Robert Skoro reunites with Mason Jennings this weekend
Believe it or not, there was a time when "Mason Jennings" wasn't a household name in these parts. Somewhat fresh to the Twin Cities in the late '90s, Mason and his band, which at the time included Minneapolis fixture Robert Skoro (then still a teenager) on bass, began the trek and career that has been an organic process and gradual ascent to international acclaim.
Even then with a catalog of energetic prose, bar room sing-alongs, and meditative harmonies, Skoro and Jennings forged a friendship and phenomenon with now-legendary weekly gigs at the West Bank's 400 Bar, built a loyal following, and catapulted a career that Mason's sustained on his own terms through today.
At some point after 2002's Century Spring, Robert and Mason took different paths. Deciding to retreat from the big stage and constant touring, Robert wrote and recorded a couple of solo releases, started producing others' music, and ultimately took up academics, studying Chinese language, music, and culture.
However, perhaps not to be outdone by this summer's attempted Simon and Garfunkel reunion, Robert and Mason have reconnected musically. With only a a few dates booked this season, including this weekend's Lowertown Music Fest in Saint Paul, it became time for the two to play again on stage.
We asked Robert how the reunion came about, what else he has been active with and his interest in Chinese culture.
You're back on stage with Mason Jennings after quite some time since playing together. How did this come about that you would be playing together again?
We stay in touch and get lunch from time to time. Last time we did so, it just happened that I had been spending more time playing bass than writing, and was looking for ways to play live shows in a way that wasn't as much pressure on me individually. Chris Morrissey is in New York now for the Ben Kweller gig and to hype his jazz ensemble, so Mason saw an opportunity for us to play together on some one-off dates. We've done one so far in April at St. John's, and it was a blast.
How has it been going, re-learning the old songs or learning some of the new ones you never played before?
The old ones are all muscle memory- I don't even think about the changes. My hands pretty much just move up and down the fingerboard as needed. The new songs are sounding great with the band (Peter Leggett and Jake Hanson are playing, too), and I think his newest record is his best in a while.
Since you left Mason's band you have made some solo LPs, and played and collaborated with a gang of folks. What are some of the highlights for you personally?
Leading workshops with performance artists in Sweden; doing circus gigs in the south of France; recording with my favorite musicians when we made my last album in Chicago with Brian Deck; and making records with other bands in my house.
You have studied Chinese culture and language. Is that music based or what was the inspiration for that pursuit?
That was probably a travel-based interest that prompted that. The music is interesting, but especially so in the function it serves within the myriad ethnic groups that live in that region. It's like folk song there is what folk song is idealized to be in the West - a capsule of sort, one that's expressive and yet a condition of the culture from which it originates. The ethnomusicological aspect of the region is still pretty new to me, though. However, I can see digging into that topic for a while to come.
What new music do you like or wish you could appropriate on the erhu (Chinese fiddle)?
Appropriating Western music on the erhu is kind of a funny thing; playing it note-for-note just makes you sound like a nerdy music school student trying to break out of their classical training, because the cadence of the instrument can be so similar to the violin. But there's an entirely different pedagogy to that instrument, with a much more refined regard for semitones and pitch bending that doesn't really appear in Western pieces. It's very, um, Chinese. Debussy tried to emulate it in a suite he composed after his first trip to China and it just sounds like the soundtrack to Orientalism to me... That said, I do think "Dramamine" by Modest Mouse could go over well on the erhu.
Here's an interview we did with Robert when we met in Beijing last December. Robert describes what he had been studying in China and shows off some of his newly acquired skills on the erhu.
MASON JENNINGS (WITH BASSIST ROBERT SKORO) will play with Cloud Cult, Tapes 'n Tapes, Frank Turner, and Peter Wolf Crier at the LOWERTOWN MUSIC FESTIVAL in Lowertown St. Paul. $25. 2 p.m.
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