We Banjo 3: Passion, Celtgrass and a Misleading Band Name

We Banjo 3: Passion, Celtgrass and a Misleading Band Name

We Banjo 3 is coming to Seapoint in Salthill tonight for the Arts Festival, bring a new Celtgrass sound, tons of energy and dedication, and a whole-hearted love for the people of Galway.

I got the chance to sit down with David Howley, lead singer and guitar man of We Banjo 3, for a little chat before their gig tonight (it's almost sold out -- get your ticket here.) That “little chat” turned into a big conversation – about a love of Galway and its people, about the power of music-making and joy, about following your dreams and advice for local artists.

But I started small.

Why We Banjo 3?

It’s a simple-enough name, unless you know anything about the band. There are four members. Only two of them play the banjo.

David is a little sheepish about this; he laughs. “Myself, my brother Martin and Enda Scahill got together originally... We all played banjo and we decided that we wanted to create a band around it. That was great for small gigs, and then we got asked to do a big Irish music festival in Milwaukee. We asked [the organisers], ‘Can we come play this?’ and the organisers emailed us back and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll have you’ – and we were like, ‘Oh shit.’”

That’s when We Banjo 3 realised they needed a bigger sound, something that would pull more weight with crowds. The boys brought in Fergal Scahill, Enda’s brother, on violin – the musical genius gentleman in red pants. They call him "the gentleman", being "one who knows how to play the banjo, but doesn't." (Ha, ha.) David switched to guitar, and the others found out David could sing – and We Banjos 3 had morphed.

Where does your sound come from?

David talked about Mumford & Sons, which became popular around the same time that We Banjo 3 released their first singles. “That was a folk revival for a lot of people. The banjo just became... Cool, again. Can I say that? I don’t know if that’s an actual truth." He laughs, and I'm thinking it's just above the oboe in terms of cool. "We like to think of the banjo as a weapon of mass seduction, we just run with that.”

“Our music is very much shaped by where we’ve been. Because we’ve travelled a lot of America, that’s where the bluegrass comes from... We’ve done entire world-tours of Ohio at this stage.”

Who knew there was so much to see in Ohio.

David said he grew up with his dad’s love of country music; the Pogues and Johnny Cash on the same CD didn’t seem strange to him. And where the banjo is such a significant part of Irish and American bluesgrass, it seemed natural to merge the genres. And so Celtgrass was born -- it's like Irish trad given a new lease on life, upbeat and joyful. And, David says, their mission as a band is to spread joy.

We Banjo 3 Standing

From left to right: Fergal Scahill, David Howley, Martin Howley, Enda Scahill. 

What does tonight’s Arts Festival concert mean to you?

We Banjo 3 have played the Arts Festival before: lunchtime concerts at the Roisin Dubh, smaller gigs.

“We wanted to do something [this year] that’s probably far past our abilities...” He laughs at this. “But we really wanted to do something different. We wanted to do something that has a reason to exist. [The gig tonight] is kind of where the American folk music and Irish folk music meet.”

They’re playing with two other bands; Hermitage Green, a band that David describes as “very much Irish”, and another band from the Midlands, Jigjam; “they’re a great band, and they’re even more American than we are. We want to bring something that’s a little bit different... Rather than coming to see a band, you’re coming for a night.

The bands want the concert to be an experience, an immersion the blend of music and genre – and of course, a load of craic.

What about Galway itself?

“This will be the biggest Galway gig we’ve ever done. The crowds we play to in America differ because on a festival night, we could play to 12,500 people... But that’s actually less scary than playing to 20 people in your hometown. You know everyone. There’s Seamus in the corner who was your teacher in high school, and there’s Mary who sat two desks over in English class, and there’s the guy you buy coffee from every morning...

We have a great love for our city, and it’s terrifying to play here. These people really matter, these gigs really matter to us."

All the guys grew up in Galway County; the Howleys grew up in a small town near Gort.

“We’ve all loved Galway, and Galway has this lovely vibe in the city – people are willing to try new things, it’s very bohemian. It’s got more festivals than any other place in the country. It’s like the Las Vegas of Ireland.” Coming from the States myself, Galway makes a pretty tame LA – but he’s right, in a way. In terms of spirit, passion and boundary-pushing, Galway’s right there.

Any advice for local artists, trying to do what We Banjo 3 do every day?

Galway is brimming with new, talented artists. And with critically acclaimed albums, another on the way, a load of accolades and a packed tour schedule, We Banjo 3 is a success story by any definition.

"Can I tell my mom that?" David jokes. David's advice to hopeful musicians: commit to it, don't worry about selling out, and love what you do.

"I think you need to be willing to give up everything else. This has to be your number one. I don't remember the last time I went for a social pint with a friend.

"You need to jump head-first into it. Give yourself no other option than to succeed.

...If you know that you won't pay your rent next month unless you get gigs, then you will get gigs."

David was two years through an engineering degree at NUIG when the band took off touring. His brother was in the middle of a PhD. Fergal and Enda dropped their lives to go on the road with the band, too.

"Another thing with music is the concept of selling out -- it's always on the tip of people's tongues," David says. "I think there's a huge difference between entertainment, and selling out.

"My dad used to say that in music, fifty percent is what you play, and fifty percent is how you sell it to the people. You can get up there and play your best song in the world, but if no one understands what the song is about... If someone understands what that song's about, it becomes a remedy for them, it might hit a chord in their life that means a little more to them.

"There's a huge fear with artists about selling out... But I say, just do what you do, and enjoy it."

We Banjo 3's mission as a band?

David starts talking about ZZ Top; "This is ridiculous. Old, eclectic -- they look like they're wizards. Picture Gandalf the Grey with an electric guitar." ZZ Top are an American rock band from the 70's who sported long Gandalf-style beards and psychedelic guitars and, David says, always looked like they were having fun.

"They're onstage, and they're laughing. They just look so happy, and comfortable, and content. They were enjoying themselves as much as the crowd was, and that's one of the things that really drives us. To make you work that hard at something, you have to know it's for you. And if you're enjoying the gig as much as the person in the front row, if you're on the same wavelength -- then it's not an option; you just naturally work as hard as you need to."

For We Banjo 3, it's all about loving what they do, having fun, and giving it their all. They want to bring their audience as much love and joy in their music as they get from playing it.

"We as humans understand that love is inherent. That's why we always try to inspire joy with our music... We're not a political band, we don't take that stance. We take the stance that love is inherent, love will win. We are all born with love, and if we try to teach love instead of hate, we'll all be far better off."

Who doesn't love that??

WeBAnjo 3 Full Length Costume Shot

Image from their upcoming album, String Theory, featuring sexy leather and old expensive watches. 

Final words: back to Galway, of course.

"What we've found with every gig we've ever done, any music video we've ever done -- the support of the Galway people is amazing. It's heartwarming. It's what's made me love my city. I don't think anything will ever dull my love of the people of Galway. They stand behind everything. With the ant parade last night -- people flocked to the streets, out there with their pint of Guinness and their winter coats in the middle of summer, having a great time."

Final words, part two: I asked David for a story about being on the road. We Banjo 3 played at the White House, and then President Barack Obama approached them to say hello. The other band members said, "Thank you for having us, Mr. President," etc. etc. David, unprepared, said, "Thanks for having us, man, we had a blast." So casual. They refrained from their "weapons of mass seduction" joke, though.

On that note -- We Banjo 3 is super-excited (and terrified) to play to all you lovely people in Galway tonight at Seapoint in Salthill. 900 tickets sold with only a hundred left -- come out, show your support, feel the love and have a great time with We Banjo 3: get your ticket here. And watch out for Fergal's red pants.

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