“I’m still very much a student” – An Interview With Mike Gangloff

I think listeners are more willing to be surprised than they’re often given credit for.” Black Twig Picker Mike Gangloff speaks to Ian Maleney ahead of a solo appearance in Whelan’s next week.

Tradition is a strange thing. It takes a strong head to not only learn and understand musical traditions, but to move them forward somehow, to join with other schools and other ways of doing things. Mike Gangloff is undoubtedly one of these heads. As a founding member of Pelt and later with the Black Twig Pickers, Gangloff has helped to reinvigorate ideas of what is capable with a fiddle and a banjo. Melding avant-garde drone, improv and traditional styles, decades of playing have seen him develop a voice entirely his own, informed by the masters who have gone before him. An eternal student, he continues to grow and develop his inimitable practice.

Mike Gangloff plays Whelan’s on Monday, April 1st. More details and tickets are available from Whelan’s.

I‘m very interested in the people you play to, for and with. Do you find many people who are maybe not normally into traditional music (such as you play it), coming to your shows and enjoying your music? If so, do you think there is any particular reason for that?
It’s definitely a mix, the shows and the audiences. There are definitely times when more out-music-oriented people who maybe have heard something from Pelt or Spiral Joy Band find themselves listening to me talk about older players and regional repertoires of fiddle and banjo tunes. Sometimes it goes the other way when I end up stretching out in front of a more traditional music audience that doesn’t expect it. Somehow I’ve ended up with a foot kind of in a couple worlds that are often seen as separate. Maybe it’s just a continuing optimism on my part, but I think listeners are more willing to be surprised than they’re often given credit for.

This is interesting because increasingly I see different ways of telling people what to listen to or what they might like. To me nothing can replace being turned on to something by a friend or happening across something beautiful in a record shop or at a gig, but what do you make of these filters people build to try navigate the ever-more populated music world? How do you find the music that you come to love and does travelling play a part in that? New people, new places, new music?
That’s the plight of all of us in the Information Age, isn’t it? There’s a firehose of data just soaking us down, and we’ve only got a tablespoon or something to try to catch it. Short attention spans are probably a survival skill for most people, but some of us still like to dig in a little more.

I love my home, and the music traditions that continue to live around it, but travel can help so much with keeping my ears and heart and mind open to newness. Going to a new place, finding new things — for me, and I think for most musicians, it changes how I think and how I hear music and how I play it. Traveling around with Dave Colohan in Ireland last year, and singing and playing with him and Vicky Langan at the Tusk festival last fall in Newcastle, England, gave me such a taste for Shape Note music — it was something I’d heard, but didn’t know much about. I guess I still don’t know a lot, but I sit at home and pore over my circles and diamonds and so on. It’s inspiring.

Is there a difference for you between American audiences and European audiences? Do people react differently, know different songs? What kind of links or bonds have you found between the two places and peoples?
That’s an interesting question, and it’s one I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve started coming to Europe more often. Speaking in very broad terms, I have thought for awhile that audiences in Europe have a greater appreciation of art, or allow it to play a more central role in their lives. But the United States is a big country, and everything — not just audiences but society generally — varies so much from place to place. There are places where people get ready to dance the moment they see a fiddle, and others where they put on their coats and head for the door! 

When I was in Ireland last year, some of the pubs I played were a lot like places I play at home — some audiences just wanted to meet their friends for a drink and music was just part of the atmosphere for the night, while at other places there were banjo players waiting to ask questions about tunings. I enjoyed both sorts of gigs.

There were two things that happened during my Ireland shows last year that really stood out as different and wonderful. One was in Cork, when a group of Sacred Harp singers were on the bill and later that night, when Dave Colohan was playing banjo and singing a Sacred Harp song, the whole crew joined in from the audience and it sounded so powerful and amazing. The second thing was the take-a-turn-around-the-room a cappella singing that went on in a couple pubs late after the shows were done. Some of it was ballad-y songs, and one time someone sang some unaccompanied Mariah Carey. Either way, it was different that what goes on at home.

Have you found that the way people carry tradition with them changes from place to place? Are there places you’ve gone where tradition and history is very important or places where it has been completely unimportant? Does this inform the way you play in those places, or what you might attempt to achieve in your playing?
Certainly in some places I’ve gone, there’s a much more palpable sense of what’s come before, musically or historically and so on. That can be really inspiring. Playing the Cecil Sharp House in London a few years ago was like that. Some of the organizers there showed us around the archives a little, just stacks and stacks of recordings of traditional music, and gave me a book on Traveller ballads. There was an energy from all of it that was just fantastic.

