five Eastern instruments
ma tou qin
three Western instruments
bass (1/2 size, named Christopher)
Brinn Bagley Chipman
Here's the transcript for an interview we did with Now Salt Lake. Long but informative:)
– How did you guys first get together?
Eric met Brinn at Utah State University, despite having gone to the same High School and in the same graduating class. Between Eric's two years in Taiwan and Brinn's 18 months in Taiwan and 6 months in China it took a matter of five years or so, but they got married. Eric assumed marriage would end his days of playing music. Brinn has played the violin since age 4, however, and his music playing instead increased. They started playing with a talented young Salt Lake multi-instrumentalist, Luke Williams. Eric had been in possession of a five foot long, 24 stringed, Chinese Zither for a while and wanted to start incorporating it in the band, but was afraid to tell Luke up-front that he was starting a folk-rock band on Chinese instruments. As it turns out, Luke was all about adding more multi- to his instrumentalism. So a few months later Eric got in touch with his old college roommate, J Daniel, who also shared an interest in accruing (and making some noise with) Chinese instruments.
– The instrumentation on the record is very unique. What drew you to these instruments/sound
The nascent idea of this band came during Eric's missionary service in Taiwan. A missionary for the LDS church gets about 6 hours a week to take care of personal business (like emailing family and grocery shopping) and also to do some cultural visits. Eric often chose, when the option was available, to visit local traditional music shops. Not only did it satisfy the neglected need to pluck some strings, but the strangely beautiful and unique instruments really sparked the idea of a “fusion” band. There was one instrument in particular that had an immediate attraction, it was the Chinese Zither or “Zheng”. The moment you sit down and drag your fingers across it’s strings, something really beautiful and really “chinese” just happens. Willie Nelson said, “You can’t play a sad song on the banjo”, well you pretty much can’t play an ugly song on the Zheng. So it was decided that this was the one (large) souvenir coming back to America from Taiwan. Since then, a hearty collection of Chinese instruments have made there way back to our collective possessions through various travels and connections to China.
– When you tell people, "Yeah, I play pipa or guzheng in a band," what do they think this record is going to sound like? Are they nervous to listen to it?
It’s actually really interesting, even a lot of Chinese people have apprehension with these instruments. Traditional Chinese instruments are used in music that is very heady and philosophically based, and often times arrhythmic and atonal. So a lot of people, both American and Chinese, “appreciate” the traditional music, but don’t really hum a traditional tune in the shower, or have a “traditional Chinese music” playlist. And it must be said, that we are included in this category of people. We ourselves have a hard time listening much beyond the initial “this is cool and different” phase of most the songs. The idea of the band is really to take really beautiful instruments and use them in a way that we ourselves want to listen to.
But on the whole, we wouldn't say people have been nervous to listen to it. Borrowing elements of music from other parts of the world has always been the development of music from Janissary before Mozart's time, to Paul Simon playing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. If people don't like Matteo, it is not usually because of the Asian influence in the sound (which is not very overt, in our opinion). People don't like the music of Matteo usually only because they don't like the music of Matteo, and because it’s hard to say “what it sounds like”. People, understandably, discover new music by finding artists that sound like artists they already like. That puts us in a difficult position, people have to actually listen to us and formulate a new opinion, which requires a bit more effort than listening to something and thinking, This sounds like music I like. What does Pandora do with us for instance?
– How do you find the balance between unique instrumentation and accessible-sounding songs?
We are not trying to be something we are not, and all members of the band are American and more specifically Utahan. We have these instruments of interest, and we listen to their respective music, and we try to understand their aesthetics for such. But at the end of the day we are American kids who grew up with our parents listening to American-bred 70’s bands , and we listen to American-bred bands now. In that way, when writing music it's easy for folk-rock Americana to come out, maybe even more so than the Chinese twang. But that is probably the most authentic refection of who were are: much more American than Chinese. Although it must be emphasized that the Chinese connection isn’t just arbitrary. Three of us speak mandarin, all learned while residing in Taiwan and Mainland China. Two of us, namely Brinn and Eric, both work in the fields of Chinese language education. Much of Eric’s paycheck actually comes straight from the Chinese government. We have just as many Chinese friends in Salt Lake as we do American ones. So in short, the music is a very much an accurate reflection of our lives, and more of a nod to the inevitable cultural-fusion of globalization than to the cultural-hijacking of colonialism.
