song I play all the instruments. Then when I go in the studio, I have the people who excel at those instruments play those parts. So I had them all demoed out and there were a lot of songs. I started thinking about all the requests from people over the years and decided to do an instrumental album and just let the guitar do the singing. Rather than just go in and rip it up and have everything be a solo, I had to be melodic. That was my goal to have it tasteful and melodic. Sure there are some times when the guitar ripped it up almost to the point of over the top and stopping just before we get to that point hopefully.


How did you put together the players for this?

 Ted Pecchio is in my band now and I’m really excited to have him in the group. This was our first thing we did together. I brought a handful of songs over to his studio and he put the bass on, took off my bass. I really wish I had him play all the bass on the album. At the time I had no idea it would sound so good. When he put that upright bass on the Chuck Berry tribute, “Berry Tossin’,” that was the sound I’ve been looking for for decades.


Glad to hear y’all are hooked up. I first got to know Ted through Bruce Hampton. I know you’ve played with Bruce in the past. How did working with him influence you?

 Bruce Hampton is …I’m not sure if he’s blues or folk music. But he’s someone who is a pivotal character on the scene here in the southeast. I’ve known him since the ‘70s. Our paths cross a lot of times over the years. We had a group called The Stained Souls. It started off as a blues band and then, that was what I do best. Then he takes it out. It turned into something completely different. I’m not sure there is a way to characterize what that band is.


Only Bruce Hampton could describe I guess.

 We started doing it 30 years ago this year. We haven’t done it in a while. The last time we did it was at the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam as few years ago. It’s always me and Bruce and a revolving cast of characters in and out of the groups. It’s just a matter of when we do it. We seem to do a lot of benefit type stuff, which is cool because that’s when the music is best.


Are Kevin (McKendree, keyboards) and Lynn (Williams, drums) also in your band?

 They are Nashville guys and play up there with people like Delbert McClinton. I know them from Delbert’s band, although Kevin McKendree has played on every album I’ve done since 1997 when we hired him to do an album that Tom Dowd produced. So Kevin has been a fixture in my recording world. We actually had him mix the album and I think he did a super job mixing it.


Were there other instrumental guitar albums that influenced the sound of this one?

 Freddie King had an album called Hideaway in the early ‘60s with a lot of his instrumental hits on it. That’s one of my favorite albums. You know, a really big one for me was the Jeff Beck Blow by Blow that came out in the ‘70s. I actually saw that tour in the mid ‘70s. But it seems lately that the whole genre of guitar instrumentals has sadly gone away. In the ‘60s when I was first getting into music there were a lot of instrumental bands like the Ventures, and my favorite band of all time was an instrumental band called Booker T and the MGs.


Yeah, I kinda hear some Booker T and the MGs on this album, “Front Street Freeze” for one.

 Absolutely. That’s my favorite group, so hopefully that shines through.


Another that I hear flavors of is the Meters.

 Yeah, the Meters are another great group. You know, being from the Georgia area I think we lean closer to the Memphis sound than the New Orleans sound.  In fact, the rhythm and blues people from Georgia, when they would go to record, they didn’t take them to Chicago, they didn’t take them to New Orleans. They took them to Memphis. So you had Sam & Dave recording in Memphis. You had Otis Redding go there to record. And maybe there’s a Georgia –Memphis collection. Of course New Orleans is its own world and nothing sounds like New Orleans. I wouldn’t dare try to say that I could even have that sound. But I can get into some Memphis stuff for sure.


How do you go about coming up with titles for instrumentals?

 That is a tricky one. An even harder thing to do is to get people to remember which song is which because there are no words to help you remember. There’s a real dreamy one on the album called “The Milky Way,” and that is kind of the mood of the songs. You’re kind of looking up at the stars. But the song didn’t have a title. I had demoed it and just was calling it by the date I wrote it on. I was struggling with the name and I went into my kitchen and we keep a little candy jar for the kids and I reached in and pulled out a candy bar and it said “Milky Way” on it. I thought, that songs kind of sounds like you’re looking up at the stars. So I guess I named it after a candy bar. Then “Fuzzbuster” is an up-tempo rockin’ song that sort of sounded like driving music. So I thought about the fuzzbuster up on the dashboard of your car to tell you where the po-po are. “Front Street Freeze” is one where a little more thought went into that. Front Street is of course the Memphis thing and the backing of that song is probably the most Booker T influenced song. But the freeze part comes from Albert Collins. He was the iceman so he named his songs the freeze or thaw out, or frosty or ice cone. So it’s a combination of Albert Collins and Booker T and the MGs.


This record is out on your own label, Heartfixer. What made you decide to go into the record business?

I’ve been with a lot of different labels over the years. Landslide Records in Atlanta. Alligator two go-rounds. I did one album for Capricorn records back in the 1990s. Some of my musician friends helped me get a deal with them and that was a great opportunity. Of course the record company went out of business. And Tel-Arc as well. I can’t forget them. Gosh, I’ve had a lot of labels. I’ve learned a lot from each of them. I’ve been with, probably Michael Rothschild at Landslide and Bruce Iglauer at Alligator probably are my two mentors in the record business. I wanted to give it a shot, give it a try. This is a quirky, kooky little album anyway. If it doesn’t work out I can always blame it on that. I’m learning a lot and starting to see things from the record company’s point of few, which I never did before. Every trip to the post office I make, every time I put my credit card in that postage machine I start to see things from the record company’s point of view.

Tinsley Ellis

Is there anything you want to tell us about the particular guitars you used, just for the gear –nuts out there?

 Oh yeah! Well, there’s three guitars used mainly on it. I used a 1959 rosewood Fender Strat. And you can definitely hear that on the first three songs of the album. Then on some of the songs I used a Les Paul on some of the more rock songs. Then I used a 1967 Gibson ES345 on some of the, I guess to describe them I’d say the bluesier songs on the album—the two cover songs and the Chuck Berry tribute because that’s the kind of guitar he used. There’s not a lot of pedals involved, though I did play through a Leslie cabinet. You can hear that on the opening track to hear that spinning sound. I recorded the whole album through one little Fender amp, a little small Fender deluxe reverb amp. Usually I use something larger like a Fender super or a Marshall. But this was recorded through a little amp. I found that I could really crank it up and it would give me the overdrive and the distortion that I usually use a pedal for. I’d like to think there are more pure guitar tones on this album than I’ve ever done. I think tone is one thing you really need when you’re doing an instrumental, to be conscious of the melody and the tone.



You don’t use a lot of pedals normally, do you?

No. There is wah-wah on one song, “Fuzzbuster.” I try to make it something unique that doesn’t sound like somebody else that maybe got famous doing it, using a certain kind of pedal. I try to use oddball vintage effects like the tape echo unit or the Leslie cabinet. I try to use them sparingly because you can get carried away with it, that’s for sure. The amp did me right. Oddly enough it just doesn’t have enough power to use in a live concert. I use a 1967 fender super reverb amp [in concert].


Who else is in your touring band right now?

I’ve got JJ Boogie. He had been playing with Arrested Development. Now he’s my drummer. He was their guitar player, so we’re talking about a real musical guy. He’s a hip-hop engineer as well, and has mixed several big hip-hop records, including Arrested Development albums. So I’ve got a couple of really musical cats with me and it’s really inspiring, doing the trio thing.


Editor’s Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in Living Blues magazine.


For more information on Tinsley Ellis: