Beyond our ability to know it, we are connected to the lives of people we’ve never met, across borders we’ve never traveled, and lyrics to songs we’ve never sung. If ignorance is bliss, inability, in this instance, is an opportunity: An opportunity to interview a bluegrass band from North Carolina, where you went to college, who is coming to play the venue you work at, who just so happened to recently speak in a folk history class at the very university from which you graduated. Complacency is the enemy of all sentient beings while acting is the action likely to create traction towards a person in a place with a story tied to your very own.
Currently celebrating the release of their new album Coming Down The Mountain, Chapel Hill’s indie American quartet MIPSO have set upon a voyage to discover the precipice where classic folk-rock and modern alt-country sounds mingle easily with Appalachian tradition. Step aboard their vessel and ride a wave full of wistful beauty and uplifting undercurrents, joyful and unknowing of the destination before you.
Here’s my conversation with Jacob Sharp, who let his curiosity of how ideas move drive a passion for cross-cultural ideas, all the way to Japan.
I wanted to start off and talk a little bit about “MIPSO In Japan.” You guys had a chance to play a pretty cool bluegrass fest over there and then that turned into quite the documentary…
Yeah, that’s right, funnily enough, that was our first tour really. We had just graduated from University and started playing full time and that was kind of the end of the Summer of Glory, post graduation and we had moved into a band house together and started touring around North Carolina a bit more than we were able to when we were full-time students, but that was the first time we packed up our bags and hit the road for a couple weeks. We did play the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival which is the third oldest bluegrass festival in the world, actually. In the hills outside of Osaka and it was totally wild, kind of a celebration of the cool community that has been there forever. But unlike the American festivals where generally a small portion of people there are paid performers and the rest are listeners, everyone basically performs so there are over 100 bands and they all play 15-minute sets and there’s basically bluegrass music from 10 am to 4 am every day. We were there and played at little clubs all across the country over the next week-and-a-half or so and then we went to China, which wasn’t featured in the documentary but we played Shanghai and Beijing as well. It was a pretty wild way to start the touring career.
That’s rad man you guys got onto the board real hot.
That’s right, we were lucky. The undercover part is I did my thesis in Japan so that’s the place I’ve got a ton of friends and know the folk music community pretty well so it was a good place to get our feet wet.
What drove your passion for Japanese studies?
I actually studied geography and I was really into, at the time, how ideas move and what it means to have cross-cultural connections, borderless stuff; so, I was looking at how bluegrass music spread to Japan after World War II, a way to examine that post-war period of the American occupancy and democracy. Kind of how alternative ideas to capitalism were spreading. So it was from a weird angle but it connected to music, but kind of my home ground.
That’s awesome. Many musicians are indifferent towards athletics, but does March Madness hold a special place in your heart as Tarheels?
I actually had a conversation with our booking agent yesterday where I pleaded with him to try and get an industry-wide moratorium on touring in March because of the levels of stress I have when we have to play a show during a game.
My point was just if everyone agrees that this is our month off, this is like the musical sabbatical worldwide… I don’t have nearly as much to worry about it. Growing up in North Carolina, all of the band members are from North Carolina, it’s just in our blood growing up. Every game we’d watch and try to go mimic it at half time. For better or worse that has carried on into adulthood for me.
Nice, I played baseball at High Point.
Oh really!? At HPU?
No way! The guitar player Joseph is from High Point.
Oh, that’s frickin’ rad.
Actually, we spoke at an HPU class a couple months ago.
[Laughing] That’s awesome, what class?
It was kind of like a folk music class actually. The professor had constructed curriculum around folk traditions in North Carolina so we went in to talk about how we got into it and what it means to us as a band to take those, create and do different stuff with them.
That’s wild, you guys are coming to our venue in Detroit pretty soon, Otus Supply, I’m the in-house media marketing guy there so we’re excited to have you as well.
Our buddies Front Country and The Flatbellys were all just with you guys at Otus Supply.
Yeah, Lindsay Lou and Melody, we had a great time. The Lindsay Lou show, it was Josh Rilco’s birthday and it was also my birthday…
So we had a good birthday celebration, and we had all just hung out in Kansas City at Folk Alliance so that was a really good time as well.
They’ve been raving about the venue and the food and the general welcome so we’re excited!
