B&L: What animal do you associate yourself with (given our ties to oxen)?
Pikelny: (Laughs), well, the oxen thing sort of reminds me of the touring operation as it exists right now… Very smelly. No offense – I’m not saying you guys smell… Oh geez, this is starting well…
But, seriously, that’s a good question. What’s the most lethargic animal known to man? A sloth? Yeah, I’m a sloth trapped inside a banjo player’s body.
No, I don’t know. I’ve never put much thought into it, well, ever. I think that might stem from a traumatic experience I had as a kid. I started out as a pet lover and got a parakeet that I had wanted for a very long time when I was about seven-years-old. I loved this parakeet so much. I actually learned how to snap on the way back home from the pet shop and so I named the parakeet Snappy. Snappy was my prized possession. About two days after I got him my brother suspiciously developed an allergy to parakeets and we had to give Snappy away. So since then – well, that was the last pet I had. I can’t even look at an animal, whether it’s a pet or something on the marquee of a cocktail joint, without it bringing back traumatic memories of Snappy, so I try not to really put much thought into animals. But, I guess, to play the game, if I were to be an animal I would be a parakeet – Snappy in particular, just so I could take down my brother.
B&L: That is a terrible story. I’m so sorry.
Pikelny: It’s okay, hopefully I can get myself together by Monday, but there will likely be some tears.
B&L: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it? How’d it come calling to you?
Pikelny: Boy, I’ve been doing this for so long that making music almost seems like a fairly decision. It feels like breathing to me. When I first started getting into music I loved the sound of the instruments and was drawn to the sound of the banjo – whether or was bluegrass or something more progression. I wasn’t a child prodigy or anything when I played banjo as a kid, it was more of a hobby that grew into an obsession. I was playing and taking lessons, but I was still very much feeling the lure of M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice (laughs). Eventually Bela Fleck beat out Vanilla Ice as my major musical influence.
B&L: It’s a natural progression.
Pikelny: Yeah (laughs). But I know a lot of people that went the other way…
But, yeah, I loved the music and when I started to become a part of the bluegrass and folk community in Chicago and networking down to, say, Indiana I started getting involved with a lot of music festivals which I thought was the most fun you could have in the entire world. It felt so exotic. I grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and would drive four hours down to Indiana to play banjo in a bluegrass band on the courthouse stairs as part of the Porter County Pork Festival… I thought that was so cool – so exotic. It was like being in “Lord of the Flies” every weekend without any of the carnage. It felt so neat. When I came home at the end of the weekend to head back to school on Monday I felt like I had this parallel universe that I was existing in that was so much fun. I never really conceived of stopping and kept playing and kept trying to find an outlet for it so it could become a job. It’s still, to me, so profoundly moving. I still get the same emotional impact out of it that I did when I was eight-years-old. I haven’t really been able to find an alternative that seems attractive at this point.
B&L: What’s the making of a great show? Do you have a conch shell up there on stage with you?
Pikelny: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s an important part of my rig. And it’s why I’m the only one that ever gets to do any talking. Every now and then a few people will get unruly and capture the invisible conch and start asking questions from the audience. You know, that can be fun as well.
As far as what makes a compelling show – It’s about the context and what actually is up there on the stage. In my case, I spent most of my career camping on stage in much larger ensembles and the goal in those situations is to have the musical result of five people really transcend any individual contribution and have the end result be greater than the sum of it’s parts. That’s the magic of going on stage with five people. A solo show is so different and so sparse. But I think there’s a bit of magic in this as well when the soloist and the audience engage and collectively feed the betterment of the entire experience. A great show for me in this particular setting is being able to showcase the banjo in a light the audience has hopefully never experienced before.
B&L: Let’s talk about your latest recorded effort, “Universal Favorite.” What sort of goals did you have for yourself when you set out to make this record?
Pikelny: This was the first time ever recording on my own. The victories are that much more of a triumph because it’s all on your shoulders, and when it’s not going well, it can be so very defeating.
