To be quite honest, the didjeridu is a musical instrument to which I’ve not given much thought over the years. But when confronted with its deep, reedy tones when listening to the music of Tree Thump, a local didj-fronted ensemble, I’m forced to consider that I’ve missed out by not paying more attention to the Australian instrument.
Tonight at 10 p.m. on WEFT-90.1 FM, you’ll have the opportunity to decide for yourself, once and for all, whether the didjeridu is right for you, as Tree Thump will be playing an on-air set for WEFT Sessions. As always, you can also stream the show online at weft.org. After the jump, Tree Thump bassist JB Faires shares his thoughts on playing bass in a band where all anyone wants to talk about is the didjeridu, as well as the difficulty that people have in trying to compare Tree Thump to other bands.
Smile Politely: How did your group get into the didjeridu? How easy (or hard) is it to blend such an instrument into your sound?
Tree Thump: The didjeridu is kinda tricky to mix live. First of all, Phil uses up to 10 different didjeridus for the different songs and each one has a little different volume output and overtones. Not to mention that the weather can affect the pitch of each didjeridu significantly. So we rely on our soundman quite a bit to help balance things live. As far as our sound in general, we are trying to not be that band that has a “token “didj player in the background accompanying everything else. We’d rather have the didj as the focus with everything else supporting.
SP: The bio on your Myspace says you’re finishing your doctorate in music at U of I. How much longer do you have left, and what’s your dissertation topic?
TT: I have finished all my coursework and am preparing for prelims and recitals now. My project is on the music and improvisational style of Paul Chambers, an upright jazz bass player that recorded heavily in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. He’s mostly known for his work with the Miles Davis Quintet, but he played and recorded with a ton of other musicians. His solos are great and he would often use the bow for his solos, pretty unique stuff.
SP: How does Tree Thump come to be based out of Fithian since it looks like most of the folks are U of I students or former students?
TT: Does anyone really even know where Fithian is? I don’t think its a real town, I’ve never seen it. It sounds more like the name of a rich gay man’s butler (“Oh Fithian, fetch me my slippers!”). Anyway, that is the mailing address of our jam house out in the country where Ben Hay lives. I live in Charleston and the rest of the group is in Urbana.
SP: Have you played for a radio show before? Any complications or advantages that you expect?
TT: Some of us have played a radio show before (I think Ben Hay did one where he played drums, guitar, and sang all at the same time), but I think it will be great.
SP: Do you have any songs that include vocals? How does the songwriting process work for the band?
TT: We’ve written a few new tunes that have some wordless-vocals. We’ll probably play one of those on the air. Usually our practices start out with some free jamming. Someone starts a groove and we all jump in when we get feel for it. We’ve written songs that started with a didj groove, or a rhythmic drum thing, or a bass idea. Pretty much anything goes, and we end up with new songs every time we practice.
SP: How would you describe your sound for someone who’s never heard your music before?
TT: The didjeridu has a deeply penetrating sound that really gets into your head after listening for a while. Its no wonder many people use the didj as a meditation tool. So, you start with that and pepper in some funkiness from the bass and drums, and top it off with crazy, ethereal stuff on a heavily effected violin. In other words, you have to come experience us. . . it is something not easily described.
SP: Was there a moment when you realized that you wanted to be a musician? How did that come about?
TT: Chicks dig musicians! Just kidding—well, that may have been a early motivator, but we’ve all found that someone special in our lives so the motivation has changed. I think being able to provide something special that not everyone in society knows how to do is an important thing. To be able to impart a little joy through musical entertainment and entrainment, that’s what makes it fun. Some folks believe that one doesn’t play music, that music is its own entity that plays you. There’s also the Aboriginal connection: they believed that the ancients used music to tell their story of life and experience in this realm, the “dreaming” is that story.
SP: What’s a singer or band that Tree Thump been compared to that you don’t think is representative at all, and why not?
TT: I don’t think anyone has tried to compare us to another band, simply because there aren’t any bands with this instrumentation that are out there doing it.
SP: What is the greatest album of all time? Why?
TT: Too many to name, how about “currently spinning:” Phil-
Survival, by Bob Marley; JB Go!, by Paul Chambers; Ben S. some Irish fiddler, can’t think of the name; Ben H.-New Kids on the Block.
SP: What was your favorite band when you were in junior high?
TT: I was into all kinds of music. Jesus Christ Superstar (super-funky bass lines), the Stray Cats, Primus, Jane’s Addiction.
SP: Are you full-time musicians or do you work other jobs? If so, what are they?
TT: We’ve all got different things that are our main gig, mostly going to school right now. Ben H. and Phil have recently started The Tree Thump Didjeridu Company and are making lots of didjeridus for sale. They’ve sold about a dozen already and have generated some interest for more. My wife is even getting in on the didjeridu action. She’s an artist that normally carves on gourds and can be found selling them at the Urbana Farmer’s Market, but has been doing some carving work on didjs also.
SP: What do you like to do in your spare time?
TT: What is “spare time?” We enjoy most outdoor recreational activities, homebrewing, testing the homebrews, reading books on social theory, more testing of the homebrews, etc.
SP: Would you like to say anything else that wasn’t covered in these questions?
TT: We’d like to invite everyone out to see us at the Iron Post on this Friday, November 7th. We will be playing songs from our new album, which will be available for purchase at the show and is always available on CDBaby.com, as well as some of our newest compositions. Come out and try to compare us to another band, I dare ya!
Here’s a video of Tree Thump’s appearance at Cowboy Monkey last October: