To the average listener, traditional Appalachian music has little in common with avant-garde drones and improvisational noise. Nathan Bowles has forged a career in each of these genres. The brilliance of his body of work is the suggestion that these styles share a common aesthetic and inform one another.
“They’re both fueled by the same spirit,” Bowles said. “I mean, they’re both idiomatic in their own way. The [Black Twig Pickers] music, the kind of music I like to play, is very spontaneous, and kind of continually improvising within these parameters and themes. It’s so circular and energetic and kinetic. And I like qualities like that in improvised music too, even the dronier stuff. Stuff that seems static to other people, I often find a lot of movement in.”
Bowles was raised in Suffolk, where he played piano and drums as a child. He attended Virginia Tech, where he teaches in the English department. Around 2005, Bowles fell in with a collective of Central Virginia-based musicians loosely centered around the band Pelt.
Pelt began in the early ’90s as a dirgey noise rock band, but soon changed its sound to acoustic instrumentation, incorporating subtle elements of Appalachian folk as well as Indian and Middle Eastern classical music into its dense drones. When virtuoso guitarist Jack Rose left the group to focus on his solo career, and co-founder Patrick Best moved away, Pelt was put on the back-burner while the remaining Virginia-based members focused on various side projects.
Michael Dimmick’s Spiral Joy Band explored many of the same far out Eastern-tinged abstractions, often incorporating a large ensemble of gongs into its music. Mike Gangloff and Isak Howell concentrated on the Black Twig Pickers, a trio who played traditional Appalachian folk tunes and original compositions in the same spirit.
While his interest in experimental music originally brought Bowles into the group’s orbit, he soon fell for traditional music as well, playing washboard with the Twigs and various percussion instruments in the Spiral Joy Band, as well as the occasional collaboration with Rose (who passed away unexpectedly in 2009). When Pelt eventually resumed recording and performing, Bowles became a member of that group as well.
Last year, Bowles struck out on his own as a solo musician, releasing A Bottle, A Buckeye, a record of original banjo tunes, and went on tour to support it. Bowles appeared in town last week, at a house concert in a local living room while on a short stint with Philadelphia-based musician Scott Verrastro. The duo played percussion on dueling drum kits and assorted bells, gongs, and shakers, conjuring up a shifting sea of textures that ranged from gentle tones to energetic freak-outs.
The commitment to sheer sound, and the time spent exploring textures when playing avant-garde music, influences his approach to traditional music, and it’s one reason that the records he’s made stand out from a lot of his contemporaries. “I get so bugged by a lot of recordings of folk music these days, like modern stuff,” he said. “It’s like, fiddles way in your face, and there’s guitar somewhere in the other room. I don’t know why that’s the [popular] thing, but the Twigs are kind of on the warpath to destroy that idea—trying to honor the resonant sounds and the incidents, and just what it sounds like when we’re sitting there playing in a circle.”
While the Twigs usually record in Floyd, Virginia, most of Bowles’ projects have been recorded in upstate New York in a rural studio located in the Black Dirt region, and operated by Jason Meagher of the No Neck Blues Band. “I’ve been really spoiled to record [with him],” Bowles said. “It’s cool because he doesn’t usually work with people recording old time music.”
The solo process challenges Bowles in new ways. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking. When you don’t have someone else to bounce stuff off of, it’s different. But I like it. And I’m looking forward to doing more of it.” He is currently writing songs for a second solo album, which he plans to record in Meagher’s studio early next year. “I want to include some different instrumentation too, like piano and some percussion,” Bowles said.
Bowles has been concentrating on the banjo for the past six years. “If you handed me a standard tuned guitar, I couldn’t play a single chord,” he said. “I don’t know how to play it, so I have to open tune something to be able to do anything with it.”
Bowles has a busy schedule ahead of him. He’s participating in a supergroup of sorts with Meagher and his No Neck bandmate Dave Shuford, as well as like-minded guitarists D. Charles Speer and Steve Gunn, under the name Black Dirt Oak. And he will also briefly join Gunn’s trio to fill in on percussion for a series of tour dates with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo.
On Friday, November 22, Bowles returns to Charlottesville to play set of original solo banjo tunes that draw from traditions in Appalachian folk, bluegrass, and old-time music at the Tea Bazaar where he will share the bill with guitar virtuoso Daniel Bachman and the solo Davis Salisbury, who plays under the name Dais Queue.
Bachman is a Virginia native who recently relocated to North Carolina, and is a stellar performer. It’s not the first time the two have appeared together—Bachman sat in with the Twigs at the Hopscotch festival in Raleigh this September. “I think we’ll try collaborating with him again, just because we’re friends, and we’re into the idea of exploring,” Bowles said. “We’ll play at least one song together, we’ve just got to decide what, and practice it a couple hours beforehand. But we’ve got a shared repertoire.”
Having played here regularly, Bowles has developed an affection for the town. “I love playing in Charlottesville,” he said. “Daniel asked me to play the show and I live close enough. I love seeing Daniel play and I like playing Tea Bazaar, so ‘why not?’ It’s really as simple as that.”
Check out the two sides of Nathan Bowles’ sound in the video below.