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Broadside Electric has existed in various forms since 1990. The original band included Tom Rhoads, Jim Speer, and Helene Zisook, who have remained in the band ever since, plus Rachel Hall, a concertina player. This quartet established the musical direction of the band, with emphasis on traditional music of Britain and Ireland.

Tom Rhoads talk about the formation of the first band in 1990:

Jim:So how did you first hear about this band, Tom?
Tom:Well, I had this idea during my year off. I had started playing, I got interested in traditional music right about the time that I decided I had to take time off from Haverford.
Ashley:You decided you had to take time off?
Amy:So you became a gypsy wanderer and strolled the streets.
Tom:Something like that, yeah.
Jim:You were working in a pet shop.
Helene:Toy store?
Tom:It was two thirds pet shop and the rest was a toy store or game store. But after I started my year off from Haverford I went over to England and I had spent the previous year slowly discovering a lot of English folk rock records and …
Ashley:Wait a second, I need to clarify that. Before that, you hadn't been exposed to that or was that something –
Tom:Not really, no. I used to listen to folk music from a very early age but not –
Ashley:But you never heard Jethro Tull or anything similar?
Tom:I heard Tull. Tull was sort of the entry point actually. But I got interested in a certain song and I went and bought a Steeleye Span record that had that song on it.
Jim:Didn't your parents have all those albums?
Tom:Steeleye Span? No, not a single one. That was all my stuff. They had Joan Baez up the wazoo. They had every Joan Baez album from her first one to about sometime in the late seventies, which is a lot of records. That's about fifteen, sixteen albums. Where was I going with that?
Ashley:You were on hiatus, you went to England –
Tom:Yeah, I went to England, and while I was there, I went to Cropredy. [Cropredy, located in Oxfordshire, is the site of Fairport Convention's Annual Reunion Festival]
Ashley:You went to Cropredy?!
Tom:Yeah, and that turned me on pretty good.
Ashley:You saw Fairport and everything?
Tom:And Steeleye Span was there too. It was a good show.
Ashley:So now you were hooked.
Tom:That got me into it some more, yeah. I was sort of thinking about … anyway, the next year, I was working in this pet store, I was taking time off, and I started driving down to see Jim on the weekends and we borrowed Alan Rose's four track and started recording stuff. And so we recorded, well, everything.
Jim:All kinds of really silly stuff.
Tom:A lot of bizarre stuff. But we did some traditional stuff in that batch of things and one of … there was an embryonic version of "New York Girls."
Jim:Interestingly, it already had that little pause in the music after the "stopped at forty-four."
Tom:I think it's because I missed the strum on the guitar.
Ashley:And it stayed!
Tom:Yeah. Well I know it went away and then we brought it back. We didn't always do that.
Ashley:"You heard it first. The origins of obscure pauses and …"
Tom:"… bits of our arrangements." It happened by accident.
Ashley:Speaking of origins …
Tom:Jim and I had played in Howling Frog before and played as a duo once or twice. And I said: "We should form a band." I wanted to try and do something similar to the records I was listening to, because I was listening to Please To See the King a lot, and I thought: "This is a sound I'm really into. Maybe I should try and do this." So I wrote to Rachel Hall who was in Scotland at the time, on her year abroad and asked her if she wanted to join this band.
Tom:And you put up signs.
Jim:We put up signs and we auditioned a whole mess of people.
Ashley:How many people did you audition?
Jim:Oh …
Tom:A couple.
Jim:Three or four [laughter].
Tom:There was a flautist/songwriter, and we auditioned a drummer.
Tom:But we decided –
Ashley:Wait. You auditioned a drummer?
Tom:Yes, but we decided we'd stick with a quartet. We already had Helene at that point, I think. And we auditioned a couple other people too.

