• We Banjo 3 Interview

    We Banjo 3 (left to right): Fergal Scahill, Martin Howley, David Howley, Enda Scahill

    A band with a name like We Banjo 3 was bound to catch our eye, right? But it turns out that this group based in Galway, Ireland is grabbing the attention of a lot more people than just banjo players.

    At the Irish festivals in America where they frequently headline, ask just about anyone who their favorite act is, and odds are the answer will be We Banjo 3. Whether they're playing at a festival to crowds of thousands or going solo in a more intimate venue, We Banjo 3 has been captivating audiences of all musical persuasions with their energetic arrangements that seamlessly blend traditional Irish, Bluegrass, Old Time, and Folk music into a genre that some have dubbed "Celt Grass," and that Ross Holmes of Mumford and Sons has simply described as "banjo awesomeness." And yes, they do this in a format in which the banjo is not merely prominent, but predominant.

    They're also spreading the banjo word well beyond the shores of their native Ireland, regularly touring throughout Europe, America, and most recently Japan. Don't be surprised if you also start seeing them appear on the bill of festivals such as MerleFest, where they'll be playing in April of 2016.

    Although almost all the band members are accomplished on the instrument (to put it mildly), its banjo backbone is made up of Enda Scahill and Martin Howley, with frequent appearances from the unofficial fifth member of the band, Garry O'Meara. Rounding out their lineup is Enda's brother Fergal Scahill on fiddle, and Martin's brother David Howley, a powerful banjo player in his own right who is usually seen providing guitar and lead vocals for the group. Their banjo creds include multiple All Ireland Banjo Championship titles between the lot of them, as well as Enda's immensely popular Irish Banjo Tutor. Their musical associations have included not only some of the leading names in traditional Irish music, but also Bluegrass musicians such as Ricky Skaggs. In fact, Martin holds the honor of being the first Irish tenor banjo player to appear on the Grand Ole Opry.

    We recently had a chance to sit down with Martin and Garry from the band to chat about the influences that brought about this banjo powerhouse.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: We caught up with the band for this interview in September 2015 at the Kansas City Irish Fest, where Garry O'Meara was filling in for Enda Scahill. We hope to feature Enda in a future interview!

    Although you may not always have three banjos going at once, there's often at least two banjo players on stage at the same time and you certainly don't shy away from putting the spotlight on the banjo as the instrument at the core of the band's identity. What was the inspiration for forming the band with such a banjo-centered approach?

    Martin: To be honest, a lot of the genesis of it is a festival called "Celtic Connections" in Glasgow, Scotland. It's a huge Celtic festival that runs over four weekends in January. It has a real emphasis on good quality, virtuosity in music. They bring in a lot of Bluegrass acts, and there's a good cross-pollination that happens there. So there was collaboration with a guy named Leon Hunt from Bath, England. He's a fabulous 5-string banjo player who plays pretty progressive stuff in the style of Noam Pikelny and Bela Fleck and those kind of players- very melodically driven. So he had started to delve into the world of Celtic music and reels and jigs in a big way, because he was based in Bath, where there are a huge number of very high quality Irish musicians living. He was at the festival, and Enda and he struck up a friendship based on the banjo. And then Enda came back and said "I would love to do a band where it's banjos intertwining and telling a story." And we were talking about it, and I suppose it was a natural inclination for Dave and I to play with Enda because we'd known him for so long, and he was a big influence on me growing up as a player.

    Was Enda your teacher?

    Martin: He was at one point. He taught Jonny Harty, another fabulous banjo player from Galway, who then taught David and me. We were like Enda's banjo grandchildren in a lot of ways. So, We Banjo 3 basically came about as an experiment in banjo playing and the love of banjo playing, and crossing Bluegrass and Irish music, and that's what was at its core from the very start. And we had a lot of fun doing it.

    Was there any particular moment when you felt like an actual band was starting to coalesce as opposed to you guys just jamming?

