Jesse Langlais grew up in the rural town of Old Town, Maine where he first discovered his passion for banjo, bluegrass and working with his hands. At 19, Jesse picked up the banjo and took lessons from Bill Smith, founder of the successful Bluegrass Supply Company band. In 2001, with determined interest in pursuing a music career, Jesse moved to Asheville, NC, calling western North Carolina home for the past 15 years.
Jesse's hard work paid off in Asheville, he plays banjo, provides vocals and songwriting for the award-winning group Town Mountain, a high-energy bluegrass band. Jesse has always been interested in the history of music, with musical taste across the board that you can hear reflected in his banjo playing style.
As important as music is in Jesse's life, he has other passions. A carpenter by trade, he still picks up jobs from time-to-time, more recently completing a full interior remodel on a home he and his fiancee purchased.
Town Mountain (left to right): Phil Barker (Mandolin, Vocals), Jesse Langlais (Banjo, Vocals), Bobby Britt (Fiddle), Robert Greer (Vocals, Guitar), (not in photo) Adam Chaffins (Bass).
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The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Jesse Langlais, here's what he had to say.
Q. How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A. When I first started playing, I took lessons from a guy close to my hometown in Maine. His name is Bill Smith, and he was an amazing musician. He taught me a lot about the banjo and about bluegrass in general. I probably took lessons on and off for a year or two. He taught me using tablature and by ear. Learning by ear is the most effective way, in my opinion, to learn music. It's played for the ear so why not learn by the ear.
I moved to Asheville, NC about 15 years ago to play music and that was, and still is, a learning experience. There are so many great players here. Just being around them and picking with them is an extended learning experience. Some of these folks you may have never heard of, but, believe me, they are world class musicians!
The internet is also an amazing tool for learning. To this day, I still use YouTube videos. I'll just find something I like and then sit down and learn it. I also use live drum tracks on YouTube to play along with. I can't stress enough the power of drumtracks or a metronome. If you use them everytime you practice, you will see a vast improvement in your playing.
This answer could go on forever, but I'll try to keep it short. Play everyday. Even if it's just for 15 minutes! Sit down, remove all other thoughts and focus on an idea and practice that idea. Music is about muscle memory as much as anything else. Repetition is key in training muscles to eventually slide into auto-pilot mode.
Oh yeah, and go buy "Earl Scruggs and the 5 String Banjo". It's his method essentially condensed into a text book on three finger banjo playing. No matter how good you get, you'll always use this book and learn something new everytime you open it up.
Q. During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A. Well, I probably still find this the most challenging: having a solid right hand. Having a nice even roll with all notes being distinct from one another is something you'll always work on. This harks back to my comment about practicing with metronomes and drum tracks. Always use them; they are your friends. And they are never wrong!
Q. What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A. With bluegrass banjo, there has always been this idea that, "this is how it was and this is how it's supposed to be". I can certainly agree with that idea but only to a point. If you want to play three finger banjo, you need to know the foundation that Earl Scruggs built. But so often, people stop there and that's usually a conscious decision. I, however, want to have a sound unique to me. So, trying to find that sound while maintaining the integrity of the tradition is something that I will always be working towards.
Q. Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A. The banjo has already been used with most genres of music. It fits in fine wherever it lands. I personally don't think of music in terms of generes. In Western music, we play the same 12 notes in all 24 keys. It's just music! So for me, I see the banjo as another instrument that can be used seamlessly anywhere.
I'm a huge fan of Django Reinhardt. I often learn material from his repertoire and apply it to the banjo. Django was a banjo player first and a guitar player second! Maybe someday I'll be able to record a banjo album of gypsy swing tunes. I may catch some grief for this idea, but "ce la vie".
Q. What most inspires you to play?
A. I think inspiration is often something that unconsciously goes unnoticed. It's everywhere! Certainly it's in music, emotion, scenery and in general it's just in life. Everywhere you look you can be inspired. In fact you should be inspired from all aspects of life. Take for instance the brisket I smoked for 10 hours this past weekend. That my friends, was extremly inspiring and delicious too!!
Q. What song(s) do you enjoy playing the most on your Banjo?
A. I don't think I can give an exact answer to this question. I will say that the banjo is actually a versatile instrument. You can play nice slow, pretty pieces and give the song the emotion that it needs. Or you can play Dear Old Dixie at 180 beats per minute and feel just as satisfied.
