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Published: 2004/11/30
by Benji Feldheim

Middle Grass with Noam Pikelny

Did he say Cafspresso? I thought he said Espresso, but maybe he said Paradiso. It’s around 5:15 p.m., before the John Cowan Band show at in Urbana, IL., and Noam Pikelny is no where to be found. Could he have told me to meet him at Cafaradiso? Five years of living here, and I still get those two confused. After a quick walk
to Canopy Club, he calls me and to say he’s at Paradiso. Ever the humble man, he says, "Maybe I said the wrong place." He definitely didn’t.

Noam Pikelny wore Bela Fleck and the Flecktones t-shirts to school in fourth grade. Many of the other Solomon Schechter Day School students jibed at him when he would explain how great Fleck is at banjo and other wonders of bluegrass music. I remember getting more of a kick when he and a couple other guys lip synched to Vanilla Ice than when he played his banjo for show and tell. Nevertheless, two things were very clear about Noam: being bigger than me, he could tackle the stuffing out of me in recess football, and the man had serious skills on the banjo even in fourth grade.

Years, and many hours playing bluegrass tunes at festivals later, Noam played in the band Waffle Hoss while going to school at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign. In a ballsy move he went up to Leftover Salmon’s tour bus before a show at Canopy, banjo in tow, and said hi to the band. The jam on the bus preceded Noam sitting on stage with Salmon that very night. A year later, with the awful and sudden passing of Mark Vann, Salmon called Noam to fill the giant shoes. Noam has said many times how grateful he is for the opportunity to play with Salmon, yet his music ideas are a little more unplugged. With John Cowan Band, Noam has the opportunity to perform music inspired by the roots and traditions of bluegrass, yet still open minded and very experimental. At the age of 23, the man plucks comfortably with wise pioneers of bluegrass experimentation.

Benji Feldheim: How’s everything going with the tour?

Noam Pikelny: It's going good with Cowan. This is kind of our first tour out after just finishing recording a new record. I think everyone's excited and has new energy. The music has a new twist to it. We re-worked it for the record. It's been going good. We started at a festival in Oklahoma called the International Bluegrass Festival, in this small town called Guthrie, Oklahoma, which seems like the most unlikely of all places to have an international…

BF: Anything?

NP: ...a bluegrass festival, anyway. It had bands from Japan and Slovakia. It was a good way to start a tour. Go out and there and do the bluegrass fest thing with all these cool people from all over. Just see how all these people are connected through the music. They can't even communicate otherwise. Everyone's pretty psyched about the band, and real excited about getting this record finished, and just to get out there and start playing.

BF: Is this a new set-up as opposed to what Cowan has had in the past?

NP: Yeah, he's had several different band forms. He had more of an electric band a few years ago with a drummer. Everyone would plug in. Electric banjo, electric lap steel guitar. This kind of incarnation of the band just kind of happened by chance, in that last year, their percussion player was in a bike accident and couldn't come on out on the road. Instead of having a percussionist, they called Wayne Benson, this mandolin player from Nashville. Wayne came out just as a fill in and it went really well. Everyone was excited and it just morphed into a bluegrass…more of a newgrass kind of project. I started playing with them in June, did my first shows with them in late June. Since, it's taken on a life of it's own and it's definitely the most acoustic thing John has done. People are warming up to it. I think people like hearing John in that context. It's definitely a weird phenomenon, because he's so versatile. He could be the lead singer in any kind of band, heavy mental or more of a jazz, or experimental sort of thing. Seems like people out there really like him best behind a kind of bluesgrassy, rootsy kind of band. There's a newness to it even though some of the guys have been in it for like six years. Jeff [Autry] the guitar player, has been with him for six years, but it's definitely a new project, in a sense.

BF: Does it seem he’s incorporating those other elements, even though this is more of an acoustic thing?