    Martin: We sat down in Enda's kitchen, and we played two old timey tunes, Poor Old Liza Jane and Dance Boatman Dance, which are really easy old time tunes with a lot of groove and fun to them. And when we did that we kind of went, wow, that's special and it's fun and there's something in that, because we all were standing around smiling. And so, we did a gig in Galway then at the Galway Art's Festival in 2009, and it was our first-ever gig and we sold it out, in the Roisin Dubh, where incidentally we recorded our latest live album. And the band grew from there.

    How did the band evolve after you first formed it?

    Martin: We started to play more and more gigs. And at the beginning there was a lot of other story telling of the journey of the banjo, from African roots to America, and how that came across with the minstrel tradition to Ireland. And the vast connections between Irish music and Bluegrass music and Irish music and Old Time music. Because those fiddle players would have brought over the tunes as immigrants, and that would have largely influenced old time music. And Bill Monroe said it himself, there'd be no Bluegrass without the Irish.

    And that's from a Scotsman!

    Martin: So, the band had that genesis. And then, what's happened since is we did a show in Milwaukee about four years ago.

    At the Milwaukee Fest?

    Martin: Yes, at the Milwaukee Irish Festival. We went over on a wing and a prayer. The guys had all toured in America with different outfits. And we were like, we'd love to break into that market and start playing music there. So, we got over and we played in Milwaukee. And before we went we had a sit down. At the time, it was three banjo players largely playing banjo most of the time, Dave would sing and play guitar sometimes. We'd sit down and we'd tell stories. We thought, that's not going to be something that will translate at a festival environment. And then, we were kind of putting our heads together and, at the time we had all been playing with Fergal, who is Enda's younger brother and who is a very talented multi-instrumentalist. He can play anything that he puts his hand to, but he's probably one of Ireland's best fiddle players. And, because he's played with Enda for so long, he plays with a fiddle style that's quite unique. It's very rhythmic and it fits very well with banjo, like it ties very well with banjo, because he plays with such energy that it matches the kind of staccato feel of banjo. So it keeps that energy tight. And so, we asked Fergal to join us, and he came over with us to Milwaukee. And after the first show in Milwaukee went so well, we sat down and said let's make it a full time four-piece this way. And so Fergal, myself, David and Enda started playing together as a four piece and it's been that way ever since.

    We All Need More Kindness in this World, Shove the Pig's Foot a Little Further in the Fire, Last Night's Fun

    How and when did Garry come to start touring with the band?

    Martin: Enda has young family, and so Garry has been playing for years on the scene and would be largely known as one of the best banjo players in Ireland today. So, when we needed someone for our band, the first person to mind was Garry. And not alone that, but we all had a deep friendship with Garry from playing with him in different outfits. So Fergal and Garry toured the world together playing all over from Asia through to America and Europe. And David played with Garry for a long time in a resident gig. And I knew Garry from back and forth trading gigs and covering each other and such. So, we knew each other a long time. And then we did a gig with Garry, it was probably three years ago. And he just sat in and from the instant, it just made sense, it wasn't a struggle musically, he wasn't filling Enda's shoes, he was doing something entirely different and creating his own energy in the band. That's the best type of music. It's not a substitute. He's someone who brings his own energy to the band. And that makes it fun for everyone. So Garry comes out and he plays with us and he adds so much in different ways that it's amazing. We've been very blessed that way that Garry has filled in for me when I'm away. And he fills in for Enda when he's away. And so he's like a member of the band in all but name. He just comes out and does tours and he's great fun. So that's how Garry is here with us.

    Garry: I'll slip you that $20 later on!

    Martin: Don't bother!

    We Banjo 3 with Garry O'Meara: Cavan Reel, Up Against the Boughalauns, and Dublin Lasses

    The band has four members on stage at any one time, and most of your sets don't include a full contingent of three banjos. So, just where does the name "We Banjo 3" come from?

