Live Interview: Pappy Biondo
10 Jan 2016 - Jam Cruise - MSC Divina
for The Lot Scene by Parker
Jam Cruise provided the perfect opportunity for us to catch up with a couple of musicians whom we respect and whose music we certainly love. And Sunday Funday is always a good time for a nice chat about music don’t you think? We certainly thought so as we sat down with Pappy Biondo of the Pennsylvania-based string band, Cabinet. Chilling with him in his stateroom we got a great deal of time to discuss all sorts of things with this supremely skilled banjo player. As you’ll see, the first question came from Pappy himself about “the Spot”, that now infamous place outside on Deck 7 where Nathan Scott Moore hosts the ad hoc bluegrass pick every night right on through until morning.
PB: Did you make some of that late night deck pickin’ there?
TLS: Yeah, we were there at least until about 7am.
PB: Yeah. I’m gonna get out there tonight.
TLS: We’ll be out there again for sure…that was a lot of fun. A lot of good people drifted through. Jay and Nathan were killing it.
PB: So much fun.
TLS: The Spot’s good to go. You were aware of all that before you got on the boat, yeah?
PB: Oh no, I wasn’t. I had no idea. But I knew some of those guys, I knew some of those players. Everybody was talking about it. I met Nicki Bluhm’s guitar player, Darren, and he said, “you know about the Spot?” And I said, “know about the Spot? What are you talking about?” And he said, “down on the deck of the Boat.” And I found him and then it turns out I know Nathan Leith, the fiddle player, and I know Jay Cobb from Fruition and all the other guys I met and I just fell in love with them. And I hung tight with them.
TLS: Where is Willy T. from, do you know?
PB: Willy’s from California. Holy shit! That guy’s the best!
TLS: That guy is a beast but I didn’t know before.
PB: Aw, me neither, man. He blew me away.
TLS: Is he in a band that you know of?
PB: He does his own thing. His lyrics are great. Him and Nathan both. And they’re writing songs here…they’ve probably written three or four songs on the ship. Crazy. Write shit down and record it. I’ve learned a lot from that. I’m like a four song a year guy. These guys are like five every hour.
TLS: Just churning them out. It’s a different world.
PB: Well that’s all it is…expressing yourself in lyrics and all that. It’s inspiring for me to hang out with those guys for a couple of days.
TLS: Very cool stuff. So, this is number one Jam Cruise for you, correct?
PB: Yes, for sure. Number one cruise in general. I’ve never been on a cruise ship.
TLS: Nice, man. What do you think, so far?
PB: Jam Cruise is a great way to start off your cruisin’. I’ve been thinking, I don’t have the wife and kids with me, but, any kind of cruise would be a good vacation for us. Now that I see what it’s all about and that it’s relaxing.
TLS: Most of them are not like Jam Cruise, just so you know. //laughter//
PB: //laughter// Really? So maybe it’s a bad thing that this is my first one.
TLS: Well, in terms of entertainment, it might ruin you for other cruises.
PB: I’m sure. But, yeah, this is the first one, for sure.
TLS: I guess you realize, it’s pretty chaotic and special at this point…
PB: /laughter// Chaotic and special. For sure.
TLS: //laughter// …so have you gotten any sleep…at all this week?
PB: Yeah, I actually got a lot of sleep…it seems like you gotta take a day…I talked to a lot of the musicians and they were saying, “pace yourself, pace yourself, pace yourself.” ‘Cause it is, man, it’s just a non-stop party.
TLS: It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
PB: Yeah, but I did, I got some sleep.
TLS: What about any wild stories, any crazy yarns you’ve got so far?
PB: From the cruise?
TLS: Yeah, from Jam Cruisin’.
PB: Well, I had a very cool moment probably around six in the morning a couple of mornings ago down on the lower deck of the ship and you could hear the hum of the engines. //humming// You know? And it was me and Jami, the drummer of Cabinet, and Nathan was playing fiddle, and we were just droning this note. //humming// You know? And then we went into different shit outside of it, but that was like our base. The motors going. So that was pretty cool that night. We were down there for like half an hour watching the sun come up. //humming// Yeah, that was really cool. I mean I’ve seen some crazy shit of course, it’s Jam Cruise, but as far as experience to take home with you, that was one of them. You know, all the sit ins and stuff and getting to mingle with all the musicians I mean, that’s great, it’s incredible.
TLS: Excellent. The average Jam Cruise attendee, they explore new bands, see bands they already love…there’s a reason everybody comes on the ship. And it’s for the music offerings — you just get so much. It’s so great to have Cabinet and the Dusters and Paul and Anders on board for all things bluegrass. Outside of string band music, for what you’ve seen so far as an attendee like the rest of us, who has caught your attention? Who’s been a standout for you?
