- Artists > Mike Marshall
IN MARCH, 1996, I HAD THE UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY TO SPEND an evening with Mike Marshall. For those of you that may not be familiar with Mike's career, he has played both mandolin and guitar in David Grisman's Quintet, Recorded with Darol Anger, the Montreux band, Psychograss, and countless others, including the recently released Todd Phillips project, "In the Pines". Mike also founded the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and more recently, Choro Famoso, his Choro group. He has won countless awards for his skill on mandolin, guitar, and fiddle. He is a true multi-instrumentalist, with the capacity to play bluegrass, jazz, classical, Choro, and probably just about any musical style he wants. Mike has produced many albums by other artists, and has a wonderful solo album on Rounder, entitled "Gator Strut".I had initially approached Mike at a house concert in January, with a request that he consider being interviewed for MandoZine. Mike was enthusiastic about the project, and generously committed to the interview. In the late afternoon of March 12, I arrived at Mike's house with my tape recorder, and over dinner we commenced with the interview. Mike was a great host, and after the interview, he gave me a tour of his recording studio. I want to take this opportunity to, once again, thank Mike for his contribution to MandoZine. So...here is the "authentic version" of the dialog over dinner. Enjoy!
MandoZine: Welcome Mike to MandoZine! Let's start with an update on what you've been up to. Mike Marshall: You want the present and future first? [laughs] MZ: Maybe a quick update and overview, and then we can zero in on specifics. MM: Well, I started this new group recently, which you probably know about, Choro Famoso. It's this band that's dedicated to playing Brazilian Choro music. It's a six piece group: mandolin, clarinet, guitar, and three percussionists. And that's the thing I'm most excited about right now. It's the newest and most fun. We just played a few gigs, which was a lot of fun, and it's coming along, playing these great old tunes. A lot of Jacob do Bandolim's music, and a lot of the classic Choro tunes....So, that's one of the newest things. But, of course I'm still doing the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and just completed a recording with Psychograss, the second record. This one is with Tony Trischka, David Grier, Todd Phillips, Darol Anger, and yours truly. A slightly different group, a little more of a string band kind of thing. MZ: For those that are unfamiliar with Choro music, how would you describe it? MM: Well, it's this music that is a fusion of European, folk, and Classical music which was brought to Brazil by the immigrants of the late eighteen hundreds: Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French music, and when it collided with the African rhythms and indegidous rhythms of Brazil, it created their own form of Jazz, which is what I like to think of it as. It's the combinations of the African rhythms with the European harmonies and song forms. MZ: How did you get involved in this? It seems like you were involved in the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and doing some side projects, like "In the Pines" with Todd Phillips, and things like that, and then all of a sudden you surface in this very different band. MM: Well, I suppose it's always been my approach to music, to get really fired up about a certain kind of music and really get inspired, whether it's classical music, or jazz, or Dawg music when I was much younger, or bluegrass even before that, and particularly stuff that's somewhat esoteric and a little bit out of mainstream, and not over done. Stuff that I can feel that I can have a voice musically in, within whatever context that is. That's what happened to me with this Choro music. We kind of knew about it. We had heard Jacob do Bandolim way back when we were in Grisman's group. We had bootleg tapes of some of these Brazilian recordings, this was back in 1982. We would listen to this stuff in the van, digging it, but not realizing that it was this older style of music that was played on a lot of different instruments in Brazil. And it was alive and well. It wasn't until about fifteen years later when I went to Brazil, that I realized, wow, this is a real vital, alive musical style, much like bluegrass music is here. I think that's what really fired me up. When I got back from Brazil I said, well, nobody's playing this music here, and what a great vehicle. There's improvisation built into the music, and the groove is so amazing. MZ: Let's talk specifically about the group, Choro Famoso. When I saw you guys perform last weekend, I came away feeling that the compositions are very complex. Is it difficult learning all those tunes, or is there a pattern inherent in the style that helps? MM: Like any style, whether it's Irish music or bluegrass music, or bebop, there's a language that gets repeated. There's a sort of way of speaking in their rhythmic patterns that repeat themselves from tune to tune, that's what makes any style, whether it's classical, or jazz, or