Interview: Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage

Chris “Critter” Eldridge and Julian Lage are, quite simply, two of the most important young guitarists performing today. While Critter is raising the bar in bluegrass with the Punch Brothers, Lage has been pushing the jazz guitar envelope, both with the New Gary Burton Quartet and on numerous solo and group projects. With their varied backgrounds, we were surprised (and delighted) to hear that these two Fretboard Journal favorites have begun performing and recording together. Here, they explain how they met and the process of recording their new EP, Close to Picture.

The Fretboard Journal: Julian, you come from the world of jazz. Chris, you’re immersed in bluegrass with the Punch Brothers. How did you guys meet?

Julian Lage: Chris and I met about five years ago at a Punch Brothers show. And I’ve told folks that it was kind of a love-at-first-sight-and-listen kind of situation, where Chris and I sat down to play some tunes and it was just like, “Oh my God! You’re into that too?” There was a real deep admiration and excitement right away that maybe if we joined forces, we could uncover some things that we haven’t really explored yet.

So we kind of talked about doing it for years, and then just this year it made sense scheduling-wise and whatnot to actually book a tour and make a small EP. And it’s just been the most fruitful and lovely experience for me. So I’m very grateful we took that plunge.

FJ: The EP has four original tunes and then “Cattle in the Cane.” How did the songwriting process come about? Were you guys just kind of hanging out in a room and seeing what stuck to the wall?

Chris Eldridge: Yeah. We each had a few original tunes that seemed like they could be good vehicles for a guitar duo and seemed like they might be right for exploring some textural things.

I guess the first [song] we did was a tune of mine; this is like two years ago. We played this little gig at a bar in New York. And there was this tune I had mostly written and hadn’t quite finished. And Julian and I got together and just kind of harmonized all these weird chords and fingerpick patterns. And I was shocked, because he instantly got to this gorgeous sound. It sounded like a guitar section, this really orchestrated, beautiful thing. And I think that kind of set the tone that there really can be these textures that we can access on guitar, that maybe we haven’t heard so much before.

Then the next time we really got together was this January [2013]. We had a few days, and started again with just these textural ideas, wanting to flesh those out. We wrote “At the Meeting House,” the first track on the EP, together. [We were] just really sitting in a room and kind of saying, “What wants to come next and how can we play these instruments in this complimentary way, so that they make one sound, like a big guitar?”

FJ: Speaking of guitars, you’re each known for having one key guitar in your life [Lage typically plays a Manzer archtop while Eldridge plays a 1939 Martin D-28]. What did you guys end up playing on the record?

JL: Well, it’s kind of funny actually. Both Critter and I are playing old Martins from 1939. I purchased a ‘39 000-18 maybe a year ago from Musurgia/Retrofret, the great guitar store from Brooklyn. And, totally separate from that, Chris had gotten his ‘39 D-28, which is a really, really special and beautiful guitar, especially in his hands. So that was part of the charm of it, too. I think they’re roughly 600 serial numbers apart, so they’re very complimentary. I feel like they’re those big Russian dolls, where one goes into the other. I feel like the small body just fills in the center part of the dreadnaught, and he kind of fills out the whole orchestrational thing with the lows and the highs.

That’s no small part of why I think we’re getting such a blast out of this. Our guitars are also really, really good friends.

CE: I think that actually informs some of the music, and some of the approach I was just talking about, about how some of this stuff has been orchestrated. It’s just those two guitars really are great friends. They really sound good together.

FJ: Do you guys ever swap guitars?

CE: It’s funny. I love Julian’s guitar. I think it’s one of the best 000s I’ve ever played. But my hands are so calibrated. My D-28 is a wide neck. In ‘39 Martin, switched the spacing, from 1 ¾” to 1 11/16″. My D-28 is still a wide neck… and Julian’s is after the switch and it’s a smaller guitar. So I just always wind up feeling like the biggest guitar playing dunce ever when I play [it]…

JL: In reverse, I feel like the biggest whimp in the world because I’ve struggled with different left-hand issues over the last couple of years. And on anything that’s too wide… if I don’t have a couple days to work with it, then I end up kind of blowing my hand out. It’s the funniest thing, we just kind of stick to our instruments.

FJ: I’m guessing the recording of this EP was a low-key affair, but the audio quality is great. How did you record it?

JL: That is thanks to the mastery of Rob Griffin. Rob Griffin is out of Columbus, Ohio. I first met Rob maybe three or four years ago. He’s been a long-time sound engineer for Wayne Shorter’s Quartet. And he’s also worked with Herbie Hancock over the years, and Paco [de Lucia]… But the way he started his career was actually playing mandolin and guitar with Mark O’Connor back in the contest days when they were both teenagers.

So he just gets acoustic music and string music so well. I heard a story that when he was maybe 15 he was allowed to go into someone’s vault…

CE: It was GTR… the precursor to Gruhn’s. It was Randy White, George Gruhn and Tut Taylor’s shop.

JL: Yeah, exactly. So he was like their darling. They would just say, “Come play the guitars and hang out.”

