A Conversation with Chris Pandolfi (The Infamous Stringdusters)
By Kevin Alan Lamb
Our time here is precious; as are our gifts; and who we choose to share them with will determine the quality of life we live. Countless musicians grow their gifts like seeds from the earth, hoping one day their harvest will feed hungry, hurting, and happy hearts long enough to enjoy the passing present at the precipice and collision of a banjo string strum, note delivered, and joy internalized. Artists pound pavement 20 hours to perform one; but God it is sweet and among the holiest of sacrifices that I am grateful to be a part of in all the ways life, intentionality, and hard work reveal.
Every conversation has the potential to be the first building block and foundation of a great cathedral; as a result I must express my gratitude to Chris Lewarchik for connecting me with The Infamous Stringdusters prior to Electric Forest where I was joined by The Godfather of Groove himself, Norm Kittleson for a special interview with Chris Pandolfi. This conversation is a credit to the pervasive power of connectivity, the reach of our music community, and a reminder to be thankful for those who share their time and gifts with you long enough to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to inspire those who wish to follow.
KAL: Ladies and gentlemen it is Sunday, day four of Electric Forest, week one. I am 6’7” Kevin and I am here with Chris of the Infamous Stringdusters. How are you doing today brother?
CP: I’m doing great man thanks for having me, good to meet you.
KAL: Hey, it’s a pleasure. You were just kind of diving into the energy that is put into the forest. As a musician you guys put a lot into your craft and what you love and you go to a show and you have a crowd who reciprocates that. Can you talk about coming to a place like this that takes so much labor put into it and how that translates?
CP: Yeah man, we reference Electric Forest as one of our favorite festivals. It’s one of our favorite festivals for a lot of reasons. The music line up, the amazing fans, all these great things, but the energy that Madison House puts into the production is just incredible. They have this sense of bigger experience; bigger than any one part of it. Like I said the music, the fans, they are here, but they sort of put them together with their own touch and it just creates a very memorable festival that’s more unique than any festival that we go to all year. I mean we love coming here. We’re used to playing at festivals where there are a lot of bands like us, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re string bands or even bluegrass, but roots music bands and bands that cover a lot of the same genres that we do. It’s just great in all these different ways. But yeah, you come here and like you do with the Cheese guys, it gives you a bigger vision of what’s possible. You see them thinking outside of the box and thinking big, and it inspires us all on all different levels to take it up a notch.
KAL: Who are some of the other musicians that help you along the way to sort of kick it up a notch and steer you in a nurturing way?
CP: Well, you know Yonder Mountain String Band was a big influence on us just with regards to seeing them do the thing in the way that they do it and realizing that you know - we’re a bluegrass band. We got our start in Nashville and cut our teeth on legit bluegrass and a lot of the bands in our extended scene they have a lot of bluegrass influence, but they didn’t necessarily emerge from out of the tradition as much as we did. So for us, that was our starting place. But I remember opening for Yonder five or six years ago and just seeing their thing; their crew, their music, the venue, the way the show went down, the fans, the vibes, the things that they were creating. It had a big influence on us. Cheese in the very same way, just referencing Electric Forest and getting to see these things in the same way. It really is the essence of inspiration just to see this thing that sort of makes this light go off and makes you think, “Oh wow, that’s possible.” For us, we had that moment with Yonder and opening for them at Red Rocks. You come out of this world because bluegrass is really a niche genre, it’s so heavy on the musicality, but it’s not necessarily great at finding exposure to a large audience even though people love it. It’s like one of those types of music that people love, but they just don’t know it yet until they hear it. So coming to a place like this, you get that exposure and Cheese, like Yonder, has had that similar exposure just showing us what is possible.
KAL: We opened Otus Supply in Ferndale near Detroit just a little bit before Christmas and it’s really the first place to hit Detroit that’s doing the bluegrass/americana jam. Like you said, people do love it but they just don’t have that exposure and they’re not aware that they can go to a bluegrass show and have all these crazy effects with all these rock and roll elements.
CP: But that’s roots music man. One thing that we love is that music changes and notes evolve but roots stuff, it’s just always going to be there and there is a legacy to that music that even as all the trends change and all the electronic stuff that ten years ago, this stuff wasn’t even going on. But even as these thing sort of come and go, the landscapes of bands and music shift, I think that the roots stuff will always be there.
KAL: What is the last song you would like to hear before you die?
CP: Oh that’s a deep one right there. Well, you know my Holy Grail stuff that I always go back to is Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. That was my real inspiration to play banjo and I still think that the Flecktones are the best fusion band and the best jam band of all time. They brought together diversity and unbridled creativity from some of the best musicians in a world where there are a lot of great musicians and musicianship. But when you have four forces of nature who can be their own entity unto themselves, that’s sort of a once in a lifetime kind of thing.
