In the second part of our interview with the influential musician, Mike talks about mandolins, bluegrass and the future for both.
Mike Marshall has a prolific past and a busy future ahead, but what’s he excited about right now? The answer is his latest instrument, a 10-string mandola custom built to his specs.
“I got Lawrence Smart, who built my mandola which is the best mandola I’ve ever got my hands on, so I thought he’d be the guy to build a 10-string,” Mike explains enthusiastically. “I had him build me this 10-string which is really a mandola with a high E as opposed to a mandolin with a low C. It’s a big instrument and I had him do it with fanned frets so the C string is a longer scale length than the E string.
“The nut is angled pretty severely and the bridge is also angled in the opposite way,” he continues. “So at the 12th fret the frets are square but as you move in either direction they fan out. The C string is just a little bit under what a mandola would be and the E string is a little bit longer than a mandolin’s.
“It’s got a lot of sustain, so it makes me write in a totally different way than I would with a mandolin. It’s not so chirpy – more in the guitar range and more like an octave mandolin. It doesn’t work for bluegrass!”
It’s a strange looking instrument but sounds wonderful, with a deep cittern-like voice and Mike can’t wait to play it at every opportunity. “It’s very fun to have around, I haven’t touched the Loar since this thing came in the house!”
The way Mike enthuses about his latest acquisition it is easy to see his passion and love for the mandolin. It’s a passion that goes way beyond his own playing and to the future of the instrument in general. Indeed, he has a vested interest as a founder of the Mandolin Symposium, a camp for mandolin musicians that takes place each June in California.
The instrument is enjoying a surge in popularity right now with a young, talented generation of bluegrass musicians emerging on the scene. “Clearly Chris Thile has given the mandolin a nice shot, with all these kids inspired by him and taking it up. That’s pretty exciting for me to see,” says Mike. “I’m just sad that it took twenty years for Chris to come along. I mean, I’ve been kind of waiting.”
Thile and his peers have plenty of detractors who are quick to criticise the music they create. However, Mike sees this new generation as the next logical step in a long line of innovators. “There’s a natural progression that happens. What Bill Monroe was doing in the ’40s and ’50s was equally mind-blowing to old-timey musicians. It was like him and Earl Scruggs were from Mars or something!” he tells us. “I think it’s important for people to remember that the music, even though it’s traditional music, when it was created it was incredibly forward thinking and they were incorporating a lot of other styles into the old-time music.
“It’s hard to think of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs as contemporary but I think in retrospect you have to. They were a product of probably the first rural musicians who had radio and so they heard a lot more music than the generation preceding them. They heard swing and classical music and other kinds of popular music. The generation before them, the only music they heard was the music they played for themselves. So if you wanted to hear somebody you had to go over to that next hill and check them out!
“And so Sam Bush and David Grisman came along in the ’70s and they were the product of another generation that grew up on LPs and transcribing stuff. They lived in the big cities and heard rock ‘n’ roll and Indian music and all kinds of classical and jazz. So they did to the mandolin what would be natural for their generation.
“Chris Thile, I feel, represents yet another leap. His generation has access to the internet and it’s an ideal that only now is starting to manifest itself. In some ways it’s kind of a messy period for musicians in that we have so much access now that the bigger question is ‘How do we focus? What do we decide to focus on and get rid of?’. Chris is one of those rare musicians that comes along every 50 years or so that has tremendous focus, an insane work ethic and is able to encapsulate many styles into one thing that he’s calling his own. Having the level of technique that he does, he is pushing the envelope in terms of what’s possible on the instrument.”
Teaching at the Mandolin Symposium, Mike has got to know yet another generation of mandolin pickers. “I know all the young American mandolin players. They’re taking the classical music aesthetic of tone and clarity and applying that to swing and bluegrass. It’s real neat,” he says. “I brought a group of them to France recently to the Lunel Mandolin Festival. The people of France flipped out – 15 to 18-year-olds playing this well. It’s kind of unbearable! At the Symposium they all hang out together and they all jam ’til 4am every night. It’s amazing and very exciting to see.”
With a discography that covers bluegrass, jazz, classical, choro and now Scandinavian folk, Mike obviously doesn’t believe in pigeonholing himself. It’s an attitude he hopes will be passed to these young players. “This next generation will hopefully learn that it’s important to come from a really deep tradition but also to push at the outer limits of where that tradition is going,” he says. “I’d like to think that music is like wind. It doesn’t have any national boundaries, age boundaries or even stylistic boundaries. Of course, that’s foolish because bluegrass is a specific thing and classical music is another thing – but they both touch me deeply and so how can you not want to play it all?”
So with all these youngsters becoming involved in the music, will the success of bluegrass soar in the 21st century? “Bluegrass goes through ups and downs of popularity,” says Mike. “As Darol Anger pointed out, it’s like the cicadas that come out every 7 years.
“It’s usually a movie that gives bluegrass another shot,” he continues. “You have Bonnie and Clyde, that Flatt and Scruggs did the music for. There was a big interest in traditional music right around that time. And the next big shot was Deliverance with Duelling Banjos in the ’70s. Then the whole Oh Brother, Where Art Thou thing came around, and with Alison Krauss and Nickel’s Creek’s popularity you have another wave of traditional music being recognised by average Joe Public. It’ll probably die back down again – but it’s always there.”