Pushing boundaries is nothing new to Chris Pandolfi: as a student a Berklee, he was the first banjo principal at the renowned music school and he continues to play banjo in the Infamous Stringdusters, a band that continuously reimagines what bluegrass is and can be. His solo project, Trad Plus, finds him breaking more ground as he reimagines the banjo for electronic music. While the moniker Trad Plus, a phrase taken from the great flatpicker Doc Watson, may indicate something traditional about the project, that is far from the truth; maybe the only thing that can be deemed “traditional” is Pandolfi’s use of the five-string banjo, but even that’s a stretch. A collection of ambient soundscapes woven together with strong banjo melodies, Trance Banjo, the follow up to the first Trad Plus album Interference, demonstrates not only Pandolfi’s skill as a banjo player, but as a producer. Pandolfi discussed some of his influences and motivations for the project in a Zoom interview.
Who are some of your influences in electronic music and when did you first start producing? Can you talk more about your background with that?
On my musical journey, most people know me primarily as a banjo player, but about 10 years ago I started working as a producer. Producing music is a whole other thing than playing. When I started producing music, I started to discover all of these sounds that I really loved. A few of my main influences, the things that really grabbed me, were Washed Out, Tycho, Boards of Canada, and Pretty Lights. Not the heavy EDM, but the ambient atmospheric stuff. I love music that has a strong rhythm, too. I just started discovering sounds that I dig, and the role of a producer is to take music and bring it to life in the most meaningful and impactful way. So, I was writing these new tunes on banjo and really loved the sampling element of Pretty Lights and the lush-dreamy sounds of Washed Out and Tycho and wanted to recontextualize the banjo. It was a lot of these sounds that pushed me in that direction.
You’re someone that’s conscious about bluegrass and the tradition of it. What type of thoughts went through your head with regard to that while making the album? Did you feel some obligation to the tradition, or did you feel more like “this is what I want to make, and this is how I’m going to put it out?”
Yeah, that’s it. I just want to make the music that moves me the most. As artists, as creators, we’re all looking for that moment where we discover something that really moves us. For a lot of people in the bluegrass realm, that means more like copying a lot of old school bluegrass and that’s awesome. For me, though, I want to take bits and pieces of that musical style and ethic of heavy instrumental virtuosity, which I love. For example, Bela Fleck was my first inspiration that got me into banjo. Ultimately for me, the real goal is to find something new, that’s my own and not just for the sake of being new. I want something that really sounds musical. I get excited about doing my own thing and taking the music to new uncharted territory. When I’m writing and creating, I sort of do it all at one time in the studio. Sometimes I write the music first, sometimes I start recording sounds and seeing what direction that pushes me in. It’s never that linear of a process. The whole time I’m looking for something that moves me, and I really connect with. If it’s something I can really get behind and believe in and create a piece of art that’s true to me, I think that’s when you have the potential of making something that people really connect with.
You mentioned Bela, who has his roots in bluegrass, but you know he moves the music forward as well and I see that connection with your project.
You know Bela got me into banjo and banjo got me into bluegrass. As this whole journey comes full circle and now, I’m in the middle of my career and I’m making my statement, it’s funny because he’s really done it all: he’s a master improviser, he’s a master performer, but I think the most incredible thing that he’s done is taking the banjo with such conviction to all these other musical worlds. For me, sometimes, I’m like “Man, he didn’t leave a lot of undiscovered territory”, but the reality is that I love that challenge. The bigger your imagination the more possibilities there are. It’s a challenge for sure, but this is native to me; I love electronic music, I love soundscapes. I’m someone who believes a great song can definitely move you, but so can a beautiful sound and a beautiful soundscape. Those things really move me, and I know they move a lot of listeners. I feel this is an area that I’m pushing into where the banjo hasn’t really gone before and that’s something I really love.
You referenced the idea of soundscapes and I noticed that on this album. You did your last album as Trad Plus, Interference, a few years ago and there seems to be a very different feel between the two. The last one had more prominent, noticeable production, but Trance Banjo was very melody driven. Can you talk a little more about the difference in your writing process between the two?
