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Published: 2001/01/15
by Dean Budnick

The Strange Remain: Jon Trafton Discusses the Revamped Strangefolk

The past year has certainly plumbed the mettle of Strangefolk’s Jon Trafton. The late summer of 1999 began auspiciously for the guitarist and his band as the quartet entered the studio with producer Nile Rogers to record its first album for Mammoth Records. However, soon after the group completed the sessions, an administrative shake-up led Mammoth to jettison most of its roster, including Strangefolk. To complicate matters, in May, band co-founder Reid Genauer announced that he was leaving the group to enter graduate school. Some feared that Strangefolk’s final performances with Genauer at its annual Garden of Eden festival might well be the last by the group.

However, Trafton, bass player Erik Glockler and drummer Luke Smith remained committed to Strangefolk and its music. The trio held auditions in the fall, ultimately selecting two performers to expand the group to a quintet. Luke Montgomery is a guitar player and vocalist whose band Folkstone had once opened for the group. Keyboardist Scott Shdeed shared a similar slot while gigging with Funkus Groovus.

Following an initial unofficial gig at the Mad Mountain Tavern in Waitsfield, VT, Strangefolk moved ahead full throttle. In late December it arranged forty-six songs for a two show New Year’s Eve run at Burlington’s Higher Ground. At the end of this month, Strangefolk will return to the road for its initial extended foray with the new line-up, traveling down to Georgia and back to New England. Meanwhile, the band’s album, A Great Long While, which the group recently self-released, continues to generate positive press.

The following interview with Trafton explores all of these topics. For additional information and tour updates visit www.strangefolk.com

DB- Let’s step back and then move forward chronologically. You recorded A Great Long While with Nile Rogers. How did the process different from your previous two studio efforts? How did Nile’s perspective alter this process? [Editor’ note: Nile Rodgers first became known for his work as songwriter and guitarist for the band Chic. He later produced albums by, among others, David Bowie, Madonna, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mick Jagger].

JT- He was really interested and excited about building everything on a solid groove, which isn’t all that surprising given his background. That was his technique, he likened it to building a house. He said we should start with the drums and if the drums were rock solid and the bass was rock solid then everything else would be rock solid. The process itself was basically the same as in the past, just a little bit more involved. We laid down the basic tracks then peeled things back and overdubbed things back on. That’s how we’ve always done it, although maybe with Lore we had a bit more of a live approach. Anyhow, this time we played everything live and ended up with some fun, energetic takes which Nile used as the basics and then we added to that.

DB- On A Great Long While, the band’s sound is richer, more textured with some additional instrumentation. Did you enter the studio with that in mind? Did it cause any internal debate or conflict?

JT- We’ve always been excited about adding guest musicians in the studio, going back to Lore where we had banjo and pedal steel. In fact this time we called Gordon Stone again. We also had the horn section, which at first raised a few eyebrows but I think people are pretty excited about the way it came out. We are all pretty much on the same page about getting guest musicians on there.

DB- Nile is quite a talented guitar player, himself. What impact did his presence have on your performance?

JT- He’s a great guitar player and I didn’t realize how great a guitar player he is until I saw him in action. I wasn’t all that familiar with Chic. I heard it over the years but I never paid that much attention. Then as the day approached I started noticing it everywhere- on VH-1, the radio, commercials. At first it was a little nerve-wracking because I was thinking things out too much and over-thinking what I was playing. He encouraged me to relax and go for it. That’s what he did with all of us- don’t think about it, just do it and let it flow. He had some amazing ideas, often about little things- he’d say, “Play it, do it like this.” He’d express it and then pick up a guitar and whip this thing off. He’d rip through about five chords and do the most wild inversions.

DB- What are your favorite moments on the disc?

JT- I like “Stouthearted.” The intro was a totally spontaneous moment and it ended up coming out nicely. I like the way “What Say You” came out, the way it builds at the end and the loose feel. It has this loose yet tight feel and it really moves along. I’m real happy with “I Tell Myself.” I never really thought about it being on album. Nile liked it and said “It’s so simple you can’t really deny it.” It’s just a simple pretty little tune, and I’m glad it made it on there.

DB- How long after you finished recording did you hear the news from Mammoth?

JT- We finished the album at the end of the summer and it seemed like December that we started to hear rumblings. I think our album was slated for release some time soon after the new year and we knew trouble was coming. But it really wasn’t until right before our album was supposed to come out. It was a real blow, a really emotionally jarring blow. We had spent so much time working on that album. The process was really fun but waiting for it to come out was not quite so fun. By the time it came out I had been listening to it for almost a year.

DB- It is not uncommon occurrence for a label to invest quite a bit of money in a particular recording and then just drop it when there’s a change in ownership or management. Did you see it coming though or were you surprised?

JT- I was shocked. I remember talking to Nile about it and he said, “I hope your label stands behind you guys and treats you right.” I said, “Oh they will, look at the budget they’ve given us, they’ve really been liberal with that. Why would they bail out on us half-way?” Nile just looked at me and said, “Oh brother…if it were only that way.” And sure enough, he was right.

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