"I was re-identifying with the vague notion of 'Southernness' at the same time that I was running into a certain impasse on the guitar. I don't really play much 'old-time' banjo," says Woody Sullender. The banjo's metallic twang echoes through early American music, from hillbilly tunes to the country blues of Dock Boggs. Though the sound is unmistakable, Sullender--who plays at Nightlight Thursday, March 3 with Spacelab and Cantwell, Gomez and Jordan--is one of a few musicians stretching the banjo's boundaries.
He moved from N.C. to Chicago five years ago to study music and sound at Bard College. While in Chapel Hill, he was a WXYC DJ and worked on the experimental and electronic festival Transmissions.
"Obviously, Chapel Hill stuff indirectly related to my instrument like Polvo, Chuck Johnson and Elizabeth Cotten had a big influence. But also DJing made me think outside of genre and think of what aesthetic or social aspects link these musics." Not since Eugene Chadbourne adopted the banjo to play everything from the modern jazz of Anthony Braxton to the Dead Kennedys' hardcore anthem "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" has the traditional instrument been taken this far out of its element.
Sullender's improvisations with aggressive plucks, unhinged noisy jaunts and occasional use of electronic effects is more "new time" than old-time. Sullender says though he is coming from the same place, his approach differs from Dr. Eugene's: "Chadbourne is interesting in terms of his playing with genre, but he is not much of a technical influence. As for my playing today, I have to take into account folks like [European improv guitar giant] Derek Bailey, but I am more interested in folks who have a well developed vocabulary on instruments unlike mine--like how can I play my banjo like Mats Gustafsson or Fred Lonberg-Holm or Jeb Bishop." Cellist Kevin Davis expands the field for Sullender's dissonant forays. On his CD Nothing Is Certain But Death, Sullender adds duets with cellist Lonberg-Holm, Jason Soliday on electronics and vocalist Carol Genetti.
He's also branched out, collaborating with Durham quilt artist Sherri Wood, performing improvised eulogies for the dead in Iraq as Wood's sewing circle worked on a memorial quilt, and he incorporated his banjo recordings in an installation with sound artist Maryanne Amacher, opening this spring in Mexico City. An MFA student in music, he has a sense of humor about all this serious academic stuff when it comes to his music. "Yes, I love the Anthology of American Folk Music, but I also love Bad Brains, Morton Feldman, early Metallica and Lee Perry. I try not to reference postmodernity, but sure, that's it."
He says says his appreciation for Chapel Hill has grown over the years. "It wasn't until leaving that I started to really historicize the folk revival and see Chapel Hill's role in that and in turn, the way it affected my way of thinking about certain types of traditional music. UNC seems to be 'the shit' as far as people writing critically about concepts of 'traditional' Southern music."