The Giving Tree Band is not only a group of musicians, they’re innovators, soul searchers and sandwich lovers. I interviewed the band’s brothers Todd and E. Fink about their theories on the power of the Grateful Dead’s music, upcoming music and how they’re tuning their instruments to the Phases of the Moon. The band will be playing at this year’s Phases of the Moon and you’ll have to see it to feel the brightness their music brings.
MM: You two are brothers. Have you always been together in the band?
E: We’ve been together in the band from the beginning, yes.
MM: What have you learned from each other from being in a band?
Todd: Well, I think we’re still learning. When you live together with and have been around somebody for so long you take some things for granted. It’s important to really learn people’s personalities, temperaments and nature…what they are…so you can play to each other’s strengths. Ultimately you’re just trying to optimize what you can accomplish together. Those limitations exist anywhere and the more people can try to understand how to work together, that’s what helps any group or any organization maximize their potential. So I think we’re still trying to be able to support each other and draw upon each other’s strengths. Obviously E. is really good at songwriting and the technical aspects of music and production.
E: I agree with Todd. Over the years you really have stop trying to find the flaws in each other and play to each other’s strengths. Really look at those things people do well and be grateful to have those on your team. We are continuing to learn that stuff about each other, and the challenge Todd and I face is we’ve been around each other for so long we have a sort of telecommunication thing going on…but when we misunderstand each other in that we can get frustrated. Then I go back and think, I can’t get mad at him for not hearing the thoughts in my head right. It’s an interesting process especially being around each other so long.
MM: What do you think some of the strengths of your other bandmates are?
Todd: They have lots of strengths. Norm can play almost any instrument, especially any instrument with strings so he’s very versatile and very flexible in that way. You can accomplish a lot in the studio and onstage [with that]. That’s just one of his many, many gifts. Charlie is very good with details. He’s good with organization, building community and he enjoys things the rest of us don’t enjoy but are really necessary to build your business and your band. Z’s very hardworking and very down to earth, and also physically strong and able to do hard work. Obviously he’s good at percussion – and when you bring all that together and appreciate the unique strengths of everybody then things work really well.
E: I think Todd is good at communicating, mediating all these different personalities and being able to help manage that stuff. When you have a lot of guys like us in the band and put all your eggs in one basket to try to accomplish something you might slip in something else, and oftentimes it’s social skills, funnily enough. I think Todd still is able to translate some of the goofy stuff the band is doing or aspiring to do. You know, [meeting] people in a position that can help us or just facilitate some of our goals and aspirations. You need a grounded person like him around to help straighten out some of the ideas that come floating out of a bunch of artists.
MM: So what are some insane ideas that have ended up coming to fruition?
E: Back years and years ago I had the idea of making a record using only solar energy. And it was Todd who really communicated it to the people at the Leopold Center and got them on board. He explained that what we were trying to do was unique and had integrity and wasn’t just a gimmick. What we ended up doing was creating that album, the first of its kind, using 100% solar energy. It was done at the greatest building in the world back in 2008. I think that was something that was just kind of a dream in the back of our heads, and with the talents of the group at the time and everybody involved we were able to bring that to fruition and it was amazing.
Todd: To go from an idea to it being manifested in the physical world is a journey that may or may not happen; I think you start to learn to live with that as an artist. You’ll have many ideas and many dreams, and you will be very, very happy if you can get some of them all the way to people. Sometimes that’s a very difficult journey and sometimes it’s a very simple process…but you never know what kind of obstacles or hurdles you’ll have to cross.
E: I think the other thing for me, as an artist and an Aquarius, is that I have this continuous need to create and to bring these things to life. But quite often I have no idea what to do with it when it comes into the world. The Aquarius is a water-bearer sign and they bring water but they don’t really know what to do with it when they get it there. I’ve been really fortunate to have my brother around going ‘This could work here’ and ‘This could be great here’ – just keep the water coming and we’ll figure out what to do about it thing.
MM: What do you think you mission, as a band or as humans, is in your life?
Todd: I think, you know, it’s probably just as simple as to trying to promote more inner and outer harmony. Either literally with the music we’re sharing with people or metaphorically by trying to resolve conflicts and promote peace and well-being within everybody.
