Bonfire of the Harmonies
Bonfire of the Harmonies
A Q&A with Jesse Iaquinto of Fireside Collective
By Geoff Gehman
Fireside Collective grazes and blazes in the many meadows of bluegrass. The five members make acoustic rural music electric and urban with robust rock licks, jazzy improvisations and the pass-the-baton telepathy of a chamber ensemble. Their marriage of the traditional ”The Devil’s on the Hillside” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” has a locomotive steam and a hummingbird grace suitable for campfire and bonfire.
These creative, canny chops helped the Firesiders win the 2016 Merlefest Band Competition, tour with Yonder Mountain String Band, and play at the United States Botanical Garden, a plant paradise. On July 19 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host covers, originals and hybrids from a group based in Asheville, N.C., home to a 10-acre botanical garden. In a recent email interview Jesse Iaquinto–mandolinist, vocalist, songwriter and financial specialist–discussed his rock and bluegrass baptisms; recording a new album produced by Travis Book, double bassist with the Infamous Stringdusters, and dressing more successfully.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: My first song was “Wild Thing”–I believe a Jimi Hendrix live version to be exact. I taught it to myself on the piano when I was five, and played it over and over and over. The intensity and rock ’n’ roll attitude of Hendrix, mixed with the harmonic qualities of the simple 1, 4, 5 progression, must have been the perfect storm for me at that point in my life. I remember sitting at the piano and figuring out the chord triads and then the progression, and it was life changing. I’ve never stopped enjoying the raw energy of that ’60s and early ’70s rock ’n’ roll, and in many ways, it permeates our blend of bluegrass.
Q: What was the first bluegrass tune that made you think bluegrass was a musical meadow to graze?
A: I had a few early interactions with bluegrass, from my mom taking me to bluegrass festivals when I was four or five, and my dad playing the guitar and banjo for my whole childhood. I remember my dad playing a version of “Dueling Banjos” that just blew my mind. I thought he was the greatest guitarist ever. Then, in my college years, I began to dig deep into the Grateful Dead and other bands that drew from the roots of bluegrass, and songs like “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World” were just so fun to play. I’m not sure if I can narrow it down to a single tune, but the whole Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 3” was huge in inspiring me to move forward with pursuing bluegrass.
Q: Who was your first musical mentor and what was his/her best lesson to you, a tip you like to spread like a virus?
A: Hmmmm, this is a hard one. I never really had any musical mentors growing up, outside of being inspired by my parents’ love for music. I had a few music teachers in elementary and middle school who I got along great with, but I don’t remember anything they said. I never really got along with my high-school music teachers, mostly because of taste and musical direction.
But, if I were to give one piece of advice, I would say diversify. Learn to sing, write music, and play an instrument or two really well. That way you can steer your ship a little better on the wild waves of the music industry.
Q: Why did you decide to pick up and stick with mandolin? What does it bring to the table that satisfies you, that fits your personality?
A: It’s funny, the way I ended up getting my first mandolin was actually by mistake. I asked my father for a banjo at one point, and a few months later for Xmas I received a mandolin. I always assumed that maybe he knew better than me, or just forgot.
For me, the mandolin is so percussive and energetic. I played snare drum and other percussion instruments in high school orchestra and marching band, so I am used to playing the role as timekeeper. I also like how small and feisty the mandolin can be.
Q: Who are your mandolin role models/heroes?
A: I have quite a few heroes in this realm. I love the playing of Chris Thile; he’s truly a master of mandolin. From his exquisite tone to his ability to cross genres and play from the heart, I’m always inspired by this guy. I also love Sam Bush. He brings out the percussive qualities of the mandolin like none other, and what he did with New Grass Revival broke down so many barriers for this music and really ignited it with the energy of rock ’n’ roll.
I can’t mention mandolin heroes without bringing up Bill Monroe. He completely reimagined how the mandolin was played. As a front man and singer, he brought the mandolin to the front of the band. He also infused it with the stylings of the fiddle and mountain music, and his playing was way ahead of his time.
Q: Why did you choose Fireside Collective as a band name? What do you want to signify or symbolize?
A: A big thing has to do with the simple act of sitting around the fire with a bunch of people. The fire is in the center, and we’re all collected around it celebrating life. That’s what this band is to me, a celebration of life and harmony and the ability of human beings to transcend their individuality and become one collective being. I could go on for days about new meanings that have arisen over the years, like the fact that the sun is a ball of fire and we’re all collected around it, or the relationship between the collective consciousness and how it relates to artists and human functioning as a whole. For now, I’ll just leave you with the short version.
Q: What have you done, or what are you doing, on the new album that you haven’t done in the studio? Has producer Travis Book [double bassist in the Infamous Stringdusters] taken you out of your comfort zone, off your well-beaten track?
