With ten you get eggroll: Richard Morris (pictured at far right) joins his mates in the M Shanghai String Band for a concert this Saturday in Atlantic Highlands. Check the band’s website to figure out who’s missing from this picture.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit April 28, 2009)
A few weeks ago here in oRBit, we brought you an interview with the patriarch of the family bluegrass band Cherryholmes, an act that got its start not at some ramshackle country church in the heart of Appalachia, but at a pizza joint in their native East LA.
Today we’re pleased to bring to your attention one of the finest aggregations working the tall cattails of the NY metro region’s burgeoning bluegrass scene — theM Shanghai String Band, a Brooklyn-based combo who, despite the name, play a wondrous brand of music that’s as American as, well, chop suey (look it up).
In this case, it was a popular Chinese lounge and bistro in Williamsburg that served as the launch pad for the MSSB, making the convenient marriage of urban ‘grass band and local ethnic eatery something of a minor trend.
Forming around a monthly basement jam session at the Szechuan bistro, the lineup of just under a dozen players, give or take (depending on babysitter availability) has gone out into the world to great acclaim — not just toward their live shows, but to their three albums (most recent being The Mapmaker’s Daughter, available in advance on iTunes) of original songs by Austin Hughes, Matthew Schickele and several others.
Check out some of the videos on their website and you’ll see a traditionally rooted yet hypercurrent team of partners, who play this smart, citified cousin to radio-grade country with authority and finesse and mystery and all the things that have gone missing from the sort of Mountaindew-mouthed “hat” acts that show up at Six Flags and the Pee ‘N See every summer.
You’ll also see a perilously crowded stage of musicians who gather “Opry style” around a single microphone, in a way that Guitar Jam Daily described as “like sharks smelling blood in the water.”
As it turns out, this Saturday evening you’ll get a chance to experience M Shanghai live, in a concert at the historic Central Baptist Church in Atlantic Highlands. It’s a presentation of the Atlantic Highlands Arts Council, and it represents a rare backyard gig for the band’s mandolin maestro Richard Morris, who as it turns out also makes his home these days in Highlands. Red Bank oRBit spoke to Morris on the eve of the big Bayshore barndance.
RED BANK ORBIT: I guess the first question ought to be, where does the M Shanghai come from? Were you all shanghai’d into joining the band and forced to play at some 19th century opium den?
RICHARD MORRIS: Our bass player Harrison Cannon was friends with the owner of a Szechuan restaurant named M Shanghai; it became the scene of an informal jam session that expanded as the band grew together. And the name of the restaurant became our name.
And you’re the only band member who lives down here on the Shore?
I’m the only one. I grew up in Monmouth Beach and Rumson; graduated from Rumson-Fair Haven in 1990, went to Rutgers. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 11 or 12, and when I was growing up I loved rock and metal — I was in a band calledThe Coalition, that won a Battle of the Bands at the Count Basie around 1989.
When I was in high school I got into things like Pete Seeger, Irish music, Grateful Dead — and at 18 I picked up the mandolin. I had a friend who was from western North Carolina, and I got interested in authentic Appalachian music. For a while in my 20s I lived down there; learning tunes and living around people who had grown up with this music.
When did you come back to the area?
I’ve been living in Highlands for two years, and loving it. No place like home, you know? I got back with some old friends from high school, and friends I knew from CBA, Red Bank Regional.
How did this whole thing take root in Brooklyn?
In Brooklyn there’s a real alt-country thing that’s been going on for a while. Everyone else in the band is based in Brooklyn, Manhattan, upstate New York — although there are only one or two native New Yorkers in the group! We’re from places like Kentucky, North Carolina, San Francisco by way of the UK.
And I understand you distinguish yourselves by the volume of original material you perform.
More than half of us in the band contribute our own songs — one of our principal songwriters is the son of Peter Schickele, you know, from PDQ Bach? We’ve all studied songcraft, and we check our egos at the door when we get together, to try and create something larger than just the one person’s voice.
Our songs are a reflection of our backgrounds, places we’re from, and of the fact that we’re based in New York City. We’ve got songs about how it’s hard for someone who lives in Brooklyn to date someone from Manhattan; another song about Hart Island, about the sandhogs who built the Brooklyn Bridge…
So was the show in Atlantic Highlands your idea; kind of a take-the-ferry excursion for your fans?
I actually had nothing to do with it! One of the people from the Atlantic Highlands Arts Council is a co-worker of our bass player, and they got things together. I was thrilled when I heard about the gig; the church is a beautiful place to play, with great acoustics. It’s great when we get to play a venue like this; there’s a real longstanding and vibrant bluegrass scene in Central Jersey.
I’m familiar with a couple of the local open mics and such, but what else can you tell us about what’s going on around the Shore — maybe we should call it the “Shoregrass” or “marshgrass” scene?
One of the things that goes in right in our area is a bluegrass jam, once a month at the Embury United Methodist Church in Little Silver. It’s put on by BOTMA — theBluegrass and Old Time Music Association — and they get one or two hundred people showing up there every month. It’s got a really inclusive aspect to it; beginners are welcome, and they’ll start out jamming on some slower and easier material, but by the end of the session you’ve learned a lot just by being there.
I’m sure it skills you in how to think fast and work with all sorts of musicians. What kind of dynamic do you guys have in your band, with so many people involved? Is there a clear-cut leader; a committee way of doing things?
Well, we have as many as eleven people in the band at a time — and I’m the youngest of eleven kids. One of the things I learned from my mother was that if you’re not getting along with one of your brothers or sisters, there’s always someone else to talk to!
I’m the most traditional one in the band; I like to make sure we walk the talk; mix in old traditional tunes with our own stuff. I like to think that we’ve created a sustainable model for us as a band — three or four of us are new parents, and it’s not always possible for everyone to play at every gig. And when you have that many people on a stage, there’s a choreography to it that’s not without its bumps and giggles.
I saw that you did a little show at the Twisted Tree Cafe in Asbury Park recently. Were all eleven of you crammed in there that day?
That Twisted Tree thing kind of devolved into a solo gig; I’ll be playing there on the second Sunday of every month, starting at 4pm. Marnie, who books the music there, told me that we’d have to tone it down a little for that small room, so it’s just going to be and whoever’s available to play that day.
So what other sorts of things are you involved with outside of M Shanghai?
I’m a mastering engineer — I’ve been working my way up through the ranks of the business, and I’ve produced, mixed and mastered our own recordings. My M.O. in working with our own band is to use minimal miking — it’s helped us to really gel as a band. Using one mike puts the onus on the performers, to give it their best. It really ups the ante.
Assuming that nobody in M Shanghai is making a living off of playing in the band, what is it that keeps you so involved and interested?
I believe in this band. I expected something more traditional when I first got involved, and what I found was a group of friends who felt very natural working together. Our purpose is to have fun and make music.