As self-professed John Hartford disciples, The Lowest Pair spoke with The Wake about their steadfast commitment to weirdness and contempt for clichés
A neon sign with the venue’s namesake reflected on the stage’s glossy leather-black piano. The groomed wait staff of the Dakota Jazz Club scurried from table to table, ferrying drinks with names like “Vieux Carré” and “Ave Maria,” and dishes garnished with agnolotti, cornichon, and porcini. The club exuded an attitude of sleekness and refined taste afforded only to those who appreciate jazz and weren’t afraid of a steep tab. It was ironic, and a little comical, that in a place as highbrow as this, the night’s headliner was a bluegrass banjo duo whose discography includes an album titled “I Reckon I’m Fixin’ on Kickin’ Round to Pick a Little.” When they took the stage, The Lowest Pair maintained the highest standards of folksy Americana; Arkansas-born, Southern belle Kendl Winter stood opposite Twin Cities-native Palmer T. Lee, who looked like your cousin whose Facebook profile picture is a pickup truck. After an intimate performance interlaced with colorful asides about oiled boots and fixing roofs, The Wake got a chance to sit down with The Lowest Pair to talk about being an indie folk band, avoiding clichés, and getting weird.
The Wake: How’d you guys come up with the name “The Lowest Pair”?
Palmer T. Lee: It’s a John Hartford poem, are you familiar with John Hartford?
Kendl Winter: Get intimate with John Hartford.
Palmer T. Lee: He is such a weirdo; banjo-player, fiddle-player, dancer, children’s book author.
Kendl Winter: He’s a full-spectrum weirdo which is kind of the best kind. Beautiful banjo-player, beautiful fiddle-player, and his lyrics run the gamut from hilarious to ridiculous.
Palmer T. Lee: Two primarily banjo-playing songwriters collaborating on a record is kind how it started, and at one point we were like, “Well, l guess we should probably just come up with a band name.”
The Wake: You two are billed as a banjo duo. How did the banjo become so central to your music?
KW: I heard one of the Béla Fleck albums when I was babysitting when I was 18 or 19 years old. Their parents had it and I put it on and we danced around the room. And it was the first time I realized how great it could be. And then I got one, but I kind of just had it in my closet for a while. I met a couple other girls in Olympia that played music, and we were like “let’s start a band,” and I was like “well I have this banjo, I can be the banjo player.” And then it’s like chicken or the egg at that point.
PL: I got into the banjo through the backdoor, I guess. I kind of got into old-time folk music through a childhood friend of mine. My family kind of got turned on to that and realized that I was writing songs, so they gifted me a couple of banjos. I think one was my mom’s-dad’s- brother’s-wife’s banjo. I grew up playing hockey and wanted to play goalie, and I’ve always just kind of existed that sort of way, you know? Like I wanted to play music, but everyone learns how to play guitar, I want to play the banjo. Sounds more interesting to me.
The Wake: You just released two albums. Why the double release?
PL: I think that a double album is a hard piece to digest. I think that two separate albums allow the listener to go on two separate journeys without needing them to be linked to each other or seek some sort of continuation, or some sort of story that starts on one record and ends on the other record. It’s a lot; I think it asks a lot of people. We sort of wanted to start exploring different directions that we could go, so it was kind of perfect for that, where one could theoretically be more paired down and simpler like a lot of our previous records have been, and then the other we could kind of like have drums and bass and wine glasses and kids’ toys and weird shit like that.
KW: It wasn’t so much like “we need to make two records,” it was more like “we have all these songs.” Even right now, we haven’t made a record in a bit, and I’m sitting on all these songs. I don’t think I’ve ever been strategic about a record as much as I’ve been like, “I’ve got some songs; I’m going to record them.” Ultimately as a performer, I want to be playing the things that I wrote last week. That’s the most relevant to where I’m at today.
The Wake: Kendl, you’re from Arkansas, and Palmer you’re from here. How have your roots influenced your sound?
KW: I listened to a lot of punk rock when I lived in Arkansas, but I think that did totally shape my sound. There’s just that like whatever you got, make it happen, whatever you can get access to, however people will listen to it. Make art, don’t just wait for it to happen, just make it. I think that’s kind of my sound.
PL: I mean I was kind of a classic rock kid with my brother, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with the region. I was kind of into what Bob Dylan was doing before I realized that he had spent time on the West Bank. I think the closest thing to that answer would be feeling empowered by the strength of the music scene of the region. Basically, from like Fargo to Milwaukee, the general music scene was happening in this area. It’s just inspiring and so community-oriented, you can do kind of anything and there’s going to be people that are going to be playing your shit, if you’re like a cool dude doing whatever cool dudes do.
The Wake: What’s the hardest part of being an indie folk band?
KW: Just the idea that anything’s cliché. Just the idea of clichés, like the piece that you need that label to be who you are, doing what you’re doing. You do, like people need a way to understand it, there’s categories but like, it’s just music. It’s useful to have a genre associated, but it’s also limiting because like some people hate banjo and then they’ll never listen because they hate banjo.
PL: What term did you use? Indie folk?
The Wake: Yeah. Is that what you’d refer to yourself as?
PL: Well I was just thinking that maybe indie folk is exactly—like maybe the answer is fucking nothing at all. Like maybe that’s the place to be because it’s independent, not tied down. That’s kind of the indie part of it, you know, we get to do whatever the fuck we want, and it’s folk music because we’re just folks making music. And it’s accepted as that because we don’t play Strats you know? Bob Dylan made “Highway 61,” that was still fucking folk music. It’s just folks making music.
KW It’s all folk music.
PL: So, indie folk? Hardest part about that is fucking nothing. The majority of American music is indie folk.
KW: It’s a fascinating thing like, now there’s a word, now there’s a sound, now you fit in a container and need to be that because we need you to fit somewhere because we don’t know how to organize you otherwise. That’s weird. We’re always looking at what we are experiencing now relative to other things.
PL: Like you try to describe your favorite record and you’re like “okay, well the songs are great and the vocals are awesome and the production is totally on point.” But that’s all just talking about, like, the bricks and mortar shit. There’s no way to describe art unless you compare it to other things.
KW: Describing music is like dancing to architecture. Sometimes even when we’re practicing, we’ll talk about a song, but we’re just like, “Man, what is that point? Let’s just play it. We’ll feel it out.”
PL: So, I guess that the hardest part of being in an indie folk band would be trying to talk about whatever the fuck that means.
The Wake: Do you have any advice for the music students that might read this interview?
KW: Do it because you love it and keep doing it—I mean that’s like cliché as shit. Love it and get weird. Even when you hate it just keep doing it, that’s a part of it.
PL: I think if you hate it that’s the best time to get weird.
KW: Yeah it’s like you play stuff, you hate it, and then you have these breakthroughs, but you would never get there without playing when you hate it. You have to go on the full journey—not that I’ve arrived at all.
PL: Running scales and running drills can be so tedious and obnoxious, sometimes you just get caught up in cycles and you’re just like, “Why am I doing this? This is all just the same.” I think when you reach that point then just grab it, just start clenching your instrument, and seeing what noises come out. Just play. Get weird. Then listen to John Hartford.