INTERVIEW WITH NATE SIPE FROM PERT NEAR SANDSTONE
Yep, he’s the guy right in the middle of this great picture by Jayme Halbritter.
INTERVIEW WITH NATE SIPE FROM PERT NEAR SANDSTONE
(Mandolin player for Pert Near Sandstone)
by Sandi Millar
Enjoy this interview with Nate Sipe from the Pert Near Sandstone band! Thanks for reading.
SANDI: How did you get started in music?
NATE: I had a friend live with me for several months while his mother was traveling for the military. He played guitar and taught me my first few chords. It wasn’t long before I had my own and we were jamming with friends, playing grunge an alternative music that was popular at the time. We were a cover band mostly but wrote a few of our own songs also. Inspired by garage band grunge and punk music, it was an inaccessible way for us to unleash teen angst and also have a social music club of sorts.
I took rock guitar lessons back then, which led to a deeper appreciation for other forms of music, including the folk and classic rock that I had grown up listening to from my parent’s collection and radio hits. That first band played several basement parties, as well as our high school homecoming party. My guitar instructor mostly taught me the roots of rock music which was the blues. This led me to an ongoing fascination and obsession with folk and roots music that continues to this day.
Just after graduating high school, I bought a banjo which I soon traded for my first mandolin. The fiddle came soon after, and I’ve been studying those two instruments now for almost 20 years.
SANDI: Which instruments do you play? Gear, picks, etc. go into detail on this one.
NATE: I play the mandolin and fiddle in Pert Near.
I own two vintage German fiddles, one of which I keep in an alternate tuning called “cross” or “sawmill” tuning for old-time fiddle style. This is either AEAE or GDGD, depending on the setlist for the night. I have used D’Addario or Prim Springs and a Coda bow made in Winonah, Minnesota.
The mandolin I play is a Summit F-100S, made by Paul Schneider in Hartsville, Tennessee. It is a great instrument, although the intermediate level for the company. I have run it through the wringer since 2006 when it was still fresh from the factory. It has taken a beating but plays and sounds better than ever now. For this, I use D Addario EJ75 heavy strings, and Weggen picks, which are made of Kevlar.
SANDI: Who inspired you to make music?
NATE: It was mostly friends who were in bands and having their own discoveries and excitements about music that helped get me hooked. My school and group of friends had a good amount of musical talent. The music of the late 90s such as Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins was not difficult which made imagining being in a band and playing music with some success seem feasible. We were really just playing for each other, however, and trying to make up interesting songs.
My uncle recorded a mixtape for my father that we would listen to on trips to the lake, cabin, hunting trips, or other long drives when I was a child. It contained some important music for me in regards to emotional attachment and early associations with music. I still refer to these in my own music, reaching for various sounds and ideas. It had 70s folk-rock and singer-songwriters, most notably two Leo Kottke instrumental songs, Red and White, and Cripple Creek, that completely captivated me and I wore the cassette down to a fizzle.
It was years later I had a chance to ask my uncle to name each of the artists, as the tape was not labeled. I was excited to learn that Kottke was a local Minneapolis resident. I immediately bought his record catalog and saw him perform several times, also had the fortune to meet him at the Podium guitar shop, where I worked for years.
SANDI: Did you receive any formal training? From who and how long?
NATE: I took guitar lessons from the local music shop where I grew up, and also studied folk and jazz guitar while at college. These were 1 to 2-year stints, and since then I’ve had several private lessons with mandolinist and fiddlers.
I have learned a lot from listening to Mike Compton play the mandolin and took a workshop with him. As the master of Bill Monroe-style bluegrass and old-time mandolin, it was really informative. The night before we were at a house party and actually jammed together which is the best way to transfer knowledge with folk music. I’ve mostly been self-taught, learning from records and playing with people, so this was my practiced method of learning from a player.
For traditional fiddle, I have taken private lessons in both Minnesota and California. Recently, Tom Sauber, who lives in my area and is a master of the old-time genre, gave me private instruction on repertoire and traditional bowing techniques.
SANDI: Best advice from those instructors?
NATE: I picked up from Mike Compton the rhythmic fiddle shuffle applied to mandolin melodies, which is difficult to accomplish without a loose wrist and grip on the pick. It’s a style that is more brushing the strings than picking, letting sympathetic strings ring harmonically.
