Mike Savino is not your grandaddy’s banjo player, and Tall Tall Trees is definitely not your average indie-folk outfit from NYC.
A pioneer in the the world of experimental and psychedelic banjo music, Mike Savino has released two records and one EP on his own label Good Neighbor Records, Tall Tall Trees (2009), moment (2012), and The Seasonal EP (2014). Since 2012 Tall Tall Trees has been touring relentlessly, mystifying audiences with his “continually refreshing and innovative approach to the banjo” - Paste Magazine. Often performing solo, Savino’s modern take on the one-man band involves running his homemade instrument, dubbed the Banjotron 5000 through a slab of effects and loopers, bowing, drumming, and strumming out multi-textured arrangements to support his lyrically driven songs.
In addition to Tall Tall Trees, Savino has been touring the world collaborating with beatboxing violinist, and of Montreal alum, Kishi Bashi and has appeared at Austin City Limits, Newport Folk Festival, and on Late Night with David Letterman ( see video below ). Savino is currently working on a third full length Tall Tall Trees record which he is planning to release in 2015.
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ARTIST INTERVIEW — The Banjo Reserve interviewed Mike Savino, 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?
A. I am completely self taught on banjo, though I studied jazz and composition at New School University in NYC where my focus was on double bass. Banjo was a hobby of mine for many years, but I never took it seriously until I tired of lugging around a bass, and felt a sudden desire to write songs and play a portable acoustic instrument. Most of my early technical learning on banjo came from books, mostly the Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger books. I can't say which method of learning any instrument is the most effective, but what I do know is a mix of creativity and consistency. Having a plan for your practice is important, but you must also allow yourself to explore and be free. I have also found that singing along with your instrument helps connect you to the music and internalize things much faster.
Q. During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A. For me, it was transferring my theoretical knowledge to banjo from bass. My hands were used to certain patterns that were no longer applicable to banjo tuning. Diving deeper into banjo forced me to break these patterns and strive for pure musical expression without relying on old tricks, licks and riffs. Finding my unique musical voice on banjo stems from my desire to not sound like anyone else. Learning to play other instruments is a great way to expand your concept of music.
Q. What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A. My challenge is continuing to transcend the technical aspects of playing the instrument to be able to express my music in the most effortless way possible. I would also like to sound like Eddie Van Halen. I'm working on that.
Q. Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A. I am glad to see a renewed interest in banjo these days. I love bluegrass and old-time music and I am happy that there are many who are continuing and pushing the tradition into new places. As for my role, I believe I have stumbled into a completely new way of thinking about how the banjo can be used, particularly through extended technique, electronics and live sampling. I personally love playing traditional styles of banjo but the world is full of great players that can do this much better than I can, so I believe my role is to think and play outside the box and expand peoples minds as to what a banjo can do. I hope that I can be an influence on the next generation of banjo players and I'm sure someone will come along and push what I'm doing even further.
Q. What most inspires you to play?
A. One of the biggest challenges to being a musician is maintaining your inspiration. Everything inspires me to play. I can play banjo all day if life allows me to. My music listening is extremely eclectic and this keeps my playing and writing fresh. Whenever I feel uninspired, I usually sit with my banjo and play along with music that makes me excited. These days I tend to shy away from anything even remotely banjo related as I feel like I have enough of this in my playing. I feel like I can learn more from listening to EDM, Pink Floyd ,or hip hop than I can listening to Flatt & Scruggs, though I LOVE Flatt & Scruggs!
Q. What song(s) do you enjoy playing the most on your Banjo?
A. There is an amazing feeling putting on your fingerpicks and ripping through an Earl Scruggs tune like Reuben or Ground Speed once you've practiced it enough and can play it up-tempo, but to be honest, I enjoy playing anything. Lately, I've been dusting off some old jazz standards because I love the harmonic progressions. I'm not saying that I'll make a standards album anytime soon but it does inspire my writing a bit these days.
