Updated: Mar 22, 2022
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY THE FAUX PAWS
The Faux Paws are an innovative and virtuosic folk and roots dance music trio comprised of GRAMMY®-nominated saxophonist Chris Miller, Noah VanNorstrand and Andrew VanNorstrand, who is based in Brattleboro, Vermont. After perfecting their musical chemistry over a decade of touring and collaboration, their efforts have culminated in the release of their first full-length project. Released on August 27th, 2021, their self-titled debut LP The Faux Paws combines multiple genres to create an immersive and captivating musical experience. We, at VERMONT Magazine, had the chance to speak with Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand at Old Mill Road Recording in the days leading up to the release of their new project. Over the course of the interview, they spoke openly about their music, their creative process, and the impact that the Green Mountain State has had on their artistic trajectory.
Benjamin: Thanks so much for joining us, Andrew and Noah! Let’s start off with the basics. I understand that you two are brothers. Where were you born, and how did you first get started playing music?
Andrew: We’re from upstate New York originally. We were both born and raised in the Syracuse area. We’ve been playing music together for many years. I started playing fiddle when I was eight years old, and Noah ended up picking it up several years later. I took lessons, and Noah learned to play by ear - by playing with me.
Noah: That’s exactly right. I don’t know if this is bragging or if it’s the opposite of bragging, but I still can’t read music. I don’t know how music theory works at all. Andrew and I approach music in two very different ways given his understanding of music theory, but we’ve always enjoyed playing together.
Benjamin: Was there ever any kind of sibling rivalry when you were growing up?
Andrew: We’ve always played very collaboratively. If I was working on a chord progression, Noah would be working on the melody. If I was working on lyrics, Noah would be working on the groove. We would go back and forth like that. Occasionally, we would have different ideas about how it should go. We weren’t too competitive, because we both specialized in different areas as musicians.
Noah: We would very rarely fight when we were growing up. On the rare occasions when we would argue, it was always about music. It didn’t happen very often. I wrote a lot of tunes when I was younger, and some of the tunes didn’t have chords, because they were just based in fiddle melodies. Andrew would say things like, “Well, if you just changed the melody a little bit, it could have a chord progression underneath it,” and I would say “No! You don’t understand what I’m doing!” We always ended up working it out eventually, but there were a few funny moments like that.
Benjamin: Were there any musicians or groups that really influenced your sound when you were growing up?
Andrew: There are definitely some musicians in the fields of roots, acoustic roots and bluegrass music that deeply influenced us. Béla Fleck and Kristy Lee certainly fit that description. Some of our biggest influences were musicians and groups from Vermont. We were heavily influenced by a band called, “Nightingale.” They were a trio of Vermont-based musicians: Jeremiah McLane, Keith Murphy and Becky Tracy. We would go to dances and folk festivals and listen to them. The way that they put together powerful and intricate arrangements with only three instruments was amazing! I think we draw on that a lot in our music that we’re making with The Faux Paws today. We make roots dance music that has a lot of thought put into it.
Benjamin: Before the founding of The Faux Paws, you performed for years with your mother, Kim Yerton, and other talented musicians in a band called, “Great Bear”. At one point, Great Bear was the most popular contra dance band in the world in terms of performance bookings. What was it like to play in Great Bear, and for people who might not know, what is contra dance music?
Andrew: There’s a wonderful tradition of folk dance that is deeply-rooted in New England folk dance traditions. It’s called “contra dancing,” and it has a lot in common with square dancing. You have people dancing together, you have a “caller” who is calling the dance, and you’ve got a band playing the music for it. Noah and I have really specialized in it for a number of years. The contra dance community is wonderful. We got our start on the contra dance circuit playing in Great Bear when I was 12 years old and Noah was 10. It started out as a trio with just the three of us. We played a lot of festivals, such as the Flurry Festival in Saratoga Springs – which happens to be the biggest contra dance festival in the world – Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, New York, and the Brattleboro Dawn Dances, which are held in Brattleboro, Vermont. We’d have jam sessions with a lot of other musicians before and after the shows, and we met some fascinating people in the process.
Noah: One of the things about contra dancing that makes it really special is that the dancers become part of the band. Their steps become part of the percussion in a way, so you have to keep your phrasing tight. The dancers need to know where they are. The tempo can go up and down as the dancers bring more or less energy to it, but you have to make sure that you are in line with their movements.