Helene Zisook talks about joining the band:

Tom:We auditioned Helene.
Helene:That was a weird audition.
Ashley:Tell me more.
Helene:Well, it was two hours before I even took my instrument out, of mostly just talking and listening to what they already recorded. And they asked me if I'd heard of all these bands that I'd never heard of. And it was getting sadder and sadder: "No … no … no …" And then finally: "Jethro Tull." "Yeah! Yeah!" And everybody went: "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" and we nodded a lot.
Tom:Yeah, it was that bad.
Ashley:And that was the bonding factor?
Helene:Yeah, that was –
Tom:That was how we got it started, yeah.
Helene:I had this feeling afterward, when I was thinking about it, that you guys liked me and wanted me to be, what's the word I'm looking for … "qualified."
Helene:And there was some sight-reading. I sight read the melody to "Matty Groves." And everybody acted impressed. And then there was some check to see if I could hear a melody and then play it. But mostly it was just sitting around and talking.
Amy:So what made you answer the ad?
Helene:I had been wanting to get back into music because I hadn't played in a year or so. I started to have nightmares about it. So I signed up for the pit band for West Side Story and that's actually what I was doing at that point. It was fun to play. And then I saw the ad. I've never been one to not say yes, so I've played in a lot of weird things with a lot of weird people, and thought: "Oh look, some more weird people playing weird things." Actually I thought they were going to be playing my kind of folk rock that I'd heard before: Kenny Loggins and Cat Stevens and stuff like that. So I had a totally different idea about what I was getting into.
Tom:The term kind of means something different in America.
Ashley:"Peace Train?"
Helene:Well I was thinking "Watching the River Run."

The 1991 band played one year with Rachel Hall, who then left to pursue a Watson fellowship. Tom, Jim, and Helene recruited Melissa Demian, a singer and Appalachian dulcimer player, to complete the quartet. Melissa's strong vocals and distinctive dulcimer style naturally opened the band's sound to new possibilities. The arrangements of the 1991-1994 band tended to focus on vocal harmonies and double-lead vocals between Tom and Melissa. The strumming of the dulcimer supplied the rhythmic base upon which a string-heavy Broadside Electric sound was built. This band recorded two CDs of material, 1992's Black Edged Visiting Card, and 1994's Amplificata. This was the period that Broadside Electric transitioned from being a college campus band to playing folk clubs and coffeehouses around Philadelphia. In the fall of 1994, Melissa left the band to continue her studies at the University of Cambridge in England.

Tom, Jim and Helene continued as a trio for the next two and a half years, with new material and some new instruments. Helene switched from acoustic to a Zeta five-string electric violin. Jim put down the bass in favor of a Chapman Stick®, an unusual 12-stringed instrument resembling a combined bass and guitar. The band also became interested in eastern European music, and started arranging and performing more Balkan and Klezmer compositions. The trio recorded the third Broadside Electric CD in 1997, entitled More Bad News.

Ashley D'Andrea talks about meeting the band:

Amy:When did you first hear of Broadside Electric and what did you think of them?
Ashley:First time I heard them was on a quadruple bill at the Chameleon Club, Chapman Stick® Night in 1996. Ray Ashley and I were playing together outside of New Jersey for the first time. We played our set, and later on these three crazy people [points to Tom, Jim and Helene] took to the stage, and we were out in the audience and I just totally flipped. I think when I heard "As I Roved Out" – I kind of snapped my head to attention. I was watching all the way through but when I heard that: "What the hell is this?!"
Jim:That was an agonizing night, because I was nervous enough about playing with these really big Stick players, and then –
Helene:And there was this assumption that everybody was better than you. That everybody was going to play longer than you.
Jim:That was my assumption.
Ashley:You had Greg Howard who, let's face it, is simply phenomenal.
Jim:Tom had no control over this, but Tom broke two strings that night, and during downtime people would shout out: "Stick solo!" And I'd be "Oh, God …"
Ashley:I was just too into it, and I know your soundman, Mike Ciul, was there at the time. I didn't know who Mike was, I didn't know he was associated with you at that point. Anyway, we all chatted afterwards, and I think we discovered we all liked Steeleye Span, and we took photos. Somehow, I don't know if I brought it up or somebody brought it up: Horslips. [Horslips is an Irish folk / rock band] Someone said "Hey, we gotta get together and do a Horslips tribute."
Tom:I don't remember that coming up that night.
Ashley:Yeah! That came up, and we agreed "we'll have to do that sometime." And that's the last I heard of them for a while. But at the time I was thinking: "Man, I would kill to play drums in that band someday."
Jim:Who did you kill?
Ashley:Oh, I meant that metaphorically.
Helene:And deep down we were thinking: "Wow, a drummer who likes Steeleye Span. This must be who we've been looking for all this time. Too bad he lives so far away. It'll never happen."
Ashley:That's what I thought: "I'm just too far away to do anything useful." So I pretty much thought it was a nice pipe dream and eventually forgot about it.

