Zen and the Art of Bluegrass Music: An Interview with Storytellers Bassist Lance Frantzich

How did your band choose the name “The Storytellers”?

We chose the name because we’re a folky, bluegrassy band – a modern, progressive bluegrass band – but a bluegrassy band band nonetheless. These songs typically tell stories. Stories about train engineers and heroes and villains and life out on the road. Part of the art of it is telling these stories with credibility and authenticity. The music isn’t enough. So a band takes a lot on when they decide to be a bluegrass band and then decide to call the band “The Storytellers”. You’d better know what you’re doing!

Where do The Storytellers mainly perform? Has your initial performing place changed?

We are based in Los Angeles and we mostly perform in Los Angeles. We perform at bars, taverns, farmers markets, carnivals, festivals, fairs, listening rooms and more.

How do you culturally identify the music you play?

Our music is very American. Much of it is based in American folk music, but of course even American folk music has its roots in other places. The banjo originated in Africa believe it or not. We also use hand drums – congas and bongos, for instance – that is not typical of bluegrass music. We also sing a good amount of songs that our genre champions but are based in old Irish and Scottish and English tradition. But we also sing about bank robbers and gold mines and trains, which is very Americana.

What kind of musical training have your band members had?

We have some very talented people in our group. Our manager has marketing expertise so that’s helped. Our fiddle player, we describe him on stage as “amazing” because he’s, well, amazing. Our percussionist is very skilled and talented. Same with our mandolinist. They’ve been playing for years and they’re very creative, colorful players. Our guitar player has been studying and practicing guitar for about five years and I’ve been playing the bass for around 3 years, but I’ve picked it up quickly. I’m also trained on piano and violin and took singing lessons for years. We’re a harmony band, often singing 3 part harmonies. We do some really great singing if I do say so myself.

How did The Storytellers form?

Scott, our guitarist and our manager, Michael, were a folk duo. Fiddle, voice and guitar. I joined as a singer and bassist. After performing for about a year as a trio, Michael replaced himself on fiddle so he could manage the band. Jonathan, the new fiddler player, was a friend of a friend. We found Steven, our percussionist, on the Internet. Same with the mandolin player about six months later. The Storytellers just celebrated our one year anniversary. During that year, though, we’ve performed almost 40 shows.

Who are you musical influences?

I have a wide range of musical tastes. Before The Storytellers, I mostly listened to popular music and show tunes. Today my main musical influences are The Grateful Dead because it is pure American improvisational folk music. Totally improvisational, which is the type of bass playing I do. I play lead with the other lead instruments. I greatly admire the reggae great Peter Tosh and Jackson Browne for their courage and passion and the honesty inherent in their art. That’s important in music. Like I said, we’re trying to achieve authenticity. To sing about deep things, it helps if you’re trying to live a deep, authentic life because if you don’t, it’s gonna come out in the music. But getting back to the Grateful Dead, it’s as free form music as it gets, like jazz and its theme and variation. That’s what turns me on. To make it up as I go so I’m always expressing bass lines that reflect what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, now, in the moment. But when I first began playing, I was very much influenced by Paul McCartney’s bass playing. The Sgt. Pepper album and Revolver. Very melodic. Now, it’s melodic and made up on the spot for the most part.

How do you classify The Storytellers? Is there a genre?

We’re a progressive bluegrass band, which is also called a “Newgrass band” or a “Jamgrass band”. While we perform a lot of traditional bluegrass music, we are not a traditional bluegrass band. Our instrumentation is acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle an banjo. I play a regular bass rather than a stand up bass and like I said, we have hand drums. We’re not super traditional. We’re referred to as an “Americana” band and a “Roots” band, too.

How would you describe your band’s repertoire?

