In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Mandolin Interview – Dan Beimborn
Dan Beimborn makes his home in county Norfolk, England, commuting to London during the week where he runs technology in Europe for a hedge fund.
A familiar face in the Gibson vintage instrument community with his web site the Mandolin Archive, Dan has also produced two successful solo recordings in “Shatter the Calm” in 2002 and “Torch and Fire” in early 2007. A regular fixture in the Northern London session scene, he can also be seen on YouTube.com where clips of his playing can be viewed.
Give our readers a sense of how you ended up in the UK and some of the musical experiences you gained in getting where you are today.
I started out a Wisconsin boy, listening to rock music. Milwaukee had a pretty interesting music scene at the time, including a semi-punk band called the Violent Femmes that went on to become quite popular. As I was getting into the punk music at the time I started listening to the Pogues. Something about the mandolin music Terry Woods played in that band really piqued my interest, so I decided I should learn to play mandolin.
I picked up an old bowlback mandolin and started going to local Irish and Scottish band gigs, which led me to start attending sessions at Nash’s Irish Castle in Milwaukee, which had a great set of players who helped me on my way towards playing jigs and reels. Mixed in with the Irish and Scottish tunes was a fairly large contingent of old-time fiddle tunes and bluegrass instrumentals. At the time, I didn’t see a huge difference in style from Bill Monroe’s “Scotland” to “the Swaggering Jig”. There was a lot of mingling in those very different styles.
Fast-forwarding a few years later, I was playing in a band called “180 and the Letter G” which was a bunch of 20-something players doing high-adrenaline instrumentals. By this time I’d been an exchange student in the UK and met my wife-to-be, and we’d moved back to Milwaukee. From there we moved to San Jose, California in the late 90s, where I played extensively in the traditional music scene.
Around that time I released “Shatter the Calm” which is my mostly-bouzouki CD. In 2003 we moved to England, and I’ve been here ever since. These days I play in sessions with the London Irish scene, which tends to favor the fairly high-energy and fast-paced versions of traditional music. Ironically, I’ve also been playing American music much more often again, getting into more traditional bluegrass music and old-time fiddle tunes all over again.
Interestingly, there is no real genre-consciousness in the London Irish sessions. Unlike many of the American ones where you might find yourself scolded for playing something “wrong”, just about anything goes in the London Irish scene. I’ve been playing much more mandolin in the last four years or so since I finished “Shatter the Calm”. In fact I don’t even own a bouzouki anymore!
High-energy and fast-paced versions, indeed. That seems to be a consistent theme in your new recording. Tell us about it.
I’ve always had the adrenaline bug. I tend to get rolling these days in high-energy sessions where you need to hang on for dear life! The new CD (“Torch and Fire”) reflects this; I wanted to get that level of intensity that I feel when I play in a session down on the disk.
I started on the project because I wanted to get some recording in while I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to borrow a Lloyd Loar F5 mandolin. Initially I thought I’d need to adapt my playing to really take advantage of the mandolin, but I found it was perfectly suited to the style of music I was already playing. That particular Loar has a Virzi Tone Producer, which is a patent gizmo originally designed to smooth out the voice of the mandolin for classical players. Whatever they really do (and I’ve sure taken part in a lot of discussions dissecting this!), it sounds great for Irish jigs and reels. I also managed to sneak in a few American old-time/bluegrass/fiddle tune numbers on the disk too, most of them with that same high energy level and drive to the music.
I suppose that when I play I feel a real release, it’s a way for me to unwind, let loose some energy and really cut loose in a way I don’t normally do in other aspects of life.
It can be tricky any time a musician crosses into a musical genre with an instrument that’s not necessarily considered native to that style. What’s been your experience showing up at sessions with a mandolin, and how do you approach applying the mandolin to this style of music?
Well, you do see some mandolins in Irish traditional music, but usually it’s something guys “also” play. Most of the time, the mandolins in an Irish jam are pretty quiet and part of the background instead of the foreground. Maybe it’s something a tenor banjo player takes along for a change of pace. I have been showing up with quite a variety of odd mandolins to these sessions (resonators, F5s, and various old Gibsons that I’m often borrowing or horse-trading!), and I’ve found that eventually you just can’t faze people anymore.
The thing I do that breaks the mold is to show up with a mandolin that has enough volume to stand up to the banjos and fiddles, and I will take a pretty active role in leading tunes also.
Part of what I like about the London session scene is just how welcoming and tolerant folks are. There is almost no sense of “that’s not proper or traditional” to it. Folks are out for the fun and the Craic.
As far as style, your playing seems more Donegal than Cork. Is that an accurate observation? Following that, do you ever find yourself emulating fiddle or tenor banjo players?
I guess I have never consciously tried to imitate all of any particular regional style. I love to listen to hybrids… Donegal music, for example, blends the rolling lilt of Irish traditional with some of the more typically Scottish drive and rhythms. I feel personally that the interesting side of traditional music is the making of it, so I’ve never been too interested in serious imitation of an entire style.
That attitude apparently carries into your choice of mandolins. It’s difficult to keep track of what you’re playing these days. Share with us some of your current favorite instruments.
Ah yes, I do have a well-deserved reputation for that. These days I’m driving a 1909 3-point F4 and a 2001 Chanticleer Tenor guitar (from English builder Patrick Arbuthnot). The 3-pointer is the culmination of years of mandolin geek searching and wishing really. I’ve horse-traded a fair few Gibson As and Fs over the last few years, selling some I shouldn’t have, and buying some I shouldn’t have.
