By Michael Eck
July 20, 2015 - 6:00 pm
For the past 15 years, Foghorn Stringband has defined a peculiar, hard-driving Pacific Northwest ensemble style, anchored in the mantras of old-time, but unafraid to bend the rules. Mandolinist Caleb Klauder — from the same Orcas Island digs as longtime Cafe member and tonewood dealer Bruce Harvie — bounced around in a handful of bands before teaming with fiddler Stephen "Sammy" Lind in an early version of Foghorn.
Soon the two were developing a bright, edgy sound that honored tradition, but didn't hew to it. Members have come and gone, but the current quartet is solid, though geographically distinct, with Klauder and guitarist Reeb Willms in Portland and Lind and bassist Nadine Landry in the Yukon.
In addition to releasing eight albums, Foghorn frequently backs multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and have also played with a wide swath of old-time, bluegrass, country and Cajun musicians. Klauder, who plays fiddle and guitar in addition to mandolin, fronts an eponymous country band, too — more often than not strumming rhythm on a 1939 Martin 0-15.
Klauder's unique eight-string style is thoughtful and robust, and, tellingly, built heavily on fiddle and banjo styles as much as on classic mandolin technique.
What makes Foghorn Foghorn?
I think it's just all of the varied influences that we're willing to put in to the music. Not many old-time string bands have mandolin, but I was in there from the start and eventually I began playing the melodies with Sammy — mandolin and fiddle going head to head, note to note with each other. I think that became the core of our sound. And we still do a lot of singing, too. That mix is what makes Foghorn Foghorn.
Foghorn's repertoire seems endless — do you have any tips on learning new tunes?
I do different things. Some of the early cassettes that friends would give me, I would just listen to them constantly, absorbing stuff as an aesthetic. When I would start to work on tunes, especially fiddle tunes, I would just pick up the fiddle and learn them that way. I wanted to get the bowing right, and I knew that if I could get the bowing right I could somehow translate that over to the mandolin. Basically, I listen to the tune a few times through, and think about it phrase by phrase, which is something my fiddle teacher taught me. Most fiddle tunes have an A part and a B part, and both parts repeat. So we'd break down the A part, maybe into the first and second phrases, and dissect it to try and get the right bowing and the right feel for the shuffle; then move on to the next phrase. As you do that more and more, you start to catch patterns and repeating ideas like endings and the way certain tunes are laid out. Once you get the ending of the A part, for example, it's often the end of the B part, too.
L-R: Caleb Klauder, Reeb Willms, Nadine Landry, Stephen "Sammy" Lind.
Foghorn spends a lot of time on the road, and you're gigging with your country band and other situations at home — how does that affect practice habits?
Unfortunately, I don't practice as much as I want to. I used to practice a lot, but as I'm playing and traveling more, there's additional business work at home — booking, publicity and so forth — that takes away from the time in the day where I might have practiced. I do pick up the mandolin every day for a good hour, minimum, and run through some tunes. I play the first thing that comes to mind and kind of warm my fingers up and get my ears up. Most times when I pick up the mandolin I make up a new tune. That will remind me of something specific that I need to go back and work on, something with the pinky or a weird phrase or a difficult little run in the melody of a tune. Those things, you really need to slow them down and get your fingers used to them.
You really grab on to that pick, don't you?
My main hold is between my first two fingers and my thumb. I kind of bend my thumb back like I'm hitchhiking. It's a three-finger hold and I'll switch between that and a two-finger hold with my thumb and the side of my first finger. It depends on what I'm playing, where I'll hold it. If I'm doing more of a big, wide-open chordal thing, I can hold it with two fingers, but if I'm doing a real fast little picky, notey thing, I'll go into three fingers. That's been my standard method since I started playing. I know a lot of players don't do that, but I really like it. It gives me a different tone. It allows me to get the tip of the pick right where I want it. There's a power thing behind it, because I'm holding the pick a little more firmly with three fingers. Since I'm using two of my fingers, there's a little pivot spot, rather than with just one finger against your thumb. I notice some players play with their pick angled through the string and I play with mine flat against the string. I want to have as much of the flat side of the pick as I can against the string, not the edge.
Devil In The Seat, the latest recording from Foghorn Stringband.
You have a great arch to your left hand, does that come from playing fiddle?
When I see really amazing fiddlers, one of the things that stands out to me is the way their fingers sit on the fingerboard; the way their fingers look like little machines, little levers going up and down. I think it's really beautiful. I admire that so much. I absolutely do bring that idea into my mandolin playing. No one told me that was the right way; I just knew it was.
You sometimes employ that Bill Monroe circular eighth note feel, is that a fiddle pattern as well?
If you listen to Monroe playing old-time fiddle tunes on the mandolin, you can hear exactly what he was listening to. He was hearing the fiddler's shuffle, the fiddler's bow. There's a gallop or a rhythmic shuffle underneath that, and that's where you get your phrasing of the tune. That's the hardest thing for me to teach a student if they have no concept of the fiddle, or if they haven't really listened to the fiddle part.
Tremelo. Yours is wide and ringing, like Ira Louvin's, but it's precise, too.
My philosophy of tremolo, I guess, is once you jump on it, there's no end to it. I use to feel like there was an end to the phrase, but I don't even approach it that way anymore. Once I get on it, I can stay there for as long as I want to. I can play it all day long and not stop until it's time to stop. I started pushing myself really hard because I could hear other players going for the tremolo and sort of desperately grasping for the end of a phrase, and it just didn't sound right. It felt tight. I've worked really hard on it. I would go slowly and just work on that even up-and-down stroke, and your strokes have to be exactly the same. I approached it almost like yoga in a way. I wanted to make tremolo as easy as having a conversation or drinking a glass of water.
Foghorn Stringband playing Columbus Stockade Blues and Outshine The Sun which demonstrate Caleb's unique rhythmic style and approach to the mandolin.
There's a thing you do, which no one else does. Is it fair to call it clawhammer mandolin?
In the early days, I was trying to play bluegrass, but I ended up taking a left turn into old-time. I was playing with a lot of clawhammer banjo players, and I was too scared at first to try and play the melody, so I played rhythm. The groove, you know, has always been an important thing to me. If it's not there, I don't like it. So, I really wanted to fit in with our banjo player, Rev. P.T. Grover, Jr. (who left after 2007's Boombox Squaredance). He was an amazing clawhammer groove-meister. He was like a guru to me. So, I thought, I've got guitar and banjo to fit in with, and I don't want to be in their way; consequently I was quiet at first and I learned that rhythm by locking in with the banjo. As we changed our sound, though, Taylor started developing a three-finger banjo style. All of the sudden, he left that classic clawhammer sound behind. It left a huge hole for me to fill, but I was already kind of doing it rhythmically on the mandolin. It was like the big tree got cut down and all of the sudden the little tree came into the light and got to grow up. That's when that stuff on the mandolin really popped. And that's when Foghorn really changed to being a different sounding band than most old-time bands, because a mandolin was taking on that clawhammer groove. It wasn't doing a Bill Monroe bluegrass chop, and the banjo was doing this other role that wasn't Flatt and Scruggs or Ralph Stanley. I just started working it and employing it as often as I could, because I wasn't stepping on anyone's toes anymore.
What are the mechanics of that sound?
Some of it is chord choice. I want the root of the chord in the bass, so it ends up being a little bit like guitar. As much as it has that clawhammer rhythm, which I would never play on the guitar, it's also got a guitar approach to the boom chuck. That boom is going to be the bass note, the root note. That's why, a lot of times, I'll take my pinky off that four-finger G chop chord and let the open G string ring. I'll use my pinky to mute when I don't want it to ring, but I want to get a boom on the G instead of a boom on the B. If I'm playing a barred A chord, it's already got an A in the bass and you can get that boom chang. That's just kind of the beginning of it as far as my chord choice goes. Then it's a D-DUD-DUD-DUD-DU stroke. It ends up going over itself in a bum-ditty pattern, similar to a Jew's harp rhythm. It was one of the first fiddle bow patterns I learned. It's very related to fiddle as well as banjo.
Do you play lead on guitar?
No, just on mandolin. But sometimes, in the country band, I want to be the rhythm machine on a song, so I'll play guitar.
You're a big fan of microphones for acoustic instruments, true?
I admire folks who can use pickups and get a good sound out of them. I've heard it from the audience, but I can't seem to settle with it onstage. In Foghorn, we mainly play through an Ear Trumpet Labs condenser, which is our vocal and fiddle mic and is there for any kind of lead playing. We have that front and center, and it picks up the general band sound. I'll have an SM57 for the mandolin and the guitar and an SM58 stuffed in the bass tailpiece. We use those just to flesh out the sound and get a little bit of closeness. But I'll still move from my 57 to the main mic when I take a lead. It's a lot more open and I can get a lot more tone color. I like to leave the mic really flat EQ-wise, because as you move the mandolin around it clearly changes the tone. The mic hears different spots on the mandolin so you'll get a real brushy, open, clean sound or a real f-hole body, dark, round sound. There are all these colors you can play with. I love the dynamics of a microphone.
Caleb plays an F-5 Style mandolin made by the late Portland builder John Sullivan, who also built his fiddle. He likes to keep things pared down, so there is no armrest or Tonegard on the mandolin, nor chin or shoulder rest on the fiddle. He uses a Wegen TF100 on his mandolin and a Dunlop Tortex Triangle 0.73 on his Martin. Strings for the mandolin are Siminoff Straight Up Strings, heavy gauge, which he endorses.
You may leave a comment if you have a Mandolin Cafe Forum account. Clicking "Post a Comment" below will take you to the forum where you can complete this action. Please note that once you have, your comment will appear both on this page and on our forum. YOU MUST BE LOGGED IN to your Mandolin Cafe forum account to comment.
Special thanks to the Mandolin Cafe's primary business partners.