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Jay Sanders (Acoustic Syndicate) Interview

January 22, 2015 

TS:  What do you think of today's musical world and where it is headed?

JS:  It is a very different industry when we first started out. In the past ten to fifteen years, innovations in technology have lead to a major paradigm shift. On one hand, it is more difficult to make a living due to the demise of record sales and the conversion of music from a commodity to a service. Listeners expect to stream whatever they want, whenever they want, and that's how they want it. On the other hand, technology and social media have really enabled and empowered independent artists to find and connect with an audience, and that is a really powerful thing. It makes it a lot more personal, and that has been really good for music on all levels.

TS:  Were there any musical influences in your family?  What got you started in music?

JS:  Let me answer this in the context of Acoustic Syndicate and the McMurry family. Fitz, the drummer, and Bryon, the banjo player are brothers. The guitar player Steve is their first cousin (and Bryon’s brother-in-law, but that’s another story). They grew up in a very musical family, playing and singing  in church. At a very young age, they received instruments and that’s kind of where it all started. Music has been a huge influence on all of our lives and is what ultimately lead to the formation of Acoustic Syndicate.

We all have our own individual influences. The McMurry’s were heavily impacted by artists like Pete Townshend, The Police, Little Feat, Ry Cooder, and Peter Gabriel. I personally come from a heavy jazz and classical music background. I count Bill Frisell, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and John McLaughlin among my biggest influences. Of course we all love the Grateful Dead.

TS:  Were you in a band while attending school? Did you play in High School band or...

JS:  I did. We had a couple different arrangements in high school. One thing that I really enjoyed that actually became something later in life was the Acoustic Vibration Appreciation Society. We would get together and talk about music and rock out. We used that as a catalyst to meet other like minded people and form groups and bands. I also played classical guitar in the high school orchestra.

TS:  Did you ever do anything for city or state orchestras?

JS:  No, I am more of a wildcard when it comes to composed music. I listen to classical music everyday but orchestra performance is not really my bag.

TS:  What was your first gig and how much did it pay?

JS:  I don't think we got paid. It was in high school. I grew up in Nashville, TN, so my context was a little bit different than other cities. The band was called Anthem and we played this pizza place near Vanderbilt.

TS:  How long have you been a member of Acoustic Syndicate?

JS:  I joined in 1998.

TS:  Acoustic Syndicate has been around since 1992, correct?

JS:  Yes, that is correct.

TS:  What made you and how did you join forces with Acoustic Syndicate? Where did you come into the picture?

JS:  There was this really awesome music venue in Rutherford County, North Carolina called Green Acres Music Hall. The greatest musicians in the acoustic music world used to play there back in the day. At the time I was playing with the Snake Oil Medicine Show and we used to play gigs at Green Acres. That is where I first met the McMurry family. Later Snake Oil and Acoustic Syndicate were part of an east coast package tour called Zoograss. Not soon after the tour ended I got a call that they were looking for a bass player. We have been playing music together ever since. We’re all friends for life.

TS:  What has been going on with Acoustic Syndicate?  Music/Studio...anything special going on?

JS:  We put out a record two years ago called Rooftop Garden. It was produced by Stewart Lerman and recorded at Echo Mountain here in Asheville. That was the first record we had released since 2004. I think it is a great record and I am really proud of it. We are tossing around other ideas, but haven't made any commitments just yet. Right now we just enjoying playing music and having a great time.

TS:  Do you all have more dates coming up as well?

JS:  We typically do about a dozen shows a year. We have been on that pattern for the past four or five years now. We all have families and jobs… life goes on.

TS:  What is on your playlist of musicians/bands you currently listen to?

JS:  I listen to a lot of Bill Frisell, he is my greatest musical hero, and a master of time and space. I love the Punch Brothers and am really into a relatively new band called The Lone Bellow. Mostly I listen to a whole lot of classic and freaky jazz; Ornette Coleman and Ken Vandermark are two of my favorite horn players. I also like ambient electronic music like Brian Eno, Amon Tobin, and Bonobo. My taste runs the gamut, I have a huge vinyl collection...

TS:  Actually that was a question I had for you. What is your take on the comeback of vinyl? Do you collect them?

JS:  The thing with vinyl is that it levels the sonic playing field. One of the problems with the modern music production is that everything is mastered way too loud. With vinyl, you can't do that. It is pure analog. You put a record on the turntable, lower the needle, and the physical nature of the medium requires it to be dynamic. If you try to play a record mastered at full digital commercial levels, chances are good that the needle will just leap off the platter. The return of vinyl is bringing life back to music and making it listenable again, which I love. It’s just beautiful.

TS:  Do you have any vinyls that you consider collectibles that you never play?

JS:   I have a few, but I am an actual listener. When I collect vinyl I am buying stuff I want to hear. I have a pretty wide collection that includes everything from 20’s and 30’s era blues, to classic opera recordings from the 50’s, to house DJ dance music, jazz and classic rock. I love old country music and it always sounds best on vinyl.  If I were to collect something it should probably be instruments. They are more guaranteed to hold their value over time.

TS:  Speaking of instruments, you play the bass and how do you compare your style of playing bass to others?

