Tony Trischka is one of the most unique and influential banjo pickers in the world. Over his 40-year career he’s played everything from bluegrass to jazz, fiery originals to covers of the Beatles and Hendrix, and with everyone, including Country Cooking, Skyline, Grass is Greener, and the eclectic supergroup Psychograss.

A true renaissance man, Tony has also produced, arranged, written numerous instructional books, given clinics and workshops, and contributed material to movie soundtracks and television and radio shows. His current project is the Tony Trischka Band, a talented five-piece group that plays wild, electric jazz-rock-bluegrass fusion. Their second album, New Deal, will come out on Rounder Records on March 4th, and a tour including both solo and full band dates started this month.

JamBase writer Susie Ochs recently spoke to Tony about his newest band, his influences, being a bandleader, following the teachings of others, and expanding upon musical traditions. Though Tony is known primarily as a bluegrass musician, some of his answers might surprise you... But see for yourself what he has to say!

Susie Ochs: How did you get started playing the banjo? Who were your earliest influences?

Tony Trischka: I was very interested in folk music when I was a kid. There was a big folk boom going on. Folk singers were on the cover of Time magazine; it was an interesting time. There was a group called the Kingston Trio, who were really famous. My parents bought their record for me as a Christmas present when I was, I guess, 13. It was the first album I’d ever owned. There was a song on there called “Charlie and the MTA,” and the banjo player, his name was Dave Guard, he took a solo on there that made me have to play the banjo. I was already playing guitar but I heard that and it just got me so hot and bothered that I had to play the banjo. I talked to some people and said “Well, who else plays banjo like that?” And someone said “Check out Earl Scruggs. He’s the real guy you should be listening to.” So I did. And well, that’s how I got into bluegrass and I was gone from there. And still gone.

SO: Did you know as soon as you started that you wanted to play banjo professionally?

TT: No. I never made a conscious decision to play the banjo professionally; I just did, and never looked back. I like to say that the banjo chose me, which seems true. It wasn’t like I had a say in it: “You’re gonna do this for the rest of your life. OK.” I was very fortunate, my first professional job happened when I was 14. I’d been playing for a few months and my banjo teacher invited me to play along at some gig he was doing at Syracuse University. (I grew up in Syracuse, New York.) The pay was $15 for playing 15 minutes, so I was earning a dollar a minute.

Hey, not bad!

Exactly! Even by today’s standards that’s not that bad. So that was pretty heady stuff. Anyway, I got hooked in to that early on, too.

Do you play anything besides banjo? You mentioned guitar...

I play a little guitar. Actually I play pedal steel guitar. I hardly ever play it these days but for a few years in the early- to mid-‘70s I was with a couple of groups, kind of country-rock oriented in some ways, where I was playing pedal steel guitar. There’s just something about the sound of that that just drove me wild.

What do you like best about the banjo?

Hmm, there’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that question. And I’ve been asked a lot of questions! People ask, “Why were you attracted by the banjo?” That’s sort of a related question. I’ve done interviews with people for instruction books and they usually say, “Well, I just was attracted by the sound.” So on one level it’s just the sound of the thing. It’s just exciting, it’s bright… it’s very attractive. At least it is to me.

On another level what keeps me interested in it is the endlessly unfolding craft, if I can use that word, of always trying to find new sounds, new notes. Finding new tools with which to improvise, creating new sounds, writing new songs, it’s like a puzzle. Or it’s an excavation: it’s like you’re digging for new material on the instrument.

At the same time, I have a real interest in the history of the banjo, dating back to its roots in Africa, the slave times, the minstrel shows in the mid-1800s, the turn-of-the-century ragtime banjo, that sort of thing. It’s such a rich history I can spend eight lifetimes just going back and listening to old recordings, transcribing them, and learning how to play old tunes. So there’s never a question of being bored. If I played just one style, I don’t think that could sustain me for 40 years. The banjo is still in some ways a largely unexplored instrument, compared to the guitar or the saxophone, which John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and various others have just taken to the ends of the earth. Whereas the banjo, well you’ve got Béla [Fleck] out there, and I’m exploring and there are some other people exploring the fringes of what can be done on the banjo, but there’s still a lot of terrain left to cover. The search for the unknown is an enticing aspect of the instrument.

You’ve got a new album coming out March 4th on Rounder. Was there a particular style or message you were trying to get across with it?

I wouldn’t say there’s a big message. Well, there is one song I wrote with lyrics to it called “Northern Falling,” which has an anti-war message. I wrote it before this whole Iraqi buildup, but there is a message there that I think needs to be heard. I think we need to step back a little bit and think twice about doing this invasion.

