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Cavalcade of Strings Takes on Hip-Hop
Portland Cello Project’s leader, Doug Jenkins, recently spoke with Performer about his group’s mission to blur genre boundaries and introduce new types of music to different audiences. A sight to behold, PCP’s stage show often features up to 12 cellos performing at once, and with a repertoire of nearly 1,000 pieces, there’s no shortage of styles or random pop songs you might hear at one of their concerts.
As the band so perfectly summarizes:
“The Cello Project’s mission is three-fold:
1. To bring the cello to places you wouldn’t normally hear it.
2. To play music on the cello you wouldn’t normally hear played on the instrument. Everything from Beethoven to Kanye West to Pantera.
3. To build bridges across all musical communities by bringing a diverse assortment of musical collaborators on stage.”
On the group’s origin, Jenkins has this to offer: “It was kind of a random thing. A bunch of cellists moved to Portland about five or six years ago who all played different kinds of music. We’re all classically trained but we all played different kinds of music, from folk to rock. One day we were like, ‘Lets play in bars,’ which wasn’t an original idea, but it was fun, and then we thought, ‘This will never happen again, we’re done,’ but eventually for whatever reason we booked another show and took to inviting our friends on stage with us. Our first funny arrangement was one that I did of Brittany Spears’ ‘Toxic.’ It caught on and just kind of evolved to what it is today.” And so our interview begins…
You say one of the goals is to foster collaboration and I think that people might have the misconception that it’s ‘all cello, all the time.’
Yeah, absolutely. There have just been so many wonderful things we’ve done with other musicians. We just played the other day with Jennifer Holliday, who’s a Broadway singer from the original cast of Dreamgirls, and that was just an amazing thing, completely outside of what any of us had done stylistically. We’ve played with a lot of folk musicians in Portland. We’ve done some heavy metal collaborations up in Seattle. We went on tour with [guitar virtuoso] Buckethead. That was something else.
Does the bucket ever come off of Buckethead or is that a permanent fixture?
The bucket came off… But the mask, I never saw him without the mask! I mean, we went on tour with this guy, and I still know nothing about him. I was like, ‘Man, all my mysteries are going to be solved.’ I remember reading about him in Guitar Player when I was a kid, and I was like ‘Yeah, I’m going to learn about Buckethead!’ but no, I don’t know anything. I have no gossip, nothing.
Buckethead is very much the prototypical guitar shredder. How do you collaborate, as a group of cellists, with that style?
I usually write the majority of the arrangements for the group and it’s been really eye opening. People talk about music as the universal language or whatever, and it is and it isn’t. If you open your mind to what’s going on inside the music, any kind of music – whether it be heavy metal, classical, hip-hop, Broadway, whatever – there’s always something in there that’s inspired and human, and I think that’s really how all the collaborations work. You have to find that human connection, that inspired connection, and bring it out.
On mastering the cello: “It’s my taskmaster. Something that I will never master completely, and I don’t think anybody does, which is kind of what’s so cool about it.”
Do you have a stable line-up now?
It’s still a rotating cast. There’s definitely a kind of core group that tours. But for the most part it’s still a rotating cast. And it depends, too, on the type of stage we’re playing on. I mean, some stages we’ll fit six or eight cellos on there but otherwise, if we’ve got space for ten or twelve we’ll do that. And increasingly there’s more than just cellos on stage. We’ve almost always got at least one percussionist, usually two.
How do you recruit members?
Most people come to us, and there’s no audition process of anything. It’s pretty much just…you either can do it or you can’t. You’ve gotta be a really strong reader because we don’t have that many rehearsals. Even though we’re not playing all that much classical music, you’ve gotta be classically trained to play the pieces. Because technically you just won’t be able to do it, otherwise. Some of the stuff is just difficult and that’s the nature of the cello.
I’ve played cello and I can definitely attest to the fact that it’s not the easiest instrument to pick up and learn, especially intonation-wise, for people like me who are used to playing fretted instruments.
Yeah, it’s my taskmaster. Something that I will never master completely, and I don’t think anybody does, which is kind of what’s so cool about it.
How do you choose a setlist?
I guess my goal is to kind of confuse the audience. [Laughs] That gives me the most entertainment in choosing stuff. Like, obviously Pantera should follow Bach, stuff like that.
Well, obviously Pantera follows Bach.
Yeah, I mean that’s kind of the idea. Just find a lot of really wonderful music and put it together in a way so the audience will never be bored and will hopefully be inspired.
So is that how a typical live show unfolds? You perform a number of different selections from varying genres, or would you have a theme for the night?