    Martin: Our idea was to put the four of us together in a band, it was never a three-piece. Originally, it was actually Enda, David and I, and Leon Hunt. We played our first gig in Galway as a four-piece. And the reason We Banjo 3 came up was it kind of rhymes and it sounds interesting and mysterious. We had no better story than that. Now, we recently heard that four is an unlucky number in Japan, so I think that's going to become our own story. We may use that as an excuse for not using four, we have no good reason for not being We Banjo 4. It just never sounded as interesting or mysterious. So We Banjo 3 "stuck."

    My impression is that for a long time in traditional Irish music, the banjo as a melody instrument kind of took a back seat to other instruments like the fiddle, flute, and accordion. Am I right in that perception?

    Garry: Historically, absolutely you'd be right that fiddles are more dominant. But the banjo has had a great rise in traditional music and it's a fairly big part of the scene now. I think it would have been seen as having more of an accompanying role in times gone by, but it's a really popular instrument due largely to, first, Barney McKenna of the Dubliners, who really popularized the instrument, but Gerry O'Connor just blew the whole scene wide open. And then young people like us kids at the time we're hearing this goin' "what even is it," like getting inspired by it. And you have a lot of banjo melody players now in Irish music. It's kind of fought its corner.

    Martin: I would say you're right in a way too, that there's maybe not as many professional bands playing with banjo-centric or banjo-forward music. And that's largely because it takes a little bit of time, there's latency to how popular an instrument is and then before they hit professional musician age, you know. So, you're seeing a lot of new bands now on the Irish scene with banjo centric forefront. It's become super popular that way.

    We Banjo 3 Live in Galway album
    Live in Galway Album Recorded at the Roisin Dubh in Galway

    What are some of the signs you're seeing indicating a rise in the banjo's popularity in traditional Irish music?

    Martin: There's a traditional music week down in County Clare called the Willie Clancy Week in Milltown Malby. It's a huge mecca of Irish music in a lot of ways, and they teach workshops that are like master classes. Traditionally, you would see over a hundred kids enrolled in the fiddle, and over a hundred kids in accordion, and over a hundred kids in flute. And so you'd have the number of teachers according to that. And the greatest growth curve of any instrument is the banjo. In the last five years, probably even the last ten years, it's increased year on year exponentially. So, last year at Willie Clancy the banjo players now outnumbered the fiddle players. Which is incredible when you think, even in the relatively modern scale of Irish music, if you think about the Coleman era through to now, fiddle, flute, and accordion have been dominant. And then now you're seeing the banjo come in, and the growth curve has been exceptionally fast. The other instruments like bouzouki and guitar, they don't have the same growth curve as players as banjo. Banjo is just exploding. There are so many young banjo players. It's really interesting touring in Ireland. You do a gig in Ireland, and there's a portion of the audience that's extremely young, like teens and even below that, that are young musicians. And the vast majority of them are banjo players. Obviously because we're a banjo-centric band they're coming out to see that. But they're excited by it and they're involved in an ancient music tradition. That would be the greatest barometer for it all is that the banjo has that growth curve with the young people. I don't even know in five or ten years' time, when those guys grow up a little bit and come of age to work and to tour...

    Garry: We're in trouble!

    I don't know about that! The speed and technical precision of all the banjo players in your band just stun me, as I think it does many folks who may be hearing it for the first time. And then, on top of those driving triplets and trebles that you do, you also have a way of emulating the roll patterns associated with three-finger style on the five-string banjo. What are the influences that inspired you as you were learning to play the banjo in such an energized style?

    Martin: We all play in a similar style and, I guess the forerunner to a lot of what we do is Gerry "Banjo" O'Connor, who was a huge influence on me and Enda, and Garry.

    Garry: Oh absolutely.

    Martin: He had the same effect in Irish music that Earl Scruggs or Bela Fleck had in America on three-finger style. He took it from an instrument that was good into new heights as a virtuosic solo instrument. So I would really credit Gerry O'Connor largely with doing that. He was like a Jimmy Hendrix on the banjo, like the stuff he did was magical.