We practice and perform American bluegrass songs. We perform traditional folk tunes. But much of our repertoire are Grateful Dead songs because the songs and the stories are just that good, that interesting and so profound and, most importantly, so fun. I’d say fifty percent of our songs are Dead tunes, some of which border on country music in a way. I think my favorite song to sing nowadays is “Mama Tried” which is a Merle Haggard song. But we cover Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers. We even perform old spirituals, which are wonderful because people sing along. There’s something special about singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with 20 or 30 people.

Do The Storytellers use amplification or electronic techniques?

Even though we mostly play acoustic instruments, they all are mic’d or amplified with electronic pickups so they can be played through amplifiers. I’m the only person in the band that plays an electric instrument, my awesome Fender Precision Bass. But I also play on a Fender acoustic that has an electronic pickup. We use premium microphones and we rehearse and sometimes perform with a Bose sound system that allows us to mix the band’s sound how we want it. We find that better than using a venue’s sound system because we’re better at achieving the sound we want than whoever might be doing the live sound on any given night. We need to be amplified most of the time in a room because people talking and glasses clinking can become very loud when a lot of people are in the room.

What instruments do you use most with the band?

I like to perform on my Fender Precision bass. It’s the standard go-to bass for many bands. It’s unusual to use it for the type of music we play but it is a punchy sounding bass that allows me to find my groove among everything else that’s going on. I also use an acoustic Fender bass for smaller gigs or if I’m playing duets or trios. It has a wonderful folky sound. I sometimes perform with a Hofner bass violin, which is the same bass Paul McCartney uses. It’s very melodic and has a lot of treble in the voice. One day, though, I’ll get a big standup bass and learn how to play it. Traditional bluegrass venues and festivals can be very stodgy about tradition and frown upon any bluegrass band not using traditional instrumentation.

What are your musical goals?

My musical goals are all based on what’s happening each day. I want to practice each day and I want to be mindful and effective in my practice. I want to give it my all. In rehearsal, I want to listen to what the other guys are doing and do something creative that they’re not doing. That requires, again, presence and mindfulness. At a concert, I’m trying to do the same. As a musician, I want to learn how to use the bass to express what I want to express musically speaking. The better I am at using the instrument, the better I can express something substantive, so my goal as a musician is to demystify the bass so it is my ally. As a band member, I want to contribute to what we’re doing substantively. As a singer, I want to be soulful and have credibility.

I don’t have any goals about getting somewhere or somehow arriving at some future place because art isn’t an arrive at thing ever. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t like to be recognized as a good musician and make a good living doing music, but that never comes about by focusing on that. It comes about by operating in the now and being mindful in the now and focusing and concentrating in the now. Doing that takes us someplace good, but there’s never a way to know where it’s going until you get there and you don’t get there without focusing on the task in front of you. It’s a different approach but it’s worked so far better than any alternatives. LA is full of bands and musicians who want fame and fortune and they don’t get it. Most don’t get it. That tells me that focusing on achieving some goal that is based in the future isn’t the way to go. The power to be creative and to do exists only in the present moment so that’s where I’m going to continue to try to operate.

Is there a typical venue The Storytellers play?

Right now, we mostly play at bars and taverns. Most bands start there but people don’t go to bars to listen to music and interact with the band by clapping along or dancing or singing. They’re there to drink and talk with friends. We’ve also performed at a few larger music festivals where people were dancing and singing along. Next month we’ll be performing at a venue called The Coffee Gallery Backstage. It’s a listening room. People go there to listen to music. Nobody talks. They listen. That’s the type of gig we really want to do. We’ll always perform at some bars. There are a few in LA we play at that are really fun. They have good sound, good people and they pay the musicians. We’re finding out which bars and taverns we like and which we do not like. But we want to play in front of people who like our kind of music. That’s not always easy to do because bluegrassy music isn’t what’s in vogue right now. We’ve certainly considered doing the bluegrass band for hire approach and playing at weddings and private parties and such. We’ll see. It’s complicated stuff to find your audience and community. It’s out there and we’re doing a better job each month of identifying the best places to play for our sort of music.

Can you describe a typical performance?

