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The Lowest Pair: We like to think of it as cooperative banjos

The Lowest Pair: We like to think of it as cooperative banjos
Photo by Sarah Cass

The Lowest Pair are adept storytellers. Sometimes it's with their lyrics, and others it's with their banjos. With musical ties to the Twin Cities, the Olympia, Washington duo are in town to release their newest album 36¢. Produced by Trampled by Turtles' Dave Simonett, the album carries the weight of the world, yet unfolds into a springboard where they can jump from.

Before their album release on Friday night, Gimme Noise spoke with Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee about Dave and what is so compelling about the banjo.

Gimme Noise: What was it about the banjo that drew you to it?

Kendl Winter: I think what drew me to the banjo originally was the strangeness and versatility of the instrument. I was babysitting a little girl in trade for a cabin to live in when I first moved out to Olympia, Washington from Arkansas, and we put on Bela Fleck and The Flecktones and were dancing around, and I was like, "This is banjo music?"

Then I met a couple other gals at a picking circle at the Blue Heron Bakery where I was working and we wanted to start a string band. One of the gals already played guitar, so I volunteered to try my hands at the banjo.

Palmer T. Lee: The music surrounding the banjo is what first drew me to the instrument. A friend of mine got me a copy of David Grissman and Jerry Garcia's record Shady Grove, a collection of folk songs, Appalachian old time songs, and seas shanties.

Around that same time I also found a collection released by Rounder Records, four CDs of a variety of traditional American roots music. It was a stark contrast to the classic rock I'd been listening to in high school so I instantly fascinated. The rawness of the music absolutely captivated me. The warm tingly feeling the music gave me was addicting. I found my self listening to the discs over and over, being drawn to any of the tracks with banjo or flat picked guitar or scratchy rhythmic fiddle.

Also, around that time my family found out that I was writing songs and they donated me two different banjos. I liked the way one of them sounded and I liked the way the other felt to play so I began tinkering with them. Quickly I realized how modular of an instrument the banjo is. You can tinker all day achieving a wide variety of sounds just by twisting nuts and swapping parts. From then on, I was sold on the banjo.

Gimme Noise: What are some banjo greats we should know about, or who do you look up to?

Kendl Winter: Well John Hartford for one, is probably one of my favorite banjo players and songwriters. I really resonate with his way of creating sincere, and humorous songs, with lots of textures, and his fearlessness with playing, literally playing, with words and sounds. I would say he's kind of the E.E. Cummings of song-making. I love the hard rhythm-driven rolls of strong bluegrass players, and the melodic virtuosic departures that Bela Fleck or Yens Krueger create. Those guys are crazy inspiring and demonstrate the limitlessness of the instrument. 

Palmer T. Lee: As I mentioned, Jerry Garcia and David Grissman were a large part of the reason I started playing. They had a stringband in the '70s called Old And In the Way, in which Jerry played banjo with a unique drive and aggression that has really inspired my playing in a big way. He was playing 3-finger style without a middle finger which played a huge role in shaping his unique sound. Noam Pikelny, of the Punch Brothers, has been a favorite player of mine for a few years. Noam is an incredibly virtuosic player, clean, very melodic and creative. I've never seen anyone do what he does as well as he does it. Also, I have to mention John Hartford, from whom we have derived our bands namesake. John was such solid player an incredible performer and prolific songwriter. Kendl and I spend a lot of time on the road listening to sections of his discography at a time. It's wonderfully diverse and inspiringly creative, tragic, and hilarious.

Gimme Noise: You two blend in so many way onstage -- vocally and instrumentally. Why do you think you are so in tune -- no pun intended -- with each other? 

Kendl Winter: Palmer and I met at the Boats and Bluegrass Festival in Winona in '09. Both of our string bands were performing and I remember watching his band, the Boys 'n the Barrels and hearing him sing and thinking that I recognized something about his performance and musicality that was similar to the aesthetic that I was going for and drawn to.

We didn't really speak of it, and it wasn't until last January, when he got ahold of me and was interested in working on a record together. I'd ever really considered playing a double banjo duo. He wanted to come out to the Northwest for July, but I suggested he jump in the van with our friends, Pert Near Sandstone when they came out for the Wintergrass Festival and visit sooner, so two weeks later we found ourselves at that festival in Bellevue, Washington and as soon as we sang together we were like...weird...this is to easy, if it feels this good already, think of all the trouble we could get up to...