You kind of nailed it. When I did Interference, my approach was just to get creative in the studio and pull the sounds that I love and the tools that I gravitate towards together. I’ve got banjos and guitars and synths and analog drum machines and all kinds of sounds that have come into my world over the years, so I was like, “Now it’s time for me to make an album with all this stuff and show the world what I can do.” Just like banjo, you need to shed on this production stuff; you need to practice and find your voice. I spent years just experimenting and then things would start to connect in terms of sounds that really spoke to me and connected for me and I also felt confident in. So, when I was doing Interference, I almost wanted the point of pride for people to see that I could make music that wasn’t just reliant on my chops as a banjo player. I’ve definitely spent majority of my career working on those chops and it’s opened a lot of doors, but for Interference, I just wanted to make something really different and get creative and experimental. Now on Trance Banjo, it’s just come full circle and I wanted to bring all of my tools together: my chops as a producer, as a banjo player, and as a writer. This album is definitely more banjo and melody oriented.
You’ve been producing for other people for a few years now, how has this made you a better producer? Or is it completely different, producing this project vs. producing for other people?
It’s different because when you’re working for someone else the real art and goal is to serve their music the best. Like I’m working on producing a project right now for this singer Carly King and she’s opened the door for me to play different instruments and bring my vibe to the music. But when I’m producing Kitchen Dwellers or Trout Steak Revival or any of the other bands I work with, it’s all about their music. I’m just trying to guide them in the direction I’ve been able to figure out from my experience. Honestly, in the case of producing those bands, the instrumentation is fairly set, but when I’m here doing Trad Plus it’s so wide open. When I was doing Trance Banjo, I had to dream up this whole soundscape to compliment these tunes I’ve been working on. When I’m working with bands it’s a little bit of a different discipline. It’s more about helping to coach them through recording in the studio and getting them to be their essential selves, not get tricked into thinking that the recording studio is different from any other time that they’re making music. There’s a lot of overlap, but then again there’s a lot of things that are unique to each situation. Ultimately, the goal is trying to take what you have and make the most convincing music. That’s the role of a producer and that’s something I’ve gravitated towards more as my career’s gone on.
Any plans to tour with this outfit and bring it to a live environment?
I would love that, but that’s a whole other step of creativity that I haven’t exactly figured out yet. I’ve done Trad Plus shows in the past with the drummer Nick Falk who appears on both Trad Plus albums. For me, I didn’t even worry about that question. I get so much time on stage with the Stringdusters, and I love that, that I let this project be very studio centric because I love being in the studio, I love engineering, and I love all kinds of sounds. So, I let that discipline really guide the Trad Plus project. Some musicians are really focused on live and some are focused more on the studio, but I sort of always come back to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s, because they were like “We’re gonna make an album that we never have any desire of recreating in a live environment.” For me, it’s reassuring to hear one of the greatest bands of all time that the studio is its whole own form of expression. That’s something that really speaks to me and for now that’s where this project lives.
It’s probably pretty freeing in a sense considering that most of the bluegrass idiom is that “we’re going to do it live” type of deal.
Yeah, and you know what the instruments are, you know what the roles are whereas this is such a place of endless creativity for me and I’ve embraced that. That was my saving grace during quarantine, being able to sink myself into a project of that magnitude. It’s made me a better musician and a better producer, and it’s only made me reassured on this journey that the studio is this whole own form of expression.
Lastly, how was it performing live last weekend [Feb 25-27 in Vail with the Infamous Trio?]
It was fucking epic. There was a lot of buildup in the week before the show. I needed to get my chops together. I never had to worry about that before. For my whole adult life with the Stringdusters, there’s never been more than a couple of weeks without a show so I’m always on my game. This past year has been a totally different vibe. I missed more than just the stage. I missed the preparation, I missed the pressure, I missed the buildup, I missed the aftermath, and of course I missed the part of being onstage with my brothers in the band. Performances before Covid were just so routine. Don’t get me wrong they were such a high, we’d have such great moments on stage, but now that it’s not an everyday part of life it’s helping us put it all in perspective to realize how lucky we are to do this. It was just awesome to be back.