An avid fan of folk and bluegrass music, Christopher Holland found his love for the banjo in 2005 while studying music theory at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.
Holland grew up in the small, quaint town of Jim Thorpe, PA, and was influenced by his father and older sister to first pick up the guitar at the age of 14. After a few years of playing cover songs, spanning an eclectic collection of musicians from Jerry Garcia to John Prine, and everyone in between, he wanted to explore the genre of classical music and learn more advanced playing methods and build a deeper knowledge of composition and theory.
After high school, he went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in professional writing and communications at Kutztown, where he declared a minor in music performance with a concentration in classical guitar under the instruction of Grammy award-winning guitarist, Dr. David Cullen. He spent two years in the program and performed relentlessly with his sister who was a flutist and music education major at the same university.
During his undergraduate studies, Holland built a strong right hand and fingerpicking techniques and fell in love with the sound of the banjo after attending a few local bluegrass festivals and concerts. It didn’t take long for him to become passionate about the instrument and was heavily influenced by Béla Fleck’s album ‘Perpetual Motion’ which features classical compositions performed on banjo. From there, his love for the instrument continued to grow. Some of his biggest influences today are Béla Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Earl Scruggs, John Hartford, and Pete Seeger.
After graduating college, Holland relocated to Allentown, PA, where he met a few other folk/bluegrass musicians and formed what is now today an original stringed quintet called The Boiled Owls. The band is comprised of five-string banjo, upright bass, mandolin, and two Martin guitars.
Over the past few years the band has been making a strong presence in the festival circuit and more, playing relentlessly throughout eastern Pennsylvania and beyond.
Some of its most notable accomplishments have been performing with musicians including Sam Bush, Railroad Earth, Yarn, Cabinet, and many more.
The Boiled Owls released its self-titled EP in February 2015 and have been busy booking shows and continue to build a strong reputation in the folk, bluegrass and Americana scene. In the fall of 2015, the band will be back in the studio to record a full-length album that will be released in late winter/early spring. The Boiled Owls’ music, touring schedule and more can be found at theboiledowls.com.
ARTIST INTERVIEW — The Banjo Reserve interviewed Christopher Holland, here's what he had to say.
Q. How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
For example, online via Skype, self-teach using books and web, live instructor, etc.
A. I took a few lessons after I got my first banjo to get an idea of what it was all about but, I already had a strong knowledge of music theory and then kind of just branched out on my own. I've used a lot of books for learning and practicing scales and rolls, but a lot of times I learn things from ear. Some videos can be helpful too but, I think playing with other musicians is the best way to learn new things.
Q. During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A. I think the most challenging part in the beginning was simply adapting to a new instrument. After playing guitar for so many years it took a little while to get used to playing in a new tuning. I've always felt comfortable finger picking, but using finger picks was a whole new experience! That took a bit of time to get associated with, but now I couldn't imagine playing without them. I even use a thumb pick a lot now when playing guitar.
Q. What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A. That's a really tough question because the answer can go on forever. There are SO many things that I still can and want to learn, and that's the beauty of it all. You can play an instrument your entire life, but there's always going to be new and exciting challenges along the way. While you might become proficient, there's always going to be room for improvement and growth.... Regardless of what instrument you play.
Q. Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A. I think it's incredible to see so many more bands these days incorporating banjos into their music. Over the past two decades or so, the folk scene has really taken off again, and in a very positive and exciting way. It's not just about being a singer/songwriter or playing traditional songs anymore. It's grown into so much more and it's so great to see bands like Yonder Mountain and others alike that helped take it to the next level. There's a lot of jam band elements in a lot of contemporary folk music, and I love hearing that 10-minute jam coming from a string band. It keeps things fresh while not forgetting where the roots stem from.
I think with The Boiled Owls we sort of blend the traditional with the contemporary sound. A lot of our songs definitely have the singer/songwriter element, but backed by a full string band that adds so much to the simplicity of a good, well-written song. I think we have really good control of not pushing our sound beyond our limits and staying true to that Americana sound that comes from a time way before us. We like originality and not pushing the envelope. We don't want to be that band that gets "compared to" or "sounds like" another. What we do comes from the heart, and as much as we do want people to enjoy it, we know we're doing what we do because it's what we love and makes us who were are. If people get on board with it, it's immensely gratifying.
Q. What most inspires you to play?
( for example, hearing some music, a place you visit, certain weather, etc. ).
A. It's hard to pinpoint an exact moment or thing that gives me inspiration. It can come from a lot of different things and experiences at the most random times. I think certainly a lot of it comes from the people that you surround yourself with and the environment that you put yourself in. It can change, and it definitely influences your approach to writing music. I think a lot of times when listening to one of our songs you can sort of envision the place, time and mood one of us was in when writing. I think the music speaks for the insight in which it came from.