Our preference right now is to play for 90 minutes. That works well for us. We play a gig once a month that is three hours! We have about 60 songs that are performance ready. We can easily perform well for two hours or more. We get to the venue. Set up our equipment if we need to or if we don’t, set up with the venue’s sound man and we do what’s called a soundcheck. We make sure all the instruments’ sound levels are right as well as the vocal microphones. Our drums also have to be mic’d. Once that’s done, I get the band together to do some breathing exercises to relax us because everyone is nervous until the show begins. We have a predetermined set list and we launch into the show. I usually say something in-between songs to connect with the audience. That’s important. Towards the end of the show, I introduce the band one by one. We don’t do encores. Our set lists are carefully arranged to meet the time limit of our set. I will tell you, though, that our favorite song to end our set is usually one called “The Secret to a Long Life (Is Knowing When It’s Time to Go)”. That’s funny and apropos.

Do you have any recordings?

We do have a recording, actually! It’s called “Magic” but it is not a recording of this band. The guitar player, Scott, and I recorded this CD before this band came together. We recorded it with the help of our friend Kurt Baumer who played the fiddle and our friend Brian Rogers who did the percussion tracks. I played the bass and sang and Scott played the guitar and sang. It was done on a small budget so it isn’t a fancy-sounding CD but I recently listened to it and really liked it. Hey, you have to start somewhere. Recording “Magic” was part of this plan we had to bring this Storytellers project into being. Investing the time and energy and money into making a CD had a higher quality than not recording it. We weren’t as good at playing music as we are now, that’s for sure, but that was sorta the point of it. We wanted to challenge cultural norms that say that only really accomplished musicians get to have a cool website or perform live or record a CD. Let me tell you, recording a CD is hard work, but very rewarding. The idea that one has to be very accomplished to enjoy that experience is bogus. We proved it. We’re not saying our CD is awesome or that the quality of what we’re doing is as high as seasoned professionals, but the experience was and a rich life is created through having rich experiences. In a nutshell, The Storytellers is an experiment in creating rich experiences that create joy and happiness for us and others and something that forces us to practice creativity, which is the stuff joy and happiness is made of. Why? Because life is short and a rich life is one marked by creating beautiful, substantive things. That’s why we all admire great artists. Personally I admire anyone who is creating anything, even if it doesn’t move me. I consider our CD beautiful and substantive for many reasons. I’m proud of it. It was a starting point for everything amazing that’s happened since. That’s why we called it “Magic”.

Has your music made an impact on your community?

As far as the larger community of Los Angeles and the music scene, we have not made much of an impact. Not yet. Not that’s noticeable. But as i said earlier, we’re not trying to make an impact. We’re only trying to practice in the moment. That might create some larger impact. But as far as our closer community of the band and our friends and our families, there has been a significant and powerful impact. All of our lives are richer and more joyful because of our commitment to practicing our instruments, together and apart. It’s joyful to sing with friends. It’s joyful to sing for friends. We’ve turned many of our friends on to folk and bluegrass music and that’s been fun. Most of our friends and families knew us when we didn’t play music at all, let alone play good and play for the public. I think we’ve inspired some people to rethink how they’re living their lives. The message of The Storytellers is to create. To do. We believe it’s a richer experience to create music than to just consume it. We want to inspire others to pick up an instrument and learn it. Then get together with some friends and play together and see what happens. It opens up doors of opportunity and richness that aren’t there if we’re only watching and listening to others play. It’s really a cool thing to enjoy other people’s creativity but it can’t stand up to being creative yourself. Music is art and art has the ability to inspire us. That’s the purpose of it. We call God “the Creator” and that says a lot about the importance of creativity in our lives. Bands like The Beatles and The Grateful Dead produce art so good it makes us want to be better people. That’s powerful. Our music does that for me and some other people I love. I have all the confidence in the world that if our band stays honest and true and authentic – and we practice – our influence and message will reach more people.

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