Just as I was becoming self-conscious of over-using my references to an abstract sub-genre like “neo-folk,” lo & behold, Little Traps comes along and smacks some sense into me. I say smack, but really the Ann Arbor trio’s knack for melody and an exuberant playing style supremely sweetened the encounter and bent my ear ever closer to the recordings they had online, from a live set performed in studio at WCBN-FM. Then i realized how acoustic music can have a much more nuanced aggregate of “styles,” from bluegrass to roots, string-band swing to Americana, to even poetic indie-pop.
Now that I’ve packed a lot of references into the rubric of what I think they sound like, I feel it’s apropos to let you hear Little Traps for yourself:
Little Traps is Nick Bertos (guitar/vocals), Annie Palmer (banjo) and Thomas Green (pedal-steel/guitar), along with a rotating cast of rhythmic/percussive contributors, such as Ali Snyder, over the last handful of years. I’ve included them in posts for The Current in the past, but I we were only able to stream songs from a live set performed in studio at WCBN. That is, until they released this new single from their forthcoming album, Can’t Count.
The urgent and kinetic melodies of Bertos’ vocals are encapsulated in the control he has over his voice to whisk it in these concentrated bursts, upwards into small, subtle arcs, like a stretch of mini crescendos where the reedy, rustbelt voice seems to swell or surge. That voice is augmented by its harmonic counterpart, the breathier swoon of Annie Palmer’s just-slightly-lower register softening and adorning the lead’s unique kinda croon.
But I wanna bring it back to how Little Traps shake up my own preconceptions of “folk,” or “roots,” or whatever descriptor one can use for an outdoorsy-evoking, major-key-deploying, uptempo toe-tapping strummer of a songscape that suggests whimsy and heavy hearts. And that’s where Green’s garnishing threads of warbling pedal steel comes in, giving an inescapable old-world/trad-folk feel to the arrangement, but flexibly responding in his curving phrases to the individual voices and ideas of Palmer and Bertos. Each instrumental element gallops in formation, demonstrative of their chemistry, as well as their flair for applying some modern indie “neo-folk” fire to the “rootsy” aesthetic. What did I just say?
Anyway. We have a lot to talk about, so I’m just going to get right to it… …but not before I tell you that Little Traps will be performing in Hamtramck this weekend, part of the 5th annual Hamtramck Music Fest. You can see them Saturday night at Trixie’s (10:30pm). Click here for more information and the full schedule of the HMF.
How did Little Traps start, form, get together, etc?
Nick Bertos: I met Annie in a friend’s basement; we were both booked at the 2012 Love Hangover Benefit for 826Michigan. We worked through some covers, realized we sang well together and sorta just kept contacting each other for future shows after that. I was playing solo and had just started playing with a drummer when we met. Banjo made a lot of sense with the music I was writing and I love boy-and-girl voices together. We played a lot under my name in the beginning but as the line up normalized and we became more of a band Annie suggested we call ourselves Little Traps which was the name of two of our songs at the time. I’m still not very good at song titles.
Your voices, your instruments, playing styles, they seem to compliment each other really well…After you realized that chemistry was there, how did Little Traps songs start taking shape?
Bertos: I feel Annie and I have the same scale and scope. We can sing the spectrum of country heartbreakers–to rock n roll jams. We both play our instruments in a fairly straightforward fashion and let the rest of the band elevate the composition. When we started recording the album we had all the basic stuff done— drums, guitar, banjo and our voices. Pretty bare bones. We realized we wanted something sonic, almost like a filter but we needed it to be in our wheelhouse. Annie had played in another band with Tom and we invited him to test out this new pedal steel contraption he’d been goofing around with. He was to record three songs and be done but he just kept coming back.
Palmer: Nick’s voice is more reedy and powerful and mine’s a bit more warm and intimate so they meet in an interesting place. Also, he’s very charismatic and great at talking to people and I’m nitpicky and managerial so we do a pretty good job together dividing the work of being in a band. We have a lot of similar influences and tastes as well so it’s easy for us to have a shared musical language, although we are both terrible at conveying any of the specifics of it to drummers.
And how and when did Green get involved?
Palmer: Tom and I were in a band called Salt City a few years back. I played rhythm guitar and he played lead, and he would just shred without fail at every set, and people would always come up to me afterward and express amazement at his chops. When he revealed that he was also learning to play the pedal steel (my absolute favorite instrument) I demanded that he come play with us before anyone else in town figured out how good he was. Some of the songs on this record Nick and I have been playing for years and Tom has really taken them to a new level. It’s also a bonus that we all mostly think the same jokes are funny. We would have all been friends anyway if we weren’t in a band together.
