David Howley, 29, carries a huge responsibility on his shoulders as the vocalist and guitarist for We Banjo 3, the first independent Irish band to top Billboard’s World Music charts with its recent album, "String Theory."
Howley, who looks like a young Brad Pitt, formed We Banjo 3 nearly eight years ago in Galway, Ireland, with his brother, Martin, and another set of brothers, Enda and Fergal Scahill. Utilizing their formidable skills on banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar, the quartet fused traditional Irish melodies with American bluegrass to create a distinctive sound unlike that of any other Irish band to date.
We Banjo 3 played their first show in the United States in 2012 at Milwaukee’s Irish Fest. Over the course of that weekend, Howley, then 21, was amazed at the way Milwaukee fans embraced the then-unknown band with enthusiasm and love. Since that time, We Banjo 3 released four critically acclaimed albums and returned to Irish Fest each August. This year is no different, with the band appearing at Irish Fest’s main stage on Thursday, Aug. 16 and Friday, Aug. 17 in support of their newest album, "Haven," released on July 27.
Howley spoke with OnMilwaukee about the band’s amazing journey and their affection for the city that launched their popularity in America.
OnMilwaukee: We Banjo 3 has steadily risen in popularity around the world since the four of you formed the band. There’s a lot of Irish music out there. What makes your group so appealing?
David Howley: There are many bands making Irish music, as you say, and a lot of them are excellent. We don’t really think about any of that too much, though, because from the beginning, we never tried to take ourselves too seriously. That’s not to say we aren’t serious about the music we make, but our goal was always to have fun. That’s it.
The audiences seem to pick up on that vibe.
They do, and that’s what makes playing shows to live audiences just that much more satisfying. We don’t play music for people; we play it with them. For an hour or two, we create a space that’s safe to dance like no one’s watching or sing along with us in Irish. The band and the audience go on a journey together. That’s important to us, and it’s why what we do is so rewarding.
And the four of you make a point of meetings audiences after the shows.
We do. It’s great to connect with people who love the music, shake their hands or sign an autograph. We’ve reached the point where we know some people because we’ve met them several times before. For example, there’s a woman named Heather who will turn up at a show in Reno or Chicago, and I’ll say, "Heather, what are you doing here!" She’s not a groupie or a crazy person. She’s really cool, and she loves the music. She travels a lot, and sometimes our paths will cross.
You’re at the point now where you’re playing several shows in August at Irish Fest, and then you come back to Milwaukee in March for a St. Patrick’s celebration. There’s not many bands that can do that without wearing out their welcome.
First of all, we have a very, very special relationship with the people of Milwaukee. When we first played Irish Fest in 2012, no one knew who we were, and I think we drew 10 or 12 people to the first performance. But there were 25 at the next show and 50 at the next. By the time we played our final show, the tent was packed, and people moved the tables and chairs out of the way so more people could get in! Of course we were thrilled because these were our first shows in the States.
When we returned the following year, people were ready for us! Last year, we were booked at Turner Hall for a March show, but the tickets sold so fast that they moved us to The Pabst Theater.
As to why we can play in Milwaukee so often, I think, is because we never play the same show twice. Our set list is constantly evolving and people are always going to hear something new. On this tour, we’ll be performing several brand new songs from "Haven," which was just released a few weeks ago. We Banjo 3 is composed of four very creative, independent-minded musicians, but we all agree it’s critical we don’t become complacent. Everyone in this band works very hard to assure that doesn’t happen.
I’ve watched a number of your concert videos, and there is something incendiary about how We Banjo 3 plays music. How can you achieve that energy and sound onstage without a bass player or drummer?
That’s funny you’d use the word "incendiary" to describe us, because we think our music is played with a pyrotechnic style! It seems simple enough, but there’s a great deal of fine detail coming from each person’s instrument. It’s almost like we have three lead guitar players when the banjo, fiddle and mandolin are all playing in sync!
As for the lack of bass and drums, thanks for asking that. It’s true we don’t use those instruments, but we achieve a powerful rhythmic undercurrent in two ways. I tune the bass strings on my guitar down low so I can play chords on the upper strings while plucking the bass notes on the lower strings. We also have a set of stomp boxes, which produce a kick drum sound when stepped on. I have one and Fergal has one. There’s the drum beats!
There’s a stereotype that traditional Irish music is sad, even maudlin at times – "The Long, Black Veil," songs like that. But We Banjo 3 is some of the happiest music being made right now.
You’re right about the sad songs, but a lot of those have survived because they were sung by Irish immigrants to America. African people sang sad songs when they arrived in America and those songs became the blues. Traditional Irish music that’s played in Ireland speaks to joyous memories, art and culture. The music is intended to raise a person’s spirit. The banjo came to America on the immigrant ships. It was played because it helped more people survive the journey. A similar version of the banjo also came on the African ships.
Finally, can you talk about playing for President Obama?
As you might imagine, it was a very special experience. The Irish people loved Barack Obama because he visited Ireland several times and spoke to them in a way that was very compassionate and understanding. After we played for him in Washington, he shook our hands and told us we were fantastic! I was so excited to meet him, and without thinking, I said, ‘Thanks very much, man." Afterward, the other guys were laughing, saying, "Do you realize you just called the President of the United States 'man'?"