In some ways it started out as the pursuit of demonstrating what the banjo can do as a solo instrument. Its not unexplored territory, but it hasn’t been exploited to great extents. I think everyone has these preconceived ideas of what instruments do, and I think the banjo, historically – when someone thinks about what the banjo does – people hear in their head the sound of a car chase happening and the sound of a police care in hot pursuit of it. And, you know, fast bluegrass breakdowns on the banjo are awesome – that’s one of the greatest things a banjo can do, but there’s also so much else it’s capable of. There’s so much else to it when given an unabated sonic landscape. I felt like there was an opportunity to showcase how warm the banjo can be. I wanted to write music for the banjo that wouldn’t necessarily translate in other settings, like with a bluegrass band – so that was the initial impetus for this.
B&L: There’s a great mix of instrumental tracks, and tunes that showcase your vocals, which is not a typical undertaking for you. Was it a welcome challenge to “find” your voice?
Pikelny: As an instrumentalist there’s nothing as satisfying as playing with a great singer, or backing up – playing to serve a song. So, I wanted that to be a part of this record. I didn’t want there to be a blind spot in that area just because singing hasn’t been a primary focus of my career. So I decided I was going to sing. So I put together a set of songs that gives a decent idea of my voice on the banjo as well as, well, my actual voice – which, in the end, wound up having me bring some other instruments into the project as well, which was fun because I love playing a lot of different things, not just the banjo.
B&L: I LOVE the promo video you released in support of this record. A man struggling with “fame.” Have you ever considered comedy?
Pikelny: Well, I always enjoy making those videos. There are funny bits throughout the shows as well. I’ve just thought of it as literal comic relief to break up a show. It’s part of my personality and I enjoy getting a laugh from the crowd. I really don’t think of it too much, and, no, I’ve never thought of it as existing standalone from the musical component. It’s part of a package (laughs). It makes it a little easier for me to set the stage for something a bit more abstract. To fill the show with levity allows people to let their guards down and maybe dig deeper into an instrumental banjo number. It’s part and parcel, but never something outside of my musical performance. Is that too much?
B&L: Riffing on the sentiment that exists to some degree in that video, what does success mean to you? Have you found it? Is variety a piece of whatever the equation is – jumping between different projects such as the Punch Brothers and your solo engagements?
Pikelny: It’s easy get caught up in the industry of it all and wonder how many people are buying albums, and how many people are at the show, and how many people are streaming records…. Some people can become obsessed with that. I think it’s important to not let that stuff be the prime metric. Nobody I know who’s playing music as a serious musician embarked upon this life thinking it was going to make them a lot of money or make them famous – or both; at least nobody I truly respect signed up for those reasons. I feel like I’ve had this somewhat utopian experience being able to do what I love for my entire adult life. It can’t be discounted that there’s joy in having a job that, at the end of the day, people clap for you, and sometimes stand up and clap for you. I think people would be a lot happier if that was instituted into more office places. It might be awkward, but it does feel good (laughs).
I’m just not trying to take this for granted. I’d be devastated if I lost my arm in a lawn mowing accident, but if it happened today I’d still feel fortunate for what I’ve been able to achieve. But, yeah, there are a lot of safety precautionary measures that go in to the act of mowing the lawn. Especially before a show. I tread lightly (laughs).
B&L: What are you looking for folks to take away from the music of Noam Pikelny when they place themselves in a position to experience it?
Pikelny: It’s valid for someone to go to a show and enjoy simply because it’s an escape – an opportunity to stop thinking about whatever had been stressing them out during the day. That’s a success to me.
At the end of the day, I just want people to be entertained. Whether that comes from a certain song, or a certain sound out of the banjo they didn’t expect to hear, or an overarching aesthetic of the show that allowed them to have fun, or laugh. That to me is a success. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what the perfect response is – other than people spending tons of money at the merch table following the show… (laughs).
B&L: What’s one tune (or, heck, a couple) that exists out there in the ether that blows you away that you kind of wish you had written yourself?
Pikelny: Gabriel Kahane has a record called “The Ambassador” that explores the city of Los Angeles through architecture. There’s one piece on there called “Empire Liquor Mart” in particular that I’ll eternally jealous of.