A: Something we haven’t done before that we were able to accomplish this time was to record some live full band improvisation. We have a few songs on the album that feature this, which is a big part of what we do as a live band. In the past, we haven’t really gone outside of the original structure of the tunes, but with the support and encouragement of Travis, we were able to push the boundaries a little.
Travis was able to take us out of our comfort zone in terms of the arrangement of songs. He helped us to really break down each song and get it into its best form rather than accepting the first version and not making alterations. I thought this was a really cool way to approach the songs and it was great to have Travis there to guide us along.
Q: Why do you like making music with your fellow East Carolina U grads Tommy Maher (dobro) and Carson White (bass)?
A: Tommy and Carson have been friends of mine for over 10 years, so it creates this unique bond where we support and push each other. We never let one another fall behind and the amount of support generated between us throughout our friendship has been integral in keeping this band together. They’re also great musicians and making music with them is an absolute pleasure.
Q: Can you identify three significant changes since you launched the Collective?
A: There are a lot of pretty significant changes that have occurred along the way so it’s hard to narrow down. But off the top of my head I would say our van, our organization, and the way we dress. We had a little GMC Safari for the first five years that only sat five, plus our gear. Now we travel in a Chevy Express with room for 12, so that’s huge. Our organization has changed from just the band to include a booking agency and a management team. We’re also looking to expand in other aspects and it’s great to be building such a fantastic team. And if you get a chance, check out some early pics of the band–we’ve definitely stepped up our onstage attire. In the beginning it was much more casual; now we try to find a balance between the street-clothes look and the full-on bluegrass suits. We like to think we’re somewhere in between those two approaches.
Q: What non-performing/extra-musical jobs do the five of you have? Who supervises social media, who drives most of the miles, who does the lion’s share of the crowdfunding?
A: In terms of in-band jobs, many tasks have been shared and moved around throughout the years. Right now, Tommy runs social media, [guitarist] Joe [Cicero] runs the merchandise, and I run the financial side of the band. I spend a lot of time behind the wheel but we all share driving duties. We have some outside help from our management team, and everything else just kind of ebbs and flows organically.
Q: Do you personally have any non-performing jobs outside the band?
A: Everyone in the band does this full-time. I waited tables for the first year of the band, but went all in during the second year. It’s definitely helped open up creative space and allowed me to focus on building the band.
Q: What are the benefits of touring for the first time with Yonder Mountain String Band, an ensemble you guys have long admired?
A: It was huge to see a well-run organization such as Yonder. Their team is awesome, and they’re just great people all around. A few of us in the band were big Yonder fans back in the day, so spending time with them and jamming was very inspirational. They were super encouraging and positive.
Q: How would you like to improve as a musician?
A: I spend a lot of time working on the mandolin. I grew up playing the piano and mostly in the classical realm, so playing bluegrass on the mandolin is a bit different than what I am used to. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the proper way to get the sound and tone dialed in. I’m also left-handed so I focus a lot on the right hand and getting that to work how it should. Bluegrass is so fast and engaging, so you need to be on top of your instrument as much as possible, so that’s my primary focus.
Q: So, Jesse, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from touring the world to world peace.
A: World peace is a good start. I would like to see a world in perfect harmony with nature. If we could harness natural energy sources, spend more time in nature, and realize the interconnectedness of all things, I think we would all be a lot happier.
A: And what tops your Fuckit List? Musicians have told me everything from ending oppressive religions to assassinating all snakes.
A: Fuckit …. well, let’s see. I’d say fuck greedy corporations. They don’t pay their fair share, they destroy the environment, and they have more rights than humans. That’s fucked up; fuck that.
Q: Your tour includes gigs at the U.S. Botanic Garden in D.C. and the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. Are these new pit stops for the band? Are you passionate about gardening and whitewater rafting?
A: The Botanic Garden is new but we’ve done the Whitewater Center. I wouldn’t say I’m passionate about gardening, but I am passionate about nature, so being in there amongst all of those cool plants and trees was pretty awesome. I’ve whitewater rafted a few times, and it’s awesome, although I’m more of a lazy river tuber. The Whitewater Center is an awesome venue, although being in Charlotte in the middle of summer, it can get pretty hot and humid, so this tends to be a sweaty gig.
Q: What are the most unusual, other-worldly, truly memorable—for good or bad–venues you’ve played?
A: Hmmmm, so many venues. We’ve played over 600 shows to date so it’s hard to say. But honestly, last night at the Botanic Garden was pretty cool. We were right next to the U.S. Capitol building, in the middle of D.C., surrounded by plants, and we were playing bluegrass music acoustically–that was cool. I guess that wasn’t really unusual, but definitely memorable.
In terms of unusual, we got to take a trip down to Mexico and play some music. One of the shows was in a small village, on a rickety old stage, with gear that was probably older than everyone in the band, and there was a stage directly in front of the stage we were on, facing us. That was literally other-worldly!
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Jesse Iaquinto’s fondness for Jimi Hendrix’s wild bonfire version of “Wild Thing.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.