JS:  There are two kinds of bass players in the world. There are bass players and people who play the bass. Bass players focus on the role of the bass in the song. They are the groove players; the one’s you’ll never notice unless they are not there, then the whole thing falls apart. People who play the bass are playing the instrument. They are technical players who play lots of notes really fast and are featured prominently in the music. There is also a third group of players who are well versed in both the r0le and the instrument. I consider myself one of those. I can either lay back and play the groove or I can get right up there and play notes with the best of them.

TS:  You also have this instrument, the N/S Stick?

JS:  The N/S Stick is an 8 string, 5+ Octave multi-modal instrument that is capable of playing the role of guitar and bass at the same time. I have a band up here in Asheville called The E.Normus Trio. We are an avant-garde post-rock trio composed of N/S Stick, Contralto Clarinet, and Drums. We play really high, out there, aggressive and experimental jazz. In 2012, we released an album called Love and Barbiturates and are currently working on a series of EP releases for 2015.

TS:  Do you build and create instruments for others to play or use?

JS:  No, in my real life I run a technology consulting business, so I am more of a programming and software kind of guy. My constructions are more of the intellectual and logical nature, but I do appreciate a really good instrument. I actually collect vintage instruments.

TS:  Are there any other instruments you play besides bass?

JS:  I play a lot of electric guitar. That was actually my first instrument.

TS:  What style do you play?

JS:  Growing up, I wanted to be Jerry Garcia, now I want to be Danny Gatton.

TS:  How was it taking lessons and working with Regi Wooten?

JS:  Oh, man that was a long time ago… That was in 1995. It was super, super awesome. He really opened my mind to what is possible. He introduced the idea that music is the universe, music is spirituality, and music is this force greater than all of us that we channel from the great beyond. He taught me how to do a lot of the signature Wooten technique, but that is not really my bag. Mostly, we spent a lot of time studying musical philosophy. What I learned from Regi I will never forget. He completely changed what I knew about music, myself, and the universe. I am a much better person for it.

TS:  You have also teamed up with other great musicians along the way such as Béla Fleck and others as well through your career.

JS:  I used to play with Donna the Buffalo and we did a couple of jam session with Béla. He is one of my musical heroes. I am also profoundly influenced by the original Aquarium Rescue Unit. Recently I have had the opportunity to collaborate with Jeff Sipe. Just dipping my toes into his musical well is a lifelong dream for me. Some of the work I have done in New Orleans with Chris Jones and the 101 Runners has included gigs with Fred Wesley, Walter Wolfman Washington, Ivan Neville, June Yamagishi, Raymond Weber, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and so many others. As far as musical heroes goes, my greatest moment to date was when my good friend, the amazing NYC jazz photographer John Rogers, introduced me to Ornette Coleman. He took me up to his apartment in midtown Manhattan and we played music for a couple of hours. I’m still resonating from that one.

TS:  What is unique about the Asheville music scene compared to others you have came across?

JS:  Asheville is a small town but Asheville has an amazing audience. To have a great music scene you need to have musicians who are really good, really dedicated, and really passionate about their craft; but if you don't have an audience, you don't have a scene. Asheville has people that actually come out, listen to, and support live music.  That is a beautiful thing.

TS:  What do you think about the Raleigh music scene? Or have you been around the Raleigh music scene much lately?

JS:  The Raleigh scene is amazing. I have got a lot of good friends that are all doing great things and are really well supported by their community. I played at Crank Arm Brewery with Frank Bloom and Woody Wood last summer. Even though it was raining like crazy, a lot of people came out and we had a whole lot of fun.

TS:  I was looking at Crank Arm's instagram the other day. Are you active in social media?

JS:  I am not super active on Instagram, although I do have an account. I spend so much time working on my technology business that I tend to stay away from extra social media other than the requisite Facebook posts to keep my family up to date.

TS:  One more questions...With the Grateful Dead reunion coming up, how do you feel about the choice of Trey Anastasio playing and Bruce Hornsby to bring forth The Grateful Dead 50th?

JS:  Bruce Hornsby actually played with The Grateful Dead and his contributions back in the day were amazing. Trey Anastasio, like him or not, is one of the greatest guitar players of our time. He is one of the most fluid and best improvisers in the world, and I honestly think that he is one of the best choices they could have made. Trey will match the philosophy of what their music is all about: great songs and great explorations. Trey knows how to listen and actively participate in the creative process as it is happening. I can't speak for him, but I seriously doubt that he is shedding Jerry licks right now. Rather, he is going to bring his own style and make it part of the fabric of their music. As Brian Swenk so eloquently put it, it’s about “the notes that come out of the instrument.”  

My favorite thing that they are doing is the ticketing. Bringing back the old school mail order is awesome. It reminds me of standing in line at the post office waiting to buy money orders so I could go on Dead tour. If the number of my friends that have posted their hand drawn envelopes on their Facebook pages is any indication, they have no problem with ticket sales.

Please make it to the show if you are in town or if you haven't seen them, it will definitely be one to remember.  We appreciate once again Jay Sanders taking time to chat with us!  Check out Acoustic Syndicate at

Interview By:  Tarver Shelton w/ Jay Sanders

Photography:  Michael Weintrob(Used By Permission)

Jay Sanders of Acoustic Syndicate took time out from his schedule to chat about life as a musician, and the paths and journeys that brought him to Asheville, NC, from Nashville, TN.  

Acoustic Syndicate will be performing at the Southland Ballroom in Raleigh, NC on 1/31/2015 at 9 p.m.