It depends on the show. For the most part almost every show has a big variety. Occasionally we’ll do a theme show, but usually it’s a big variety.
How is it touring with group of this size? Or do you not travel that much with the entire ensemble?
Well, we travel with about eight to ten people. Depends. Sometimes we need two vans. On this next tour we’re gonna have, we have eight… well, gosh, how technical do you want me to get?
Get into it. Our readers are musicians, so feel free…
It’s pretty cool, actually, because cellos are pretty light and you can stack them pretty tall in the van. So we have one more bench seat than most vans have and we have a trailer thing that’s really cool, it hangs on the trailer hitch but doesn’t have wheels so it extends our 25-passenger van quite a bit.
On collaborating with non-classical musicians: “If you open your mind to what’s going on inside the music…there’s always something in there that’s inspired and human, and I think that’s really how collaborations work. You have to find that human connection and bring it out.”
For the most part, you guys don’t have to lug around PA equipment and amplifiers, right?
No, not at all. We don’t have much to bring. Our percussionist has the biggest stuff and even that’s not that big of a deal, like there’s no 4×12 cabinets or anything.
Would you mind getting into the recording process a little bit?
Yeah. I own and run a recording studio here in Portland, which helps immeasurably. It’s always been so different, and the last record was an interesting process. I finished recording it about a year ago and hated it. I took everything that we did and threw it out except for one song. And then we re-recorded it in a week and we were much happier. And I think that process the second time was a lot different from the first in that we got the percussionists all in the same room at the same time, rather than multi-tracking things.
We just tried to make everything really wild. And that seemed to be the key. And then the cellists really reacted to that when they went in to do their parts. It was really a lot of fun because of all the extra energy. And we did the percussion in about three hours and the rest of the record in a week. So it had taken months to do before, then we threw it all away and ended up just doing it again in a week, with much better results.
Will you all record in the same room or are you tracking one-by-one?
Oh no, they’ll just do small ensembles at a time. Usually three or four at a time.
So let’s talk about the record that I’ve got in front of me, Homage, which is a collection of hip-hop tracks. What was the genesis behind that?
Hip-hop has always been something that we’ve wanted to do, but we had difficulties, which is probably why we had to throw out the record the first time we recorded it. As you can imagine, it’s difficult for a group like ours to do hip-hop. It’s the most vibrant American art form right now; so relevant and so important but so hard to get it away from the words. You know?
Yeah, that’s what I was gonna ask about next…
That’s been the challenge and the motivation: ‘Let’s see if we can do it.’ And through a lot of trial and error we ended up with the record we’ve got.
Because it’s such a lyrical genre, what sorts of things would you do to compensate for that, being that this is all instrumental?
The most important thing was the song choices. They had to be songs that were pretty epically produced and had multiple sections to them. Had bridges. Had actual bridges- a lot of hip-hop thinks it has bridges and it doesn’t. It has actual growth to it, has actual development through it and stuff like that. That was a big part of it, and then the other part of it was just respecting the rhythm of the vocals – because they can be so hypnotic and so important. When we do them live everybody takes a different solo part and does the vocal line on it. So, I guess those are the two things; how they’re produced, if they’re produced with a lot of layers to them, and the rhythm of the vocals.
Is there a genre that you guys haven’t covered yet that you want to tackle?
Bluegrass could be really interesting if we could get the classically trained cellists to do improvisation. It’s the improv stuff that’s so difficult for the group, but that might be something to hit at some point. And every time we’ve been down in New Orleans we’ve wanted to do something with those rhythms, too.
What can non-classical musicians can learn from this sort of project?
If there’s something I’ve learned that I wished I had learned before working with this group, it would be to never hesitate to reach out across the aisle to other musicians and other types of audiences. Being classically trained and playing so much classical music in my life, there’s such a feeling of a curtain in front of the stage – where you don’t really communicate with the audience. You don’t really connect with them. They have to reach across the aisle to you. But with this group, the strength and the most enjoyable thing about it is reaching back across the other way, not expecting people to come to you, but for you to go to the people. Because music is communication, you know? Music is a form of communication and that goes two ways.
Do you find that non-classical musicians who you want to collaborate with or even audiences might be a little intimidated by the group?
Yes, or apprehensive at least. We see that a lot, and we try to immediately break down that boundary in the beginning. ‘You’re not gonna get looked at funny if you clap between the movements or spill your beer during the show.’ You know what I mean? That’s kind of the feeling right away. People associate classical music with something that’s not for them, or something that’s just for certain types of people. And that’s the thing to break down.
Photos by Jason Quigley