Palmer T. Lee: I think Kendl and I just have a very similar musical aesthetic, we enjoy a lot of the same things. We were also in very similar places in our lives when we first started the project, both very difficult and exciting and we got to ride out of it together -- supporting each other and playing together.

I have a tremendous respect for Kendl's art, and I think respecting the people you are being creative with is huge. It allows you to understand how important it is and how good it feels to just be quiet, or to focus your energy on supporting someone, and have someone focus their energy on supporting you. Someone might come up to us after shows and say something like, "I love the dueling banjos!" because that's a popular song or whatever, but we like to think of it more like cooperative banjos.

Gimme Noise: What was the story you wanted to tell with 36¢? 

Kendl Winter: Well, soon as we had a show or two lined up, we realized we needed some merch, so we went to the Goodwill bulk bins and bought anything blank that we figured we could silkscreen on. I drew up a couple of pear sketches and one looked a bit like a stamp. Palmer pointed that out so I added 36¢ to the image. The number 36 has always been kind of a lucky one for me; it means double life in Hebrew and seems to show up all over the place. We printed the image on a cloth napkin and liked the way it came out, so we figured it was as good as any for an album cover and a good enough name for our first record. We didn't realize how hard the cents symbol was to find on the keyboard.

Palmer T. Lee: 36¢ as an album title just sort of happened, really. Kendl was sketching out some ideas for band logos to use on some t-shirts we were going to print. I thought one of the logos looked like a postage stamp so I suggested she add the price in the corner. She did, and it looked kinda cute. We used the logo to print on some shirts and a whole bunch of other random things we could find to screen print on, one of which was a dirty, stained, red napkin. We thought that the napkin would make a cool album cover so we decided we'd might as well just call the record 36¢. 

Gimme Noise: Any favorite tracks?

Kendl Winter: I don't really have a favorite track. I'm really pleased with the whole album as a piece and a sweet snapshot early in the collaboration. We actually ended up pulling the two songs we thought would be our singles because we wanted to let them grow (along with our guitar skills). The whole thing was recorded pretty live with only a few overdubs and the songs were very deliberately chosen to complement each other.

Palmer T. Lee: I really enjoy the arrangement of "Oh Sussana" which Kendl came up with; definitely one of my favorites. I was also really excited when I found out that Kendl wasn't going to be putting "Dock My Boat" on her solo record last year, because that meant we could record it for our Lowest Pair record; it's a really sweet song. All the double banjo songs on the record are fun to play as well; "Magpies at Sunset," "Living is Dying," etc.

Gimme Noise: Tell me about Dave Simonett. How did you meet him and come to working with him on this album? What do you feel he brought to the process, and how did he shape the songs?

Kendl Winter: I met Dave in 2010 at the same festival I met Palmer at, The Boats and Bluegrass festival. Palmer and Dave were already friends and talking about doing a record together, so it just kinda came to be that we recorded The Lowest Pair during our time last August in Minneapolis. He had a wonderful, relaxed, attitude about the whole thing. He just put up some microphones and was like, "Yeah, that sounded good," or "How about one more time?" I have a huge respect for Dave and he was really encouraging, so that made it a lot easier to feel good about our performance.

Palmer T. Lee: I believe I first met Dave at a festival in Kentucky. Trampled By Turtles was playing the festival as well as my string band, The Boys 'n the Barrels. Trampled's sound engineer wasn't able to make the festival, and the festival engineers were doing an awful job; the vocal mixes were backwards and you couldn't hear half of the instruments. It was a mess.

My bass player and I both have a little engineering experience and had seen dozens of Trampled shows over the years. Long story short, we asserted ourselves and saved the day, then got a chance to hang out with the guys for a while after the show. We went on to play a couple of shows with Trampled over the next year or two and got to know all the guys a little better. They are all really wonderful, sweet guys, by the way. I had been talking to Dave about producing a solo record with me, a project which I had pushed back a time or two. So when Kendl and I started The Lowest Pair and were trying to think of how we wanted to do the record, Dave was the first person who came to mind.