From Tom Sauber, he instilled in me the down bowing that is a cornerstone in southern American fiddle style, also how to slur melody to keep the bow moving in the right direction for the correct rhythm accents, which is of utmost importance in dance fiddle playing.
SANDI: Are you a full-time musician?
NATE: I think of myself as a full-time musician, although only gigging 50% of the time. When not on tour with the band I am helping coordinate our travels, practices, recording sessions, and helping to manage other elements of the business. Although I am certainly not a businessman, I often have the time and energy to devote to that.
Much of my free time otherwise is spent practicing and songwriting. I always have a song or two cycling around my head looking for the next line melody, chorus, or melodic idea. It has been nice to utilize smartphone technology for keeping notes instead of a pen and paper, as well as audio notes. I’ve captured many ideas that might’ve escaped previously, and streamlined fitting ideas together.
I have composed scores for a couple of short films and also a play based on Moby dick, called “Ishmael” that played for three weeks on stage in Minneapolis. All of the songs and most of the scores were my compositions, which was only an enjoyable experience, especially in that I performed them on stage with each show. I hope to do that again.
I developed new writing methods that have proven fruitful in composing new songs for Pert Near since.
SANDI: If you didn’t become a musician, what would you have been doing right now?
NATE: That’s a hard question to answer. I always wanted a career where I could travel since I used to hitchhike and ride freight trains all over North America. Traveling with this band was that dream realized, annually crossing the country and now Europe as well. Not sure what I would’ve ended up doing that allowed for as much freedom and an outlet for creativity.
English and creative writing was a solid direction in school that may have led me to become an English teacher or novelist. I also enjoyed working as a landscaper and handyman, which gave me days outside that I relished. Nature has always been a cathedral to me, and I would probably enjoy a quiet life in a small town, teaching, writing, and gardening. Imagining that while living in Los Angeles feels like such an extreme departure, and probably why it’s appealing.
SANDI: Have you played with other bands?
NATE: The Town Hall Stompers is a side project that I helped assemble. We are mostly an old-time square dance band. I look forward to any time we’re able to get together, which is rare these days. The Fiddle Heirs is another group that is still active, but also rare since it is comprised of all actively touring fiddlers. That group is as near to an orchestra as I’ve ever been in, and a sincere pleasure to make music with those folks.
Before that, and aside from my various rock bands, I was in a folk trio that initially inspired me to learn mandolin and fiddle. The repertoire that I explored for that group was the basis for much of Pert Near’s early repertoire.
SANDI: Out of any musician out there who would you want to collaborate with and why?
NATE: There are many players that I would love to sit down with to make some music. For instance, Dan Gellert is an amazing fiddle and banjo player from Ohio. He has a great bluesy style that really inspires me.
Brad Leftwich is the current master of the Appalachian style fiddle that is common today, learned directly from the sources. Norman Blake is a phenomenal singer, mandolinist, guitarist, and songwriter in the folk and bluegrass tradition who has also collaborated with other heroes of mine, such as John Hartford.
Peter Ostroushko is a force in the Minnesota music scene who has inspired mandolinists and fiddlers all over the world from his time on A Prairie Home Companion. David Rawlings has become my favorite of mine. I hope to get a chance to play with any of these guys.
SANDI: What is the image you are going for as a musician?
NATE: I think with this genre and our group especially, we are presenting music that is casual, accessible and facilitates a community. None of us are putting on airs or trying to be different on stage than who we are as individuals. Folk music, after all, is the people’s music, so the image I hope people get from us is that we are no different from our audience.
SANDI: When did you feel like you arrived as a musician and what was the turning point?
NATE: The point for me in which I felt I arrived as a musician was when I quit my corporate job to work at a guitar shop and prioritized playing in my band.
SANDI: How often and how long do you practice?
NATE: I practice daily anywhere from a half-hour to five hours. This is often working on a new song to fit with lyrics, learning a tune, or woodshedding a melodic idea. I don’t spend much time running scales or practicing theory.
The odd days I don’t practice is while we are on tour, or I am letting the fingers and arms recover from heavy playing. I used to spend hours practicing in the van while we were traveling down the road but now leads to stiff hands at the gig that night.
