By Greg Cahill | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Call it a labor of love. It took ten years for brothers Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand, along with bandmate Chris Miller, to bring their first album to fruition. Other bands, and other commitments, got in the way, but this fall the unorthodox trio of fiddle, acoustic guitar, and saxophone finally released its eponymous debut, The Faux Paws. All are multi-instrumentalists, but Noah mostly plays fiddle, Andrew acoustic guitar, and Miller saxophone. The VanNorstrands grew up in upstate New York and were introduced to traditional music by their parents, eventually playing contra-dance music with their musician mother, Kim, in the band Great Bear. Miller grew up in Florida, where he became a bluegrass fan, studied jazz, and joined the Grammy-nominated Cajun/country band the Revelers.
Strings caught up with Noah to discuss the new album, his powerful chops, the band’s chemistry, and their musical influences.
The album is quite energetic. What does it feel like when the band is firing on all cylinders onstage?
Noah VanNorstrand, The Faux Paws: Simple! When we have a good sound system and an energetic crowd, whether it’s for a dance or a concert, and we’re all playing our best, it feels simply effortless to me. Andrew and I are reading each other’s musical minds and Chris is right there keeping everything interesting.
Tell me about your fiddling on the new album.
I’d say the role I play in this band emphasizes rhythm over melody. Part of my sound on fiddle comes from a kind of foot percussion that’s common in French-Canadian music. It’s a technique that’s often done at the same time as playing an instrument, so over the years, my fiddle playing has sort of become married to my foot percussion and vice versa. On the album, some of my favorite tracks are the instrumentals on which we showcase how the fiddle can be just as rhythmic as the guitar, even while playing the melody or a solo.
How did you get started playing the fiddle?
I started playing the fiddle and folk music from Day One, so I was between six and eight when I picked it up. I will say, for the first four to five years, I was also really into African hand drums and other percussion. I remember Andrew and I got a mandolin, a dobro, and a banjo all for one Christmas. I think our mom was just throwing a bunch of different instruments our way to see what would stick. Andrew picked up the fiddle when he was about eight years old and I, being the good little brother I was, copied almost everything he did. It wasn’t until I was 12-ish that I ended up doubling down on fiddle and then a few years later mandolin.
No classical training?
Definitely not. I’ve been mostly self-taught, so I only ever learned tunes by ear and never ended up learning how to read music. I’m slowly working on that now, though. Andrew and I were home-schooled all the way. We started a family band with our mother when I was about ten, so I’ve been performing in some way or another since then. Being home-schooled gave us the schedule flexibility to travel and perform quite a bit during those years.
Any role models along the way?
Every year I was able to attend Jay Unger and Molly Mason’s Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp [in the Catskills, near Woodstock, New York]. I’d say that camp as a whole was extremely influential for me and all the teachers I studied with there. For me, there was less than a decade of life lived before being a fiddler and musician became a point of my identity. So it’s hard to say what attracted me to it. It’s just always been! But I can say that the community and friends have kept me going.
What styles drew you in?
When I started going to Ashokan, I was introduced to contra dance and contra-dance music. For anyone who might not know, contra dance is an American folk dance similar to square dancing. Contra dance as a genre has its roots in New England, but also has a huge variety of styles it can pull from. I think I started out playing simple French-Canadian tunes and New England tunes and then through high school I got really into Celtic music and then old-time music after that. But all these different genres were learned from the overarching perspective of playing music for dance.
And those styles influenced the new album?
A lot! We each brought different priorities and experiences to the material and the band. Music is best for me to play when it’s danceable. Or maybe another way to put it: how the solo feels is more important than how “accurate” it is. So whether it’s a slower, sensitive country song about growing up near the Great Lakes or a gritty, fast old-time tune, I’m trying to bring a relatable, danceable feel to the music. But Andrew and Chris are also bringing their own styles and priorities to the sound.
Tell me about your lifelong musical connection with your brother.
Growing up, Andrew and I would spend hours every day playing and writing tunes together, so we’ve played music together our whole lives and the connection runs pretty deep. We’ve been in about five bands together. The longest running band was Great Bear. That’s the band we started with our mother back in 2000. Great Bear evolved a lot over its 18-year run. It started as Andrew on fiddle, me on hand percussion, and mom on keyboard. Later we became a six-piece band with me on fiddle, Andrew on electric guitar, and other amazing musicians and friends we met along the way filling out the sound, including Chris.
How did you meet Chris?
Andrew came home from a week at Ashokan in 2010 and he was going on and on, raving about this amazing saxophone player who was super excited about learning fiddle tunes. I remember being pretty skeptical, but a month later I met Chris at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival and he immediately became a lifelong friend.
I think the unorthodox instrumentation of the Faux Paws came about because Andrew and I got along with Chris so well. We didn’t set out to find an accomplished jazz saxophone player to play folk music with us. We were just three people wanting to make music together and once that was established as the motivation, then we began to work in our unique musical perspectives and strengths.
What do you like about the band’s chemistry?
I like that it works. Like I said earlier, Andrew and I have played music together our whole lives and we have a certain mind-meld that happens when we play together. So adding a third person would not necessarily work. But Chris is able to tap into the mind-meld enough for us all to play together while also bringing in new ideas and energy that Andrew and I certainly appreciate to keep things fresh.
What are the challenges of playing a stringed instrument with a saxophonist?
There are a lot of challenges, but they mostly go in the other direction. Playing fiddle tunes on the saxophone is a lot harder than playing fiddle tunes with a saxophonist. At least one as accomplished as Chris. He not only learns the tunes, which often have very awkward melodies and turnarounds to play on the saxophone, but he also somehow matches very fiddle-specific things like bow phrasing and ornaments.
What are the rewards?
Playing with Chris in particular is very rewarding. Just because he’s able to match and learn fiddle-specific phrasing and melodies doesn’t mean he isn’t also bringing his own experience to the table. He’s able to play with and around the beat, and his solos can play through the top of the fiddle tune’s phrasing. I guess what I’m saying is that he’s able to match me a lot better than I can match him and his abilities and choices can be very rewarding.
Is there room for improv?
We leave plenty of space for improvisation. My background playing for dance means that I have a strong instinct to make sure the dancers are taken care of. Which means my improvisation usually comes in short bursts that wind up landing back on the melody at the tops of phrases so people dancing won’t get lost. But what happens in those bursts can get as weird as my brain will come up with. Both Andrew and Chris come at improvisation differently, and as a band we try and make the different styles work together rather than choose one.
What would you like readers to know about the band and the album?
I’m just excited about this band finally getting out there. We’ve been playing together in several different bands for over a decade now, but the timing was never right to prioritize just the three of us playing this material. It feels amazing to have this opportunity to showcase the musical connection we’ve enjoyed creating with each other over the years.