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Damn Tall Buildings visits the land of damn big sky

Joe Angelini
Courtesy of the artist
Avery Ballotta, Max Capistran and Sasha Dubyk of Damn Tall Buildings

New York City-based trio Damn Tall Buildings will perform at Harvester Arts on Friday, Feb. 24.

In 2022, the group issued the album “Sleeping Dogs,” an LP that finds the unit — multi-instrumentalist and primary lyricist Max Capistran (guitar and banjo), bassist Sasha Dubyk and fiddler Avery Ballotta — in fine form amid material such as “Podcast,” “Cold Rain” and “Patio.”

Appealing to roots music fans of all stripes is something the group seemingly specializes in, although the larger bluegrass crowd has embraced Damn Tall Buildings warmly in recent times. (The band will return to the Walnut Valley Festival this autumn.)

Montana-native Ballotta recently spoke with KMUW about the outfit's broad appeal and the role it plays in continuing the tradition of American music.

Interview Highlights

I feel like Damn Tall Buildings is a band that’s informed by tradition but is very much about moving the music forward. 

We’re all very inspired by a lot of traditional roots music and, of course, a lot of the music we grew up listening to was informed by that as well. It all kind of comes down to the folk music. A lot of that is oral tradition. There’s a lot of … like amalgamation of influences in what we perform. It happens to be that the instruments that we play and the harmonies that we find together fit really, really well into this language of roots music.

Fiddle and roots music have a complex relationship. There are long periods of time when the fiddle is very prevalent in roots music and then periods where it seems to almost disappear. How do you see the relationship to the instrument in the music you’re performing? 

I do a lot of chopping and rhythmic stuff. I tend to take an opportunity to fill out a lot of sounds that may excite somebody’s ears in a different way than is traditionally true. [Laughs.]

It’s funny because the first time I was listening to the music, I was thinking, “This is guy is also the drummer in the band.” 

[Laughs.] Yeah, right? Definitely. I feel a deep groove. That’s one thing. I can’t help but move while I’m playing. A lot of that comes down to feeling a really strong, really beautifully subdivided groove. I learned from greats like Darol Anger and Bruce Molsky. Others like that. Darol is huge in helping me figure out how to actually play the groove that I felt instead of just feeling it. That’s a constant practice that is always being updated.

With this sense of tradition, there’s this potential as well that you’re possibly writing songs that the next generation of musicians will take up and learn. 

Working in the oral tradition and learning a lot of these songs and tunes that we are learning from the great recordings or other friends of ours or legends that we get to hang out with [is part of the] spirit that is translated into our originals to the point of being [at the very least case of us] being able to teach somebody those songs. Hopefully, the recordings that we have out [helps fulfill] a joyful place in anyone who wants to learn those songs.

I know that you’re a band that does a lot of writing. I wonder, as you’re touring behind an album or you’ve had a break and had a chance to write new material, is it allowed to find its way into the live show or do you hold off on it? 

It does! No, it definitely does. We have a great spot in Brooklyn called Pete’s Candy Store, and we have done residencies there since we moved here. We’ve done one this month. We’re testing out a bunch of new songs … two have actually made it into the current set, so it’s all very current, very fun.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.