KAL: If you guys could talk about how you got started with Yonder. So I know that some or all of you guys met at the Berklee School? Could you talk about that a little bit?
CP: We didn’t really meet at-two of us went to Berklee College of Music, myself included. I got my undergrad degree and went right to Berklee for a two year program to be the first ever banjo principal at Berkelee College.
KAL: Yeah that’s what I was gonna ask; did you originally go to Berklee for something else then it transitioned into banjo?
CP: Well, I knew that I wanted to be a banjo player, but I actually hadn’t been playing that long. I started playing when I was eighteen. So I had only been playing for a few years when I graduated from college. I really wanted to reward myself with the opportunity to learn and connect with other musicians and have a few years to shred and get better and just learn what was up. I looked around at music schools and this was 2001, bluegrass wasn’t on the map like it is now. It really wasn’t that common. Berklee had nothing. They had a few enthusiasts, but no set program; no banjo teacher. So I went and I actually studied with guitar professors. They weren’t showing me the techniques, they were showing me the notes and what to play. I was sort of transposing all that to banjo.
KAL: I mean, you don’t have a totally pure traditional technique.
CP: Yeah my main influence is Bela Fleck and he’s as wide open as they come. So to me I try to take all the things that I think are really powerful and convincing about bluegrass which is that really hard driving rhythm of the right hand, the tone of the instrument, and just the attack and the sound and try and take that and apply to a wider sort of musical view. A very similar thing that Fleck did and he came out of that bluegrass tradition too. When you move to Nashville you’ve got your guy who delivers your mail who can play ten instruments better than you can play one. You get your butt kicked pretty well, but that's what it's all about. Again, coming back to the inspiration of seeing something that’s outside yourself especially at a festival with your fans, when you’re hearing a guy like Bela.
I was there and I studied for two years and about two years after I finished at Berklee they came out with a roots program. So I’m taking full credit for that roots program. I’ve been back to do a couple days with the students and I’m about to go back again next fall. It’s just awesome. We do private lessons with the kids because there are only ten at a time. We’ll try not only to share some intel with them from time to time about the music and the business, but also life as a touring musician. I didn’t play when I was three years old, I wasn’t a child prodigy or anything like that like a lot of the bluegrass pickers, but I’ve been really lucky to team up with the Dusters. It’s opened so many doors, as you know we did our Bluegrass Generals thing with the Cheese guys yesterday. So yeah we’re just so lucky to be plugged into the scene that has sort of one foot in that bluegrass world and also this kind of festival. This is what I did when I was in high school. Grew up wanting to see the Flecktones and Phish, being in this musical experience that I didn’t exactly know what I was seeing, but I knew that what I was seeing was significant. The guys in my band as well knew that going to see the Grateful Dead and bands that were a much bigger experience than just the music. Combining that with all that musical stuff plus what you get when you come from the bluegrass tradition you sort of get all of these different worlds that other bands are apart of as well.
KAL: Did you play any other instruments as a kid? How did you get exposed to music?
CP: I played piano when I was a kid and took lessons with my grandmother because she was a full time musician. She was an opera musician actually. She was a voice coach and an accompanist. So we had music going all the time when we were kids. But like a lot of people I found it on my own terms and discovered it through my older brother. He was a bass player. We started going to see the Flecktones when I was getting really excited about music. I’ll be lucky to feel something that even approaches that level of inspiration. I saw the Flecktones at the Knitting Factory; three nights, two shows a night. I bought my banjo the day after that last show.
KAL: Are you from New York?
CP: Yeah, but you know the banjo is not an easy instrument to play. There is a level of technique that you need to have in order to get over the hump when playing this music versus something like a guitar or piano where you can strum a couple of chords and make good soulful music without a lot. But I feel like it was a blessing in disguise that I started at a time when I just found it on my own and thought to myself, “this is my thing.” I started playing it all the time and that got me relatively quickly to a point in music where I was enjoying it. That was the summer after my senior year in high school. A lot of people will say this, you get into it when you figure it out on your own that you want to do that.
KAL: Can you speak to any of the other guys?
CP: It’s an amazing mix, like Jeremy our fiddle player, he was playing bluegrass fiddle since he was three year old. He’s crazy he’s all by ear. He’s all feel. He’s probably the least classically trained out of all of us. He came out of the bluegrass tradition all the way. Andy, our guitar player, was an electric blues player playing six nights a week in New York City, something like four sets a night something stupid like that.
Yeah we had music in the house, but my brothers and I all played. I got into and I was still so young, right out of school that I didn’t have this master plan to be in a band and do what we’re doing. But it was just very serendipitous the way that I met the other guys in the band and they are all such intense players as well. Once we all got together it was sort of like there was nothing stopping this thing. It was going to have a bite. The luckiest thing for me is that playing music is such a joy and giving yourself the opportunity to see how good you can get playing as a career. But to me sharing the experience with other like-minded people who I love and care about is really absolutely the best part of it all.