Green: I got involved because…, well…, I am the guy who always joins already established bands apparently. But I have to say this was the most nerve racking. Annie said to me “hey you got that new pedal steel, come record on our record”. I said yes without thinking too much about it and then I started to realize I’ve never actually played this instrument with any band, let alone this band. I don’t know any of the members of the band except Annie; I don’t know the style of music even, but what the hell.
Sounds like pressure…
Green: The pressure began to dawn on me on the way to the studio. I was thinking to myself “wait, you’ve never played with these guys and now we are gonna be in a studio situation with perfect audio, where they can hear every note perfectly, and where they have already recorded all the tracks, and time is a-wastin”. Also I am not a player that likes to play the same thing twice. I am always making little tweaks, trying to find something better, which is not necessarily an asset during the final overdub stage. But Nick and Annie just let me go. They put a track on and I just took 3-4 takes of each song. And since I mostly improvising (different phrasings, different melodies, different voicings), we can’t really cobble the takes together. But they were patient and just let me go and we used most of the stuff from the first day. I imagine that they were freaking out in the control room, like: “…can we use this stuff?”
Palmer: …we absolutely were.
Little Traps’ Upcoming Shows
April 19, PJs Lager House (w/ Charming Disaster and Audra Kubat)
April 21, Ziggy’s (with Slug Love)
Can’t Count is set to be released some time in May.
Nick, Annie, you both have distinct and expressive styles of playing. Talk about that. Talk about getting into music. Talk about whether you were obsessively practicing/honing/tweaking, etc…
Bertos: I got my first guitar when I was 13. I took lessons at Herb David’s with a man named ’Razor’ Ray. He was in a band called Harm’s Way, played a neon pink Ibanez and was always smoking. Obviously, he was the coolest dude I’d ever met and I couldn’t believe my parents paid him to hang out with me. He taught me the basics and each week he would teach me one song of my choosing to learn for homework. After high school, I had no one to play music with so I bought an acoustic guitar. I had never played alone before. In a band, you can rely on the other members to carry different aspects of a song. On your own, you don’t get that luxury. I started what I would be told later was ‘flat picking’ around then. Basically taking normal open chords and picking around at their insides while playing them to emote a sort of sub-melody. I had no concept of this then; I was just playing what I heard in my head. This lead to guitar parts I couldn’t actually play and had to work at. I learned lot from Razor but this is when I started actually practicing and honing the way I play the guitar now. When I NEED to learn a part for a song I’m writing, I will practice it until my fingers fall off. Besides that, I’m not a huge practice nut.
What about influences?
Bertos: Growing up I listened to a lot of different music. In my CD wallet I always had a pretty weird mix of genres. There was always some Pixies, At the Drive-in and A Tribe Called Quest. Lots of Aerosmith and Beatles from my folks. Guitar wise, I always wanted to play the song, not so much the solo. I hear Jimmy Page going nuts and I get why that’s cool but I never really cared. The older I get, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the wanky 70’s solo but I always figured I could find someone else to do that if I needed it. I think that’s why I like Tom’s guitar work so much. He’s always thinking about the song and complementing the structure.
Palmer: I started playing the guitar in middle school and considered that to be my primary instrument. I picked up the banjo sometime in the mid-late 00’s but never spent much time figuring it out until I started playing in Little Traps. I still claim not to be a banjo player even though I’ve been doing it for six or seven years now. Gillian Welch is my absolute hero when it comes to both banjo and songwriting. She does so much with such a simple style.
There’s a lot of buoyancy and warmth to the playing and the timbres that I dig; when you think of the records and songwriters you’ve always loved the most in life, what draws you to them…
Bertos: The warmth comes from the ‘acoustic’ aspect. Folky instruments… Ali (Snyder), the drummer’s brush work, me and Annie’s voices, it all gives off this personal, honest feeling. I hope it does anyway. We’re always worried about our timbre. We have a lot of high end in the band— guitar, banjo, even our voices. When Howard (White) started laying down bass lines it added this weight to everything. We had played with bassists before but something about Howard’s style and choices that were thoughtful and calculated.
How do you think that’s informed your approach to recording, songwriting and performance?