MM: Who are some other bands you feel have a mission or whose mission agrees with yours?
E: I think Nahko and Medicine for the People are on a crusade of something a little higher than themselves and probably more unique than just the average band. And I think Edward Sharpe; when we toured with them there was something very special. We’ve seen countless bands over the years and I think there was something going on there that was far greater than some of its parts, and far greater than just playing music for people.
We’ve been fortunate enough to do a couple of projects that caught the eye of the Grateful Dead and obviously the magnitude of that band can never be measured. We were fortunate enough to be in Chicago at the last show of the Dead. It is something that you don’t see nowadays very often – people who dedicate their life to a craft and a project to create more than just music, but a culture that brings people together who may never have been brought together before. That’s what’s special about some of these bands – they’re unifying, they bring harmony and show people that we’re all brothers and sisters trying to figure it out together.
MM: Who are some non-musicians you look up to?
E: We really like the classic songwriters like Dylan and Neil Young, Khris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, John Prine. Bands that really put in a lot of time. Did you say non-musicians though?
MM: Yes, but also musicians you look up to are great.
Todd: We’re inspired by a lot of thinkers and poets – there’s a lot of good things happening. We also get inspired by spiritual teachers. We try to pay respect to great minds and holy teachers if we encounter them. Yogis, saints and people in all walks of life who are trying to do good things for the world or their community. I even get inspired sometimes listening to some sportscasters on the radio with the way they present sports and connect to society and issues going on. I’ve always been inspired by Greg Popovich of the Spurs and how he guides players. The humility of Tim Duncan as a superstar and how he’s able to win five championships and hardly anybody knows him – I admire that.
Really, art is a way of doing things…how you approach whatever you do. Whether you’re doing it more mechanically or whether you’re doing it with attention to detail, mindfulness, and a loving and caring attitude.
E: I think that’s all right on. There’s greatness in a lot of things and that’s something that’s special for us as a band. We really do admire greatness in all industries and forms of it. Whether it’s a cook, a janitor, a musician or a basketball player…it’s evident to me when people are doing things with love in their heart. There’s a guy out in Lincoln, Nebraska, Pepe. And whenever we go in there he makes us the craziest, most amazing meals. He’s just so happy and so positive. It’s seeing greatness on any level like that – it’s just inspiring.
Todd: The same with people we work with to bring our sound to fruition. Whether it’s somebody in the mastering studio, instrument makers or amplifier makers – all the people we work with. Highland Strings and Raezer’s Edge speakers. Walter Woods is a legendary amplifier maker hardly anybody knows – he’s a genius. Whenever we can work with those people and have them play some role in our operation it’s really meaningful to us. We see them as integral aspects of our projects.
MM: What is your favorite instrument you can’t play?
Todd: Sitar. For a good amount of years I was trying to have some sort of hybrid sitar-guitar. But then I kind of accepted I was never going to be able to play sitar and I would just have to sit back and enjoy it. One time we played with a sitar player, Patrick Marks. That was really fun and really neat.
E: You know, I don’t really know. I guess I love all instruments and I can’t play so many.
Todd: Difficult to pick just one. I sort of love-hate them all.
MM: What was your experience like becoming a musician?
Todd: Well, our parents are very musical. Our dad plays a lot of instruments so he was always helping us with the guitar or piano. They helped us with getting our own instruments and some opportunities to learn more about the instruments. I think later on it was more of a choice to make it a central part of what we would do for work. But definitely with their support and influence it was a pretty natural way of life.
E: I think the other thing was that the Mexican side of our family was very large and we had a lot of get-togethers. There was always music being played and it was very natural to just sit in and play with the family band. I remember being younger I would see Todd wanting to be a part of it in any way he could. I was later to the game but we always had outlets to just learn songs from classic rock songs to all the great hits. Our mother was such an avid music lover. She has a massive record collection, her dad played guitar…I still play his Les Paul that’s as old as I am.
Todd: Family gatherings were a big part of it. Everybody would get together for holidays like Christmas and we would have dinner, open gifts and then there would be performances. We learned a lot playing with each other. It was great, there was so much support for that. But then me and E decided to keep going and make it more of a way of life.
MM: Why do you think music matters to people so much?