KAL: Just being around people who love each other that much is awesome. Being able to spend that much time together and traveling and living on stage.
CP: Yeah, it takes work man when you have five guys who are all artists in their own right and they have all these diverse ideas for different side projects. To meaningfully combine those energies and have them add up to something that’s greater than the sum of their parts, I think that’s very rare. Sometimes the parts are very natural for us, but also it does take a lot of work and you have to foster that and figure it out, it’s just like any other relationship that you have with family, friends, it can be challenging, but it’s worth it.
KAL: Can you recall a time when a fan or someone who really appreciated your music shared a time when it got them through a really rough time?
CP: Absolutely man - Facebook, one of the really nice things about it is that it really does connect you to people and I see those messages and there have been a lot of them. Fans who express to us that our music got them through a dark time or this certain song has been really meaningful to them. I mean, I cannot think of a more rewarding payoff. Sometimes you spend these long hours practicing, playing, traveling and it feels a little inward sometime. For every hour we’re on stage there’s fifty hours where were working on that stuff, traveling to get to the gig, and learning the music and writing the music. So when you have these people telling you these things, it gives you that real honest connection with the person. It’s all those things put together that have helped someone out and enriched their life, that’s what it’s all about.
KAL: This is always a corny kind of question to ask people - do you guys have some sort of overarching goal of what you want to accomplish?
CP: We have a few pretty consistently stated goals I would say. I would think that the main one musically, we are on a mission to be a bluegrass band in this day and age given our influences, take all those things and do it in the bluegrass style that we know. We love bluegrass, that’s where we come from. It is a very underappreciated style of music but man, like I said, when people hear it they connect to it and love it, it’s real, it’s timeless. So we want to keep that in tact, we’re still just a five piece acoustic band. We try different things, but as far as the music goes I think that’s sort of our mission statement that has got us where we are, that natural acoustic way. We take those instruments and see what we can create on a stage in front of a bunch of people. I also think that the real overriding mantra that we have is that it’s always about being present and in the moment and the music. You know we play music where it can get a little overwhelming on the technical fronts and we all had our issues that we’ve had to work through physically when you play. A banjo is a lot harder to play than an electric guitar physically, or a laptop. The physical aspect of it is no joke; they’re heavy, they’re loud, and people make fun of them all the time. When we get on stage it’s all about being present in the moment with each other and the crowd and not being too inward and focused on the music just trying to be present and let things flow. The more that we can follow that rule, the more you connect with people, the more these shows count. I always say you travel twenty hours to play one.
KAL: Do you have any personal side projects going on?
CP: I’ve done a few banjo albums and we do the Bluegrass Generals thing which is Andy Hall and I. We sort of bring together all the different guys from our scene. But a year-and-a-half ago I released a record called Interference and that’s just me and a drummer, a lot of samples and virtual instruments. It’s kind of banjo reimagined and in some way it still holds onto that mantra I was saying, being derivative of bluegrass and being creative in a much wider contrast. I love rock bands, indie bands, some of these electronic bands I think they’re awesome. Not because I think it, but because I feel it. I love some of the sounds. Just like the Dusters, I try and take all of our influences and condense them into one meaningful thing. That’s really what Interference is all about for me. Taking all of the stuff that is me from the Flecktones to all the different music that I’m into. Nowadays I listen to Tycho, one of my favorite bands. Little People, other stuff that sort of rides that line. Maybe a little less electronic and a little more ambient and melodic stuff; less heavy and more pretty for lack of a better description. Bands like that, I love that stuff so I want to try and take from it what I can and combine it with my sense of writing. It’s a challenging task, but I work with it. I have another album that will follow up Interference, but that’s sort of a labor of love project that’s coming just because I want to get it out of my system. All the guys have their own versions of that. We’ve got a lot of that going on just so that we scratch all those itches. We can do the Stringdusters thing, and it can be what it will be without each guy having to force out all these creative needs.
Yeah it’s an intense groove man, we never stop. I’m going home this week and coming back to the Forest next weekend and I’ll be in the studio for two days producing for a band from Colorado’s record. Then an additional day of sessions on my own for licensing stuff for T.V. and a film company that I’m working with in L.A. You know it’s a mix of our vision, our work, our talents being used for other people’s needs. We’re just so lucky to be able to do it full time and have these opportunities to make all kinds of music. That’s what it’s all about to me.
KAL: Thank you for coming out. We’re grateful to have family that’s in your family and looking forward to seeing your set coming up here. For all of you keeping score at home this is the end of the first weekend of Electric Forest. We are with the Infamous Stringdusters, Chris Pandolfi, and just in case you were listening for one, This is a Good Sound.
CP: Thanks Kevin, appreciate it!