Talking With Ethan Setiawan About The Tradition And Experimentation Behind ‘Gambit’

[Cover photo credit to Louise Bichan]

Maine-based mandolinist, songwriter, and composer Ethan Setiawan is about to release his third album, Gambit, on March 31st, 2023, via Adhyâropa Records. As his second studio album, it builds on the work of his first collection of original work, 2018’s Flux. While Setiawan started thinking towards a new album in 2019, global disruption meant that getting together with a group of musicians in the studio in 2020 for the first time in a long while was an extra-joyful experience. It’s hard not to imagine that some of that energy contributed to the self-assured way in which the songs seem to find their own identity.

Working with veteran fiddle player Darol Anger as Producer, Setiawan was joined by a talented cast of instrumentalists to round out these 13 original tracks, including Tony Trischka (banjo), Sam Leslie (guitar), Brittany Karlson (bass), Ethan Jodziewicz (bass), Louise Bichan (fiddle), Joe K. Walsh (mandolin), Mike Marshall (mandolin), Neil Pearlman (keys), and Matt Arcara (banjo). Together they build a sound world that speaks to many traditions but is often refreshing and surprising, drawing on Bluegrass, Jazz, and Classical elements.

I spoke with Ethan Setiawan about the development of Gambit, working with his collaborators, his views on traditional music, and the genesis behind a few of the new tracks.

HMS: I think this album has been a longer road for you since you recorded it as early as 2020.

Ethan Setiawan: Indeed, it’s been kind of a long time coming.

HMS: I saw that some of the context for recording was a kind of reunion experience after the isolation of the early pandemic.

ES: Yes, it was the first time that I had played in a group of people, though I had been in some duos, for a long time. It was special to be able to do that for this session and this record. We started talking about doing the record back in 2019 and had plans to track it but we were able to do it in 2020.

HMS: Am I right in thinking that you’re sort of writing all time, and didn’t have one concerted period where you were writing music towards this album? Were you choosing out of a wide body of songs?

ES: There are a couple of tracks that go all the way back to lessons that I learned making my first record, which was a really great experience. It was great to lead the session and organize it all, which led to learning things that instantly got synthesized into a couple of new tunes that then sat around until the next album. Over three years, between the recording of each of these records, I was writing and ideas came my way.

In 2019 and 2020, I started writing a little more seriously towards putting together a record and thinking of what tunes might fit well. I actually came to Darol Anger, my Producer, with the 13 tunes that are on the record and asked, “Should we narrow this down a little bit? Should we do a traditional fiddle tune like Bluegrass folks like to do?” Darol’s take was that through the compositional elements that make my tunes unique, it hung together really well. So we ended up going with all 13 tunes, all originals. That makes up the record.

HMS: I think maybe he’s onto something. I think they hang together really well. I think it’s wonderful how varied the album is, but I feel like I could pick them out of a line up.

ES: That’s good to hear! It’s good if there’s cohesiveness to them.

HMS: When you were able to go into the studio with your collaborators, had they heard a demo already, or did you play material for them in the studio?

ES: I think I did demos for everything. I had some sketches for almost all the tunes. I spent some time in California that summer, in 2020, working with Darol on pre-production. We talked about arrangements, but we left it pretty open. It’s not super-arranged. We decided things like, “We’ll have the fiddle play the melody here, and the mandolin play the melody here, and the guitar solo here.” That kind of thing.

Where it really gets into the magic part of things for me is hearing what people do with the tunes in that kind of structure with a lot of freedom involved. I like to put out some kind of road map, helping to guide people, and then letting folks play as they will. It was really great to hear that develop.

HMS: Did you have connections to all of these players before, or were any new to you?

ES: The core band were people I knew very well.

HMS: To what extent do these songs get played out before they are recorded, or does that usually happened afterwards?

ES: None of these tunes were really played much before recording them, other than a couple of rehearsals here and there. I tour with a couple of bands, so I don’t tend to play a lot of shows under my own name. I’m playing a couple with Darol and some others before the album release, which I’m looking forward to. But my schedule doesn’t usually allow for touring music before recording it.

HMS: Do your other projects pursue different musical traditions?

ES: Most of the music that my band, Corner House, plays is original. It’s the string band thing, in a broad way similar to what is on my record. Those are tunes that we all write. The Acoustic Nomads are a group that plays South American music, actually. We’re really into Venezuelan, Argentinian, and Brazilian music. We write tunes based on those styles with our own influences coming in.

HMS: It must be really rewarding to be able to pursue and balance these different interests.

ES: Yes, it’s been really great. In broad strokes, my musical journey started with Old Time music, which led to improvising, which led to Bluegrass. If you get enough into Bluegrass, you get interesting in more improvising, and the next natural step is Swing and Jazz. It’s been about following my interests. The South American music is new to me, but that group is also into playing Jazz. It’s been eclectic and fun, and always keeps me on my toes, which is the main thing.

