Interview With Mike Savino of Tall, Tall Trees

kishi-9Anyone who listens to Kishi Bashi’s records immediately associates him with an ethereal quality. With a song collection centered on creation myths and conversations across the spaceless void of eternity, it is difficult to go elsewhere during one of his dynamic performances. He has successfully transformed his classically trained violin into a post-modern marvel through a complicated series of digital loops, effects and glittering samples, lifting listeners into what can be described as a uniquely ecstatic musical experience.

When Bashi performs with his orchestra, however, one is struck by how his music resonates deep in the gut, and how grounded his songs actually become. He isn’t simply the product of better musical engineering. Human mouth beats, frantic foot stomping and, often, Mike Savino, the bearded banjo player at his right serve as a necessary ballast.

Bearing a strong resemblance to American lumberjacks of myth, Savino’s old time instrument serves as an ideal compliment. Savino isn’t simply the stage compliment to Kishi Bashi though. Far from it, actually. Working under the moniker Tall Tall Trees, the New York City artist has released an intriguing stream of traditionally based, modern music, spinning the banjo off into a rare realm of technology and experimentation.

Savino bounces as he plucks his instrument and strums it with bow. A few times throughout, he captivates the Aladdin Theater crowd by using the skin body for percussion. His energy is infectious, voice oaken strong, forcing one to wonder how this whole crazy string arrangement could go off without his presence.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Savino after the Kishi Bashi Orchestra show in Portland, Oregon when we had the opportunity to talk about, among other things, the music.

TTT_Austin_1How long have you been playing the banjo?

I’ve been playing banjo since college in the late 1990s. It was always a sound I remember being drawn to, even as a youngster but bass was always my first instrument. After I went to music school I had this overwhelming desire to play a portable, acoustic instrument and sing and write songs and here was this banjo in my closet.

How soon into your playing the banjo did you start experimenting with the kind of sounds you could get from the instrument?

When I started playing banjo with a band, especially a drummer, I realized that I needed to be louder, so I installed a humbucker pick up. It didn’t take me long to start adding fuzz pedals, and delays, and whatever else I could find. A well-curated pedal-board can have limitless possibilities.

Talk about the tradition, if any, of sonic experimentation with the banjo.

I’ve always been into extended techniques when it comes to playing musical instruments. When I was sixteen, I discovered that I could play a laser gun through my bass pickups. Since then, I’ve been constantly searching for new sounds and techniques.

As far as the banjo goes, not many people have veered away from old-time clawhammer, bluegrass, or traditional folk banjo. Legends like Bela Fleck and Tony Trichka, have taken the banjo deep into the jazz and classical world but the actual playing is pretty rooted in the Earl Scruggs style. I’m pretty shocked that no one has really used the banjo as what it essentially is, a drum with strings on it.

Your site boldly states that “Mike Savino is not your granddaddy’s banjo player.” Have you experienced any resistance from colleagues in your unconventional treatment of the instrument?

Haha, that’s actually something Kishi Bashi said on the radio during an interview. I thought it was pretty funny. I haven’t had many people criticize me for not being “traditional” despite both the bluegrass and old time music community being pretty protective of that music. Most people come up to me after a show and say they had no idea you could do that with a banjo, to which I usually reply, “me either”.

Talk about self-releasing your first two records, Tall Tall Trees and moment.

I have my own record label, Good Neighbor Records, which basically means that I go to the post office a lot. I’ve been lucky to have extremely supportive fans that have donated money through Kickstarter and Pledge Music and that has been integral in keeping Tall Tall Trees going.

Making records is a lot of work, especially when you do it all yourself. There’s a lot of minutiae that’s not fun and everything takes longer than you plan, but at the end there is a snapshot of where you are as an artist that you can hold in your hands.

You Kickstarted the production of moment. Talk about that process of reaching out to your audience for support in crafting a new album.

Crowdfunding has been essential to me and keeping Tall Tall Trees going. It’s an extremely emotional thing to do. Every donation translates into someone who believes in you and your dream, your neighbor, your friend from 5th grade, and many people whom you’ve never even met, chipping in to help you accomplish something you could otherwise not afford. It’s pretty amazing, humbling, and has inspired me to keep going, even through the hard times.

One of my sleeper favorite tracks of 2014 was “How Did It Get Dark So Fast”. Talk about the new music to come from Tall Tall Trees.

Thanks. That song is pretty close to my heart as it was written at the time when Tall Tall Trees was transitioning from a four piece band to just me. The Seasonal EP is kind of an accidental release. I’ve been working on a new music for a year but my touring schedule has prevented me from finishing a full length album so I decided to release something to give people a clue what I’ve been up to. The new Tall Tall Trees music is definitely evolving alongside my live show. I’m trying to use the banjo and record it in ways never done before so it’s a lot of trial and error as well as beautiful mistakes.

How did you get mixed up with Kishi Bashi and his orchestra?

K and I are old friends. He used to play in my ensemble when we were fresh out of jazz school. I was writing a lot of instrumental music influenced by Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal, as well as Balkan and African music that featured a lot of improvisation. A mutual friend brought him over to jam with us and I was blown away. He has such a natural flow and fluidity in his playing, we clicked right away and have been friends ever since. One day I’m going to release that music and make tens of dollars!

In both live and recorded form, Kishi Bashi brings a sense of musical conversation. That dialog exists between technology and organic performance, as well as lyrically and the array of strings. Has being a part of that changed your approach to the banjo?

Playing with K is always a continuous dialog as we are both improvisers. We speak the same language with different accents. K’s been a great champion of my music for a long time, and I his. I played with him at the first official Kishi Bashi show. There were no loops. I played double bass. Regina Spektor was there, and nine other people. K was there when I first starting hitting the banjo with a mallet and he was all like, “that’s cool, you should develop that” and I was like, “I know, right?!?”  I’m very lucky to have him as a friend, colleague, and foil. We have a lot of fun.

You bring a really interesting energy to your performance. What fuels you?

The first time I played music in front of an audience I felt a complete possession, as if my body was taken over by something and I was not in control. Many years later, I still feel this, though I am able to be conscious and guide myself in the direction I want to go, but the spirits are still in control, not me.

You can check out more from Mike Savino and Tall Tall Trees at his website.