It all started a few years back. After many years of being a “Celtic” player and thinking that anything other than an oval-hole mandolin was just a silly aberration in the market, I tried a couple decent-quality F5s in a shop. One I liked so much I sold a favorite 10-string bouzouki to purchase it. Shortly thereafter, I was working on the Mandolin Archive web site as a way to keep my technical skills up to scratch.
Doing that got the attention of a guy who found that “the family mandolin” was in fact a Loar F5. As the family was getting used to what it was etc., he very kindly lent it to me so that it could be used to make music again for the first time in 60 years. I had a wonderful time playing it every day, and developed a further hunger for that tone. Along the way I’ve been very fortunate to meet like-minded folks and try some wonderful instruments.
I spent a lot of time after borrowing the Loar in a directed search, which for the first time I thought had an endpoint. I tried the work of many builders with new ears and eyes from my experience on the Loar, and decided that of all the ones I played I liked the mandolins Jamie Wiens (from Canada) makes the best. Jamie is working on an F5 for me that takes many of the good points of the Schultz Loar and blends them with his own specialties. Getting a new instrument that has “Loar tone” is a special branch of rocket surgery. I also really like that Jamie has an eye for the imperfections and organic look to these things that really make up the aesthetic.
You used a combination of F and A models on the new recording. Did you have a deliberate sound in mind or was it more by chance in that you might have been enjoying one particular instrument more that day so it was what got used?
I like both sorts of instrument. The tunes tended to come from what I was playing on the instruments rather than vice versa. I’ve found that a good instrument tends to change your playing in a subtle way. It will respond well to some things and less well to others. The Loar really taught me how to get a cleaner note with less pick noise, because the results were so dramatic when it was done right. The effect was a bit subtler on some other instruments, but I feel I really gained some technique from it.
The only example I can think where I wasn’t being almost subconsciously led down the “oh, that sounds good, write that down” type of discovery was a set of jigs. I tried 11 takes of it and simply wasn’t getting what I wanted. Finally, I switched from the snakehead A to the Lebeda F5 and nailed it first try. That particular F5 had a very fast attack and it worked right. In hindsight it was a set I’d play in sessions where I’d normally been taking the Lebeda, which was also very LOUD!
But really, pretty much every set was already tied to an instrument, because I’d “discovered” the set on that particular mandolin. I’d only practice on the particular instrument, and it felt as logical as using blue paint for the sky.
You’re known for having an interest and admiration for instruments with the Virzi Tone Producer. Virzis are quite rare anywhere these days but seem well suited for your style of music. To your ear, how does the sound they provide stack up in a session?
Although many bluegrass players dislike the tone changes of the Virzi Tone Producer, I think they work wonderfully. I have played 3 different Loar mandolins with virzis installed, and they each were fantastic. I also owned a 1925 Gibson A4 with a virzi, and that mandolin had similarly wonderful tone. The F5 that Jamie Wiens is making for me will also have a virzi (or “Wienzi” as he calls it) installed! I think that a mandolin with a virzi installed has the perfect combination of attack, tone, and sustain.
You have an appearance at the Lewisham Irish Festival with Scottish great Kevin MacLeod in the near future (March 24, 2007). I know your personal and work schedules are demanding, but any chance we’ll be seeing more public performances from you in the future?
This is the only one on the schedule for now, although I’m committed to playing at various Irish sessions around London whenever I am able!
What’s up next in your music?
I’ve had a lot of interesting thoughts floating in my head since ordering the F5 from Jamie. In that period (two and a bit years now), I had my hands on a couple of different Loars briefly, but haven’t had an F5 in permanent residence. I’ve been wanting to record some more American old-time tunes, and play with the fun space where the Scottish and Irish music hit Appalachia—that semi-imagined musical realm for me includes a lot of the drones and rhythms of the Irish and Scottish music coupled with the rhythms and sounds of American playing. It’s always hard to get that sort of thing rolling in a session, but I usually try :). I have a feeling that the instrument Jamie is building for me will set that idea back on fire for me!
So I suppose what I’m driving at is that there are a lot of Virginia fiddle tunes and American melodies out there that would have been either showpieces at a dance (perhaps played too quickly to dance to) or might have been “practicing tunes” for musicians. I’ve always felt that those sit nicely on an F5. I probably would have tracked another dozen or so cuts on the Schultz Loar when it was in my grasp, but time was always short! The other family of tunes from this range that I’ve always enjoyed are “mood pieces”, or tunes that are played in alternate tunings, don’t conform to normal jig/reel/breakdown timings, and have other variations them. Examples would be pieces like “Bonaparte’s Retreat” in drop-D tuning, various tunes in Sawmill or AEAE tuning, etc.
I’m hoping to do some more recording with my friend Craig Harbauer, too. In the process of recording “Torch and Fire” we found that we have very similar ideas about driving tunes, and we really gel together. We’re both “chancers”, or players who happen upon the music rather than devoting their careers to it, but we have nonetheless found many opportunities to share some tunes.
Finally I’m getting back into the bouzouki world a bit via my tenor guitar tangent. I play a resonator tenor that is tuned GDAE, making an interesting cross between an Irish bouzouki and Tenor Banjo musically. That’s my most common instrument for playing out in the North London Irish jams these days.
Before we close, what’s your favorite beverage to go with a session?
Pint of Guinness, both for the flavor and the break I get while I wait for it to settle. In fact, I think one is calling my name. Thanks for the chat.
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