NP: Yeah. I think you can never really censor all of his influences and impulses, music impulses. To say John Cowan is doing an acoustic project, to most traditionalists that still would be as far…kind of progressive newgrass, jammed out thing. This is definitely not a bluegrass band, it's just that the instrumentation is now acoustic. There's still more of a jam element to it, and we'll do tunes with extended solos like he did in the early New Grass Revival stuff. His sources are still really varied for music. Tunes by Gregg Allman, or by Marvin Gaye, or Sam Cooke, and then try to arrange it in a way where it can work with bluegrass instruments. For people who know John, it's more continuing the spirit of New Grass Revival, in a sense that it's built with all kinds of material, but at the back of the band is more of a bluegrass thing. To most traditionalists, he's as far out in left field as you can be. He'll still always have that impulse to hit the neutron bass pedal and do a rock intro to a bluegrass instrumental because that's where he comes from.

BF: Does this mean we’re gonna get a bluegrass "Let’s Get It On" tonight?

NP: There were hints of Dark Side of the Moon last night. There were some extended bass solos, or really they were intros. It's really interesting and fun to be with John, because he was part of some of the original groups to expand on bluegrass and create experimental music within, taking rock n' roll elements and combining bluegrass with it. Like having a six-minute guitar solo or banjo solo in the middle of a tune or just getting weird, or doing free kind of improv stuff. Salmon picked up on that. Drew and Vince were real influenced by the New Grass Revival, and I think they were really turned on at how they took bluegrass instruments and took an approach like a rock band. I was a big part of that with Salmon and going back one step further with John, I've seen where it really comes from. Or where parts of it come from. Every now and then, I'll just think, Man, this sounds just like they would've done it in 1977.' But then I remember that was John doing it!"

BF: It’s got to be a bizarre situation to be playing with these people you’ve listened to for so long. Going with that, there’s always something a member of a band can bring to the whole picture. Granted, you’ve learned all this from playing with real experienced players, but I’ve believed they’ve learned from you too. What do you think you’ve brought to some of these things, especially with the John Cowan Band?

NP: I think I'm bringing the bluegrass background to the table, but also the type of guy with an open mind and fresh ideas with the tunes, and the willingness to try something new. It makes me think…I've ended up in situations where I'm not playing in traditional bluegrass bands. Leftover Salmon to this are things that are out there on the fringe, and doing something weird and new.

There's probably a reason I ended up there and not in a traditional bluegrass. There are traditional bluegrass banjo players who can do that real authentic bluegrass banjo a lot better than I can. But not to say those are things I neglected, or ever were not important to me. I kind of came up through the roots of learning bluegrass, and learning the style, and later got into the more…what's the word? Tangent. Tangent bluegrass stuff. What I bring to the band is they've got someone who has…does both of those worlds. We could play a bluegrass tune and just try and do it authentically and it could be real close. It wouldn't be like some of the guys from North Carolina would play, but there's an understanding of the music by everybody in the group. Everyone came here through bluegrass. That was really their first thing.

What I bring is that bluegrass background and the open mind and ears to arrange things differently and respond in an improvisational context to anything we could bring up. I write instrumentals, so I'll be bringing those in and also bringing ears open and eager to arrange things and try something new. I wouldn't say in either bands I've been in, once I got in I revolutionized what they do. This band is real interesting because it has John who's been in so many unique places and do so many kinds of music, and Wayne comes from more of a traditional bluegrass background, but has the chops and the ears to let things go and try all kinds of things.

The band is really adventurous and it could be experimental in some ways, or at least more risk taking and has the technical background…the real authentic bluegrass technique to make it really convincing at times. That's what I'm excited about. I think if this band keeps playing…it seems the more we play together we're getting to know each other better and can really make something unique on stage. We have such different backgrounds, but also the technical thing where we're able to pull that stuff off."

BF: It sounds like that balance is key, mixing the old thoughts with the new to make something real interesting. I could give you a reason for why you ended up on that end of things. Whenever people ask me about Schechter (Solomon Schechter Day School), I always think of one thing and that’s you coming into fourth grade with a Bela Fleck and the Flecktones t-shirt, playing the banjo for show and tell.

NP: I remember! I was unashamed of it back then. I remember, I don't know if you were there but it was a birthday party of mine, where it was my birthday party, so I wasn't thinking of what anyone else wanted to hear (laughs). It was probably my eighth or ninth birthday and for the party everyone came over and my banjo teacher did a house banjo concert in my basement. I thought it was the greatest thing. I was so excited to have my teacher at my house playing and thought everyone would love it.