Tony Trischka Band
But besides that, one thing I wanted to do with this album as opposed to the first album [1999's Bend] was make it a bit more accessible. Because everyone in the band can just improvise their brains out. They’re amazing. But I thought there was maybe a little too much of that on the first album. I mean, I want that. I want the jamming, I want people to go wild and all that, but I also wanted some things that were maybe a little shorter, a little more grounded. And I think that’s happened on this album. I also think it’s a more textured album, too, because Scott [Neumann], our drummer, does percussion as well as playing set, and that gives it some really great textures. And our guitar player [Rolf Sturm] has amazing effects and does all sorts of crazy things on guitar, lots of different sounds, which I’m really happy with. Our bass player [Bob Bowen] plays stand-up bass as well as electric, which gives it a little more of a wood-y sound. We have three new people in the band since the first album, the saxophone player Michael Amendola and myself are the only original members.

The players in the band all have strong backgrounds in jazz. What inspired you to seek them out, were you mainly looking for people who could improvise?

Yeah. Well, when I originally put this band together maybe six years ago, I auditioned everyone in the band. It was the first band I was in where it wasn’t a situation that already I knew everyone, like Psychograss. Actually, every other band I’ve been in has been like that. Maybe there was one person we had to search around for, but other than that we’d just say, “Hey, let’s put a band together and do something.” But this time it was just me and I had no idea who else to use.

Basically the concept was to go out and do music that I had been doing since the ‘70s, kind of fusion-y and electric, with drums and electric bass. On each of my first three records I would have a couple tunes like that, but I’d never done it on stage. So anyway, I had to audition drummers, bass players, electric guitar. Originally I wanted fiddle and I rehearsed with a really good fiddle player who could do jazz or bluegrass. But it felt a little country to me, and I didn’t want that sound, so instead I went with the saxophone, which is one of my favorite instruments.

Do you enjoy being the bandleader? There aren’t too many banjo bandleaders, it seems.

Yeah, I do. I’m not an autocratic bandleader, I don’t say, “Listen up, everybody. This is what you’re gonna do.” Whenever I recording with people, I want them to play what they play. I might have some suggestions. But the attitude is, I know what these people sound like, either through auditions or because they’re friends of mine, and if I want to play with them on a record or in a band, I trust that they’re gonna know what to do. And that they can probably do better things than what I can think of to tell them to do. So it’s almost a democracy, except that I have the final say because my name’s at the top of the bill, my name’s on the album, and because most of the material is mine. It is my band, but I’m a very relaxed leader.

These guys are all a little younger than you, right? Do you find that they’re challenging you as much as you’re challenging them?

Oh, absolutely! Because I’m not a jazz player. So sometimes they’ll write tunes that we’ll play and it really stretches me to have to play these notes, because they think differently than I think. I mean, I’ve sat down and transcribed some Charlie Parker solos and some John Coltrane solos over the years, but I’ve never made the big push to be a jazz player like Béla has. So when they write some heavy-duty jazz lines or something, I’ve got to sit down and learn that. I can play them, but it does stretch me and that’s great because I get to learn new things. And sometimes I’ll write things for the saxophone that work well for the banjo but don’t work at all for the saxophone. So that’s a challenge too, because I’m writing these things on the banjo, but I’m not sure how they’re going to work on the other instruments.

Have you seen your audience changing at all, maybe due to the electric format, or the recent rising popularity of bluegrass?

I’ve been noticing it for a while now. I remember doing a show about two years ago and right up front were three young ladies who were maybe 18 or 19. And I’m doing a solo banjo show. So I thought, I’m going to start playing and they’re going to realize they’re in the wrong place, because historically that has not been my audience. But they hung out for the whole show and they came up afterwards and said how much they liked it, you know, that they just really loved the banjo. It’s the people interested in the whole jam scene. There’s a bunch of people out there that don’t want to be fed the Backstreet Boys or whatever it is, and they’re wide open to a bunch of different influences, be it bluegrass or jazz or rock or whatever. And since I do some of that stuff, I’ve seen that younger audience come out, which is really great.

Your music, especially Bend, seems to be a fusion of a lot of different influences and styles. Is there anything you haven’t gotten a chance to explore yet on the banjo that you’d like to? For example, would you ever want to do a single-style album, like Béla’s classical album, Perpetual Motion ? Or are you more interested in mixing styles and sounds to see what you can come up with?

The only single-style thing I might do is another bluegrass album. I did one in the early ‘80s, it’s not out on CD, but it’s called Hill Country. That’s all bluegrass. It’s got Tony Rice, and Del McCoury, and Jerry Douglas, and Béla produced it. I would like to do another one of those at some point, maybe soon.

Tony Trischka with Psychograss | photo by Tony Stack
I don’t think there’s any other style that I feel passionate enough about to spend the time to learn how to play it, to be authoritative on it. Bluegrass is at the root of everything I do, but along the way I got very interested in listening to jazz and reggae and classical and all sorts of different sounds. There’s a guy from South Africa that I just heard about last night who plays thumb piano; well, the official name is kalimba. This percussionist I play with in another group said that this guy is amazing, a thumb piano virtuoso, and we should get together and try to do something. Like kind of an African thing: banjo, thumb piano, percussion, and maybe bass. That’d be a great sound to explore. Things like that are exciting to me.

