Tony Trischka interview for the Banjo Newletter

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Tony Trischka on Composing for Progressive Bluegrass Banjo, interviewed by Ben Freed



Exactly what is progressive bluegrass banjo? Perhaps it could be defined as the music played by someone who started out trying to sound exactly like Earl Scruggs, but soon started sounding exactly not like Earl Scruggs. As a major proponent of modern bluegrass banjo, Tony Trischka needs no introduction to the readers of the Banjo Newsletter. Thousands of pickers over the years have been influenced by his musical explorations, and, if a school of progressive bluegrass banjo has emerged during the last quarter century, Trischka is its dean. The progressive players are those who take creative license in their technique and in their original compositions directly or indirectly as a result of his radical shifting of the old stylistic boundaries. These players include, of course, the likes of Bela Fleck, Tony Furtado and Alison Brown, among others.

     Tony was the first to create a significant body of original work for bluegrass banjo outside the genre’s usual confines.  His endless ability to write captivating melodies has secured his artistic status as much as his signature style of picking. And his groundbreaking ideas for composition and arrangement have legitimized the experimentation of the progressive players that came later.

     Trischka’s recorded journey began with Country Cooking in 1971 and proceeded on through about a half a dozen records worth of original material. His growth as a composer and arranger continued with his leadership of the influential band Skyline in the 1980’s and currently with The Tony Trischka Band. (see end of interview for a full discography.)  Along the way, by risk-taking with bold melodies, rhythmic variations and jazz instrumentation, the musical pathways he forged became available for others to explore.

      Listen to the first four of Tony’s LPs, beginning with Bluegrass Light(1973), then Heartlands(1975), Banjoland(1976), and, finally, A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas(1982), and his artistic growth during that ten year period is clear. Many agree that if those four records document the development of his craft during that period, then Robot Plane seems to be its culmination. Although the prior work had already distinguished Tony as an innovator, this album seems to surpass the others in its internal consistency, complexity, depth and appeal. The tunes complement each other as if they were an acoustic mosaic. Bela Fleck, in the liner notes to  Robot Plane wrote, “Tony has integrated all his elements organically, making this the strongest statement yet from a powerful innovator.”  The writing is meaningful and mature, and every melody has a hook, something that no good music can live without.

    I recently spun the vinyl LP after not having heard it for many years, and was so impressed by it, once again, that I called Tony just to tell him. I was interested in hearing his thoughts about it with the hindsight of two decades and suggested an interview for BNL about composing for the banjo, with a focus on the development of Robot Plane. He was happy to accommodate.



1. BF: Do you have any training in music theory or composition?


TT: I took flute and piano lessons when I was a kid, so I had maybe two years of flute when I was seven or eight, and when I was nine or ten I was playing piano, so I was picking up some theory, and I had to read music. Then at eleven, I was taking up “folk” guitar, and that was the first time I didn’t have to force myself to practice because I really liked it, and I was getting away from theory at that point. I was just playing chords without any theoretical basis.


2. BF: Any training in college?


TT: No, that was a mistake. I was just “hippying” my way through college. My father taught at Syracuse University and I had free tuition, so there wasn’t a lot a stake.


3. BF: What was your degree in?


TT: Fine arts, as opposed to anything practical like music theory. I always look at myself as having a failed college education because I was just playing the banjo, I just wasn’t thinking “I should take some composition courses”.


4. BF: So one could say you are self-taught in composition.


TT: I’m the Grandma Moses of the banjo…It’s untutored. In later years, I would sit down and say, OK, I’m going to write something in fifths. Sometimes as an exercise, I will use some theoretical construct to write something, but for the most part it kind of comes from the ether. It’s just a lot of experimenting, which is what I tell people to do, as part of what they do when they practice. Just sort of mess around, which is about as non-specific as you can get. Noodling around, that’s how I came up with a lot of my stuff.


5. BF: When did you start composing for banjo, and when did you realize it was something you could do well.


TT: When I was fourteen I started playing the banjo, so by the time I was fifteen, I had written about four or five tunes. I recorded them on tape and sent it off to Bill Keith, who was my hero. One of the tunes was called “Theme from Godzilla”, only the A part of which I remember now. Years later, I asked Bill if he still had the tape because I was curious to see what I was doing when I was fifteen years old, but he didn’t have it anymore. I didn’t write anything else until the first Country Cooking Record, when Pete Wernick suggested I write something for the album, so I sat down and wrote Hollywood Rhumba. I was about 21 at the time.


6. BF: So serious composition came after that record?


TT: Almost immediately after, actually, because it had been about five years since I had written anything, then that tune came out on the album, then pretty soon after that I wrote Kentucky Bullfight, which ended up on the second Country Cooking record, then a tune called Blue Light, which didn’t make it until my first solo album. I think both of those tunes are strong tunes; Kentucky Bullfight is one of the strongest tunes I’ve ever written, and that was very early on.


