The Foghorn Stringband Interview

The Foghorn Stringband (portrait, photo by Mike Melnyk)

With a hot new album, Devil in The Seat, (reviewed here) safely delivered Portland’s premier old time crew, The Foghorn Stringband are currently touring the British Isles to promote it. After a week of shows in Ireland they arrive in Glasgow tomorrow (Sunday) for a show at the CCA and in advance of this they took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke. We started off by asking about the unusual locationfor the album’s recording.

You recorded the new album in Kauai in Hawaii which seems an odd place to record an old time string band album. How did that come about and how did it compare to sitting around a microphone in rain swept Portland?

Some of us had visited friends on Kauai on our way back from an Australian tour and thought it would be a great idea to record there. We travel so much with the touring and never get to spend more than a day or two at one place. With this recording idea, we thought it would be really healthy and productive to spend a whole week in a gorgeous setting, surrounded by a few great friends, enjoy the odd game of croquet between takes, a walk and a dip in the ocean every day. We were full of energy and so grateful to be there. Who knows where the next album will be recorded!

Some of the songs appear to have a closer connection to Celtic or English folk music than I recall from your previous albums. The notes say that you learned What Will We Do from Cathy Jordan. Do you see this as a direction the band will pursue?

We choose music that we love, regardless of the origin. On the two previous recordings, we decided to add a few Cajun selections but didn’t include any on Devil in the Seat. We were looking for a girl duet and Sammy remembered hearing Cathy Jordan singing What Will We Do in a session somewhere in Ireland and we tried so hard to find a recording of her, with no success. We did find a recording of The Silly Sisters singing and learned it in Hawaii just before recording it!

You usually note the sources for the songs and tunes on each album, a habit which has caused a great deal of Google searches in this household as I try to hear the originals. Where do you hear the versions that inspire you, do you have a trove of old albums or access to an archive?

We collectively have a great quantity of field recordings and have shared various collections with peers at old time music gatherings and on the road. We also get to play sessions with a ton of musicians every year and some tunes stick with us days after the jams! It’s an amazing community out there of folks who share the love of the music but also the love of good company, food and simple living. It’s almost a way of life as much as it is a style of music!

How do you decide what material you’re going to put on each disc?

We wanted to make sure everyone was featured and that it represented us well. We ended up recording 36 songs in Hawaii and kept 16 for the album. We wish we could have fit all of them but made though choices and ended up with a good flow we think. Maybe we’ll release the other tracks in the future!

Are there any essential primers you would recommend for anyone wanting to delve into the world of old time music, books or records?

As far as old time and traditional music goes, you have to go for the classics such as Tommy Jarrell, The Skillet Lickers, John Ashby and The Free State Ramblers, The Carter Family and the list goes on!
A big fiddle hero of ours who just passed away who influenced the band greatly is Garry Harrison. He travelled throughout the Midwest (not a region you’d first think of for old time music) and collected hundreds of tunes and songs and published a book called Dear Old Illinois.

With the current line up you can range from Bluegrass to country to Honky Tonk to Cajun at the flick of a switch. Do you play all of these styles live?

Yes! We have loads of freedom playing live shows. We typically don’t use set lists and decide the next song as we go. We like to cater to each audience and honour their requests. It’s fun for them and artistically interesting for us to play as much material as we can without too many repeats. We made a list of our repertoire and with over 700 titles we can do days without playing a number twice! Each person in the band came from different backgrounds and with this line up, we cover lots of ground!

You’re touring Ireland this week before two dates in Scotland and another five in England towards the end of the month. How do you find the audiences are over here, do they react differently from North American audiences?

We love being here in UK and Ireland. The similarity in instrumentation seems to help the audiences identify to the music we do. Some tunes are played on this side of the ocean but have different titles than us or a ballad we sing has another ten verses we were not aware of and that always makes up for good conversations! The crowds here in general are very respectful and really listen to the lyrics. But it doesn’t mean we don’t like a good rowdy crowd!!!

The Foghorn Stringband are at The CCA, Glasgow, Sunday 17th May at 8pm.
05/18/15 Edinburgh Traverse Theatre Bar
05/20/15 Newcastle Cluny2 Theatre – Jumpin Hot Club
05/21/15 Liverpool The Caledonia (Free show!)
05/22/15 London Kings Place
05/23/15 Kent Cajun Barn – King Charles Church Hall Tunbridge Wells Kent
05/24/15 Towersey (10 miles from Aylesbury) The Three Horseshoes
Full info here

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