If you live in the Killington region, you have probably heard of the awesome musician I interviewed this week. If you’re not, get to know him here. Either way, you should head to the Pickle Barrel this Thursday night, Feb. 9 and see Bow Thayer rock out with his modern mountain music band. It’s influenced by bluegrass and Americana. It’s mirky roots music but with a modern twist. They’re playing different tunings and singing about socially conscious stuff, not just going to the whiskey still with your sweetheart. There will be lots of improvisation.
Thayer will be bringing his four piece band with him. He will be joined by Alex Abraham on bass, JD Tolstoi on keys and Jeff Berlin on drums. Berlin was out of commission for a while after suffering a stroke last summer, but Thayer is glad to have him back. “He basically had to relearn how to play the drums. He’s back in a big way.” Thayer said of the other two, “JD rips and Al is really starting to excel as a bass player. I found him a couple of years back and he was as green as they get. He’s just transformed into a monster of a bass player both upright and electric. The band is pretty rippin’. It’s funny because they’re half my age, they’re youngsters.” Thayer is 50 and said, “Fifty trips around the sun. A couple aches and pains but … it feels pretty good.”
When we talked, he was tinkering with some instruments, which he loves to do. His friend and fellow musician Jake Wildwood helps him with that. Wildwood owns Antebellum Instruments in Rochester. I had the pleasure of checking that place out last spring and it’s like a museum of old guitars and many other instruments. Thayer said, “He’s kind of a genius. I’m really into old instruments and he helps me out with some of my wacky ideas. He has so many crazy instruments in there. He gets instruments from all over the world and some date back to the 1800s. It’s insane.”
Thayer has invented the “bojotar,” which is part resonator guitar, part electric guitar and part banjo. He created it because an instrument needed to make the sound he wanted just didn’t exist yet. Wildwood has helped him a lot with those. Joey Leone hooked him up with Eastwood Guitars and they really liked his idea, so much that they manufacture them now. You can buy one on their website. Thayer came up with the idea a couple of years ago. He said, “I was kind of a frustrated banjo player and also kind of a frustrated guitar player. I write songs on both and write parts for both. I would go to a gig and wouldn’t know what instrument to bring. I kind of mashed it all together and now this is the only thing I play. I’m finally starting to figure it out because there really is no instrument like it out there. I love it because it’s like a banjo with an extra bass string. You can play full chords on it, you can finish runs on it as with the whole low end register that wasn’t there before. You put it with a resonator cone and now you can adapt a slide to it. You can put an electric guitar body on it and a pickup and you can rock out to an amp. You can do it all and it’s really cool. I got all different versions of it.”
It really adds a lot to his show but also trips him up from time to time. “If I’m not really on it, I’ll be halfway through a song and realize I forgot to tune that other string. I’m in trouble now,” Thayer said laughing. “It has me definitely thinking out of the box more. As far as different melodies and different licks, it definitely has taken song writing to a new level. For playing, it has taken me a couple of years to get used to it. You can’t just go to YouTube and take a lesson on it or go buy a book or even listen to someone else who shreds on the thing. I’m in uncharted territory and making it up as I go along.”
Thayer likes that he can go in a whole new direction now. He was running out of ideas before this and so were others in the Americana scene.
Thayer grew up south of Boston in Hingham, Mass. where he went to high school, then went to college in Syracuse, N.Y., and then back to Boston to attend art school. After that he hit the road with a punk rock-type band called Seven League Boots. “It was more alternative rock than punk. This was back in the 90s. We toured all over the place, like ghetto-style touring.” They toured with Fugazi, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bad Brains, and more. They went all over the country and to Canada. The band eventually broke up and Thayer moved to Vermont and has been here about 20 years. He always came up here to go skiing so he knew the area well. He bought a tiny camp in Gaysville and built a house and a studio there. He cut down a bunch of trees, timber framed it himself and used all salvaged parts.