Andrew: Our time in Great Bear playing those festivals really had a big influence on our sound. You can hear a lot of it in our new Faux Paws record, as well. Over the years, Noah and I branched out as we met more and more people, and we decided that we wanted to focus on our songwriting and our projects separate from Great Bear. We built the band up into a seven-piece band. We had a bassist, a drummer, an accordionist, and Chris Miller also played in that band. We met Chris at the Ashokan Music and Dance Camp in upstate New York, and he became an important part of that group. Eventually, we retired the Andrew and Noah Band due to logistical reasons. When that happened, we pulled some of the same people into Great Bear, and started touring as a larger ensemble. For the latter half of Great Bear’s existence, it was a six-piece band. We really developed some great musical chemistry with Chris during that time, which is still very present on the tracks that we make together as The Faux Paws. Chris is an incredible musician. He also did some work with a really great Cajun Swamp-pop group called, The Revelers. Chris did some great work on their GRAMMY®-nominated album Get Ready. It’s a fantastic listen.
Benjamin: After you two had been playing for years with Great Bear and the Andrew and Noah Band, what led to the formation of The Faux Paws?
Noah: Great Bear had its last big tour in 2018, but Andrew and Chris and I wanted to keep playing together, because we really enjoyed it. After Great Bear wrapped things up, we created this trio. We had been playing together as a three-piece band at little side shows between the weekends that we played as Great Bear, so it was a really natural transition.
Andrew: When Great Bear was wrapping up, we decided to make the Faux Paws more of an official project instead of just a side project. Noah, Chris and I have been playing together for ten years, but the past three years have been spent on making The Faux Paws a top priority.
Benjamin: How would you describe the sound of The Faux Paws?
Andrew: I think that “roots dance music” is an all-encompassing and vague enough description to somewhat encompass our band. A lot of what we do has an edge of Americana. The band is primarily acoustic, as is this record. I’d say genres like acoustic roots, Americana and “groove grass” certainly influenced the album, as did Chris’s jam band background. It’s always hard to confine our music to a single genre. We would love to be confined to a singular genre, but it just hasn’t happened yet. We’ve worked hard to make our music cohesive and build our sound to the point it has defining hallmarks that incorporate all of our respective musical strengths. There are things I’ve listened to that I want to incorporate into our music that I’ll bring to Noah and Chris, and they’ll tell me, “That’s not us.” We do have some genre limits, but at the end of the day, this is our music, and we try to be as open as possible when incorporating the musical elements that we love into it.
Benjamin: Your first release as The Faux Paws was The Hurricane EP in 2019. How did that project come to be, and what was the artistic statement that you wanted to make with that record?
Andrew: There’s a bit of a story there. We were all in North Carolina for an event. We were supposed to play a festival, and there was a hurricane that shut down most of the state. We had just flown down to western North Carolina near Charlotte, but the whole festival got really effected by the hurricane, because it was closer to the coast. We didn’t really have a gig anymore, so we were trying to figure out what to do. Chris called a friend of his in Nashville who had a little project studio. We decided that we wanted to take advantage of our time down south to make a project. We jumped in the car, we drove to Nashville, and we recorded four songs. It was very
spontaneous. We just got in front of the microphones and played the songs a couple of times. It came together very well. It was a big moment of growth for the band, too, because we realized that we could sit down and make quality projects without agonizing too much about the process. It was just natural.
Benjamin: That’s amazing that it came about in such a short time. How long did it take to put your new self-titled LP The Faux Paws together?
Andrew: It was more of a conventional process and long-term effort for that. For the majority of the sessions for that album, we were all together in the studio for about a week.
Noah: We did the original week-long session right before COVID-19 hit, and we thought that everything was taken care of and the rest of the additional musicians that would play on the record would just fall into place. It ended up being a little more complicated than that.
Andrew: For our bass tracks, we worked with a wonderful bassist named Zoe out in British Columbia, Canada. We traded files back and forth with her on Zoom®. There were a couple of issues with latency, because she was recording the tracks remotely with our engineer who was working in another state, but we handled the hurdles and made it work, even with all of the logistical issues. Looking back, it was a real learning experience. I definitely would have preferred to be there with her in the same room to work on the record, but the amount of work that we had to put in to make it happen made us even more personally invested in the record. It was amazing to see it all come together in the end.
Benjamin: In addition to fiddle, saxophone and bass, what other instruments are used throughout the album?
