Aaron Lipp is a talented young man with a talented old soul. And this unassuming multi-instrumentalist has been baring this soul on local, regional, and national stages for several years in various groups of assorted stylings.
With his latest outfit, Aaron Lipp & The Slack Tones, Lipp is brandishing a guitar and leading the charge into an amalgam of splintered genres. Whether it's bluegrass or old-school folk or blues, The Slack Tones – Lipp, fiddle player Duncan Wickel, upright bassist Ryan Yarmel, and drummer Jimmy Grillo – harness a pervading, unexpected newness that sounds close to rockabilly – especially with Lipp's mastery of finger-picked guitar like Travis and Moore – at its earlier inception.
It's new and it's old. It's the country blues moved downtown with a Sun Studios slap, twang, and giddy-up. It's catchy, it's exciting, and it's gone... real, real gone.
In a recent interview at CITY HQ, we shot a few questions at Lipp and Yarmel about their new eponymous release and other topics. They shot back. An edited transcript follows.
CITY: How did you discover this sound you're currently making?
Lipp: The sound just naturally developed from wanting to do something new with all the bluegrass flatpicking I was doing. About the same time, I fell back in love with the electric guitar and old-school rockabilly music, influenced by Bobby Henrie and The Goners. But all the new music as a whole can't really be described, as it comes from all our influences. I think there's something to that throwback slap-back sound that hasn't been explored yet.
Yarmel: Through playing with Aaron in a variety of different arrangements, we've honed in on this rock 'n' roll sound that is beautiful and simple. Aaron and I have really had the chance to develop our bass-player, guitar-player dynamic by playing tons of shows, from square dances to large festivals, and I think the result speaks for itself. Additionally, Jimmy Grillo and I have played together as a rhythm section for years and have immense telepathic abilities at this point.
It sounds heavily steeped in rockabilly and country blues. Am I right?
Lipp: As well as mid-20th century, old-time, bluegrass flatpicking guitar and storytelling with some songwriting.
Yarmel: Definitely. In these troubled times, we have to be concerned with positive music and energy, and rockabilly and country blues are genres that feel so good to play and hear. We owe a lot to groups like Bobby Henrie and the Goners. Brian Williams is generous with his knowledge and expertise in all things dog-house upright bass.
What did you set out to do when you first started this band?
Lipp: To satisfy a musical craving that I couldn't quite identify. To have fun, to rock out, to create something bigger than ourselves.
How and when did the band start?
Lipp: Hibernating in a cabin studio all winter, pretty much, with some whiskey, eggs, and vegetables. This band really got together around middle of 2016 under a different name. We rehearsed for many months until our first show this past March, which was a packed house at Three Heads Brewing.
Tell us a little about the new album.
Lipp: There are some brand new songs we want everyone to hear. The new album mixes mostly new tunes with a few older cuts and one rearranged traditional – "Boll Weevil," a traditional fiddle tune that we morphed into a dark and heavy electric deep cut. It comes out heavy and mellows out at a few points. Acoustic and electric. Mellow and rock 'n' roll. Some very special guests, including Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers, Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers, and Rosie Newton of Richie & Rosie.
Yarmel: The new album is a fantastic amalgamation of new rock 'n' roll, a few traditional tunes thought of in a new way, and some pensive country songwriting. Aaron is a diverse songwriter. We were lucky to have a few special guests as well. Hearing the sweet sound of Chuck Campbell's steel playing through my studio monitors was sonic bliss.
How do you keep the antiquity in check, keep it from sounding old timey – or is that not a concern?
Lipp: That is not a concern at all. Old-time is one of my favorite styles of music, and if a song sounds old, well, that probably means it's really good. Trying to stay on the edge of it all and reinvent a new sound while paying homage to traditional aesthetics is at the forefront of our minds. There's a lot to learn from the past.
Yarmel: We play organically and are concerned with the groove and feel. I'm fortunate because of the many different genres of music I play, and even more fortunate each time the group aims to play the genres authentically – especially when covering tunes. This past year Aaron and I have played everything from 30-minute versions of "Cumberland Gap" in square dances to "Rocky Mountain High" in theater productions to slow-dance versions of blues tunes like "Love in Vain" in hot bars.
What's something new the band brings to the genre?
Lipp: Playing a Telecaster ultra-fast, bluegrass flatpicking over a rockabilly rhythm, incorporating grooving blues harmonica over Merle Travis-style fingerpicking over a new drum beat. New, original songwriting. Duncan's Leslie speaker fiddle sound and his triple stops; he makes people who can't see him think he's an organ player until he slides on the fretboard.
Tell us a little about your previous bands.
Lipp: The Cabin Killers was a band some friends of mine and I started in Naples circa 2013. Starting as just getting together and playing bluegrass with a drummer, it turned into writing in that style and playing old traditionals super-fast. And electrified on a sound system. Pretty soon we were selling 250 tickets and throwing huge dance parties locally.
Before all that, I played Hammond B3 organ in Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad for almost seven years and Robert Randolph for a year. Those experiences definitely gave me a taste of the music world for what it is, from the small cafe to 30,000-person festival to the David Letterman show. I wanted to make my own music, live locally, and build my own house.
Yarmel: I cut my teeth as a folk bass player in the old-time, folk-rock group The Younger Gang, where I began playing with Jimmy Grillo and really learned to love traditional American folk music. I have played bass with many locals, from Roger Kuhn to Debbie Kendrick. As a songwriter and guitarist, I fronted the electronica-folk group Sparx & Yarms, and will be releasing my first full-length Yarms solo album later this summer.
How has the band been received?
Lipp: We have had nothing but a great response lately, especially at the Grassroots Festival. We had a packed dance tent and sold a bunch of CDs. Making people dance, making people dance harder. There is nothing more rewarding.
Yarmel: People are craving that feel-good sound.
Do you fit in the Rochester regional scene, or do you transcend it?
Lipp: Very funny question. Our music is definitely fit to be enjoyed in Rochester and anywhere else in the world. We had a few people from Switzerland and France already order the record.
For more on Aaron Lipp & The Slack Tones, check out aaronlipp.com.