7. BF: Did you make a conscious decision to develop the craft of composition?


TT: After those three tunes, it was like, this feel original. It’s interesting, somewhere around 1966, we were way into Monroe, and he had Peter Rowan and Richard Green in the band, and Lamar Grier, and it was like this mystical band, it was a great band. And we’d go all over the place to see them and we’d heard this rumor that Monroe was developing this new bluegrass, the next step, but he was holding back, he wasn’t letting it out yet, which of course wasn’t true. But in a way, we ended up being that next step, if that’s not too self-important to say. What we were doing, with the New York crew, we were all barking up the same tree. Andy Statman, Kenny Kosek, Roger Mason, Stacy Phillips, and Jim Tolles, we were all coming up with crazy stuff, mixing genres, Hawaiian music, bluegrass, Klezmer, and rock and whatever…


8. BF: And it worked.


TT: I guess. It was a little hairy around the edges, but it worked, I think. Then you had David Grisman with the west coast thing, Dawg music and all that, which was starting to develop around the same time. It was a little more refined, I think, rhythmically. And then there was the New Grass Revival down in Kentucky with Sam and Ebo Walker and Courtney Johnson, and Curtis Birch and those guys. And the next step was Bela, Jerry Douglas and that whole crew. So there were three zones where this was happening.


9. BF: You created a career out of composing for the banjo starting with your first solo project, Bluegrass Light, which had almost all original compositions.


TT: I owe it all to Pete Wernick. I had in the meantime been writing these new tunes, and Pete said to Ken Irwin at Rounder, you should let Tony do an album, and they said OK.

I went to Ithaca, New York and recorded in a place called Sleepy Hollow Studios, which became Pyramid Studios. I wrote a tune on the first album called Sleepy Hollow Real, which was named after that place.


10. BF: That album was instrumentally eclectic for a banjo record at that time.


TT: It wasn’t only compositions that we were focusing on. I had the idea of doing twelve overdubbed banjos with Andy Statman, and he was doing percussion, too, and we were doing it as a duet. It was really fast, too much testosterone. Crazy, off the wall stuff, and then I added a second banjo a minor third above it, and that was getting weird, so I stopped and left it at that. But I was going to do twelve banjos, one in every key, move the capo up. I probably should have done that after all. Ideas like that, just trying stuff, having Andy Statman do a triple saxophone thing on it.


11. BF: Those records were very influential. They opened up a lot of doors for people to experiment.


TT: We were just doing what we were doing, not really worrying about anything else. It was fun to stretch my legs and have a band to play it. It helped to have Breakfast Special,  Andy and Kenny and all those guys. Andy could put down the mando and pick up the saxophone and do an R&B honker or jazz thing on it. And we had a drummer. I started off Heartlands with a drum solo. Just to aggravate people, I suppose. In other words I could have a lot of different textures.


12. BF: Did you look to banjoists as a model for your writing, or non banjoists?


TT: I was heavily influenced by the Beatles.


13. BF:  Their influence can be heard in your music, in that you include multiple styles.


TT: Aaron Copland was another huge influence, even now. I’d say more than anyone else in the entire universe, when I hear his music, it just gets me in the heart. Really powerful. With Copland and with the Beatles, it was like, trying stuff. The Beatles Strawberry Fields, my head was just blown away the first time I heard that…God, what are those chords? Not just in composition, but, in arranging, the Beatles were a big influence.


14. BF: Any other non-banjo influences?


TT: Well, you could go down the line, Hendrix, Cream, Clapton, Zappa, the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, the psychedelic era, not the Surf City stuff, but the hipper stuff, the later stuff with Van Dyke Parks… Pet Sounds.


15. BF: How about Coltrane?


TT: Not in the literal sort of way. Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Correa, Weather Report, they were very big influences also.


16. BB: Were Scruggs and Reno influences on your composing?


TT: Not really, they were composing in the bluegrass realm, not really jumping out of it. Well, Groundspeed’s got that hook in it. I love it, it’s great, but it’s not like it jumped out from the rest of bluegrass. Bluegrass in general… Monroe, all of it, influenced me in a major way. I can’t say the compositions really influenced me; the tunes were very well rooted within the idiom, let’s put it that way.


17. BF: How about Bill Keith?


TT: Obviously the melodic style was hugely influential on my playing. Something like New Camptown Races, he kind of reinvented the wheel with that thing. The first solo, he was putting ninth chords in, it was all this stuff that was non-melodic, but everything was just tipped on its side a little bit. I remember hearing that and that blew me away. Not necessarily for composition, but in other ways that probably had an influence too. Richer chords. I don’t know, it was like the sun coming out when that solo came in out of the mandolin break.