Dave approached the project with a gentle hand. He was really supportive and enthusiastic about the sounds we were already achieving with the arrangements we'd been using in our shows. But there were a couple of songs that everyone felt still needed a little "something." He had some really neat ideas about how to fill out a song or achieve a vibe we were aiming for- but just not quite hitting. He was able to add layers without taking away the focus from the duet, which was crucial. On "Last Summer," he added some guitar swells that really fill out the song and carry the mood perfectly but you might not even notice its there until halfway through the song. He also brought in his band-mate Ryan Young to play fiddle on a couple of tracks including "Rumi's Field." What they managed with that song really shaped how I even here the song anymore.

Perhaps most importantly overall, Dave brought a fresh outside perspective with a sense of good taste, an esthetic I've always appreciated about his music, an appreciation for what we are trying to accomplish, and a willingness to help us figure out how to achieve that.

Gimme Noise: How does the Olympia music scene differ from the Twin Cities music scene?

Kendl Winter: That's kind of hard question. There's a quote from Robert Persig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" that says, "We each take a handful of sand from our landscape of awareness and call that handful of sand the world." I kinda think that would be true for me to lay any claim on understanding the scene of either town.

For one, Olympia is a tiny little town compared to the Twin Cities. It is crazy colorful and flourishing with artistic energies. For me, I moved there right after high school from Arkansas and it was like everything I've ever dreamed could be normal in a culture. I moved there being very intrigued with the "Riot Grrl" scene and K records and the idea that music was available to anyone that wanted to give it a go.

I started playing the banjo in Olympia in a string band and electric guitar in a "wussy-punk" band. The scene was really supportive and encouraging and that's probably why I kept with it. Years ago when I started touring out to the Midwest, I've always found the music coming out of Minnesota to be hugely inspiring and the people to be incredibly friendly and warm. It's kept me routing through more and more regularly and now it feels very natural to keep Minneapolis a second home. There's so much love for roots music here and a wonderful thriving community of young players and really dedicated music lovers.

Palmer T. Lee: Simply put, Olympia is much smaller than the Twin Cities. There is a very eclectic mix of things happening there musically and otherwise artistically. It's pretty impressive and inspiring and I've definitely caught some great shows in my brief time spent there. It's a very interesting and creative place in general, but just much smaller than the Cities; less people, thus less going on.

As a caveat, I should mention that I did begin to discover that there is much more than meets the eye. A lot happening as far as house concerts and underground stuff that I just didn't realize right away. On the other hand, in Minneapolis you can go out almost any night of the week with almost any sort of vibe or genre in mind and find that show somewhere. That was something I really struggled with while we spent the winter out in Olympia, just being spoiled. Though I was busy being spoiled by the temperate weather. The punk scene seems to be alive and well in Olympia though, so if that's what you're looking for, you'll have no problem at all finding it. But personally, the highlight shows for me were shows we had to travel to Seattle or Portland to catch -- and it's worth noting that it's only an hour or two drive to either city from Olympia.

Gimme Noise: For those that have have been to a The Lowest Pair show before, what can they expect to see at the Cedar when you are in town?

Kendl Winter: Well we're hoping to try out some of our new material at the Cedar. We started touring before we even knew each others songs and now that we had a little down time in the Northwest over January and February we've had a chance to do some writing together and we're excited to work the new material into our set.

Also, you probably already know, but the Dead Pigeons are a really great folk roots band based out of Minneapolis. Drew Peterson, their songwriter, writes the most beautiful sweet and catchy tunes. We've spent some good hours driving down the road listening to them. We're really excited to be sharing the evening with them.

Palmer T. Lee: The Dead Pigeons are on the bill with us. What a wonderful band, I'm really looking forward to seeing them again. Drew Peterson's songs just destroy me in a beautiful way. As far as the Pair goes, we've spent the winter really workshopping the project -- tightening the nuts and bolts. But really, the most exciting thing for us is that we had time to get back to writing, and we wrote a lot -- and it felt really good. We're planning to highlight some of our favorite tracks off the new record, 36¢, but we're really excited about showing some of the new pieces we've been working on as well.

The Lowest Pair will release 36¢ at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday, April 4, 2014 with the Dead Pigeons (CD release).
AA, $10 adv, $12 door, 7 pm
All patrons will receive a copy of the Dead Pigeons album.

Purchase tickets here.

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