Black Twig Pickers - lowdown on the band from Blacksburg Virginia
The band from Blacksburg, Virginia, will be bringing their Appalachian folk music to the Belfast Festival this month.
What can people expect from your show on the Belfast Barge?
Nathaniel Bowles (banjo, washboard): It's on a moored boat?! Oh my gosh. I don't think we've ever played a gig on a moored boat before! It'll be a great show: a mixture of high-energy pieces, singing pieces and more contemplative things. We try and vary it up.
How important is rhythm and dancing to the music you play?
Rhythm is a key part of the foundation, but I don't think of us as solely a dance band. We like to play slower things, mid-tempo things, mega-fast things that are too fast to dance to, or getting into that perfect groove to start calling squares to. It's an important element of the music but not the only element. I think that would be doing a lot of old-time a disservice.
You've played improvised and experimental music for some years. How did you come to join the Black Twig Pickers?
Mike (Gangloff) is a fiddler and banjo player who was one of the founding members of the band. He was pretty much my introduction to old-time music and mountain music from around here. The sound was immediately gripping for me. It pushed a lot of buttons that I like in music – it was droney, it was repetitive, it was rhythmic in a way that was hypnotic. I liked the weirdness of how songs morphed through a beautiful, oral tradition. It didn't feel like something incredibly foreign or weird. It just felt like the kind of thing I could jump into. So I did and I got really hooked on it.
Is old-time music a living, breathing thing in your area?
Totally. It's shocking to some people how living it still is. It's definitely not some dusty thing that you can only find in old recordings. People play this music all the time. There's actually a fairly vibrant jam that happens on Wednesday nights in Blacksburg, where people bring instruments and play old-time music. That usually attracts 35-40 people. There are so many people, and especially the younger generation of players that has really picked it up. You'll have 17-year-olds playing with 65-year-olds.
You and Mike also play in the improvisational rock band Pelt. Given that background, how would you describe your approach to playing old-time?
We use a lot of tools from other music to make old-time music that to us is vibrant and fresh. But we're not trying to dress it up and make old-time more palatable to people. It's just captivating music, so we try to play it in such a way that the captivating elements are clear to the listener as well. To us that's the rhythmic complexity, the harmonic density and the evocative nature of the instruments themselves – of banjo and fiddle being played together. But there's not a huge difference to us between playing old-time and improvising. The way we play old-time too, there's a lot of improvisation.