18. BF: And Scruggs?


TT: I’m hugely influenced by Scruggs, obviously, and to a lesser degree by Don Reno. There are a couple of tunes I’ve written that use his right hand rolls, not even so much the single string style.


19. BF: Do you have a method you use for composing? How does a tune get created?


TT: All different ways, there’s not just one way. I remember sitting on someone’s porch in Fort Collins, Colorado, and tried to write a tune in D with the fifth string tuned down to F#. I did that a lot on the first couple of albums, just made up tunings.  Or on Kentucky Bullfight, I had tuned the first string from D down to C, and the rest of it was standard G, but capoed up two frets. That tuning made that tune what it is.  On Blue Light, I turned the fifth string and the fourth string down a half-step. Just random, let’s see what that sounds like. Another tune, on the first album, called China Grove, I tuned the first, third and fifth string down a half step. What’s that going to do, I wondered. When you’re always in G, it’s sometimes hard to come up with original ideas, so by doing that, it’s well oh, here’s a cool sound. Those were some wacky tunings I happened to come up with.


20. BF: So tunings help.


TT: Tunings really help. That’s one thing I did early on, a lot.


21. BF: Do you still do that?


TT: Not hardly at all, I think it’s because I hope to play these on stage, if you have weird tunings, you’re not going to play them on stage.  Although in my solo show I do, but that’s about it.


22. BF: And it’s harder to remember fingerings in odd tunings.


TT: Yeah. In composing, I’ll give myself assignments. The Hill country album, I wanted to do a bluegrass album. So I wrote a gospel tune, and then a blues tune, called Bloozinee. Then you have to have chimes, so I wrote the New York Chimes. 


23. BF: The New York Chimes is one that lots of people play.


TT: And it’s just the “Wreck of the Old Ninety Seven”. It’s one that some people seem to know for some reason, I don’t know what it is about that one.




24. BF: It’s a simple and cool and has a hook, and it’s easy to play. It seems to have become a standard for banjo players.


TT: So you write 200 tunes and one will come out that works.


25. BF: Are there any other methods you use for composing?


TT: I was reading a book on John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and it said that in his compositions, he would take Martin Luther King’s speeches and take the first line or something, and phrase it on the saxophone, as the words would be, like Scruggs playing the words. So I sat down a few months ago and took the Lord’s Prayer (takes the banjo, and plays and sings the first few lines to the Lord’s Prayer). I just started phrasing the words, which is something I’m big on in playing Scruggs, just play the words, which is something John Hartford helped me get into.


26. BF: Do you use a tape recorder to remember ideas?


TT: Sometimes, or I’ll write it out in tabulature. Bela likes to tape his stuff, so you can get that instant thing and hear it. I like to write it down, so if I go back to it two years later, I’ll know how I’ll play it.


27. BF: Do you find that it’s one thing to compose a piece and another thing to play it well?


TT: Usually, when I write something, it’s playable. Once in a while I’ll come up with something that’s really hard to play, and I have to practice it. Once I get it done, I’ll play it over and over and over again, just to make sure it doesn’t transmogrify into something else, just to refine it. Usually it’s fairly refined to begin with. Then I’ll try it up or down the neck, or mess around with it. Since I’ve been a kid, I’ll sit down and play something for an hour without breathing practically, I’ll get so into it.  I still can do that if I write a tune that I’m happy with. I’ll play it over and over just to get the kinks out, and sort of road-test it.


28. BF: Do you ever get writer’s block?


TT: Yeah, I just got out of it.


29. BF: How long does it go on for?


TT:  A few years.


30. BF: Years?


TT: Oh yeah, I just got out of a big dry spell. I wasn’t beating myself up about it, but I could literally write a tune a day. I mean, even during the writer’s block I probably could have. But one piece of advice I give to people about composition is don’t censor yourself, just let it come out, if you think it’s not that good or it’s derivative, just let it come out. Because I look at Hollywood Rhumba, and it’s just a mediocre, nothing, tune, but then the very next one was Kentucky Bullfight. So there’s stuff in the pipeline that’s gotta come through, so just let it out and the next one will come through. So that’s what happened during this writer block. It was like, “Yeah, but I already wrote that.” So I was censoring myself. Over the last year or so, the ideas have been flowing, thank goodness.


31. BF: A lot of people think A Robot Plane Flies over Arkansas was a special record. How do you perceive it now, with respect to the material that preceded it.


TT: Yeah I think there’s a maturation there, a culmination of what I was doing on those first few albums. Part of is that we’d all matured in our playing, you get a little bit older, and discard some of the more eccentric aspects of your style, some of the more “over the top” stuff. And also your craft gets better, your tunes are a little more focused, a little more honed.


32. BF: The record was internally consistent, and the tunes seemed to complement each other so well. Did you set out to do that?


TT: No.


