And Interview With Scythian
Once again, the sounds of fiddles, pipes and step dancing will echo out over Riverscape MetroPark (111 E. Monument Ave.) as the United Irish of Dayton present the 9th Annual Dayton Celtic Festival on July 30th, 31st and August 1st. The festival, as always, will offer an eclectic collection of music, crafts, demonstrations and displays celebrating everything Celtic.
One of the bands that will be performing is the epitome of eclectic. Known simply as Scythian, the bands has created a unique blend with their Ukrainian and Middle Eastern Heritage with their love of Celtic music to conjure up a sound that is as singularly seamlessly as it is effortlessly energetic. They have quickly become road veterans on the Celtic circuit (having played at the last three Dayton Celtic Festivals alone), but they are also enjoying a rather large crossover popularity at the various bluegrass, Americana and grassroots styled festivals.
I was able to speak at length with one of the founding members of the band, Danylo Fedoryka, and what follows is our unedited conversation about the progression of their music, their influences and their current projects.
J.T.: Well, I guess the first thing is is how you all came up with the whole Ukrainian slant to your music?
Dan: Oh! My brother and I kind of started the band and our parents both immigrated from the Ukraine during World War II. It was just sort of a progression. We started playing mostly Celtic music, but then we had this music that we grew up with and we wanted to start playing some of our heritage and so we kind of came up with this mix.
J.T.: You know, the thing is, I listened to a lot of your stuff and there were some that had an almost total Ukrainian/Gypsy sound to it, then there were other things that you had that was Celtic music, but the back beat had that Gypsy flavor to it.
Dan: Yeah! Or, also, Middle Eastern because our drummer, his dad is from Jordan. I really think that the Celtic music lends itself really well to Middle Eastern drums. They have the same rhythms. So do African beats, like 6/8 time…the Irish jigs are in the same rhythm as the African tribal beats. They actually say that in Ireland, the Egyptian monks came over and things like the Celtic cross and those symbols are actually Coptic, which is Egyptian. The bagpipes also originated elsewhere as well, in the Middle East, so it seems somewhere, way, way back, those cultures immigrated from wherever they were from and influenced the Irish culture and tradition. It’s kind of cool to play the Ukrainian music with the Celtic music because there is almost a natural fit, going towards the East.
J.T.: I have to admit that I was really surprised by it too. When I read that it was Celtic music with a Ukrainian flavor, I was like, ‘Oh no…this is going to be horrific. I mean, there are a couple of Slavic influenced bands out there that have moshed their own traditional sound with something that God never intended and it comes out sounding like cats being strangled.
Dan: Yeah! (laughing) There have definitely been some failed attempts, or it can come across as cheesy or contrived.
J.T.: Well, like I said, this seemed to lend itself really well to create a great blending.
Dan: Well, I think that one of the reasons that we are attracted to Celtic music is that the stuff resonated with the things that we grew up with, because the Ukrainians are somewhat like the Irish in a lot of respects. They were the peasants of that part of the world. They were farmers whose main staple was the potato and they were oppressed throughout most of their history. I guess we just find a lot of commonalities between our cultural traditions and the Celtic traditions and culture. Because of the musical selections that we pick in the Celtic genre that we try and bring back into our Ukrainian influences, it meshes very well. It’s not like we say, ‘Well I want to make Whiskey In A Jar Slavic.’ It’s just not going to work.
J.T.: Well, certain elements could lend themselves to another treatment of sorts. It’s kind of like Béla Fleck: he’s pulled off some stuff within the bluegrass genre that is just amazing. I mean, when you hear it described, you’re like, ‘Okay, a banjo with African tribal rhythms? Um, no.’ But then you hear it and it’s absolutely seamless.
Dan: Yeah! It’s very interesting that, as a musician, I tend to be a little bit skeptical, and then once it goes down, it sounds awesome. We were in Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh Irish Festival and afterward, there was an after party and there was a guy who was from India. He played in an Irish band called Corned Beef and Curry and so we were playing and he was playing some stuff and so I was like, ‘Hey! Can we play something from India?’ and so he was like, ‘Okay, cool.’ He said, ‘Start playing one of your Irish songs.’ we started playing one of our songs called Drums of Belfast in the key of D Minor and he just laid down these ridiculous Indian melodies over this Celtic song. It just sounded off the chain. But before he started playing, I said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work,’ but it ended up being dynamite and I just love those moments where you go, ‘Oh my Gosh! This really does work!’
J.T.: So how have you guys been accepted on the Celtic circuit?
