An American Epic in progress

Fats Kaplin: The Epiphone Interview

Epiphone continues its ongoing conversation with Fats Kaplin, one of Nashville's most treasured musicians and a longtime fan of the House of Stathopoulo. This spring, the entire world will finally see Fats' magic up close--(literally and figuratively as Kaplin includes "magician" among many trades)--with the long awaited premier of American Epic on PBS. American Epic is produced by Robert Redford, T-Bone Burnett, and Fats' longtime friend Jack White. The film chronicles the early days of the recording industry when label talent scouts criss-crossed the nation to record the country's diverse and migrating population as it moved north from Mississippi, Kentucky, Texas, and Louisiana.

In the film, Kaplin is a vital member of a spirited backing band that includes White along with Epiphone's Dominic Davis. The group accompanies Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Nas, Taj Mahal, and many more as they all take their turn recording to a mid-1920s era Scully cutting lathe and singing into a restored General Electric "electric" microphone--the first of its kind. Epiphone spoke to Kaplin at his home in Nashville where he demonstrated his ideas and always-illuminating conversation with licks on banjo, Dobro, fiddle, and a reissue Epiphone Casino he's been trying out in his studio.

Fats Kaplin is a native of New York City where he grew up--as he says in his bio--"falling asleep to the sound of Johnny Pineapple's Hawaiian Revue seeping through the steam pipes from the apartment below and Cantor Ackerman practicing next door." His family and family friends were artists, illustrators, and cartoonists. But from an early age, Fats was drawn to jazz and string band 78s cut in the late '20s and '30s, an era that many serious musicians consider the most vibrant, dynamic, and difficult period in modern American popular music. Like many gifted musicians, Fats took to a number of instruments at a young age. But unlike most instrumentalists, he has worked hard to become proficient in all of them including two of the most difficult, steel guitar and fiddle. His long list of credits include Beck, Elvis Costello, Manhattan Transfer, and the WPA Ballclub. He is also a GRAMMY winning member of the Third Man Records Family and has accompanied Jack White on his recent tours and albums. This spring Fats will premier his own band in Nashville at a weekly residency at the city's hippest honky tonk, the 5 Spot.

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Some musicians turn away from using funky instruments as they refine their chops. But you're very accepting of an instrument's limitations. In fact, you seek them out.

That's right. I can define this way: there are instruments that are good, dependable instruments but sometimes they can be a little--I would say--recalcitrant. Like that little Kay in the corner (points to a small 50s era Kay acoustic); for all its limitations--and it's been to Australia a number of times--it's very responsive and it's very unique sounding... very musical sounding. Whereas certain instruments that I've had that might be really "good" don't quite do it for me; you always have to kind of work them. Some of my favorite instruments sound particularly great using fingers rather than picks.

Did you ever run across Epiphone's 20s era banjos when you were living in New York?

I was more leaning toward--you know--fiddles, banjoes, mandolins, ukuleles, that type of thing. When I got into steel guitar, I did play some Epiphone lap steels that would crop up.

When you'd go to play a festival I'd see what people were playing. I'd read articles in folk music magazines and see what people were talking about. Also, when I was a teenager--like 16, 17--I knew (vintage guitar shop owner) Matt Umanov when he had a small little shop in the Village. It was on Bedford Street I believe. It was a little hole in the wall place. It's moved three times since then but always in the same area of the Village. You'd learn from those guys what was good if you hung around for a little bit. You had to read a lot. I had to read articles, look at photographs and then try to find one.

Recording with mid 1920s equipment for American Epic must have been a dream session for you.

Well, yes it was very easy to get into it. And it was being produced by Jack White. He was there hands-on all the time. And we were recording on this Scully lathe machine and the first electric microphone--they had rebuilt it. It was the original mid-early 20s lathe machine that works on counter weights, not electricity. They did have the original horn, which was a dual horn that would fan-out in a "Y" so that you could record two people. And actually Dominic (Davis) and I recorded two of my instrumentals just bass and fiddle that way and I've got it--cut on 78. That was it. One take.

