Interview: JP Biondo of Cabinet
Talks Influences, Life on The Road, & more!
By John Mikeska
After a barn burnin’ set from the boys of Cabinet, Live Music Daily sat down with vocalist/mandolin player, JP Biondo, outside of The Foundry in Athens, GA. We talked about their latest album Celebration as well as the evolution of the band and how various influences find their way into the music.
The art-of-the-song is most-assuredly not lost on Cabinet – A song driven, lyrically emotive sound emerges as the material unfolds. What influences might inspire this process and how does that affect the progression of the band?
Well, there’s six of us in the band and for the most part Pap (Patrick “Pappy” Biondo banjo/vocals) and I write most of the material. Mickey (guitar/vocals) gets involved as well [in the writing process] and we all collaborate on instrumentals.
I typically bring a song to the band that’s done, in my mind – and then it changes. I write the core part of it and then we meld it into what Cabinet want’s it to be, which usually works out pretty great. Myself & Pap being the main songwriters have various influences. For myself, I listen to a lot of different songwriters. For instance, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Sufjan Stevens. But at the same time I love Eddie Vedder, and old country. I’m an old country addict! And I also love the ole’ country crooners as well. I’m a sucker for that stuff, but you don’t really hear too much of that come out in Cabinet but I’ll sit there and listen to it all day long. I love the melodies and I love the words and stories, and the creative process of putting it all together.
I definitely pull ideas from those songs. Especially Paul Simon – little things that he says make me think “Man, I really like that idea” and so I think about ways to try and incorporate it into one of my songs… without stealing anything, but getting across the same idea of what he’s talking about.
I also love reggae a lot. Bob Marley, especially the older stuff is what I like the best.
Yeah, I definitely heard the older Lee “Scratch” Perry influences come out in some of the instrumental sections of the show tonight. I believe that was Mickey with the reverberant delay effects which gave it that unique dubbed-out feel.
Yeah, exactly. I think it’s safe to say that all of the guys like reggae – but Pappy has a whole range of influences from Jerry Garcia to Sublime to Ugly Casanova. But as far as everyone in the band, I couldn’t even get started because it would take a million years. We love everything from rotten death metal to country crooner stuff! [laughs]
It seems, given the extensively jammed-out climate of many acts in the contemporary music scene, Cabinet pays special attention to the song. Although the music can become expansive, it retains that quality.
Well, I appreciate it. I’m glad you feel that way because the song is really important. I mean, I love jamming and getting down, don’t get me wrong. But I’m way into the song, I’m a song guy. We all love getting a little wild & crazy and the guys are really good at jamming. Dylan [the bassist] can hang with anybody and is one of the best at holding down a groove. And so can the rest of the dudes! Sometimes I realize that I don’t even have a place in the jam and I just put the mandolin down and step to the side of the stage for a few minutes and let the boys do their thing. And that’s okay. I’m fine with that, because I know when I get back on stage I’m going to be singing some songs and that’s where it’s really at for me, musically.
Cabinet seems to maintain a uniquely democratic art form where the concept of a “band-leader” changes throughout the music, sometimes even within the framework of a single song.
It does. There’s no specific leader in Cabinet, for sure. It often changes from song-to-song. There’ll be a song, for instance, that Todd [fiddle player] will be leading and clearly in charge of the jam. And then there’ll be a song that Pappy leads. And for that song, Pap’s in charge. But it isn’t really an in-charge kind of thing. It’s very free. It’s nice that it’s easy for that to happen with the guys. We’re very lucky to have that. I know all of us, and especially Pap, are open to letting the song go wherever it wants. It’s certainly something that we keep getting better at, but it’s great to have a group of guys who are all on the same page. When we get into those moments sometimes something beautiful blossoms that none of us could have expected.
Being able to throw caution to the wind, in that regard, must require a full faith-in-confidence among the band members..
Yeah. Well, don’t get me wrong. 100% confidence isn’t something that just happens. There are definitely frustrating moments. It’s not always perfect and happy with flowers and such but it usually ends up working out.
The orchestration of the music as well as the on-stage expressions of the band feel impressively organic. It reminds me of the concept that it takes a lot of effort to appear effortless – and begs the question “how has the evolution of the band lent itself to that organic, almost free-spirited ability to navigate through the music?”
Yeah, that’s a cool question — and I think were very proud of having that organic feel. It’s something that you can work on for sure, but you can’t really teach it. Either you have it or you don’t, and hopefully you can work it out with other dudes that have a similar organic feeling and acceptance. I don’t exactly know how to answer that question, I mean, It feels good – whatever the hell it is. I think it’s better to not think about, to be honest with you. If that makes any sense?
Absolutely. It’s like thinking about it or trying to get closer to it, inevitably brings you farther away. While you were much closer when you were simply letting it happen.
Yeah, you’re better off just letting it happen. There are mistakes at every Cabinet show. And being okay with that and moving right along is the most important thing.
The band seems to hold down a purist approach and deep appreciation for the influences while providing ample opportunities for the music to grow and progress; both in the studio and on-stage… Given the electric instrumentation and live-drummer, how has the band worked to create a sound that’s relevant and intriguing in the present time, yet deeply rooted in Americana influences?