So we recorded this in his living room, which was actually not a sensational space. I was sitting on a couch. We hung up some blankets over the windows so you wouldn’t hear the cars driving by. You wouldn’t expect it to be great.

But the way he mic’d it was really interesting. He was using these prototype mics from the cable company Vovox. What they’re doing is they’re recasing old Neumanns and large diaphragm microphones. They’re basically mapping them after things you find in nature. So if it has a metal case, they replace it with a tonewood casing. And rather than the mesh that would go over the capsule, they have this kind of laser-etched loofah, like you would use in the shower or something!

The point being that they want the most natural sound to hit the capsule and no extraneous frequencies to stand out.

So we used a couple of those. We had two DPAs, a stereo pair in between us.

CE: Yeah, kind of getting a room sound.

JL: I had a Mojave large diaphragm [mic] over my right shoulder, kind of pointing down. And I think that gives you a lot of that kind of “thwackiness” of an old Martin. Am I leaving anything out, Chris?

CE: I think those are all the mics. And then those Vovox cables, which are actually really amazing. And we recorded to RADAR. Rob is a big proponent of RADAR. Just the signal going in, hearing it on playback, unmixed, was kind of amazing. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an acoustic guitar sound so glorious, just the raw signal. That was Rob’s contribution.

And then shortly before this tour was going to happen, we decided that we had this music kind of sitting around and we ought to let people hear it. So we gave it to this great engineer in Brooklyn named Alex Venguer. He’s done some stuff with Gabe Kahane and he’s worked with the Roots… he’s got an interesting background. But he’s a great engineer. So he mixed it and it kind of came together really quickly, almost out of the blue. We weren’t necessarily going to release this EP, but I’m glad that we did.

I think at some point we’ll probably make a proper record. I really want to do that, with Rob again and get into a proper studio. And flesh out these ideas.

FJ: Do you guys think you’ll be using these prototype microphones again?

JL: I sure hope so. It’s just the wildest thing. Chris and I have been both really fortunate to use beautiful mics, but with these you really get the sense that there’s no mic. When we were recording this, you would enter the house downstairs and the studio space was upstairs. Rob would come home and just walk right in and say, “Oh, I didn’t think you were recording.” He would basically think we were recording and it would just be the playback; it’s just got this warmth that radiates. So here’s to that!

FJ: Julian, can you talk a little bit about the differences in improvising in a bluegrass versus jazz setting? Do you approach it with a different mindset?

JL: That’s a good question. I feel like I do in some ways, and in other ways I don’t. The thing that I notice right away when I’m playing in this context is that you don’t have as much time to build a solo as, let’s say, I would in Eric Harland’s band. In that band, we’ll play a 60-70 minute show and it’ll be four songs.

And the intent is just you’re always improvising: you’re weaving, building connectors between songs… sometimes, improvising in that band for me is just playing with my loop pedal. Or, in Gary Burton’s Band, the same thing without the pedals… it’s the same kind of slow build.

With Critter, my favorite part about it is also the most challenging: I’ve got these kind of specified areas and, fundamentally, I want it to be melodic, I want it to feel good and I want to retain as much good tone as I can. And any time I overextend myself or read for things without really kind of hearing it internally first, I find that my attack on the instrument will be inappropriate. I’ll be kind of snappy or I’ll overpower the strings or I’ll play too light. So for me this is a real study of improvisation as it relates to coordination, because everything I adjust changes the tone and how it blends with him.

And so it’s challenging but, by the same token, Chris is one of the most open-minded, willing, dangerous guitar players there is. The things he’ll go for and the passion he has behind everything is so rich. Most of the time I just can’t help myself, and I’m just like, “Oh my God, I have to play this one thing. It’s going to go so well.” I can barely contain myself.

FJ: Chris, have you done much jazz playing?

CE: Not the world of jazz proper. It would be an absolute disaster to hear me try and play my way through a standard and sound like a bonafide jazz musician.

But, I’ve spent tons and tons of time listening to jazz. Growing up, the thing that really set me off as far as being a player and being really passionate about playing and improvising, was when I heard the David Grisman Quintet with Tony Rice. And then all of Tony Rice’s music that grew out of that. That music is all about, or is largely about, improvisation.

So from the time that I got really interested in playing the guitar, I’ve been interested in improvising.

Playing with Julian has really opened me up to the world of truly exploring and having a musical conversation. It’s a language that I’ve always kind of spoken – you go and you try and make some music happen in front of you. It’s kind of built into bluegrass. But the funny thing about bluegrass is that the structures are pretty rigid. You have a song and, like Julian was saying earlier, a lot of times you’ll have an eight-bar solo, and have to make some kind of statement in that solo. In that sense, it’s a really different discipline.

But, fundamentally, you’re still having to live in the moment, trying to create something.

JL: I think it’s a very empathetic experience, playing with Critter. I just count my blessings every day that we get to do that together, because, you just really can’t fall when you’re playing with him. So all the more reason to go for something ridiculous.

CE: And I would mirror that with a big ol’ likewise.

Order or listen to Close to Picture via Chris Eldridge’s Bandcamp page. Photo of Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage courtesy of Sean Packard.