On Thursday, April 18, Lynn Lipton and I sat down with the members of Mile Twelve before their show at the Towne Crier in Beacon: Evan Murphy (EM), Catherine “BB” Bowness (BB), Nate Sabat (NS), Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (BK-H), and David Benedict (DB). The following transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.
All bands by definition consist of musicians working together, but Mile Twelve seems to be unusually cohesive. Evan (Murphy) has commented on the collaborative nature of the band’s work, and I was struck by the fact that all of you are credited as songwriters on your new album, City of a Hill. Is that just P.R.,or do you feel that you are more collaborative than the average band?
BB: Well, with the songwriting thing, Evan and Nate usually do come up with the seeds of the song, and sometimes the entire song. But they get input from all of us, so, if anything’s in there lyrically or musically we don’t like, we change it, so we edit and collaborate in that sense together.
And also, this is a band that every role that is not musically related like, booking the flights or counting the [merchandise] is divided up in this very even way, so why wouldn’t the songwriting credits be also divided as a band?
BK-H.: And we also come up with the arrangements totally together.
BB: For every song, we can point to either Evan or Nate. The two that Nate sings he mostly wrote. Evan and Nate help each other with the lyrics, so it’s not really one person, but we can point to one person for each song who is the main person.
Did anyone ever come up with a song that you hated and you said, “I’m not singing that one”?
EM: (laughter) We recorded one that Nate had primarily written but I was the one that was meant to sing it, and I kind of twisted it into something that it was never meant to be, so neither of us was happy with it, so we just let it go. Now, for the most part, we tend to try to sing what we wrote 99% of the time. . . . Nate and I are both growing as songwriters, and writing more authentically now, so, it’s like, “If you wrote it, you sing it.”
One factor in that cohesiveness might be that you haven’t experienced the personnel changes that are fairly common in bluegrass bands. The four founding members are still here, and now David rounds out the quintet. How did David come to join you?
BK-H: He was playing in Nashville with Missie Raines. We met him in different ways. Me and BB and Nate met him at this young people’s camp in Savannah called the Acoustic Music Seminar, and Evan met him through IBMA.
All five of you have music degrees, which has not been a traditional path for bluegrass musicians of previous generations. However, it does seem to be the case with many of the up and coming groups; Lonely Heartstring Band comes to mind, four of whose members were Berklee graduates. Did each of you pursue bluegrass studies specifically?
BK-H: If you go to Berklee, we have the American Roots Music program, but a lot of people don’t major in it. It just kind of exists, and you do things related to it. My degree is violin performance; Nate’s degree is, technically, professional music (BB: “Whatever that is!”)
BB, your degree is in jazz performance, isn’t it?
BB: Yes, jazz performance,
On the banjo?
BB.: Yeah, jazz performance on the banjo, at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington.
Were you the only student?
BB: There definitely weren’t any other banjo players. There probably never will be another banjo player to go through that school.
BK-H: No but in twenty years, banjo players will start going to that school because, they’ll say, “That’s where BB Bowness went!”
EM: I went to Boston College as a theater and music major.
How do you think having had formal training has influenced your work?
BB: Undoubtedly it affects how you play and how you think about music, how you think about ideas for arranging; Nate studied a lot of choral music, so he’s super quick at coming up with three-part harmony, for instance. That he wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had that training. None of us grew up with bluegrass in our families, so when you come into it not having been soaked in it as a child, it’s going to be different.
So, if you didn’t grow up with bluegrass, how did you get here?
BB: It’s different for all of us.
BK-H: For me, I grew up playing Celtic music, and as a teenager I started going to fiddle camps, where there is a diverse bunch of styles, and I gravitated towards bluegrass, and I decided to go to Berklee.
And at Berklee, were you focusing on classical violin?
BK-H: No, actually, I was working on bluegrass and some rudimentary jazz; you come away from Berklee with a good knowledge of jazz theory.
EM: I got into it from things around me in the mainstream, like the O Brother Where Art Thou? Soundtrack, Old Crow Medicine Show, . . . people who would cross over into the mainstream. And from hearing them, it led into my getting deeper into authentic bluegrass. So it’s a good thing that people like that have broken out into the mainstream.[David enters]
BB: For David and I, If I can speak for you, David, it’s kind of an instrument-based thing; if you learn the banjo, there’s not many genres that it’s famous for, so you’re probably going to get into old-time or bluegrass. Maybe classic banjo, but that’s not all that common. With mandolin, there’s a few more, probably, that you could have wound up in.
DB: Yeah, there’s the Brazilian choro musical style and there are a lot of people who try to do swing on the mandolin, but yeah, bluegrass is still the quintessential genre for mandolin, I’d say.
BB: It’d be hard not to know about bluegrass if you were a mandolin student, I’d say.