bluegrass. And so yes, it's definitely got a voice, it's got a language of it's own, and once you become familiar with that language it becomes easier. The first five or six tunes are kind of difficult, especially if you spent your whole life playing in some other style. The rhythms are kind of awkward, there's these anticipations, and the whole way that it's supposed to lock up with the percussionists, is a little odd for someone coming from a different tradition. But, what I did was, I came back from Brazil completely fired up, and I had a tour scheduled with the Modern Mandolin Quartet, the Winter Solstice Tour, where we shared the bill with Andy Narell and Liz Story. I had this book of 84 Choro's, it's like the "Real Book" of Choro music. I just spent the whole tour backstage, waiting to go on stage, there would be long periods of just hanging out without anything to do. So, I just made it sort of a hobby over the course of these two months on the road to learn a bunch of this music. And I just said, OK, I'm going to learn a couple of tunes a week, and by the end of the tour maybe I'll have 20 tunes down. MZ: And did you have 20 by the end of the tour? MM: I did! I did it. I got a nice batch of tunes under my belt. In fact, even the Brazilians asked, "How did you learn those..., what was the deal?" I said I just drove my wife crazy. [laughs]. Every morning, even when I got back, there was a period where I was really confused. I knew the A part and the B section of about ten tunes, but the C sections, I'd get them confused. I'd apply this C section to that tune... so it took awhile. MZ: Harvey Wainaple is such a wonderful clarinet player. It's interesting to hear the mando coupled with clarinet, of course we've heard that with Jewish music, and with some jazz. Does playing with a clarinet player require a different approach, or "ear" on your part? MM: I got really infatuated with the clarinet when I discovered this music, and started hearing the recordings, they play clarinet a lot. Yea, it took some adjusting, because I'm used to playing with violin players. But, it's not that different. It has a similar kind of... you know, it can sustain, and it can do vibrato, in the similar way that a violin can. It took us awhile, the two of us, to learn each others phrasing, and to learn to play these melodies together. Particularly, we do a lot of passing back and forth. Like, I'll play the A section the first time through, and he'll play it the second time through. We even break it down into smaller bits than that. It's somewhat improvised as to who's going to play what, when. That part of the sound has gotten developed in a real natural, sort of organic way just by playing gigs. MZ: The mandolin, being such a rhythmic instrument, especially in the hands of Sam Bush, and players like that, that really have that driving rhythm down, really any mandolinist, with their chops... In your group, the percussion... (Mike in the background: "Ah, they're terrible, they can't keep a beat to save their lives!" [laughs]) ...these guys really add to the overall sound. With three percussionist, and with the mandolin being a rhythmic instrument in many settings, does this shift your focus more to melody or another emphasis, or do you tend to compliment the rhythmic groove on the mando? MM: I think for me, coming from environments where there were not percussionists, I've learned a lot by having them there. You realize, OK, these guys are in charge of creating a groove, and I'm interacting with that, so, whatever I do melodically, it has to work with them. You become very conscience of the different sub-divisions, and who in the rhythm section is doing what, so that you're locking with that. Even when I shift from playing melody to rhythm, one thing I've learned, is my rhythm part is almost identical to that of the tamborim player... that's the little tambourine without the jingles, played with a stick. I shift to almost playing his part identical, so when I go in and out of playing lead and rhythm, I have to at least make sure that I'm really locked with him, and that the two of us are playing together. But, it's just a nice ride. When these guys get a groove going that's really solid, it makes it pretty easy to play with. MZ: Ricardo adds such a chord structured backdrop to the group sound, with the seven-string guitar, and then he plays this understated melody, really nice stuff. After all your playing with flat-pickers, and all the work you've done with players like Tony Rice, how does it differ playing with a seven-string guitarist, playing that style of jazz chord, and melody, or does it matter? MM: It's amazingly similar. The structure of the traditional Choro band is to have no bass player. You traditionally have a guitar player playing chords, and another guitar player playing the seven-string guitar, and they play bass runs. These bass runs, they really remind me of the bluegrass bass runs that guitarists play. MZ: Is that seventh string a B string? MM: Yeah, that's a low B. And, the bluegrass guitarists does much the same thing, he plays runs from one chord to the next. So, I'm really familiar with that. Melody plays a line, and