• Martin Howley's Mandolin Journey with We Banjo 3

    We Banjo 3
    L-R: David Howley, Martin Howley, Fergal Scahill, Enda Scahill. Photo credit: webanjo3.com

    Irish and American, traditional and contemporary, all come together in a way that defies any musical pigeon hole for the band We Banjo 3. By whatever name you choose to call it, the driving force of the band is the stunning virtuosity of the four musicians who form its core: Enda and Fergal Scahill (brothers), and Martin and David Howley (yes, also brothers).

    In between a full tour schedule that keeps them busy on both sides of the pond, the band found time to release Haven, their new album which features a collection of traditional and original tunes that continue to expand on the band's trademark "Celticgrass" sound.

    We sat down with the band's go-to mandolin man, Martin Howley for a chat about the new CD and his role as their primary mandolin player. As part of the interview Martin prepared a special video for the Cafe that details his approach to a traditional Irish jig.

    Charlie SchwartzAbout the author: Charlie Schwartz makes his home in Lawrence, KS along with a number of resonator and open-back banjos, a Martin guitar and an Irish flute. A fan of everything from The Louvin Brothers to traditional Irish music, old-time, bluegrass and outlaw country, he previously produced the We Banjo 3 interview for the Banjo Cafe. He plans to catch the band at Kansas City's Irish Fest later this month before attending the Walnut Valley Festival in September.

    What would you like to tell us about Haven, the band's first release since String Theory in 2016?

    Haven was reactionary. Whilst on tour we were consistently receiving feedback that our live shows had become a refuge from the maelstrom of social, environmental and political strife. We've always strived to balance virtuosity and honesty with a sense of fun and escapism. That feedback loop made us look deeper into our roles as travelling minstrels providing happiness and refuge.

    We started to compile our collective writing, sifting through for a resonant theme. We all hung on this vision of a safe harbor during a storm. We grew up on the west coast of Ireland, which receives the full fury of the North Atlantic and her capricious storms. We wrote from that place, gathered together in Connemara during a huge Winter storm and thus Haven sprung to life. The work doesn't intend to make commentary but rather shape an idyll, a community well of compassion we can all draw from.

    As such, it was a very different process for us. Our first three studio albums were mainly re-imagining Irish, Bluegrass, Appalachian, and other folk repertoire. We are proud of our Irish heritage, Irish traditional music is incredibly rich and complex and has given us a platform to explore other folk traditions which share musical DNA with our native music. All our exploration through these other albums has naturally lead to Haven, and we are incredibly proud of it.

    We Banjo 3 - Haven

    The band created a playlist on Spotify of various artists that inspired Haven. It's pretty varied with everything from songs by John Mayer and Radiohead to Bob Dylan.

    Our engineer, Frank Marchand, has worked with us on the road for the past five years, which naturally led to working together in the studio. He is an astounding studio engineer, very musical and sensitive to the creative process. It was Frank's suggestion to create a musical "wall" of sounds we loved, records that spoke to us for their writing, their production or their movement. The Spotify playlist is a snippet that came from that wall. We've grown up in the traditional sphere, with a keen sense of curiosity. Some of the records on the playlist played a seminal role in who we are as musicians. Others have impressed on us the need to be bold and follow our own sound. It was fun to share the playlist with fans and see their reactions.

    The band has a focus on the banjo, but often as not several of you are playing mandolin.

    We all grew up playing multiple string instruments, guitar, banjo, fiddle, bouzouki and mandolin. Both sets of brothers grew up in musical households where there were always instruments around. David, our guitarist, started on mandolin as his first instrument. Fergal, Enda, and David all play very well and often compose on mandolin.

    I've been on this journey with the mandolin in the last 10 years, I feel like it has so much more to say with an Irish accent. It's an instrument that languishes behind in the traditional Irish music setting of a session, and is still relatively young within the tradition. I've worked on refining my technique on mandolin, trying to speak through it. It's become part of our We Banjo 3 sound and that's still evolving.

    Martin breaks down his amazing technique for the tune "Dawn Breaks," a jig that kicks off a set by the same name from the new album "Haven." David Howley on guitar, Fergal Scahill video and editing.

