Interview with Tribecastan: Hiding Out In A 5 Star Cave

“This is wild, colorful, exotic music, but it’s important you could dance to it,” Tribecastan multi-instrumentalist John Kruth reveals when defining his musical collaboration with fellow ethnomusicologist, Jeff Greene. While globetrotting aesthete, Greene, reveals a game Middle Eastern influence, native New Yorker, Kruth, flaunts long-time underground notoriety, spending ’86 to ’95 in Milwaukee, mostly with post-punk legends, the Violent Femmes. In fact, just today Kruth was jamming with harmolodic jazz pioneer, Ornette Coleman. The Meat Puppets have dubbed him “The Swiss Army Knife of Rock and Roll” for playing so many odd instruments. And he has played alongside a wide array of popular artists including Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, the Fugs, and now, King Missile.

Meeting at a Soho Labor Day jug band party at Greene’s house, where Kruth brought along a mandolin, they hit it off and ultimately began diminutive experimental troupe, Tribecastan. Their impressive ’09 debut, Strange Cousin, explored profound ethno-folk melodies emanating from the Balkans to Africa. Kruth’s deep-toned Twilight Zone alto flute and several hard-to-find relics Greene manipulates guide the “Ancient Future Music” they oft-times compose for an extended nine-piece Tribecastani Folklorkestra.

A year on, Tribecastan’s back with prestigious trombonist, Steve Turre, renowned blues-rock organist, Al Kooper, and esteemed James Blood Ulmer violinist, Charlie Burnham, for the slightly redirected marvel, 5 Star Cave. Though still enamored with foreign musical objects and faraway cultures, Kruth-Greene’s cultured clan lean less on Middle Eastern tendencies and more on stormy Anglo-American rock beats juxtaposing domesticated anodyne retreats. Taking its album title from their rehearsal space (though Greene jokingly snips, “It’s where Osama Bin Laden’s hanging out”), 5 Star Cave unearths several newly cleared rustic trails.

Invigorated by a Croatian trip, Kruth’s “Back When Tito Had Two Legs” takes the dribbled Violent Femmes bass from “Gone Daddy Gone” on an enticingly extrinsic journey cross-pollinating American folk with gypsy dulcimer (piano-like) cymbalam, marimba, and sirud. While studying chromatics in India, Greene was stifled by the comatose morphine-zonked infants, inspiring swampy post-rock jam, “Stoned Baby,” a skronk-y number sung by Be Good Tanyas’ string-picking Sam Parton. Capturing its local market atmosphere, “Kabul Hill” messes with a traditional Afghan melody and seeks to prove the road to peace, as Harry Belafonte once claimed, is learning rival warring factions’ music. And slow-paced creeper “Starry Stari Grad” conveys an Old Town Pakistan-flavored villagers lament.

But Tribecastan doesn’t have to stray far from Manhattan Island to feel inspired. Deliberately paced mandolin-laced homage “Hemlock Falls” reflects back to a Jersey site where Kruth’s mother’s ashes got spread and kids smoked joints or stole first kisses. Parton’s sultry hush-toned yearning embraces heartfelt Country standard, “Wildwood Flower.” And “Juni’s Calypso,” a pan-cultural Afri-Caribbean funk stomp, usurps Ornette Coleman’s indigene Prime Time styling. Then again, dreamy metal-plunked spiritual, “He Hears The Ants,” interlocks racketing Arabic rhythms with Indonesian gamelan and shows very little American influence.

You’ve claimed to be striving for the sound of jazz musicians playing with folk elements.

Jeff: The jazz musicians were doing that in the ‘50s and ‘60s whether it was Don Cherry going to Mali. He was hearing those sounds and bringing it back to the States and running them through his urban filter—which we do. Our cover of ‘Mopti’ reflects a Malian town. In New York, you can hear music from anywhere in the world.

John: A lot of the World musicians are actually here. That’s the irony of the World Music market and its handle. Many live in Brooklyn.