Amy Ksir talks about meeting the band:

Amy: Anyway, [Haverford alumna] sarah marie and I met at a math conference, because we both do algebraic geometry, and we were talking. And after a couple of days of knowing me, she had sort of figured out what kind of person I was, and she said "Oh, I bet you're a vegetarian, and hang out with all of those Bryn Mawr people, and go see Broadside Electric." And I was thinking, "Who?" So she told me to go see Broadside Electric. I forgot all about it until I heard you on the radio. And then I said: "Damn!"
Jim:You wrote us that e-mail that I just found again on the computer.
Amy:Mmm. Right.
Helene:I thought you were a Bryn Mawr student.
Amy:Because I was hanging out with Nif and Stasa?
Helene:And also because you're just that way.
Amy:Right. And that's the thing that sarah marie sensed.
Ashley:So you sent the e-mail …
Tom:Which e-mail was that?
Amy:Yeah, I think they gave the e-mail address on the radio, so then I e-mailed. I found the website. Maybe I just e-mailed them, I can't remember, so I checked the calendar and then I said: "Oh, they're playing at The Mermaid Inn in January!" I didn't know where the Mermaid was.
Jim:You did or you didn't?
Amy:I'm trying to remember if I had ever been there before in my life … I had! Because that was actually the first time – OK I lied, the first time that I met Helene and Tom was at The Mermaid a year before that.
& Jim:
Amy: Yeah, at Open Circle. You probably don't remember, it was years ago.
Ashley:What was your impression then? Did they stick out?
Amy:They seemed like really cool people that I wanted to know and hang out and play with.
Helene:Too bad it didn't work out.
Tom:I remember a time when you were there with Ann and Robert and Larry and you all did that song about wanting to be a farmer.
Ashley:Hey, I want to know about musical beginnings here. I want to know about your tortured childhoods.
Helene:Well, there was "the rack."
Ashley:"Give the rack another turn!"
Tom:The rack: An instrument of torture.

In 1997, Tom was contemplating a move to the U.S. west coast. Faced with the possible loss of lead vocals, Jim and Helene decided to consider new recruits! Rather than hold auditions, they opted to invite Ashley and Amy, who were known to be excellent musicians and suspected to be of like minds as far as electric folk music goes.

Jim and Helene invite Ashley and Amy to join the band:

Jim:1997 was the summer of many bands. Well Helene and I, we wanted to keep playing. We thought Tom was gone, we thought he was leaving.
Ashley:That's right, you were thinking he might go to Washington at that point.
Helene:Actually we asked you guys to be in the band two days before Tom decided not to move away. We were really preparing –
Jim:It was close, you guys, really close! We went through a whole bunch of scenarios in our minds. Well, if we asked person x then we could do these things this way. If we asked person y … if we asked person z … if we asked x and z then it would be like this, and we ran through a whole bunch of things and then we came up with you guys and it was great.
Helene:It actually has worked out better than we even expected. At the time it was: "Alright. How can we keep playing, period?" We play together but it's not the same because neither of us sing lead. And also, neither of us strum. So once you get rid of that –
Jim:We knew that Tom leaving the trio was going to be really drastic.
Tom:Almost any trio – if you remove one person the result is really different.
Jim:Well you in particular … we would have been totally instrumental and we'd have had no strumming at all.
Ashley:You'd be strumless.
Amy:So either Helene's going to do a lot of chugging …
Helene:Right. And so we sort of thought, we weren't thinking "OK, how can we maintain the exact same level of quality we've always enjoyed?" We were thinking "How are we going to play?" And it turned out to be so good that we didn't really prepare to be that good.
Tom:It's worth noting that we weren't trying to maintain any particular sound. In the lineup changes we have never tried to replace people.
Helene:Actually, on the contrary this time, because we weren't sure that you were moving away, we purposely left a hole for you to come back into.
Jim:We didn't get another guitar-strumming guy, you know.
Helene:Well, in the past we never dealt with that. We always knew …
Ashley:Good thing too!
Jim:We wanted to have a workable ensemble that, if necessary, could fill the rest of the Broadside dates before it died maybe, you know, or something like that.
Ashley:You had obligations to fill.
Ashley:Well kudos for sticking it out, because I think what we've got now is pretty amazing.
Jim:It really is a lot better than I thought it ever would be. I was kind of nervous about it for days and weeks after you guys joined. I was thinking: "Jeez. What are we doing, we've never even played together. I don't think they've even met each other before!"
Amy:Right. We hadn't!
Jim:So the four of us met in Trenton, New Jersey, and we had that little dinner meeting. We didn't play or anything. And then afterward we're driving Amy home and Amy said: "Well, I think we're going to sound good!" And I thought "I'm glad you can tell!"
Ashley:My conclusion after leaving Trenton was: "Well, my car wasn't broken into." Plus I felt pretty good about the lineup.
Jim:So we rehearsed a whole bunch of new stuff without Tom. And then Amy was away for a while. And then we started rehearsing an almost entirely different set of material for the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

