“We’ll sing what we’re told,
We’ll sleep when we’re old,
And we’ll wait ’til they say we are done.”
– The Alltunators,
from their new CD
“Nation of Three”
If you’ve been trolling some of Denver’s many bars over the past few years, chances are you’ve found yourself watching a set by The Alltunators, and no doubt thoroughly enjoying it. Their eclectic mix of Americana, bluegrass, country and swing, sprinkled with just a tad of gypsy swing, is a perfect backdrop for a few beers and soft discussion, or a few mint juleps, martinis and daydreaming. This talented trio, all three accomplished multi-instrumentalists, has a tendency to make any venue feel as comfortable as your own living room.
The Alltunators came together as a duo in 2005 with Andy Miller on vocals, mandolins and guitars and Jessica Slater on vocals, fiddle, guitar and banjos. They added Pascal Guimbard, from the Gypsy Swing Revue (and probably the source of Alltunators’ gypsy swing influence) on bass, guitar and harmonicas in 2007, to complete the trio. They’ve consistently been playing perfect old-timey music ever since, and have also built a large local following that continues to grow. Their set at July’s Denver Post Underground Music Showcase, in The Irish Rover, was well attended, and their tour schedule is approaching that heavy phase that many young bands inevitably seem to find themselves enmeshed in on their way to the top.
If huge popularity is their intention – and I’m not saying it is – it’s well deserved (I’m more inclined to believe that they simply, and brilliantly, love the music they’re playing). The band just released their second CD, “Nation of Three,” (find a review on Denver Post Reverb) last July, full of brilliant examples of their alternatively somber and jubilant “old-timey” sound. Both live and on record, they masterfully mix honest and passionate acoustic constructions behind Slater’s heartfelt lyrics and sweet and earnest, soft-spoken vocals, and add brilliant, bluesy jams behind Miller’s sassy juke joint crooning. Slater’s fiddle often forms a baroque melody structure atop some of the jazzy swing foundation laid by Guimbard’s bass and Miller’s mandolin (one of which he made himself). The result is a summery Sunday afternoon feeling – fresh, relaxing, almost drowsily comforting.
I had a chance to interview the band recently about where they’ve come from, and where they’re going. Here’s what they had to say:
DenverThread: When Alltunators are onstage, and shortly after your shows, the most oft-heard comment is relation to “old-timey music,” or even “The Soggy Bottom Boys” from “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” Obviously your oeuvre has heavy ties to this genre, as well as some Gypsy Swing – can you comment on some of the reasons behind them?
Andy Miller: I grew up in a household with casual musician parents who had a band off and on, and musical types hanging around most of the time. Playing music was a key part of the social agenda with the parents’ circle of friends. This music included bluegrass, country, old rock ‘n roll, etc., so that was my initial connection to the “old-timey” stuff. The bluegrass and folk and americana kind of stuff with a genuine, storytelling, sincere kind of feel to it seems to talk to all three of us, and that’s why we’re able to get it across to audiences.
“We’re far from being an authentic-sounding gypsy swing band, but it’s encouraging to think anyone’s hearing that in what we do – we’ll keep working on a few of those Django [Reinhardt] tunes.”
– Andy Miller
Gypsy Swing? Well we just like the way it sounds, and have always thought as a guitar/fiddle pair it was fitting, then we stole Gypsy Swing Revue’s rhythm guitar player to play bass with us, so this is an ongoing evolution. We’re far from being an authentic-sounding gypsy swing band, but it’s encouraging to think anyone’s hearing that in what we do – we’ll keep working on a few of those Django [Reinhardt] tunes.
Jessica Slater: The only theory I can offer is that our music is not so much about the strict bluegrass or gypsy swing genres that have emerged over the years, but more about where they came from – both of those styles are hybrids, they sprang from a variety of influences, and I doubt the pioneers of either style of music would be all that excited to hear that people are now struggling to reproduce exactly what they did, note for note! To me, it’s about acknowledging your influences and then making something unique from it. Playing in this band has been all about the adventure of finding my own voice – quite literally, because I really didn’t sing much until recently.
The three of us grew up in three different countries, with quite different backgrounds – I played classical music growing up, we had a string quartet in my family – but we have found this common ground in music. (And that was the idea behind the album title, “Nation of Three”). It’s hard when someone asks “What kind of music do you play?” and you find yourself answering with a long list of categories… but there are common roots to these styles, and to me the common roots are often more compelling than the disparate categories that grew out of them.