Thayer picked up the guitar when he was 12. “I was a kid that was listening to everything: Neil Young, the Dead, the Stones, the Beatles, all the obvious classic rock stuff. I just gravitated right to the guitar. My grandmother bought me my first guitar that I still have. From there I started a band almost instantly. I’ve been playing gigs pretty regularly since I was about 15 years old. When I was about 30, I picked up the banjo. I was getting more into the bluegrass thing.” It was then that Thayer started a bluegrass band called The Benders.
Thayer said his songwriting went hand-in-hand with learning the guitar but he never really went far with it. “I have some early four-track recordings in the 80s. When I got with Seven League Boots, I was just the guitar player and I was writing with a group so I was just concentrating on guitar parts and not focusing on words and lyrics.” After that group broke up in Reno, Nev., Thayer went to hang with friends in Flagstaff, Ariz. His buddy had a 16-track studio and he started writing like crazy. That’s when he turned down the guitar and started doing more acoustic.
Thayer moved back to Boston and formed a trio called Still Home. That was during the big grunge scene and they were touring with Iggy Pop. One of their first gigs was playing with Pearl Jam back before their big record “Ten” came out. They played this song “Red Hot Mama” and Eddie Vedder came out and played it with them. Thayer remembered, “We didn’t even know who they were, nobody knew who they were.” They thought Still Home was going to go somewhere but it eventually fizzled out when their bass player flaked out.
After that, Thayer got into the slide stuff. He started a band that was very similar to how the Black Keys are now. It was a duo with Thayer on guitar and a drummer. That’s when his band Elbow started. “We were mostly based out of New York City because that’s where the drummer lived. I was living in Boston but would go to N.Y. every weekend.” His uncle owned some land in Killington and Mike (the drummer) and Thayer opened up Toad Stool Harry’s on Route 4 down by the Pasta Pot. That was a legendary after-hours club. Back in the good old K-town days, you could go there and hang out till 5 a.m. listening to great music. Old schoolers will know what I’m talking about. It was a treasure that could never happen today.
After that, Thayer had the band The Perfect Trainwreck. That was around for years and they released an album titled “Eden.” Thayer just released an album called “The Source and the Servant, a Tribute to Doc Boggs and Mississippi Fred McDowel.” He did all the engineering and producing himself. Thayer has always loved their music but the real kicker was he was blending banjo and slide with the bojotar. “I could play both styles of old time and delta style blues on this instrument. It was a tribute to both these characters but also, I could showcase this instrument. It’s a weird record. It’s not straight up blues at all. Some of it is down right psychedelic. I use some weird instruments. I use a saw, a drum machine as well as marimba and some instruments I made. I made a giant bass banjo out of a kick drum. It’s kind of like a psychedelic jug band but it’s kind of modern, too. It was really fun to make. I put some originals tunes on there, too.”
Thayer said it’s harder and harder doing live shows now. “I remember when live music was way more attended. People here complain it’s not what it used to be. There’s a whole slew of reasons, like people have music on their phones, people not wanting to get pulled over, it’s just harder and harder. The shows I used to play were better attended and I made way more money. I could never take a band on the road today. If I go on the road now, it’s duo or solo. But I love playing with the band and it’s my first choice. It makes it that much more special.”
Thayer loves doing what he does. He said, “I’ve been doing it so long that I wouldn’t know how not to do it. I guess the question is why am I still doing it? It’s the spontaneity of it. Playing live and being present with the language. It’s like having a conversation with four dudes in your band and make that carry over to an audience. I really dig it, making people dance and making people think. What I love most about it is creating a spontaneous event that you’re a part of. We are presenting and creating an opportunity to be involved. It’s the best tool for finding the truth you’ll ever get. You can write speeches and do articles but the power of music is limitless. You can really make people listen in a way that they normally wouldn’t. You can get an abstract idea across that would really change someone’s life in a way. First concert I ever went to was a Grateful Dead show at the Boston Garden and I came away thinking that is going to be my job but I’m just on the wrong side of the stage now.”
Photo courtesy of Dave Hoffenberg
Bow Thayer sits in his studio surrounded by instruments of all types, including drums, mics, keyboards and many amps.