As it turned out, Tom stayed in Philadelphia after all, and stayed in the band. This produced the current quintet line-up of the band, which for the first time incorporated a drumkit, as well as full-time woodwind presence. Perhaps needless to say, it has been the biggest Broadside Electric sound to date. The summer of 1997 was spent preparing for the previously scheduled performances. Due to vacation schedules, the first few shows did not include all five members.

Rehearsing for the Philadelphia Folk Festival:

Tom:So, yeah, then we rehearsed for the Folk Festival.
Ashley:Yes. Talk about transcendental.
Tom:That was a week of really hard work.
Jim:It was a cram session.
Ashley:It was extremely hard work, but it was really enjoyable hard work.
Helene:Actually that was really amazing how someone would wish something and you'd just do it. And you'd do it forever. You were like an on switch.
Ashley:What are you talking about?
Jim:We were all thinking: "Ashley, could you put a little more of the 'umph' on this note?" And you would be "Oh yeah, oh yeah."
Tom:"Can you follow this rhythm?"
Helene:Or it would be: "Well, I feel like it should feel … you know what I mean?" You'd say: "Yeah!"
Ashley:You know, I credit Ray Ashley 'cause throughout college he would keep sending me demo tape after demo tape and I'd have to somehow read his mind and figure everything out.
Helene:Actually, that's funny because I was telling him how great you were and he said: "Oh yeah, I taught him everything he knows." [laughter]
Jim:I remember that first rehearsal we had for the Folk Festival. I think the first thing we did was "Babylon" and the first time you were playing on that it just clicked: "yyyeahhh!". And now whenever I listen to More Bad News and neither you or Amy are there it's: "Jeez. What's with this?"

The full quintet made its debut at the Philadelphia Ceili Group Irish Festival in September, 1997. Many gigs later, the band is looking forward to their next year of recording and playing together.

Everyone talks about the new quintet:

Helene:[to Ashley] Actually, I'm really glad you played at the Folk Festival because I think all of us were getting kind of burned out with the trio lineup. We hadn't arranged anything new.
Tom:Yeah, our arrangement process had kind of ground to a halt. It was getting really difficult.
Jim:I think there was some interesting things happening, but it was like wading knee-deep in mud. Trying to get anywhere was really tough.
Tom:I sort of feel we got to this point with the trio lineup where every new song we were working on basically, musically, was something we had done before. There was one kind of new thing which was "Nonesuch" which is now surfacing again. So.
Helene:But we really needed something else injected in there.
Tom:Yeah, the new blood was definitely a good move. Absolutely the right thing to do.
Ashley:And it's nothing like what I expected. I get all kinds of ideas from hearing each of you play stuff. I try to echo that on the kit in spots and try be very musical with it. It's great. I never had four people coming at me at once with so many different things to play off of.
Tom:Yeah, but that's good, I think that's the kind of drumming that we need.
Jim:I'm thinking what a contrast this is from the previous trio lineup.
Ashley:Is it really?
Jim:The way I'm thinking of it right now is that, in the old trio lineup we used to have to be conscious of who was doing what all the time. If someone wasn't doing a certain job then we had to think about "Who is going to do this? This has to be done." I'm talking musically, rhythmically, harmonically –
Ashley:You mean there was space, you wanted to make sure space was filled?
Jim:It wasn't always so obvious. I feel, and maybe this is just my feeling but I feel we all have areas of responsibility musically now and we bring a certain skill or a certain, we each have a job to do.
Ashley:I really think it's more one of those whole's-greater-than-the-sum-of-it's-parts type of thing.
Jim:Yeah, me too.
Ashley:Everything someone's doing is crucial at that moment, it's integral, which I really respect in this group. Ray and I have a lot of fun, we improvise a lot but I've never been in a such a highly structured ensemble like this before.
Amy:I have to say that's the same for me. I've never been in a group that was so well arranged.
Tom:So arrangement oriented?
Amy:Right, that was so careful about who is doing what. The people that I played with before it was "OK we're going to do this song" and then we just sort of start playing the song and then somebody does some harmony and we say "Oh yeah, that's nice. Do that again!"
Helene:I think that was borne from, in the beginning, certain lacks that we had. In the beginning I couldn't improvise at all. I couldn't improvise my way out of a paper bag. And so all of my parts were written for me. And they couldn't deviate. And then later I would write my own parts, still unable to deviate. And then Melissa Demian joined the band and she couldn't read music. She could only play the dulcimer and sing. There were certain limitations that we had that caused other people to have to do certain things in certain ways. I think that we always did our arrangements so carefully first because we had to, and then because it was so good, that was one of the things we started to get known for, was really working things out. But I think that we started working things out because we had to.
Amy:And it ended up working so well.
Tom:I think it's partly because we had to, but I feel that was partly the way that I wanted it to be. I didn't necessarily want it to be that way all the time but there were definitely times when I had ideas that I wanted to have an arrangement go a certain way.
Jim:Right. It's only going to be as structured as we make it. It was never going to be more structured than it needed to be.
Ashley:It's good that you have a group that realizes sometimes it's good to have a structure, and sometimes not. It's not often that you find that balance.
Amy:Well because then you can use that structure to create things.
Helene:Now I feel that we use that structure as much to make things happen faster than to make things happen well. People bring things structured to rehearsal so we can get it done. It takes a long time to do a good arrangement from scratch in front of everyone.
Ashley:I wasn't sure how it was going to click when we started rehearsing in my basement. Tom, you were on the road and we were making "The Basement Tapes." And Amy and I were getting used to everything.
Amy:We do have tapes!
Ashley:"Minka" was the first glimmer of light, that's when I realized: "OK, now we're going in a strange direction."
Tom:I had no idea what "Minka" was going to be like. I thought I did. Then I came back and it was something totally different.
Ashley:And I still have ideas for example, to develop a bit more for the studio. There are still things in that that can be brought out.

Adding drums to previously drumless songs:

Tom:Ashley, when we take some older piece to rearrange such as "Babylon" or "Bruton Town" or "As I Roved Out" how is it that you approach that?
Ashley:I think I'm fortunate in that – well, I don't know about "Bruton Town" but – I think having heard More Bad News as much as I had, I mean I played it incessantly. I don't know if you noticed but –
Amy:The sordid secrets of how obsessed we are.
Ashley:Once I get a hold of any album that I want to learn I just listen to it constantly. I totally inhale it and memorize it. Then I get sick of it and put it away for about a month. When I come back to it again I can start to play along with it. That's how I learned to play music, by listening to all those '70s progressive rock bands [laughter]. I always treat the drums as another voice, as another "musical instrument." Since I also sing, play violin, piano, and I even tried the bass guitar for a short while, I try to treat it that way. This may sound weird but I already heard drums on More Bad News. I never thought: "Why aren't there drums there?" I just heard that in my head and I was happy with it, and I just kept it to myself. So suddenly here I am with this wonderful opportunity –
Amy:– to play all the things that you'd been picturing in your head. That's exactly where I was actually, because I'd been listening to this stuff and thinking: "Well, you know, if I was hanging out with them and playing I would do blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah …"
Ashley:A perfect example: We're driving to Philly Folk Fest and this guy [points to Tom] is harmonizing to everything. That's the kind of thing –
Jim:Oh yeah! Oh, you'd never driven with Tom before!
Ashley:No, but that was terrific! And I started joining in with him and I was trying to find a vocal line that wasn't the same as his but that still fit.
Jim:Use for future reference!
Ashley:I would drive around with my parents all the time, and my grandparents. They'd have the radio on and I'd always be thinking up my own parts to the songs. It's the same thing here. So when you give me "Babylon" I already thought I was going to do the cymbal roll at the start and I also tried to fit the drums to –
Ashley:Yeah. I already thought of that. I don't want to sound pompous about it. I don't mean it that way, but I had already thought up most of the ornamentation. I was just in the right place at the right time at that point.
Jim:I'm amazed! You think of things ahead of time?
Ashley:In that case I did. Another thing I do a lot of is I always try to echo the lyrics and make some kind of emotional impact on the drums. "Spinning round" with the cymbal – like that. I always try and do stuff like that. Even another line in "Roved" – in the latter half –
Amy:Was it the "hair on her head" one?
Ashley:No … it was "stick!" I always - PING! – on – I always try to do that thing on the word "stick" as if I was hitting, as in "well beaten." I try to whack that. So far I haven't gotten it to sound quite the way I want but … one of these days.
Amy:You said a second ago that you think of the drums as if you're playing another instrument. I think it's as if you're playing seventeen other instruments! It amazes me how much you do.
Jim:I think I was only with Mike at the time. But we were in Milkboy listening back to, maybe "Babylon" or "As I Roved Out" or something like that.
Ashley:When we were recording?
Jim:Yeah, when we were recording at Milkboy. And at one point only the drums were up.
Ashley:That's what happens when you're on tape one! [The first multitrack tape to cue up in the studio.]
Jim:And Mike and I were thinking: "Ashley is playing every part just on the drums." And you can really hear just what you're doing.
Ashley:You mean you knew where things fit by virtue of hearing the drum part?
Jim:No, I mean you can actually – well, maybe because I know what's supposed to be there. But I can hear that you've done something with everything. You've looked at a whole bunch of different things about the existing song and … put something on top of them.
Ashley:I try to do that. A band's really effective when they make each other sound good. And that's what I try to do, I try to make everybody else sound good. For instance, Greg Howard, when we played during Stick Night 1997, made me sound great.
Ashley:I was petrified at first. And I told him later, I said: "You made me sound fantastic." That's exactly what he did.
Tom:It was good.
Ashley:Thank you. That was Greg, and I try to do the same thing when we play.
Jim:But you gotta know how to respond and listen, that's really something.
Ashley:Well, sometimes you just literally give up and say –
Jim:You're really underestimating yourself I think because, a lot of people, drummers in particular, I don't mean to slander you and your people but –
Ashley:"Do not say anything negative about my people!"
Jim:…a lot of them just don't listen. I've played with drummers before. A lot of them just – it's as if they're drag racing.
Ashley:[quickly] 1-2-3-4.
Ashley:I bet if I hadn't played violin and I hadn't played those other instruments, I might have been just as much of a drag racer.
Helene:Violin players aren't supposed to listen either.
Tom:The thing that sort of occurs to me about this topic though is that, I feel that a lot of our music, especially on More Bad News I think more than the previous recordings, and especially some of the stuff we did as trio, there is kind of an implicit beat in a lot of the songs. There is a sense of an implicit rock beat in places.
Ashley:I agree. "Lord Bateman."
Tom:I think "Lord Bateman" is actually less that way than some of the others.
Ashley:[pause] Naaah!
Tom:Like "As I Roved Out" and "Babylon" –
Ashley:Oh, they all have beats.
Tom:And I think "Sheath and Knife" does and the reels obviously do. But then it's more of a folky beat.
Ashley:One of these days we're going to do "Lord Bateman!"
Jim:You've been going on about "Lord Bateman" for a while and I'm interested to see what you think, because I can't picture it.

Amy talks about her instruments:

Ashley:Did you just pick up the tin whistle and learn that or, someone taught it to you or … ?
Amy:Yeah, I mean I already knew how to play oboe.
Ashley:At school or just because you picked up an oboe at home?
Amy: I learned oboe at school in fifth grade. And then I taught myself to play flute to be in the marching band, in high school. And then after that, I went to a music party with some people I knew from folk dancing, and they had this big basket full of tin whistles and they had a bagpipe chanter and harmonicas and stuff in this basket and they just sort of passed around this basket. My mom had a tin whistle that my dad and I had gotten her, that she had played maybe once, so I said "Oh, I've seen one of those things before." And I had just taught myself to play the flute. I'm thinking "How different can it be?" Started tooting on it. It's really easy and fun to play actually. The fingerings are the same as the oboe.
Ashley:And you have a whistle for each key. I'm not well-acquainted with the concept of an instrument (other than a harmonica) having a specific key.
Amy:Well that's true but that makes it easier because there's fewer notes that you have to learn to play.
Tom:Lots of wind instruments are like that.
Ashley:I guess this is something I was totally ignorant of until I heard you call it a C whistle. "Whaddaya mean you have to have a C whistle? Why can't they just put it all into one instrument?"

