• Canadian Bluegrass Star Adrian Gross Perseveres through the Pandemic

    Adrian Gross

    The first time I talked to Adrian Gross was in the fresh fruit department of my local supermarket. I spotted the young man carrying an A-style mandolin case, so naturally, had to approach. Little did I suspect he would soon be the phenomenal mandolin player for Canada's best known and probably most successful touring bluegrass band ever, The Slocan Ramblers. The band has released three albums and recently won the IBMA Momentum Award for Band of the Year.

    A native of Montreal, Adrian moved to Toronto when he entered the Humber College jazz program as a guitar major. As a kid, Adrian fell in love with the sound of gypsy jazz after seeing the Woody Allen Movie Sweet and Lowdown (he thought the fictional film was about a real musician). Adrian is a highly versatile player and jazz is still an important part of his musical life but these days he rarely picks up a guitar, reaching instead for his Stiver F5 or, in the recent days of Covid, a Gibson mandola on which he has been recording some solos. One balmy late summer evening I sat with Adrian on the back deck of the pretty little house that he shares with his wife Alyssa, with whom he recently made their first ever mandola-clawhammer banjo video. After talking, we played some tunes, Adrian mostly reaching for his mandola on which he could transpose keys instantly.

    Cary FaganAbout the author: Cary Fagan is a Toronto-based award-winning author of books for both adult and children. He believes that three mandolins are enough.

    When did the mandolin enter your life? While you were in jazz school?

    Yes, during my third year. I had borrowed one. My violin-playing roommate had bought a used one but the action was so high that it made no notes above the seventh fret. But I took to it quickly. And then I won an award for music arranging at Humber College and I with that exact amount of money I bought a Kentucky 505 A-style mandolin. That was a pretty good starter, it did the trick.

    The Slocan Ramblers play Adrian's "New Morning"


    And you didn't study with anyone until later when you visited Andy Statman?

    Not really. I took two lessons with Andrew Collins and two lessons with Marc Roy. Andrew said there are two things you have to figure out if you're going to play mandolin. One is tremolo. And the other is playing fiddle tunes fast. He said, you can work tunes up but there's also a value in taking little phrases and playing them up to tempo and getting used to that which is integral to bluegrass but not a lot of other styles of music.

    I was already flatpicking acoustic guitar. When I was eighteen I found a Doc Watson record belonging to my uncle, Deep River Blues. But I really wanted to learn a second instrument because I had learned guitar in such a structured way, even improvising. No teacher told me that I could learn by ear and it never occurred to me I could.

    Adrian also heard David Grisman, especially the soundtrack to the documentary Grateful Dawg, as well as an album by the 80s supergroup Strength in Numbers (with Sam Bush) and the Tony Rice/Norman Blake collaborations. And of course Chris Thile.

    Did you find yourself trying to lay your guitar stuff onto the mandolin?

    I totally did that. Using way too many hammer-ons and pull-offs. With mandolin I had to learn how you can get a smooth tone but with picking almost every note. That was a big learning curve.


    When did you start to play out?

    Pretty much right away. I've always been a bit of a hustler for gigs. I started responding to Craigslist ads, anyone looking for a mandolin player. Right away I found a clarinet player named John Williams who's still one of my closest friends. (Along with a bass player, he and John formed a klezmer/jazz group called The Rooftoppers. Early videos can be found on Youtube.) We gigged around Toronto mostly. It was really creative. I also joined this kind of folky, Canadian indie band with twelve members called The Strumbellas. Ozere was after that. The Rucksack Willies, a country roots band — I played mostly guitar.

    Slocan Ramblers

    Did you play in a bluegrass band before the Slocan Ramblers?

    The Slocan Ramblers was the first. I think it was all of our first real bluegrass bands. We started in 2010, just looking to figure out bluegrass together. Frank (Evans) was a good banjo player but he was coming mostly from old time music. Darryl (Poulsen, guitar) and I had gone to music school and he was getting into flatpicking, and my roommate Alastair Whitehead was getting into playing bluegrass bass. So we formed as an excuse to play classic bluegrass, that was the whole idea. It was in my and Alastair's garage.