    Where is your touring taking you next?

    We are on the road supporting the new album and will be throughout the Midwest for the next month and out to Colorado to finish this leg Labor Day at Four Corners folk in Pagosa Springs alongside David Grisman and Sam Bush.

    We are out West from Washington to California in October. Then we have a mammoth spring run next year, all over, East, Midwest, South and West. All the dates will be up on webanjo3.com and if the Cafe folks are interested they can join our email list and we will send exclusive pre-sales and such.

    Tell us about your mandolin gear.

    My main mandolin is a Collings MF-5. Steve McCreary and the team at Collings have been so supportive. Dan Voight in Nashville does all my setup. I'm currently using an L.R. Baggs Radius pickup into Grace Design Felix Preamp for stage. I'm using Elixir medium strings and a BlueChip Pick that Adam Chowning at Carter Vintage Guitar in Nashville designed. Fletcher Brock is currently building a custom octave mandolin that I am very excited to get stuck into.

    Additional Information

    We Banjo 3
    Photo credit: webanjo3.com
    Comments 19 Comments
    1. CES's Avatar
      CES -
      Thanks for the interview and the video! I’d love to have more info on the song, and tab would be great, though you’re clearly very busy gentlemen at the moment! Best of luck on your tour!!

      Also, downloaded the new album this morning and think I've listened through it 3 times already. Very nicely done!
    1. Jill McAuley's Avatar
      Jill McAuley -
      Good on ye Martin and David! Would love some ABC's for this tune. All the best, have a great tour!
    1. Aaron Woods's Avatar
      Aaron Woods -

      What a great translation of fiddle ideas to the mandolin. So clean yet authentic and still just a bit tipsy. Nicely done. I look forward to hearing more.
    1. MB-Octo's Avatar
      MB-Octo -
      Wonderful music, great videos ... I'm a fan! You folks are lots of fun. Hope to see you in October @ the Edmonds Center for the Arts.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Just happened to see this article in the Milwaukee newspaper. Very moving story about the band's support of mental health issues.
    1. Paul Busman's Avatar
      Paul Busman -
      Very nice! I'd be very happy to see any tune transcriptions you and the other guys want to put together. Standard notation for me.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Some news from the band. Haven just took over #1 on the Billboard Top Bluegrass albums list replacing All Ashore from Punch Brothers.

      So that we keep the focus on the band and the interview, please start the inevitable "that ain't bluegrass" discussion separately, and you're welcome to do so.
    1. Anglocelt's Avatar
      Anglocelt -
      Quote Originally Posted by Paul Busman View Post
      Very nice! I'd be very happy to see any tune transcriptions you and the other guys want to put together. Standard notation for me.
      Yes please to a transcription of that great jig. Also a question. Have you been influenced by any of the great Scottish trad bands who have bending traditional tunes in recent years. I think I hear echoes in the WB3 approach.
    1. rfd's Avatar
      rfd -
      loverly brilliant!
    1. wildpikr's Avatar
      wildpikr -
      I've heard some of your music on the radio through Sirius XM channel 62 Bluegrass Junction - good stuff. After reading the interview and watching the video I ordered 'Haven' and 'String Theory' which were delivered this morning - not a bad song in the lot - keep up the good work! And please count me in for a transcription when you can find time for that...thanks.
    1. Mike Romkey's Avatar
      Mike Romkey -
      Wow! Nice playing. Would love to see the sheet music.
    1. Don Grieser's Avatar
      Don Grieser -
      Looking forward to seeing you at Pagosa! Sheet music would be great!
    1. Martin Howley's Avatar
      Martin Howley -
      Hey all! Thanks for your lovely comments! Iíll get a breakdown video done and post this month
    1. CES's Avatar
      CES -
      Thank you!!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting this fine interview published one year ago today.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature.
    1. sgarrity's Avatar
      sgarrity -
      Love these guys! Perfect music to help you forget about these trying times.
    1. Mandobart's Avatar
      Mandobart -
      These guys were SO GOOOOOD at last Wintergrass. I had not heard them before. They put on the best show of anyone there (in my opinion, of course). Tremendous energy and musicianship.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Nothing the anniversary of this interview.