One of my favorite things is to take a cabin retreat or hole up for an entire couple of days working on new songs and brainstorming lyrics. Some great ideas have come from that, and less annoying bandmates.
SANDI: For our readers who don’t know you or haven’t heard about your music, describe your music?
NATE: Pert Near is an old-time inspired modern string band. We are informed by the early styles of American roots, folk, blues, and early country dance music. Many of these strains can be heard on all of our records, as we keep a pretty eclectic repertoire of both traditional and original songs.
In our original songwriting, we use the older music as a sounding board for our individual compositions. With four songwriters in the band we each have our own influences, but manage to meld our sound together pretty well, naturally, when we are playing them. Our signature sound, if we have one, comes from a very organic mix of our individual styles.
SANDI: What led you to play OldTime/Americana/bluegrass/jamgrass?
NATE: Garrison Keillor‘s A Prairie Home Companion was a big influence on me hearing the music early on. Many ventures to the public library and finding folk music and string bands led to my deeper love of the music.
Seminal influences on our band specifically are the Garcia/Grisman albums and the Old and In The Way band, also the New Lost City Ramblers. I would propose that more important than these groups is the local Minnesota music community which embraced us, inspired us, and has kept us making music for so long. It is a great legacy spanning from the folk revival in the ’60s and generations following with a collection of really world-class players.
SANDI: Do you have a dream event or location that you haven’t had a chance to perform yet?
NATE: There are so many Bluegrass festivals in America that I want to play. The Troubadour in Los Angeles is a venue I’m dying to play. I would also really love to take the band over to Japan. I know American culture is embraced over there and I really just want to travel that country.
SANDI: Brian Wicklund might be able to hook you up in Japan. He a very nice down-to-earth kinda guy.
SANDI: I want to talk about the Blue Ox Festival. It is my understanding that Pert Near Sandstone started this festival. How did that come about and what roles are you still playing?
NATE: We were approached in Colorado by the family that owns the festival grounds. The original idea was to curate a side stage at their larger country festival, but with our willingness and enthusiasm, the idea soon developed into a separate event. The campground and concert bowl area is really superb for a bluegrass festival and we knew the audience would agree.
Working closely with the owners, we have curated the band selection, used our resources for booking and promoting, helped select vendors, orchestrated the family-friendly atmosphere, and helped create the appeal we have found with other festivals around the country. Pert Near’s roll is still curating and co-producing the festival. We are thrilled with the response it has had, the growth it shows, and that it stands alongside the most premier music events of this genre in the country.
SANDI: I know it draws a big crowd every year. Roughly, how many?
NATE: It has about doubled since year one, this year I project 6-7000.
SANDI: What month and weekend does it fall on?
NATE: second weekend in June.
SANDI: If someone wanted to get tickets where could they get them?
SANDI: You mentioned you are a songwriter, where can we hear some of those songs?
NATE: I am one of the four songwriters in Pert Near. I love pointing people to my song “Ship of Fools” on YouTube which has a great video animated by my friend Emily Fritze. It was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the same title. It was orphaned from our other records but was a really fun project. Other songs of mine that can be found are: “Okanagan Valley”, “Paradise Hop”, “Sad When That Great Bridge Came Down”, “Solid Gone”, “Nothing I Can Do”, and many others.
We are also on iTunes, SoundCloud, Amazon, and other digital streaming sources.
Our albums are available on our website: www.pertnearsandstone.com or CD Baby.
SANDI: What is your favorite song amongst all the songs you have written and why?
NATE: “Ship of fools” is up there for me. “Sad When That Great Bridge Came Down” is a true story about the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis. I wrote it that day but it was too soon to record and release.
The melody and vocal part came from other similar disaster ballads like “Wreck of the Old 97” and “The Sinking of the Titanic.” I am proud of it as a modern folk ballad.
SANDI: Where do you draw inspiration as a musician for the songs that you’ve written?
NATE: Much of my inspiration is drawn from traveling around the country, also my relationship with friends and my wife.
I’ve been writing more story songs lately that are not necessarily autobiographical. This opens up a lot more possibility for content and I’m not just re-writing the same ideas in different ways, which I’ve been guilty of in the past.
