In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Mandolin Interview – Kevin Macleod
Kevin hails from Auchterhouse via Achiltibuie, and started playing tenor banjo and mandolin when he was 16, following 12 painfully formative years scraping away on the violin. He swapped a bottle of whisky for his first banjo, and wishes all his instruments were so easily acquired! He has a passionate interest in vintage stringed instruments, and has a small collection of Gibson and Sobell mandolins, bouzoukis, banjos and shiny resonator guitars.
He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, Irish, Hawaiian, country and traditional styles of music. These eclectic tastes are reflected in his debut solo cd Springwell, released on Greentrax in 1999, and a follow up duet with Alec Finn of De Dannan, released in 2003, entitled “Polbain to Oranmore”, and a third solo cd “Dorney Rock” in 2006, featuring Alec, Kris Drever and Luke Plumb.
An archaeological surveyor during the day, Kevin revels in playing for dances, and can often be found playing in lively traditional sessions in Sandy Bells bar in Edinburgh!
1. How did you get started in music?
Well, it’s a long time ago now, 43 years, since I began. As a 4 year old, I apparently expressed a desire to my parents to play the violin. They contacted a fellow teacher, who produced a half sized fiddle from his collection, and I then started learning with Harry Ogilvie in Dundee, following a strict classical training until I was 14. As such my sight- reading, though not fluent, is quite serviceable.
That’s a great help musically, despite generally playing entirely by ear. My grasp of keys and chords is rudimentary, to say the least. I actually feel quite strongly that traditional music is best played in a spontaneous fashion anyway, so my rusty musical theory background has never held me too far back.
There was a great deal of music in the vicinity of home in Angus, Scotland; a school pipe band blasting away in the background every friday, Scottish country dancing was taught and there were regular ceilidhs at school, and there were many local barn dances in the winter.
All that traditional music pervaded my ears as a youth and I enjoyed assimilating all the local Scottish influences. My second and final teacher, John Peebles, taught me reels and strathpeys from an old copy of Kerr’s Merry Melodies, as a warm up to lessons, and he gave me a desire to actually try and play more of the traditional repertoire myself.
The next and pretty major influence in 1976 was hearing the innovative and fascinating sounds of Planxty, the mandolin played in The Boys of the Lough and the early versions of The Battlefield Band, and in particular the bouzouki and mandolin/banjo playing by Alec Finn and Charlie Piggott in De Dannan. This foreign, yet somehow familiar music from a distant isle quite entranced me.
Perhaps the Irish blood in my mother’s family reacts to it more than I’m aware! I got a bowl back mandolin at that time, retained my tutored left hand position, and taught myself to pick with a plectrum, and off I went. I played in a small band at university in Aberdeen trying to play music for Scottish ceilidh dance, and playing uproarious sessions in the fishermen’s and oilmen’s dockside inns in Aberdeen, usually getting turfed out!
2. What mandolins do you own? Which one(s) is (are) your favourite(s)?
I currently own 4 mandolins; a 1983 small bodied rosewood/spruce 8 string Stefan Sobell, a 1922 truss rod F4 Gibson, a 2003 Fine Resophonics (Mike Lewis) resonator mandolin; a modern Fender 5 string Strat style mando.
The Sobell is my principal recording and playing instrument, and is a superb example of Stefan’s earlier work. I was finishing off a postgrad degree at that time and was working so hard that I found I had £300 left of my grant at the end, so I managed to get the instrument for £310, with the lowest level of binding and finish! It was the best thing I ever bought, by far.
I do love the styling of the Gibsons, unsurpassed in my book. They are fabulous, and the hand carved curves and inlays are quite beautiful. I would saw off the fretboard extension though, were it not for the stupidity of doing so – it’s right at the sweet spot of the sound, and I tend to pick quite deep, and consequently often catch the extension with the plectrum.
The Fine resonator mandolin is beautiful and powerful, a prototype from Mike Lewis’s Parisian workshop. The maple bodied laminated body is quite stunning. I’m still working at how to optimise playing it, as resonator instruments are a world unto themselves, very different from wood or electric instruments.
