“Elk River Blues” can be used as a road map to the solo music of Nathan Bowles.
In 2012, as an end to his first album, A Bottle, A Buckeye, the song—written by fiddler Ernie Carpenter as an instrumental lament about the flooding of his boyhood home after U.S. Army Engineers built a dam—is wistful if a bit lonely. In a 2014 video, when Bowles plays the track again on a park picnic table, it’s a sadder version and definitely lonely. And so mid-way through Bowles’ new record Plainly Mistaken, released last week on Paradise of Bachelors, when “Elk River Blues” begins again I couldn’t help but notice the song’s upbeat nature. It’s bright, sunny. It’s a romp. The song is reflective, pensive (like the others recordings) but a bit hopeful. On his first album constructed with a full band—a trio consisting of Casey Toll (double bass) and Rex McMurry (CAVE)—Bowles’s music isn’t as solitary while being equally reflective.
Last week, over beers at a downtown Durham, NC bar, we asked Bowles about “Elk River Blues”.
“I still think about that song all the time. When I just pick the banjo up, and I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’ll just start playing around on that song. It sticks in your craw somehow,” he said. The new recording felt more communal, I said. Was is supposed to be happy? Was the record supposed to be upbeat?
“Yeah, maybe, I don’t know. Maybe what you’re hearing as up is there’s a real vitalness to it,” he said. “There’s a thump from playing with other people that I think drives me. It makes me energetic. I felt that during the recording. There’s a lot of fire in the record, for sure. Smoldering. It’s a lot of energy. Thoughtfulness. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a sad record but…” He drifts off and pauses to think.
“My first idea [for the trio] was to like arrange older material,” Bowles continues, explaining it might be fun to play his old records with a trio for live shows after doing percussion with Steve Gunn on tour. “I didn’t know if [the trio] was going to be a lark. Once the older material gelled pretty quickly, I was like, ‘Now, I both want to bring my new material to these two guys; and also, like write material with them collaboratively.’” Elk River Blues, he thinks, follows from the first instinct, to re-record old material. “I really like when artists re-record things. I think that’s cool. You know, because all these records are just postcards from a time. So, you get to see how their perspective has changed on that piece. Or maybe it hasn’t.”
Plainly Mistaken ebbs and flows in a similar fashion to the way Bowles speaks. It pauses to contemplate; it speeds through ideas only to soon revisit them. It circles. The record’s easy going while being totally focused. You can see all those attributes in standout first single, an over ten-minute jam called “The Road Reversed.” It shows off again Bowles ability to capture the listener. You can get lost in it like you would any drone or folk record. This combination of atmospherics and clawhammer banjo harkens back to that “old, weird America” Harry Smith collected on his famous Anthology of American Folk Music.
Bowles and I spoke about his banjo and circular music for a little over an hour. The following is an edited and condescended version of our conversation.
Aquarium Drunkard: I was just reading up on all the press that you’ve done in the past. And something that always is funny to me is that I feel like people don’t know quite what to call you? The word banjo’s in there. But beyond that…
Nathan Bowles: I guess on the solo records the banjo is the central instrument, even if there is a lot of other stuff going on around it. But I’m not sure I even sure think about it as like ‘banjo music.’ That’s just the thing I tend to write material on.
AD: Does that have to do with playing clawhammer banjo? It’s such a different style and we throw it out there as like “clawhammer banjo,” “regular banjo”—like whatever, banjo, banjo.
Nathan Bowles: Well, I’m not a guitar player. I don’t have a history with playing guitar as a kid or loving string instruments. I took pretty deep piano lessons for years and years as a kid—like 12 years. I got really deep into that. But even my piano style, I was really into the percussiveness of piano.
When I was playing in Black Twig [Pickers], Mike Gangloff was getting really interested in fiddle—he’s a great clawhammer banjo player. But he wanted to move toward fiddle. I was playing percussion in the band at that point: like washboard; I was playing some tub bass and stuff. Him and Isak Howell, the guitar player in Twigs, had always talked about how it seemed like clawhammer banjo would be a good fit for me. And I was interested in it, because I loved the sound of it. But I didn’t really think of it as something I would play.
So, this would’ve been in—what?–like 2005 or something. Mike and Isak bought me like a really cheap, pretty shitty banjo. As not like a dare, but kind of like an order. They were like: “Okay, you need to do this. Mike will teach you the basics of clawhammer technique. Mike’s going to play more fiddle. And you are going to be the banjo player in this band. That’s just how it’s going to be.” I was up for it; I was up for the challenge. I really dove hard into it.
