Q&A with Eldridge & Lage: String Brothers


Chris Eldridge (left) and Julian Lage released the album Mount Royal in February.

(Photo: Courtesy lageeldridge.com)

They come from different musical worlds. But you’d never guess that after seeing them perform in the Krannert Center’s Foellinger Great Hall as part of this year’s ELLNORA Guitar Festival in Champaign-Urbana on the campus of the University of Illinois.

Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage appeared modest, almost solemn, standing astride the Hall’s large stage. But, in a program that included music from their new album Mount Royal (Free Dirt Records) and their previous album, Avalon (Modern Lore, 2014), the 2100-seat Hall was filled with the wondrous sounds of two musicians playing as one.

Lage has been making a name for himself in and out of the jazz world for years. Eldridge, on the other hand, remains a prominent player on the bluegrass scene, having worked with the bands Seldom Scene and the Infamous Stringdusters en route to helping to make the pan-stylistic Punch Brothers a household name. Eldridge has also become a regular in Chris Thile’s house band for the popular weekly NPR program A Prairie Home Companion.

DownBeat sat down with Lage and Eldridge for a chat downstairs at the Krannert Center shortly before their soundcheck at the ELLNORA Festival.

How did the two of you come together?

Eldridge: We were at a Punch Brothers show, and Julian had his first record where he did a couple of tracks with Thile and Béla Fleck [Sounding Point, EmArcy]. And we just got our guitars out, because that’s what guitar players do, and played, and it was really strong.

Lage: We eventually booked small tours. We were forced to make a small recording to have something for the tour. And it kind of blossomed into what it is now. But the collaborative thing is not just bluegrass plus jazz equals us; it doesn’t function that way. We are thinking there are things you can do with instruments that only happen when you put two together; not three, not one.

What are the contrasts between Avalon and Mount Royal?

Lage: Avalon was produced by Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids; a great musician, great producer. His tactic for us was to emulate a live performance but put it on record. So Avalon is in the Avalon Theatre, in eastern Maryland, and recorded in probably four hours; just like a live show without an audience. And we picked what we thought was best and put out the record. Mount Royal [produced by the Punch Brothers’ Gabe Witcher] was a deliberate process of writing original music. It wasn’t to capture a moment in time as much as like, you know, a presentation of what we’ve always wanted to do but never had a chance to do. It was a long, grueling process compared to Avalon.

Unlike on Avalon, the two of you two write most of the music for Mount Royal. But there are a few covers that include Chris’ vocals [“Mississippi Valley,” “Sleeping By Myself,” “Things In Life”]. Why singing covers?

Eldridge: We tried writing lyrics as part of this writing process. But that didn’t go well.

While you were gigging, were you both writing material?

Eldridge: No, we stopped everything. It was a very deliberate process: we’re gonna write a new record and make a new record.

Listening to Mount Royal, it’s noticeable how complementary your guitar styles are. It’s like you’re finishing each other’s sentences.

Eldridge: The fact that Julian and I get to do this thing, it’s really a celebration of two guitars and two people playing music together and really having conversations. That’s something I’ve never really gotten to do before this project.

Would that hold true for you as well, Julian?

Lage: No. The guitarists I studied with growing up, you play guitar with your teacher a lot, and you play a lot of duo gigs for a while. [Veteran jazz guitar player] Mick Goodrick was adamant about playing guitar duets, either between the students, or with him.

Whereas for you, Chris, it was more of a new adventure?

Eldridge: Yeah. For me, the guitar was something I’d practice, I’d spend a lot of time by myself in my room. And then the musical world that I tend to occupy, which is more of the string-band world, there’s not a lot of precedent for that. Usually I’m playing with other instruments from that world, and they kind of add up and do a thing together. You know, a fiddle and a banjo and a mandolin and a bass. There’s a lot of music to be made with those instruments. But now, it feels like, anything goes.

How much of the music on Mount Royal is improvised?

Eldridge: Well, it depends on the song. There are a couple of songs that are more or less through-composed, but there are definitely plenty of songs where there’s straight-up improvising, where someone’s taking a solo. It’s just like any song you play: There’s a form, and then we’re trying to actually have a conversation as the form is existing.

When do you both take a sizable break from what you aren’t calling a tour?

Lage: November. We go to Japan in November. So, by the end of this year we’ll probably be wrapping everything up. And we might be recording something before the end of the year. Out of the can that we can maybe release when we’re not on the road, just to stay present on the scene. DB

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