3. What microphones/amplification do you use live and in the studio?
In the studio, and all my recordings have been done in the excellent Castlesound Studios in Pencaitland, East Lothian, Scotland, I quite simply leave the choice to Stuart Hamilton, the studio engineer and co-producer of my 3 mandolin cds on Greentrax, “Springwell” cdtrax 178, “Polbain to Oranmore” cdtrax 239 and “Dorney Rock” cdtrax 302 . He knows the studio space, range of mikes and how to use them professionally. I am there to perform, and he is there to ensure that it is recorded to the highest standards, which he achieves every time, with excellent sonic results.
I don’t really play concerts very often, but when I do I would use the Lloyd-Baggs preamp I have to match the piezo strip in the bridge of my Sobell, and maybe a SM57 or other such instrument mike as well, depending on what the PA guys have available.
The resonator instruments really need a good condenser mike and I have an AKG 1000C for that purpose.
4. Would you advise players to learn to read musical notation as well as tablature?
I suppose so, yes, it’s handy to be able to read music in any form. I seek out old books of score, dance music, pipe collections and such like, and I will sit and try tunes out to see if there’s any that grab my fancy, so it’s handy to be able to read, albiet slowly.
I do feel it’s better to be able to absorb music aurally, if you can, but it’s not easy for some people. I’m fortunate to have a good natural ear for learning sounds, and come the point I can whistle the tune, then it’s a short step to playing it on the instrument. That works for me, but it is really up to each individual to do what suits them best.
5. How and where do you find interesting tunes to play and record?
As I mentioned above, I scour the junk shops, antiquarian bookshops, charity shops and flea markets looking for old score, and gather tunes that way. I have a large collection of music, as does my band leader Freeland Barbour, so there’s plenty of material to hand.
I have also absorbed a lot of music in 30 years worth of sessions and gigs, though many tunes simply disappear into the memory banks only to suddenly reappear at a much later date at another session! It would be great to have complete recall of all the tunes I actually know, but that doesn’t happen, I’m afraid!
I also have a considerable collection of recorded music, LPs, tapes, CDs, minidisks and these contain a lot of good tunes that I would choose to record or interpret in some form over time. I’ve recorded all the ones I really like on my three solo cds, but there are others that I love playing as yet unrecorded.
6. Can you tell us how you have your mandolin set up, and about the strings and picks you use?
Well, the Sobell was set up by Stefan himself, and is neither too high nor low; just right really. He replaced the first 5 frets a while ago, as they were worn out.
I keep it simple with strings and picks. I use sets of D’Addario J74’s on the Sobell, and J68’s on the F4 and Fine resonator. My standard pick is the Dunlop Tortex orange .60mm for everything except the bouzoukis.
On my tenor instruments I have guitar length strings, G 40ish, D 32ish, A 16, E 10’s, with phosphor bronze on the wound strings.
On the Greek bouzoukis I use the Herdim triangular Appalachian Dulcimer triple weighted plectrum.
I use nickel wound strings on my electric Deering Crossfire tenor banjo G and D strings, as the pickup does not respond well to wound phosphor bronze strings.
7. How do you tackle the thorny problem of pick direction in jigs?
DUD DUD DUD, I suppose, but the emphasis on any of those notes will depend on the actual tune, of course. The only time I deliberately change is when I’m playing 6/8 pipe marches (which are NOT jigs) and I may play passages DUD UDU DUD to eliminate the possiblity of it speeding up and becoming “jiggy”. It’s a march tempo, and I wish musicians other than pipers would listen to pipe music properly and get the tempos sorted out right.
8. Do you have any advice or tips for beginning/intermediate/advanced players?
Work incredibly hard to get the tempos of all types of traditional music correct. Much of it is intrinsically dance music, ie music which was devised to drive the dancers feet along, and as such it must be fairly strictly adhered to. I detest hearing fine traditional tunes ruined by being played hell for leather with no articulation or understanding of the nuances of rhythm.
Work hard on scales and arpeggios in all the major and minor keys, and both concert and flat keys. These form the basic vocabulary of traditional (and all) music, so to learn these early on will always help. A grasp of the fretboard beyond the first position is good to have, though not vital, as most traditional music resides in the first position.
Listen, listen hard and keep listening to other musicians you play with, and work at interacting musically with a wide range of players and types of instruments. This will unquestionably widen your understanding of music.
Seek what I find hard to describe in words, but what I usually refer to as “swing”. This is a form of emphasis on the backbeat, which in essence is the point in a tempo where the dancers feet are on the beat, but they want to lift off from that point, not thump down!
