The Slocan Ramblers stand together live and in the studio
MUSIC by Jillian Bell
Adrian Gross says he’s wearing his mandolin around his neck, on the way out the door on tour when I get him on the phone. That’s probably how interviews with folk/roots bluegrass composers should always start.
The Slocan Ramblers — Adrian, Frank Evans (banjo), Darryl Poulsen (guitar) and Alastair Whitehead (bass) — have escaped their native Toronto for a shotgun tour of western Canada. I spoke with Adrian in advance of his gig.
Why do you think there’s been a resurgence in folk/roots music, particularly bluegrass?
So much music is processed and altered and produced, you have no idea how the musicians sounded when they were making it. The way we sound on record is the way we sound live. Just four guys singing and writing and playing music. Our music provides a visceral directness to bluegrass — it hits you right away; there’s not a lot of fluff. Bluegrass wears its heart on its sleeve.
You’re all talented musicians but there’s a rawness to your music. How do you get that crisp, raw sound?
We’re all big into making the music sound as good as possible. When we tour, we play our asses off. Normally, when you record in studio, you’re all sitting down and laying tracks individually and hearing them played back. Usually there’s a metronome playing in your ear. We did it differently; we recorded live in one small room with all four of us standing up, close enough to touch each other — there’s an energy to standing up while you play. No metronomes.
When you play close like that, there must be a lot of unspoken communication going on.
We used to play in a tiny bar in Toronto in a little Irish pub. It had a tiny stage, and we all played into one mic. When it was your turn to solo, you just pushed everyone away and made your way up there. Now, when we do sound checks in a big theatre, we see our mics and they’re all spaced way far apart, and the first thing we do is bring them closer. We want to hear each other acoustically. The mics make it happen for the audience, but we like to listen to each other.
There’s a connectedness that comes with being close like that. You can hear so much of the player on an acoustic instrument; you can feel the stuff that’s going on under the surface with the music.
Do the Slocan Ramblers play a lot of house concerts?
The whole house concert thing has really taken off — it’s been around forever, particularly with Baroque musicians. In its current folk incarnation, it’s become incredibly popular. It’s great for the artists. Normally we play totally acoustically and those really close, intimate house concerts help us connect with the audience and with ourselves.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I play jazz guitar and I grew up in a house that was really into jazz: Paul Butterfield, John Winter. I’m a big fan of acoustic blues and the Grateful Dead. I came into bluegrass from the blues — Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson. Our banjo player grew up playing old music, like old-time music; our bass player was into a lot of rock. Everyone had different backgrounds. Everyone came to bluegrass when they got serious about music.
What are some of your non-music influences?
When I’m writing a piece of music, I try to think how a piece tells a story. I come from a family who are really in to the visual arts and I like how art tells stories. I think about the story a song might tell, just like a painting might.