Interview with Greg Liszt

Dr. Greg Liszt:
4-Finger Banjoist from Crooked Still & Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions Band
Banjo Newsletter, June 2007

Greg Liszt plays banjo with the genre-bending band Crooked Still, which features the beautiful vocals of Aiofe O’Donovan, the indomitable cellist Rushad Eggelston, and bassist Corey DiMario. A Crooked Still show is a extraordinary experience, utilizing this unique instrumentation to showcase a compelling view of the American folk tradition. This is in part due to their highly creative arrangements, funky rhythms, and brilliant musicianship. Crooked Still’s latest release “Shaken by a Low Sound” displays a range of material from gorgeous old folk ballads, to tunes that are pure funky mayhem with Greg’s unique vamping techniques combined with Rushad and guest fiddler Casey Driessen’s impressive chopping. Additionally Greg uses 4 fingers on his right hand in a series of self-developed right-hand rolls to give his banjo playing a clear and distinctive sound. Also Greg’s tone has a sense of unabashed twang, yet fused with a hip-hop edge. Challenging to describe, but very compelling. Last summer and fall Greg also toured with the Bruce Springsteen Seeger Sessions band, an 18-piece group celebrating and modernizing Pete Seeger’s collection of original music. I was able to sit down with Greg after Crooked Still’s set at the 2006 RockyGrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado. As we sit down, Greg says to me, “I’ll give you honest answers to anything you want to possibly know.”

BNL: How did you hook up with Bruce Springsteen?

GL: I met Bruce’s drummer Larry Eagle because we both had played some gigs with The Wayfaring Strangers, this jazz/bluegrass fusion group that operates out of Boston and New York headed by violinist Matt Glaser. Several months went by and I got a call giving a heads up that Larry had given my name to play for the Bruce Springsteen Seeger Sessions tour, and I might be getting a call to go for an audition. I went up to New Jersey and auditioned, and here I am.

BNL: What is it like touring with “The Boss?”

GL: The show is definitely not Bruce Springsteen does bluegrass; it is Bruce Springsteen expressing his musical identity through all kinds of American folk music. It is a 17-piece band that has capabilities of doing everything from real quiet acoustic string band stuff to extremely loud, insanely rocking New Orleans jams, to swing to zydeco. It can go anywhere that American folk music has gone, but can go there on the scale of an arena-level band. That stuff is great, but to me and to many of the fans, is the fact that Bruce is out there singing these folk songs in today’s particular social and political climate. It is really moving to see someone so iconic singing these songs, bringing them to light, and re-contextualizing them for today with a political statement. Our first real performance of the Seeger Sessions band was at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April 2006. That was the first festival since Hurricane Katrina, and it was a real emotional tidal wave. Being there with Bruce, and in the presence of all these people that had experienced the flood, and then endured the governments reaction to it. And to hear Bruce sing all these songs that are about triumphing against the odds and triumph of the spirit. It is such an honor to be a part of this project, not just because Bruce is so famous. That is obviously a neat thing, but it is much more of an honor to be involved with somebody famous that is using his recognition to make this particular statement at this point in time, and to do it in such a creative way. I have never heard anything like this, to have a folk band that is so expansive and has that many capabilities.

BNL: Has anything changed in your playing from performing with Springsteen?

GL: I try to keep it simpler these days. Things don’t always have to be so complicated as I once thought they needed to be. I think direct and good is preferable to complicated and not quite as good. But that is a gradual change and it will take a while before I play in a style that is true to that statement. One thing that has been fun about the Seeger Sessions band and playing with someone from a rock background is that the playing is very riff based, like a short melody of a few bars. Not much bluegrass is played that way, as it is more based on the melody or variations of the melody. I am trying to bring riff-based approach into my playing throughout certain songs, like an electric guitarist would.

BNL: What is your main banjo?

GL: My main banjo is a Stelling Staghorn. I don’t plug in unless I have to, but in the Bruce Springsteen band we are playing places like Madison Square Garden where the volume levels necessary are too tremendous and the volume on stage is too loud, so I use a Fishman Rare Earth pickup and I think it sounds pretty good.

