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Strung Out

Emily Zemler

More and more rock bands are taking classically trained string musicians on tour. Some even invite them to join the band. If Yellowcard's Sean Mackin can bring the rock violin to MTV-friendly pop-punk, could the cello be the new Stratocaster?

Yellowcard's Sean Mackin

Sean Mackin has been playing the violin since he was six years old. Like most formally trained string instrumentalists, Mackin has been through the Suzuki Method (a form of classical training), taken private lessons and studied his instrument thoroughly in school. But unlike most other classical violinists, Mackin is influenced more by the Clash than by Mozart.

Instead of playing concert halls, Mackin rocks the dusty parking lots of the Warped Tour in pop-punk band Yellowcard, whose recent album Ocean Avenue shot the MTV-endeared group into the spotlight. Mackin may be the only pop-punk violinist with a video in rotation at MTV, but as a classically trained string instrumentalist who's a permanent member of a rock band, he is not alone.

The use of string instruments in rock is not a new phenomenon; bands have been employing string arrangements on recordings for years. Lori Goldsten, a classically trained cellist, toured with Nirvana and played on their Unplugged album. "Of course I'm biased and think that cello's the greatest thing ever," says Goldsten, who has also recorded on numerous bands' albums, including Bush and Presidents of the United States of America. "It can sound vocal in several ways, very percussive, or it can add amazing amounts body to the overall sound. There's an enormous range of textures available."

Jean Cook, who tours and records with Ida, Jon Langford, Jenny Toomey and Gena Rowlands, agrees that strings add something just a little different to a rock lineup. "I like the way strings add depth to sound," Cook notes. "In Ida, the strings and harmonium often play together to make a thick harmonic bed for the vocals to sit in. In other rock situations you'll usually hear strings added for a kind of cinematic texture, to make a song feel nostalgic or spooky or sweet. The spooky, creepy side of string playing is really interesting to me. I recently recorded a bunch of stuff with Dalek, this maxi evil noisy experimental hip-hop crew, who specifically wanted strings on their record because they wanted to make it 'more evil sounding.' "

In this age of bands like the Arcade Fire and the Polyphonic Spree, who make unconventional rock instruments seem common, many bands who record with strings are trying to maintain that sound while on tour. For example, the Canadian band Stars, who employ string arrangements on their new album Set Yourself on Fire, brought a small orchestra on a few tour dates, and singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne tours with a string quartet so that he can replicate the sounds of his album in a live setting. "I think with the evolution of modern technology, it has been easier to incorporate strings into live settings," Rick Nelson, violinist for The Polyphonic Spree, explains. "For years strings were only possible for rock bands on recordings. Strings add an orchestral aspect unattainable through the timbres of traditional rock instruments. Violins and violas are a great harmonic addition to guitars and keyboard ranges, while cellos and the upright bass are very complimentary to the electric bass. Although it is in the beginning stages, more bands everyday are starting to use strings."

Part of the reason, as Amy Domingues, cellist for Garland of Hours, points out, is that recent technological innovations allow for fewer problems onstage. "There's a lot of technical issues that as a string player you have to deal with. It can be very frustrating, especially if you're playing with volume, because string instruments are not really designed to be amplified. If you plug them into an amplifier and turn them up, you get all kinds of feedback." Rather than the thin, solid-body electric cellos that many rock musicians use, Domingues has settled on a carbon fiber cello with a special pickup, because she prefers the traditional shape. "I don't call it an electric cello," Domingues says. "I call it an amplified cello." Other cellists, like Sarah Balliet, of Murder by Death, and Gretta Cohn, of Cursive, play the slimmer, modern-art looking electric cellos that can be plugged directed into an amp. Balliet used to lug a traditional cello on the road with her but she would become nervous watching roadies slam her wooden cello around at a show, and has since switched to an electric cello.

