ANDREW COLLINS CD release at Hugh’s Room Sunday (March 4). 8:30 p.m. 2261 Dundas W. 416-531-6604. $18-20. See listing.
For about a dozen years, Toronto-based mandolin player and composer Andrew Collins has kept busy playing with innovative award winners the Creaking Tree String Quartet and local bluegrass mainstays the Foggy Hogtown Boys. On top of the mandolin, he also plays mandola, mandocello, guitar and fiddle, and has produced and engineered albums for CTSQ and FHB as well as albums by Laura Repo, Tom Parker and Hobson's Choice.
Collins' sophomore disc, Cats and Dogs, recorded with members of CTSQ and FHB, is already up for a Juno for Instrumental Album Of The Year. His new trio features James McEleney on upright bass and Mike Mezzetesta on guitar, mandolin and fiddle.
Over a killer homemade latte at his live-in studio, Collins spoke of the benefits of having a diverse array of influences (everything from Celtic and Caribbean to classical and jazz) and why he doesn't just play a continuous string of eighth notes, as technically impressive as that may be.
Are you still doing Crazy Strings [Weds nights at the Silver Dollar]?
Yes. It's basically the Foggy Hogtown Boys with Marc Roy. We still go by Crazy Strings though.
It's a great gig to make yourself feel like you're getting older. Cause it's all college and university students. When we started the gig I was in my late 20s, so a little bit older than the people coming out but they're the same age and I'm not (laughs).
It's been seven years since your first solo album, Little Widgets (2005). Why such a long gap?
Partly because both [The Creaking Tree String Quartet and the Foggy Hogtown Boys] were very active in recording.
I've never actually toured my own project before because I was in these collaborations that worked so well that the idea of being a bandleader wasn't really all that appealing at the time. But that sort of changed over time and now I doubt it'll be seven years before I do another one.
Is this your first Juno nomination for a solo album?
That's pretty crazy, you haven't even had a CD release party yet.
I'm very slow moving. I'm quite busy producing and engineering with the other bands so I have thankfully not felt very rushed to get this thing going it's just something that I want to build over time and I'll always be Andrew Collins ... ten years from now I'll still be me.
I started recording it two winters ago. I recorded in a way I don't usually record albums - I usually try to get it pretty live. For some of the tracks I just got one other person in and we recorded the beds together. I also went up north to my folks place in the middle of the winter for a week and got most of my stuff done. It kind of fell on the back burner, which is how I got the name for the tune Back Burner, and then finally last spring I was like, "I've got to get this thing done."
Was mandolin your first instrument?
It was the first instrument I took seriously. I had a few guitars growing up but I would practice for a couple weeks then get bored then it would collect dust and I'd sell it and five years later say "God, I really want to play guitar" and then I'd get another guitar and same thing; but what I didn't realize I was missing until much later was an outlet for what I was practicing. It wasn't that I didn't like practicing, I actually do enjoy practicing, but I would get bored because I wasn't doing anything with what I was practicing. That kept me from playing mandolin for five years.
What sparked my interested in playing mandolin was going to a bluegrass festival with Chris Coole and seeing 90 percent of the people there jammed and the jamming was just as much a part of the experience as seeing the performances.
I was living as a ski bum out in B.C. and had some friends that were hippie jammers that were starting bluegrass and through them I finally I broke down and bought a mandolin and then I was totally obsessed and it took over my life and there was no looking back. That was about 15 years ago; I started when I was 23. Within three or four months of playing mandolin I moved from Whistler down to Vancouver to make mandolin my focus. (I knew if ski season came along my interests would be divided). I moved back to Toronto because I knew there was a community with Chris Coole and Dan Whitely and Joey Wright and Chris Quinn.
Bluegrass and jazz seem like a weird combo [Collins studied bluegrass at South Plains College in Texas before attending Humber's jazz program]
There's a lot of parallels. While the vocabulary's quite different they follow a lot of the same rules of form. There's a melody that goes with chord changes and then you just cycle those chord changes and there's a lot of improvising in both.
I felt like I was starting really late so informing my technique as much as possible, becoming musically literate as opposed to just learning by ear, which is what I had done up until then, seemed really logical. [Humber's jazz program] is a fantastic program. They really push you.
How do you decide which songs are going to go towards your solo project?