33. BF: As you look back on it, do you see now that they work so well together?


TT: Yeah, well, it feels like it’s a whole. With Robot Plane, I went out to California to do some of that, and used Mr. Grisman, Mr. Rice, Mike Marshal, Darol Anger and Todd Phillips and those guys. And they’ve got a much different sound, your know, the east coast-west coast differential, but somehow it hangs together anyway. I’m not sure why, but my compositional sensibility is consistent enough, even though I could do a bluegrass tune, a fusion tune. But it was all acoustic, that’s part of it. The first two albums, and even part of the third album, there were a couple of electric things, with drums, electric guitar and saxophones. This was all bluegrass instruments, that’s one consistent thing compare to the older albums.


34. BF: Do you have any favorite tunes ?


TT: Yeah…The tune I’m happiest with is Blown Down Wall.  It was an afterthought. That was at the end of the session with the California guys. I had this chord progression I was happy with, and talked to the band. We were done with everything, and I thought, there’s not enough here to do anything with this chord progression and handed them some chord charts but there was little extra time and I said, “let’s just play through this” So we played through it and recorded it, and it had this crazy energy to it. And Todd Phillips is really great at turning the time inside out, as is Tony Rice, and Mike, and Darol, and this thing is moving along, and it’s all in time, but they’re messing with it. Darol took this ridiculously great solo.


35. BF: That tune came out brilliantly.


TT: But there was no melody to it, it was just this chord progression. So the next day, I was hanging out with Mike and Darol, so I just wrote out a melody to go with those chords. This is how I write compositionally, I’ve written a couple of string quartet things like this, where I just wrote the melody, for one chord, and then changed the chord, and just vaguely get a sense of how the melody would continue on into the new chord, after knowing where it’s coming from. This is where I really could stand to have some composition courses. Then I would go onto the next chord, and write the melody for that, and the next chord, till I have the whole thing laid out, but I really would have no idea of how it would all hang together. So I just wrote it out and handed it to Mike and Darryl, having no idea of how it would be for them to play. And I played the chords and they played the melody, and it worked and it sounded great.


36. BF: I would never have guessed that it was done that way.  None of it sounds like it was just stuff strung together.


 TT: That’s exactly what it was, and I’m really happy with the way it turned out. Not like I had this grand vision of any beautiful flowing melody. No. It was piece by piece.


37. BF: That was not true of the other pieces.


TT: No. The melody was sectionalized.


38. BF: The tune is so wide open and high energy.


TT: I’m very proud of that tune; those guys played their butts off on it...


39. BF: How much of that record was improvised?


TT: Purchase Grover was improvised, because there’s not a whole lot of melody to that, it was more of an open thing.  Roberto’s Dream was not improvised at all. Blown Down Wall was a loose structure, with a lot of improvisation. The string quartet before A Robot Plane Flies over Arkansas, that’s all coming out of Copeland. Subconsciously. I mean I never studied Copeland to analyze it, but those sounds were in my head.


40. BF: How about The Navigator?


TT: The Navigator was the longest thing I’d written and remains the longest. I have pride in that one. We did that in one session. By today’s sensibilities, I would probably refine it in certain ways.


41. BF: And “Avondale”?


TT: Just solo atonal banjo. It’s not out of a tone row, I didn’t do a Shoenbergian thing, it’s not theoretically based. I just heard these notes, and I wanted it to be outside. The interesting thing is that some guy in Kansas, Paul Elwood, who was a banjo player and a modern classical composer, said he’d like to write a banjo concerto for me with a percussion ensemble base on “Avondale” So, innocently, I said, “sure”. The next year, around ’84, he came up to me and he had actually done it. He handed me all this crazy music. I ended up doing this three movement piece with the Wichita Percussion Ensemble in front of 500 people, and it’s the most nervous I’ve ever been. It was the first time I ever wore a tuxedo. The whole piece was completely atonal. It was called, “The Void Beneath the Coffee Table”. It’s a great piece of music. I made a mistake right at the beginning of it, but no one could tell because it was atonal. That whole experience was based on Avondale.


42. BF: How did you get the name for the album?


TT: Pete Wernick said he saw a headline in the paper that said, “A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas”, and suggested I write a tune with that title. So I did. That’s the tune I was writing in Fort Collins, with the fifth string tuned to F#. Then Marc Horowitz learned it, but did it with normal G tuning, and it works fine…it’s better.


43. BF: So you recorded that tune with the fifth string down, but when you play it now, you play it the way Marc played it?


TT: Yeah. Marc showed me an easier way to do it.


44. BF: Your music is not always happy banjo music.


TT: No, it’s not.


45. BF: Sometimes it conveys a sense of…


TT: Impending doom.


46. BF: That’s a valuable artistic statement. What about other emotions on the banjo?


TT: Utter despair. Although I’m not sure about that. Some people hear anything on the banjo and they feel utter despair.