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Interview: Warren Hellman

Posted by: on Dec 9, 2010 | Comments (0)

Even if the Wronglers were the worst band in the universe, I’d still want to go to their show this weekend, worm my way up front and give a standing ovation to every song simply because of the group’s frontman, Warren Hellman. Hellman, as many may know, is the lovable billionaire who’s made the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival a reality in San Francisco for over a decade, at no charge whatsoever to the hundreds of thousands of fans who attend the world-famous event every year.

Luckily, the Wronglers aren’t just decent, they’re downright good. But don’t try to tell that to Hellman.

How did you learn the banjo?

Well, first, don’t assume that I’ve learned it! I’ve always loved banjo music, probably for the worst reasons. I’ve loved listening to Earl Scruggs and those guys, but even worse, I’ve always loved listening to the Kingston Trio. Everybody tells me that I shouldn’t admit that, but I like their music, I like their banjo playing. I’ve always liked this kind of music, and I tried to play it for three or four years. I didn’t play it for about 30 years, and now I play as much as I humanly can for the last 10 years.

I heard a rumor you tried to get Pete Seeger to give you lessons at one point.

What happened was pretty straightforward. I was 28 years old, I thought I was an important investment banker, and it took me a long time to realize that “important investment banker” is an oxymoron. So like most people learning to play this type of banjo—that is, old-time double-thumbing—I thought, “Why don’t I take lessons from Pete Seeger?” I’d bought his book, and what I’d learned so far I’d got from his book. So I started trying to call Pete Seeger, and of course he never returned my call. Finally this guy called me and said, “Mr. Hellman, I am Mr. Seeger’s manager. What do you want?” I said, “I’m Warren Hellman, I’m at Lehman Brothers, and I’d really like to take lessons from Pete Seeger.” And he said, “Well, I’d like to hang up.”

Why did you wait so long to debut your banjo playing at the festival?

First I wanted to have some idea that I could play again. It was three or four years after I started taking lessons again. And we’d formed the band. It just seemed to make sense. By the way, you understand that this is the original pay-to-play. I’m putting on the whole goddamn festival so my band can play for 30 minutes on opening day!

How often do you guys get together to rehearse?

Hourly. Ron Thomason from Dry Branch Fire Squad said, “You guys rehearse more than any band I’ve ever seen or heard anywhere.” I said, “Yeah, but look at how far we have to go!” We rehearse twice a week, sometimes for four or five hours. All the rest of the musicians have gotten really good. All but one. Which is why I don’t even introduce myself when we’re playing.

How does it feel being asked to play shows apart from the festival now?

I keep saying that the best moment of my life was when we played in South by Southwest last year, and the day after we played, I was sitting listening to Buddy Miller when a guy comes up and taps me on the shoulder and says, “Hey, aren’t you with the Wronglers?” I said, “Shit, man, for 40 years I was an investment banker, and not one person ever recognized me anyplace.” The guy said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. What’s your name?” I said, “Man, you’ve just made my life!”

You’re such a hero to all the performers at the festival. Are they still heroes to you?

One of my partners was on a television show a couple weeks ago, where it was him and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Somebody said, “Does that make you jealous?” I said, “No, but if he was on a show with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, that’d really piss me off.” I know this sounds too gushy or too starry-eyed, but I think the nicest collection of people I’ve met in my life are all these performers. I don’t know. Maybe because it’s such a tough way to make a living or something. I was in the nastiest, most competitive business that you could imagine for a lot of years, where not only did most people dislike their competitors, they even disliked the people they worked with!

You’ve been an investment banker, an athlete—both are pretty demanding. Is playing bluegrass just as intense and challenging?

Oh, yeah. I’m 76. At 86 I might be mediocre. But the deeper answer to that is that I really believe that you should have something you do in your life where you’re capable of improvement. I’m never going to run as fast as I did, I’m never going to ski powder the way I did. Everything else, as you get older, you try to preserve what you did, and you can’t. So having really started playing banjo ten years ago, there are signs—not very many—but there are signs that I can improve. Have I bored you to tears?

No! I look forward to seeing you in Petaluma—anything special worked up?

They said to us, “This is a Christmas show, you oughta do a Christmas song.” Of course what they’re expecting, I suppose, is “Silent Night.” But we’ve written our own song. The opening line is “Sweet baby Jesus, if only you knew / Just what your birth would lead us all to.” Do you think we’ll be in trouble in Petaluma with that?

Warren Hellman and the Wronglers with Arann Harris and the Farm Band play ‘The Big Give Back’ on Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 6:30pm. $10 with two cans of food; $15 otherwise. 707.762.3565.