Old time music is strange. I don’t think it’s really like a warm fireplace. I find it to be constantly challenging and engaging. — Nathan Bowles, The Black Twig Pickers
The Black Twig Pickers are a non neo-traditional old time band that resides in the hills of Appalachia in Southwest Virginia. The trio consists of Mike Gangloff on guitar, Isak Howell on fiddle and Nathan Bowles on washboard and, these days more than anything, banjo.
These boys are committed to researching and reproducing traditional mountain and old-time folk music in its purist form. Hence, it’s not unusual for The Twigs (as they call themselves) to cut an album with almost no original jams on it, as is the case with their upcoming release Ironto Special, due out September 21, 2010.
I spoke with Nathan Bowles and learned that these guys’ truest interest lies within the music of days gone by. Don’t even ask about whether they’d be down to collaborate with the likes of Lady Gaga for shits and giggles — there will be none. In fact, there may just be an awkward halt in conversation…
You guys are just about to release your record Ironto Special – When does your tour begin?
I believe the tour begins on the 12th [September 2010]. We usually play a few local gigs a week but we don’t travel too often because of the families and whatnot.
How long have you guys been playing together?
The Twigs have been around almost 11 years now but I didn’t join until about three and a half years ago.
Which is your favorite track from the album?
That’s kind of a hard question cause there’s a lot of instrumental variety… if I had to pick one I guess I’d go with “Lay Ten Dollars Down”. Its one that Mike learned off of an older fiddler from around here in the Copper Hill area whose name is Arthur Conner. He learned the basis of the tune from Arthur then we sort of added some words to it and fleshed it out a bit. I’ve never heard anyone else play it. It’s a traditional tune. All of the songs on the album are traditional except two.
And how do you choose these traditionals?
Well, the conversation becomes about learning tunes versus choosing tunes to record. We learn tunes just by listening to other musicians play them. We try to go out of our way to visit other old-time musicians in the area. We like learning rarer or squirrelier tunes that you don’t hear as often, from them. So then we’ll kind of pick songs that we’ve learned from either living old timers or from old traditional recordings. We also pick based upon whether or not we think we can bring our own personality to a tune without jazzing it up too much. We don’t really think of ourselves as a neo-traditional band.
Our repertoire is pretty big. If you would have told me before I joined the group that we could sit down and pick from 150 songs I wouldn’t have believed it but old time is funny like that.
And how about the originals, any background on those?
“The Smoker Wedding March” is one that Mike wrote for a friend’s wedding. Phil, the smoker, was getting married.
How did The Black Twigs find each other?
I was living in Blacksburg and I knew of Mike and his music through another longstanding [different sounding] band of his. When we met it was before I even knew he played old time. We just sort of bonded over other music stuff. Then we just started jamming. They recruited me at first just to play washboard because I couldn’t play any stringed instruments. I still don’t really. [Laughs]
We’re all pretty nerdy about music and tend to have pretty wide ranging tastes but we do all agree about the esthetic of old time or traditional tunes.
Is old-time music the stuff of your upbringing or was this an acquired taste?
Well Mike has been into this music since the early nineties I think or maybe even earlier than that. He moved back to the Appalachians in ’97. When he moved into this area he just got really into researching the music. He was mentored by a pretty aged fiddler named Coolage Wineset. He would go over with a tape recorder and get Coolage to tell stories and play songs that he could remember. So I think Coolage was a big part of it for him. He got really into the research whether it was reading books about it or listening to a ton of records or finding people like Coolage who he could talk to and record their tunes. He’s just really a go-getter about preserving these world traditions.
So then Mike got me into the music. And as for the other guys in the band, as with me, I think Mike’s fervor was kind of contagious.
How old are you boys?
26, 34 and somewhere around 40…
I once interviewed Frank Fairfield- a monster banjo, fiddle, guitar player living in LA. I also went to watch him play at what appeared to be a speakeasy in a shady loft on the outskirts of LA’s industrial area. It was a room saturated with vintage culture. Apart from my own (and Ryan Gosling’s) presence, one could easily believe you had stepped into a time warp and wound up in 1932. And the strangest thing about it was that not one of them (LEAST of all Fairfield) broke character. Ever. Are The Black Twigs apart of anysuch movement? In what ways has the time of Old Time music influenced you as individuals?
Well, that’s a good question. We’re not really in the Frank Fairfield camp of things. I was introduced to his music a couple months ago and I was really shocked after reading interviews and watching videos, at how much the esthetic has really permeated his entire life.
For us it’s really just the music. It’s about the sonic quality [of old time]. It portrays this kind of homey and sepia-toned nostalgic thing. But old time music is strange. I don’t think it’s really like a warm fireplace. I find it to be constantly challenging and engaging. The templates of the songs may be the same over time but it’s all the moss and the briars that have grown up around them that make them change.
Let’s just say, for fun maybe, that The Black Twigs were asked to cover some ultrapop song or collide with a hiphop artist from Hollywood to work up a song in the old time way. Who or which would you choose?
We wouldn’t. I just think that that’s a really cheesy thing to do. There’s literally no interest for us to do that kind of thing. It really does the [old time] music a disservice. It’s just pointless and offensive.
[Awkward pauses from both.]
Ok. So you guys are releasing your record, then you’re gonna tour a bit. Have you any other plans for the year in closing?
We’re planning to tour with our friend Charlie Par in the UK, right after he gets done touring with Frank Fairfield actually. And a lot of the times when we play with Charlie, all three of The Twigs and Charlie will play as a unit. We tend to do a lot of gospel stuff with him and we recorded some of that earlier this year and it should be out before the year ends.
Ironto Special tracklist:
01 Don’t Drink Nothing But Corn
02 Last Payday At Coal Creek
03 Dead Man’s Piece
04 Smoker Wedding March
05 Lay Ten Dollars Down
06 Ducks On The Pond
07 Saro O Saro
08 Craig Street Hop
09 Fire On The Mountain
10 Old Jack Gillie
11 Bonaparte’s March Into Russia
12 Love My Honey I Do
13 Pickin’ Out The Devil’s Eyes
14 Walls Of Jericho
15 Rockin’ In A Weary Land