Ethan Setiawan knows the importance of a good pick. The Portland, Maine-based mandolin player has lately been experimenting with changing the entire sound of his instrument through one tiny, flat piece, pinched between his fingers. The material, girth, texture, and weight of his pick all play a crucial role in how his mandolin sounds, sometimes bright and plucky, or dark and full-bodied. “It’s good to have a sound and have gear that you like, but often the thing that helps me be more creative is just being able to change it up,” he says. “Change is helpful for your own growth and can really spark new ideas or keep things fresh.”
On his new record, Gambit, he finds himself somewhere in between, which is fitting given the way he fuses his entire musical background to create something completely new. It isn’t jazz, but it’s not not jazz. It’s bluegrass, but not in the traditional sense. It’s funk, but also old-timey.
The Berklee College of Music grad could easily fool you into thinking he’s much older than his years. A seasoned bandmate to some of bluegrass music’s finest — including Gambit producer Darol Anger, whom he first met as a high school student — Setiawan is beginning to carve out space for his own songwriting. Written in Boston, workshopped in California, recorded in Maine, and then mixed in Nashville, Gambit, as its title suggests, is a joyful mixed bag of the many styles of music that have shaped him into one of the most formidable mandolinists of his generation.
BGS: Darol Anger produced this record, and though you had been playing together for some time, this was your first experience working with each other in this capacity. What led to this partnership?
Ethan Setiawan: We’ve played a bunch of gigs over the years, and it just felt like a good next thing to do was to make a record with him. And he was on board thankfully. We had plans to [record] in August 2020, and then the pandemic started to happen, and it became apparent that wasn’t going to work. So eventually I did make this big road trip out to California where Darol was living at the time, and we had these really nice couple weeks out there, working through the material, just me and Darol kind of playing through the stuff, trying to solidify arrangements and get ideas down on paper to go into the studio with. And eventually in October, we made it into a studio, the Great North Sound Society Studio in Parsonsfield, Maine. We had this four-day session and worked probably 12 to 14 hours a day, every day. And sometimes sessions like those feel like work, you feel tired and drained after a day. But at least for me, those sessions felt really fun, really good. Part of that was not having played music with a band before that time for six months or whatever, and it was cool for me to see these tunes come together, and just working with Darol and seeing how he functioned in the studio. He put in the longest hours of everybody. He was up until 3:00 every night, replacing fiddle parts and working on everything.
The tunes on Gambit are all originals, but there’s so much tradition rooted in these styles of music you’re playing. How do you reconcile that when trying to create your own compositions?
I do a lot of that, pulling from past traditions or old recordings. A lot of the compositional ideas and things that remain the same throughout the record are tunes by people like Matt Flinner and Béla Fleck, other people that have kind of pushed the envelope compositionally. On the record there’s kind of a whole, well, gambit of different styles. There’s old-timey music with fiddle and banjo, Appalachian string band [style] — and kind of in chronological order, I guess the influences would start there. Then you’d move into bluegrass, get into jazz and eventually fusion, funk, that kind of thing. Darol actually summed it up nicely. He was in the David Grisman quartet way back in the day, so he kind of had a hand in forming this style of music. He said something along the lines of, it felt like a journey through the past 40 years of his career. It just ended up this way that all these tunes grabbed from different areas of the past 40 years. The old-timey, the bluegrass, the sort of new acoustic, the jazz. And hopefully by merit of them being my tunes, they kind of hold together as a collection at the end of the day.
How much of creating an original arrangement is improvisational?
For me, there’s always a lot of throwing paint at the wall. There’s a stage that kinda looks like that, where I write a lot of tunes or even just generate a lot of ideas, not even taking the tunes to a completed state. The way I write is kind of two stages: there’s the melody and there’s the harmony, these two sides of the composition. Basically, I write the melody and I try all different combinations of notes and phrase endings. With chords, I’m always trying different stuff. That does a lot to create a mood, I think, for the tune. For any one note, you could harmonize in many different ways, and for any one bar. So I think the important thing for me is just to try all the options, really try to be objective, and see what works the best and what feels the best. Mandolin is the main thing that I play, but I also play some guitar and some cello. So just getting off the instrument I’m most familiar with and getting onto something else can be really helpful in sparking some creativity.
Given this wide range of styles of music you’ve played over the years, how do you describe your sound now?
I’d say that it’s sort of a furthering of the stuff that Darol’s been really involved in, this new acoustic sound. Which is not a label I totally love—just the sound of it—but it’s kinda what we got, I guess. It’s using the attitude of bluegrass in a lot of ways, but not being confined to the stylistic trappings of bluegrass if that makes sense. If you think about how Bill Monroe created bluegrass, he’s kind of the guy that finally took all these influences and put ‘em together and said, ‘here’s the thing.’ He wasn’t even trying to be original; he just was being original. He was just taking all the music that he liked and synthesizing it into what he wanted to hear. And that isn’t often actually the attitude of bluegrass musicians today, but it’s an interesting concept to me and a really interesting way to sort of look at music. So that’s the essence of bluegrass that I’m trying to go after.
How has your relationship with bluegrass evolved since your earliest experience with it?
I think bluegrass is kind of the underpinning of everything that I do, even if it’s not at the forefront of the final product. When I started playing mandolin, I started playing these old-time fiddle tunes, which pretty quickly brought me to bluegrass. When we’re talking about progressions, that is kind of the natural next step for somebody who’s interested in the tunes and the music and improvising especially. You’ll get drawn to bluegrass and then eventually to jazz and so on. That bluegrass vocabulary on the mandolin is really the basis of most of my writing and my playing. And I think that comes through on the record almost more in the way that we approach the tunes and treat how we play the tunes more than the compositions themselves. There are a couple tunes that are a little more bluegrass, but they’re always a little weird. There’s always something a little funky about them. It’s sort of the attitude of the thing that I think has stuck with me the most.
Photo Credit: Louise Bichan