“I like to do things in unconventional ways,” says Tricycle’s Jayme Stone, “and the banjo lends itself to that.” Tricycle’s music is as unique as its makeup, which—in addition to the banjo picking Stone—includes Kevin Manaugh on guitar, Paul Mathew on upright bass, Kevin Coady on drums, and the occasional trumpet or talking drum thrown in for good measure. Of course, you can’t play jazz banjo without drawing comparisons to Béla Fleck, but imagine a more chilled out Fleck jamming with Trey Anastasio and the Americana side of Bill Frisell, and you’re on Tricycle’s track. The ensemble’s straightforward songcraft makes their music more accessible than most who travel down the improvisational path, and their debut album, Emerge and See [Independent Records], is an enjoyable and unpredictable ride.
Tell us how you create some of your unique banjo tones and where you find the inspiration for them.
Sometimes I play with a bow, and I also play banjo through a loop sampler to create layers and textures that are different from traditional acoustic banjo. I’ve studied Indian music, and I’m really interested in African music, so I’m always gathering sounds and approaches to playing.
What drew you to the banjo and what makes it a good springboard for absorbing and expressing the influences you mentioned?
Right from the beginning the banjo presents a curious way of playing because of its open tuning, and the fact that the highest and lowest strings are right next to each other. For some reason, this was natural for me. The banjo’s idiosyncrasies often act as a springboard in my writing and approach to improvising. Historically, the banjo comes from Africa, so it’s been natural for me to go back and explore African music. There’s a whole world under the surface of what people associate with the banjo—mountain music and that kind of thing—and anyone who digs is going to discover it.
What kind of banjo do you play and how do you get your tone?
I play a 1935 Gibson TB-1 with two metal National fingerpicks from the ’30s and a plastic thumbpick. Onstage, I use an AKG E416 mic mounted on a gooseneck that’s clipped to the banjo, and I blend that with a signal from an EMG humbucker located underneath the head, right at the neck. I don’t know anyone else who does this, but it’s at least 20 times louder, clearer, and warmer than a normal banjo pickup. The signal flows via a stereo cable into a Rane AP-13, a Morley volume pedal, a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, and into my Trace Elliot TR50 amplifier.
Can you explain how your banjo works with Kevin’s guitar?
The tone can be similar when we both plug in, and we sometimes weave a net of sound that ebbs and flows in a way that makes it difficult to tell who is playing what. Yet we have very different musical personalities and ways of improvising. The more we listen to each other, the more we can make good choices about supporting or finding an appropriate counter voice.
What does Béla Fleck mean to you and how does your direction differ from his?
I’ve studied with Béla and Tony Trischka, who was Béla’s teacher, and they’ve both been endlessly generous. Béla is always inspiring in terms of the virtuosic aspect of playing. He makes me study and practice. Once I started writing music, I found my own voice. More and more, I’m interested in music that expresses emotion and has a wider palate of sounds, feelings, and approaches than Béla. I also feel like there is a collective sense of interaction in Tricycle that is quite different from the way the Flecktones operate, which is more supportive.
What other jazz influences played a role in your and the band’s development?
I’ve culled jazz ideas from Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, and Bill Frisell—players who place more emphasis on finding their own voice than upholding tradition. Although I adore bluegrass and old-time music, I wanted to improvise more than anything. Because Tricycle’s compositions are harmonically evolved, I’ve ended up with people who play jazz. Besides, the idea of taking a ten-minute solo is not really happening in bluegrass! •