Q. What song(s) do you enjoy playing the most on your Banjo?
A. I love playing our original songs the most, because it's something that we've collaboratively created and it just has a special place in my heart. I like playing a few traditional songs once in a while, and I also love the interesting cover songs that we choose to play, which range from A-Ha! to the Talking Heads. Sometimes we pick the most unsuspecting cover songs and say "This is awesome!" And those usually go over really well with the audience, too.
Q. Do you have a favorite Banjo make and model?
A. I love the tone and playability of a Gibson RB-250 Mastertone. I’ve always wanted one, and someday will own one…once I allocate the funds! Right now I play a Fender FB59 which has a very warm tone with a walnut resonator. I think it’s a great sound for the style of music that we play. I also really enjoy Huber banjos. They’re top-notch, American-made banjos that have a great sound and are all handmade. I’m definitely going to consider getting one of those in the future as well.
Q. Based on your personal experience as a Banjo player, what advice do you have for beginners?
A. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to practice. The banjo is a whole different world when compared to guitar, and it can be really intimidating at first. Don’t get intimidated if it’s extremely challenging at first. Like with anything else, whether it be playing sports or learning a trade, getting better come with hard work, dedication and practice. Once you get over those first hurdles and start getting comfortable with the instrument, the opportunities are predominantly endless.
Q. What venue(s) do you enjoy playing the most and why?
A. I love playing smaller venues, especially as the opening act for national touring bands. I've had a lot of fun over the years playing at festivals, but something about the intimacy of a theater makes the playing experience a lot more special. We've been fortunate and had the opportunity to open for Sam Bush, Railroad Earth, Yarn, and many others. That's where our main focus is and I think we're going to have a lot more fun in the coming months and years.
Q. How has your classical music education influence your banjo playing technique?
A. First, studying classical guitar provided me a strong education in understanding music theory and reading sheet music. That in itself opens a whole new door in any musician’s playing. Second, building a strong right hand in finger picking technique really made the transition to the banjo a whole lot easier. I can definitely see the influence of the classical sound in my playing. One song in particular that I hear that in is,‘Minor Swing’ by Django Reinhardt which is in D minor. When I play that tune, I incorporate a lot of a classical style into it and it gives it a twist that you don’t often hear from a banjo. I like keeping things tasteful and always trying to incorporate different styles and genres into what I play.
Q. At this point in your banjo playing career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A. Playing with The Boiled Owls has so far been in the best experience of my life as a musician. I’m extremely grateful to be able to play with such talented musicians, who have grown to be some of my closest friends. Looking back to a few years ago it’s hard to fathom how I got by without these guys. Their playing abilities are incredible and the songwriting is more than impressive. I’m very thankful to be surrounded by these guys. I can’t wait to see what our future entails.
My proudest moment with the band thus far has been opening for Sam Bush at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, PA. Sam has been one of my biggest influences in music for a number of years, and when we were given that opportunity I was extremely ecstatic. I remember sitting backstage with Sam while he shared stories about hanging out with Tony Rice and Alison Krauss. Some of the things he said I almost couldn’t believe! He’s a very eccentric man and had us all laughing hysterically. He treated us like we were his friends, and that’s something I’ll never forget. We’d be stoked to meet him again, and maybe even get him out on stage for a song or two!
Q. What other interests do you have?
A. I’m a man of many hobbies. I’m an avid golfer and love doing anything nature related: hiking, camping, mountain biking, etc. Growing up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania I was very fortunate to have all of these amenities at my fingertips. I used to travel throughout the tristate area (PA, NJ, NY) playing in amateur golf tournaments. I was an assistant golf professional at a few different private country clubs throughout the years and at one point was even enrolled in the PGA program. I have a college degree and journalism and by my mid-20’s I really found my focus and decided that’s the direction in which I wanted my career to go. I’m now an editorial assistant at a magazine and love it! I still golf almost every weekend.
I’m also an amateur photographer and take my camera with me pretty much everywhere I go. I love doing landscape photography and shooting starlapses at night. I have an art studio where I specialize in print photography and custom framing. It’s sort of a side business, but more for my own pleasure.
One thing that I’m very proud of is being on the Board of Directors for a charitable foundation called Mauch Chunk Charity Foundation. Each year we host a few different events, from golf outings to Halloween parties, to raise money and awareness for a multitude of organizations. So far this year we’ve raised thousands of dollars for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and are working on our next event which will benefit the Autism Society of America. It’s so gratifying to help others, and I look forward to all the future fundraising that we’ll do. It truly makes a difference and to know that I can help make an impact on the lives of so many is worth more than anything in the world.
Q. Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A. Hmm, for being an avid folk and bluegrass musician, you’d probably never guess that my favorite band is Phish!