Bertos: I went to school for audio engineering in my youth and did a lot of home recording experiments. Albums like Bright Eyes “Letting Off the Happiness” and the first couple Elliott Smith records felt like those dudes were sitting next to me and I love that. Quiet details, a siren in the background, weird lip noises, that was what I used to try and capture when I played by myself more. Now with the band, it’s a completely different thing all together. Pixies, The Band, Wilco, those are bands that still had that personal touch but they were bigger than everything at the same time.
Annie: Harmony has always had such a pull with me. My parents’ vinyl of Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme was a huge influence when I was beginning to form my musical tastes. And then as a teenage girl with an acoustic guitar I was obsessed with the Indigo Girls. They were sort of my first introduction to a particular kind of harmonic tension that I’ve continued to seek out and imitate. Like Simon and Garfunkel, they melded a sweet classical voice with one less obviously beautiful, but equally evocative. Both of those artists as well are consummate storytellers, and that’s something I always look to when performing – I want to make sure we’re telling a story that connects with people. Nick is a helluva storyteller.
How did you feel, at the very first start of it, about going the indiegogo route to support the release of the new album? And how did it feel to see this substantially strong response?
Bertos: A few years ago we did a Kickstarter campaign and for multiple reasons it was a mess. Let’s leave that there. I didn’t want anything like that to ever happen again. I felt like we were begging for money. I hate that. When the idea of Indiegogo came up, I was not interested. I still had some PTSD issues with the entire crowdfunding idea. What ultimately won me over was the idea that we HAVE the product. The album was done. We did it. Indiegogo was just a means of selling it on a wider scale than we normally could. BUT, as far as the response, I’m floored! Our friends and families have been so supportive and I’m overwhelmed with appreciation. Now we just need strangers and enemies to start donating and we’ll be all set.
Annie: Yeah the support has been pretty overwhelming. I think we all feel a little bit raw about asking for money with the world the way it is now but people have been incredible and sweet and it honestly has made my heart grow three sizes.
When it comes to Cant Count, what are you most excited about, in terms of getting to share it? And was there anything special, memorable, or a stand-out moment, from/about the recording experience?
Bertos: I’m excited for a show to end with people excitedly asking where they can get our music and I’ll tell them “…SOMEWHERE!” I’ve been playing some of the songs on this album for over five years and now there’s this perfect version of them that I can give to people. It’s a good feeling. When we started recording, Howard was my girlfriend’s dad. When we finished recording, he was my fiancé’s father. I got the privilege of getting to know my future father-in-law in a space we both love to be in. He’s been making music his entire life, recording and playing with him brought out the best in Little Traps. Now, if he would just quit his multiple jobs and permanently join the band like I’ve requested, maybe we’d get along better.
What were the other benefits or plus-sides to taking your time with the recording?
Bertos: I really got to appreciate Annie and what an asset she is. Her professionalism and talent astounds me. You’d think after so many years, spending all that time in a small room trying to do something perfectly on command would tear us apart but we ended up sort of liking each other when it was all done. And I tell Tom this story whenever he seems blue: I saw Salt City play with a friend on New Year’s Eve a while back. I knew and played with Annie and wanted to see her other band. They all played great but at the end of the show my friend leaned over to me and said “You need to go steal that dude on the Tele and make him play with you.” So I did!! Not really. Annie invited him to record and now (Tom’s) a staple in the band and someone I love collaborating with. When my teenage blood gets all hot and crazy with dumb ideas, Annie and Tom know how to talk me down. I really need that sometimes and I’m thankful for them.
Green: My best memory of the recording was of Nick and Annie’s openness to suggestions. Keep in mind, I’m the new guy, and they had been recording this record for something like nine months…, which I didn’t know at the time… So I suggested, let’s add two new songs: ‘Why not?’ But after the fact I realized, that they were nearly done with the record…, that is ‘why not.’ They probably just wanted to finish the thing. But they said “let’s try it”. We pulled the drummer in from Minnesota (another reason “why not”) and it worked out. It was very gracious of everyone to indulge my hair-brained idea.
Palmer: I’m just so proud to finally be able to show people tangible proof that this band I’m in is as good as I say it is. I think my favorite part of the recording process was every single time that Howard’s adorable dog Ruby joined us in the studio. I have always found recording to be kind of stressful, and even as lovely and painless a process as this album was, and even though it was basically just hanging out in a room with people I genuinely love and enjoy, I still have a difficult time relaxing and enjoying the work of being in the studio. Having a cute fluffy doggo around was the best anxiety balm I could have asked for. And honestly we couldn’t have asked for a better situation than to record with Howard. It was a great gift getting to know him through this process and he is cooler than all of us put together, by a wide margin.