I remember the next day in class, we were sitting in a circle or something and talking about what everyone did for the weekend, and one kid said, Yeah, we went to Noam's birthday party. They had a guy playing banjo…it was really boring (laughs).' It crushed me! I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, but then you realize this may not be something everyone's into.

I was originally attracted to the banjo because of the more progressive things that were going on with it. The Flecktones are what really made me want to learn banjo and I kind of got caught up in the whole bluegrass thing and not totally caught up into the progressive things, although it is always in the back of my head. It's just where I come from. I think my…where I belong is kind of more in that open progressive kind of…I don't what the word for it is. There's a sense of it, which you can tell from hearing John's band or hearing Leftover Salmon. These guys aren't really playing with rules or with conventions, they're just playing how they hear it.

BF: Yeah, it seems like there’s a constraint with going along with only sticking to the traditional stuff. On one hand you get bands who don’t know the traditional stuff and they’re trying to play it, and that doesn’t work."

NP: Right.

BF: But then on the other hand you get people who only stick to the traditional stuff, and you almost go into go into it knowing what you’re going to see if you are a fan. Maybe that’s what you’re looking for and that’s great, but that’s been done before.

NP: I appreciate both sides of it, but my favorite things and what I try to create is something new but with a direct tie to where it came from. My favorite music is things that you hear that's unique and new but it doesn't sound like it came from nowhere. You say, Oh, man. He's expanding on what that guy did before, and he expanded on what that other guy did before.' It's really exciting when you can trace that path. There's some really amazing bands that are playing music that was done fifty years ago that I love, and they do it real authentically. And on the other side of that coin there's bands playing in a bluegrass style, or at least using bluegrass instrumentation, but I don't think value the tradition or the background of it as much. They've got into it and have run with it, but it leads to something that can be more interesting, or weirder, because it's not really grounded. You can tell all these people, they're into the music but they haven't studied the roots of it. There's a lot of both going around. I feel most comfortable somewhere in the middle.

BF: Can you think of the earliest time when you wanted to apply both ideas of making this music?

NP: Carrying the traditions, but still making something new?

BF: Yes. What kicked that off?

NP: When I started out, and was learning how to play…I wasn't thinking about writing the material and creating something new at that point. I felt like there was so much out there, and that I needed to let it in and digest it. At first, it was more of a technical thing. Everybody gets to that point, once they have their technical facility, and the commitment to it. If you're playing, practicing and writing and learning music and playing with other musicians, if you do it enough, something starts coming out that becomes original that is maybe a reflection of your personality or where you're from.

I don't think I woke up one day and said, I think I'll start playing more uniquely.' Or, My background is really going to start coming out of my playing.' It's just something natural that happened and I try to foster it as much as possible. I'm still trying to create something new or do something different. I still feel I'm kind of steeped in the tradition and connected to the people who have played the instrument before and definitely still on that path where people can hear me and see where I'm coming from, and see my influences. But they can also pick something out and say, Oh, that's kind of interesting and new.' I think for me, when I was living in Champaign, when I got here and started playing music in this town, something shifted in my head to, Wow, there's other avenues for playing music than what I was used to.'

I had grown up just going to jam sessions and festivals on the bluegrass circuit out of Illinois and Indiana, which were based around traditional bluegrass. Music being played was bluegrass out of a couple different styles from the 1940s, and some played in the last twenty years. It was a real canonic form, you know? Everyone was jamming on a real standard repertoire in that community. The emphasis was not about necessarily writing or taking risks, but about playing it right and nailing it, which is something I respect. But, when I got down here and started playing with musicians who have different backgrounds, who've played rock, and playing for people who didn't grow up listening to bluegrass, it became more of a thing like, Well, maybe we're playing to create something new and to entertain, but not just to play it right.'

I started playing with musicians in town, and at that point I had been playing banjo so much it just felt natural to write my own banjo tunes or fiddle tunes. I started writing based on how the band plays, or how we could improvise over it, or a lick. I think it all natural came together. I was trying to build off of all these musical ideas I had, whether it came from bluegrass festivals, or they came from a music theory class I was taking here.