Once, roadies would have no reason to know how to handle cellos on the road, because there simply wouldn't be any. But now there seems to be a new trend of having a string player who actually tours and records as a full-time member of the band. "Bands have used string sections to charge songs emotionally for a long, long time," explains Cohn. "The use of the string player as a collaborative member of the band is more rare." Cohn, who has been playing the cello for more than twenty years, is also classically trained in the Suzuki school, high school, summer music camps and a stint with the New York Youth Symphony. When she joined the Cursive in 2000, fans were surprised by the addition of a cellist to their favorite rock band. "People had low expectations," she explains, "possibly because they didn't really get what we were doing yet, that I wasn't going to just be droning on one note the whole time. I think someone even said to me in the early tours that he didn't think I would be any good, that I would be bad for Cursive, but that seeing us live changed his mind."

Christian Fredericksen, a viola player who holds a masters from Julliard, plays in avant-rock band Rachels, who bridge the gap between classical music and rock. "It's getting more common for there to be string players up on stage, so people are less surprised than when we started," Fredericksen says. "I'm glad that there are more string players in rock bands playing in clubs. It's hopefully a good sign that it's not necessary to just think about playing in an orchestra. I think it could be more fun for younger kids to think, 'Wow I could play in a band and be on MTV playing the violin just as easily as I could playing the guitar.' I think that's cool."

So with the MTV success of Yellowcard, will we be deluged with bands looking to make their mark via a quirky string instrumentalist? Musical instrument manufacturers think so, creating cellos and violins that are specifically tailored to playing rock music. Companies like Yamaha, Zeta and Jordan all carry several models of electric cellos, violins, violas and upright basses that are smaller, lighter and more durable than the traditional versions, making them perfect for life on the road. Yamaha, in particular, highlights the compact nature of the electric cello, suggesting that a musician would desire one for its easy ability to travel. The companies also offer amps and effects, specifically created for use with a string instrument.

Mackin insists that he never intended to launch a trend. "There's always been alternate instruments in music, like the flute in Jethro Tull, and everyone uses string arrangements," Mackin points out. "It's just nice that we recreate that live. If I played the guitar or the drums or the bass I'd be playing music, but I suck at those instruments. I play what I know and I love music. I'm trying to change music or put my mark on anything, I just want to play my violin and make the best songs I can."

But Mackin and his fellow rock violinists do provide aspiring musicians who don't play the usual guitar, bass or drums with a viable route to rock. "When we first started out we got a lot of funny looks," Mackin says. "Like, 'What is that kid doing up there with that thing?' Now it's like, 'You make it cool for us violinists or orchestra nerds to play our music out.' Before you had play guitar or bass or drums to be cool, but now there's a lot of people who come up and support me. I'm kind of like a role model now, which is weird, but still it's very comforting because I definitely know what it was like to be young and play a different instrument and get crap for it."

Balliet notes that when her band first got started several years ago some audience members were perplexed by the incidence of a cello onstage. "You'd be amazed at how many people have never seen a cello before, especially not an electric one," Balliet says. "So [initially] there was a lot of 'What the hell is that?' People who were a little more familiar with classical music were very receptive, very interested to hear it in a band."

But Ursula Damm, cellist for New York band ps, points out that strings may not be universally agreeable. "I don't think cello fits in every rock band," Damm says. "It obviously depends on the music. It wouldn't necessarily fit with the Sex Pistols or Life of Agony or something. For us, I think the warm sound of the cello fits nicely with the sound of Patrick Savage's voice and the rest of the music. In some songs it balances the sounds of the guitars, in others it establishes a contrast within the music as a whole."

Cohn also notes that just adding strings or other unconventional instruments to a rock lineup is not necessarily always the best way to make your music unique. "Musicians who are striving for a new sound will find their own ways to stand out from the pack," Cohn says. "However, good songwriting will always triumph over a band that has an array of odd instruments."

But whether the cello craze is just a trend or the beginning of a permanent place in rock 'n' roll doesn't particularly matter to Mackin: "It's not like I'm out there to prove something," he says. "I'm out there to have fun. I have the best job in the world, and it doesn't matter if you're gonna throw something at me. 'Cause chances are you're not gonna hit me."

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