Well, I think that we just stay true. To ourselves, is what it comes down to.. I think between the six of us, we could use our musical brains and write some killer pop song and get on the radio and do the sellout thing. I’m actually very confident that we could do that. The guys are all great musicians and very smart too. But not caring too much about being mainstream or not being mainstream and just staying true to what we feel inside and being confident that’s good enough. That’s who we are..
How about the progression of a band from a more traditional arrangement?
Well, when we started out it was all acoustic instruments. There was even a time when there wasn’t a drummer. It was just the five of us; fiddle, banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar and upright bass, and that was it. We were still playing the same sort of music that we’re playing today but we’ve naturally evolved. Our guitar player, Mickey, loves playing electric guitar. I mean, he’s really into it. And there were certain songs were he came out and said “you know? I think I’m gonna try electric guitar on this and see how it works”. When he did, it made a lot of sense, and the electric bass – which probably came out first, evolved with the sound and eventually grew into a drummer as well. We realized that we could do our rootsy, bluegrass thing and we can rock n’ roll, and do some reggae too and really get down with those styles and we all love those. Were not all crazy bluegrass heads by any means. I didn’t even really listen to bluegrass before I played in the band. When I started playing the mando, I pretty much picked it up and played what I wanted. Probably the farthest sounding thing from bluegrass. I just wanted to play some mandolin.
I didn’t really listen to much traditional bluegrass at that time. I played mandolin for two or three years before I started listening to the old stuff. I eventually fell in love with that music and started listening to it and started learning the songs. I think all the guys went through that. We’ve done the traditional, single mic style, but ultimately we love too many different kinds of music to just play bluegrass.
That’s kind of what I was getting at. The music either seems to be coming from there, or there’s a deep appreciation for there.
There’s definitely an appreciation for there, but it’s different for each guy in the band. The one who loves bluegrass the most is Pap, the banjo player. He gave a really hard push to make sure we were going to enjoy some bluegrass too. And we did for a while. We played in a traditional style, with a little flair of course before going away from that with all the electric instruments.
That reminds me of a note I made about the vocal dynamic between you and Patrick. I don’t feel like I know him well enough to call him “Pap” yet. On the spectrum of traditional bluegrass, on the one side there’s a more polished, tightly formed brand and the other end there’s a more lonesome sounding, down-home Ralph Stanley-esque presentation. I feel like you guys cover that spectrum in a really intriguing way.
That’s an awesome compliment. Pappy definitely covers the more Ralph Stanley side of things.
Yes! That’s exactly what I mean.
I cover the more polished side and it works out great. I love singin’ with my cousin. On this run, Pap and I ended up in a hotel stairwell just singing with the reverberation for a few hours. Probably until about five in the morning. Singing country and bluegrass songs. I mean, I will sit there and harmonize with that guy all day long. It’s one of my favorite things in the world.
I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for that one. That sounds like a neat moment.
I think we recorded a little bit of it. It was fun, I’m a sucker for a good stairwell sing.
I tell you what, there ain’t no reason not to be. That’s a good time right there.
In Scranton there’s a couple of hotel parking garages and stuff like that around. I’ve got a couple buddies that we used to go into the parking garages, into the stairwells with super echoey reverberations and sing for hours and hours. It was fun.
Test out the acoustics. Explore the space a little bit?
Oh, exactly. It’s so much fun, I love that stuff.
It’s been said that Cabinet’s latest album “Celebration” was intended to be a straight-ahead bluegrass record but ended up being the most diverse yet.. How do the varied and vast influences that contribute to Cabinets profound well-of-inspiration find their way into the music?
Alright, well I have to say right off the bat that I don’t think it’s our most diverse album.
For the record, it’s written on your bio.
Does it say that? Well, I don’t agree with that at all [laughs]. I don’t know who wrote that but that’s not my opinion.
Writers… What are you gonna do?
I know right? You can’t trust ‘em [laughs]. On that album, Celebration, that majority of the songs are Pappy’s songs and he loves bluegrass. It’s in his core, his heart, his soul, he loves it. He had all these songs he wanted for the album. We call ourselves “Pennsylvania Bluegrass” but we have these electric instruments, and we play reggae, and we have freak-out jams and stuff. And he said, you know if we’re going to call ourselves “bluegrass” lets put out an album that says that. It came out and ended up being more of an Americana album.
Inevitably, our influences as a band made their way into the songs and it moved away a little from the original bluegrass idea that Pap had. As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy with the way it turned out. I love the album. It felt good to wash away all of the electric stuff for a second and get back to a rootsy, Americana thing and focus on the songs. There’s some quieter more gentle songs on the album and I love that kind of stuff. It was fun to sit back and try to make things prettier than we usually do. You know, we talked about me being on the more polished side of things but there’s a few songs on this album where Pappy get’s into that role and it was really refreshing to hear my cousin sing like that.
Does the band contribute to the development of the song once you bring it in to record?
Yeah. We’ll come together and someone will suggest to put something here or add a measure there. And that ends up becoming some of the most fun stuff.
