A sought-after producer, acoustic-music ambassador and virtuoso banjo player, as well as the host of the Inside the Musician's Brain podcast, Chris Pandolfi boasts some impressive feathers in his creative cap — including a 2018 Grammy with his band the Infamous Stringdusters and the first-ever degree in banjo from the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Despite such lofty achievements, Pandolfi, 41, lights up most when talking about Colorado and the state's music scene. On his latest release, Trance Banjo, he shares his evolving musical vision.
Westword caught up with Pandolfi to discuss the new album and his life.
Westword: Are you from the East Coast originally?
Chris Pandolfi: I am. I grew up in New York just north of [New York City]. My whole family is kind of Northeast-centric. I went to college [in New Hampshire], and then I went to grad school in Boston. After that I moved down to Nashville, which is where the Infamous Stringdusters got their start, and after the band got established there, I made my way out to Colorado [in 2013], which has been great. It’s a place I’ve always loved, and it’s become such an epicenter for bluegrass and acoustic music in recent years, which has translated into a lot of cool opportunities for me. It checked a lot of the boxes.
So you hold a degree from the Berklee College of Music?
I do. I was the first-ever banjo principal at Berklee. Everyone who applies to the college, no matter what track they go down, chooses a principal instrument. It could be voice or guitar or sax or whatever; there are like 25 of them. But when I applied, banjo wasn’t an option.
How did that experience go for you?
After I got my undergrad degree from Dartmouth, I was gung ho to become a musician, but I needed some time to hone my game, and I wanted to go to school. This was in 2001. There weren’t a lot of options for banjo study at the time — now that’s changed. But through my banjo teacher, Tony Trischka, I got hooked up with the chair of the strings department at Berklee, and I was able to plead my case. So I sent my application, along with an audition tape, and they let me in. When I was there, I mostly took lessons from guitar players. I was learning more what to play than how to play it. I would learn on guitar and then transpose everything to banjo. I was sort of a fish out of water, but I didn’t care. I was just kind of absorbing everything that came my way — and a lot of great things came out of music school for me, for sure.
So basically, you broke trail for the banjo at Berklee.
That’s right. Bluegrass is a lot cooler now than it was then. I was really into Béla Fleck and stuff like that, but there wasn’t really a track for it there. Now they have a thing called the American Roots Music Program, in which students can focus on mandolin, banjo and other stuff. I've been back to do a guest-professor thing.
What did you study at Dartmouth?
My major was environmental studies, but I studied music a lot toward the end of my four years there. My senior thesis was through the music department. I put on this big concert with musicians from all different genres, and I wrote all the music. At that point, even my environmental studies professor was like, “Come on, we all know you’re going to be a musician.” So my final project was all about music. I’m still passionate about conservation and the environment, and I'm a big fly fisherman, and I’ve used the platform of the Stringdusters to promote some environmental causes that are near and dear to my heart. That's still in there, for sure, but making a career out of music has been hard enough, and it's taken up most of my bandwidth.
How’d you get into playing banjo?
I took a backward path. My older brother, who is a big inspiration for me in general, was a musician who played bass, and he was into Béla Fleck and the Flecktones; we went to a bunch of their shows together. And when I discovered the Flecktones, I was like, "This is my thing.” It was that experience when you’re a music head and you discover something and fall in love with it, and you just want to dive in and share it with everyone. So I got way into it and decided I wanted to get a banjo, but I had never heard of bluegrass.
When did you get your first banjo?
My senior year in high school .
So you started with Béla and worked your way back to Earl?
The first few tunes I learned on banjo were so over my head, it wasn’t even funny. Béla was my jam initially, so I started out with the most progressive stuff and wound up working my way back to Scruggs. I didn't begin with the fundamentals, but, of course, you learn by being passionate. When I got to Nashville and started to look at forming a band, bluegrass became the common thread between all of us and the bedrock of what we do. It connected me with everyone I met there. But, yeah, Earl is the gold standard in bluegrass. So much of the instrument is encapsulated in this one guy. You can't play bluegrass banjo and not study him. I started a lot later than a lot of my peers, but when you get a banjo and you want to learn it, all roads point to bluegrass.
Do you enjoy playing the more traditional style of bluegrass banjo?
I love it. And some of the stuff that I play and write could be interpreted as being more on the traditional end of the spectrum. Overall, my mission with the banjo is to compose from the heart and draw in a lot of different idioms and genres, but when it comes to playing, my whole technique, timing, tone and drive...it’s all derivative of Earl. I try to bring this to my more modern-sounding compositions. With my new album, Trance Banjo, I’m doing this using much more modern production techniques as well. But I like it all. I listen to everything from electronic music to Flatt and Scruggs. It all creeps in some way or another.
Can you tell me a bit about the new album?
Yeah. It’s my fourth solo album. My first two solo efforts were progressive bluegrass records, where I was in the studio with other players recording bluegrass tunes that I wrote. Stuff with cool melodies and hot solos – that format. About seven or eight years ago, I started producing albums for a few artists [including local bands Trout Steak Revival and Meadow Mountain], and in 2015 I brought together a lot of the skills that I was developing in the studio to create an album called Interference. It was a real left turn.
I began experimenting with far-out production techniques and messing with vinyl samples and all kinds of stuff. I was sampling old classical records with big string sections and putting that against beats and some virtual instruments, and I started writing tunes to it, and I was like, “This is fuckin’ sick.” So I wanted to see it through, but it was a huge undertaking.
[Trance] is a combination of my banjo playing, my production and writing skills, and all the eclectic sounds that live in my studio, all in one place. I love crafting music in the studio, and I felt like I hit on something modern-sounding by using beats and virtual instruments along with old sounds. I actually started this album about three years ago, but I put it on the shelf because it was too labor-intensive. When quarantine hit, I needed something to do, so I got back into the album and finished it. I drove my girlfriend crazy. She thought I was going to be hanging out at home again, but instead I ended up putting in long days at my studio in Golden.
Starting a song is the easy part — that's the fun part. Finishing these songs and building out all the tracks takes a lot of disciplined work. I wanted to make a complete album, not just a few tracks. This release speaks to the power of creating an album. In my mind, albums are where artists can really evolve. They allow you to find a new voice and explore your ideas deeply, which is how new sounds are born. It’s a real passion project for me, and people seem to really be digging it. It’s got some jams, some melodies and some songs that have no solos at all. Overall, I wanted to create a feeling.
Chris Pandolfi's new album, Trance Banjo, drops on February 12.
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