Analogue Music | Twisted Pine

Twisted Pine

By Matt Conner

The lineup doesn't work on paper.

Chris Sartori, bassist for Twisted Pine, acknowledges as much when talking about the band's instrumental makeup. He's not wrong. A quartet comprised of a fiddler (Kathleen Parks), a flutist (Anh Phung), a mandolin player (Dan Bui) and a bassist is not exactly standard industry fare.

The good news is music isn't made on paper, and Twisted Pine has been upending expectations since their self-titled debut dropped a few years ago. Fans of Crooked Still or the Punch Brothers are obvious references but even those fall short of this head-shaking, jaw-dropping amalgam of influences that begin in traditional bluegrass waters and swim toward jazz, wade into funk, and dive into jam music's end of the pool.

We recently sat down with Sartori to hear more about the band's new album, Right Now; the recent move to add a flute to the mix; and how Twisted Pine's odd makeup makes marketplace categorization a bit difficult.

Analogue: I know you can't answer for everyone, but I'd love to hear about your own musical upbringing given the great mix of influences in the band.

Chris Sartori: It's different amongst all of us. For me personally, I grew up on funk music and R&B and jazz and that kind of thing. Hearing the Flecktones for the first time, it was like, 'Oh man, this crossover exists and it's possible.' And hearing Bela Fleck and how he approached the banjo is what introduced me to the bluegrass world.

So when I was coming up, I had this duality of the electronic funk/rock kind of stuff but also acoustic music and bluegrass and Americana. That's what I came up on and it has stayed pretty much the same. In college, I was studying jazz at UMass but I also had a bluegrass band I was playing in at the time.

'Right Now'
'Right Now'

Analogue: Do you think that is foundational for you guys to have these varied influences coming together in this fusion?

Chris: That's definitely one of the bonds that we share. We started as a bluegrass band, but the commonality was that we were open to different kind of song forms and experimenting with different grooves and rhythms. That's what helped us to develop our sound into what it is and became on this current record. Even now, it still feels like it's in this constant process of development.

Analogue: Does this fusion that makes you unique make it difficult to find your place within the bigger marketplace?

Chris: Yeah, totally. Good question. That's something we're always thinking about. At the end of the day, we're going to make the music we want to make but then we have to figure out how to get people to listen to it. I definitely feel like when people have a hard time putting a finger on what it is you're actually doing, it gives people a little more pause than they otherwise would if they could hear your music and immediately say, 'Okay, you sound like this and would be appropriate at this venue in front of this audience.' So as a band charting new territory, it feels very challenging at times. But the payoff is also potentially greater because it's something people haven't heard before.

Analogue: True. And I'd assume that staying true to what you do is going to lead where you ultimately want to be.

Chris: I think so, too. We think about it all the time. Ultimately when it comes down to making music, we're not thinking about how it's going to be sold or marketed. Especially with this album, it was just a super-organic process. We didn't talk about what we wanted the sound to be. It just came out. I think that's one of the good things about our group is that we're not overly concerned from the musical end about what it's going to be.

Analogue: What do those conversations look like? You said we talk or think about it all the time.

Chris: The conversation happens as we're making our plans. For example, what festivals do we want to target? What festivals do we feel like we will do well at or that the audience will understand what we're doing? Or asking what kind of art will represent the band, given that we're not stylistically attached to any genre. So those instances bring up the conversation of how we'd describe ourselves. Sometimes it gets pretty meta but it's everyone throwing out ideas and I think it's a slow process finding your place in the music world. I think it can take a lot of time, but it's something we revisit all the time.

Analogue: You've released your self-titled debut and then the Dreams EP. What new instrumentation or influences are you working with these days?

Chris: Well, this is the first time we've been in the studio with Anh [Phung], our flute player, so instrumentally, it's pretty different than the first two. That informs the sound also because our instrumentation is bass, mandolin, flute and fiddle. That leaves a lot of space to experiment and do cool stuff. From a sonic standpoint, it feels a lot different from Dreams and the self-titled. And groove-wise, that was another place where we took a lot that was happening on Dreams in terms of the non-traditional bluegrass groove approach and took that to the next level. This album feels far funkier and on the back end of the beat in a lot of ways.

Analogue: That's gotta be a lot more fun for you in particular this time around.

Chris: Yeah, I'm loving it. [Laughs] It's my dream band.

Analogue: Yeah, based on what you said earlier, it sounds like you have a real voice into what's going on there.

Chris: Yeah, I'm glad you said that because that's how I feel. This whole process and just listening to the album has been like, 'This is sick!' It's such a good blend of that funky-ness and grooviness but also the songwriting still feels super-balanced.

Analogue: Some bands might say, 'Let's bring in a flute into the studio for this particular track.' It's another thing entirely—and a rare one—to make that a permanent part of the mix.

Chris: The addition of Anh was one of those moments that was very serendipitous. It was more of a vibe thing than an instrumentation thing. At the time, it's not like seeking out flutes to be in the band. On paper, it just doesn't make much sense. But her personality and the vibe she brings was such an easy fit for us. We were immediately all on the same page from day one. We had a couple gigs Anh just jumped into. She was familiar with our music but we hadn't rehearsed or anything, but we had a blast. People really seemed to like it, so we thought, 'Well, this is kind of a weird instrumentation but you can't ignore the vibe.' When the vibe is good, you've gotta go with it.

Analogue: How does that affect the older songs?

Chris: We have reworked them a bit, yeah. Anh sings harmonies, so bringing her vocals into the groove was one thing that differentiates some of the older arrangements from the new ones. Also where to place flute into the mix in terms of what the line is or what role she's playing. It sounds pretty different, just because of the timbre of the instrument, and she is actually able to do all kinds of rhythmic stuff, like percussive things, which is great for us because having four instruments all contribute in their own way to the groove of the band fills that hole that we otherwise might not be able to fill.

VISIT: Twisted Pine

Photo Credit: Jo Chattman