Billy Strings brings new life to traditional bluegrass on debut EP

Article and photos by Matt Wickstrom

At first glance William Apostol, better known by his stage name Billy Strings, doesn’t have the look of your stereotypical bluegrass musician, with gauged ears and tattoos plastered along his arms and torso. Don’t let his look fool you — this 23 year old can pick with the best in the bluegrass realm of music, as evidenced by his versatility on his self-titled debut EP that became available on June 10.

Apostol grew up Traverse City, Michigan, before moving to Nashville in recent months to spark his solo career in the town dubbed Music City. Apostol is joined by Billy Failing on banjo and upright bassist Erik Alvar. Casey Campbell and John Mailander also joined Apostol and company at Nashville’s Minutia Studios in April on the mandolin and fiddle, respectively. According to Apostol, the group recorded everything live, completing each track on the EP to their liking in two or three takes, which happened over the course of eight hours.

“We didn’t even rehearse. We just went into the studio”, said Apostol. “We were having fun, cracking jokes in between songs. It was a really awesome session. I’ve never had that much fun in the studio. Just laid back, easy, no pressure.”

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Photo by Matt Wickstrom.

The EP features six songs in full, including three originals and two traditional bluegrass tunes including “Black Mountain Rag”, a track Apostol had been wanting to record for some time. “Dust in a Baggie”, the EP’s final cut and an original Apostol composition, shows off not only the lightning-fast picking prowess of Apostol, but his youthful, deep fried southern voice as well. Apostol likens his myriad of musical influences to his father exposing him to Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and other bluegrass legends as a child.

“When I was growing up I really cut my teeth on bluegrass music”, said Apostol. “Later on when I was about 11 years old I got into Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Black Sabbath… I like everything from straight-up bluegrass to Yes or King Crimson.”

Apostol is taking his blend of bluegrass and rock’n’roll coast to coast this summer in support of the “Billy Strings EP”, appearing in Cincinnati on June 23 and Owensboro, Kentucky, on June 25 for the 13th annual ROMP Festival. In July the show will head out west, with numerous dates in California, Oregon, and Montana, among others, including sets at High Sierra Music Festival and the Northwest String Summit. Apostol will make a return trip to the bluegrass on September 15 at Diamond Pub Concert Hall in Louisville with Colorado jam-rockers Leftover Salmon.

For more upcoming tour dates for Billy Strings or to purchase his debut EP, visit the artist’s web site and check out a stream of the album below, courtesy of Spotify.

“Music is food for the soul, and playing music with my friends is what I love to do”, said Apostol. “That’s what I feel like I was put on this planet to do, and that’s what I’m doing — making friends, playing music, loving life.”

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Read below for full interview materials from Big Blue Tunes sit-down with William Apostol (Billy Strings).

Big Blue Tunes: I know you’ve got an EP coming out what, next Friday the 10th?

William Apostol (Billy Strings): Yep.

BBT: And that’s your first new, solo material since splitting off from Don (Julin), right?

William: That is correct.

BBT: What was your creative vision with the EP, and what are some lessons you’ve learned since going solo?

William: As far as the EP goes I just wanted to record. There was this batch of songs  — a few originals and a couple of old-time bluegrass tunes that I just really felt like recording. “Black Mountain Rag” — I’ve always wanted to cut that in studio and I finally got to do it, so it was just to get some songs out there really. Things are definitely developing and moving forward. Instead of just playing traditional bluegrass, which is what I cut my teeth on, I also love rock’n’roll and all sorts of different kinds of music, so I like to incorporate — you know, it’s just music. I just like to jam and have fun playing music. Maybe we’ll take some song and stretch it out to outer space and see if we can get back to the finish line together, but then after that we’ll maybe play a traditional bluegrass song just so people know that we really can pick too.

BBT: So you avoid pigeonholing yourself into a genre then? I know you teased an intro to a Led Zeppelin song during your set earlier, among other surprises.

William: Oh yeah. See, that’s the thing. When I was growing up I really cut my teeth on bluegrass music — my dad played Doc Watson’s music growing up, Bill Monroe, Lester (Flatt) and Earl (Scruggs) — all of them. Ralph Stanley and them, that’s what I grew up on. Then later on when I was about 11 years old I got into Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Black Sabbath man, so I think I’ve got a broad spectrum of music I enjoy. I like everything from straight-up bluegrass to Yes or King Crimson.

BBT: I remember reading in another interview you did a few months back that the EP was recorded like a normal jam session, but with a single mic set-up in the room or something?

William: Right. We didn’t even rehearse. We just went into the studio — Gary Paczosa, bless his heart, he let me go in there to record in his studio for free, and I just called up Casey Campbell and John Mailander. I already had Billy (Failing) and Erik (Alvar) in the band with me, so it was like “instead of going home boys, we’re heading right into the studio when we get done with tour”. So we just went in there, and played each song two or three times, and you know what? These guys are so good that we played it live — just turned on the mics and played. We were having fun, cracking jokes in between songs. It was just a really awesome session. I’ve never had that much fun in the studio. Just laid back, easy, no pressure, and like I said we played each song about three times and moved on. We were done with that thing in about eight hours.

BBT: Where’d you record? Somewhere down in Nashville, right?

William: Yea. The name of the studio is actually escaping me right now (Minutia Studios).

BBT: There’s too many studios in Nashville to keep track of them all! I know campsite picking is really big here at the John Hartford Memorial Festival. Have you been doing any late-night picking around the fire this weekend?

William: Oh yeah man. My fingers are raw.

BBT: I noticed too during the set you just finished up that you broke a few guitar strings. That’s got to be frustrating?

William: Yeah, it happens every once in a while. It might be the humidity too, but I’m not sure.

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Photo by Matt Wickstrom

BBT: With this festival having as much to do with campsite picking as it does with the on-stage performances, how has picking helped you to grow and evolve as a musician?

William: When you’re on-stage everybody is looking at you waiting for you to do something cool. When we’re just picking around the campfire, if somebody flubs a note or messes up it’s not a big deal — we can just laugh it off. That’s so fun, just being able to talk about it. If somebody messes up, we can just stop the song and maybe take it from where we messed up instead of being so pressured about it. Music is food for the soul, and playing music with my friends is what I love to do the most. That’s what I feel like I was put on this planet to do, and that’s what I’m doing — making friends, playing music, loving life.

BBT: I’m glad you’re happy doing what you do. So many people in society today are stuck with jobs and careers they dread getting up and going to every day. I know earlier this year at Big Sky in Montana you did some sitting-in with the Bluegrass Generals (Chris Pandolfi and Andy Hall of Infamous Stringdusters, plus special guests). I know you played some mandolin with them. Can we expect to see you whip out the mando or another instrument for any future shows or records?

William: You never know. I can play mandolin, banjo, and several other instruments, but I really think of myself as a guitar player. I don’t think of myself as a singer neither. I just try to pick guitar as best I can, but I love mandolin and banjo and stuff like that so yeah, now that it’s my show and I can do what I want, I might do that. I might bring a mandolin some day. Maybe I’ll hand Billy the guitar and teach him how to play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” for real or something. Nah, I’m just kidding, but I enjoy playing mandolin a whole lot.

BBT: That’s all the questions I’ve got for ya Billy, but is there anything else you’d like to say that my questions maybe didn’t address, or anything else you’d like to plug?

William: The whole month of July I’m all over the country, from Michigan to the Northwest down through California. Head over to billystrings.com. It doesn’t matter where you are, I’ll be coming to a town near you. I hope to see everyone out on tour.

BBT: Thanks again for your time Billy.

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