Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Random Moment with Gregory Mulkern

Gregory Mulkern, lead vocalist, banjo, Sold Only As Curio

Saturday night. LES, NYC. I ventured to Pianos for a friend's gig. Second on the bill was who I described on sight as a "lean gypsy". He proceeded to wow us with Turkish songs and The Wire. Solo. On September 12, I had the opportunity to experience the entire band at Jalopy. Before they hit the stage, I sat down with the lead vocalist for this interview.

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My name is Gregory Mulkern. I’m from Portland, Oregon and I play banjo and sing with the band, Sold Only As Curio.

What style of music?

Sold Only As Curio plays, I guess what we’re calling, acoustic-based, international crossover dance music.


‘Cause if you just say “international dance music” then everyone’s gonna think club music from Serbia or something. If you say, “acoustic-based dance music” then everyone’s gonna think bluegrass music but a lot of what we’re doing is taking instruments like a fiddle and a banjo—distinctly American instruments and playing the music that we love with them which adds that crossover element—so Turkish tunes on a banjo or Finnish tunes on a banjo.

Sold Only As Curio performs at Jalopy, September 12, 2012

When you say “we”, who’s “we”? Who are the members of your band?

It’s myself on banjo and vocals, Nate Jackson on percussion and vocals as well, Bianka Black on fiddle and Michael Kucera on electric bass.

What’s the meaning behind the name “Sold Only As Curio”?

I’m glad you asked. “Sold Only As Curio” is a catchphrase used by people who made traditional medicine or mojos, magic items and so on and so forth from their native cultures and then were trying to sell them in the United States without claims being evaluated by the FDA. So your grandma might make a pouch of herbs and it’s supposed to bring you luck or wealth or beautiful women into your life but if you sell it “only as curio” then the FDA doesn’t get to say you can’t make these claims about the product… sort of a sneaky, somewhat subversive way of maintaining traditional cultural practices in the United States without the government getting involved.

So you’re applying that to your music…

Little bit. Sure… I mean we want our music to be effective, we want it to be something that makes you wanna dance or makes you wanna have sex or really delivers something to you and in that sense music is always something a little more than you bargained for…

How long have you been playing, you personally and together as a band?

Well the band is relatively new together. We’ve been working on this material a little less than a year. I’ve been playing banjo for about 8 years at this point but it wasn’t until I moved out to Portland and met up with these people that I took banjo away from its traditional repertoire and started to play the music that I really liked and some of the music I was going to as a dancer or as an audience member and not just as a player.

Is banjo your first instrument? Why’d you choose the banjo?

I started playing more rootsy Americana type of music, like old jug band music from the early part of the 1900’s. Then I started to find the Smithsonian Folklife Collection and to get involved with some of the traditional music coming from the Appalachians—what they call old-time music. I was a little involved in the old-time music but since then I’ve branched out.

There’s actually a pivotal moment when I was at a party in Portland, Oregon and there were a bunch of old-time players there and they were playing music all night long. The dancing was great, the food was great and the people were fantastic but I left at the end of the night wishing that I’d had the chance to hear something or try something that wasn’t just happy party music most of the time… groups of musicians playing together something that was just a little bit different from everything else I was hearing. That's what led me to hook up with some of the other people who inspired me to play banjo a little bit differently.

Would you say those are your inspirations, the old-time music?

Well for this particular project, not so much the inspiration, those are just the roots of where I was coming from as a player. Sold Only As Curio is a really collaborative project. It’s not just mine. It’s not just Bianka’s or Nate’s or Mike’s. We’re just making music together and our inspiration is what really makes us happy or what makes us wanna be alive and dance and sing and play music. So we’ll sit down in a room together and maybe we’ll come up with a R&B song; you’ll have fiddle and banjo and bass and drums playing soul or R&B or like maybe the next day it’ll be disco. Or maybe it’ll be something completely different the day after that but to cull out what actually makes sense to bring on the road as a project is a little bit different. Our inspirations are the types of music that we hear and things that really touch us and move us in a real active way.

Sold Only As Curio plays Turkish song "Rampi Rampi" (band practice)

What is the significance for singing the Turkish songs?

