Posted July 30, 2017 by Jeff in Tunes

4 Guys Combine 2 Cultures with We Banjo 3

© We Banjo 3 2017 by David Norton
© We Banjo 3 2017 by David Norton

Back in 2016, We Banjo 3 was selected to perform at the annual “Friends of Ireland” luncheon on Capitol Hill. President Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny were all in attendance. That performance speaks to the young band’s burgeoning popularity. Now, the group which released its latest effort, String Theory, last year, is on a summer tour. The band plays traditional and original songs that explore “the timeless interaction of Irish and American music.” Multi-instrumentalist Dave Howley spoke to us via phone from his Nashville home, where he’s lived for the past year after living in London for about two years. “I decided I should really live in the country where I do most of my work.”

How did the band first come together?
About seven years we started with me, my brother Martin, and Enda Scahill. The three of us got together to explore banjo sounds. It was three guys with three banjos. It was exceptionally fun. People took to it immediately. Our first gig was the Galway International Arts Festival and it sold out, partly because of the band’s name. We quickly decided the band was changing so much that it needed an introduction of something else, which was Fergal Scahill, who is our fiddle player. He brought an energy to the band that was intoxicating. He and his brother [Enda] had been gigging today for eight years. They had a great chemistry. The band was built on the chemistry by two sets of brothers. We’re almost like four brothers on the road now. Instead of three banjos, I switched to guitar and bass and started singing a lot more.

What inspired you to blend bluegrass into your sound?
We’ve been branded as Celtgrass. We’ve been given a brand new genre. If you think about it, Irish music came to America and captivated people and blended with the music from the time. That’s where you get American country and folk music. It’s a blend of all the different music that came over. Lots of bands have done the Irish music mixed with bluegrass before. It’s usually done in terms of Irish music with a sprinkling of bluegrass on top. What’s different is that we as musicians have changed massively. I live in Nashville to explore my songwriting and incorporate it with the Irish style I have. Instead of us being four Irish guys playing bluegrass, we’re four Irish guys influenced by it. It’s a seamless blending of Irish and bluegrass. It would be hard to find the point where it’s Irish and the point where it’s bluegrass.

The music has a strong Irish feeling and we mix that with the pyrotechnics of bluegrass.

You put out your first album in 2012. What was that experience like?
I’m the youngest and when we wrote and recorded it, I was 21. I’ve grown up in We Banjo 3. Our first promo photos are me with a terrible bowl haircut and blonde hair and clean shaven. Recording that album for us was important. We wanted to have music that was thematically relevant. It was the exploration of that journey where Irish music had gone and what it influenced. That’s where that music and sound comes from. It’s an almost perfect blend of American folk and Irish music.

What made you want to release a live album?
I think Live in Galway was an important album for us. People told us that they loved our records but the live show was nuts. There’s a lot of energy in the room, and it’s the way we want to gig. We don’t play to you. You become part of us for the night. Live in Galway was recorded at the place where we did our first show. It was a live audience. We had a four-piece brass section and tons of guests. What was so fun for us was that we had to give away stage space. Our brass section stood on table in the crowd. It was an intense setting. The music encapsulates us. It was such a great album to make.

Talk about String Theory. What did you try to do differently?
It’s the culmination of all our work. “This is Home” is a song I wrote when I was 21 and living in Belfast. There is an emphasis on the personal side of things. That album was where the band was at and bringing some music that almost terrified us to play. “This is Home” is about how the anger from the troubles in Ireland kicked off. You saw kids rioting and the hatred they felt was handed down to them. They weren’t alive during the troubles. Moments like that inspired the music. It’s maybe more serious on the writing side of things. We hope to record a new album in January which will be a personal album and we have new songs we wrote on the past couple of tours. We don’t want to do the same thing over and over.

That jam in “Kentucky Grind” is really great.
It’s fun music to play. Maybe that’s the benefit we have in being an instrumental band and a vocal band. Half our music in instrumental half is vocals. It’s like we get three-and-a-half-minute solos.

Photo: © We Banjo 3 2017 by David Norton


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].