INTERVIEW: The Creaking Tree Quartet kicks off their tour in Rossland

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
September 1st, 2010

On his latest album, Joel Plasket’s heavy-handed musical wisdom delivers a bit of advice on why you should get out to the Miners’ Hall this weekend to see a Juno Award-winning talent:

 “The reason why I like the instrumentals, is ‘cause they haven’t got any words.”  This four piece acoustic instrumental quartet finds both freedom and challenge in their lyric-free world and will be touring for the first time on their new album, Sun Dogs.  Andrew Zwicker caught up with Bryan Kobayakawa this week to take a look inside just what makes this band’s trees creek.   Where have I caught you at today?   I’m at home in Toronto, John and Andrew, the fiddle and mandolin players are teaching at a bluegrass camp in Sorrento right now. I’m here in Toronto and flying out on Friday, pick up a van, go pick those guys up and spend a couple weeks touring BC.   Let’s start with the big and ugly broad question first. In your own words, tell us a little bit about what the Creaking Tree quartet is all about?  It’s kind of hard music to put your finger on exactly what it is. We’ve been called a lot of different things, and there are lots of things people have said we definitely are not. What it definitely is is instrumental acoustic roots music. All four of us write for the project. It’s mostly original stuff. We do in our shows touch on a bit of bluegrass and jazz an some things that aren’t our music, but it’s mostly all original stuff which is a hodge-podge of bluegrass jazz, chamber music and some other styles fused in.   How long have you been at it now?   It’s been nine years since we got started. I don’t know what that translates into in band years, but a lot I imagine.    How did it all get started? How did you meet one another and say, ‘let’s play acoustic instrumental music together’?   We met through different connections in the Toronto music scene. John [Showman] moved here from Ottawa right when we started the band. It was kind of a jam session. Brad [Keller], the guitar player, and I were working on another project and had some spare time in the studio and John had just moved to town and Andrew [Collins] was a mutual friend of all of us. It just came together that we ended up having our first jam with the tape running in the studio. Within a year we were listening to it and realized that it was something that should be more than just a one-off jam and turned it into a band.    How did you get into the instrumental route? Were you in more traditional bands prior to the quartet?   We all come from a bunch of different styles that influence us and we all stay pretty busy playing in a bunch of different groups. The instrumental acoustic one was a place where we all had an interest with no real outlet to play that kind of music. We were all interested in playing for and writing for that kind of band. It just kind of snowballed from that first happenstance jam of saying, ‘hey this works, why don’t we focus on this and hone it’. It was a decision very early on that that’s what it would be: instrumental acoustic music for no other reason really other than, ‘why not?’.    Your sounds a bit outside of the traditional pop music world, but it seems like you guys have done well at pulling people into that world that might not otherwise gravitate to it naturally.   You know the world always seems to shine well on this band. We’ve been lucky to be in a number of great positions early on to play for big crowds be it a folk festival, jazz festival, chamber music festival or things like CBC radio and the Juno awards. From that we’ve been able to get a good level of recognition for what we do.   It seems like a translation where good music and skill crosses all genres and styles or that definitions fly out the window when you’re playing good music.  Yeah, exactly. I’d like to think so at least.   So where did the name ‘The Creaking Tree Quartet’ come from? I’m getting a picture of trees turned into instruments, turned into music?  Yeah! Creaking Trees is actually the name of a song written by a fiddle player from California named Darryl Unger who was to varying degrees an influence on all of us. More than that it was a name that Brad thought really explains the kind of sound we were going for well. Of all the bands I’ve been in, this one got named the easiest. It was the first thing suggested and we all said, ‘yeah, that sounds good let’s go with that!’.   So what have been some of the highlights over the last nine years?  It’s hard to say. It always seems to be the places we’ve been having been able to travel to the far north, coast to coast in Canada, down both coasts in the States and through Europe. It’s great to have been able to travel so much with a style of music that is well outside of the conventional pop music norm. The records, too, are something we’re all really proud of. Having been able to document the music we’ve done has been great. Each time we’ve recorded we’ve achieved what we were going for. On this next trip we’ll have our new four track hot off the presses in time to take around with us. We recorded this album over the past spring and summer. It’s not being officially released until the fall but we’ll have copies of it with us on this tour.    I’m always interested in the different writing processes and motivation behind the music. Often songs will start with a lyric. In the instrumental world what is your motivation in writing new music?   It really varies. There are pieces we play where one person has written all of the parts for everyone, handed us our parts and we’ve played it. That’s more of a classical approach. On others it’s more like a jazz approach where we each get a lead sheet with chord progressions and a melody and we hash it out amongst the four of us on how to tweak the arrangement and how to perform it. Other songs are collaborations, usually between a pair of us. Someone will come with a set of chords they are like, ‘I can’t get this song out, you take a crack at it’. There’s no one standard way we’ve done things. I guess the one thing in common throughout it is that all four of us, even though the songs are generally one or two person songs, all four of us have input on everything that we play.    How does the writing and playing process differ in an instrumental group in trying to tell a story or convey a message with your songs?   I wouldn’t say it’s any easier or harder, really. It’s really different. With instrumental music, the attention span of the audience is much shorter. Without lyrical content to keep the story going, we have to have more going on musically in the piece. We’re generally conscious of that in keeping the flow of ideas coming in the music. When you don’t have words to tell the story you have to be a little more dramatic with the changes you make within a verse or within the chorus of a song.   It’s kind of like abstract art it seems in that it’s a little more open to interpretation by the audience.   Very much so. There are moods and feelings you can create through the melodies and rhythms but it’s much more open to interpretation than traditional lyrical music. It’s interesting. Often people will come to us after a show and explain “Oh, when you played this song, it made me think of this.” They’ll come with some specific image of what the song meant to them. Sometimes we’re surprised when someone says exactly what we were going for and other times it’s right out of left field and affects people in a totally different way than we had in mind when we wrote it. It’s really interesting that way.    So what’s different on the new album?   All three of our records before this one, we’ve really worked to the material, worked it, rehearsed it, taken it on tour, tweaked it some more, worked it some more and known exactly what we were going to record when we got to the studio. Everything was really decided upon before we got to the studio for this record.   For this new album there were a lot of new songs in the studio. I think it has a bit more freshness to it. It’s also the first time we have guests playing with us on the record. We have two drummers with us for the first time. Burt Carrol is a pedal steel player, we have a piano player and they are each playing on one song on the album so that’s different. We’ve got some electric guitar and electric mandolin and that’s really different from our past records.     What music are you listening to these days? What musical influences does the band draw from?   Well we all have pretty distinct styles. When we’re on the road we each have our own iPod and depending on who’s DJing in the van it might be rock and roll, classical, country or lately I’m listening to a lot of hip hop. I’m not sure if that translates too much into our music [laughs].    Maybe that’s the next step for the band? Having an MC rap across your songs?   Well that’s something we haven’t done yet. As soon as someone starts singing in this band it changes the whole dynamic. I don’t think we’ll get there, or at least not yet.    After this tour the band is heading out to a European tour before sliding back into the studio late next spring. To catch this one-of-a-kind Canadian talent on their swing through Rossland this wee,k stop by the Miners’ Hall Sunday night at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $15 at the door. For more info e-mail rosslandarts@gmail.com Check them out at http://www.myspace.com/creakingtree

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