Over the years you’ve played with so many great musicians, and from all over the spectrum. If you could play in a band with anyone, living or dead, whom would you choose?

Boy… living or dead, huh? My immediate thought is Bill Monroe. I jammed with him once, and I actually could have played with him in the ‘80s and probably could have joined his band, but I was in this other band so I passed on the opportunity, and in retrospect I wish I hadn’t. But anyway, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Chubby Wise, who was the original bluegrass fiddler when Earl Scruggs was in Bill Monroe’s band. It would just be an amazing thing to play bluegrass music with those guys, the original people in the original bluegrass bands.

And with that, it’d be great to play with John Coltrane on something. I played last night with a group called Wayfaring Strangers. We were doing bluegrass tunes, but it’s sort of half bluegrass, half jazz, and the leader of the band, Matt Glaser, invited Bill Evans to sit in with us. Bill Evans played saxophone with Miles Davis. It was pretty exciting to have him—I got to do a duet with him for part of the tune, just banjo and this amazing saxophone player. So I know it can work. I’ve got a saxophone player in my own band, we do duets and things, and it’s a good sound. So I could really get off on playing with John Coltrane. Of course, there’s many people I could add to that band, but those are some of the big ones.

Let’s touch a little on your work as an educator. You’re known, among other things, as Béla Fleck’s mentor, and you’ve also written books and done instructional tapes and videos. Do you have a specific educational philosophy regarding the banjo, something you’re really trying to get across to all the young pickers out there?

Well, it depends on the book or the tape or whatever, I’m not sure it necessarily comes across in all of those projects. But if I have an educational philosophy at least in terms of the banjo, it’s this: if you want to do bluegrass, learn to play like the original players—Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Don Reno... the heavy guys that really started things, or if you want to play like Béla Fleck. Learn to play note for note what they’re doing.

But at the same time, develop your own creative side. Write tunes, learn how to arrange tunes on your own. Come up with your own ideas, you know, explore. Just get out there and mess around, because there’s no exercise system for playing the banjo. It’s not like on the tuba, you’ll play all these scales for ten years and then you can enter some competition or something. The regimen in bluegrass is learning to play like Earl Scruggs, he’s the main guy. But whoever you idol is on the banjo, learn to play like them, get their stuff down and go on from there. Use that as a springboard. That’s what Béla did. He had a few teachers before me, and he was interested in learning some of my things, and his teacher was trying to work up some of my stuff and show it to Béla, and then he finally said “Béla, why don’t you just go to Tony up in the Bronx and learn it from him?” So he did.

On your album World Turning, you explored the history of the banjo, its roots in America and even back to Africa. Was there anything you learned about the banjo’s history that surprised you?

I knew it was from Africa originally, but when I started exploring and finding tunes that had African influences, I was surprised at what a powerful experience it was. When I first started hearing the minstrel style of banjo playing, which dates from the 1850s and before, that was a surprise. I knew what was being done around 1900, kind of a parlor-style banjo. But then I went to something called the Tennessee Banjo Institute, which is this festival just for banjo players, with workshops and concerts and stuff. Anyway, I heard these guys there playing these funky old banjos that were tuned real low and had gut strings instead of metal strings, and they were playing minstrel music from the mid 1800s. That was a big surprise to me because I didn’t know that they knew what was going with the banjo that early on. So that pushed it back another 50 years. But in the minstrel era they were playing music that they learned from African-Americans and Africans; you know, slaves. Some of the tunes even had the African roots right there, you can just hear it. And to be able to push back the timeline that far, all the way back to Africa, was a very powerful experience. I never wanted to have a time machine before, but to go back to the 1700s and hear what the slaves were playing would just be unutterably amazing.

What do you see as the future of the banjo, or of banjo music?

I think it’s going to continue to develop. No one’s come along to be like the next Béla yet. In other words, you work off what’s before you. For instance, I learned a lot from Bill Keith, he was my big hero. And I think Béla to some extent built off of what I’d come up with. And then people, like Tony Furtado, for example, have built off of what Béla’s done a bit, but I don’t think anyone’s taken it to the next level. Béla’s taken it so far I can’t even imagine what the next level will be!

But I think the future will just be what it is, some people will explore the more progressive side of things, like Alison Brown or Béla or myself. Find new trends, open up new territory. And then there’ll be the traditionalists who have a strong hold, obviously, in bluegrass and still want to sound like Earl Scruggs sounded in 1953. Which is nice, it’s good to have music rooted like that. I like to play like Earl Scruggs but then play a jazz thing, so it’ll just keep expanding and contracting.

Interviewed by Susie Ochs
JamBase | Midwest
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[Published on: 1/20/03]

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