Tall Tall Trees explores the banjo’s potential at The Grey Eagle

NECESSITY MEETS INVENTION: “Everything I’ve been doing live has been birthed of the necessity of me making a dynamic show as one person,” says Mike Savino, who performs as Tall Tall Trees. When working on his new album Freedays, “I wanted to get deeper into my own experiments as a solo musician and producer.” Photo by Chase Park

Each time Mike Savino played a show in Asheville, he threatened to make the city his new home. In December 2015, the innovative banjoist and singer — who performs under the moniker Tall Tall Trees — made good on those intentions. On Sunday, March 5, he performs at The Grey Eagle for the first time since relocating.

The New York native grew up outside the city and credits his time in the metropolis proper as the place where he “got [his] sh*t together” professionally, but admits he’d been burned out on The Big Apple for a few years. Looking to make a new record away from the urban bustle, he packed up all his possessions and spent most of 2015 in North Georgia, working as the caretaker of a holistic health retreat owned by a friend’s mother. What he thought would be a two-month stay wound up being four times as long. And, though he arrived with seeds of songs and an idea where he wanted the album to go, he scrapped most of them and wrote new material inspired by his surroundings.

“There were no neighbors — well, I discovered one neighbor while I was there, but I was really alone with little distraction,” Savino says. “There was no TV and terrible cell service. I had a lot of free days, so it was me operating on whatever schedule I wanted. I could wake up in the middle of the night and work until morning, then go back to bed, or go for a hike with my banjo and write in the woods. There wasn’t really a system to it.”

Appropriately called Freedays, the resulting collection features expansive sounds as Savino pushes the limits of the banjo’s potential. Accustomed to being out of money after an album’s completion, he’s elated to be in a different position, thanks to the support of Joyful Noise Recordings, the first label with which he’s worked. Savino says the only downside of being signed is having to wait to share a project. This one has been in the can for over six months, a period that feels even longer to Savino, considering it’s been in play since a 2013 PledgeMusic campaign. Savino started making the album, then pressed pause after multi-instrumentalist Kishi Bashi (who dubbed his friend’s electrified setup “Banjo Sauvage”) invited him to go on tour. In 2014, Savino released the Seasonal EP to provide a snapshot of where his music was going — a destination that eventually involved swapping his in-studio and onstage approaches.

“Everything I’ve been doing live has been birthed of the necessity of me making a dynamic show as one person. When it came down to making Freedays, I wanted to get deeper into my own experiments as a solo musician and producer,” Savino says. “I wanted to have drums on it. I see myself having a drummer on the road. Maybe in a few years, I’ll evolve into having a full band to flesh out the sound, but I’m still excited about looping, playing the solo thing augmented by a drummer.”

Savino considers Freedays his most concise work. On previous LPs, he collaborated with other musicians in a democratic band format. There, a lot of his ideas went to committee and were either diluted or tossed aside. Freedays marks the first time where Savino made all the decisions, resulting in a purer distillation of his creativity.

He looks to keep rolling with that liberating approach, having songs come out of sounds he finds — or “chasing rabbits down holes,” as he puts it — while integrating himself into the Asheville music scene. His goal is to eventually get a studio going where he can record himself and produce other artists, established and otherwise, as well as become involved with programs to nurture younger talents.

Regarding local collaborations, Savino’s longtime friend Claude Coleman Jr. of Ween plays drums on three of Freedays tracks, and the banjo player is also a huge fan of Seth Kauffman’s Floating Action work. Savino looks forward to working with Kauffman and reconnecting with his old pals in Toubab Krewe.

Another big reason why Savino is in Western North Carolina is its old-time scene. Traditional music was the launching point when he first started playing banjo, and he wants to become more ingrained with the old-timers and new players keeping those ways alive. Introducing them to his own approaches, however, is ideally part of the bargain.

“I don’t see a future for myself playing traditional music. I think the world already has those guys. They’re amazing, but they don’t need another guy,” Savino says. “What I’m doing is more appropriate to my life, and I’d like to expose them to more modern ways and give younger players ideas of where you can take the banjo. There are a lot of purists out there, but I hope I can open some people’s minds as to the possibilities outside the world of old-time and bluegrass.”

WHO: Tall Tall Trees with Pierce Edens and Skunk Ruckus
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Sunday, March 5, 8 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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