PB: On the ship? You know, when we started our first record, I think, we were looking for an agency or something to put out a record we came across Ropeadope Records out of Philly and one of their other artists was Snarky Puppy. And this is 2009 or something. So we went down there and had a meeting and they gave us a bunch of CDs and stuff and Snarky Puppy was in there and I didn’t really pay much attention to it. But I knew the name from just that, from 2009. And our guitar player, Mickey, got super into the band, started spinning the records in the van on drives and stuff. And, I’d never seen them live, I only listened to the records that our guitar player was playing in the car drivin’. But I always knew the name. And then, getting here Snarky Puppy absolutely blew me away. The arrangements and the amount of time the musicians themselves in the band put into them, it’s just completely… I mean, we’re lucky if we get two rehearsals in a year. //laughter// Those guys probably rehearse all the time, you know, and that’s what it is, getting it right. You have to put the time in to get it right and it shows. It pays off if that’s what you wanna do. And Snarky Puppy definitely blew me away. Cris Jacobs, his ability to get up with anybody and just hang.
TLS: He’s like a chameleon.
PB: Oh, he’s great, man. We were at the poker table together, too, which was fun. You know I always like the funk stuff. I can appreciate anything, really. And being on the Boat… The only thing different from doing these and festivals is that, at the festivals maybe you get a day or an afternoon to hang out and mingle, to get conversation with this guy, that guy. Here, it’s like you’re in that mode of I’m only gonna see this guy if I wanna have a music chat with him and I’m only gonna get like 20 minutes with him or something. And here, really, it’s like, you can start a conversation and keep it going the next day and the next day, you know what I mean? It’s like, over the course of the week that the ship’s on the water, it’s just incredible bumping into people. You think you’re done…you think you’re like that’s all I needed. I had a great conversation with that person and I’m done. And it keeps going. It’s crazy. Besides musicians, I’ve met some incredible people, some great people. Especially at those late night picks, the ones who can last that long, you know, in spite of whatever they took to stay up that late or just drinking and we’re still having great conversation.
TLS: I was blown away just how many people were still up to watch the sunrise, you know?
PB: It’s beautiful. I’ve seen two sunrises here and I’m glad I did. You know some people are all like, “I stayed up till the sun came up, it was crazy!” I enjoyed all that. You know, I’ve got the wife at home, the kids at home…
TLS: Would they enjoy Jam Cruise?
PB: They would most definitely. It’d be different. Here I’m musically driven, without them. Naturally, with them here, I’m family driven. You know, with them here it would be a family affair, a family vacation. Without them here my drive is still with them being an artist but 100% music driven.
TLS: Do they get to many of the festivals with you?
PB: Last year I had my wife and two kids with me at five or six of the bigger festivals that we did in the summer. It was the first year that they were there for a bunch of them and it felt great, it was awesome. It’s like little goals like maybe one year or one day we’ll be able to have them come with us. My wife works hard to support what I do. But the idea is to get to a point where I can provide for that side of it. Pay her back for the 10 years that I put her through. //laughter//
TLS: It’s got to be extremely important for a man like you to have a partner like that.
PB: Oh yeah, for sure.
TLS: To really support you. That’s incredible. Especially for your kids, too.
PB: She’s my rock, man. She’s a rock. For sure.
TLS: We’ve been lucky enough to fill our calendar with a lot of the bigger festivals. Are there any of the smaller ones, more family bluegrass ones that you guys go to regularly?
PB: Yeah, that’s my jam. Man, I love that shit.
TLS: We want to do more. Any ones you’d suggest?
PB: Here’s a good one. Spring Pickin’ in PA. My friend Nate, Monkeyline Productions, puts one on there. And it’s always an incredible time. There’s Ossippee Bluegrass up in Maine which is great. I just moved to Vermont three years ago so I’m starting to tap into that. You know, it’s not about how much money can we generate. It’s not about how much beer can we sell or how much merchandise can we sell. It’s about a good space, some good people, and some good music. And in Vermont, there’s a little organization of local pickers…it’s not even an organization. I’ve tapped into these players up there that all they wanna do is throw potlucks and fucking pick. That’s it. Let’s just have people over, have some dinner, and play some music.
TLS: Sounds great.
PB: You know? Even with the deck pickin’, you know, sometimes I like that shit more than getting on a big stage. At festivals I like the late night pickin’ circles more than, like, going up and doing the ‘rock star thing’…
TLS: This is a perfect dovetail into our next question. We are interested in pickin’ party culture. So, whether you are at a festival or someone’s house, we know how important that it seems to be for everyone: people that want to listen, people that want to play, and everyone in between. So, for you and your experience as you’ve come up through music, what space has that occupied for you, that pickin’ party culture? How early did you get started into it?
PB: I had some great conversation about this topic last night, actually. I grew up in the ghetto of Cleveland, OH, and banjo was the furthest thing from my mind until I actually saw one. Which was at the age of 19. I can speak for the band, too…none of us were raised on bluegrass music. Maybe hints of it here and there. But the whole pickin’ party thing blew me away. Even when I moved from Scranton to Vermont. In Scranton I got clued in through some of the festivals that we played and the late night pickin’ and just fell in love with it. And that’s probably after five years playing the banjo. So the band’s been together 10 years now, we’ve got a solid chunk of 5 years that we thought we were the only band with drums in our instrumentation. We thought we were the only ones. We were like we’re changing…nobody’s doing this. Turns out, once we dug in this has been going on for awhile. Newgrass Revival, you know, Leftover. All these bands…Railroad was a big eye opener for us at a young age. But, so we had the bluegrass instrumentation so we were thinking bluegrass early on, we were thinking alright we have these instruments. The instruments kind of stumbled upon us in a weird way, too. I never thought I’d be a banjo player; J.P. had one under his bed and I picked it up. I said, “what’s this thing? I’ll try this out.” He was playing mandolin…he never knew what a mandolin was, but he wanted one. So we were very ill-informed when it came to the history of folk and bluegrass music.