Listening to great songwriters certainly jogs new ideas for me, and I always get inspired listening to Mississippi blues singers. Listening to recordings of good fiddlers will always get me to pick up an instrument and play, even urging me to rework tunes I’ve been playing for years. There’s always the opportunity to become a better musician or refresh old repertoire.
SANDI: Who is your favorite songwriter and what is your favorite song or record?
NATE: That is a hard decision, but I might have to say Bob Dylan is my favorite songwriter. He is such a wealth of poetic ideas injected into song form, and constantly reinventing himself over a vast career. “Blood On The Tracks” is my favorite album from him, even though it contains one of my least favorite Dylan songs.
Gillian Welch and Townes Van Zandt are also amazing songwriters that I have a great appreciation for.
SANDI: What is your favorite song(s) that someone else has written?
NATE: Now that is a nearly impossible question for me to answer, certainly harder than favorite songwriter or album by that person. There are so many songs that I love. It depends on my mood for the time a day.
SANDI: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the guys in the band? No just kidding. Unless of course, you want to go there. Seriously, how would you rate your albums either on a scale of 1 to 10 or place them in order of favorite to least favorite?
NATE: Most of them are like a 10, but one is definitely a 2. Also kidding, they are like my brothers and we’d take a punch for each other.
As the fiddler in the band, I really love the “Out on A Spree” album, being nearly all old-time fiddle tunes. Also the album we’ve spent the least amount of time on the recording because they were learned on the road and rehearsed every night on stage during our busiest touring years.
“Paradise Hop” and “Discovery of Honey” are closely placed after that as my favorite recording projects.
SANDI: What do you think is the best thing about being a musician?
NATE: I would say it’s the ability to be creative and a part of the music community. There so many good friends we have around the country and in our own city that are connected by music. There would be a great void in my life without that, and I’m not sure it could be replaced by anything else.
As I’ve said before, traveling is something I thrive on. To live away from my hometown but still able to see family and friends often when I come in for shows is a huge perk to this career choice. While maybe not the most monetarily beneficial, it does result in much leisure time and a flexible schedule that I easily fill with biking, backpacking, fishing, and other little adventures.
SANDI: What about the worst thing?
NATE: I will admit that being away from my wife for sometimes weeks at a time gets more difficult as I get older. I tend to have a bit of amnesia when I get home from touring, probably from lack of sleep. It can be trying to get back into the groove I had at home before leaving. I have many stalled projects. I would also love to have a pet, but travel too much for that to be possible.
SANDI: What are your plans for your music career?
NATE: I am pretty opportunistic and unsure where this life will lead me. I foresee playing with Pert Near as long as we’re all physically able, continuing to produce albums and grow the festivals we are involved with. I would love to do more scoring for plays and film. Get back into teaching music lessons as time allows. Have a band active on the West Coast where I live. Maybe get into music publishing… Who knows?
SANDI: If you can have your fans remember one thing about you, what would it be and why?
NATE: I would love people to remember that I am a kind and genuine person who stayed true to his own musical voice, gave much effort to the work I produced and did it all for the love of the music. I really think of the music itself as being an entity, and we are just vessels pushing it along. I’m happy to carry it for a time myself.
Stream of Conscious Questions
Answer the first thing that pops in your head – This is a new thing I am gonna add to the interviews just for fun.
NATE: Hometown and childhood memories, comfortable indoors while hibernating and warm.
NATE: Barefoot in the grass on a summer day.
NATE: The food of choice for a Friday night, either on tour after the show or watching a movie with my wife and sharing a bottle of wine.
NATE: The dense forests of Minnesota. Campfires, and forest retreats. The family cabin and parks are still like cathedrals to me.
NATE: Is a river that starts and ends in vastness. The short while we are condensed into this body is a blessing and I hope to get better at appreciating that with mindful awareness and tolerance toward others.
For more information on Pert Near Sandstone visit:
Special thanks to Nate Sipe from Pert Near Sandstone for taking the time to do this interview. Hope to see you at Blue Ox next year or “On the Road“! – Sandi Millar
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I don’t recall the first song I wrote, but the first that was recorded with Pert Near Sandstone is “Rounder’s Blues.” One of the lines is: “I used to think of you like a jackass thinks of clover. If I were to lose you I’d search this wide world over.” Ha, that’s good stuff!