Q & A: The Northbound Traveling Minstrel Jug Band

By Walker Kampf-Lassin

Jerk's exclusive interview with local bluegrass band

If you asked students on the Syracuse University campus what their favorite kind of music is, you’d be sure to find a large variety, but you’d likely be hard-pressed to find someone that says bluegrass and folk. However, The Northbound Traveling Minstrel Jug Band is spreading the gospel of bluegrass throughout Syracuse. Far from the typical perception of a college band, their well-received music provides a masterful take on the musical styles of the past. We talked over the phone discussing bluegrass’ rep, their songwriting process, douche-bags, and herbal musical stimuli.

Who do you cite as your biggest musical influences? Aaron Gittleman: I would say that the band that is a huge influence is Little Feat and open blues music.

So more music from older generations? AG: Yeah, definitely some older generation stuff and how it applies to us.

Being that your music does a new take on older styles of music, do you think that affects how you are received when you perform at shows being that you’re not the typical college band? AG: Yeah, I mean, one time I was called grandma cause I was playing a banjo. But I think that everyone has a really good time when they listen to us because everything that people listen to these days is influenced by something cool that happened 40 years ago, 30 years ago. Adam Cohen: I think a lot of people at first that have expectations about bluegrass music think they’re going to hate it. I think when they see us playing that kind of music those notions of what bluegrass music is like are tossed out the window. We give it a new revitalization. I think people dig it when we pull out the mandolin and the banjo. The name of your band is kind of a mouthful. Who came up with the name and how did they come up with it? AC: I actually came up with the name randomly at an open mic back when it was just me and Aaron goofing around on mandolin and guitar – before Aaron played banjo and before I even really knew how to play mandolin. Someone just asked what our name was and I just made it up. I thought it sounded funny and for whatever reason, it stuck.

So how exactly did the band form? Lucas Sacks: The band basically formed because three of us –Aaron, myself, and Dan – are all in the Bandier program here at Syracuse. And then Adam basically heard Aaron playing guitar through a window and that’s how we met. Then we just started jamming and have been playing together ever since.

What’s the songwriting process like? Does someone write a song and then the band fleshes it out or is it more of a collaborative effort? Dan DiPasquale: The songwriting process revolves around, generally speaking, one individual and that’s Aaron. We all come in and put our parts to it and during that time stuff gets worked out as far as how the song progresses and all those different creative things that happen when people play together. AG: Just to add to that a little bit, I was just going to say that we all help each other with our own parts, too. If one person has an idea to add to somebody else’s part, we’re all pretty receptive to each other’s ideas. We’ll work on a song for a while –even small little parts of a song—until we all are happy with it and how each instrument fits together.

I noticed you guys did a cover of the gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” Why did you choose that song to do a rendition of? AC: There was a senior making a movie and we used to play that song live and he saw it. Then he wanted us to record it for his movie so we did and we’ll probably start playing it again. It’s a good song. We played it a lot and then got bored of it. LS: In the movie O, Brother Where Art Thou? there was a version of it and that was kind of the inspiration for us to start playing it in the first place. A lot of people know the words so that was a fun part about it – a good sing-a-long.

What’s the best show you’ve played? AG: We’ve played two sunrise, sunset shows that O, Morning Records basically put on, on Ackerman Street and the one we just did a few weeks ago was probably our most fun show. We literally broke the floor so they moved everyone out of the attic and down to the basement.

Was breaking the floor what made it so good? AG: Yeah, I mean we tore the house down, you know? It was just one of the little factors that went into why it was so much fun. And there were a lot of people there who had seen us and were singing along to our songs and people that had never seen us before that started singing because other people were singing. The audience was very receptive and it was just very fun for us. House shows are very organic and it’s a good place to play.

What’s the biggest act of douchebaggery you’ve ever experienced at a show? AC: Our friend and tour manager was at one of our shows just making sure everything was going down smoothly and somebody kept pushing everybody to the front. He was just pushing and being a douchebag. Then he shouted to “play some black people music.” That was kind of strange. So our friend Marty literally took his hand and punched him in the face and then he came back with his boy, but we had more friends than they did so they just left. Sometimes people step on cords. They just don’t know what they’re doing or they try to take the mic and make announcements. Just stuff like that.

So when you guys are writing music, are there any substances that you like to use to inspire you? AC: Beer. Maybe a little bit of green shrubbery. Aaron is probably one of the bigger stoners I’ve ever met in my life. He pretty much smokes a lot of pot. AG: It’s so worth it! AC: It’s so organic. We have cannabinoid receptors in our brain. Pot was put on this Earth so we could smoke it and use those cannabinoid receptors.

Absolutely. How about before shows? AG: Yeah, I’d say it’s more like we have to before the shows because it brings a certain energy. We usually make point to pound some beers or partake in some southern comfort. And personally I like to smoke a joint. But yeah, I think it brings a good amount of energy in the shows that we want to bring to the people in the audience so we can have an intoxicated, fun, loving experience.

Does being in a band affect how the ladies approach you? AC: Every once in a while there will be a couple girls who think we’re bigger than we are and get excited, but usually, at this point, not really. Yeah, phone numbers on napkins, but nothing more than that usually.

Last question. Do you have any plans for the band beyond college? AG: I think the mentality right now is we’re going to work as hard as possible to take this as far as we can. Right before we started talking to you we were sitting down with our liaison to O, Morning Records and we were working on a 15-day tour during the summer. If things are still looking good for the jug band at the end of senior year I think we’re going to try to do what we can.