Once I started playing with Salmon, I had the time and luxury to focus even more on it. There was never a time where it just happened. I feel most enthusiastic about playing when I'm about to create a mood, when I'm in a period where I have two or three compositions in the works. Those feelings and those emotions fuel my playing. I look forward to the next tune. It's been a real interesting ride, what's happened in the couple of years. I feel like if I keep doing it in the same fashion I have in the next few years, it will keep going good. That's my hope.

BF: Going back to Waffle Hoss days, what are some key things you learned in that time that you still apply?

NP: I don't know. Those guys probably would expose the fact that I was really stubborn about things. I was definitely the most steeped in the tradition than anyone else in that band. I remember arguing and saying, This is the way we got to do it,' and they'd be like Why? We don't have to play it like that. Let's speed it up.' And I'd be like, That's stupid. No one ever does it like that.'

I think those guys were the first who signaled to me that there's more out there than the way a bluegrass band works. They didn't come from that background. Also, the demographic of playing in a college town compared the festivals. Yonder Mountain String Band, the second time they came to town, and I saw them, they played at Mike N' Molly's for like a hundred people, as opposed to now when they play for thousands. It's a small place, but it was packed and people were going crazy. It was like being in another country for me. They were playing bluegrass essentially and people were loving it. I had never seen that.

That whole scene of being in Waffle Hoss in a college town really opened up my eyes to the fact that young people like this music and they don't have to know the history. After that, I saw we could play in bars and entertain with this music. There is a world out there. When I saw that Yonder show, and how much people got down, that was the first time I thought, Why couldn't I be doing this?' Not in a competitive way. It was just like, These guys are doing this. I'll be playing bluegrass in five years. What don't I put something together?' That was the first time the thought crossed me head that maybe this could be a living. It doesn't just have to be a hobby.

BF: You also did some touring in Europe. Was that before playing in Salmon?

NP: "Yeah, before Salmon. That was in the summer of 2001. I spent five weeks in Europe, most of it in the Czech Republic with a guitar player named Slavek Hanzlik. Even now, it's one of the things I'm most proud of. He's a brilliant guitarist who basically plays chamber music. It was real classically arranged and real deep compositions. It wasn't about improvising as much as the parts and the tones colors. My plan back then was to come back, which was in July of that summer. I had a year left in school here, and I was going to finish and move to Prague for a couple months and cut an album with him, and maybe support it.

I was real excited about that, and really respected his composing and playing, but then the whole Leftover Salmon thing seemed to happen in a matter of days. I ended up moving out to Colorado. I came back to Champaign two days before classes started, and had just accepted the offer to go play with them. I dropped all my classes, subleased my apartment and moved out there. Everything changed course from that point. I didn't go back to Prague to do that album. Playing with Salmon was so busy. Things definitely took a turn from doing sit down, acoustic chamber bluegrass to total crazy party bluegrass.

It's really interesting to play music with people you can't communicate with otherwise. To go out there and play with them, and be welcomed into that community was a special thing. It makes the world seem a lot smaller. Just like the International Bluegrass Festival. Especially with the timing of it. We listened to the [first presidential] debate the night before the festival, and all these issues are being revisited about what role America plays in the world. It seems like people forget that there's more than our borders. To sit down and play music with people who, if you would talk you would disagree on everything…well, they'd probably agree with me (laughs)...but it does make the world seems smaller. You could have different backgrounds, different politics, languages, but still sit down and play.

BF: What then is the role of an American in the world?

NP: It's a whole new can of worms, but I have this feeling that we can't be alone and there's no point in alienating other people around the world. I think we're entering this phase where it's going to take real cooperation, caring and love for this place to keep turning. There is an attitude that we're the United States, and we'll do whatever we want, and we don't need the support of others. Whatever we do just by the nature that we're Americans, and if we do it, it's the right thing to do. No questioning.