Dan: Well, at first, there was a lot of skepticism about us, but people liked our energy, but they didn’t know if this whole ‘eclectic’ thing would work. So, our first year, we only ended up with like three or festivals interested in us, but after that, I think it really resonated a lot, especially since we really try and incorporate the crowd into it. My grandmother, she’s still living and she’s one hundred years old and she used to tell us that every three or four months, a fiddler would come to her village and when that happened, everything stopped, everyone finished work and went into a bar and the fiddler would play for like five or six hours straight and everyone would just dance. It was their only opportunity to let off steam. My brother and I just loved that imagery of just a fiddler coming in and having a hoedown and enabling that and so I think our vibe, even though we had a vibe of a communal entity, there is something separate from that which I think the Irish festivals capture and that I think happened in Ireland where they would have sessions and people would get up and dance. About fifty to sixty percent of our music is still Celtic, or Celtic based, so it wasn’t like we weren’t Celtic at all, but I think, after the first year, word caught on, which is great. This year we were at the Milwaukee Irish Fest for the fourth straight year and we’re going to be in Dayton for the third straight year and I think we are going to be expanding a little bit. When you get asked back, it’s just a real good feeling to know that people really value what they were, at first, a little skeptical about. They value it somewhat like a flavor, a break from straight out Celtic music all weekend long, so people can feel some of the other influences out there. It’s been fun as the appreciation grows.
J.T.: Well, one of my things has been that there should be someone in there that crosses over different lines to cater to those who may have a preconceived notion of what, say, Celtic music is, so this different aspect draws them in and they are then able to explore the more ‘purer’ forms of the genre.
Dan: Yeah! The cross-pollination. See, to me, that’s forward thinking and that is how festivals will grow.
J.T.: Yeah, if you have the same groups year after year with the same sound, it can become tedious, and that would be counterproductive in growing a festival.
Dan: Well, Bill Russell over at the Dayton Celtic Festival has done a great job bringing in bands that are cutting edge. He had brought in Slide for a couple of years and, in my mind, they are the best traditional band on the circuit. If you like traditional Irish music, I would say that there is no one better than that band for that.
J.T.: Well, even when you’re talking about the Chieftains, who most would consider the ‘old guard’ of Celtic music, they have never really be what you would call ‘traditional.’ They have dipped into many different genres. Their last recording had a South American influence. Long story short, there were regiments of Irish soldiers fighting the Mexican-American War and a lot of them deserted into South America, so there are pockets of ‘traditional’ South American music that is heavily influenced by the Celtic music.
Dan: Ah, interesting.
J.T.: Well, the Irish immigrants were basically conscripted into the military. America said, ‘If you run down here and fight our war, we’ll let you into the country,’ but most Irishmen couldn’t bring themselves to fight fellow Catholics, so they deserted. But the music, it’s still part of the Celtic heritage, just like bluegrass is. I guess I just have a problem with that purist mentality. It has it’s place for preservation, but music is a living entity.
Dan: Yeah, we grew up with that. We’re classically trained. Our mom went to Julliard and she was very into only classical music, and so that is what we were trying to get away from. When we started and we came across some of those attitudes, it really rubbed us the wrong way. There’s a living tradition, I think, and the people like The Chieftains will step outside of their comfort zone. I think that is what all art is. You should never be finished.
J.T.: Yeah, you become complacent and stagnant. Where do you guys see yourselves going from this point in time?
Dan: Well, we’re kind of positioned pretty interestingly, like we’ve somehow manged to span across a lot of different circuits. There is a certain ‘what is it?’ quality to our identity. People can’t really pigeonhole us, so we find ourselves doing really, really well in the more grassroots circuits. We get incredible responses at those festivals. We’re biggest in the Celtic circuits I think, but we’re not too far behind that on those grassroots circuits. We have also found ourselves in the bluegrass circuits. We’ve been at MerleFest, which is in North Carolina.
J.T.: There’s a lot of stuff coming out of North Carolina.
Dan: You know, North Carolina is a really awesome state for us because there are a lot of Scottish people there and a lot of Celtic people who live in the mountains and who are really into bluegrass, so like when we play our Celtic stuff, they just go nuts. It’s really a powerful state for us. MerleFest has been really good for us, to open us up to a different realm in terms of Americana and bluegrass. Think that this summer is going to a really big one for us, because last year, even though we did a lot of festivals, this year I think we feel a little bit more comfortable and established. We spent like six weeks in the studio recording our next album and it’s all original and it will be nice coming out of that because, you know, you just become that much tighter when you do that. We have new product, like we have a new live CD and a new DVD. This is our first ever live DVD and we’ve been waiting years to get it done and we finally completed it. My brother and I just did a children’s album…
J.T.: Oh that would be cool.
Dan: Yeah! It’s just been something that…we have a bunch of nephews and nieces…we actually have like twenty-five nephews and nieces…
Dan: Yeah! I know! And we have to entertain them, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we just put this down on an album?’ so we kind of wrote it for them. It was just nice for us…if you’re just doing one thing all the time, and treating everything like it’s just a source of money, then it isn’t art anymore. It’s been really satisfying for us to just dabble in a lot of different things. I just see this summer is going to be a big summer for us, being like, ‘Okay, we’ve arrived’ and I think our show is always getting better and it’s a pretty powerful show now. We’re kind of looking to bring in some supplemental performers for certain shows to just have some fun. When you go into the studio, your songs take different shapes, so we’re like, ‘Well, let’s bring that onto the road with us.’ It’s not going to be every show, but like my sister played cello on the album and I want to get her out for some festivals. I think she’s going to be at the Dayton one. It’s just going to be fun for us to see how we mature into a band that is comfortable using guest performers and can incorporate other elements to make a bigger sound.