BNL: I noticed you were plugged in during today’s Crooked Still set.

GL: On stage I will often use it just for monitor sound. I have a small Acoustic Image amp that I bring with me and I plug into that so I can always hear the banjo well. I had nightmare experiences for years trying to ask sound guys for more banjo, or less banjo, or to EQ the banjo differently. But now I carry my own amp it obviates all that. I place it a little behind me and facing the band, so the band can hear it. I get all the other instruments in the monitors, the band gets banjo in their monitors, but there is no banjo in my monitor. In case of a disastrous monitor situation, the band can always hear me, and I can always hear me.

BNL: Tell me about the new Crooked Still record “Shaken by a Low Sound.”

GL: On this record we used our unusual instrumentation and our singer’s beautiful voice to visit some places in the folk and acoustic landscape that we weren’t able to visit on our previous record “Hop High.” We tried to record every song with a distinct personality, keeping in mind if the song is going to be a beautiful trip through the wilderness, or a rollicking train ride played with reckless abandon. There are all kinds of different playing on it, and all the songs sound pretty distinct. There are some things that are really tight, some pretty loose, and then a really greasy disgusting Robert Johnson song that fiddler Casey Driessen played on. We played it especially grimy so no one would accuse us of being a new-grass band. The song “Railroad Bill” playfully goes back and forth between quiet bouncy plucky sounds and wildly reckless banjo-cello insanity.

BNL: How was working with Lee Townsend as a producer (Lee has produced artists Bill Frisell, Rufus Wainright, John Scofield and others)? Did you seek him out?

GL: It was fun working with the guy. He doesn’t come from a bluegrass background and is much more eclectic. We are more in the acoustic tradition, though we subliminally apply all sorts of other influences. Lee brought a lot of experience with a lot of different kinds of projects, a lot of technical know-how, great suggestions, and a calm demeanor to the table. We went out to California and record the album. We spent a solid week recording it with most of the work done in the studio, bashed around, had a lot of fun, and threw out crazy ideas.

BNL: It comes across like Crooked Still puts a lot of time and focus into arrangements and feels for tunes. Can you talk about the arrangement process?

GL: It is pretty organic. Whenever we find a new tune, the first thing we do is that someone in the band has an idea of some sort, like a lick or a feel, or a fragment of an idea that will nucleate the whole process, then we add things in organically. Then we jam through it a few times, and try it different feels, or different keys or different speeds. Maybe Rushad will play a cello riff or maybe I’ll play a banjo riff, and then one of us might change it around a bit, then we will hammer out a consensus riff, and base the song around that. We all have pretty strong opinions about that stuff so it is amazing that we ever finalize an arrangement. But I think that’s good, and we can usually agree in the end. If it feels like we are on the right track, we talk about it, maybe play it again, drop out a couple instruments at a certain point, maybe talk about our roles. There is quite a bit of coordination involved in playing with a band with non-standard instruments that doesn’t have drums or guitar, or even mandolin. If Rushad or I don’t play rhythm, then nobody in the whole band is, and what happens to the rhythm? That is the kind of thing we often coordinate; one of us playing rhythm and the other might be doing something else. Guitar has appeared on a couple tunes on our records but usually as a color than as a driving, fundamental rhythmic column of support. We have been playing together long enough that we can pull it off. People’s imaginations are more active than they sometimes are given credit. You don’t have to have drums or even a mandolin making a whacking sound on every downbeat or backbeat if there is enough energy and rhythmic drive coming from the instruments playing. You don’t necessarily have to provide that backbeat. The imagination will sometimes supply that backbeat. You shouldn’t leave too much, but you can leave a fair bit. The biggest difference between being in Crooked Still and the Springsteen band is the difference of scale. In the Springsteen band, not a lot left to the imagination. There are drums whacking every downbeat, every offbeat, there is a horn section, a bass player, a tuba player, acoustic guitar, banjo, accordion. There is not a whole lot left, unless you have a really active imagination. What you get is a really enormous experience of sound, and it really busts out of the speakers and hits you over the head. If you are there and you are watching, it is absolutely undeniable. But there is a totally different way to play music, which some acoustic bands have, and some use it more than others. Our band uses it a lot. It is the approach of drawing people in to a much smaller world, like bringing them over to a microscope and showing them something, draw in their attention versus explode all over them. This is more of Crooked Still’s approach just because we don’t have a massive mega-loud banging drum.

