Tin Hat Trio’s instrumental compositions always sound like a journey: Mark Orton’s loping acoustic guitar, Rob Burger’s accordion chugging like a train, Carla Kihlstedt’s violin at times evoking the creak of a carriage wheel, other times soaring along with the accordion over the undulating surface of the guitar rhythm like the call of a distant ship carried on the wind.
The traveling vibe is so strong that it’s no surprise to hear that the seeds of the group were sown on a road trip. The three friends moved out West together from the East Coast in 1994. They didn’t have their usual electric instruments with them, so they wound up fiddling around on acoustic ones in hotels and at Orton’s grandma’s ranch.
Once they got out here, Kihlstedt settled in the Bay Area while Orton and Burger moved to Portland. When she went up to visit them, they improvised a bit in a recording studio and were impressed with what flowed from their jams. The combination of instruments and the styles they suggested seemed to click. “We heard that sound and were like ‘Wow, this is a real sound,'” recalls Orton. “It was like ‘Amazing Grace’ and then a half-hour improv, if I remember right.” You can tell the three are old friends as they cluster around a cafe table, under and around which another friend’s little girl keeps herself amused, despite all the grown-up chatter. They all talk at once, finish each other’s sentences, and keep cracking each other up.
“Mark and I were contemplating moving out of Portland,” Burger adds, “so that sort of put it right over the edge. We moved down to San Francisco and joined up together.”
The three played their first gig at the Hotel Utah, both as a trio and as a quintet with Ben Goldberg and Trevor Dunn under the name Masopust — the Czech word for “carnival.”
“It means ‘meat release,'” says Orton, readily offering up the literal definition.
“Which is also what ‘carnival’ means,” Kihlstedt adds. The group then planned to call itself Meat Release, but for some reason they decided that might not be the best idea.
No name, however strange, could really prepare you for the trio’s unique blend of jazz, tango, blues, bluegrass, Eastern European Gypsy and Parisian cafe styles, chamber music, and so many other subtle flavors that it’s hard to discern where one ends and the other begins, largely because they’ve been blended so superbly into one cohesive signature style.
The Rodeo Eroded, Tin Hat’s new album on Atlantic’s Ropeadope Records, is aptly named, however. The Americana element is more pronounced on this recording than on the band’s two previous Angel Records releases, 1999’s Memory Is an Elephant and 2000’s Helium. Orton’s moaning Dobro slide in “Nickel Mountain” lets deep American folk roots bleed through Kihlstedt’s avant-garde quivering violin and Burger’s trickling piano. Kihlstedt’s bowing and vocals on “O.N.E.O.” are reminiscent of spaghetti Western movie soundtracks, and the galloping tack piano and prepared guitar don’t exactly undermine the effect. The guitar loping through the sleepy dust storm of fiddle, squeeze box, and harmonica on “The Last Cowboy” evokes a lone rider traversing the eerie beauty of a forgotten wasteland at dawn.
“We’ve been turning a little bit away from some of the Eastern European and tango influences, and more towards Americana-y stuff,” says Orton. “Partly because of instrumentation,” interjects Kihlstedt, “and partly because of different things we started to be interested in on our own. The Dobro for sure steers it in that direction, and the tack piano and harmonica immediately puts a different kind of twist on it.”
If Orton talks about the shift in emphasis as a process of subtraction, there’s a reason for that. “Rob and I had been playing rock and jazz in more traditional ensembles with a bassist and a drummer,” he says, “and in the beginning of the group we ended up just kind of falling into the folk forms and ethnic music forms that use similar instrumentation. It was much easier for us to find our roles as players. And so I think that’s more why those influences are stronger on the earlier recordings. … I think over the years we naturally ended up straying away from it, as our comfort level as performers in this somewhat novel instrumentation grew.”
Kihlstedt has also played a fair amount of Eastern European-influenced music as a vocalist and fiddler in the late local band Charming Hostess, but she laughs at the connection. “I have kind of a haphazard background in Eastern European music, I’d say. I got into some of that stuff though Hostess, and also some of it because I have Hungarian ancestry.”