    We immediately got our first gig at a place called Mitzi's Sister in Toronto. It was our first time playing with one mic. Frank had more experience playing old time with the Kitgut Stringband. It was an eye-opening experience, how you've got to eat the mic for your solo, back off for rhythm. How much louder you have to play in a loud bar without pick-ups. That became a big part of how I practiced, trying to get more volume and retain good tone. Clean playing while having volume. We embraced trying to play loud and with authority and intensity.

    We got a monthly gig at Graffiti's, and then a weekly gig at the Cloak and Dagger. We played there for maybe two years, every Tuesday from ten to one. That was a bluegrass education. And we had our monthly gig and one-offs all the time, weddings and parties. And I'd play gigs for other bands, so I was playing a lot of mandolin live right away.

    When did you realize this was a serious band?

    It happened organically. I've played in bands where someone was a driving force, saying this is a thing. But with the Slocans we never had that discussion. We just played more and more. We played Mariposa in 2013. And then around 2014 — I started doing the booking and managing around then — we got our first American festival, Pagosa Springs in Colorado. By 2015 our second album came out and we had a summer of doing tons of festivals in Canada. We went up to the Yukon.

    From the start, it seemed to me that your instrumentals and songs were arranged to take full advantage of the dynamics of the band. It wasn't just kick-off, verse and chorus, banjo break, etc. You were really musically thought out.

    Before we were writers as a band we were really into arranging. And we never had a fiddle so because of that we put a lot of thought into the arrangements to try and bring a lot of intensity and texture. We got pretty deliberate about how we wanted to sound. There are so many good duo combinations. On "Lone Pine," (an instrumental composed by Adrian on the second album), Coffee Creek, it's just mandolin and bass at the top. Obviously there's guitar and mandolin. We do a lot of mandolin/clawhammer banjo stuff that really works great. It's funny because we still arrange a lot but on Queen City Jubilee (the third and newest album) we were conscious about having some tunes that just start out of the gate because a lot of my favorite bands do that. We almost got a little simpler.


    A four-piece band means you all get to do more. There are a lot more mandolin kick-offs than there might otherwise be.

    That's what happens. I'm the highest-pitched instrument in the band, there's no fiddle to compete for that same sonic territory. I think if we had a fiddle player there wouldn't be a lot of mandolin/clawhammer banjo duos. So we all get a lot of playing time. It's definitely pushed us to think of all different textures that we could get from different combinations of the instruments.

    It's also powerful to have an instrument drop out. There's so much you can get from taking pieces away rather than always adding them. You can get more intensity by leaving something out.

    At some point you took some lessons with Andy Statman.

    I got in touch with Statman in 2012 or 2013. I was a big fan of his right hand when I heard his playing. His klezmer record with Grisman, Songs of Our Fathers, that's such a great record. Flatbush Waltz, too. I liked his approach. I think what really spoke to me was the intensity and immediacy with which he played. He just commits so fully. His sound is enormous. So I reached out to him and he said, come to New York. I went down and did maybe two lessons in the course of one trip, then a second trip. In 2015 or '16 I lived in New York for two months and took maybe six or seven lessons. He would always say, "I can't hear you." He meant, I don't feel you, you're not putting enough into it. If I was playing and for a split second I lost intensity — or just slightly second-guessed something — he would pick up on it. He'd say, "Don't be wishy-washy." A tough guy but super warm. I'd go for an hour lesson and leave three hours later. A great influence.

    The Slocan Ramblers

    I've noticed how rhythmic your mandolin breaks are. A lot of double and triple-stops. You can play as many notes as anyone, but you're not a really notey player.

    Yeah. That was one of the main things about Andy (Statman) that we spoke about. And if I had to pick a favorite player, Grisman is the one I listened to the most. And those guys I love for their tremolo. Every instrument has a unique thing it can do and for mandolin it's the tremolo. I love hearing eighth notes on the mandolin and I also play a lot of them but with Statman the lessons were really geared towards tremolo and getting a powerful right hand. A strong sense of time and expressive voice using tremolo and double-stops. So I've practiced that the most.

    You're not a Monroe-style player.

    No, but I've been working on that lately. It's so specific that it's hard to commit to. I've definitely borrowed pieces. And from Mike Compton, especially his records with the John Hartford String Band. The first time I heard Compton's solo on "Good Old Boys" I almost cried, I thought it was so gorgeous. Also Ricky Skaggs is one of my favorite players — his feel, his eighth notes. On Bluegrass Rules or Skaggs and Rice every mandolin solo is a perfect Monroe solo. I've definitely lifted a bunch of those.