Well for me, personally, it’s because I really love the music. There is a scene of Balkan music out in the Pacific Northwest; there’re a lot of people involved in Balkan music who are players or folk dancers who bring a lot of really terrific musicians from around the world to Oregon for different festivals or teaching workshops. There are a lot of players in the Pacific Northwest too who have been introduced to music by me and then Bianka who has been in Portland, Oregon a lot longer than I have and just through her own personal interest knew a lot about that music. It’s visceral. It’s an old music and the fact that these tunes have survived for hundreds and hundreds of years means that there’s something very real there. I don’t think it matters that we’re playing it on different sorts of instruments, people from the countries recognize the songs when we play them and they will dance to it or they will be excited by us trying to play those songs. People who have never heard Turkish music before will be like ‘wow, what was that song? I really like that. I don’t think it was English…’ so a good tune is a good tune and doesn’t necessary just belong to one particular country and if it can touch people then we wanna play it.

In any language, what is your favorite word, and why?

My favorite word in other languages…

It can be an English word but it may not be an English word…

What is my favorite word? Hmm… I wanna give you a good answer so I’m gonna take a second to think about this… I’m gonna say harmony…because harmony is a really powerful thing. A lot of what we’re doing in our band has to do with harmony, there’s a lot of vocal harmony on a lot of the songs but more [for] me personally, harmony is a physical thing, I mean all sound is physical—it’s an actual disturbance in the air that’s touching your skin and touching your ear—and when you have two different sounds that might come from different sources they interact with each other in harmony; a whole, rich collection of sounds that is greater than just the sum of their parts. I mean there are physics reasons for this.

So when you’re making music, you’re making an actual physical thing that’s reaching out and touching every single person in the audience. When there’s harmony there’s sort of this third magical element created when you’re touching people with things that you didn’t even necessarily create but it’s the natural effect of different sources coming together in a room and collectively working in collaboration to create something really powerful and really beautiful. If there’s a microcosm for anything that’s good about making music then harmony is probably that.

I read on your website that you guys sing about dark themes. Is there any eroticism in your work? If so, what’s the significance?

Well, eroticism is powerful. I mean, sex is a big part of being alive as a human being and we don’t shy away from those types of topics. So tonight we may sing some very vulgar things, we may sing some very sexual things. There is a song that we play that other people in folk music try not to play because the lyrics are quite racy, they’re not in English, but when you’re playing it for people who are accustomed to this particular song it can be a little controversial—the words are seoca mi înima Mîndra curva mea—which are basically “that bitch broke my heart” but in a very nasty way, but these are very real things to us like we’ve all been there, we’ve all felt these things. As musicians we’re not just trying to please, to make everyone in the room happy, we would never just wanna be “nice” as a band, we wanna be real. So eroticism? Yes. Death? Yes. You know, sickness? Yes. But also joy, yes and just complete exultation, yes. If it’s strong and powerful we wanna be exploring those themes.

 Gregory Mulkern of Sold Only As Curio plays original song "Six Feet To Go" 

The gig that we met at happened to be an impromptu gig; you were in the right place at the right time and someone found you. What would you say, up until this point has been your biggest break or your luckiest break?

Luckiest break for the band well, you know nothing is through luck we’ve all earned… (laughter) nah it’s not true at all… I think the luckiest thing we have going for us as a band is we put ourselves in situations where luck can really deliver something. A huge part of our band is playing music on the street—call it street performance concerts or busking—we like to put ourselves in situations and play and see what comes with it. Maybe you meet someone from a different country who has been in America for so long that they hear a song from a different country and they’re like that song reminds me of where I came from and are suddenly touched in a way they didn’t expect to be touched and they’ll stay and dance with you and talk with you for a night and that’s really maybe lucky for them or lucky for us – serendipity. Or maybe it’s the luck of a small child who’s all sad and walks by and sees a bunch of people in colorful clothes playing instruments and being happy and suddenly that kid’s happy again. That’s really lucky for us to be there for that person too.

We’re not the type of people to just rehearse in our home and then go to our recording studio and then go to a venue and only play in professional settings. Our music is kind of part of our lives and who we are as people so we’ll always put ourselves out in situations where luck can take us in different directions.

I’m making an assumption here…

Go for it.

Besides your banjo, what is your most prized possession?

