THE PEOPLE NEED LIGHT – DAROL ANGER AND MR. SUN
Darol Anger is a legendary fiddler; he’s also one of those rare musicians whose career has spanned many generations. He’s living a rich full musical life; whether teaching, composing or performing it’s with a passionate heart. His new band Mr. Sun boasts multi-generational players; happily their music takes no notice of age.
AS: What was the drive or instigation to form Mr. Sun?
DA: Well you know it’s one of those things that’s like a blind date. I’d been playing and working with mandolin player Joe Walsh for a very long time, since he was a student at Berklee College of Music (2003). I came to be guest clinician and he was definitely the best student in that group. I just really enjoyed working with him and we kept in touch. When I moved out to the East Coast (Portland, ME) he was also living there at the time. So we discovered that we wanted to play together informally, and that went on for a few years. Then, you know, people show up…you play at festivals, you do clinics, workshops and with this kind of music, its social music, people play, you jam all the time, and you find other people pretty easily.
Guitar player Grant Gordy actually came up to me cause he was playing with David Grisman who’s my old boss as well (back in the 1970s) and we took notes, and had a good laugh. He’s one of the most amazing musicians that I’d ever played with. So Grant and Joe met somehow, somewhere and these things just coalesce. We booked a gig and it just went so well, everyone was on the same wavelength. One of the things at this point in my career is, unless the other musicians can make me laugh through their playing, and if I can make them laugh then I think we’ve got something great. It’s a constantly evolving conversation with a lot of joking around, and some very serious stuff too. You know music is not that serious an occupation, we just really love playing and trying to crack each other up.
AS: And who came up with the name Mr. Sun?
DA: It’s an uber name, I just didn’t want a band name like the Frying Pan Lickers or just one of those names that peg you; I didn’t want a lumberjack beard name. I wanted something that was beyond that. And it’s funny cause the band photo we took, we had just played a gig and we’re like this is a band, isn’t this great! Well, we better take a picture and it happened to be at a community center in Vermont, actually a children’s library and the only blank wall space had this beautiful antique looking sun, like a smiling sun and we lined up under that. Everybody took pictures and so it looked like there was this extra guy in the picture, the sun, our bass player said oh, Mr. Sun! That’s the band! And it’s proven out really well with the idea of an overarching jovial presence that fits with the band, and also led to the name of our album The People Need Light.
AS: What’s on the horizon for the band… the album?
DA: Yes, the album is coming, it’s all recorded everything is done we’re just waiting for the manufacturers to figure out how to get it made. It should happen within a couple of months. I’m very excited about that and we’ve almost got another records worth of material from the time since we cut the first record till now…so it’s endless.
As far as artistically I see a lot, we’re sort of like the low-rent Punch Brothers in a way, and everybody wants to try different things. I come from a long tradition of screwing around with acoustic string band music and I learned from the best…you know David Grisman and Tony Rice. That’s just a good thing that I like to do, that’s what I’m good at and those guys have jumped in with both feet. Some of the records that I was on were some of the records that got them playing music in the first place. So I think that it’s really amazing to work with these guys, we can really do some things. They know all of the material backwards and forwards and how to get beyond it, that’s super exciting!
One of the particular focuses of this group is something that has not been fully explored in acoustic string band music yet and that’s R&B and kind of gospel oriented funk-jazz, which is a niche that’s a tough genre to pull off with this combination. It’s tough to make some of the jazz harmonies work when you got 2 or 3 guys at once playing chords and rhythm at the same time. Usually you have a drummer, just one piano player and one soloist; it’s a lot easier to make that harmonic thing happen when you have that. But I think these guys are capable of getting over some of the challenges there and I’m really excited about that because that’s a whole other area.
I’ve always been a blues, R&B player, always edging over into that and it just really hasn’t happened yet. Figuring out how to do that with an American string band is something I’m very excited about. So as far as what’s next, we’re going to tour, we’re going to play…but conceptually and harmonically it’s on a very deep artistic level. I’m very excited about what can happen with this group.
AS: On your videos it strikes me that not only is each member gifted with their instruments, but also thoughtful players.