    Garry: And still does.

    Yeah, I remember the first time I heard Gerry's music being played years ago in a record store during a visit to Galway. I was so floored by what I was hearing that I asked the clerk who we were listening to, and I walked out of the shop the happy new owner of his Time to Time album.

    Garry: Well, Barney McKenna has to take credit as well with the Dubliners in the '60s. There were other bands as well like the Johnstons with Mick Maloney, you know. In that folk boom, it happened on both sides of the Atlantic with the banjo, you know with Pete Seeger obviously over here and at home. You have to go back to there really, wouldn't you say Martin?

    Martin: Yeah, that's the genesis.

    Garry: Barney McKenna did a lot with the Dubliners, who were so, so popular. And he was such a great crackin', charismatic guy as well. So he takes a lot of credit for that. I think Gerry just took it to a level on the four-string, like with some of those five-string effects. And we're all doing them now, but I don't think we'd be doing that without Gerry O'Connor. The lads actually wrote that in their sleeve notes for the first album. I think you have to give him credit for that. I was talking to another banjo player, called Christy Sheridan, who's played for years in a ballad band in Ireland called the Bards. He'd be more in the accompanying style on the banjo than melody. He said to me once, he was kind of praising me and saying "God, I really love your playing, it's fantastic, but in fairness, I think we'd all have to acknowledge that the likes of you wouldn't be doing that if it wasn't for Gerry O'Connor." And I'd be the first to agree with that. So yeah, from that point of view, like Martin said, that just inspired so many young people. There's a scary bunch of young banjo players now, not of age yet, but the standard is unbelievable. God only knows what the scene is going to be like in 10 or 15 or 20 years. They'll be taking over man!

    On the theme of cross pollination between Irish and Bluegrass music that you raised earlier, you're often described as being "Celt Grass." Leaving aside that label, how would you describe your approach to the music of the band and what you're trying to achieve?

    Martin: I would say that, without trying to sound fanciful and to add too much gravitas to it, we do really come from the angle of musicianship. So, we've all enjoyed playing Irish music. We've grown up all our lives playing Irish music, and we have a huge reverence for it. And alongside that, from different angles, we've all grown up with a love of Bluegrass, in different ways. For David and me, it was largely because our father was into Country music and Bluegrass. So we listened to that growing up in the house. We used to have mixed tapes where you'd have, for example, Flatt and Scruggs, and Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash. And then on the other side you'd have Paul Brady and the Dubliners. And we'd listen to that in the car going to school every morning and coming home from school in the evening and all the other car trips. So we had a lot of that kind of exposure to that kind of music. And for Enda and Fergal, and probably Garry, listening to Bluegrass music, which is so associated with the banjo, it was a natural transition to jump into that music. And, the first time you hear the five-string doing the rolling cross-picking, it's the most amazing sound, to me anyway.

    For me too.

    Martin: It's like the sound of happiness and energy and it's moving forward. It just gives such ferocious energy to the music. And I loved that. I used to have an app on the computer, before the days of the phone, which was called the Amazing Slow Downer. And I used to slow down Bela Fleck records, and try to figure out how his cross pick worked, so that I could do it on a four-string banjo with a pick. Because I could never do it at the speed he was doing it at. And then I would just sit for hours doing it over and over again.

    Garry: He did have three goin', in fairness!

    Martin: Yeah, he did have three! He was cheatin'!

    Well you guys don't seem to be suffering too much as far as speed goes. I don't think Bluegrass players, for the most part, can play triplets, particularly at that sustained breakneck pace that you do.

    Garry: Well see, I think there's a huge mutual respect between Irish musicians and American Bluegrass musicians. Because some of the stuff, the ornamentations that you guys do over here, it just kind of blows our minds. And then when they see us doing like those triplets with a single plectrum, it's like, what even is that?

    I can't believe it myself, speaking as a 5-string player.

