Interview: The Lowest Pair

Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee, collectively known as The Lowest Pair, made quite a splash last year when they released two albums simultaneously. Uncertain As It Is Uneven was a continuation of their previous releases as a banjo playing duo while Fern Girl & Ice Man employed other musicians to create a fuller band sound with both albums maintaining their interest in traditional American roots music. Both musicians had solo careers and backgrounds in playing with string bands but when they met up in 2013 they recognised their shared interest in traditional banjo techniques and started to share bills before formally setting up the band. Since then they’ve released five albums and toured relentlessly across the States and starting this week they embark on their first UK tour. 24 shows over the next month including a stint at The Shetland Folk Festival and a show at Edinburgh’s Tradfest along with a long sweep through England and Wales.

Still somewhat jet lagged after his flight over and a long drive heading for the far north Palmer T. Lee spoke to Americana UK on a stopover in Stirling.

Hi there. Thanks for talking to us. Seems like you’ve been on quite a journey. Is this your first time in the UK?

Yes. This is our first time overseas although we travel a lot back home.  I’ve never been out of the States before so I’m pretty stoked.

You’re heading up to spend four or five days at the Shetland Folk Festival I believe.

I think we’re doing five shows in Shetland. We don’t really know what’s happening, as I said it’s our first time over here so the promoter is really doing all the work, we just turn up and play. All I know about Shetland is that it’s an island real far up off the mainland.

And then after that you have several shows in Scotland including a date at Edinburgh’s Tradfest before heading south for England and Wales. Will you have time to do the tourist thing?

Yeah. We’ve already been able to stop at a couple of ruined castles on the way up here and the landscape is gorgeous. I’m really curious about the beer scene and also hoping to find some good Scotch

There’s a healthy buzz about the tour after your twin album releases last year which got a lot of great reviews.

Well the records seemed to get a really warm reception so we’ve been looking forward to this trip for a while. Kendl and I were really stoked with the sound we were able to achieve with just two banjos and it’s nice to make music that people like and we were really happy that people over here seemed to like the albums.

Uncertain As It Is Uneven features just the pair of you while Fern Girl & Ice Man has some other musicians playing along. Do you see the band progressing in the direction of getting a fuller sound?

Well, the guy who produced Fern Girl, Erik Koskinen, he’s kind of a staple on the Minneapolis music scene and he played lap steel, bass and some drums on the record. He was really active throughout the production of that record and we also had Dave Simmonette on guitar and Barbara Jean Meyers on fiddle. I think we want to keep expanding and exploring potential avenues and ways of expressing ourselves but we don’t really intend ever to lose the core. We’d like to do a record and a tour with a string band and then maybe a country band but we’ll still record as a duo and have the ability to just be able to just pack up a sedan with a couple of banjos and a couple of suitcases and hit the road that way. But we don’t want to be restricted in any way you know. Maybe at some point we’ll get a couple of amps and a pile of pedals and just make a bunch of crazy noises and not really be bound by anyone else’s ideas of what we ought to be doing.

As a duo, you’ve only been going for four years but you’ve already made five albums which is quite impressive.

Yeah, well, you know, Kendl’s an incredibly prolific songwriter. She’s always got a new song on the go and right now she’s backlogged with about 30 to 35 songs and just waiting for me to catch up.

Is that one of the reasons for releasing two albums simultaneously?

Yes. We went into the studio to start recording Uncertain but then we had to go out on the road to promote Sacred Heart as that had just come out. So by the time we had done that and were able to go back into the studio a couple of months later to finish it there were enough songs for another album so we decided to make two and then just to put them out at the same time.

So have you started on the next album yet?

We haven’t got to planning any recordings as yet. As I said, we’re toying with the idea of continuing to expand in Fern Girl’s direction so we’re just coming up with ideas of who we’d like to work with on the next record and where we’d like to do it. The folk scene we play in, it’s a kind of tight knit community and we find that everyone knows everyone else and we’re all big fans of each other so people are always willing and excited to collaborate so we’re still thinking about it.

You recorded Uncertain and Fern Girl in Minneapolis, is that where you’re based?

We’re in Minneapolis more or less but we also work out of Olympia, Washington where Kendl’s based. Two years ago I wintered in Minneapolis but last winter I stayed in Olympia. Kendl’s pretty settled out there in Olympia, she’s got a houseboat that’s pretty cool and I had a place there for a few months but it burned down. So right now I’m kind of just floating in the wind and trying to figure out where I’m going to settle next.

You’re probably asked this all the time but I was wondering if you can tell us how the band got its name (The Lowest Pair is a poem by John Hartford which is on his Mark Twang album, an irreverent take on The Lord’s Prayer).

Well when we started the project the initial idea was that it was going to be a collaboration between two songwriters and banjo players. It was pretty loose, we played some shows co billed and we just wanted to see how it would work out and because it was going so well we decided we needed a band name. And because we were primarily banjo players we decided to pay homage to John Hartford, one of our favourite weirdo banjo players so I started pitching some of his song titles to Kendl and The Lowest Pair just seemed the most fitting for a pair of banjo players setting out.

Did you ever see John Hartford play?

No. I wasn’t aware of him really until after he had died but I love albums like The Walls We Bounce Off Of. Nobody Knows What You Do is one I’m really digging into right now.

Do you ever play any of his songs on stage or cover any traditional material?

We never really have done a Hartford song although I read the poem sometimes. But our album I Reckon I’m Fixin’ on Kickin’ Round to Pick a Little is a collection of traditional tunes and some we had written that were very much influenced by them or based on traditional tunes. It’s got a song we do live that John Hartford recorded, Darling Corey, although he called it Dig A Hole and it was his version that inspired us to record it.

So what can we expect from The Lowest Pair live experience?

Well, we just like to keep things weird you know, the weirder the better. So we just hope that people come out and not expect us to sound like one particular thing and just dig into the intensity of our weirdness.

Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to us and the best of luck with the tour.

The Lowest Pair commence their five day stint at The Shetland Folk Festival today and then tour throughout the UK in May including a London show at The Green Note on the 12th.

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

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