then there's a moment where the guitarist can fill. It's like beautiful counterpoint that you have in any style of music, whether it's bluegrass, classical, stuff that's written, in jazz it's improvised, but it's really similar too. It's all these ideas of counterpoint and running bass that are part of our musical tradition. It's really not that different. The sound is different, because it's warmer, with the nylon strings, but ultimately it has that same kind of tight rhythm that any great style of music has. MZ: Are you looking to record an album of Choro music? MM: I've completed one which is an album of duets. It's with various other people playing this music, and myself on mandolin. It has Andy Navell on piano, another pianist, Joveno Santos Neto from Brazil, a couple of pieces with Edger Meyer on Bass, a piece with Bela Fleck, something with a Venezuelan Quatro player. So it's very different from the group. It's this real intimate sound with just two people playing these tunes and a lot of counterpoint between the two instruments. MZ: Do you know the release date and what label it's going to be on? MM: I'm actually negotiating with companies right now. I'm not sure who's going to put it out yet. I don't think it's going to be a Windham Hill record. MZ: You mentioned earlier the Modern Mandolin Quartet, you've got four albums you've done with them. Are you doing a new recording? MM: We actually just got a grant from the Lila Wallace Foundation to have Dave Balachrisna write a piece for us, and also Telly Cathy, who wrote "Elements" for "Pan American Journeys." They're both going to write us these long, twenty minute pieces. So right now we're kind of in a holding pattern, waiting for these guys to complete these pieces. This is pretty hot stuff. Lila Wallace sponsors a lot of great composers to write different things. MZ: What about touring? MM: Yeah, we're still doing different dates. We're heading out to Milwaukee, we're actually going to play with The Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra out there. It's their hundredth anniversary. [This concert took place on March 23.] We're also going to play for the Schubert Festival. It's the 200th anniversary of Schuberts birth. We played Carnige Hall this past October for our tenth anniversary. That was a real moment for us. We definitely broke out the champaign. MZ: Let's talk about session work. MM: I do a lot of session work. And it's not all with bluegrass players that you would know of. MZ: OK, let's talk about producing. What's the approach you take as a producer? How much hands-on, hands-off do you do? MM: Well, it tends to be fairly hands-on. I like to get with an artist long before they've decided on the repertoire, and long before rehearing any group, unless it's an already established group. But, most of the people I produce are single artists. They have a pile of material. They're thinking about recording, and they haven't even made the final decision about what they're going to record. I generally like to get in there and really work with the artist and help them write some of the bare bones of the composition, form the chord progressions... MZ: ...and even arrangements of their material? MM: Oh yeah. MZ: And helping them select it, and right on down to the mike placement... MM: ...the which? MZ: No pun intended...the mike placement... MM: Oh yeah, the technical side of it. Since I have a studio here I'm pretty involved in what kind of sound is going to happen, where the focus should be, what kind of mikes to use, reverbs, what studio to do it at...whether to do it here to keep the budget low, or to go into a bigger place. It usually depends on the budget. MZ: Are you still playing your 1924 Lloyd Loar? MM: It's still the one I tend to play, all the time, for just about everything, although I do have the Monteleone, round hole. The Mandolin Quartet had a matched set built, with an interesting red finish on all of them. I had a round hole, Dana Rath had an F-hole Grand Artist, and then we had a mandola, and a mandocello built. There's beautiful when you get them all together, it's just an unbelievable set of instruments. So I play that once in a while with the quartet. Then I have the Monteleone mandocello, which I still love. I play this Martin guitar, 1960s, D-28. And I find myself using this Mexican twelve-string a lot, on recordings. It's a small body twelve-string that I tune to open chords [laughs]. And then I have a nice nylon string that I use for, you know, "Cum Ba Ya" [laughs]. MZ: For the camp fire! MM: For the camp fire! I use it a lot for melodies on different projects. But, still for mandolin things, it's the old Loar. MZ: What picks and strings do you use? MM: I use a Dunlop...I just switched from the David Grisman model pick, that most people are using these days... MZ: Is that the Golden Gate pick? MM: Yeah. ...to this really heavy Dunlop. It's 2.07. It's like a bear. MZ: Did you file it down, and round it off? MM: No, it came like that. It looks a little bit like a Fender, but it's slightly more round. And I'm using the stainless steel string, by D'Addario as well. I'm using an 11.5 on the E, 16 on the A, 24 on the D, and 