    Garry: Yeah, we've had that before, I've had five-string, three-finger style players come up to me with that same reaction. But goin' back to your question, I suppose we don't pigeon-hole it, it isn't hard to pigeon-hole it. Basically, coming from the point of view, I think we're all fairly progressive players, willing to experiment and push the boundaries of traditional Irish music. And that kind of culminates in the sound you've got. But we are influenced obviously by the American stuff. I mean, in the last few years since I've been listening to loads of Bluegrass and the five-string players, I started to do more ornamentations like pull-offs and hammer-ons. Before, I was always relying on the plectrum hand with the triplets.

    Those left-hand techniques are not that common in traditional Irish playing?

    Garry: Well they are, but they wouldn't be as much, it depends on your style, but a lot of the tenor banjo playing, you're really relying on your right hand to get in a load of those quarter notes and all of that. Whereas, when you start in the middle of solos like "We All Need More Kindness in this World," we all take a solo, a lot of what we're doing is closer to the Bluegrass. I'm not saying we're Bluegrass musicians, but a lot of the stuff we're doing now sounds more like a Bluegrass band than an Irish band. Even though we grew up listening to Irish music constantly, I'm always listening to Bluegrass music and Old Time stuff now.

    But you guys are obviously listening to other things too. For example, I'm thinking of the tune "Liberty" from your Roots of the Banjo Tree CD. On the "B" part, you guys are actually getting into a couple of bars there that are obviously influenced by Dixieland. So your interests seem to be a lot broader than just Irish or Bluegrass.

    Martin: Yeah, it's music. We listen to something and we think "I like the sound of that." I would say that Mumford and Sons is an influence on us. And the Avett Brothers. And a lot of the more modern folk-inspired rock stuff, and the big male, four-part harmonies. We've started to do a lot more harmony singing in the band, and that's something that's clearly part of Bluegrass as well. So, it's very hard to label, as Garry said, it's not pigeon-holing, we play the music that we're enjoying and we try to present that to the audience in the most honest way we can, and hope that they will enjoy it. Because, if you're enjoying what you're doing, I think largely that's the recipe for success. If you're enjoying what you're doing and can translate that, then someone else is going to enjoy it, and then come away with a smile on their face.

    Garry: I would think we're all very open minded musically. You know, you're saying it's not just Irish and Bluegrass. My dad had old vinyls, and I grew up listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and then I went through the Guns and Roses phase when I was about eight or nine. But I absolutely am certain there's influence taken from all of that. And I know the lads are the same. I know Fergal knew every Beatles song inside out because of his older brother (not Enda, but another brother who's a great musician as well.) And he had him playing all the Beatles stuff and listening to it, and understanding the chords and all from a very young age. I mean Fergal's an absolute whizz on the guitar as well, he has an unbelievable mind for chords and stuff. But it's a good thing to be open minded musically obviously, and not just stick to one genre. I studied music in college and I did a thesis around the banjo, Irish music, musicians, and I was lucky enough to get to chat to a lot of the top guys. One of the questions I had was basically what you asked which was "are you into other kind of stuff" or "what do you listen to that's not Irish?" When I asked Gerry O'Connor that question, he talked for about half an hour. You know he was talking to me about people like Doc Watson and all sorts of bands I'd never heard of, and he goes, Och!, Listen to these guys, you know, the Blind Boys of Alabama. And I went out and bought a load of albums. We're not just listening to Irish and/or Bluegrass music.

    The types of shows you guys are doing can range anywhere from big festival crowds to smaller settings. Do you tailor a different approach to each of those audiences?