TLS: You guys both grew up in Cleveland together?
PB: J.P. actually grew up in PA. Northeastern PA. But we’re cousins and we linked up after high school, we were like let’s get together.
TLS: Is the rest of the band still in PA? I know you said you’re in Vermont now.
PB: Mickey, our guitar player, is in Maryland. And I’m up in Vermont and the rest of the guys are in Northeast PA.
TLS: Has that been a stress on you, traveling more?
PB: Yes. Most definitely.
TLS: But worth it for the Vermont life?
PB: Yeah, worth it on both sides. It’s worth it traveling home, after hours in the car, pulling into my driveway is a great feeling. You know, pulling out of my driveway is great feeling. Somebody recently asked me, said, “Pappy, how’s life out on the road?” I said, “Man, it’s better when I’m home.” //laughter//
PB: You know if someone would say, “Pappy, how’s life at home?” I’d probably say, “it’s better on the road.” //laughter//
TLS: Right? //laughter// That grass is greener, isn’t it?
PB: But as far as the pickin’ party stuff goes, even just pickin’ in general, when I moved to Vermont and went to a bakery in Richmond, VT, it was their annual Bluegrass Scramble. And I had been friends with Gordon Stone, who is a great banjo, peddle steel player out of Vermont for awhile so when I moved up there I kinda linked up with him. He said, “hey man, gimme a ride to this Scramble.” And I had to jump right into it. I said, “alright, sure.” And it’s where you get in, you write your instrument down you write your name down. You put your instrument in a hat, you put your name in and they pull bands from the hat. Alright, Pappy’s on banjo, Jim’s on fiddle, this guy’s on bass, you know? And that was how I met a lot of local guys in Vermont. And, after that, they were all like, “you’re a great banjo player. You should come around more often. We do these pickin’ potlucks.” Just totally inviting and, on that scale, I can bring the wife and kids to a potluck. You know we can go out and we can eat and we can pick and we can hang. So it wasn't until three or four years ago that I was introduced to that whole kind of lifestyle. Which has been going on for years, man. After researching Bill Monroe, you know, that was his thing. People would come and eat, pick, sleep, get up, and do it again.
TLS: Yeah, you know it’s been going on for a really long time, but, for me, Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon seems to embody that whole late night campfire pickin’ session culture. Better than anybody he seems to live for it.
PB: I’ve heard stories. And I’m sure if you asked him which he liked better, the stage time or that pickin’ time I am sure he would say, “pickin’ time.”
TLS: Community is what it is all about anyways, right? Music builds community and community supports music.
PB: Yeah, they go hand in hand. When you’re doing those little gatherings, those little celebrations there’s plenty of people who aren’t musicians. You know, you could be that musician who flies from wherever to wherever and gets in a bus, gets on the road, gets on stage, gets back in the bus, flies home and doesn’t see a damn person. You can go that route. //laughter//
TLS: There’s plenty who do.
PB: There’s plenty who do. Or, you know, you can choose to hang with the people, man…
TLS: And it means a lot to the people observing. There’s something inherently unique and special about the way you’re able to approach music after you get to know your musician a little better. It’s one thing to interface with them purely from the audience up on the stage, it’s another thing to get to know them as a person. Whether it’s through a bio you read or actually getting to talk to them or meet with them, because afterwards there is something a lot more personable about it. You know, I think because there has been a sharing. At that point, it’s just the sharing of music.
PB: Believe it or not, our fan base originally was built off those kinds of ideas. Early on, before we had anybody working for us it was just the six of us. Like I remember getting paid from those early gigs and I was like, “what?” And they were like, “you can keep that!” “Wait, are you really paying me right now?” ‘Cause I had so much fun doing it. I remember getting weirded out by getting paid to do what I did that night. I don’t think I ever said, “you can keep it.” For the record. //laughter//
TLS: For the record. //laughter//
PB: And our second record, Leap, was cut with a live audience. We did a Kickstarter thing where the fans could come into the studio and actually be in the studio to experience the recording with us. Which helped us because we play best with that energy. With the fans being a part of it… And with the Kickstarter thing, we did a Chili Cookoff and we got to do this kind of thing. And with our holiday shows we did a big dinner, a huge table, I think it was 35 people who paid a little bit extra to have dinner with us. And a few relationships grew out of that.
TLS: As much as I hate to say it, that is all we had for you today, Pappy. Thanks again so much for taking the time out of your Jam Cruise schedule to chat with us.
PB: You bet, my pleasure fellas.
Many thanks to our new friend Pappy for his time and this fantastic interview! Many thanks as well to Carrie, Alex, and the rest of the Jam Cruise staff who helped facilitate all this for us!!