DB: I went to a small college, about 800 students, with maybe 80 focusing on music, so I got to curate my own program, because mandolin is not typically an academic instrument, and I was using that to do a performance track. I got to work with Matt Flinner, who taught me over Skype.
The Boston area has a thriving bluegrass scene, which seems like a natural evolution. I used to go to Club 47 back in the day . . . [DB: “ It’s called Club Passim now, right?”] to see Jim Kweskin, Maria Muldaur, Joan Baez . . . I’d like to hear about the Cantab Lounge, where you initially came together. Is that the 21st century equivalent of Club 47?
EM: Not quite! (laughter)
DB: Joan Baez hasn’t been there any time recently.
EM: It’s really a dive bar. At the Cantab Lounge, they don’t have this pristine listening environment, the way they do at Club Passim. It’s like rowdy, which probably facilitates the fact that we all became friends there. It’s not so much about who’s playing on stage; it’s very loose. Everyone’s just pickin’ and having a beer, and stuff.
These days, you have a booking agent and a manager. But when you were first starting out, how did you get started?
BB. You just have to get a Facebook page, make a web site, make two videos, and start emailing people like you . You don’t get many responses when you ‘re starting out; ‘cause people look at your thing and see 37 “likes” on Facebook and think, “Well, that’s cool.” But you just start slowly building it up.
BK-H: We would look at other websites of bands that looked similar to us, so, back in the day we’d look at bands that were bigger than us….we heard about HVBA from the Lonely Heartstrings Band.
I have looked at your current tour schedule, which looks staggering—coast to coast, with shows in at least thirteen states over the next four months. I admire your stamina, and I have a curious question: how do you squeeze in the time to practice, either as a group or individually? Or do you?
BB: We go through waves of inspiration where we wake up at 5:00 and try to find an empty bathroom to practice, but it’s hard. We have a pretty free schedule when we’re not touring.
DB: Yeh; when we’re off, we’re really off, with almost nothing else to do during the day.
BB: We always take December off.
BK-H: I actually counted how many days I would be on the road this year, and it was about 160.
EMs: We all try to check our sanity and get home for stretches of a week or two.
DB: There’s all sorts of other things coming up, too. Evan and I are both getting married this year. If something else comes up for one of us individually, we try to work our way around it. Bronwyn ‘s doing this great camp in North Carolina that she went to growing up and she’s teaching it now; she’s taking a week off for that.
In a recent interview on the HVBA website, Tim O’Brien gave you guys a nice shout-out: “. . . It seemed like Mile Twelve really came up a couple notches this last year, in direction, they seemed to just be more sure of themselves. They’ve got so much potential. It’s really interesting to watch them, because they’ve got so much ability.” I was impressed with you back in 2016. But as good as you were then, you’re even better now, not only in your musicianship but also in the way you blend with each other.
Do you guys notice that? Any changes in your band?
DB: Just the other night, BB said something pertaining to that. “It’s hard to pinpoint what’s happened, but we’ve just jelled over the years.”
BB: I think it’s just the pure amount of time we spend with each other. Even off stage. There’s just something that happens.
EM: David and BB are just so delighted by each other that they’ll just get the giggles on stage, like it’s happening right now. [Much giggling]
What are your strongest influences?
BK-H: Gillian Welch; Allison Krauss and Union Station, Del McCoury Band, Punch Brothers, the Infamous Stringdusters. All for different reasons. Stringdusters for stage presence (BB: “and business model.”)
Let’s talk about your new album, City on a Hill.” By the way, I found an interesting contrast in many of the tunes between the music and the content of the lyrics. “Innocent Again” is a hard-driving, foot-stomping romp—but when I paid attention to the lyrics (after maybe the third or fourth listen), I realized that it had a very sobering theme. That contrast held true even with the two songs that aren’t original. It’s hard to feel depressed listening to your take on Richard Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” but when I went back to the original version, I wanted to cut my wrists. (Well, not really; but I much prefer the remake.)
Now that the recording is a few months behind you, how do you feel about the result?
BK-H: Obviously, we’re pleased with it. I was listening to it recently, though, and I was struck by how much some of it has changed; as good as it was in the studio, I feel it’s even better now that we have been performing it on stage. You get to know the music so well by recording it and then touring with it for three or four months, what are you going to do? You’re going to get better at it.
All of you have chosen a very demanding profession. I hope you all continue to bear up under the inevitable strains.
BK-H: One of the cool things about being in a band like this is that we are all co-owners, so we have a lot of control over our work environment—as much control as you can have in this field.
EM: It is really hard, but to me, you are constrained in the way that any full-time job constrains you. Which virtually any full-time job does; it’s like, is this the full-time job you want? And for me, despite its challenges, it is the full-time job I want.