Noah: There is also mandolin, banjo and drums. The primary engineer for the record, Dana Billings, was also the drummer in Great Bear. He played percussion and drums on some of the tracks. We also had a wonderful musician named Zachary Hickman do some pump organ on one of the tracks. Another instrument that’s probably worth mentioning is foot percussion, which plays a central role in a lot of contra dance songs.
Benjamin: What do you think is the secret to getting the right sound for foot percussion?
Noah: Most times, foot percussion is just a simple four-beat rhythm that holds the tempo and the pulse for the music. From what I understand, foot percussion has its origins in Canadian-Quebecois folk dance music. It shows up a lot in contra dance music, as well. Most contra dance bands have someone who does foot percussion. Keith Murphy from Nightingale does their foot percussion, and he does a great job at it. I think foot percussion has a wonderful sound that gives the music a lot of great energy. I love to play foot percussion at the same time that I play the mandolin or fiddle in our performances.
Benjamin: There are a lot of different musical elements that went into the process of creating The Faux Paws LP. When you began the process for brainstorming the project, did you have any specific musical narrative in mind?
Andrew: When we first started thinking about putting this project together, we were already drawing from a pool of material that had naturally been developed over the course of playing together for ten years. We were crafting the record in the context of things we had done before, but it was also in a different niche than what we had done before in our work with Great Bear and the Andrew and Noah Band. Some of the songs had to be re-workshopped for the album, and others were exactly where we wanted them. As far as a specific vision for the record, we wanted to capture the musical connection between the three of us. The project is all over the map in terms of genre influences, but I think that serves as a perfect representation of the work that we’ve done over the past ten years.
Benjamin: What are some of your favorite songs on the album?
Noah: “Guacmaster” is really fun. I also enjoy “The Fourth Decade.”
Andrew: I really like “Child of the Great Lakes.” That’s a song that I wrote and was intending to sing on the record. When we were workshopping it, we had Noah sing it one time. He brought out an entirely different vibe with his phrasing and the way he approached singing the melody. It was really neat to hear my song coming through another voice and it really resonated with me. I love the way that track came out, because I was able to hear the song that I wrote with a different atmosphere and inflection. It’s one of my favorite parts of the entire record.
Benjamin: Before we move on, I have to know: What is a “Guacmaster?”
Noah: There are many “Guacmasters” in the world, but the original Guacmaster is our friend Scarlet, who lives in Tampa. We were hanging out with some Florida friends close to ten years ago, and she made some really good guacamole.
Andrew: I think it’s important for me to say that I feel like a Guacmaster is very similar to a Jedi Master. It’s something that you look for deep within yourself, and you aspire to bring that quality of mastery to everything you do.
Noah: Absolutely. Scarlet may be the original Guacmaster, but we are all Guacmasters in our own way.
Benjamin: Earlier on in the interview, you said that you were heavily influenced by Vermont-based musicians. What are some of your favorite memories from touring and playing in Vermont?
Andrew: One of our last really fun shows before the COVID pandemic was at Rebop Farm outside of Brattleboro. They have some wonderful events there. A bunch of our friends came to see us. It was a blast. Another great festival that we played was the Champlain Valley Folk Festival.
Noah: Growing up, Vermont was always the coolest place to play – and it still is today. When we were teenagers playing contra dances for a living, being able to meet other young people who were into the same scene was really great. It was exciting to have a truly intergenerational community where people our age were into the same thing that we were doing.
Benjamin: Although all three members of The Faux Paws are very nomadic, Andrew has made a decision to set up a home base in Brattleboro. What made you want to move to Brattleboro, and what are some of your favorite things about living here in the Green Mountain State?
Andrew: Part of what drew me here is that I really connected with so many values of the musical community. They really value connection and shared experience. There’s a real sense of collaboration between all of the bands and musicians that live here and at all of the festivals. I’ve always been drawn to that, and it’s something that I’m excited to be a part of. Beyond the music scene, I’ve always felt welcome in Vermont. Everyone that I’ve met here is incredibly inclusive and open, and everyone is very passionate about what they do. I went to the bank the other day, and the woman who was helping my wife and I open our bank account was incredible. She had such passion about helping us with our finances. It was amazing to see that. My wife is also really into organic agriculture, and there is an incredible amount of local community-supported-agriculture farms here. It’s a great place to live, and people really support each other’s passions here.