When Creaking Tree is preparing for an album, usually each person brings three tunes. Everyone tries to fill in gaps and a lot of these tunes I've had in my back pocket. So really it's just been a choice of what does the Creaking Tree need? And when it comes time to do an album of my own, what can I do to keep this album from sounding like twelve tracks of the same thing? How can I keep it evolving? It can be a challenge with acoustic instruments to not have it sound like one long repetition of the same thing. And that's where learning a bunch of styles of music can come in handy. The instrumentation keeps it sounding cohesive while it's exploring all these different tangents.
Do you have a typical approach to composition? And what instrument do you usually compose on?
It varies. Often stuff that I write on a particular instrument, that will be the instrument I play it on. But I've written stuff totally on the computer in Sibelius - Canon in C on this album was composed on the computer. The Canon is a classical form and it was a riddle for me to figure out how to effectively write one - I think it was a success.
There's another mandolin quartet piece on Little Wigits that I wrote while driving into town to busk with Chris Coole early on a Saturday at the Saint Lawrence Market. It just sort of hit me to the point that when I got to the Market I had to pull out my mandolin and learn the melody so that I would remember it. Figure out how to play it on an instrument so that I had the muscle memory of what the tune was as well.
Some tunes are inspired by another piece of music that I really like. I'll try to figure out what element it is in that piece of music that I like. Usually it will be one specific thing, like one particular chord change or a rhythmic thing and I'll take that idea as a thesis and try to come up with something that uses that one device as something new. I will purposely try to make it very different from that other thing but use that one element that I liked about that.
When you listen to most musicians early in their careers they often sound a lot like their influences. In jazz school I was getting all these conceptual things to work on and that got me off the track of lifting ideas from other musicians and I started tinkering with concepts that allowed me to start veering off in my own direction. A lot of ideas started to come from conceptual things and not just things that I've heard. When you're tinkering with a concept in a vacuum of sound it's hard not to sound original in some way. It wasn't really a conscious thing.
When I first started playing, everything was mandolin technique. A part of growing up musically was starting to realize that just because it's very technical doesn't necessarily make it musical. Sometimes simple ideas communicate better. If you have 90 percent simple, easy to hear ideas, with moments of technical flash it brings the listener on for the ride as opposed to overwhelming them.
How long have you been doing recording and producing work? And what do you see as the advantages or possibly disadvantages of recording and producing yourself?
For 6 or 7 years now. David Travers-Smith has been a huge mentor to me. I don't know that there are any disadvantages. I'm kind of control freakish when it comes to my own stuff. Really it was just advantages and I'm in this incredible community so it allowed me to allow the players that I got on the album to do what they do and not have to direct them but know that I was going to get what I was looking for because I know what they do.
Is it unusual to have a mandolin and a vibraphone together? [Vibraphonist Michael Davidson (Hobson's Choice) plays on Cabana II and The Prison Guard Sleepeth]
Um. Well yes, definitely. I actually haven't heard any vibraphone-mandolin collaborations in the past.
Creaking Tree String Quartet had a gig just over a year ago at Theatre Passe Muraille. It was a showcase where they were showing little pieces of a bunch of plays that were happening there and in between each scene we'd play improvised music. John Showman couldn't make it. We decided to get Michael as a sub. And I had this tune that ended up being the duet with him, Cabana II, that I was originally going to play with a pick on violin to have a Caribbean vibe and a Choro (Brazilian), a fiery Latin backbeat. When we played this gig with Michael I thought this would make this tune perfect.
Why did you call the album Cats and Dogs?
You know with instrumental music it's kind of tricky naming them sometimes. It was in a conversation with Chris Coole [who did the artwork]. He had the idea for the album cover (based on the song Reigning Cats and Dogs) and I really like the symbolism of it for the style of music there's a lot of - hopefully - diversity in the album.
[shows a photo of his old dog] That was my dog Sydney - Jason [Laudadio] used her face for the inspiration. I had her from a puppy for fifteen years. I got her just before I started playing mandolin. She was like a silent partner. She would only bark if someone came to the door. She had an excellent understanding of vocabulary. She was great.
What's your comfort zone? Is there a place where you felt you were stretching out further?
The more related to bluegrass it is, that's certainly my bread and butter. But these songs are all coming out of me. Sometimes on the guitar stuff I'll prepare a different way. I'm way freer on the mandolin. I'll work stuff out on the guitar whereas on mandolin I'll let her fly. For Spider Cat, the triple fiddle tune, there's a short improvised section but a lot of work went into arranging it. If it's stretching me instrumentally I'll try to gear it in such a way that still plays into my strengths.