It’s hard to describe without an instrument, but in reels for example, I’d say there should be a subtle lift on the notes leading to and from the first of the four notes. Actually, the best bands I’ve heard doing what I’m struggling to describe are De Dannan and Jimmy Shand. Listen and learn.
Try and learn tremolo as well as straight picking, and use both tastefully. My tremolo is weak, but I do use it. Ali Stephens, whose playing I greatly admire, is exceptional on the classical and tremolo style. Go and see her perform.
9. Apart from yourself, of course, which players do you particularly admire and why?
I sat in a flat in New York in 1985 listening to Frankie Gavin and Mairtin O’Connor swapping tunes with Andy Statman, and I have still to hear or see a more brilliant mandolinist. He has it all, my opinion. Mind you, Chris Thile is quite unbelievable, doing things on the mandolin perhaps only Dave Apollon might have been able to do in his heyday.
For sheer spontaneous, vibrant, unique and sparking accompaniment, the bouzouki playing of Alec Finn is the real deal, chock full of the spirit of improvised music.
I hugely admire and listen regularly to Ry Cooder’s wide ranging music – a genius guitarist and musicologist. Other guitarists like Bill Frisell, David Lindley, Martin Taylor, Jerry Douglas, Bob Brozman and Gabby Pahinui inspire with their virtuosity.
10. How would you promote the mandolin in the UK?
Much in the way that those organisations that do so already do. The Lanarkshire Mandolin Orchestra is a big success, and great credit should go to Ian and Barbara Pommerenke-Steele for getting such a dynamic and worthwhile organisation going.
If all the fine young traditional fiddlers that are currently being produced in droves in Scotland turned their hands to the mandolin, we would have a massive explosion in the interest in mandolin! However, it’s quite hard to get the instrument seen and heard, though mandolinists Dagger Gordon, Luke Plumb, Josh Goforth and myself did get a mandolin concert at Glasgow’s flagship Celtic Connections festival this year. That went very well, and perhaps it could be repeated in some form to push on with highlighting the fun of playing music on the mandolin.
11. What other instruments do you play?
The tenor banjo, tenor guitar, tenor resonator guitar, greek bouzouki, cittern, lap steel slide guitar (badly), fiddle (badly)
12. How would you like to develop as a musician in the future?
It would be fun to develop a relationship with another musician (other than the guys in The Occasionals, who I have an almost symbiotic musical relationship with) who sparked off my playing in some as yet unforseen way. The two guys I recorded with last year, Kris Drever and Luke Plumb, both seemed to hear and feel the music I was trying to play in the same way as I do, and that is rare to find, and brilliant when it happens.
If I do record outwith the band again, it would have to be a bit different from that which I have already produced, but I don’t really know what that could be at this stage. I’ve expended enough mental energy lately trying to produce my three solo cds in a manner that they are different enough to hopefully interest afficionados. It’s a hard thing to do. I do think along the same lines musically as Easy Club/Ossian/Tannahill Weaver fiddler John Martin, with whom I would love to record a Scottish music cd with Alec Finn accompanying. We’ll see what happens. I’d also enjoy being part of a project with a singer, perhaps.
13. Desert Island discs: which would be the one piece of music you would have to take? (throw in a second and third if you like!) Sheet music? Or recorded?
De Dannan’s “Star Spangled Molly”, Peter Blanchette’s “Archguitar Rennaissance”, Bill Frissell’s “The Intercontinentals”
Crucial listening, first in the bag for holidays.
14. What plans do you have for forthcoming CDs and performances?
Loads of Occasionals dances lined up over the summer, in wonderful places like Orkney, Skye, North Uist. We are working on a DVD film account of the 21 years that The Occasionals have been playing for dance in Scotland, so that’s a big undertaking, with an associated CD of new sets for dancing.
Solo work is always rare, but I have a gig at the Lewisham Irish festival on 24th March 2007 with Dan Beimborn, Ewan McPherson and we’ll get mandolin whizz Aidan Crossey up for a tune too, hopefully, as he’s organised it!
No plans to record this year as I’ve just put my third solo cd “Dorney Rock” out last October on the wondeful Greentrax label, and I’m working to sell that this year.
More Mandolin Interviews
Alon Sariel Interview
Trevor Moyle Interview
Dan Beimborn Interview
Dagger Gordon Interview
Simon Mayor Interview
Alison Stephens Interview
Nigel Gatherer Interview
Frances Taylor Interview
Gary Peterson Interview