For me, when I travel overseas, or play with musicians from other places, it just makes me feel like there's nothing inherent about America that makes us right. I'm proud of the fact that this country has done a lot of great things, even with the things that haven't gone well, and I still think it's the best place to be in the world. There are certain attitudes that don't make me feel proud to be American, but I also think I couldn't be doing what I do now anywhere else in the world. It's not that I wish I could move to Canada and make a living playing bluegrass. That's not what I want to do. I still think, What an amazing place.' I mean, coming from Chicago and being an outsider in this music, to come into it and still be embraced by people, I don't think it could happen anywhere else. It makes me value the communities of artists and musicians and festivals in this country.

Everything based on music is so beautiful when it happens here. But I'm scared, because how can it last like this if things continue to go the same way they've gone? If terrorism gets worse and we start getting bus bombings here, it might change how people gather to see music, or go to festivals. That ritual of going to a festival, to listen, dance, play or all of that is very important. I don't think someone's stealing it from us, or trying to take away that right, but it would be better if everyone approached the whole situation with open arms and open hearts and open minds. Staying up late playing with a banjo player from Japan who I can't even have a conversation with, but we can play Earl Scruggs tunes together makes me think about the places we end up. That's a total rant right there!

BF: Hey, it was a beckoned rant. Going completely off of that…when you first started playing with Salmon, in that drastic change, what do you remember from those first early days?

NP: At the time, it was happening so fast that maybe it didn't have time to process. I can look back on it now and say, Well, I just went out there and started playing.' But at the time, it was such a big deal for me to play with a band so well established and that has such a rich history to it. I felt a part of something really big. It seemed at first that I was catapulted in front of all these people with this expectation that I had to be really good. The pressure was on to meet those expectations.

The whole thing was a learning experience from the first day to some of the last gigs we played, just seeing how those guys put on a show. I learned a lot about the open communal aspect of music. Their shows weren't about technicality or chops. It wasn't a contest, even though they have those abilities. All those guys are great musicians, but the whole sum of it was trying to create something that was bigger as a whole than anyone could've done it individually. From when I started until when I left, just being welcomed into that community…well I hope I haven't left that community. The fans are amazing.

The term jamband means as much to me the open mind of the musicians as it does the fans. The trust and support that work in between, more so than an actual style of music. This community doesn't exist because we play spacey solos. There's something more than that, a real exchange between the bands and the audience. These concerts were a real experience. All that, and learning all of the practical things I learned from touring with guys who built this thing up from the ground, and seeing how they ran a band, the business of it al, the practicality of touring and supporting a family, the relationships. I was thrown in a situation where I had a lot of big brothers in a music sense.

Those guys showed me the handbook, and answered my questions. I learned what to do and what not to do. I learned why things work, and what doesn't work, and what it takes to keep your sanity touring. They helped me set my priorities straight. They've reached a level few bands can get to even without a hit record. Sustaining a touring group for fifteen years is as much of a feat as having a gold record. It was a great family environment to be around. I knew the luxuries like traveling on a national tour on a bus was there because of their hard work.

It was hard because as much as I enjoyed it and was grateful for the opportunities, there really was a different way I wanted to make music. For me, I felt I didn't have as much of an outlet for my music, at least the acoustic sense of the music I'm into now. The subtlety and nuances of acoustic music were kind of sacrificed for the big show, the big rock show. After time, it became a dilemma for me because it was something I thought was really cool, but I was missing hearing my banjo acoustically, and just playing bluegrass. I gravitated toward playing more bluegrass, and then the opportunity came to play with John, and I felt that was a step closer to what I wanted to do.

Salmon had been touring so hard for so long, everyone had their projects on the side they were neglecting. For me, I had the luxury to do it, since I didn't have a family or bills or commitments. It was like, I could try something less established and more of an experiment, not a proven success. I know there was a lot of confusion over if someone quit, or what happened. I started playing some shows with John, but I've also played shows with Salmon since then as well. The first time playing with them after working with John for a while was really good. It was carefree and fun. It seemed they knew at that point there would be some kind of hiatus. I had two months to step away and come back to it with fresh ears. I think it will be real interesting to play with them on Halloween and have everyone come back to play after having six weeks off. They have never had that in fifteen years! Never have they had that time to do their own tours for that amount of time."

BF: What are some funny moments you can think of playing with Salmon?

