One-man banjo: Tall Tall Trees puts a new spin on an old instrument

STRING THEORY: “In retrospect, when I look back on my life, I understand there had always been a passion for banjo music,” says Mike Savino of Tall Tall Trees. As a solo act, he's taken that instrument far from its folk and bluegrass roots. Photo courtesy of the musician
STRING THEORY: “In retrospect, when I look back on my life, I understand there had always been a passion for banjo music,” says Mike Savino of Tall Tall Trees. As a solo act, he's taken that instrument far from its folk and bluegrass roots. Photo courtesy of the musician

When you think of the banjo, you might think of Earl Scruggs (who invented the three-finger picking style), or old-time player Uncle Dave Macon, or even comedian-turned-serious picker Steve Martin. You probably don’t think of loop pedals or bowing, or ancillary sounds from percussive tapping and blowing; you probably don’t imagine anything that could be classified as “space banjo.” But that’s exactly the kind of music banjo player Mike Savino of band-turned-solo-act Tall Tall Trees makes.

“In retrospect, when I look back on my life, I understand there had always been a passion for banjo music,” he says. Though he’s not necessarily talking about bluegrass chestnuts, virtuosic banjo licks from The Eagles and Flying Burrito Brothers caught his attention. Nonetheless, it was double bass that Savino studied at a conservatory in New York, and it wasn’t until he began the transition to songwriter that he realized he’d need a more portable instrument. “I’ve always been interested in instruments that aren’t overplayed,” says Savino. “When I got serious about banjo, I realized how much there was to be done with it that hadn’t been done before.”

Things really got interesting when, after making Moment in 2012, he realized that he couldn’t afford to tour with a full band in support of the album. “I had been doing loop-based shows on the side, for my own entertainment,” he says. “That’s the point I realized I needed to rethink my entire live approach.”

At the same time, K. Ishibashi — a friend of Savino’s from New York’s improvised music circles — asked the banjo player to tour both as an opener for and member of his indie-pop collective, Kishi Bashi. “We had an instant chemistry,” Savino says of his early meetings with the songwriter and experimental violinist whose orchestral concoctions have found their way onto commercials for Sony and Microsoft products.

Though Savino and Ishibashi have different sounds (both underscored by a palpable, if off-kilter, sweetness), they’ve had similar paths in music — the struggle to stay afloat as an indie artist, the turn to solo act out of necessity and the passion for pushing the limits of their respective instruments. “I wasn’t surprised that we could get away with what we’re doing as much as that the response for what we’re doing is so great,” says Savino.

While the banjo player’s previous albums, lauded by critics, were recorded with full bands (guitarist and Xpress contributor Dave Gilbert played on Moment), he’s currently at work on a new project. This one, tracked in Athens, Ga., with Ishibashi’s help, will reflect Savino’s solo prowess. “I just finished an EP that’s more based on my live show — a lot more banjo, a lot more loop-oriented,” he says. “I’m kind of reinventing myself again to reflect that this is music coming straight from me rather than a collaboration with other musicians.”

That reinvention, however, is rooted in a lot of spontaneity. Inspired by the prospect of creating onstage, in the moment, Savino says he never makes a set list. “For me to stay excited about playing the same songs every night, I need room to improvise and to feed off the energy of the audience,” he says.

Much of what he’s developed into techniques originated from those impromptu flashes. His practice of drumming on the banjo came from one night when he forgot the floor tom that he used to travel with. “I started playing with my mallet on the banjo and realized, ‘This is much cooler,’” Savino says. “I’ve spent time in the practice room woodshedding these techniques, but a lot of it I’ll change from night to night.”

With great creativity comes great risk, and removing the safety net of a backing band adds to that vulnerability. Savino admits that he’s blown it in front of an audience — including one show where he broke his banjo on the second song. In front of 600 people, he rigged it back together and finished his set. “You’re doing a tightrope act, and things can go wrong at any time,” he says. “But people will get on your side quicker, because they want to see you triumph over difficulties.”

WHO:  Tall Tall Trees with Christopher Paul Stelling and Mother Explosives
WHERE:  The Mothlight, themothlight.com
WHEN:  Wednesday, Aug. 6, at 9:30 p.m. $5

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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