E: I think it’s kind of a language everybody understands. It’s something that provides an outlet for how people are feeling and a way for people to relate to each other. Some of the greatest songs are speaking to so many people at the same time. It lets people know we’re all in this together. There’s something that penetrates right into the heart of people when it comes to music. It’s hard to understand why. It’s a special art form that’s good to be a part of.
Todd: I was reading something really fascinating from a Sufi mystic who played the vena which is an Indian instrument similar to the sitar. But sitar is mostly played northern India whereas the vena is played in southern Indian music called Carnatic music. He was saying that all art forms are beautiful but what’s unique about music or why it tends to be more of a sacred art is because it’s formless. Images, paintings create form, and a word has a form attached to it. Music is formless and because it’s formless, like E said, it penetrates to a deeper level of connection in human beings. Ultimately, we’re looking for that formless aspect, we’re looking for that unifying spirit. People get really caught up in daily life with the forms: what people look like, colors and all that. And sometimes it becomes a barrier to connecting with each other and music sort of penetrates through all that because of its formless nature. It reminds of something higher…maybe our spiritual nature, which is deeper and more lasting than the changing outer nature of our physical bodies.
So that’s probably part of it, but somebody else said that all other forms of art decorate space and music decorates time. Time is a little bit more subtle and often personified as a god in many mythologies. In Greek mythology time is Kronos, and in Hinduism it’s Mahakala, the Great Time. So music is decorating that and when you respect time then time respects you. Since life is time, it’s at the core touching on some of these fundamental aspects of life.
MM: What’s a song that’s really special to you?
E: I like Tangled Up in Blue by Bob Dylan. That tends to remind me of a lot of things in life. I think it’s just a great story song.
Todd: You know, I don’t really have that relationship with a song. I think more so with an artist. I think for us the Grateful Dead is that artist. You might go some time without listening to them and then all of a sudden it just calls to you. I think this 50th anniversary is just a reminder of how meaningful that band was as a movement in history.
When you think about it, there’s other bands that have been around for 50 years – but I can’t think of an American band that’s been around that long. Because our country’s so young, 50 years out of 239 years of America is more than 20% of American history and it’s included the soundtrack of the Grateful Dead. That’s really meaningful and that will continue; so way into the future the music of the Grateful Dead will have been a part of American history. So, that’s the artist that I think I find myself now continuing to return to. There’s a lot you can learn [from them] as a band member trying to understand how to make your ship go. It’s important to come back to the dynamics of the group and how could these guys keep wanting to go further together and build a culture that extends so far beyond the studio and the stage.
MM: How do you think your band has changed in a good way from its beginning to as it currently is now?
E: I feel like it’s like what we’ve been echoing in this conversation of finding what our strengths are as a band as even as individuals who come together to create this band. I think a lot of bands have a lead guitarist who wants to be the lead singer too, and you have a drummer who wants to sing and also wants to play keys. That’s great and everybody has a lot of talents, but each individual person in a band has something that’s unique unto them.
One of the things the Eagles said in their documentary that was so amazing was that they talked about Felder wanting to sing lead, and Henley and Frye said that would be the equivalent of Don Henley wanting to play the lead guitar. You know, you have Don Henley who’s one of the greatest voices in rock music; and then you have Felder who’s one of the greatest lead guitarists.
I think with our group we’re really at a place where we’re okay with being ourselves. We know what ranges we can sing in; if I can’t hit this range then this guy sings it. We just want to do our best and that sometimes means you’re #2, or 3 or 4. To the crowd you’re [in] that place, but to the song everyone’s number one all the time. I think sometimes that part is playing a rest, and musicians who are not veteran musicians or lack maturity don’t understand that sometimes a rest is the greatest note you can play. You can’t have the beauty of these notes or harmonies without the dualities of this silence to make that other stuff shine. We have a band of players who I think understand that concepts and want to play to each other’s strengths to do what we do…and do it well.
Todd: When we are Romp Festival in Kentucky, there were plenty of guys who can just shred up and down the mandolin and guitar. It was very evident these players were fantastic, but then during John Prine’s set I was so captivated by Jason Wilbur; seeing him onstage with John Prine I was continually blown away and touched. It hit me right in the heart when he played the melody, or played very few notes but that were just…the soul notes. It takes a long time to get to that point where there’s nothing to prove.