    There are a number of tunes where you do a riff or musical phrase over and over behind the singing. I don't remember that much in other bluegrass bands.

    Yeah, it's like a hook. All of us in the band enjoy trying to find little musical hooks to add some texture behind the vocal or in transition moments to the chorus. Those often happen organically, from playing the tune so many times. You think you're improvising but you're actually playing the same-ish thing and it becomes part of the song.


    You composed "Lone Pine," "Galilee" and "April's Waltz" for the second album. On the third, "New Morning," "Deer on a River" and the terrific song "Hill to Climb" are yours. Let's talk about your composing.

    I kind of have an approach that feels consistent. I need to have some kind of inspiration. Getting the first kernel, it's hard to say how it comes. Sometimes I'm just noodling on the mandolin. It often happens in the morning, the first thing that comes out. From there it's working it out, putting in the time. That's the perspiration. And what feels like composing. The first bit feels like it's already out there and I'm just grabbing it.

    I used to write mostly on guitar. Now I write on mandolin a little bit more. I'll get the melody and then the structure. I usually go through a bunch of chord possibilities if it's not super obvious. I record them just in GarageBand and listen back, trying to find my favorite chords. Figuring out how the parts fit together. And then usually I sit on it for a little while to see if I still like it.

    Slocan Ramblers at Rockygrass Contest
    The Slocan Ramblers at RockyGrass

    Before the pandemic you were touring a lot, going to major U.S. festivals like MerleFest and RockyGrass. How have you been treated by American audiences?

    We've had a good reception. And people are really friendly and nice. I always feel pretty optimistic for humanity when I go on the road. People are often surprised that we're from Canada. They're like, how do you know about bluegrass in Canada? But it's a regional style of music that has become worldwide.

    Let's talk mandolins. You started on a Kentucky. And then I remember an earlier luthier-made mandolin.

    Made by Warren Yates, who's a great banjo maker. I reached out to Ron Stewart, who deals in instruments, and said I had a limited budget but was looking for a good bluegrass instrument. He said he had this funky mandolin that Warren Yates made, a one-off. It was a really nice mandolin, voiced super dry. Bright. An immediate attack. The notes didn't bloom, they just kind of came out. It sounded really old-school bluegrass. I put a radiused fretboard on it. I used it on the first and I think the second album. That was a great mandolin

    And then in 2015 I went down to Bernunzio Music in Rochester, New York. A great store, really nice folks. They had this Stiver F5 for sale and I loved it. This just had something different that I liked. It was a little bit louder. A little bit warmer and rounder. Easier to play, more forgiving. It's pretty much the only mandolin I play now.

    Adrian Gross

    I know that your online teaching has increased, with students from around the world. With all your appearances cancelled due to Covid 19, what else have you been doing?

    I've never really had an individual presence these past six years. So I'm trying to have a little recording project where I just record some solo videos and put them out there. For myself it's been a good framework for working on material and presenting it. I've gotten really into mandola since Covid hit. It's the perfect at-home instrument with the extra range. I'm playing a lot of jazz. It's a 1917 Gibson. I got it at Dusty Strings in Seattle, bought it on the spot. I've never been happier with an instrument in terms of set-up, sound, the shape it's in. It sounds modern. You can do anything on it.

    Any live appearances in the nearish future?

    We still have a tour on the books for March so we'll see what happens.

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    Comments 5 Comments
    1. Nick Royal's Avatar
      Nick Royal -
      Great and thorough interview. I liked Andrew Collins' advice: learn to play tremolo, and fast for fiddle tunes. (Still working on both to those myself!)
    1. Bill McCall's Avatar
      Bill McCall -
      Great player in a great band. Sorry their festival agenda didn't happen, was so looking forward to seeing them again. Nice to see him get so broader notice.
    1. Mando Mafia's Avatar
      Mando Mafia -
      Adrian is a super nice fellow and a really interesting mandolin player. I love the breaks he constructs...check out his solos on this video, particularly the second one.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature by Cary Fagan, a great interview!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature.