The members of Irish quartet We Banjo 3 and Oban Live hosts, Skerryvore, have become good friends over the last few years. As well as meeting in the US when their tours intersect, We Banjo 3 have been special guests at Skerryvore’s Tiree Festival, appearing on stage with them at last year’s Oban Live and making a repeat appearance this year. It’s easy to see why, both bands share common ground taking the traditional music of their roots and infusing it with a spirit that gives it instant appeal to young, lively audiences. For We Banjo 3 that spirit comes from taking the best elements of Irish tenor banjo and its associated musical style and mixing it with American bluegrass. The resultant cocktail is intoxicating, as they proved yet again in Oban, tune after tune pushing the audience into an ever more energetic response.
When I got to talk with the two sets of brothers that make up We Banjo 3, Martin and David Howley, Enda and Fergal Scahill, the conversation took a somewhat unusual direction for a band firmly committed to giving their audiences such upbeat performances. I asked about the name they’d chosen for their current tour, Light in the Western Sky. On the band’s website, this expands to In the darkest night, cling to hope, there is a light in the western sky and they make clear their concern that mental health, depression and suicide are among the gravest challenges facing young people in Ireland today. Did these concerns stem from personal experience? Martin took the lead to answer…
“We’re all family and not only are we related, we’re each other’s best friends and there have been hard times, throughout all of our lives, we’ve all had times when we’ve struggled with mental health. I don’t think any human being is immune to what’s happening in the world, particularly younger people. The light in the western sky came from this idea that over the horizon there is hope. And for a lot of younger people, life gets so much better; you just have to hang on.”
Is there new music coming from the band that chimes with this theme?
“We’re kinda working on new material, songs and tunes, that have that recurring theme.”
Enda took over the theme…
“There’s a wide conversation in Ireland about suicide awareness, for the first time in a generation it’s being talked about openly. If you want to talk about mental health, you have to be willing to talk about your own. You have to be able to personalise it, that’s where we see our role, we have this gift that we get to travel around the world and play music. We kinda see that as a responsibility to be open, to sing and play and write from an honest perspective. Probably because we’re Irish and we’re chatty, particularly when we go to the States, people come up to us afterwards, and they’re very open. It’s starting to develop into a reputation for We Banjo 3, “we’re so kind, we’re so warm”. The opportunity presented itself to take a tour, it (the idea) has been kinda developing in the band the last couple of years, people are looking for connection, looking for hope, looking for a little bit of inspiration. It’s nothing we have any huge answers for, we are open to talking about it, open to spreading hope.”
So, time to edge the conversation back to the music, music that relates to the western sky theme.
“We’re planning for a new album. We didn’t do an album purposely this year, we’ve done an album every year since the band was created but this year we decided to give a little bit more time to develop the theme, light in the western sky will be a big player in the thematic approach to the album. We’re going to record the album in Nashville, we’ve done all of our other albums in Ireland, and there is a rich Irish feel to our music, but we wanted to explore the textural differences from producing an album in the home of bluegrass music.
“Recording in Nashville will be cool. We’ve been touring America for five years now and made lots of connections in Nashville both with musicians in the current crop of greats, like Ricky Skaggs, and lots of up and coming musicians. On a musical basis, we’ve been able to develop friendships that have been a lot of fun and hopefully we’ll be able to take all those experiences and pour them into an album.”
So can we expect some guest appearances?
“Well, that’s the hope, but meaningful collaboration, it’s very easy just to brush on a little bit of bluegrass…”
The sentence remained unfinished as Martin searched for a suitable word, wondering about symbiosis, prompting the others to “help” him out, the conversation dissolving into uncontrollable laughter, and not for the first time that afternoon. This at least gave them a chance to explain just how important humour is to them, forging the ties that keep the band together. Returning to the planned recording, I wondered about a producer?
“We’ve self-produced every album up to this point, and that’s worked out really well because it’s given us lots of control over the directions of the albums. We are thinking about a producer but we haven’t found the producer.
“An aspiration would be to take a diagonal sidestep in a commercial direction, a producer could craft the sound so it was more commercially minded than perhaps we would do ourselves while maintaining what’s very much us. That’s the secret of it all, trying to figure out what is us and then to add a sheen to it. It’s not like you’re going into a different market, you’re just taking what you do and polishing it. The thing with bands is that you’ve been playing music together for so long, sometimes it can be hard to keep a keen ear on the music you’ve recorded, you know it inside out, upside down. So, when it comes to a producer, it’s to have another person who can figure out what the direction should be. Otherwise, we’d get multi-tracked 64 banjos and Fergal would’ve left the band.
“We’re really excited; it’s a big venture for us, this has been a dream for us for a long time, to create something that’s unique, that reaches a lot of people. The music on it is meaningful, the album as a piece has a message. That’s very important to us.”
Stage time was getting close, and the guys went off to deliver another frenetic performance, including a master class demonstration of just how much humour it’s possible to extract from the absence of Fergal’s trademark red trousers. Oban was their last performance in Europe for the remainder of 2017, as I write they’re already a couple of dates into their next US tour and no doubt finding time to firm up arrangements to fulfil the dream of recording in Nashville, the results are going to be well worth waiting for.