Yeah, I think you were talking to my buddy Joe Choma about us showing you around Detroit for a day.
Yeah, that’d be great man! We have the night off before the show and none of us have really spent any time in Detroit so we’re excited to have a full day to bounce around town.
Yeah, I think we’re going to take you guys onto some rooftops and to some good spots to show you proper Detroit.
Thanks, man that’s awesome.
Who are some of your favorite mandolin players?
Whoa… Tim O’Brien was the first, he’s not the first generation of bluegrass people but as far as the older generations go he was kind of the first guy I really got into, basically everything he’s done. My mandolin world is kind of funny because I won a mandolin off a bet with my dad when I was in sixth grade, and I didn’t know anything about bluegrass, didn’t really care, I was just this insecure middle child, my brother got better than me at guitar so I was like fuck that, I want to play something weird. So I got a mandolin kind of on a whim. I would write songs on it and people would be like you gotta listen to bluegrass here’s Bill Monroe; so, I listened to it as like a 14-year-old and I was “no way, that’s terrible.”
Then someone else was like, “Listen to Nickel Creek,” and Chris Thile and I liked that a lot which kind of lead me to New Grass Revival and I started digging back in time and I started to appreciate the old school bluegrass stuff. Tim O’Brien was really instrumental for me early on, and Sam Bush too, obviously Thile there’s a lot to take there, but we’re kind of coming from different worlds as far as what we’re capable of so I don’t look at him too much in that way. But of the younger people I’m lucky that the guy who has produced our first two records, Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange, he’s one of my favorite players and I love this guy out of the west coast, Caleb Klauder, he’s from Foghorn Stringband, a really transcendental dude on the mandolin.
What was the bet you won with your dad to get a mandol?
We were fishing on a pier off the coast of North Carolina in the Outer Banks, and my dad’s this great and supportive dude, and I was kind of pouring my heart out how my older brother was better than me at all this stuff. “I want to play this weird instrument” and he was like “well, how are you going to afford it?” And I said, “I think if I catch two fish on this next cash you’re gonna be buying it,” and he said “total deal.” Then I pulled two fish on him and had the mandolin a week later.
That’s awesome. Funny, one of the questions I was gonna ask was Outer Banks or the mountains…
Well…I actually grew up in the mountains so they are pretty close to my heart.
One of my best friends who I went to HPU with just got married in the Smokies, near Western Carolina, and he rented vineyard in the mountains and I stayed with his brother for a week and he took me to Paradise Falls and these beautiful places.
That’s really cool. There’s something about the Appalachian Mountains; for me, you’ve got to situate it with how old they are… this mature, beautiful, confident thing compared to basically every other mountain range in the world which is chaotic and insecure.
Nice. I like that. Your album Old Time Revere debuted number one on Billboard Bluegrass chart, take me through that rush and experience.
That was really our second record that did well, but to us, that felt like the first album we did confidently, we had a couple years touring under our belts. You know it’s tough to manage to power dynamics of a four songwriter band that is run democratically, but that was the first time we figured out the ratio of like who was happy, when and where and why, so we held up in a studio basically in our hometown after we had been on the road for four or five weeks straight, and made the over the course of a week-and-a-half; so, once it was done we knew it was something we were really proud of and highlighted the things we did best. But something like topping the Billboard charts, that’s not something we expect or something for us, that we judge quality from. But it’s obviously something cool and we pay attention to that stuff and we know that beyond being that people really connected with the record, and it’s also a cool thing for our career and how people recognize and hear about us. It was a cool thing when you see that chart come out… that first week, it’s a good feeling.
What’s the last song you want to hear before you die?
You know what, there’s this song that I was learning this morning called, “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” And it’s kind of this old gospel song. I was listening to a version by a band from New Orleans called The Dislawns. It’s all about, there’s so much suffering, I’m not an overly religious person, but there’s so much suffering in the world I wonder what people are doing after, the thought of it… Like it must be better.
We may never know what they’re doing in heaven today; but here on earth, when music is being played, everyone suffers a little less. Catch MIPSO this Saturday at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, or if you’re a Michiganiac like me, this Tuesday with special guest Tyler Childers at Otus Supply in Ferndale.
Tickets (Chicago): http://www.lh-st.com/Shows/04-01-2017+Mipso
Ticket (Ferndale): https://www.showclix.com/event/mipso6029863