Q. Based on your professional experiences as a Banjo Player, what advice do you have for beginners?
A. Great music comes straight from the heart. Even the most technically impressive music can fall flat if there isn't emotion behind it. That's what people connect to, not notes. I spent my early career trying to play fast only to realize later that sometimes the simplest things will resonate the most.
The most important thing is play your banjo! It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. I believe this is true, but If you're not having fun, you are doing it wrong. Improvement is something that is difficult to notice when it's happening. Consistent practicing will yield results but you can not focus on the results, only the journey. This is where the rewards are.
Q. You perform solo as Tall Tall Trees, do you find performing solo more rewarding than playing with a group? Why?
A. I began touring solo in 2012 after a four years playing with a band. I love playing and collaborating with other people but I've grown exponentially as a musician performing solo. Managing a band, rehearsals, scheduling, and personal dynamics really weighed me down after a while. Making the transition to a solo performer was extremely liberating as I suddenly could tour very easily and that's what I've wanted to do all along. I've never really wanted to be a solo singer-songwriter, so I set my sights on expanding my sonic range and being able to sound like a band with as little gear as possible. This idea pushed me to discover banjo drumming and pretty much everything else I've developed over the last few years. To be honest, I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to my music, and collaborating with other musicians means compromise. Performing and recording by myself has distilled my music into it's purest form. It makes me very vulnerable which I think people can relate to. It has been very rewarding for me to see so many people connect to my music and the fact that it is just me, gives me confidence that I can continue to develop as an artist if I am just honest with myself.
Q. Does the eclectic music community in New York City significantly influence your unique banjo compositions? Would your style change if you lived in another geographic location?
A. New York City and the many amazing musicians that flock to it definitely had a strong influence on my development as a musician. In the sixteen years I've lived there I have had an extremely varied musical career and exposure to styles of music that are difficult to find elsewhere, at least all in one place. I've had the opportunity to immerse myself in jazz, travel to Brazil to record and study the music of the Northeast, jam with the musicians from Senegal and Mali who live in my neighborhood of West Harlem, which is a big West African community. I've played a lot of gypsy, middle eastern and jewish music, as well as country and American traditional music. Where else on Earth can you find all this beautiful music in one place? New York City. I'm not sure how my style would have changed based on location. I've always been a weirdo when I pick up an instrument, but NYC has definitely encouraged me to be as weird as I want to be.
Q. This past year you appeared with Kishi Bashi on "The Late Show with David Letterman", what was the most interesting moment or experience for you on the show?
A. Playing on the Late Show is a completely surreal experience. You spend the entire day there, setting up, soundchecking, and hanging out waiting just to play for three minutes. They make you play the song 3 or 4 times so they can block it out and still when it came time for the show, we screwed up the end of the song. You'd never know because we are professional screwer-uppers, but we had a great time and Paul Schafer was really into the band. Sometimes there are moments in your life that will never feel real. That was one of them.
Q. At this point in your banjo playing career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A. I have had many amazing moments on stage and in the studio. There are moments when you transcend your physical body and there is only music. This is what I am always chasing. It can happen anywhere, at Lincoln Center or a crappy bar. What I am most proud of is that I am able to survive as an independent musician and I get to wake up and play music every day.
Q. What other interests do you have?
A. I love to cook. Over the last few years I have become increasingly more passionate about food and creating in the kitchen. It feels like science to me, and the possibilities are endless. I love this about music as well. There is no end to what you can do and in developing a skill, you learn a lot about yourself.
I'm also in love with nature and animals. I'm kind of obsessed with wildlife which is ridiculous for someone who lives in New York City. I've actually been spending most of this year in the mountains of North Georgia working on a new record and I'm feeling a strong desire to relocate down south. I love being so close to Appalachia, it's something completely new and exciting to me. I would love to get more involved with nature conservancy.
Q. Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A. When I was in first grade, my teacher sent home a report card with the comments, "Michael is an exceptionally bright young boy but continually disrupts the class by making noises". I am still very proud of this and plan on continuing to disrupt the class with my noises for years to come.