MM: What is the most fun song for each of you to play?
Todd: I think Cold, Cold Rain is fun to play because we finish it with this choreographed head bang which originated spontaneously. The audience was so moved by it we said we needed to be sure to do that every time. It’s fun – the musicians come to the front of the stage and throw out some tight accents on the end of the song, which has a pseudo Latin and southwestern rhythm. It’s fun to connect with each other and with the audience in that way.
E: I enjoy playing Live, Love. It’s a song Todd wrote that we’ve since collaborated on and recorded – it’ll be on our new album. I think it really just sums it all up; it’s a really special song. One of those songs that needed to exist and I hope once we get that track out that other people feel the same. When we play it live I feel like it unifies everybody. I don’t know, it’s kind of a mediation for me. I just really enjoy it. And my part’s extremely simple on that…maybe that’s why I like it so much.
MM: So you mentioned a new album. What’s coming up in the future for the band?
E: Well, we’re working on a new record. We try to set the bar higher every time we put out a studio album. It takes a lot more time to have that inspiration strike and capture it…it’s like trying to grab lightning in a bottle. The formula is not always obvious. Ideally, we have a new record coming in the spring and there’s going to be some other recordings coming shortly after that that have been in the works for years.
MM: If you were going to create the most delicious sandwich what would you put in it?
Todd: Well, we’d just think of what Norm would put in it because he’s an expert at making custom sandwiches at delis across the country. So we would have greens for sure (spinach, kale or chard, or maybe all three of them). There would be a layer of tomatoes; baked or southern-fried tofu or tempeh; fresh, sliced avocados; maybe a little bit of hummus; fresh jalapeños, not grilled
E: Probably chipotle veganase.
Todd: Which is a dairy-free, egg-free alternative spread, which is really delicious. It would be on a country roll or some kind of nice, long baguette that’s wide.
Todd: Toasted is good, or so it’s like a melt…panini-style almost.
E: And one of those you probably cut in half and it’s like a full sandwich so you have some leftover for after the show.
MM: That sounds delicious. Do you guys have anything else you’d like to add?
Todd: We hope to see many of you at Phases of the Moon. We’ve been experimenting with tuning our instruments to movements and rotations of heavenly bodies like the moon and the Earth around the sun. We’ve been tuning our instruments so the frequencies of the notes we’re playing are in harmony with some of those natural cycles. I think that’s probably a neat trivia bit because it’s called Phases of the Moon, which is a cool festival name.
MM: How does that change the way your music sounds?
Todd: Probably the only real noticeable change will be that you’ll perceive it as a little brighter. But you’ll also feel a little bit different when listening to this music. These tonalities we’re using have been used in ancient times for healing, for promoting well-being in the body and the mind. Even us, as musicians, playing this way compared to playing standard tunings…we feel different. We enjoy playing more, and we feel better physically and emotionally immersing ourselves in those tonalities. You may have heard of a gong bath before, and what happens there is people lay down and let the vibrations of those singing bowls and gongs sweep through your body. Those vibrations are calibrated to certain tonalities that promote healing. What we’re really doing is using our guitars, mandolins and banjos and producing those kind of frequencies. We’re doing that in the studio right now. It’s been a fascinating experiment and it’s yielding wonderful results.
E: On a very general level it sounds brighter. But on a subtle level there’s a lot more to it. It’s been conclusive for us that people recognize those subtleties. Over the last few years of tuning our instruments this way people have enjoyed the shows a lot more and we’re hearing again and again that whatever it is that we’re doing is more pleasing and more natural. More helpful and harmonious with their lives. Everything in the world has a frequency rate at which it vibrates, even emotions. Long story short, they’ve been able to map out what the frequency of love is and it corresponds to a rate of 528Hz. So when you’re tuning in standard tuning you’re somewhere around 523Hz with middle C. Then the next note is probably around 536Hz. So when tuning in these spiritual, mystical tunings you’re able to put that middle C right at 528Hz which can correspond to the frequency of love and emit that out to the audience. Whether it’s believable or not, why not do that?
Interview by Michelle Miesse of Grateful Web