NP: Oh, there's so many! Vince used to break strings…a lot! He plays really hard and he has this balls-to-the-walls attitude about it. Breaking a string is something to proud of for him. One night, he managed to get on stage, and we were just getting ready to tune, within thirty seconds…before we even played the first song…he broke a string! He just checked to see if it was on, and broke a string. Brand new strings on his guitar, too!

Going to the festivals with Jose [Martinez] was always interesting because he didn't grow up listening to bluegrass. It was all a carnival to him. He didn't know who the stars were. He had total respect for Del McCoury and Peter Rowan, but not because he studied them or grew up listening to them. Seeing how he interpreted bluegrass and approached these things were always funny. I remember once, Peter Rowan was sitting in with us and he just gestured to Jose to his ride cymbal or whatever. Like he was saying, Maybe try playing a pattern on that.' It was one of Rowan's tunes, and he just dropped a suggestion. Jose took it as this total, DO NOT TELL ME WHAT TO DO!' He's not thinking that Peter Rowan is a legend in this music, more like, This guy's not gonna tell me how to play the drums.' Jose really didn't do anything to Peter, but it was this vibe I felt.

What else? There's always this combination of the funny and absurd, and real cool moments. When we did the Under the Influence Tour with Del McCoury, and being backstage with time to kill, just hearing stories from Del or getting to play a tune, or teaching him one of my instrumentals. Those situations were just like, How did I end up here? I really cherish this.' And other times it was like, I really cherish this, but this is so crazy!' Getting to see Vince play with his guitar with his shoe. Hopefully there'll be a revival of that one day. The first big show I played with them, my whole banjo rig was attacked by a large mechanical dragon. That was the first signal that I wasn't playing at the coffee shop or the bluegrass festival. When we were playing on Halloween, there was this huge mechanical dragon in the fly system that would shift the whole length of the Fillmore stage in Denver, and in the second song of the second set I just heard the loudest crash, and all my stuff was face down on the ground! I guess the guy got a little too ambitious. On top of that, the dragon hit it with such force that all the cords were severed…beyond repair."

BF: In finding your spot between traditional bluegrass and more experimental, what did you have in mind when you made In The Maze?

NP: I had collected enough tunes to where I thought I should record them. There's a great list of bluegrass records that are mostly original, instrumental material. The tunes are cool composition wise, but like I said before, they have that kind of connection to the traditional music that had been done before. It's not that I felt these tunes were revolutionary, but why not play them? They have some neatness to them, and it would be cool to record an album of that type. Get some bluegrass musicians to cut a record like that with songs that have the traditional elements to them, but are a little further from that.

The real concept was to take these tunes I liked, play them with really good musicians and see how they were going to approach it. Those guys have so much experience and brought a lot of ideas to the table. Some tunes I thought would be bluegrass came out as old time because of the other players' ideas. At times I might have thought, Wait, are we really going to do it like that?' But that's what I wanted these guys to do. I mean, I had to be comfortable with that. They do have the seniority on me (laughs).

BF: Yeah, but it’s still you’re record.

NP: True. With Matt Flinner producing it, we both made those calls, but I think we realized early on that we should embrace the ideas and not try to just make this how we hear it. There's no reason to fight ideas if there's politeness and people are convinced they're going to work. I think it ended up being a jam session of new tunes. We captured a good version of us sitting down and playing. There's no heavy production to it, or effects. It sounds like a band playing. I mean, we'd go in and fix mistakes, but we'd still sit down and do it.

It's very simplistic in that way, but the tunes have something interesting about them, whether it's how the melody is written or the form of the tune, the soloing. It felt like this was something cool I could offer that's worth listening to. I was proud to put down. But also, when I finished that one it made me more ready to do the next one. It gave more ideas for how the next one needs to be done, like what the tunes were lacking, for instance. Or, how I want to produce this next one. It's a good thing, I think. Compass was real generous about it. They heard a demo and were behind it from there. It was a really great band with [David]Grier, and Todd Philips and Gabe Witcher, as well as Matt. Those guys bring along a legion of followers who might want the record. It never hurts to have people say, Hey there's this new banjo record that David Grier is playing on.'

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