40 on the G. But, they're stainless. It seems like they're not quite as bright as the phosphors bronze, but they last a lot longer. MZ: In terms of playing, you've done a lot of teaching over the years, you've worked with beginners a lot. Maybe we could talk a little bit about technique, advice on getting started... MM: That's a tough one. The mandolin world doesn't really have any real serious, formal education scene around it. I suppose it does in the classical world in Europe, there's somewhat of that, a structured place to go, to start, they actually teach it in schools, in universities. You can go to a university where there's a mandolin teacher there. But, in this country, it's still kind of a hit and miss situation where you, if you're lucky, you've got somebody in your town that plays really well. You can go to him or her, and sit down and take lessons. I think it's really important to get some basic technique right off the bat and find out some basic things about position, and how to hold the pick, and what to do with your two hands. Most people do it by just getting an instrument, fiddling around with it, a lot of people just start playing it. I hope someday there will be some serious education for the mandolin, but unfortunately I don't think it exists quite yet. So, the best thing to do is try to find a teacher early on, so that you don't develop some weird habits that you will find impossible to break. MZ: I'd like to talk a little bit about tone and speed, the relationship between them. Players have a tendency to want to play really fast, because that's flashy stuff, and yet at the same time wanting to develop really good tone. Putting a lot of emphasis on the left hand for speed, yet not really having the right hand stuff down in terms of the down-ups. MM: Generally, when I teach somebody, it comes down to the right hand. It comes down to two things. It comes down to how they're holding their hand, and how their holding their pick, both in terms of developing a good tone, a good sound. There's also usually an issue around pick direction that needs to be dealt with. Short of seeing someone play, it's kind of hard to talk about, except that the basic rule of thumbis that the downbeat is a down stroke, and the upbeat should be an up stroke. When you're into a difficult string crossing, I think this is where people get confused, and they'll end up with a hitch in the melodic line, that's difficult, or nearly impossible to fix, until they fix their pick direction. As far as speed, that's all linked, cause you can't go fast if you're doing this funny thing with your pick direction. Tone is everything. Teaching people to hear what they're doing is an important thing to do. Teach yourself to listen to the sound of your instrument. Amazingly enough, a lot of people don't do that. MZ: So you would recommend recording yourself and listening to that... MM: I think just tuning in to slowing down, and listening to one note, and listening to how you can make that note different by what you do with your hands. MZ: What about things like scales, and some of the traditional kinds of exercises to strengthen your pinky? MM: Yeah, I've got a whole series of those things. Some of it's been printed in Mandolin World News. Another thing I think people have trouble with is making the up pick the same as the down pick, because you're going against gravity, and it's often not as strong. MZ: Does tremolo relate to that up and down kind of equality of balancing out those up and down strokes? Is there a connection there? MM: Well, not really. Tremolo is kind of difficult. It needs a different kind of work. It demands another kind of attention. It has to do with lining up the right hand with the left hand. And like you said, a lot of times people will be focused on the left hand, thinking that's where the notes are coming from, but in reality it's the right hand... It's like the lips of the horn player, or the bow of the violin... that's where the sounds being created from. A lot of mandolin players get into this concept of ... you hold your pick like this, and you put your hand right here, and you get this type of sound. But, what I've tried to stress is that there's so many different colors to be gotten out of the instrument by playing in different places, and playing in different ways with your right hand. It's like opening up this whole world when you teach someone to hear that. And it's just going to improve all styles of music and everything you do. MZ: Let's talk about Psychograss. I thought there was a lot of humor put into that album. MM: There was! MZ: The Tim O'Brien cut of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is a great arrangement. MM: Yeah, Darol Anger came up with that. MZ: Is Tim playing the mandolin, or the octave, or are you playing? MM: Yeah, that's me playing on that cut, Tim just sang. MZ: What about the new Psychograss.... MM: Two! Return of the Son of Psychograss... MZ: Psychograss Pro... MM: Version 1.2... Joe Craven appears as a special quest on a couple of tunes, he's not quite as involves in this one. It took two people to replace him, Tony Trischka on banjo, and David Grier on guitar. It's