J.T.: Yeah, and it keeps everyone on their toes.
Dan: Yeah, and for those who have seen us over the years, it’s going to be like, ‘Oh! This is something new!’
J.T.: Well, the live stuff I’ve seen from you guys, it seems like interacting with the crowd seems to be a big, integral part of the performance.
Dan: Definitely! For us it’s just like…I can go watch a virtuosic performer, but I find myself getting bored. I want to have some kind of interaction with that person. Ultimately I feel like it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes, where people are saying, ‘It’s so amazing! It’s so Amazing!’ but if you really stop, you’re like, ‘No, it’s boring.’ People want to have that interaction, they want variety. I was talking to our engineer at the studio and we were trying to discuss the length of the album ad he said, ‘I highly recommend, so not go longer than forty-three minutes…’
J.T.: Well, that’s rather specific.
Dan: Yeah! He said that it is the longest that the human mind can really focus if you don;t have any visual cues. It was interesting listening to his philosophy on that. We feel really strongly about that. We customize every set list. We show up and get a feel for the venue and then we sit down and we really stress mixing up instrumentals, the vocals and what genres would appeal to this specific audience. I guess you can say it’s almost like ADD.
J.T.: Well, I guess that’s kind of the way everything is now.
Dan: Yeah, but I think there are times for everything, like it would be fun to do something completely out of the ordinary, like an acoustic set or with mellow music, because you don’t want to be pigeonholed, like this is all you can do, so it will be like you show up at a show and you’re like, ‘Man, I wasn’t expecting this!’ I think there needs to be a magnanimity of spirit. I think that’s the key for performers that they need to give of themselves on stage and it’s amazing, as far as classical logic goes, the crowd can sense in an instant if you’re being egotistical or insincere. It’s amazing how quickly you can lose a crowd in the span of a second. They could have been right there with you and then, all of a sudden, you just left them behind because they’re sensing that they’re not the focal point anymore.
J.T.: Yeah, that cuts across any type of entertainment.
Dan: Yeah, that’s been really interesting, learning the psychology of crowds. That’s one of the things that’s kind of nice about all these festivals…I’m not going to label the people that put these festivals on. They are just a bunch of independent people who are in the same boat as us and there’s kind of a hunger, but there’s also a kind of approachability that people have to these artists and I rarely run into people that have egos on these circuits, and that’s nice.
J.T.: Well, another good thing about the festival circuits are the influences that you can run into. You’re not in a vacuum.
Joe: Yeah, you especially see it on like the grassroots festivals. There’s tons of that going on because people really like to sit in with other people. We actually had a guy that sat in with us at one festival. He is a banjo player and a great banjo player at that. He was like, ‘Hey! I want to sit in with you guys.’ so we were like okay, we’ll pick a couple of songs and all of a sudden, we’re like, ‘Oh my Gosh! This is brilliant!’ and we got stretched because of that. At the Celtic festivals, there’s the after parties where everyone jams all night long. It really is a great oasis for musicians.
J.T.: Uh-oh…I just got an email from your publicist saying that she left a message for Mike to track you down so you will call me.
Dan: (Laughing) Yeah! They’re on me!
J.T.: Yeah, when you said your producer told you that forty-three minutes is the longest a person can pay attention to something, I automatically flashed on Amadeus…do you remember that movie?
Dan: I love that movie!
J.T.: When they were telling Amadeus he would have to cut out parts from his masterpiece because, ‘there are too many notes for the royal ear.’
Dan: (Laughing) That’s great…’for the royal ear’…I have to remember that.
J.T.: Well, is there anything that you want out there that I haven’t already asked?
Dan: Well, there is one thing, if you can mention it, is that we’re excited about touring the Midwest for the next month and that we’re coming back to Dayton with brand new product, the live album Vol. II and the live DVD that we just released and the kid’s album and that we’re just coming out of six weeks in the studio, so we’re really taken what we’ve learned in the studio and we plan to hit the road running.
You can catch Scythian performing live at the Dayton Celtic Festival on the WDTN Stage on Friday, July 30th at 10 pm, Saturday July 31st at 2:20 pm and Sunday August 1st at 1:40 pm. They will also be seen on the Guinness Stage on Saturday at 8:00 pm. For more information about Scythian, go to their website, which has their whole history and their current projects, tour dates, pictures and a collection of their music. For more information about the upcoming Celtic Festival, go to the United Irish of Dayton’s website for a list of scheduled events and musicians slated to perform.