Besides my banjo… it’d be hard to play without my hands and arms but I’m not gonna say that… My most prized possession? I wanna say something material...

Where are you leaning?

I certainly don’t possess any of my friends (laughs) they’re around of their own will so… well, I really like having a home base in Portland, Oregon. I rent a house there and so that’s a material possession and having a route where I can always come back to Portland, Oregon is really great because it’s a fantastic city to meet a lot of other musicians. It’s also a great city to meet a lot of other traveling artists who come through town and to be inspired from different types of music that you encounter there. It’s a very open and sharing musical community there—if there’s something going on in Oregon more likely than not, you’re invited to experience it too and so having a house in Oregon that I can go back to and continue to be inspired and meet other people and talk to other people about what I’m trying to do and learn from them is something that I hold dearly. I used to live in Brooklyn, I lived in a couple of different places in Greenpoint for 4 years but I moved out to Portland, Oregon and I like it there. I don’t wanna stay in one place ever, anywhere in the world, but Portland is a really nice place to keep coming back to.

What are your upcoming projects? Do you have anything in the works?

Well this Sold Only As Curio project is still, I would consider, relatively new such that we’re all still really focused on it, bringing out the sets that we’ve created and they’re now ready for other people to really be experiencing and critiquing for us. We’re putting a lot of work into that, thinking about our touring schedule and heading back to Europe probably within a year from now.

We have a lot going on in the background here, but if I were to ask you to improv something, could you?

Improv something? Sure, do you want me to get my banjo? Part of what we do as a band we improvise songs for people on the spot. You would give me a particular topic…

Ok, I’m not asking for a whole song, just a verse using your favorite word, harmony and… chocolate.

Ok, harmony and chocolate. Now, what I would ask you on the street is, politically speaking I wanna make sure that I do not offend, “harmony and chocolate are we feeling ok about these things?”


Isn’t harmony a bad chocolate brand? Like a harmony bar, it’s pretty bad?

There is?

Yeah I think so. Maybe not. I might be thinking about a harmonica. It’s relatively the same size and shape of a chocolate bar… Ok harmony and chocolate. Little unnatural to do this without a banjo in front of me. We’re gonna try this:

When I think of the things that I like quite a bit,
my mind often returns to chocolate
it’s lovely and creamy once inside of me
and makes me inspired to sing in harmony
oh chocolate is lovely and creamy inside of me
and it makes me want to sing in harmony

That’s the first verse. Umm…

If I were a mermaid I might sink a ship
but not if this ship was full of chocolate
for the sailors who would ship such a fine cargo in their hold
must have souls that are saintly and hearts of gold
hearts of gold
for chocolate once it’s inside of me
makes me want to sing songs in harmony


Do you have any voice training or is it just a natural talent?

Yes, actually I started singing in a barbershop quartet but also classical choirs throughout school and college and things like that and took voice lessons on the side. I didn’t understand for the longest time that you could just make the music that was either inside of you or the music that you like to listen to. Doesn’t make a lot of sense that when you go to high school, at least where I was up in Maine, your choices were to be in a classical ensemble or marching band but you’d go home and listen to like rock and roll or punk music or Michael Jackson or things on the radio and there was a total disconnect there. I didn’t understand for a while like, ‘hey, I can sing or I can play a couple of instruments, why don’t I play the music that I really like listening to or sing the music that I really like listening to at home?’ It wasn’t until after I got out of the formal school system that it suddenly hit me like a lightning bolt—wait a minute, I really like these songs! Why don’t I make music that I would wanna dance to?

Complete this statement: If my muse were an animal, it would be…

If my muse were an animal, it would be… not allowed inside this bar. Which would mean, I wouldn’t have been able to sing anything impromptu…obviously not the case. But if my muse were an animal it would be a bird, and I hate to say it, not a big majestic soaring eagle, but like a little flitting songbird maybe—a really chatty, light feathery bird just kinda flipping around. I often feel like I can get distracted by all sorts of little pretty things or creative ideas around me and whisk over to this branch and then whisk back over to that branch and expend a lot of energy all at once which is, you know, the reason why I’m not very good at planning logistics on this sort of tour but I think it does very well onstage to have a very energetic-borderline-crazed stage performance… very high-energy or maybe just a regular ol’ song sparrow would be my muse.

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