BNL: How has your playing changed from working with Rushad?

GL: My whole approach has changed. My whole chopping style pretty much came from playing with him and Casey Driessen. And that whole riff based approach I got from Rushad as much as Bruce. He is just a really great musician that has lots of great ideas and lots of cool insights about all kinds of different elements of music. I have learned countless things from that guy. Not to mention directly stealing a lick now and then (I am not too proud to do that). The neatest thing about Crooked Still and what makes it the most fun for me is that most of the songs have a completely different rhythm. This is really different than all the other bands I have been in, especially regarding string bands. Bluegrass usually has just a couple of rhythms, the boom-chick rhythm, and a half-time feel that I associate with Sam Bush, the same as a regular chop, but occurs half as often. It is cool having Rushad because he knows a lot about guitar styles and he has played in bands with drummers. He is very good at generating rhythmical ideas that are totally different. Whenever we try to play a rhythm, one that would sound very recognizable on drums and bass, when we play it on banjo and cello and upright bass it always seems to sound different. So we have a lot of different options for new sounds we can generate because of the nature of the instruments. I’m always looking for a good new rhythm. I heard this interview a while back with Paul Simon saying the first thing he does when writing a song is he gets the rhythm in mind. I think that is actually a great way to write.

BNL: What is next for Crooked Still?

GL: We have been really active. We are playing all these bluegrass festivals this summer. We are even going on a lengthy tour of Denmark, a tour of Ireland, and we are giving a big CD release concert in Boston. When I was out with Springsteen this spring, Crooked Still did a handful of shows with a different banjo player (Ed.: Noam Pikelny) and he is going to fill in again this fall. Crooked Still is going very well right now and the other folks in the band have been very understanding about the Seeger Sessions band.

BNL: Can you talk about your 4-finger technique?

GL: I started out playing banjo as a 3-finger player. I listened to all sorts of banjo players, but really liked Béla Fleck. After playing for about 6 years I decided to start experimenting with a fourth finger pick. So I have a metal finger pick on my ring finger, and I still anchor my pinky. I started mostly because I wanted to pluck 4-note chords. I took a lesson from a piano player once, and he showed me all these really neat chord voicings, and I was getting frustrated that I could only pluck 3 notes at a time. One night in my dorm room, I stuck an extra finger pick on my fourth finger to see if it would work. It didn’t work very well because I had been playing with that finger anchored on the bridge for so many years. It was really a miserable failure at first. But I stuck with it and after a couple of weeks it started to get a little bit easier, and at some point it occurred to me that I could come up with a few basic rolls. I kept at it, and after a couple of months there was a few things I could play. Then I was in uncharted territory. For a couple of years I tried to do everything with four fingers all the time. I backed away from that, because it is unnecessarily complicated. Some things only need 3 fingers, or two fingers, or even one, and I would awkwardly play it with four. While I don’t advocate that approach, I am actually glad I did that because it helped me understand what I can play. There are so many possibilities with 4 fingers. I use it for a lot of rhythmical back-up patterns. Things that make for really awkward double-stops and stuff, that become really natural using 4 fingers. Also there is the four note forward roll, which is thumb-index-middle-ring across 4 strings. It is kind of awkward with three fingers, as if you want to repeat it you have to double up. It is not impossible, but it is not the most natural thing. It is more fluid with four fingers. The same goes for a four-note backwards roll: ring-middle-index-thumb. Then there is the 4-note forward backwards roll, which is thumb-index-middle-ring-thumb-ring-middle-index-thumb. The main things I use it for are the double stops and those rolls. But you can use some tremolo patterns and other stuff as well.