a little bit more of a rootsy record. Everyone brought in a coupl;e of tunes, we spread the writing out, and with the banjo and guitar it's much more of a bluegrass kind of record. MZ: I felt that with you and Darol together again, as the centerpiece of Psychograss, it brought back those memories of the Duo album... MM: This one even goes further in that direction, probably because it's on Sugar Hill, and a willingness from them for it to be that kind of record. The first Psychograss record was on Windham Hill, and it was their wish that it would become another Montreux band. But we were going in this whole other direction, we were wanting to plaaaayyy! MZ: In terms of Montreux, that period of time, and that style, and that focus, which obviously Psychograss is very different from, is that something you might be revisiting... MM: Well, I've got that in me. Sometimes I think about doing a solo guitar album. I like so many different kinds of music, and my tendency is to go in extremes. To go in one direction for a while, until I either get bored, or I take it to a certain place. I just choose music like an educational process. I learn a certain amount of stuff, I go in a certain direction for a while, then I back up and I turn either back towards where I came from, or I go in another direction, as a way of opening up another set of problems for me to solve. I'd love to do a solo guitar album. That seems a real challenge, especially being a flatpicker, to apply that technique to solo guitar, and really make it work. That seems like it would be an interesting challenge, and I love simple, beautiful, sweet music. MZ: Yeah, especially in that most people recognize you as a mandolin player, rightfully so, there's also the mufti-instrumentalist aspect. I mean, you were after all the guitarist with Grisman for a while. MM: I probably haven't recorded enough to really showcase all those things. That's why I'm really excited about this Choro thing, it really puts me out there as a mandolin player. Much more so than Montreux did, and in a way more so than even the Modern Mandolin Quartet. The focus of that group is how do we get a sound as a group. To be a great string quartet player, the best thing to do is lose yourself, for the case of the group. How do we sound like one instrument. One person can't be standing out. So, it's kind of fun to get back to a situation where it's a little more of a feature... MZ: If you were to look out two or three years from now, what kinds of things would you like to have an opportunity to do, or people you would like to have an opportunity to play with? MM: That's always an interesting question. Obviously, to get to play with some of the best musicians in the world is a dream. And I've gotten to do quite a bit of that. With David Grisman, Tony Rice, and now to be going in this other direction to get to play with people like Andy Narell, those are great experiences. I look forward to more of those kind of experiences, but more specifically, this duets record, and Choro band, and then to be playing in a little more of a freer jazz context. Real open harmonically, and stylistically, either as a trio or quartet. That would be nice to do. Edger Myer and I have been working as a duet. I'd love to make a record with him. I just think he's one of the greatest musicians ever. It seems like the mandolin and the bass really compliment each other. Because we're both way out of each others range. MZ: One is little and the other one's big! MM: Exactly, what a beautiful thing! [laughs] I'd love to have a band like Bela Fleck has. One that's playing all original music, with a big sound, and almost poppy in it's approach or size. As a way of getting the mandolin across in that kind of setting, I think the potential is there. If I were to do a thing like that, it would probably be much more latin based. Also, Andy Narell and I are playing some as a duo. MZ: I heard Andy play a few years back with David Grisman, and that was the first time I had heard Andy, and it was phenomenal. Not only the musicianship, but the mixing of the steel drums and the mandolin. What a fit! MM: Yeah, I love the steel drum. To me it's like the mandolin. You've got this thing, like the tremolo... MZ: It's like the vibes... MM: Yeah, real similar attack...I think they blend great. MZ: And he's an amazing player. MM: Not bad...He'll do... [This concluded the interview...we had finished dinner, and were ready to tour the studio. But Mike brought up another subject I wanted to include here...] MM: I have this Choro book of 84 tunes, which is not available in Brazil right now, it's out of print. But, I'm looking for a publisher to publish this stuff. It has all the great tunes. It was probably originally published in the late forties, or early fifties. I have all the information on it if someone is interested in republishing it. It would just be nice for this to be available, because I know mandolin players would love it...it's just a question of finding a publisher. MZ: Mike, thank you for your time, and evening, and being part of MandoZine... MM: You're welcome. I'm glad to be on the cutting edge of the mando-techno world...[laughs]