Milwaukee may be a long way from We Banjo 3’s native Galway – only a casual 3,510 miles – but for the popular Irish band, it feels like home.
Comprised of two sets of brothers – Martin and David Howley, Enda and Fergal Scahill, the latter serving as the fiddle-focused fourth member of We Banjo 3 – the strummers made their first sounds in America as a band right here in Brew City, performing at Irish Fest in the summer of 2012, as well as give their first radio interview as a band at Milwaukee’s own WUWM. It was a warm introduction that would quickly spark into a fond friendship between the group and the city.
The two have been inseparable ever since – or, at least, as inseparable as a band can be to a city a whole ocean away from its home – with We Banjo 3 making its return to the place it first planted its flag in the U.S. every year, its stage and crowd growing each time. But thankfully the band couldn’t wait all the way until August again, so the duo of brotherly duos will make an early tour stop this Friday at The Pabst Theater. Before they take the stage, we got to chat with Martin Howley about the band’s – and his own – special relationship with Milwaukee, their upcoming show, their new album and which of these Galway guys is the best gamer while stuck on the road.
OnMilwaukee: Milwaukee has quite a place in this band’s history. What was that first experience here like?
Martin Howley: Incredible! At this stage, it’s hard to look at any other place in the U.S. in the same vein as Milwaukee. It’s so important to us, and the people of Milwaukee have done so much for us.
I suppose it helps that there’s this huge Irish Fest in Milwaukee. We went over to play at that in 2012, and you have to hand it to the director of the Irish Fest. They just see potential, they help realize it and they’ve been instrumental in our success in the U.S. They gave us our launch pad, which was phenomenal, and we basically went from there.
The first weekend we’d ever been in the U.S. was the Milwaukee Irish Fest. We played seven gigs over three days, and we started off in this tiny little tent, with maybe 200 people. By the end of that weekend, we were playing for 2,000 in the same 200-person tent. It was just packed, and there was a great big thunderstorm on the Sunday – just one of those opened-from-the-heavens Midwest thunderstorms – and everyone had to crowd in underneath the tent. It was one of those things that everybody came together in that moment. It was magic.
You’ve said that you have plans for Irish Fest years in advance?
Yeah, I guess it’s become a yearly event for us to come back to Irish Fest, so we like to bring back something different, something bigger. So we’ll have a choir or we’ll change it up and have a brass section. We’ve had a brass section the past two years. Last year, we did a huge Beatles tribute with some friends of ours from Scotland. That was Barry Stapleton’s brainchild, one of the directors of the Irish Fest. He said it was 50 years of "Sgt. Pepper" and the Beatles, so why don’t we do a Beatles tribute? So we did a Beatles greatest hits hour and had people from every other performing act come up and sing a Beatles song. That was phenomenal.
Any chance you can tell me what you’re cooking up for this year?
It’s still in the early stages of planning, but I will say just as a little hint: ’80s music is making a comeback on the banjo.
Speaking of the banjo, three seems like such an unconventional fit. How were those early days of parsing the band out and figuring out how those parts would fit together?
We started because my brother David and I were big friends with Enda for a long time, and we all loved the sound that the banjo has. We’re all multi-instrumentalists, but the band was centered around the banjo in its early stages and then broadened out. It was Milwaukee, in fact, when we became a four-piece. Fergal joined us for Milwaukee Irish Fest, and it worked so well that we just said, "Let’s do this as a full-time thing."
Honestly, the band started in pretty humble roots. We just loved playing together. We never figured it would be a full-time career option. Three banjos: It doesn’t sound commercial. But people loved the name and loved the fun of it, and they supported us. It’s amazing the support we had and still have. You look at it some days and you scratch your head. I’m so lucky that so many people are behind us. Without the fans that come out and buy tickets and support the music, there’d be nothing. We’re very grateful for that.
Especially in Milwaukee, where playing The Pabst for us is a huge deal because that’s one of the best venues in the U.S. So to have a draw in Milwaukee and to have people come out to see the show, I think it’s going to be a pretty magic night.
When you’re in Milwaukee, are there any places that you have to hit while you’re in town?
Oh yeah, definitely. A very important place for us is St. Paul’s Fish Market. We eat out on the deck there rain, sleet or shine. We have friends there that look out for us. Best bite of fish in the Midwest, we reckon, so we get up there whenever we can. And we love Colectivo coffee. I had my first date with my future wife – my wife now – in a Colectivo coffee shop. It’s very warm and dear to my heart.
Yeah! We were sitting outside the Colectivo in the Third Ward. That was our first date. So it’s a pretty cool spot.
Wow, I’m glad to hear Milwaukee’s been so good to you guys.
Yeah, Milwaukee’s great. That’s the funny thing: People from Ireland know Milwaukee growing up. Even though it’s not a city the size of maybe Chicago or New York, people know it on that level because it’s so deeply connected with the Irish. Milwaukee people are celebrities in Ireland.
You guys have your signature "Celtgrass" style, mixing Celtic inspirations with bluegrass. Are there any Americana or bluegrass songs that you’ve always wanted to arrange in that style and they just haven’t come up yet or they just didn’t work out?
For sure! We always have stuff cooking. We were driving yesterday – we drove from Boston to D.C., so a long drive – and we were listening to old records that we’d stored online and listened for ones that we’d like to maybe cover during sound checks and see how they sound like.
But we’re bringing out a new album in June or July, and it’s actually all self-penned. I think we’ve just gone through a really good period of creativity where we’ve written a lot of new material ourselves. We originally set out just to make the best album possible, and then we started looking at it and we had this theme around "haven." In this current political and social climate, I think music should be a haven for people. It should be a place where they can unwind and relax and feel safe. So we wanted to create an album around that theme, around the connectedness of music. So we looked at the songs we’d written, and we just had a great batch of stuff that we wanted to get recorded, so we’re doing a lot of original material at the moment. I guess that’s the direction it’s gone in.
But in terms of songs that we’d love to cover, we’ve been thinking about some pop covers – maybe some Justin Timberlake or Prince songs. We just watched the Super Bowl and we were like, "That’d actually be a cool song on more acoustic instruments." Just a different vibe. So I guess there’s a lot of stuff cooking!
So this new album will be mostly originals.
It’s all originals right now. We’re incredibly happy with it. It just feels like it’s very connected to the theme and the writing is very well connected, so we’re excited to see where that goes and where it takes us. We’re planning on having that out in the summer. We’ll have it in Milwaukee for Irish Fest – and we’re probably going to play a good few never-heard-before songs at the Milwaukee show at The Pabst.
You brought up touring, and I noticed you posted a photo of you guys playing Xbox while on the road. Who’s the best gamer in the group?
We’re all a pretty competitive spirit. I feel like Fergal is very good at sports games. Dave has the quickest reflexes, so he’s best at like shoot ‘em ups. When we play "Left 4 Dead" or "Call of Duty," Dave just wipes everyone out. I’m best at the strategy games, like "Age of Empires," and then I feel like Enda loves games on the Wii, because he’s got a young kid and they play lots of Nintendo games. He crushes it on Zelda and stuff like that.
Obviously St. Patrick’s Day is the following weekend, but do you have anything special planned for this upcoming show considering the season?
We do! We have some special guests and we have … I put it this way to you: It’s going to be an exciting show, and it’s going to have a lot of surprises.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.