“We hope your spirits will be lifted.” – An Interview with Matt Rolland of Run Boy Run
One of the things I like best about musicians in the folk, old-time, and bluegrass genres is how accessible and friendly they are. Meeting with Matt Rolland from Run Boy Run was no exception. Run Boy Run (from here I’ll abbreviate RBR) is in Rochester this week to participate in the Artist in the Schools program put on by Rochester Civic Music and Riverside Concerts. They finish their stay in Rochester with a full concert on Saturday, March 4, at the Rochester Art Center. Matt very kindly sat down with me for about 45 minutes to talk about RBR and their music.
RBR consists of two pairs of siblings: Matt and his sister, Grace, play fiddle and cello, respectively. Jen Sandoval and her sister, Bekah Sandoval Rolland, play mandolin and guitar. Joining them on their current tour is bass player Ryan Alfred (of Sweet Ghosts). When I asked about what musical genre they first grew up with, Matt told me that his parents are musicians. His mother is a cellist and teaches classical music, while his father is a fiddler who also grew up with classical music, but ultimately fell in love with fiddle music, be it old-time, bluegrass, or celtic music. The Rollands formed a family band when Matt and Grace were young, playing a mix of styles ranging from the Everly Brothers to classic country.
Similarly, Jen and Bekah were part of a musical family with roots in Up With People, and also had a family singing group. While the Sandovals and Rollands knew of each other, they weren’t necessarily closely acquainted in those days. Later, three of the four members of RBR attended the University of Arizona together and ultimately formed Run Boy Run.
Run Boy Run will play a good many of their own compositions when they perform. I asked Matt about his approach to songwriting. Being primarily an instrumentalist, he said, influences his choice to start with some musical ideas first, then, like rocks in rock tumbler, he lets the ideas tumble around in his mind for a while before they get their final polish (Matt attributed this imagery to Leonard Cohen). When one of the members brings a new song idea forward, Matt said the others will contribute somewhat to the evolution and arrangement of the song, but the composer mostly gets to call the shots.
I asked Matt how the school presentations were going. He gave a bit of a chuckle and said he learned how to do the Dab (a dance move that all the cool kids are doing now, I guess). He also has been struck by how engaged the school audiences have been, and that they are familiar in many cases with American roots and folk music. RBR developed a special program for the Artist in the Schools program, and linked their music to the experience of farming in the early 1800s, then moving through the radio generation and ultimately up to the present day. The school kids have comfortably related to RBR’s musical journey through history this way.
I asked Matt about performing at festivals and concerts, and how the two experiences compare. What he likes about festivals is what he called “backstage culture”, and getting to know other artists. What he likes about concerts is the opportunity to work hard to develop a pristine sound experience. He looks forward to setting up in the Rochester Arts Center, working with the sound technicians, and getting the sound reinforcement just right.
RBR names groups like Nickel Creek, Crooked Still, and the Wailin Jennys as musical influences. I was curious if Matt and his band mates had the chance to play with those groups or the individual artists from them. Matt said they have performed with banjo player Greg Liszt from Crooked Still, for example, and have been at the same venue with artists like Chris Thile and Aoife O’Donovan, but haven’t necessarily performed with them.
I asked if there was a musical hero from the past that Matt would love to jam with, if it were possible to “alter space and time”. Matt named fiddlers Tommy Jarrell and Benny Thomasson as two musical idols he’d love to learn from. Attempting to answer on behalf of his band mates, Matt speculated that Jen and Bekah might pick someone out of the Broadway musical scene, since they have that musical style as part of their family heritage. Just then, Jen happened to come through the lobby, so I had the chance to ask her directly. Her answer? She spoke passionately about how cool it be to go back in time and meet and jam with Pete Seeger. Cool choice!
I asked Matt to comment a bit about how the presence of a cello in their band influences their musical performance. He described how in their early performances they didn’t use a guitar much, and the cello took the place musically of the guitar. That shaped Grace’s performance to make the cello a rhythmic instrument as much as a melodic one. You’ll see it and hear it in her bowing technique. Matt also pointed out that the cello – in combination with the fiddles and bass – gives RBR the chance to emulate a string quartet sound, adding a full and lush musical setting on certain songs.
I asked Matt what he’d want a potential listener to know about Run Boy Run. He offered these remarks. First, although they draw upon the musical roots from old time and bluegrass, they are trying to create something new and add their own voices to these traditions. Second, he thinks the three-part vocal harmonies of Jen, Bekah, and Grace is part of their distinctive sound. Third, he’d like listeners to know that it is okay to sing along at their performances, and finally, he said, “We hope spirits will be lifted by our music.”
You have a few chances left to have your spirits lifted by Run Boy Run. Catch one of their remaining free performances, or be sure to get a ticket for their performance March 4th at the Rochester Art Center. Also, consider buying their music online.