A Conversation with the Be Good Tanyas
[We'd planned a four-way conversation using a speakerphone on their end.]
Puremusic: For the sake of my transcriber, maybe each of you would just say your name and what you play so she can get used to the sound of your voice and know it's you when you come up.
Trish Klein: We're thinking maybe we'll talk to you separately, to avoid talking over each other and stuff. So I'm Trish.
PM: Hi, Trish.
TK: And I play banjo, electric guitar, and harmonica.
PM: Thanks for talking to me so much the other day at your Nashville show, about your banjo and the pickup.
TK: Oh, that was you!
TK: Oh, yeah.
PM: That was very gracious of you. And thanks for doing the interview with us today. It seems to me that the beautiful noise the BGTs are making is beginning to ring more loudly, wouldn't you agree?
TK: Maybe so.
PM: I wonder, given the state of the music scene, how do you account for that fortunate state of affairs?
TK: I guess things are better because the state of the music scene isn't as dubious as one might think. You wouldn't know it from what you hear on the radio, but there are a lot of pockets of interesting music and culture and people all over the place looking for alternatives to what they get on the radio or MTV. There's a real diverse audience out there for all sorts of music. And I think there are more options now than there used to be, with the internet and whatnot, for discovery of obscure music, or music you may not otherwise have access to. And people are trading over Ebay and trading over Napster, or trading at various sites, and just finding new ways of exchanging music.
PM: Agreed. Are you guys surprised at how well your music is catching on, or did you see it happening that way?
TK: Oh, I'm surprised, yeah. There's a lot of great music out there, and there are so many great artists. I think it's kind of flattering to be selected by people when there are really so many things you could choose to listen to.
PM: I think people are talking about the Be Good Tanyas as one of the next big things.
TK: Well, I don't know. We'll see. It's more like you bring yourself somewhere, to a small niche, and hopefully you get the loyal fans that allow you to continue doing it, continue pursuing it.
PM: I used to think, growing up, well, I loved jazz, and I loved old-timey, but I wished the musicians would do modern versions of that music, with hipper lyrics, and write songs that had more to do with a modern experience. And now it's really happening, with both jazz and old-time music.
TK: Have you heard Erin McKeown?
TK: She's someone who's really doing that. She's taking the old form and creating a new sound, a blend of old and new.
PM: She isn't related to the great Irish musician from New York, Susan McKeown, is she? Do you know Susan's work?
TK: No, I don't think they're related, but I've heard of Susan McKeown, yeah. I haven't heard her music.
PM: Oh, she's amazing. [See our interview with Susan in the archives.] The influences on the members of the group and the music you each listen to on your own time, are they similar or are they far afield? Who listens to what? What are you listening to?
TK: Well, there's a lot of crossover. I guess we all really like the old blues and old jazz and old folk music. Me and Frazey also used to jam on a lot of 1970s soul songs and stuff like that. She's also very influenced by R & B and gospel from that era. Maybe more so than Sam. Sam is more particularly influenced by country music and old-time than the other two of us. But we all love that music, of course. It's a bit more predominant in certain areas. Sam is a bit more on the country side, and I guess maybe me and Frazey are more on the soul and blues side, a bit more on the gospel side.
PM: Being more on the blues and soul side, but being the banjo player in the group, did you come to banjo later or have you played it for a long time?
TK: Yeah, I came to it later. I started playing it when I was twenty-two or twenty-three.
PM: You have an interesting style. It's not exactly clawhammer or frailing style...
PM: You seem to be able to do that, but you've adapted it to kind of a three-finger style that's your own.
TK: Yeah, yeah. I played finger style guitar for a long time, and I learned a lot of old blues songs, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Jesse Fuller. I've listened to a lot of country blues, so when I started playing the banjo, I guess those influences crossed onto that.
PM: Yeah. I play a lot of country blues on the guitar, and I don't want to just frail on the banjo, I want do more picking like you're doing--without exactly playing bluegrass, but just, as you say, picking it.
TK: It's a different sound. You can pick something and get a different feeling than you would get on the guitar, and it compliments the other instruments and stuff like that.
PM: You're using picks on the banjo, right?
TK: Mostly, yeah.
PM: Plastic or metal picks?
PM: So...as regards the personality dynamics of the trio--you know how certain roles get set up in any group--in the Be Good Tanyas are there fixed roles? Like is anybody the boss or the reclusive genius or the wild eccentric or the mom or anything like that?
TK: [laughs] I don't know. I don't really think we have such set-in-stone roles. We kind of all take turns being the brat, and we all take turns handling things. We're all pretty responsible.
PM: I think it works best when all the roles revolve.
TK: Yeah. I mean, we definitely have very distinct personalities, but it's not really so much about roles or whatever. We're all just different people with our own personalities.
PM: Right. We always like to know what our favorite musicians are reading, who's reading what. What are you reading at the moment?
TK: Well, right now I'm reading a book called Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky. And I guess the last book I read before that was this really great book, Inside the Gestapo, by a Jewish woman [Helene Moszkiewiez] who was living in Belgium during the occupation. She looked Aryan enough to infiltrate--she managed to get a job with and infiltrate the Gestapo. And her job was to go through the lists of people who were going to be picked up by the SS.
PM: Oh my God.
TK: And so she'd get the lists, copy them down or memorize the names, and then she would secretly go and warn people and help sneak them out of the country. And sometimes by disguising herself in Gestapo officer clothing, although she was just a secretary. She would steal the uniform, and then she'd get a military truck and do this. It was really fascinating, an amazing story but a true story.
TK: Yeah. I read lots of nonfiction. Frazey, you should ask her what she's reading. Like right now she's pregnant, so she's reading her motherhood book and stuff. [laughs] And Sam reads a lot of literature and poetry. continue