The Lowest Pair: We like to think of it as cooperative banjos

Categories: CD Release
The_Lowest_Pair_by_Sarah_Cass.jpg
Photo by Sarah Cass
The Lowest Pair are adept storytellers. Sometimes it's with their lyrics, and others it's with their banjos. With musical ties to the Twin Cities, the Olympia, Washington duo are in town to release their newest album 36¢. Produced by Trampled by Turtles' Dave Simonett, the album carries the weight of the world, yet unfolds into a springboard where they can jump from.

Before their album release on Friday night, Gimme Noise spoke with Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee about Dave and what is so compelling about the banjo.

Gimme Noise: What was it about the banjo that drew you to it?

Kendl Winter: I think what drew me to the banjo originally was the strangeness and versatility of the instrument. I was babysitting a little girl in trade for a cabin to live in when I first moved out to Olympia, Washington from Arkansas, and we put on Bela Fleck and The Flecktones and were dancing around, and I was like, "This is banjo music?"

Then I met a couple other gals at a picking circle at the Blue Heron Bakery where I was working and we wanted to start a string band. One of the gals already played guitar, so I volunteered to try my hands at the banjo.

Palmer T. Lee: The music surrounding the banjo is what first drew me to the instrument. A friend of mine got me a copy of David Grissman and Jerry Garcia's record Shady Grove, a collection of folk songs, Appalachian old time songs, and seas shanties.

Around that same time I also found a collection released by Rounder Records, four CDs of a variety of traditional American roots music. It was a stark contrast to the classic rock I'd been listening to in high school so I instantly fascinated. The rawness of the music absolutely captivated me. The warm tingly feeling the music gave me was addicting. I found my self listening to the discs over and over, being drawn to any of the tracks with banjo or flat picked guitar or scratchy rhythmic fiddle.

Also, around that time my family found out that I was writing songs and they donated me two different banjos. I liked the way one of them sounded and I liked the way the other felt to play so I began tinkering with them. Quickly I realized how modular of an instrument the banjo is. You can tinker all day achieving a wide variety of sounds just by twisting nuts and swapping parts. From then on, I was sold on the banjo.

Gimme Noise: What are some banjo greats we should know about, or who do you look up to?

Kendl Winter: Well John Hartford for one, is probably one of my favorite banjo players and songwriters. I really resonate with his way of creating sincere, and humorous songs, with lots of textures, and his fearlessness with playing, literally playing, with words and sounds. I would say he's kind of the E.E. Cummings of song-making. I love the hard rhythm-driven rolls of strong bluegrass players, and the melodic virtuosic departures that Bela Fleck or Yens Krueger create. Those guys are crazy inspiring and demonstrate the limitlessness of the instrument. 

Palmer T. Lee: As I mentioned, Jerry Garcia and David Grissman were a large part of the reason I started playing. They had a stringband in the '70s called Old And In the Way, in which Jerry played banjo with a unique drive and aggression that has really inspired my playing in a big way. He was playing 3-finger style without a middle finger which played a huge role in shaping his unique sound. Noam Pikelny, of the Punch Brothers, has been a favorite player of mine for a few years. Noam is an incredibly virtuosic player, clean, very melodic and creative. I've never seen anyone do what he does as well as he does it. Also, I have to mention John Hartford, from whom we have derived our bands namesake. John was such solid player an incredible performer and prolific songwriter. Kendl and I spend a lot of time on the road listening to sections of his discography at a time. It's wonderfully diverse and inspiringly creative, tragic, and hilarious.

Gimme Noise: You two blend in so many way onstage -- vocally and instrumentally. Why do you think you are so in tune -- no pun intended -- with each other? 

Kendl Winter: Palmer and I met at the Boats and Bluegrass Festival in Winona in '09. Both of our string bands were performing and I remember watching his band, the Boys 'n the Barrels and hearing him sing and thinking that I recognized something about his performance and musicality that was similar to the aesthetic that I was going for and drawn to.

We didn't really speak of it, and it wasn't until last January, when he got ahold of me and was interested in working on a record together. I'd ever really considered playing a double banjo duo. He wanted to come out to the Northwest for July, but I suggested he jump in the van with our friends, Pert Near Sandstone when they came out for the Wintergrass Festival and visit sooner, so two weeks later we found ourselves at that festival in Bellevue, Washington and as soon as we sang together we were like...weird...this is to easy, if it feels this good already, think of all the trouble we could get up to...

Palmer T. Lee: I think Kendl and I just have a very similar musical aesthetic, we enjoy a lot of the same things. We were also in very similar places in our lives when we first started the project, both very difficult and exciting and we got to ride out of it together -- supporting each other and playing together.

I have a tremendous respect for Kendl's art, and I think respecting the people you are being creative with is huge. It allows you to understand how important it is and how good it feels to just be quiet, or to focus your energy on supporting someone, and have someone focus their energy on supporting you. Someone might come up to us after shows and say something like, "I love the dueling banjos!" because that's a popular song or whatever, but we like to think of it more like cooperative banjos.

Gimme Noise: What was the story you wanted to tell with 36¢? 

Kendl Winter: Well, soon as we had a show or two lined up, we realized we needed some merch, so we went to the Goodwill bulk bins and bought anything blank that we figured we could silkscreen on. I drew up a couple of pear sketches and one looked a bit like a stamp. Palmer pointed that out so I added 36¢ to the image. The number 36 has always been kind of a lucky one for me; it means double life in Hebrew and seems to show up all over the place. We printed the image on a cloth napkin and liked the way it came out, so we figured it was as good as any for an album cover and a good enough name for our first record. We didn't realize how hard the cents symbol was to find on the keyboard.

Palmer T. Lee: 36¢ as an album title just sort of happened, really. Kendl was sketching out some ideas for band logos to use on some t-shirts we were going to print. I thought one of the logos looked like a postage stamp so I suggested she add the price in the corner. She did, and it looked kinda cute. We used the logo to print on some shirts and a whole bunch of other random things we could find to screen print on, one of which was a dirty, stained, red napkin. We thought that the napkin would make a cool album cover so we decided we'd might as well just call the record 36¢.
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