Fats Kaplin: The Epiphone Interview

But it was very easy to get into. For Jack and myself and Dominic and (fiddler) Lillie Mae--who also comes from that folk background, we knew how to do it. Mainly the thing about recording that way is where people were (situated) in the room because that was the only way the engineers could set your volume for everything. For instance; how close you'd get to the mic--say if you were playing mandolin--maybe you had to back up a little bit. You'd go over it a couple of times. Though I was not there, I heard that when Beck came with a 30-piece choir, they said that was the hardest because no matter what they did, the choir was too loud. And finally they had to do a thing where at the end, the choir was singing and backing up--30 people moving backwards! That was the only way they could do it.

When was your first recording session?

When I was 18 and I did an album at the Barn, which was Philo Records which was in Brattleboro, Vermont--maybe '71 or '72. Git Fiddle Shuffle was the name of the album and that was the first time I had really been in a studio. And I think back on that --I did a duo album with Roy Bookbinder--I was like someone that had come into recording in Bristol or something like that. Because I had no knowledge other than playing. I just played.

Fats Kaplin: The Epiphone Interview

And at that time there was no culture of home recording. Going to a recording studio was very special.

Yes it was. Now people are working in home studios, on their laptops, they can do this, that, cut this piece out. Even the most amateur can do stuff that was unheard of. But when I say "we just came in and we played," that's all I could do. I didn't have any concept of anything else. When I went out with Bookbinder and we were playing on the folk circuit, I didn't have a pickup. I played tenor banjo and fiddle and he played guitar. It wasn't like it was a conscious choice. I hadn't the slightest concept that you could put a pickup on anything. It didn't even enter my mind that you could plug something in.

Now, when I record up at my farm in Southern Illinois and it's only me and I'm doing the engineering and all of that, I can nitpick around with stuff, which is one way of doing it. That has had some very interesting results. It might not be my favorite as when someone else is engineering and dealing with it obviously. Overdubbing and all that interests me a lot but as I get older, I'm kind of moving back to recording stuff that is spontaneous, as you would an early jazz record where you are just playing. You're just capturing it. These days I'm falling back to recording in that way--like American Epic.

Your work with Jack seems to have a lot of that same spirit.

I've done stuff with Jack where it's coming from a place that is very spontaneous. Even if something is slightly out of tune but captures a vibe, they will use all of that. Then they will start laying--double tracking a piano or fiddle part--but it's not to make it perfect. It's for the artistic quality of doing it. It's a different thought process.

Even though I come from a folk, blues, world music background, I've branched out into jazz, classical. There was a period long ago when I was very interested in classical and I know a fair amount about it actually. At one point in my 20s I studied theory and composition privately in New York City. This was after being completely self-taught. I went and studied violin with a woman for two years to try to work my technique. I'm always fascinated by classical technique though I do not come from that world.

Sitting right here on the music stand is Kreutzer's 42 Studies and that's one of the bibles for technique--one of the great ones that you would go through. When I was 20, I got really into early jazz -- Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Condon and Frankie Trumbauer, and I really wanted to do that. Even to the point of teaching myself clarinet and C-melody saxophone. Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang were my favorites. But anyway, Joe Venuti came to play in New York and this guitarist said: Would you like to meet Joe Venuti? So I went to meet Joe in a hotel room. And he asked me to play something. And at this point I'm entirely self-taught coming from this kind of stringband background. So I played one or two things for him and he said: "Do you do your Kreutzer studies?" I had no idea what he was talking about. I said, "I'm not sure." He goes: "Study your Kreutzer, kid!" And to this day I'll periodically go back and try to struggle through some Kreutzer for some technique. Because I realized at that point I had no technique. I could swing. There's an aspect about being self-taught that's very interesting.