They just threw me in the deep end: I was playing banjo at the gigs. The Twigs in those days —like 2006—were playing so often, just gigged so hard around that area of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina. Just played a lot. And clawhammer is—it’s a rhythmic cycle repeated over and over. You can fit within that grid a lot of variety and expression, based on what your left hand can do. And some of what your right hand can do. But your right hand is really an engine. That appealed to me. I don’t mean to get corny: But it’s a drum with strings on it. So, the sound of the hand hitting the head (he slaps his hand) is very appealing to me. And since I didn’t have to unlearn guitar stuff I came to fretting in a very pianistic way, really. I thought of it like piano with my left hand. It’s still kind of weird to me. Even though a lot people think of me as “that’s Nate, he’s a banjo player.” Well, I am. But everything I do in my mind is from basic place of hitting things in a certain order.
AD: But you’re so labeled as a banjo player. It’s funny.
Nathan Bowles: And I don’t mind that. But I still get really shocked by that. It’s like an out of body experience. It’s weird… because people want to wrap like real string nerd shit to me. And I’m like: “Oh my god, I don’t know.” Especially like other progressive banjo. You get put in the progressive banjo camp. People doing like Bela Fleck kind of stuff. I have nothing to say. God bless you. I just feel like I have so little in common with that music. I just don’t have anything to say about it. And it’s also tied to that particular instrument too. I’ve played the same banjo since 2010. It’s really that instrument.
AD: Really? What would happen if that banjo went away?
Nathan Bowles: It actually just kind of half-broke. And I got to get it fixed in the next couple of weeks. It’s like my whole sound is tied to that thing. I write for that instrument. There’s another instrument that I play on one song on the record that I’ve really been digging into that’s like—it’s a banjo basically but just on a wooden body that Rex’s Dad built. [I use it] on that song “Girih Tiles” on the second side, that solo side. It’s a banjo basically, but it’s just on like a small oud or a big mandolin wooden tear-shaped wooden body.
AD: To go back: you were talking about postcards from time in relation to re-recording songs and each album. It seems like a lot of your records have this idea of this is a feeling from a specific moment.
Nathan Bowles: Maybe I’m bullshitting a little bit with that. But I don’t think so. They are all definitely postcards for how I’m feeling at a time. But they also reflect—especially in the titles and the art work —maybe what I’ve been feeling a year up to it or so.
AD: So how did you think about that painting on the back by? (A section of Félix Vallotton’s painting “Landscape off ruins and fires” centers the back cover of the record. Vallotton’s associated with a group of artists called Les Nabis—a term created by Henri Cazalis because the group “aimed to revitalize painting…the way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel.”) And the Javier Marias quote? (“We go from deceit to deceit and know that, in that respect, we are not deceived, and yet we always take the latest deceit for the truth.”) How did you decide to incorporate those in? And what do they mean to you in the context of the record?
Nathan Bowles: It’s funny, it all changed. When I first was going to put together the record, I thought it was all going to be photographs. And then I got this painting idea in my head, so I started trading ideas with Jake [Xerxes Fussell]. And there was another Vallotton’s painting actually that I was looking at for a long time. That gave me the idea to look more into his stuff. I just liked the smoldering quality of it. It spoke to that drumhead—the painted drumhead—that’s the detail on the front. The Marias quote is: I just love his writing. And that was something I came across earlier in the year and it reflected a thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot., and which is I guess reflected in the album title. It’s basically: The older I get, the less I think that people learn from mistakes. I think we regret mistakes more than we learn from them. And, I think, we tell ourselves stories: our lives are us telling ourselves stories about growth. Like steps in an ongoing project in self-development. But I think it’s way messier and uglier than that the more I reflect on it.
AD: Well, you kind of do that some in the music too. Where’s it like the idea that certain stuff is called folk music or “old-time” and there’s a clear historical narrative. Instead, with you, it’s messy how all that influence happens. So, how do you think about that process with your own music? Of history? And cycles?