And, I still am blown away every time I hear Earl Scruggs play the instrumental “Home Sweet Home.” There are a lot of renditions of that song that people have played over the years, but his version is just so inspiring. It almost feels elemental in that he didn’t come up with the style so much as he captured it from ether. It sounds so right that it must have just been floating around in the universe this whole time and he just happened to be the one that discovered it. Or gravity brought it to him. It’s such a triumph of human ingenuity for someone to pick up an instrument that was once considered primitive, and make those sounds and create a vocabulary – it’s pure alchemy to me, and so, that’s something that will always stick out as the gold standard to me.
B&L: I read that the impetus behind you “starting” with music happened while you were tossing a baseball around with your mother while your brother was busy inside taking a mandolin lesson. That true? In the spirit of tossing the ball around, are you a baseball fan? Opening day is just around the corner… Who do you root for?
Pikelny: It is true. I’m a huge baseball fan and my mom was actually playing organized hardball at that time. It was right around the time that movie “A League of Their Own” was out, so there were these women hardball leagues that were popping up. So, yeah, we were playing baseball in the park – she was pitching to me – and eventually I thought it would be fun to learn an instrument as well. My parents suggested the banjo so that we could – my brother and I – play music with each other. I said ‘sure, whatever, that sounds good,’ without even really knowing what the banjo sounded like or the torturous life that would accompany that decision.
But, yeah, moving right along… I’m a lifelong Cubs fan. I feel like there’s a new world order at the moment. I’ve spent my entire life programmed to lose. My sense of what’s right and wrong in the world – what’s fair and what’s not – has been informed by the Cubs. I feel like I’ve grown up to be hopeful but have a deep sense that things aren’t fair (laughs). I remember going to my first real music contest. I didn’t go to a lot, but definitely a handful. The first thing I went to I felt pretty confident and had high hopes. I practiced like crazy and thought I had a real good shot. I didn’t even place. I was distraught. My dad came up after they announced who had placed and the first words out of his mouth were ‘well, aren’t you glad you’re a Cubs fan?’ As if to say, you’re well prepared for this feeling.
That’s all changed I guess. I don’t know. It’s weird.
Game Seven of the World Series – well, let me rewind… I had scheduled and rescheduled my studio time for this record a solid four months in advance. I scheduled the initial time slot for the second week November – given the choice of the first or second week – so that I could have more time. Because who doesn’t want more time? When I got to thinking about it I thought, well, there’s going to be an election on the night before the first session, so, if things didn’t go well, I’d be stewing in it, being a political junky. It might be really difficult. It was a fleeting thought way in advance (laughs). I thought, ‘yeah, no, there’s too much at stake…’ So we moved the session to the earlier time slot. Game Seven was the day of first session. So, I ended up burning money on that studio fee, the gear, and the staff to watch the game, and it was okay, because, well, we won (laughs).
B&L: What can folks expect when they come out to see you perform at the Stone Church on March 27th?
Pikelny: This is my first time playing on stage alone and I think when the setting is this stark it’s an opportunity to be so much more direct with the audience and it’s an opportunity to kind of offer, I don’t know, a distilled version of your musical personality or ethos that would selfish to try to communicate in a larger band setting. There’s no room for that kind of argument and conversation to exist when you’re on stage with a lot of people.
So yeah, I see this as a much more direct show. It’s just me and the music I’ve written and gathered specifically for this setting. It feels very personal to me and in some ways it feels very autobiographical.
Expect me, a banjo, some tunes, a few shared laughs, and, well, a good time if all goes well (laughs).
B&L: Question number 12. If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that dozen of something be?
Pikelny: Oh… Good question. A dozen of anything… Well, there’s no point in having a dozen of the same thing. It drives me crazy when someone is like, ‘ yeah, I have 15 of the same instrument from the same year – 1936.’ I mean, I collect instruments, but that doesn’t make any sense to me…
No (laughs). I’m trying to think.
I would love a dozen more people to buy tickets to the show at the Stone Church. And hopefully they’re smiling by the end of the show. A dozen extra smiles never hurt anyone…
Noam Pikelny will make an appearance on his “Universal Favorite” record release tour at the Stone Church on Monday, March 27th at 7pm. Tickets are available here.