Stirring the Musical Melting Pot: Interview with Time for Three

June 23, 2014, 10:22 PM · Violinists Zach De Pue and Nick Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer are still jamming, 14 years after they got together to let off steam and play for fun during the off-hours of their intense classical study at the Curtis Institute.

In fact, their band, Time for Three today released their self-titled album, Time for Three, on Universal Music Classics, which signed them precisely for their genre-defying creativity and flexibility. You may also have heard of the band's travel difficulties in May, when Zach and Nick were denied on a U.S. Airways flight and left on the tarmac because of their violins.

I spoke to all of them a few weeks ago over the phone while they were in New York, about their new album; their residency with the Indianapolis Symphony; their views on genre and education; and their recent travel troubles.

Time for Three
Zach de Pue, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer of Time for Three

When it comes to music, nothing is off-limits for these guys; they draw on the rich and diverse musical mix that has been their American experience, whether it's pop, jazz, folk, alternative or classical. If they love it, they'll weave it in. The result is a synergy of genres, music where Bach's Chaconne ebbs in and out of Bon Iver's "Calgary," or a Beatles tune segues seamlessly into Chopin, and it all somehow makes sense.

"I think if we can approach music like that, where it's just something that we love and it's enjoyable, it doesn't matter what the genre is," Ranaan said. "I'd love to see the world of music go in that direction, where it doesn't matter if it's a string quartet or hip-hop or whatever. I know, in all of my wonderful travels with Nick and Zach, that that is what we stand for. When we get together, we pick up these instruments, we're not doing it for a reason, we're doing it because we feel, and that feeling is what it's all about."

Some might try to call them a "crossover" band, but they reject the label.

"'Crossover' is a marketing thing, you 'cross over' from one genre, and you sort of try your hat at another genre just because you can expand to more people," Nick said. "With the three of us, we've grown up in America and lived an American experience, which is varied in nature. So a lot of those energies, a lot of those sounds, a lot of those genres -- it's fusion. That's what it's like, being in America for the last 10 years, making music. It's more authentic than trying to put on makeup to try to appeal to another person."

For their newest album, it's no surprise that they've teamed up with musicians from many different realms: pop singer Joshua Radin, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, classical cellist Alisa Weilerstein, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, and folk-pop sister duo Lily and Madeleine.

"Throughout our travels, we've been able to run into all sorts of different people and musicians," Ranaan said. "The journey has been really exciting. One of the first people that we ever met was Branford Marsalis -- he's a seasoned veteran compared to us, especially at the time that we met him. He was extremely honest, open and sincere with us about his journey and how he felt about the music business and his art, things that he may have wanted to do different, and why. It was kind of a star-striking moment, because Branford was Branford, and Time for Three was just kind of getting our feet wet. Even so, he put his ego in check and just let us do with him as we wished, and it was really amazing what we were able to learn from him."

"Alisa Weilerstein is an incredible classical cellist, so it was wonderful to do Vocalise with her, arranged by Kenji Bunch. We met Lily and Madeleine, on our series in Indianapolis, and we got to collaborate with them and orchestra," Ranaan said.

"We're very proud about Joshua Radin's appearance on our album," Nick said. "His voice is so beautiful and very simple; it allowed us to bring our experiences of spinning sound, phrasing, dynamics, harmonies, to weave this interesting fabric into some of his most popular songs. The songs that are featured on our record are all from his very first album, We Were Here, which is our favorite album of all of his albums. So for him to just give us those songs to rearrange, it was very meaningful to us, and we also think that his fans are really going to enjoy what we've done."

The other artist was Jake Shimabukuro, "he's a virtuoso ukelele player. He is able to create so many textures and colors on that little instrument. If you just heard him, you would never know that there are just a few strings and the instrument isn't any bigger than a violin. You'd think it's strung with 20 strings and a huge body to it!"