Within the musical framework, the creative syncopation and surprising rhythmic sections seem to come off too well to be pure improv, but also too collective to come from the mind of one person.
It’s definitely a group effort. Plotting out the song and figuring out whats best. Especially when it comes to intros and ending. We all get involved in that. Like I said, Pappy and I write most of the songs but I can’t take away anything from the rest of the guys. They all have great ideas and are great talents and help to make every song better. Every song I’ve ever brought to Cabinet, has been made better because I brought it to Cabinet.
That reminds me of what we talked about earlier. The feeling of trust that comes from knowing that in bringing your material to the band, it will in all likelihood be enhanced.
It’s great. I totally trust the guys. For a while I used to be shy about bringing new stuff to the band, you know? I mean, that’s a part of you! And maybe a part of you that not everybody else knows about and you’re putting it into a song then putting it out there. And that was scary for me at first. But I’ve got to a point now when I’m confident that if I bring a song to the guys and it’s not good or it’s not cool enough they’re going to let me know and it’s going to be good that we don’t play it or we’re going to fix it and make it into a beautiful song. I’ve been over that for a long time, but when I finally made that jump I knew I didn’t have to be scared or worried about any of this stuff because these guys have my back and they’re going to make these songs sound awesome.
That’s pretty much priceless right there..
Oh, it’s totally priceless. It’s the best thing ever. It makes me feel so confident knowing that they’re there. It truly is amazing.
I’ve heard from musicians and artistic minds alike, that the crippling self-doubt that comes with the presentation of creative material is pretty much there until it isn’t.
When you hear that, it sounds well and fine, but it seems an essential part of the process to have a supporting cast to bounce ideas off of, to critically construct a better vision.
Well, you have to be willing to be criticized. You need to accept that. You’re not going to write hit songs every times you write a song. It’s just a fact. Everybody has written a shitty song. That’s just how it goes. Let’s say you write a song that’s blah. That doesn’t mean that a bunch of musical minds can’t come together and make it into something cool. Once again, that’s exactly what I love about playing with the guys.
How important do you think Lester, Earl, Doc, Del, Dawg and company – are in the contemporary narrative? It seems to me that you can’t get away from the foundation these guys laid – but there also seems to be a trend towards expansive “Newgrass” that makes a decided effort to break new ground, by means of improvisation, genre-melding etc.
I think all those guys you mentioned are important. Also, Tony Rice, Bill Monroe. The list goes on forever. They’re extremely important. We wouldn’t be playing bluegrass the way we are if it wasn’t for these guys. No one has a choice in that because they were playing it before us. It’s the stuff you listen to and go, “Yeah, that’s the shit right there.”
That stuff’s cool and I like it a lot. But also, Bill Monroe was changing bluegrass as he was playing it. He’s the father of bluegrass but he took bluegrass and made it rock n’ roll. He made it really cool all of a sudden. It wasn’t just this Appalachian mountain style, which there’s nothing wrong with that, I love that too. But Bill took it and he was telling these amazing stories and really making it cool. He’s the Elvis of bluegrass. Which is funny because those two intertwined and played each other’s songs.
But this experimentation isn’t new, it’s been happening since the beginning. The Father of Bluegrass was literally changing it while being The Father of Bluegrass. That’s my opinion on it. So, I don’t think he or anyone else would be ashamed or disappointed with what’s going on now. Because music always wants to evolve. You can’t just play the same thing over and over again that’s kind of boring. We can play the same thing every once in a while and do a throwback and enjoy that and appreciate it but it always wants to evolve, like everything else in the world.
It goes back to what we talked about earlier. By trying to be organic, you end up further away. But if you can do what needs to be done to facilitate that experience, the music is going to go places that you might not have planned on or even been able to conceive, previously.
Yeah, and that’s the beauty of it. You learn and find something new everyday. When Bill Monroe was writing music he wasn’t concerned with making a traditional sound. He was playing what he felt and what he wanted to do and playing the music his own way. We base a lot of our bluegrass off of him, but he was changing it as well. I can’t stress that enough..
It’s interesting to think that what we perceive as a traditional sound was probably anything but.
Yeah, it was taken from something else and changed. Which is awesome, but it just happens to be called traditional because it’s one of the earliest forms to find it’s way onto a popular recording.
Perhaps putting more of an emphasis on not necessarily copying the music he was writing, but what was inspiring the creative process of his songs..
Exactly. And the landscape and everything that was going on in his life. That’s what any real songwriter does, I feel.
If not then you can get stuck, and it’s almost like playing in a cover band for a specific genre as opposed to breaking new ground and exploring new territories musically.
Yeah, and both are fine. Both are okay in their own right. I want the tradition to stick around. I don’t want to lose that by any means. But as a musician I want to change and evolve and explore and have just as much fun as I want to as well. There’s no rules with that, you can do whatever you want. That isn’t to say that people won’t have an opinion on it. They’ll say what they want to say or be bummed out that a band isn’t staying more traditional or what not, and that’s how it goes. But you can’t tell a musician what to be. You can either like them or not. Or feel indifferent about them.