Over the past three decades Mike Marshall has established himself as one of the world’s finest mandolin players not to mention a master of mandocello, guitar and fiddle. With a strong foundation in bluegrass, but just as at home playing jazz, classical or choro, he is one of the most influential musicians in American acoustic music. In this first of two articles, we speak to him about his work with Scandinavian band Väsen and his experiences in Europe.
One of Mike’s current projects is a collaboration with Väsen, a three piece folk act from Sweden. They’ve worked together several times in the past, along with Mike’s long-time musical partner Darol Anger, and in 2007 released a CD. It features an interesting mix of North American, Scandinavian and even Brazilian music.
How did a couple of American west coast musicians get together with a Swedish folk group? “Darol Anger and I had been fans of the group for five or six years or more,” Mike tells us. “We knew about their music and actually learned some of their tunes and just thought they were the coolest thing ever. We were invited to a festival in Bloomington, Indiana and they were going to be there. We told the promoter ‘We’re crazy about those guys!’, so he put us on the bill with them and said ‘Here, you guys make a show.’
“From the first note we played together it was one of those instantaneous love affairs, particularly with the way that they groove,” Mike continues. “There’s a groove that’s very easy to find my way into as a rhythm player. Darol just connected immediately with them. The fiddle player and nyckelharpa player – the tones they make with their instruments is so similar to how Darol plays.”
It wasn’t long before a recording was in the works. “We hit it off instantly and decided right there, subconsciously, that we should probably make a record together. It was very easy. Everybody brought in a couple of tunes. We spent maybe a week together and bingo, there was a record. We even got them to play a Brazilian choro tune!”
Whilst some of the tunes on the record are traditional, much of it was self-penned with all the musicians contributing. Mike is impressed by the song-writing of the Swedes. “They write these tunes that are so amazing because they’re traditional-ish, they sound like they’re 300 years old but they’re like ‘No, that’s my tune. I wrote that.’,” he says. “It’s amazing, and not unlike what Darol and I do with traditional bluegrass. We know a lot of the traditional music and we write our own music that’s heavily influenced by it. They’re kind of doing the same thing with Swedish dance tunes.”
Mike’s input to the record was specifically aimed at the Väsen sound. The opening track of the album, Loke’s Troubles, was written especially for the project. “I wrote that thinking it was very much like their style and really hearing the sound and the groove that they get,” he explains. “Of course, it totally baffled them. They were completely scratching their heads – ‘What the heck kind of tune is this, man?’! That just goes to show that this music thing is baffling sometimes.”
Part of the appeal of Väsen is the incredible sound of the nyckelharpa – or key fiddle – a traditional Swedish instrument. It’s a sound that is rarely heard in American music and has won Mike’s adoration. “It’s essentially a hurdy-gurdy but instead of a wheel bowing the strings you have a free bow in your right hand. So you bow up towards your face and you’ve got a drone string and a couple of melody strings. Plus it has 13 sympathetic strings that resonate which makes it have natural reverb. With your left hand you’re pressing these keys which have pointers on them that fret the strings for you. You’re bowing the drone string all the while you’re bowing the other strings. It’s just bizarre and crazy.
“One of the things you don’t get from this instrument on CD is that you hear reverb and you think it’s electronic reverb, but when you’re in a room with one of these instruments it sounds like you’re inside a cathedral. But you’re just sitting in the living room next to this box. It’s quite amazing, they must have some really long winters up there to have invented this instrument!”
Mike’s regarded as a virtuoso on all sorts of stringed instruments – does he plan to add nyckelharpa to the list? “Oh, you’re kidding! I picked that thing up and it’s like walking and chewing gum times twelve! I couldn’t even get one note to come out!”
European fans will have a chance to catch this collaboration soon. “We’re going to Sweden at the end of March to be part of a gala event in a big theatre where they’re inviting all these different musicians that they’ve met around the world,” Mike says. “We’re just coming for that one show, which is a shame. They’re also coming to Wintergrass in February and we’ll play with them there. Very cool band.”
It won’t be Mike’s first visit to Europe – he was part of David Grisman’s band that toured the continent with jazz legend Stéphane Grappelli in the early ’80s. It is a time that Mike remembers with great fondness. “We started in London then got in this big tour bus with the two groups and toured around for a couple of weeks. Then Stéphane left his band and we went over to Brussels and started a tour of Belgium, France, Italy, Germany and Austria.
“At that point it became a quintet with just the David Grisman Quartet with Stéphane Grappelli. We would do the first half of the show and then Stéphane would come on. That was a mind-blower for me as I was the guitar player and we’d been touring around with Martin Taylor and Diz Disley being Stéphane’s players up until that point. In typical Stéphane fashion, there were no rehearsals, just turn up at the soundcheck and play the gig.”
Mike was only in his early twenties and was on his first trip outside of the States. It was an overwhelming experience for him. “I remember the gig in Brussels, Belgium – Toots Thielemans was in the front row so that was fairly mind-blowing. In France the whole front row would be friends of Stéphane’s and also Django’s so that was really nerve wracking.”
His memories of England are favourable. “It was great and amazing just to see the history of the places and meet the people and drink the beer and eat the food. Of course, the beer was insane. I remember one time being way out in the country and Diz Disley, being English, knew all the little cubby holes as we were driving round the country. He got the bus driver to take us down some little country roads to some pub with a thatched roof. A very tiny, little place – it was very, very cool just getting way out there in the country and seeing the locals.”
Mike definitely wants to come back to Britain one day, possibly as a duo with Hamilton de Holanda or even Chris Thile. Promoters, take note.