Chat about arrangement ideas:

Tom:If we ever play "Lord Bateman" again, I'm telling ya: twelve-string electric guitar.
Jim:Hey, why not?
Amy:It's the only one we haven't brought back.
Ashley:"Lord Bateman" is a beautiful tune. Adding twelve-string electric ... hey, any instrument that I can't play I have tremendous respect for, not to mention the person playing it. Not that I don't have respect for the violin.
Helene:That's a big deal.
Ashley:It is a big deal! I tried playing it. It wasn't pretty. It's a credit to everybody else that I'm able to think up this stuff because if I don't have anything to play off of, I'm going to sound lousy. And you're always pushing me in new directions. Someone once offered me this advice: Always endeavor to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.
Helene:You're supposed to play tennis with people who are better than you.
Jim:I don't know if you necessarily need to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you but –
Ashley:Well, I meant people who are going to challenge your point of view.
Amy:People who are going to lead you to do things that you wouldn't do otherwise.
Helene:I always enjoyed being in orchestras that were too hard for me. You end up with an inferiority complex except that you get better. [laughter]
Tom:Something I've gotten out of working with Jim over the years is that he has a real sense of adventure about arrangements and a willingness to go one step or two beyond what I'm usually willing to do. I stretch out and take chances musically.
Jim:Tom and I were talking on the phone the other day and I was telling him about that idea for horns on "Bruton Town" and he said something like "I have my doubts." And then, I didn't say this, but I really wanted to say: "Well, Tom, I'd be worried about you if you didn't have your doubts!"
Helene:But that's actually been kind of a ritual, where Jim comes up with something and everybody laughs at him and says: "Oh, I don't know." And then we end up doing it anyway.
Amy:And then we do it and it's really cool!
Helene:That's been going on for eight years.
Jim:Well, sometimes we do it and it really sucks and then we just forget all about it.
Amy:Well it's good to have those.
Tom:I think his success rate is greater than fifty percent.
Helene:And we never say: "Oh, well because seventy-five percent of the time your ideas are really cool we're just going to buy it at face value this time."

About traditional music, and being traditional folk musicians:

Amy:Why do we do traditional music? What is that?
Ashley:Yeah, what's your problem? Why couldn't you just be a Genesis cover band?
Tom:I don't write, and Jim doesn't write, and –
Helene:Well, Jim writes. But not songs.
Ashley:[to Amy] That's a good question.
Jim:There's probably a lot of reasons but one reason is that it's a hook, pretty much. It's something that's already there.
Helene:And if you do covers than you're a cover band.
Tom:I guess my interest in traditional material has way exceeded my interest in trying to write my own songs. For me that's really the fundamental point.
Amy:But what is it that you like about the stuff?
Tom:Things like the Child ballads bring me back, because I was played those records at a very early age. I think it's partly childhood conditioning.
Helene:I like that there's such a blank slate. Some songs that are original, and modern songs, they go with their arrangements or they go with some sort of style or some person and some sort of person's voice. Well this is a blank slate. You can do it any way you want. All it is is a bunch of words and a melody.
Ashley:Right. I don't consider these cover tunes.
Everyone:No, not at all.
Ashley:We're still covering, in a sense, but in a different way and so it's not a cover band to me at all.
Helene:It was at the beginning. It was with Span and Fairport; we used to cover their songs.
Tom:We actually covered their arrangements.
Helene:And then after a while we would start deconstructing those arrangements and reconstructing our own. And then after a while we didn't even want to hear it. We just wanted to start with a "nothing."
Tom:Which is why we started getting stuff out of books. With a book like Bronson ["The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads"] there's a lot of stuff in there, different elements, different versions of the songs and you just sort of mix and match and try to produce something that really has an original stamp to it.
Jim:Yeah. That's one thing I really enjoy about what is traditional. It's like having a common pool, in terms of our relationship with other traditional bands. It's nice that we can produce our own "Tam Lin," say. It's really our own.
Tom:That one is our own.
Jim:A lot of famous acts do their "Tam Lin," but we have our "Tam Lin" and it's something we can say that we contributed. I imagine it's as if we're Renaissance painters and we're doing our depiction of the Crucifixion or something like that. The subjects are already there. It's up to us to offer our own interpretation and throw in our own bit of ourselves into it.
Tom:Is our next song "Crucifixion?"
Ashley:It's a Renoir.
Amy:We should do a "Madonna and Child" [laughter]
Jim:Yeah! Or an "Annunciation" or something like that.
Tom:The other nice thing about that blank slate is it's kind of an invitation to try and bring in all different influences.
Ashley:It's almost a dare. "I double dare ya to do something with this melody and this lyric."
Helene:We can do whatever we want. And another thing is we can copy people too. We can be totally unoriginal. We can play something in the style of some modern cover, while if we were actually playing that song we'd be a total ripoff.
Tom:That's true.
Ashley:Right. We'd play in the style of –
Amy:"Matty Groves" in the style of "Freebird!"
Helene:Right! While if we were just playing "Freebird" we'd be a worthless band.
Amy:Good thing we're not playing "Freebird."
Tom:When we used to play that Klezmer version of "Rawhide," it was like that. That's kind of an extreme example.
Ashley:What makes it worth it to me, in the end, is being able to introduce people to stuff – I think somebody else had said this before, and I really identified with it, 'cause it's what happened to me – material they otherwise would not have had a chance to hear in a different context. It bridges the gap a bit.
Tom:That's true, although I think a lot of people we play to know to some extent the material that we do. And they'll be familiar with the songs from other contexts.
Amy:But I think they really appreciate that we're doing –
Ashley:– the way that we're doing it.
Helene:You know, I don't really know anybody who heard us and loved it and had to go out and buy Fairport and Span albums. I know people who listen us because they know us or they like us or they're our relatives or people who already listen to that kind of music.
Ashley:Right. But I don't think that our allure is that we embrace the whole genre, per se. Just that some people who hear our sound think it's a new genre unto itself.
Tom:Not only that, but we cover a lot of bases in terms of the traditions that we draw from. In addition to the Child Ballads there's the Celtic tunes, there's the Klezmer and the French music and this and that.
Jim:The traditional aspect of this is sort of a draw for people too. That is, people who are already into traditional music will be interested in us because they may hear that we do certain things, and they'll be interested right away, we'll have a common ground to talk about our music with people. Whereas the normal singer/songwriter writes his own songs and no-one says "Oh wow, you stand around and sing your own songs?" There's not necessarily that same kind of interest, it's sort of different. And it's cool that we can meet bands like "Einstein's Little Homunculus" –
Helene:And know a lot of the same tunes.
Amy:And immediately be able to jam with them.
Tom:Yeah, and coming at them from totally different directions.
Jim:Yeah, but it's great to have that to talk about, you know.
Ashley:"James, James, Morrison, Morrison." [quoting Einstein's take on A.A. Milne's "Disobedience"]
Helene:That's total genius.
Ashley:That's hysterical!
Jim:It's great to have that common source material to talk about and see the different ways we do things.
Ashley:And, see, I thought that was cool and I never heard the piece before, and I was hooked.
Helene:I'd heard the tune and I'd heard the poem. The idea of putting them together I thought was pure genius.
Tom:Yeah, putting them together, that's brilliant.
Ashley:And I got hooked on that the same way I imagine someone getting hooked on the type of stuff we're doing. The tables had turned, I was now in the audience thinking: "Wow!" I went nuts when I heard that.
Amy:We're probably the wave of the future just like those singer/songwriters – [laughter]
Jim:Of yesterday.
Tom:Traditional music from the Twenty-First Century.
Helene:The singer/songwriters that are from thirty years ago, that we still love now, are ones where someone else can actually repeat the song. And with so many of the singer/songwriters now it's as if you hear the song and you know "This song will not move. This is fixed."
Tom:And I think that some of the singer/songwriters who get beyond that are the ones who have that capability to provide songs that are more transferable.
Amy:Like Dar Williams.
Jim:And then they sell out and do a big rock album.
Amy:Although her stuff is very –
Ashley:Like who?
Jim:Name names!
Ashley:Name one!
Amy:It feels to me as if a lot of different people can be singing her songs. Even though it's a song about something that happened to her it still feels to me like something –
Helene:One thing is it has a melody. A lot of them are kind of "OK this one can't get out of this one guy's body because that's just the way it is."
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Forming the Band | Helene Joins | From 1991-1997 | Ashley Meets B.E. | Amy Meets B.E. | Ashley and Amy Join | The Philadelphia Folk Festival | It's New All Over Again | Adding Drums | Fun with Woodwinds | Arranging | Traditional Music | Complete Interview
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