DA: Oh yeah, well we actually like each other, so this extended honeymoon phase may go on for years, I don’t know, I’m hoping. We really have a multi-generational band. This year I’m going down highway 61; Grant and Joe are turning 30 or just the other side of 30. Our bass player Ethan J. is the youngest. He’s 22 and he’s one of those brilliant kids. Edgar Meyer sort of opened up a whole new world for bass players. He’s a great kid, he also found me; I was walking down the hallway in a hotel and along comes this kid, big smile, hello and can we jam right now? I was like ok sure…I’m always open to bass players and he just happened to be an incredible, just a positive, wonderful, sweet kid. And I got him introduced around. It’s funny it’s nothing that he wouldn’t have done on his own, but I was able to make some things happen a little quicker for him.
AS: So, it sounds like you enjoy keeping yourself pretty busy, teaching, performing, producing. Do I understand you’re also making violins?
DA: Laughs, I’m busier than I’ve ever been… at this point in my life, it’s interesting. I’m excited about it, but I don’t know how much longer I’m going to keep this up. I’m teaching at Berklee College of Music; it’s a dream gig, nobody could turn that down, and it’s incredible. I’ve this amazing online fiddle school that’s doing very well and we’ve got Mr. Sun which is set to tour and then also with my wife (Emy Phelps) whom is an incredible singer-songwriter and who I expect to be out there with at some point. So I’ve had to cut out the violin building (again laughs). I built 3 violins and one of these days I’ll get back to it. You just can’t do everything. I keep trying to prove that you can and I keep failing.
AS: You’ve said it’s important that you’re making contributions… is that thinking about Legacy or a life philosophy?
DA: I’ve just always wanted to be useful and I just want to be engaged, I wanta live with the limited amount of time here and some may say I’m already past my “sell by date,” I just wanta make the most out of whatever time that I have, you just don’t know. I’ve had some upsetting things that have happened…we all do. In our family, in our circle, people leave suddenly and you go that person wasn’t supposed to leave. You just don’t know, so I’m always thinking about that to some extent. Just want to do as much as I can, we have no idea of what’s going to happen next. I feel like I’m just getting a handle on this plane of existence…so I’d like to keep it going as well as I can.
AS: From teaching at Berklee College, the Yukon’s, or Swannanoa (Asheville, NC,) to teaching online at ArtistWorks…is your teaching approach the same for these various platforms?
DA: You know, it’s the overall general philosophy that music needs to be fun, music is a thing that humans do for and with other humans and it’s a healing thing. And it’s a way for us to remind ourselves that we’re all people together and getting ourselves through this and so that’s the basic part of it. There’s a lot of ways that you can present music. I think the more you know the better, and you can make better decisions if you know more about the structure of music and how to just physically play your instrument. Even if you play very simply or if you don’t play much it’s a richer experience for everybody and I’m all for rich, rich experiences.
So the nice thing about the online teaching is that people do send in videos of themselves and I respond to those videos with another video (not in real time) and people get personalize instructions on that. And when I’m at Berklee its really one on one in situations where people are working, struggling with issues and their playing… you know everyone is dealing with the same thing. Violin, generally fiddle, it starts out hard and it stays hard, it’s hard at every level, piano starts out easy and then gets hard, guitar starts out easy and can get hard; it’s just a challenge. Luckily there’s a style of fiddling that fits every level of player. So you match the person to where they are to a style of playing so they can feel like their having fun doing something very simple, and that gives them the energy to keep going on to the next level…if they want.
AS: What’s a typical day in the life of Darol Anger?
DA: Well I really have three different days. One is I get up really early in the morning (6:00am), get on the bus, get on the train and get to work at Berklee and spend like 8 or 9 hours of just being with musicians, faculty, hanging out and working very hard; trying to get people to move from where they are, to someplace a little better. There’s the day where I sleep a little longer get up and do all the crap that accumulates when you have lived to be an adult; your out doing errands, hang out with your family, you pay the rent, you pick or do whatever is in front of you. Plus the ArtistWorks stuff, I’ll do videos and try to keep track of where I have gigs and all that stuff. Then the third one where we’re actually out on the road, it’s like a vacation, cause of all the stuff were doing; until we step out on the stage and then it’s incredible, it feels like a dream, a good dream and none of it would make sense if it wasn’t for the other parts.
Mr. Sun can be seen locally on Saturday, March 14, 2015 – 8:00pm at the Crest Theatre – 1262 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024 – 323-553-3500. Tickets can be purchased at the venue website or at the door.