HMS: I noticed that you had done a crowdfunding campaign for this album. Was that to support physical release?

ES: That was to support a publicity campaign and a vinyl release. I’ve made vinyl for this record, which I have never done before. I’m really excited about it. It’s really big and sounds really cool in that medium.

HMS: Vinyl makes a lot of sense, particularly with music that has traditional elements. Did all 13 songs fit on the vinyl?

ES: No, I had to cut quite a few. There are physical limitations with the vinyl format. Darol said, “It’s the art of limitation with vinyl!” [Laughs] I think I cut it down to 8 tracks and the order is a little different. I’m really happy with both listening experiences. The vinyl is kind of concise. If you want to dive a little deeper, the CD is good for that, with all the nuances and tight corners.

HMS: I know that “Uncrossed” was released as a single. I think it is a bit different from some of the other songs, but not wildly different. This is also one that came from your earlier album work.

ES: Yes, “Uncrossed” came out of the experience of recording that first album. One thing that writing does really well is to help crystalize one’s vision. When you’re improvising a solo, you’ll do it that night, but when you write a tune, you’re committing to those notes over time. When I write a tune, I really do think about each note of a melody and how it works. How it’s saying what I want it to say. I would say that “Uncrossed” was a distillation of everything that writing the first record did for me. It was putting at least one aspect of my creative vision into one piece. It came out as a fairly friendly fiddle tune that I would think most Bluegrass musicians are able to play.

HMS: Experimental Bluegrass has been a really continuously growing thing over recent years. At the same time, there are communities who see limitations that are more purist and geared towards the survival of the genre, which is understandable. Are you concerned about any of those things when you write or do you have to set those concerns aside to answer your own creative vision?

ES: I think tradition is really important. It really provides the background of everything that I do musically and that my groups do musically. However, tradition isn’t static, I don’t think. It’s a living thing. Bluegrass is a living tradition. I think you could say that the string band, Newgrass tradition is its own tradition that’s evolved beyond Bluegrass.

HMS: For sure, there are plenty of people feel that way.

ES: So I think we can say, “We are creating our own tradition here, taking this community of people who play like this.” I don’t love the terms “Progressive Bluegrass” or “Newgrass.” I haven’t found words to label it, but that actually doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind music not being confined to a box. But just working with Darol on this record, who has worked to craft a tradition of his own, helped me look at things in the context of Progressive Bluegrass, or Bluegrass that reaches into more adventurous harmonic territory and improvisational territory. I think I really see this album as part of that tradition and creating its own context to live in.

HMS: When you do make decisions to lay down a song on an album, in your mind, are you still leaving room for lots of later improvisation, or are you really trying to codify a core version of the song?

ES: Generally, when something is recorded, and there’s a form worked out, I feel like within my style or tradition, that form becomes codified. The freedom is really playing inside of that form. An example of that is someone working out a solo. Generally, people improvise their solos.

HMS: The song “Golden” was also a great one to release ahead of the album because it hints at what we’ll find on the album. In some ways, it’s a little quieter, though it does have some drama to it. Does it have a little Jazz to it?

ES: I think that’s accurate. I think especially in the harmony and in the chords of the song, there’s some Jazz influence. That might be my favorite tune on the record. Everybody played it beautifully.

HMS: I think it’s a great example of how this collection is modern, along with traditional elements. It feels very new and fresh, but you can definitely pick out some of the traditional elements that you’re interested by. One song that feels like it almost could be a traditional song, but is a new one, is “Upwind Downstream.” That’s exciting, too, to hear so many traditional features with totally new expression to them.

ES: The whole idea with that tune was to get Louise Bichan, on fiddle, and Matt Arcara, on banjo, to play the same tune and feature that. I really love how those two sound together. The idea was to write an old time fiddle tune for them to play. And I just got to sit there and play a little too, which was super easy. I don’t think I had much intention going into it, as far as the vibe goes. It just kind of came out that way.

HMS: Another quite different song, again, is “Carolina Avenue.” It made me think more of Chamber Music, or more mannerly music of the past rather than dance or outdoor music.

ES: That one kind of popped out when I was staying on Carolina Avenue on a really hot August evening. Sometimes these melodies just kind of happen and I see my job as writing them down and documenting them. That one started that way, as a melody. It felt mellower, with a mellower pace. It felt really right to get Ethan Jodziewicz in to play some bass on it. He added a beautiful texture to that tune. Me and Sam [Leslie], the guitarist, actually played lower versions of our instruments. I played mandola, which is a fifth below the mandolin, and Sam played a baritone guitar, which is a little bit lower than a guitar. We were getting down into the depths there a little bit.

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