Nathan Bowles: I think my experience with old-time, Appalachian stuff—the kind of stuff that influenced me a lot growing up, or not growing up, but like in my 20’s, field recordings and folk and blues stuff—to me that all dovetailed with my interest in DIY music or underground music. It’s all folk music. All this stuff is oral tradition stuff for me. Like the way other musicians listen to records, and then they get influenced by that, and then they make records themselves. The process is all the same time to me. Whether I’m writing my own material, my own sonic material, or reinterpreting older material. On this record, there’s “Elk River Blues”—which is just a tune I love, like I said.
And then “Ruby”—which I just always knew it was a bluegrass chestnut and wasn’t even thinking of that a song to try with the trio at all until I sat with that Silver Apples record for a while. And Rex, the drummer, his partner Anne actually mentioned it to Rex one day. She was like, “Oh, that’s so funny, like ‘Ruby’ on that [Silver Apples] record sounds like a song y’all do it.” Then Rex mentioned it to me. I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s kind of true.” And I revisited this video performance of the Osborne Brothers doing it in the 70’s. I thought, ” This could be something.”
The Silver Apples version is so cool cause that whole record has such a weird—not like Steam Punk-y—but almost like this weird like burping machine that’s about to fall apart at any moment. It’s so cool sounding. And the way they interpret that material is bizarre. I love it. There’s a little golden era of especially 60’s and 70’s bluegrass, not so much the progressive super flashy stuff—but the stuff that’s really maniacal. Maybe coked up. Super white knuckle. Kind of sloppy. I like that. I don’t know. It was kind of a lark. “Oh, let’s try and come up with an arrangement of this song.” I’m pretty bone headed, really. I’ll follow. I’m like a dog on a bone if I think something’s interesting or fun. And that was both. I was singing through a big like Leslie cabinet to get that weird whirring sound on the vocals. It was fun.
AD: I think people are struggling to define your sound which has a bit of ambient and drone in it, it has a bit of bluegrass. Where are you influences for that drone and ambient stuff?
Nathan Bowles: My history with minimalism or drones is so old. That’s the stuff I’ve been into, since I was 18—maybe earlier. When I was at college in Blacksburg, I met the guys in Black Twigs and Pelt and Spiral Joy Band. That was all just finding people with similar interests who could teach me. When I first got to college, I did a lot of my own self research on early punk and no wave and jazz too. And then meeting those guys, even more sub-underground stuff, and then like most of the canonized minimalism stuff. That’s such a part of my DNA. I don’t even know. Minimalism or drone elements or maximalism—just heavy loud, drone-y, repetitiveness, I think that’s just baked into anything I do.
AD: Sometimes that sound gets identified with Durham, NC. But, tell me if I’m wrong, it’s older, right?
Nathan Bowles: Yeah, that stuff’s been going on for so long. I mean. I do think Pelt is—I’m biased—but I think Pelt is one of the early and one of the best examples of that. That’s a heavy crew of people who deal with the whatever zone encompasses all those sounds. I got asked that a lot in Twigs interviews too. Like where does drone, minimalism and Appalachian banjo and fiddle music intertwine? They’re in the same universe to me. A lot of the concerns in old-time fiddle and banjo music are the same concerns in good minimalism. Which is: If there’s a rhythmic element, where’s that rhythm coming from? Is there a percussive element? Is there rhythm in the beats between notes? Is that rhythm interesting? It is cyclical? Is it hypnotic? What are the intervals between notes? Is that creating a certain feeling? Is it creating other difference tones? A lot of the old-time, or traditional, music is it’s hypnotic to me. Maybe not to other people. But the things that intrigue me about traditional folk forms is that they are altered state inducing. All music that I like, and that I try to do, is trying to do the same thing. They all live in the same world to me. And the minimalism, traditional stuff—wherever their moment of meeting is—that’s just been my wheelhouse for so long. I don’t think I could untangle where that even started. … [That’s] what I value in music: cyclical patterns, improvisation, drive.
AD: Maybe I’m dipping too much into the bullshit here. But, it seems notable, then, that you start this record with a lullaby [a cover of Julie Tippett’s “Now If You Remember”] and it’s this dream-like record.
Nathan Bowles: I thought of that for sure.
AD: And it’s funny you say that: I think of your music as having, specifically, this cyclical vibe to it. And then the liner notes talk about that too.
Nathan Bowles: It’s just something I notice. Cycles is something I think about a lot. I guess when you’re obsessed with an idea you notice it. You see it in everything.
AD: Are you going to go back to solo work or more trio stuff?
Nathan Bowles: I definitely want to make another record with them. Because this one felt like the first step. words / j rosenberg