Seán Laffey talks to Karrnnel Sawitsky about the new release Bird's Nest from The Fretless.
The Fretless are a quartet of musicians who play unfretted stringed instruments, they come from Canada, and their base is nominally Vancouver, but hey Canada is a big country so this interview was done over the internet, with their fiddle player Karrnnel Sawitsky in Toronto.
I can't think of anything quite like this band. Their line-up is fiddles, viola and cello, looking for something similar, I thought maybe Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas or Abbey Newton. The Fretless are somewhat like that and a lot more besides, perhaps the Gloaming would put a ball park on them, but then again where the Gloaming deconstruct and slow down a tune, The Fretless shatter melodies and reassemble them into dazzling mosaics of sound. They've been dubbed Chamber-Trad and those two words describe the tenor of their music but fall short on their attitude. Imagine Mozart meeting Scott Skinner and having a jam with Michael Coleman in Morton Feldman's apartment in Queens when Flook turn up with a six-pack to strap a groove onto the tunes.
The band is Trent Freeman who plays fiddle and viola, Karrnnel Sawitsky on fiddle and viola, Ben Plotnick on fiddle and viola, and Eric Wright on cello. So I wondered hass Karrnnel come to this new form of music via a refined classical conservatoire. No, he says, his background is in traditional Canadian fiddling, in the Canadian Old Time style.
The band formed in 2011 and they began with a mission, says Karrnnel. "To make and arange music in a pure collaborative approach, allowing four perspectives to create a detailed and unique sound much different than any one". They write pieces that are generally as long as any traditional tune, from 3 to 4 minutes, yet the amount of tune fragments, chord changes, rhythmic shifts and different angles on a melody within that time frame is breath-taking. "We might play a phrase for no more than 6 seconds, and that could take 3 hours of arranging/rehearsing to put it in shape; then we move onto the next part of the jigsaw" explains Karrnnel. Those compositions take enormous skill and dedication, it may sound extemporised, but there is so much happening on a Fretless track that there has to be a consensus at work here. Karrnnel says the band is about the music, not about egos, so you won't find florid solo excursions in their repertoire.
Making music from fragments requires tremendous discipline and commitment. The approach is diametrically different to the music Karrnnel was brought up with. "I played traditional tunes for Canadian old time dances and square dances, and in those you might play the same piece 10 or 15 times over. Dance music is about the dance, so a combination of repetition for the dancers and variation for the musicians is key to playing it and having fun with it. The approach we have in The Fretless is not to get stuck into repeats – keep listeners intrigued with what is up next."
I observed that listening to many of the tracks on the album was like doing a musical pub quiz, a passage of notes would fly past and you'd be thinking I know that, but before you could put a name on it along comes another lick. Now don't get me wrong, this is no lazy mash-up, this is serious music, which nonetheless is never afraid to show their traditional roots, with tunes like the Kylebrack Rambler and The Maids of Castlebar making conspiciuous appearances.
One track stands out as the tune appears ime and again, that's Samuel's Maids, a variation on The Maid Behind The Bar, probably though, not as you have experienced it before. Karrnnel says that was one of the tunes they had the most trouble with, keeping "the tune to the forefront whilst writing new music around it, ensuring it was original and not predictable, that was a key challenge."
Karrnnel likes musical challenges, back in 2014 he set himself the task of writing a musical advent calendar. "My idea was to write 25 tunes before Christmas, at the rate of one a day. That is where the final track on the album 38 and Gone comes from. The tune was written on December 10th, the day I heard my friend Derek Bachman had died. He was only 38 and was a huge supporter of music in Sasketchewan. He had a tremendous unselfish passion for Canadian music, he helped to put the music of the Province and the Country on the map. We had met only 3 weeks before on a flight out of Toronto, I was off on a European tour and he was going to Frankfurt to promote Canadian music. We chatted about music, about the business and our hopes for the future on that flight. So when the news came through of his passing, it hit me hard and I had to write a tune for him."
Music, no matter how avant garde relies on a number of fundamental elements; rhythm, melody and harmony, these are what we in the west are nurtured to appreciate. So the problem with a string quartet is how to lay down the beat. There's no piano, guitar, or drums to establish the pulse, for The Fretless that task is given over to the cello. "It's a relatively new technique in string instruments, and specifically with the cello", says Karrnnel, explaining that the rapid growth of it has come a large part out of the Berkeley school of music. "It's called the chop, and it is so exciting to add it to your repertoire as a string player. With the cello you have the depth and bass lines from the cello plus this rasping percussive undertow." I observe that some of the tracks, such as Alphonso Mackenzie's and Renim Road on the album, have a menacing quality that comes from the contribution of the cello.
The Fretless went on tour in Europe in October with Petr Pandula's Magnetic Music organisation. "We launch the new album in the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra Hall on October 3rd. Petr rang us up and suggested we perform at the CPO, and we thought wow what an honour." The band has toured Europe before and this will be the first time European audiences have seen their new addition, fiddle player Ben Plotnick. Karrnnel says, "Ben is one of those players who inspire you to play and we are delighted he has joined us."
Karrnnel is also full of praise for their recording engineer Joby Baker from Victoria. "He has the grace to listen and to communicate with the band, he offers suggestions without imposing his ideas, which is a skill in itself, and his listening is so acute and accurate he knows what we are trying to do." Karrnnel's advice to anyone working in a studio is to have your sets worked out weeks in advance. "We rehearsed the album material for 10 days before we ventured into the studio, and they were long days. When we went to record we were no longer thinking about the mechanics of playing the tunes, our fingers knew where to go, which gave us the space to establish the grooves and play at full tilt."
Take a listen to Bird's Nest and catch them on YouTube and hear them in all their complex glory. The Fretless' 3rd studio album Bird's Nest will be released in the UK on November 7th.
First published @ Irish Music Magazine #256, November 2016 (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
Photo Credits: (1), (4) The Fretless, (2) Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas, (3) The Gloaming (unknown/website).