Of course, there are also places where the past seems to just be erased. But hopefully people are hanging onto it in different ways. It’s hard to get much of a grasp on how people view tradition if you don’t spend a long time with them. I have a friend who was at some meetings in West Virginia with people trying to get state funding for traditional music events — and they wanted to highlight karaoke nights at local bars listed alongside fiddle sessions and so on. There’s something to tease out there about how culture is seen on the strictly local level versus from a little farther distance away.

It is very easy to assume (and I’ve done this myself far too often) that cultures are a certain way just from reading about them or having a transitory experience of them. Do you find it a challenge at all to engage with other musical cultures in a way that is both respectful of that culture and honest to your own interpretation of it and where you’re coming from? Is that a difficult line to toe?
Absolutely! The easy way out is to say ‘I had to stop arguing about authenticity a long time ago and get on with playing music,’ but that sidesteps some interesting and pretty important aspects of all this. The answer to your question, or questions, is yes, it’s absolutely a challenging, difficult thing to engage with, to work within a musical culture or tradition and to maintain your own voice. That’s the whole deal right there, to me. If you’re not speaking through your music, if you’re only replicating some idea of historical sound, that’s not very interesting; it’s not alive.

Years ago, in Pelt, Jack Rose and I had a rule of ‘No old-time, no blues licks’ when we played acoustic sets, because we thought we’d fall into some hackneyed set of musical moves rather than making any real expression of ourselves. Later of course, we became more confident, we grew as musicians — I’m speaking mostly of Jack there! — and we found our voices within traditional forms. If I’ve followed any rule, it’s been to follow my ears and to seek out and learn from the music that moves me. We mostly had church music, definitely not fiddle and banjo music, in the house when I was growing up. The West Virginia-Kentucky branch of my family that had lived in areas where the Hammons and wonderful musicians like that played was older and from what I knew, was not musically inclined. But when I heard clawhammer banjo and scratchy, droney fiddling, it called to me. And when my ears opened, I found it was all around me!

That was an awakening, to realize this music was alive and well — if not exactly in the public eye most of the time — and that I could learn it at the side of people who’d spent their lives worrying at it. I’m still very much a student, but I have to use what I’ve learned in my own way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be honest for me.

Are there moments you can remember that felt important in your “growing up” as a musician? Any little epiphanies you had where you thought, “Oh, I can do this now” or “I’m getting somewhere now”? Were there other people who were key to that along the way?
There have been so many people who steered me along. I’ve been so lucky to have bandmates who mostly put up with my musical preoccupations, and often pushed me to go farther. And musicians that I seriously look up to, like Donald Miller from Borbetomagus or Richard Bowman, one of my very favorite fiddlers, people I see as really important in their areas, have sat me down and made me focus on improving.

There was a show I played with Donald and Jack Rose a bunch of years ago where I was playing tanpura and Donald walked across the stage, tore the tanpura out of my hands, and started battering his guitar with it. That moment — and that whole night, which included a car accident and sitting up nearly until dawn drinking beer and listening to records with Donald — was a definite epiphany. I felt like I’d been initiated somehow, at least a little bit, into the best part of the New York improv world of those years.

I’ve had similar moments with Richard. Maybe best was when his band the Slate Mountain Ramblers were playing a dance and Richard invited me up to fiddle with them. He jumped off the stage and left me to lead the next few tunes. The Slate Mountain Ramblers are Richard’s family — his wife Barbara plays bass, their daughter Marsha plays banjo — and they’re the best dance band in a wide region near where I live. They’ve got such a strong pull to their music that they’ll make anyone sound great. But for a couple songs, there I was fiddling, while Richard Bowman danced, and I thought, wow, I’ve made it. 

This is a weird and vague question, so interpret it however you like, but do you believe in a spiritual element in music?

Care to elaborate?
I grew up playing music in a Presbyterian Church, which didn’t have the political overtones it might have in Ireland. I moved away from the church as I got older. But I never lost the idea of music as a transforming power, a transforming event, that playing or listening could be a spiritual practice or at least have a connection to the realm of the more than physical, the more than right here, right now. My dad was — and still is — a singer in this church’s choir, and maybe my first powerful musical experience was playing guitar behind him at a Christmas Eve service when I was 8 or 10 years old, fingerpicking “Silent Night” or something while he stood in front of the congregation and sang it. 

Mike Gangloff plays Whelan’s on Monday, April 1st. More details and tickets are available from Whelan’s.

Full Irish tour dates:

April 1 Dublin, Whelan’s
April 2 Wexford, The Sky and the Ground
April 3 Cork, Triskel Arts Center
April 4 Effernagh, Leitrim, The Swan
April 5 Derry, Leo’s Bar
April 6 Buncrana, Donegal, Roddens Bar

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