“We all have Hungarian ancestry,” Orton says with an amused expression.
“That’s right!” Kihlstedt exclaims. “He just found out that he’s Hungarian last week.”
“I mean, we all have Eastern European roots,” says Orton. “As well as the folk music, we’ve all listened to classical music that was heavily influenced by it, like Bartók, Stravinsky, Ligeti in a more modern sense. So it was like a shared base to go off of. But we all love the Beatles, too. … As a composer, you’re thinking of the group you’re writing for; you hear the sound, and that’s what you get drawn towards. It was either that or zydeco, and we’re not gonna be a zydeco band.”
Tin Hat Trio’s musical multiple personality always sounds more complicated in descriptions than it does when you actually hear the music. More than once, someone has described the band as avant-garde, immediately qualifying it with “But pleasant. Not harsh at all.” The music’s many streams flow sweetly together. But it’s a testament to its diverse influences that, especially when you factor in Helium‘s guest spot by Tom Waits, the new disc’s several guests hail from very different scenes.
Featuring Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin, and Wood on percussion, “Holiday Joel” has a playful bossa nova vibe, with squeaky scratched strings and rattling prepared piano. Tin Hat’s version of “Willow Weep for Me,” with vocals by Willie Nelson, is a beautifully tender tribute to Tin Pan Alley. It’s interesting that this last tune, among the most intimate-sounding on the album, is also the most fully orchestrated, featuring bass, drums, cello, clarinet, and harp along with Nelson and the trio. “Under the Gun,” a madcap collaboration with Phish’s Jonathan Fishman, comes off as a cartoon chamber hoedown, whereas “Happy Hour” is a sensual tango with Fishman playing jazzy traps and Deep Banana Blackout’s Bryan Smith on tuba.
“We’ve always liked Fishman’s playing,” Orton says. “We wanted to bring him out of the Phish context. The idea was you’d walk into a saloon and it’d be like Sun Ra dressed up in Western clothing with John Bonham playing drums behind him. That was the conception, so we went from there.”
It seems natural to talk about Tin Hat’s music in visual terms. The three friends’ instrumental eclectica is so vision-inducing it’s small wonder they’ve branched out into film soundtracks. They’ve composed music for early-20th-century silent experiments in stop-motion animation by Russian entomologist Ladislaw Starewicz, who accidentally killed his insect subjects with his lighting equipment while attempting to film them and then decided to animate their dead little bodies anyway. Orton composed (and Tin Hat performs) part of the score for The Good Girl, the recent feature film starring Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal, which he describes as “kind of like an American Lars von Trier film, only with more humor in the black humor, rather than more black in the black humor.”
“It’s definitely something we want to do more of as a group, more soundtrack stuff,” Kihlstedt says. “Sometimes I get these e-mails describing elaborate visions of what goes on visually during our music, and some of them are so out there! One time someone actually wrote lyrics …”
“Really psychotic lyrics to one of our songs,” Orton continues: “‘I’m going to kill you now ...'”
In the last year Orton has moved back up to Portland while Burger headed out to Brooklyn, but, Orton attests, “Between touring, making records, and special projects, we’re getting together about as the same amount that we used to.” Suffice it to say that it’s a little harder to get the band around the same table now than it used to be. That The Rodeo Eroded is such a solid piece of work is all the more impressive because it came together in the midst of this transition. “We’re still asking the question,” says Kihlstedt, “‘How did that record actually come together?'”
In the meantime the players have worked on several other projects, both separately and as a band. The Trio is composing a triple concerto for the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, Orton did his soundtrack for The Good Girl, Kihlstedt has been performing with avant-rock artists Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and both Burger and Kihlstedt have solo records coming out on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.
“And we’re already conceptualizing our new record,” Burger pipes in. “But we’re not gonna talk about it yet,” everyone amends quickly.
“It’s gonna be huge,” Kihlstedt adds.
“You know, we’re always moving onward and upward,” Orton says by way of winding things up. “Or at least sideways,” Kihlstedt cracks.
“Yeah,” Orton laughs. “Downward, sideward, starboard … “