I will say that I love Don Reno instrumentals. I think he had an approch to the banjo similar to mine. In that it's an instrument for music rather than an instrument for bluegrass. I recently learned his song, Chocking On The Strings. It's a fun one to play!
Q. Based on your professional experiences as a Banjo Player, what advice do you have for beginners?
A. So often beginners want to jump right in and play songs, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, if you take the time in the beginning of your banjo odyessy to really understand the importance of the right hand and work those fundamental ideas, I promise it will pay off ten fold. Also, like I said before play everyday. Even if it's just for 15 minutes. Take your banjo out, focus and practice.
Q. What is your favorite venue / festival to play, and why?
A. I don't want to single out any in particular. I will say that I really enjoy playing festivals that have a well rounded roster. Where we may be one of a few bluegrass bands amongst many other styles of music. This let's me get my multi genre musical fix!
Q. Town Mountain is releasing a couple Grateful Dead songs in November 2015, I understand the Grateful Dead are among some of the classic rock bands you listened to when you were younger. Jerry Garcia was known to play banjo, did you or Jerry's banjo playing have much influence over selecting these releases? Tell us more about the project.?
A. I still listen to the Grateful Dead and will continue to as long as I can hear.
Here's a brief story of how I got into bluegrass and the banjo. I'm definetly not the only one with this story. When I was 19 or so I bought an Old and In The Way CD. I was washnig dishes at my parents house and when that first song came on, Pig in a Pen, I was floored. I probably dropped what was in my hands and just sat there in awe. My bluegrass journey had begun and I wasn't going back.
I'm from Maine, and even though there is a bluegrass scene in New England it was not a part of my upbringing. It wasn't something that I even heard until I bought the Old and In The Way CD. I couldn't even have defined what it was up until that point. All I knew was when I heard it that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to make that noise, that sound. I wanted to pick and pluck the banjo from that point on. Jerry took my hand and guided me to somewhere I had never been before. Soon after that I was introduced to the first generation of bluegrass and that's when I really started to dig into the histroy and sound of bluegrass.
To read more about the Dead Sessions project head to townmountain.net.
Q. You did some songwriting for the band, do you write with the banjo in mind first, and develop ideas around that? What is your songwriting process?
A. When I write instrumentals it's always with the banjo. Not neccesarily with the banjo in mind but certainly in hand.
When I write material that has words it usually starts with the guitar and is written with the guitar. For me it's easier to write vocal songs with with the guitar becasue tonally it's more well rounded and suitable for the voice.
I typically start with some lyrics and a melody, or a story line and work from that. I think that most songwriters would say that their process isn't one way all the time, but instead a series of processes that come and go. I often write something that just comes out as is and then I'll re-write it if i want it to be a Town Mountain song. Maybe I'll make it a little more bluegrassy or change the rhythm or chord progression. It's fun being able to write for yourself in mind, but when your in a band you have to write to the sound of the band.
Like they say there's more than one way to skin a cat!
Q. At this point in your banjo career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A. I think that our album, Leave The Bottle, is a great album. It's full of solid original material, the music is strong and it sounds like Town Mountain. I'm extremely proud of the project we recorded with Dirk Powell last year. It's a brand new album that hasn't been released yet. In fact the release date is still TBD. I think it's going to be very well received. Stay tuned in 2016!
Oh yeah, The Dead Sessions EP is really cool too. We got to play a couple of our favorite songs that the Dead played. With some good friends of ours. The songs really came out great.
Q. What other interests do you have?
A. Well, I'm a carpenter by trade and I've done it as a job for most of my life. This was a trade passed down from my Dad. When I was juggling music and carpentry at the same time I probably wouldn't give the same answer as today. Now that music is full time I can look at carpentry and realize how much I love it. It's been a profession and a hobby. In fact my fiance and I just bought a house last year and I spent time between touring gutting and remodeling the interior.
I also love to cook. It's an art in itself. I'm always experimenting in the kitchen. The other guys in Town Mountain are also very into food. It's nice to be able to travel all over and get to experience cusine from regions that your not familiar with.
I studied agriculture in college. I'm very interested in that world. At one point in time I wanted to farm. Then as the banjo and I got more acquainted with one another I realized that music was where my heart was.
Q. Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A. I love chainsaws and all work affiliated with them. In fact, I often say that the banjo is like the chainsaw of the music world. Why? I don't know, they both just have a way of bringing me satisfaction.
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