Jeff: In the World Music scene, you’re not accepted if you’re from America. Yet the music’s evolution’s here.

You truly bend the likeness of AP Carter’s Country standard, ‘Wildwood Flower.’

John: Some traditionalists may think it’s awful.

Jeff: It’s like a tone poem with the banjo answering the singer. It’s a totally different take. You hear it at old timey bluegrass shows.

John: We thought, ‘What if we take it to the Elysian Fields of William Blake and let the poppies get you sleeping.’

‘A New Foot,’ on the other hand, never gets too far from its folk roots with Appalachian banjo, raspy harmonica, and wailing Jew’s harp.

Jeff: That’s Kenny—doing his Cajun thing. He’s got the great washboard rhythm.

John: It’s amazing. The banjo’s a real funky footstomping instrument that could be used over a rock beat. But that rarely happens. So we put ‘extra’ stomp.

Jeff: Banjo and Jew’s harp are made for one another. The overtones have a certain timbre.

John: Also, I have to make an advertisement for Led Zeppelin III being the greatest album. Jimmy Page is drawing from Scottish traditional music and blues, bringing it together as Afro-Celtic music. It’s not one of Zeppelin’s most popular albums. They use banjo with 12-string guitar on Leadbelly’s ‘Gallows Pole.’ Page’s influences from Pentangle to Incredible String Band come forward. Yet at the same time he’s sharing old blues influences in a tremendous way. Great kick-ass energy with layers of tonalities.

Another pseudo-Appalachian tune, hillbilly-bent bird-chirped novelty, ‘Little Grasshopper,’ features a long-necked two-string lute-like Persian doutar.

Jeff: It sounds like a mountain dulcimer melody. I added a Jew’s harp and then it breaks into a low D whistle flute.

John: It was nice to open it up. The other tunes rock hard so that’s a palate cleanser and a bit of fresh air.

…And it readies you for the ‘Winchester Cathedral’ fluting and Jimmy Smith-styled organ of ‘Baja.’

John: That’s legend Al Kooper on organ, one of my heroes. I got to know him. That song comes out of the early ‘60s Nat Adderley/Herbie Mann beatnik jazz thing.

‘Ghetto Garbo’s’ title is borrowed from blind tenor sax progenitor, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

John: The accordion, since I have a more rock-orientation, almost quotes King Crimson’s ‘Court Of The Crimson King.’But I love all music—Yugoslavian Village music.

Jeff: The interesting thing about John is he’s written two books (award-winning Rahsaan Roland Kirk bio and Townes Van Zandt tome) and teaches rock history and modern American music. Meanwhile, I listen to traditional African/Central Asian field recordings. It’s an odd yin and yang balance.

John: The first LP, we went in the studio with a premise of doing Tribeca field recordings. But once I get going, I put this on top of that, and it loses the field recording feel.

Malian pop knockoff ‘From Bamako To Malibu’ benefits from jungle percussion.

Jeff: In the beginning, it’s all mouth percussion, yodeling. Ali Farka Toure was from Mali capitol, Bamako. Ry Cooder lives in Malibu. It’s about how they met up and did the beautiful Talkin’ Timbuktu. Here’s their journey.

The fastidious ‘Varaja’s Boogie’ has a zither-like keyboard.

John: That’s a crazy green Royal Benju from India. It has typewriter keys. That guitar-shredding sound’s the benju. I’m holding it on the back of our first album. The ending funk breakdown is all-acoustic. Varaja, by the way, is a blue boar that fought a Brian Jones-looking outer-space demon from thousands of years ago that plunged into an eternal sea of oil. Varaja pulls the earth out of the sea of oil, tosses it into space, pounds the guy in the face, and catches earth before it hits the ocean. He saved the world from drowning in oil. Wish he’d show up now and save our souls. (hardy laughter)

Catch Tribecastan May 8 at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.