– Is there any added pressure to find lyrical content to match the vibe of the songs (I don't think standard "I'm in love with a girl" stuff would fit really well with these songs)?
Yes. There definitely has been an added pressure to to find lyrical content that matches the music, but this has come with it’s challenges. There are a few songs on the album that have Chinese themes or references, but the majority of them do not. This is largely due to the fact that, at least for Eric who wrote the majority of lyrical content, it remains very difficult to write authentic and genuine lyrics about subjects you don’t really want to write about. Paul Simon’s album “Graceland” has been a great example to look towards. There are tracks on the album that are full of South African themes like “You can call me Al”, but there are also tracks like “Graceland” which has no South African influence in the lyrics whatesoever, but is rather about some of the most quintessential American themes possible. Simon was likely just writing about what he could/wanted to write about in his life at that moment, and let the African-fusion fill in where it naturally fit, and not try to force it where it didn’t comfortably go. In fact, there is something strangely beautiful about the blending or juxtaposing (or whatever is happening) between quintessential American themes (like Elvis Presley, the Civil War, Mississippi Delta, and New York City’s Human Trampoline) and South African roots music. It just works better some how letting the lyrics and musics exist side by side without trying too hard to bridge the divide where they don’t thematically meet. The glaring difference between us and Paul Simon (besides the fact that he’s, you know, a world-renowned songwriter) is that, when he made Graceland, he was at a point in his career where he could pretty much do whatever he wanted, namely create African American fusion music as a Jewish-American from New Jersey. We, on the other hand, are starting out trying to do whatever we want and it is a much tougher sell. So yes, there is added pressure, but after these past two plus years of experimenting, the conclusion is (for now) to first think about what we really want to say, and then to think about how we want to say it, and if an Chinese or Asian theme fits naturally and authentically into that occasion then great.
– Where are you guys drawing influences from?
That's interesting because Brinn is a classical violinist with some bluegrass fiddle training and grew up listening mostly to Country-folk. Eric is a guitarist but equally apt on the mandolin and bluegrass, but grew up listen to mostly new-age Jazz. Among Luke's many instruments, his main musical prowess is on the electric bass with funk music and grew up with an real eclectic mixture of music, and J Daniel is a classical guitarist and licensed teacher in music education with a growing appetite for world music. With that, it is safe to say that the band listens to its share of contemporary independent music, but in general remains well rounded in knowing something about most every style of music.
– What's next for the band? Plans for more recordings, shows?
Matteo plans to play together for a long time. Playing the kind of music we do, it sort of releases us from the burden of hope for a huge record deal. Guy Randle, who mixed and mastered our album, pointed this out to us, because from the get-go we are not really in the running for a pop record deal, so we really are free to create and find something new. And to be honest, the response to the music has been surprisingly positive. There have been a few people who the music has really resonated with on a very deep and personal level, and that is really an incredible thing. It pushes us to keep producing a new sound that can reach people who maybe haven’t been gotten by pop music or what is already out there. This group will likely always be a minority, but we are really very happy and comfortable with that. We have played a few shows where the numbers were many, but the music just fell flat. We are happiest playing to a small crowd of maybe 40 or 50 people, with a nice mix of families, middle-age couples, maybe a few grandparents and also some young hip college students. So what is next? The plans aren’t grand necessarily. Matteo is earnestly interested in the role of music in our community. Therefore, we plan to not only continue writing, recording, and covering music for our small, but loyal listeners; but also finding places in our society where music could or should play a role, but currently is not.