BNL: Did you pick particular tunes to incorporate it and work on it?

GL: Yeah, I did that for a bunch of tunes, and I found some of them laid out great in the four-finger style, but others I might just throw in a few things here and there. If it was too awkward to use the four fingers in something that is great with three, then I am disinclined to do it. If you are playing a simple singe string pattern, you wouldn’t just mix it up and make it more complicated with three fingers. But there are some cool three-finger and four-finger single-string patterns. I mostly do three-finger single-string, unless it is slower tempos, where I just use my thumb or thumb and index. I use forward and backwards roll as my single sting pattern. It is easy to get bogged down in the technical side of the banjo. The banjo is such a technical instrument, and there are so many technical details, the tuning is often irrational if you are playing in closed positions, and the fingers can be really crazy. When it comes down to it, you have to ask yourself “Is it banging or is it not?” Is it sounding good?" If not you are probably not doing it right.

BNL: Do you practice scales?

GL: I have in the past, but not so much anymore. I found the more I practice scales the more I tended to just play scales in musical situations, which is rarely that interesting or good. At this point I spent enough time figuring out the fingerboard that I know it well enough. I am more inclined now to practice a lick or a melody or something then learn how to play that. You have to practice scales so you have your act together, so you aren’t playing totally blindly, but once you get a good enough handle on those, you are better off practicing things that are more useful. And there are ways to make technical practicing musical. One way is by playing tunes. A lot of fiddle tunes are very diatonic, and are just scale patterns. And there are lots of different ways to play them on the banjo, out of different fingerings. Even within a different style, like single-string or melodic, you can practice in different positions or different feels, different attacks.

BNL: Do you warm up?

GL: A little bit. I am better off if I do. Yet I find even more effective that pulling out my banjo and playing a bunch of notes right before the show is having a good meal at the appropriate time, and going to the bathroom, exercise a little bit. Just feeling good. The better you feel the more fun you have on stage playing music. And the more fun you have the better your stage presence, then the better the concert goes. What does it really matter how well you played if you were having fun and everybody was listening to you? It matters somewhat, but these days I am more inclined to thing the other stuff is more important.

BNL: What is in your CD player?

GL: The Arctic Monkeys. They are kids from Sheffield England. When I was in Italy I got to see them, and I moshed for the first time. I really associate their music with a really fun and positive experience even though it is not music I would be inclined to go listen to. Other than that I listen to a lot of rap and hip-hop. My first album is going to be a rap album. I write lots of music in lots of different styles, but I don’t really have a professional outlet for it right now. One of the reasons I got out of science and into music full time was that I had all kinds of music that I wanted to put together, all kinds of ideas for bands. But as soon as I got out I instantly got involved in the Springsteen thing, and have been so busy. And a week after that ended the Crooked Still tour started so I have been insanely busy all year I haven’t had time to do any of that other stuff. But I am still writing when I get time. When I record, it is certainly going to be acoustic, because I feel true to this string band thing. But I am not too proud to do a little vocal beat-boxing, and maybe a little foot-stomping when an extra whack is called for (and not being supplied by various listeners’ imaginations).

BNL: What did you get your PhD in?

GL: My PhD was in molecular biology. I did research in a lab at MIT that studied the genetics of cellular aging, looking for genes that control lifespan and have the potential to keep organism younger much longer. It is a really fascinating field of science, and that was the one thing in science that got me interested in being a biologist. So I went to grad school and finished a doctorate in biology doing research on that every day. Well not every day, because I did travel a lot with Crooked Still, but as much as I could I was back in lab doing research. I just defended my thesis last fall and I am barely out of school. I was in school straight from pre-kindergarten straight though to the end of grad school. This is really a whole new chapter for Greg Liszt, where I am traveling around the world, never going home, and playing with Bruce Springsteen. This is definitely not what I am used to, but I have not looked back.

Crooked Still is found on the web at:

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