Yesterday I had the undeniable pleasure of sitting down, in a noisy Weaver Street Market, with the three guys who make up fast-rising North Carolina Americana band Mipso Trio. Joseph Terrell, Jacob Sharp, and Wood Robinson will be headlining at the Cradle on Saturday night, with Overmountain Men and Jim Avett. (Details: Saturday 1/14, doors 8PM and show 8:30PM, $8/$10.) I caught Mipso play a wild and unrestrained set to a packed crowd back in October in Shakori, and it was a genuine delight to get to ask a band, in their early days, where they’ve been and where they’re going. All three of the Mipso guys are terrifically charming and funny, in addition to being great musicians, and I had a blast chatting with them and with their manager, Mitch Collman.
If you can’t make the Cradle — like I can’t — you can catch Mipso on WUNC’s the State of Things tomorrow; the band will be on about 12:40. And without further ado (this was a lot of ado), Mipso Trio on majoring in impractical things, writing their new album, why kids’ records are great, and the best place to eat in Chapel Hill after midnight.
bnko: So I was going to ask … y’all met at Carolina, and you said something about classes. Are you still at Carolina?
Joseph Terrell: We’re still at Carolina.
bnko: How did you meet? Are you all in the same department? Are you all in the music department?
JT: I’m a minor, that counts. Wood’s a jazz student. We (Joseph & Jacob) met on a college visit trip, actually, and played music, we had instruments with us.
Jacob Sharp: When we were seventeen. Reunited for, I guess, a year.
JT: I took a year off, he took a year off. It took us a long time. Our time, respectively, off — I was in a band with Wood.
bnko: What band were you playing in before?
JT: We were playing in a band I guarantee you never heard of. It was a fun party band. We were playing electric fun stuff.
Wood Robinson: Just a lot of covers.
JT: But it introduced me musically to Wood.
bnko: So you’re jazz, and you’re a music minor. What are you doing?
JS: I do geography and international studies.
bnko: Very cool. Only practical one in the group.
JS: Thank you.
JT: And my major’s religious studies, so that’s not practical at all.
WR: Environmental science.
JT: That’s a good one. That’s the best.
bnko: That may be the most practical. But ultimately, if you guys, gun to your head, would you pick the musical life? If you could guarantee that you could make your living on the road as a band, is that what you would rather do than what you’re taking classes in?
WR: Yes. For me.
JT: I can’t imagine doing anything better than what I have the most fun doing.
JS: If it continues to be as fun and rewarding as it’s been thus far, why would you ever do anything else?
WR: The scary thing about making your job music is music becomes a job.
bnko: I could say the same thing about photography. How do you keep the passion in it?
JT: Do you love your job?
bnko: Well, I have a day job.
JT: You love one of your jobs, at least!
bnko: I guess I tolerate the other job. It pays the bills. And it lets me do what I want to do. It sounds like you guys are still having fun. It looked like you were having fun at Shakori.
JT: It was awesome. Really fun show.
bnko: I love the EP. Heidi told me I could get it from the website, and I can’t stop listening to it. It’s so spare, musically, which really surprised me. Your sound live was just huge. How do you reconcile the differences between how you feel playing live on stage and how you guys recorded that?
JT: One thing is that we’ve grown a lot since that. And we’re still growing, as musicians and a band. And learning a lot. And we do that, our sound changes and develops. But we still have that quiet, intimate side that comes out in the record. Sparse, like you said.
bnko: Do you have something new? Are you getting ready to put something out?
JS: We spent a lot of our winter break recording a new album, in Winston-Salem, at EMRR Studios — Electromagnetic Radiation Recorders — and had a great time. Pretty pleased with some of that. It will come out, but it won’t be out for another couple months, probably.
bnko: So it’s not done yet.
JS: We’ve got another couple days to touch some stuff up, and then production.
bnko: Do you guys write together? Is someone the primary lyricist, the primary songwriter? How do you put the music together, especially the three of you who are so talented musically — you’re all such strong players. How do you work out the arranging?
JT: The one we’re just finishing up recording has songs from all of us, and all of the ones that are primarily from one of us have been through the brain of the others. I think they were arranged as a whole, but usually the meat of one song will come from one person and come to the group to finish it up.
WR: Chords and lyrics come from one person, and then it’s like, single songwriter plays and we each have our own idea of how we can play it as a group, how it would sound with three instruments, three voices.
bnko: That makes a lot of sense.
JS: They’re born separately, but live because of the three of us, I would say. Nothing I’m writing would be that great if it didn’t have these guys’ fingeprints all over it.
bnko: That’s very cool. I really like that idea.
JT: In a lot of that, what one of us might bring to the group ends up sounding really different by the time we finish .
bnko: Do any of you ever bring anything in where, ultimately, you go, you know, this song isn’t necessarily for Mipso?
JT: Yeah, that’s happened.
JS: I don’t write enough for that to happen.
bnko: When you bring them, you know they’re good.
JT: The joke is that I’m also working on a children’s album on the side, so my songs might fit better on a children’s album. So one day, maybe 2013, you’ll see my children’s album.
bnko: There’s nothing wrong with that! Some of my favorite albums in the world are kid’s albums. Peter Paul and Mommy. I own it on vinyl and still listen to it.
JT: Not for kids only.
WR: Medeski, Martin and Wood put out a fantastic children’s album.
JT: That’s only half serious, but most of the stuff we do is serious.
JS: It’s probably worth nothing that the EP came from more separate sources than this album did. I think this one is a much more accurate portrayal of what we are now. Because that one was before we started gigging, and knowing each other …
bnko: And that’s what Joseph said, you’re still growing as a band, and you guys have only been together in this incarnation for a year, right? And — you’re headlining the Cradle on Saturday night. That’s more than a lot of Triangle bands get to do in their entire lifetimes. How do you guys feel about that? Are you all from North Carolina originally?
bnko: So is that a big deal on a something you’ve always wanted scale, or just something that happened?
JS: It can be a mix of both. I never really seriously thought I’d be playing music as well as we’ve been playing it, and as frequently as we’ve been playing it, and so I certainly didn’t have any ambitions of playing music on stage at the Cradle. But now that we have been doing it, as surreal as it is, it feels kind of natural within this year. So that’s a cool progression, I guess. But it’s still totally bizarre. I’ve seen all my favorite artists there, so to be sharing a little piece of that history is something that has been keeping me up at night for a while, just getting too excited.
bnko: I think you guys are going to be fine. You owned that crowd at Shakori, and that was a big crowd. The stuff I’ve read about you guys, you get compared to the Avett Brothers. I mean, it’s a logical comparison — a trio, the acoustic roots, the really literate songwriting. Does it bother you? Is there somebody that you guys would rather be compared to, or would you just rather be yourselves?
JS: I think any comparison is an honor because it shows that you’re being compared to people who are also great and who have done cool things, and so in that regard, it’s nice to know that someone has to listen to you before they can compare you, so that’s nice.
JT: Jacob has been a really big Avett Brothers fan for a really long time, and for whatever reason, the circles I hung out with and what I ended up listening to and what my influences were, I never really listened to the Avett Brothers. So it surprised me when we were compared to them. But I get it. I get what the similarities are, at least on paper. I think we’re really different in a lot of ways, too.
bnko: I think you are as well. Composition — I see it in the comparison of the composition.
JS: But they’ve done a lot of things well. I’m humbled by the comparison to someone who’s done really well.
bnko: And Jim, of course, is playing with you guys on Saturday night, and his stuff sounds nothing like what his boys write. At all. Although the first time I met him, I looked at him and I said, that’s what Seth’s going to look like in 30 years.
So if you’re still in school, you’re probably playing out a lot but not touring much? Did you tour over the summer? Have you been out of North Carolina or the Southeast much?
JT: We haven’t. I think it’s been a good thing. We’ve been focusing on keeping it local and making that good before we try to stretch ourselves too far. Because North Carolina’s our home, and Chapel Hill’s our home first and foremost, and we want to be strong here. Grow in concentric circles.
Mitch Collman: School is the primary responsibility.
JT: We don’t want to flunk out.
bnko: I know you guys have gotten a lot of support from the Carolina community, because you’ve played on campus a couple of times.
JT: We have.
bnko: Is any of that — is being in school while you’re trying to build this, besides the touring and the school coming first — that question ran away from me. I thought I knew where it ended, but apparently not.
JT: I know what you mean.
MC: Is there support that comes from being a student?
bnko: Yes, thank you. That’s where I was going with that. Do you find that there’s a level of support that you might not have if you weren’t in school, or you weren’t all in school at the same time?
WR: It’s definitely very important, because Carolina in itself is a very homey community, where there’s a link between Carolina students that a lot of other schools just don’t have at all. It’s a very home state, home school mentality, and in doing so, you see another Carolina student doing well, and you say, yeah, that’s awesome, I love to see that. So you support them, and I think we’ve really benefited from that mentality.
JS: A lot.
bnko: I’ve got some questions that I ask everybody, so one of you can answer, all of you can give me answers, whichever you want. Where’s the best place for late night food in Chapel Hill?
WR: Cosmic Cantina.
JT: In Chapel Hill specifically? Cosmic Cantina.
bnko: Me too. Favorite place.
JS: Like probably the best food anytime.
bnko: How do you guys take your hash browns at Waffle House? Do you have a specific order, or do you just get ’em, you know, hash browns?
WR: I usually just order hash browns. I didn’t realize there were different ways to get your hash browns!
bnko: Oh, yeah. Scattered, smothered, covered, topped.
JS: The peppers and cheese is what I do. I don’t remember what the terminology is.
bnko: I can’t either. I don’t eat hash browns much. But that’s a fun question to ask Southerners, everybody has an opinion. I want to wrap up with this one; if you guys had a time machine, and you could use it to go back in time to see one show, that you missed, either because you weren’t born, or you just didn’t get there, or anything. If you could see one, or one band, what would it be?
JT: Ah, that’s an awesome question.
WR: Bill Evans, live at the Village Vanguard.
bnko: That’s a good one, that’s one I haven’t gotten yet.
JT: Young Dylan, early ’60s, Cafe Wa, Greenwich Village. Classic.
JS: Flatt and Scruggs, Japan, 1969.
bnko: Wow. Man, you guys just blew my mind. Those are all three fantastic. Thank you so much.