Do you find it necessary to step away from the Americana world to get new ideas?

Yes. I'm constantly thinking about alternate tunings. I find I need to hear something different. Being in the roots/Americana world primarily I really have to shut it off sometimes. I have to listen to the classical music station. Or the other night I was working on some drawing and I put on a cd of a classic Indian Sarangi player, which is a complicated bowed instrument with sympathetic strings. Living in Nashville, there can be a sameness about stuff that gets tiresome to me.

Is Nashville still a creative place for someone like yourself who listens to a wide range of music?

I think it is a good place for me. I get called to sessions for what I do--playing a lot of different instruments. That's happened for many years.

How did you make that impression on a music town that tends to opt for blandness over personality?

It never was an intention. It was never something I thought would be "cool" or "good" for business. That never occurred to me. When I started playing button accordion in the 1980s, Flaco Jimenez really interested me. And I played it for awhile kind of by myself and then right away it got used in a band. And it was ok--I got better and better. When I picked up pedal steel, right away within a month I was playing in some crappy honky tonk band (laughs). I immediately had to do it by the seat of my pants. That's it--you're playing it live! Which is good because it's trial by fire. You just have to really do it. I did a lot of live playing that way.

One of the main things that has helped me get gigs is that I can play mandolin, fiddle, and whatever else seriously. There are players that can play electric guitar and play some lap steel pretty ok. But the instruments I play, for all they know, it could be my primary instrument. In other words, I don't do it to play in an individual idiosyncratic style. When it comes to pedal steel, I can play some 60s or 70s Hal Rugg type of feel. I'm not just winging it. To some extent, I can adopt my style whether I'm playing with Tinariwen or Hank Williams Jr. on the CMAs.

Fats Kaplin: The Epiphone Interview

Do you ever feel that sessions distract you from your own work?

Most of the stuff that I do is stuff that I want to do. There's precious little that I get called for that's not really pretty good. And even then if it's a songwriter and--say--this is their first or second album--maybe I'm even producing--to them you have to understand what it is. It's really important to them. Can I lift this song and do something more with it? I know some people who will play a session and say "oh that's fine." But if that's how you feel, you really shouldn't be doing it.

You've been traveling and recording with your wife Kristi Rose who is a singer--not an instrumentalist. What kind of challenges does that present you?

Working with Kristi Rose as a duo really takes me out of the world that I'm most comfortable because when you are the only instrument--and I'm primarily on guitar--it takes on a whole other thing.

When you started working together, did you have a model for how you wanted to approach the duo?

Maybe it's sort of like using Delta blues guitarist--voice and guitar. That's one thing. Or say a Flamenco guitarist with a singer--very theatrical. That image is something I've thought about quite often. Or a Cabaret singer with someone playing a piano or a banjo. But it's never conscious. Originally when I went out that way in 2000, I was just trying to remember to play the guitar! We got a job playing in Northern France at this giant trade festival for Tennessee. At that point I didn't even own a guitar. I bought the guitar and went to the gig. What works? I don't know! We'll figure it out.

Over the last year you formed your first band. That must be exciting for you.

This is the first time I've thought about it. People say "you're a great front man." It's something I never ever thought about. I'm playing as a trio--mixing up instrumental music with talking and magic. All of those things mashed into one thing. That's what I'm mainly concentrating on.

Had you ever considered leading your own band before now?

I like being a musician or sideman that works with people and adds what I can to it. My heroes were always people who were sideman--not stars; a really interesting LA session from a certain period in Hollywood--or say like Hal Rugg. They were really good--fantastic--all individual styles. Those type of players. People who were respected, made a living, recorded great records, but weren't stars per se.

I found to my surprise that I really enjoy it. For better or worse, the way I operate best is when I have a rough idea of what I'm going to do or say or I don't think about it. And then if I'm spontaneous, I found that works best for me. I'm good with rolling with it. I think (laughs).