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- Posted on Feb 22nd 2010 3:00PM by Monica Rozenfeld
Describe your sound in your own words.
I come from a tradition of country music, and folk music. That's where I had my start. I was then influenced by the gospel music in church, punk rock in my teenage years [and] audio. But also, with traveling around, being in a band, listening to all different types of music and meeting all these musicians, what I'm getting at is -- I play all the things I like at once.
I use the banjo as my main tone generator. Like a painter would use pastel or oil as their medium, the banjo is my medium. I consider myself a contemporary artist and am interested in contemporary composed music; avant-garde, improvised music; electronic music; metal and doom, and different kinds of things like that. But I just use the banjo as my medium.
Artists are finding it more difficult to answer the question, "I sound like 'A.'" What do you think about that?
Yeah, it's pretty tough. We're moving away from that way of looking at music. What's happening in radio [is that] the mainstream is this narrow channel. Classic rock [stations] only play these three songs -- three Beatles songs, three Van Halen songs -- and these are artists that have these giant careers and millions of records. We have a lot more access to a lot of different kinds of stuff now. That's a function of the system we're in, which to me I think is very beneficial.
How did you form your solo career, transitioning from being part of a band?
For me, it's funny -- whatever is happening in the country at large is always out of sync with what is happening with me for some reason. In the late '90s, early 2000s, it seemed music was pumping along pretty good -- a lot of labels, sales were pretty good. I was at this place in my life where my dad had cancer, my wife had cancer, my dog died, my band broke up, my mother-in-law died. I was in a lot rougher spot, ya know. I went into being a solo artist as a necessity. I was broke. Eventually, though, I got into it. I was really studying and working a lot, learning a lot about music. I began to really embrace it. It became my preferred method of working because it's so free. You can really react to the audience and change things up. From a business perspective it's pretty awesome because you're free to have musicians play with you, or not. When you're in a band, it's a little tougher. You owe everyone some consideration. Expenses are a lot higher. You develop a sound, and you kind of have to stick with that sound.
I came to the conclusion that my purpose on the earth is to be an ideas person. So, I just make up ideas. When I figured that out about myself, it just simplified everything a whole lot. I realized that's what I need to be doing, creating ideas. And sometimes, when you have a band, it's trickier to create ideas that don't fit the format of the band. [You] have to put it on the backburner. But now, it seems the music industry is in a bit of a dark spot, and I'm having the best year yet. For some reason, I'm always out of sync with what's happening.
What's your biggest vice?
I'd say rude people. People who don't know how to order in a restaurant or behave socially. Rude people freak me out. I never know how to deal with it.
What's it like being part of SXSW?
SXSW is a lot of fun. Kind of intense, easy to burn out. Drink a lot of water. Take vitamins. Don't drink too much cause there's a lot going on. And be careful driving around, 'cause there's a lot of people who don't know the city and are making weird turns. It's great to see music and celebrate music in general -- a real positive environment.
For people who have never seen you live, or will hear your music for the first time, what should they expect?
SXSW is going to be rock 'n' roll. I've got my friend Jeff Pinkus from the Butthole Surfers playing with me. We're gonna rock. It's gonna be awesome.
What's in your festival survival kit?
Really good coffee, [a] copy of the bible, [an] iPod with really good music on it, something really good to read, clean socks, [a] computer and Wi-Fi. And ... I think that's it.
The quote in your bio says, "I tell you, to be 47 years old and to be doing what I'm doing, and to feel like you've got the best record you've ever made by leaps and bounds ... boy, it's really exciting!" I think a lot of people right now are thinking about new transitions in their life. What advice would you give to others who maybe are fearful to follow their dreams and get to the place where you are today?
I think if you can figure out what your purpose is in life, all your problems are over with. When you can answer that question -- "why am I here?" -- life just becomes way easier. It took me 'til [age] 46 to really work that out. I was always just kind of guessing prior to answering that question. I didn't really know what I was doing. Most of the time things didn't go well, and when it did, I didn't know why. If you answer that question -- "what is your purpose in life?" -- everything is then way simpler, because then when things come up, you go, "Does this help me or not?" And if doesn't help me, you just throw it aside. It makes everything so clean. You just start getting things done, everything is really clear, you understand and you go forward. It took me 46 years to figure that out.
A few years ago, you would've been like, "I don't know."
I wouldn't have had an answer. I would have said some crap that I didn't know was right or not.
What's the craziest thing you've seen or experienced while on tour?
Near-death, crazy car wrecks. One time I came up a hill and there was a car spinning on its roof right in front of me. I saw a guy who lost his trailer that went through a barricade. You see a lot of destruction on the highway. It's funny, when you drive around a lot and tour a lot, you see a lot of wrecks.
What's it like working with and receiving praise from Dave Matthews?
Oh, it's fantastic. I'm an underground person. Most people who know about my work are musicians. Some of them are these huge bands, like Dave. This gives me a lot of inspiration. I'm sort of in chartered waters -- doing this stuff, but I don't really have a map. It gives you a lot of encouragement when a guy like that says, "Hey, man, I really like what you're doing. How can I help you?"
If people are checking you out for the first time, which record would you recommend they start with?
'Pizza Box.' That to me is the most accessible and fully realized album I've done.
What's your musical guilty pleasure?
Oh, I think Madonna's great. I like pop music.
Monica Rozenfeld is a contributor from Seed.com. Learn how you can contribute here.