Interview: Mike Savino of Tall Tall Trees

You wouldn’t guess that Mike Savino, the man behind Tall Tall Trees, hails from Harlem, New York when he steps on stage with a banjo. However, don’t be fooled — he proves to play his banjo in more ways than you could even imagine. Having played with Kishi Bashi for a few years and touring on his own around the country and beyond, Tall Tall Trees has crafted his own style of banjo-playing that provides for a fascinating live music experience.

WXJM’s Myriam Assaadi had the opportunity to sit down with the solo artist before his debut show at Clementine on March 29th, 2015. Read to find out how Tall Tall Trees has been managing himself as a solo artist, how his trip to SXSW went, and even about his love for eating crabs.

Myriam Assaadi [WXJM]: CMJ describes your performance as “bearded man sings songs, violates banjo” and word on the street is you’re great at banjo. I’ll have to wait and see it at tonight’s show but how long have you been playing?

Mike Savino [Tall Tall Trees]: Banjo specifically, I’ve had a banjo for probably 20 years. I’ve dabbled with it and actually wasn’t my first instrument. For a long time, I started more as a bass player and  went to school to learn bass and play jazz so I spent a lot of time doing that. Then, the banjo kept calling me and as soon as I kind of picked it up after music school I saw it in a new way and decided I really wanted to go as far as I could with that. It’s more fun to sing and play banjo than it is to sing and play bass for me.

M: How would you describe your sound to listeners who may not be familiar with your music?

T: That’s a good question. It’s changed a lot and it’s really been based around the banjo for a while. The last couple of years has seen it gone psychedelic and avant-garde but maintaining kind of a pop sensibility to it…so I guess like psychedelic Americana. Someone the other day called me the Dan Deacon of the Americana and I love that.

M: Getting prepared for your show tonight in Harrisonburg, I’ve been enjoying your newest EP titled The Seasonal. Your cover of Animal Collective’s "My Girls" is pleasantly unique and I’ve had "How Did It Get Dark So Fast" on repeat for a while. How did this third and latest release go for you?

T: It was kind of an accidental release because a year ago, I did a pledge music campaign to fund my next full length album, which I’ve been working on, but with my touring schedule between Tall Tall Trees and Kishi Bashi it’s been really hard for me to be in one place and finish it. So I got to a point with four songs that I really liked and decided to release them for now until I can take my time to finish a full length. It went well...I didn’t really make a big deal about it but my fans seemed to appreciate it. It’s a little snippet of where I am at and where I’m going.

M: Apart from playing in your hometown of New York, what are some other special venues or cities that you really enjoy playing?

T: I love playing the west coast. Some towns that are really great for me are Asheville and Austin. There are also smaller towns I love visiting because it’s just such a great place to go. I love to go to Hampton because they treat me well. It’s hard to pinpoint special places but Europe is pretty magical.

M: Under your interests on Facebook I read that you enjoy making ceviche among other great activities like beard growing and rowing. Are you a foodie? More importantly, what’s the story behind this?

T: Haha, well it’s kind of a joke. When I used to have a band we used to go on retreats together and on one of the retreats we made homemade ceviche. Then they started calling me ceviche because it’s close to my last name. I do love it but I wouldn’t say I’m a super fan. I should maybe change those interests to a few more current things!

M: So here’s a fun one — if you were locked up in a restaurant for one night, where would it be?

T: Any sushi restaurant I think I could seriously go to town in. Such a tough question…or maybe a taco buffet

M: Not Taco Bell, though, right?

T: No, no, no thank you. And I hate to say it but I love Joe’s Crab Shack. I just love crabs so much, they’re like my spirit animal. I like the ritual of eating crabs.

M: So do you like Old Bay?

T: Oh yeah, that’s mainly why I love crabs because I love Old Bay.

M: In one video interview with you said you were your own manager and you also run your own start-up label, Good Neighbor Records. What has it been like doing all of your own business, touring plans, etc?

T: It’s a lot of work. The busier I get the harder it’s been. It’s pretty easy to make and release records on your own these days, to varying degrees of success obviously. A lot of my marketing strategy has been me playing and traveling. Doing all that yourself is possible but it’s really difficult. Now that I’ve become so busy, it’s getting harder and harder so I may take on a team to help do all these jobs that I don’t have time to do anymore.

M: Following up on the DIY topic, what advice would you give to artists who want to run their own career?

T: I think the most important thing is to do all these things yourself and to understand what all the jobs are in the music business. Being an independent artist these days, it’s really rare for a record label to throw a pile of cash at a band they like because it’s a real big gamble. Record labels these days are looking for artists who already have something going, are already making money, and are already touring. So learning how to be your own agent, booking your own tours, learning how to be your own publicist are all important, and you have to make good music. That could be a million different things but if it’s good and it’s honest I think people will respond to that no matter what. As far as business goes, learn how to do all the jobs you want other people to do for you.

M: Tell us a little bit about your visit to Austin, TX for SXSW. Was it your first time?

T: No, I’ve been there a few times but was my first time playing multiple shows as Tall Tall Trees. I’ve been there with other artists and Kishi Bashi but this was the first time I went to play myself without any other obligations. It was cool- it’s a mess of music and this year it rained so that was a bit of a bummer. Most of my shows were outside so it was muddy. But it’s fun and a great way to connect with people in the industry, good way to get a little buzz going about yourself. It’s also a great way to see my friends because a lot of my friends are on the road all the time and I only see them in various places.

M: Were you able to see any shows?

T: Yeah, I saw Of Montreal and Deerhoof. I saw Natalie Prass, this up and coming singer from Richmond, who’s killing it right now. River Whyless from Asheville, I love them. Jessie Harris, who actually wrote that famous Norah Jones song, played a beautiful show, as well as his backing backing band Star Rover from Brooklyn.

M: How did your musical career with Kishi Bashi come to be?

T: Well, we’ve been touring together for the past three years. We’re old friends from New York and we were both part of this weird NY jazz scene and we were both improvisers. He used to play in my band back in the day which was more instrumental — kind of like world fusion. Yeah, we’re just old friends, kindred spirits and we’ve been on the same path, parallel, for a while. When he started headlining shows as Kishi Bashi he called me up and we started touring as a duo.

M: What have you taken away from working and making music with others, like K [of Kishi Bashi], that you feel has helped you in your solo career?

T: Working with K has been really interesting to watch him grow as a solo artist. Getting up on stage takes a certain level of everything, a certain level of energy, awareness; you are the show. It takes a while to learn. I’ve always felt comfortable on stage but when something goes wrong and you’re by yourself it’s your fault — there’s not a lot of leniency there. One thing that I’ve learned is to embrace your mistakes and allow yourself to be human and people will respond to that. People respond to vulnerability and the fact that things can go wrong and it’s endearing to some people. I’ve learned to go with that lesson and also to keep it light. People are out for escape, enchantment and entertainment so when people come to see my show I hope they leave with something to take with them. I’m still learning everyday but I’m happy to have the opportunity to share what I do with people night after night and learn from my mistakes and grow as a person as well as a performer.