Strangefolk: Return to "Reuben’s Place" with Jon Trafton
How about the Capitol Theatre show from December of 98, what if anything did you discover about yourself or the band from listening back to that performance?
One of things I willed myself to forget is how good we were. I’d forgotten the little nuances. I remembered the songs and thought we had good songwriting abilities but I forgot the movement of the music and the pure improvisation of it—the willingness to dive-bomb into musical zones where none of us knew what was coming next.
That “So Far Gone” at the Capitol is just fun to listen to. When I saw the track listing that it’s like 26 minutes long or whatever it is, I was like, “Oh no, please don’t let this be a Jon Trafton guitar-a-thon that’s embarrassing to listen to,” because there’s certainly enough of that in Strangefolk history. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. It was a very collective groove and improvisation and it was really neat to revisit that old show and it brought me back to a time and a place very strongly. This whole process of rehearsing has forced me into our past which I had kind of shut out for my own sanity to not dwell on what we’ve done and keep looking forward. It’s been a real fun trip for me on that level.
Earlier you mentioned tipping your hat to the early days of Strangefolk. It all began as an acoustic duo with yourself and Reid. Then after Erik and Luke joined the band, you continued to perform on an acoustic guitar for many years until you finally gravitated to an electric. My recollection is that you agonized a bit about that decision. So do you plan on picking up an acoustic at all for these gigs?
There’s a guitar that I have that was an early trademark of Strangefolk both visually and audibly. It was this acoustic guitar with a hollow body that for all intents and purposes was an electric guitar. At the time I had felt that I would be betraying this trademark thing that we were by moving to a standard configuration with the electric guitar but then once I did make that move I realized there was so much more freedom in the electric.
There’s a little anecdote related to this: when were getting signed to Mammoth Records, one of the reps came up after a show we played in North Carolina and said, “Hey, when are you going to stop pretending and just pick up an electric guitar?” And Reid jumped to my defense and got into the guy’s face and I thought it was cool that Reid jumped up and did that. But it wasn’t long afterwards that I did start playing more and more electric. It was just one of those things where I couldn’t go back. But that said, I’m going to bring that guitar with me. I’ll probably plug it in and check it out but the honest truth about that guitar is the intonation is terrible. I don’t like playing it anymore because it just doesn’t sound right to my ears. There are certain things it does well and I might break it out just for that but there are technical reasons why I don’t want to play it, so I may not go there.
As for those really early days as an acoustic duo, can you talk a bit about your relationship with Reid over the years?
We started out as two guys sitting out on the campus at UVM playing acoustic guitars. He was across campus and he had a little group of friends and I had a little group of friends and we had a little green in front of our dorms and he’d come over. It was like two gangs merging with all their acoustic guitars over their backs. I have very fond memories of those little jams where we’d all find common ground whether it would be a Grateful Dead song or whatever. We didn’t come together right away but I’d see him play. There was a great dorm there called Slade Hall and there was an open mic there every Thursday night and that’s when I started connecting with Reid and doing it.
It was cool. We’re totally different people but we also had a lot of common ground and I think it was “Things That Fly” where I said “I’ve got this piece of music without lyrics, do you want to see what you can do with it?” And he came back with words and I think that was the first song we wrote together. It was just like, “Wow, this works really well” and it went from there. So especially this last couple of months looking back at our old music and the way we meshed together, the work we did together, the songs we wrote together and the parts we contributed to each other, there’s a real yin and yang and that was always really cool.
Of course we drifted apart when he left the band but we’ve stayed more connected than people probably realize with emails and mutual friends and weddings and things like that. When I got sick and I had my cancer episode [in 2005], I came out of it feeling life’s too short for squabbles, too short for all this crap. And for me that was the catalyst as well. There was this special thing I had with these guys, they’re my brothers and it would be cool to put some light on what ended in such a dark way.
We’d see each other in passing at places like the Gathering of the Vibes and catch up. The feeling was always positive and mutually respectful but when [longtime Strangefolk tour manager] Andre Gardner got married a few years ago, Reid and I had a chance to sit down and have that heart to heart where we just kind of told each other about the past and hurts and we exorcised that.
So that kind of cleared the decks and it’s a good relationship, like a long lost brother. We’ve been through so much together, been creative through so much together. So for me, just to be working on the same thing with the same goal on the horizon together it just feels right. When we all came into this I’d never really been in a proper band before to speak of and the four of us went through so many firsts together. It feels like this coming together is like a lot of years lost, a lot of water under the bridge but I’m glad we’re doing now rather than never. It feels like the right thing to do at the right time. It just feels good.