As Andy said, we like sincerity and good stories. And we happen to play instruments made out of wood, that probably lead to an “old-timey” sound! But I honestly find it disappointing to listen to a bluegrass band, say, that will only play straight bluegrass all night and nothing else. It may be well executed, but it gets boring. I think you can find a true, consistent voice that traverses different emotions and styles. Life isn’t all one style, or one emotion, after all… (We joke that Andy sings the happy songs and I sing the melancholy songs – at least we have two emotions covered..!)
I have played the violin for nearly 30 years, and I have been singing for only a couple of years. I consider my violin playing to be at a higher level of skill, yet I get way more comments from people about my singing. Maybe I need to practice the fiddle more…! But it says a lot to me about how people connect with music. I know my voice isn’t perfect, I know there are millions of people out there who are “better singers” than I am, so I have no expectations – except that my voice is mine.
I’m glad people hear our roots in what we play, but I also don’t think there’s another band out there that sounds quite like us, and I think that’s important. That’s one of the things that fascinates me when you hear a new band – there are always strengths and weaknesses. We’re all human. And in the end (despite everything you can now do with digital recording!) I think people still respond to those real, human, “old-timey” voices.
DenverThread: Jessica – your lyricism brings to mind works of Cole Porter, Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” and Billie Holiday (in my opinion), all American music greats, and you exude a deep familiarity with their ilk, yet you grew up in the UK. Certainly these music legends are international, but I’m curious as to your history with them growing up?
Slater: Well honestly I didn’t listen to any of those greats growing up, although I do appreciate them now! My musical diet was a mix of classical music, a couple of Simon and Garfunkel and Beatles records that my parents had around the house, records and mixed tapes of folk music my aunt would send us every Christmas from Maine (along with a new pair of LL Beans gloves), and later, my brother’s extensive collection of Dylan albums that I “borrowed” from when he went off to college…
“My musical diet was a mix of classical music, a couple of Simon and Garfunkel and Beatles records. . . records and mixed tapes of folk music my aunt would send us every Christmas from Maine and later, my brother’s extensive collection of Dylan albums that I “borrowed” from when he went off to college…”
– Jessica Slater
I also loved Tracy Chapman as a teenager. So I really don’t know who I sound like, but there was a solid American influence growing up (my Dad is from Boston, so I’m actually a dual national) and every time someone has a suggestion about who I sound like, it’s someone new – I have discovered a lot of good music that way! I do love Billie Holiday though, and I’m flattered you’d associate her with anything I do. So thank you!
DenverThread: Andy – I’m intrigued – and incredibly impressed – by the fact that you build your own (and other) mandolins. How did that come about? Do you also make other instruments? Are there any other musicians in Denver (or elsewhere) that use one of yours?
Miller: A few years ago, we’d acquired a few guitars, and as they needed setup and maintenance periodically I realized I would be spending a good amount of money on that, so I started looking into what it takes to do it myself, and buying specialized tools, and learning how to work on them myself. The place I was getting tools also sells instrument kits, I mentioned to Jess that it sounded interesting, and she got me a mandolin kit for my birthday. I built that one, then built one more for her and one more for a friend before moving on to an octave mandolin kit from another source. I gave that octave away, then built two more like it, mostly from scratch, using the plans that came with the kit. So I’ve built three flattop mandolins and three flattop bouzouki/octave mandolins to date.
A friend in Fort Collins occasionally plunks with one of the mandolins, as Jess does with hers. My uncle uses his bouzouki regularly and claims to like it. I just sold the third bouzouki to another friend in Wyoming and he’s learning to play it. I rarely use the first mando I built for myself – instead I play a Collings carved A-style mandolin that I bought, it’s much better! I do use octave #2 that I built and probably will continue to do so, it has its place. Maybe I’ll build a guitar next. I plan on continuing to build instruments – maybe some day I’ll get to where I’m proficient at it.
DenverThread: What’s coming up for The Alltunators, after the new CD? Touring? Inside/outside the US?
Both: Well we’re hoping to get another CD out there fairly soon – we have plenty of material that we’d like to record, and recording is a pretty effective way to tighten up the arrangements! We are playing a lot, sometimes for money, sometimes for beer…. And we’d love to tour here and abroad – it’s a little tough to reconcile with our day jobs, but having a French person and a Brit in our band means there’s some motivation to try and make it happen… We’ll see.
I have a feeling we’ll be seeing sooner than later, considering the talent and dedication of this Denver trio.
Like Jessica sings in “Karaoke Life” – “. . . it’s all for the sake of the song.”
The Alltunators are scheduled to play in and around Denver in September:
– Saturday Sept 12th, 7-10pm – Cannon Mine Coffee, Lafayette
– Thursday Sept 17th, 9pm-midnight – Mead St Station, Denver
– Thursday Sept 24th, 8pm – Meadowlark Bar, Denver – come and enjoy their outdoor patio before the end of the season!