    Martin: The band has evolved now to be headlining at Irish culture festivals, where you're playing to an audience that might not be as musically literate as an arts center, so there are people who may not have listened to you previously at all. This might be their first meeting of We Banjo 3, and it might be the first time they really listen to Irish music in that sense, in that melodic, driven sense. And they might not listen to much Bluegrass. So, you're dealing with a person for whom you're their introduction to a huge melding of music. And so how do you translate and put across the best of and still keep them entertained and having fun. So I feel like there's an evolution where there's different shows for different audiences, and you know like, when you're playing to six thousand people in an open air stage late at night with all the lights it's going to be different to an arts center where you're playing to 200 people who all have all your CDs and can sing along to all the words. So there's a great difference in that. That's been the fun thing lately, we've been kind of trying to switch from going on a Saturday night to playing to six and a half thousand people and then coming off stage and signing autographs, and then getting in the car and on the Monday drive to a small theater, guitar shop, or an arts center and you play to a hundred people.

    Martin, I can't let you go without asking you about the Grand Ole Opry. You appeared at the Opry back in 2011 with the Paul Brock and Manus McGuire band. Tell me how that came about?

    Martin: It really goes back to what we were talking about with the actual meeting of the two music genres and the idea that Irish music is largely linked with Bluegrass music. So, the guys at the top of the Bluegrass game, guys like Aubrey Haynie, and Bryan Sutton, and of course, Ricky Skaggs, have a love of Irish music and they're absolutely fascinated by it and how it works. You know, that lilt that we put into music that's kind of nuanced and indescribably Irish. And then our approach to ornamentation, how we see a tune melodically and how we see a tune rhythmically, in comparison to how Bluegrass is played. So, they were fascinated by all of that, and the roots of where their music came from. And so they got involved with a phenomenal duo that have a band directly out of Ireland called Paul Brock and Manus McGuire. They're two musicians that are among the greatest exponents of Irish music. They play an incredibly refined, pure Irish music in a very accessible way. And so, they got connected with Ricky Skaggs and this project came about where they explored the connections of Irish music and Bluegrass music. And then I was on tour with them in the States in Asheville, and the opportunity came up to play in the Grand Ole Opry. So, I was hugely thankful because I was a young guy, 19 I think, and it was an incredible opportunity. And my dad, who was a huge Bluegrass and Country Music fan, loved the Opry and would listen to the Opry radio growing up, because we could get it, so I'd known about the Opry for a long time. So then playing on the Opry was like, I'm really standing in that circle. It was pretty amazing.

    Garry: It was a good CD night, that one!

    Martin: It was a good CD night! I've been trading off that ever since! No, it was incredible, and I mean, meeting those guys, and I guess, even more so than the couple of minutes on stage was backstage. I think I stayed up till 5:00 that morning playing with Bluegrass guys. And I've actually developed friendships that have lasted a long time since. Beyond music, just good friends that we met. Guys like Ross Holmes and Matt Menefee from Cadillac Sky were backstage that night. That was a huge progressive Bluegrass band at that time. And Ross went on to play with Mumford and Sons. Those two guys were playing this incredible virtuosic Bluegrass music that I was really switched into. We sat up for hours playing. And, sitting down with Bryan Sutton, I could listen to Bryan Sutton forever! He said to me, "you need to show me how to do the trebles," and I'm like, "I don't need to show you how to do anything! I don't even want to pick up an instrument around you!" And he said, "no, just give me a second and show me the trebles." And looking at Aubrey Haynie. We changed a variation in one tune at the last minute. Aubrey Haynie harmonized on the fly, and double-stopped the whole thing. The level of virtuosity in the room was just astounding. It was a great jumping-off point for me because I had probably become, maybe a little bit jaded about Irish music. You know, I'd listened to so much Irish music that I nearly overtaxed myself, and I needed something new to really reinvigorate music for me. And that was the genesis of a lot of my Bluegrass re-inspiration. Because I'd been listening to Earl Scruggs and listened to Bela Fleck and I met up with Bryan and Aubrie and those guys, and it switched me on to a whole other world, you know I listened to Chris Thile a lot. A lot of my mandolin playing now is informed by that point onward, trying to inspire myself to Bluegrass mandolin.


    Roots of the Banjo Tree, Gather the Good, and Live in Galway

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