And they really did get that famous "Chaconne" from Bach's Partita in d minor on the album. "For the Chaconne," Zach said, "we took the famous D-minor eight bars and combined it with Bon Iver's 'Calgary.', a beautiful tune. What started that arrangement was a jam session that Ranaan, Nick and I had on the arpeggiated section, a long time ago. We ended up recording it on Garage Band by accident. Years later we were listening to it, and we decided, we should make something out of that. So we resurrected that jam, and 'Chaconne in Winter' is what came to be."

When it comes to live performance, Time for Three has played everything from Carnegie Hall to the Indy 500, basketball games, football games and club dates.

"These last several years, we've been so used to playing in bigger spaces and amplifying," Zach said. The new album represents a return to a more intimate kind of setting, "Instead of shooting our energy way out to the back of the hall, with this album we're sort of drawing people in to our energy. It's sort of what it would be like if you were sitting in a living room with Time for Three, and we were just playing, collaborating with different artists."

"Our show comes with silence before the sound starts," Nick said. "The Indianapolis Colts, the Pacers, the Indy 500 and other organizations have asked us to play the National Anthem before games, where there are literally 60,000 people. It's an incredible opportunity, playing a song that is so important to our country. Everybody knows it, and they're quiet before we start. They can really hear us, and they really listen. It's been so powerful to be our kind of band, having the attention of all those thousands of people and doing it on our terms, starting from silence, but yet everybody can relate to us."

Time for Three plays the U.S. National Anthem at an Indianapolis Colts football game in 2011. By the end, they've got everybody in a frenzy; it's pretty cool!

Time for Three also is the ensemble-in-residence for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which is to say that the three of them serve as symphony ambassadors to the greater community.

"It's useful, having a group like Time for Three that's incredibly portable and able to go into many different settings and situations and perform for people," said Zach, who is also concertmaster of the ISO. "It helps people to at least get a taste of these instruments and of string sound." The hope is that they'll feel a comfort level with the music that might lead them downtown and into the concert hall. "Sometimes people don't understand what it is that goes on in these performing arts buildings," Zach said, "they feel like they have to have a preconceived, learned experience to even step foot inside. And that's farther from the truth than ever; it's really your experience as a human that connects you to the music; you don't have to be a connoisseur to be able to get it."

"Time for Three has reached out to a lot of communities in the Greater Indianapolis area; we've run a series called Happy Hour at the Symphony, which brings in different types of artists who wouldn't necessarily be in front of a symphony orchestra and presents them, gearing the concert to a newer audience," Zach said. "I feel like, humbly or hopefully, it's been working, getting more people who wouldn't normally come to hear the symphony into the doors."

Their outreach also extends to school kids. "It's so important for children to be able to connect with their inner voice," Nick said. "When you work on an instruments, you learn things that will be great life skills. To take something that's outside of your body and make a beautiful sound on it, that takes work, that takes effort, that takes discipline, that takes routine. All of these things are necessary and beautiful qualities for human beings to have, and we see the results of that: it builds community, that it builds commerce, that it leads to good businesses, business skills and communication skills."

And how about that incident with U.S. Airways? Well first of all, it wasn't the first time they'd been asked to check their violins. "Every time, they'd give us a valet stub, and we just would never put it on the instrument, and walk on the plane, no problem. This has happened several times in the past, but we have never had any situation like this past incident."

After they were left on the tarmac in May, they waited another four and a half hours before they were on their way -- "but not before being intercepted at the gate by another U.S. Airways agent who again told us that we needed to gate-check our violins. Again, we insisted that they would fit, and that we had just dealt with this, including a video. It wasn't until I cited the ">FAA regulation stipulating that violins specifically are allowed on the flight did the agent suddenly change his tune, and told us instead to put the valet stubs on our roller briefcases, and just see if we can get on the flight with our violins!"

Their advice for people traveling with instruments?

"Always keep a copy of the law (Section 713) with you, and try to board early."

* * *

From an August 5, 2013 NPR "Tiny Desk Concert," Time for Three plays three tunes: Banjo Love, Sundays and Don Don:

And from the new album: "Roundabouts":

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