CC Thornley is a skilled Torquay-based musician who can play a variety of fretted instruments. However, the instrument he is most serious about, the one which he loves to really play and talk about … is the banjo … particularly his electric banjo! So serious is CC about the banjo that he took Australian Musician to task over a banjo joke we ran in our weekly E-news a while ago. CC has heard all the banjo jokes. One day he reached a point where he drew a line in the sand and decided enough was enough, he was going to make a stand and champion his beloved instrument rather then sit back and cop the flack. Australian Musician admired his passion, loved his playing and thought we should find out more about CC Thornley’s gear, his career and Zeptepi, the folk rock band he is currently playing with.
Where did your love of the banjo and bluegrass and folk music come from?
When I was really young, we’d go for holidays out at Gippsland. I’d be sleeping by myself in a bungalow and there was a radio on the AM channels late at night. I’d hear this country music by people like Roy Acuff and it really intrigued me. It was so scratchy and far away. I think that’s what gave me the love. I was never exposed to it culturally, it was always rock and guitar. When I started playing guitar at 15 it was all Jimi Hendrix and guitar, guitar, guitar. I started playing in 1990 and was doing alright on guitar and then someone stole my guitar. My dad lent me some money to get a new guitar. So I did that and I had some change. I had a hundred bucks left over, so I bought a banjo on a whim … and never played guitar again! That was it, whenever I picked up the guitar, it was like… this sucks! When I picked up the banjo, it made me feel alive. So naturally I got into bluegrass because that is the most accessible paradigm. I learned my bluegrass chops then and liked it but it wasn’t what I knew the instrument could do or where I wanted to take it. I kept plugging away then I had a chance encounter with Nicky Bomba. I’d just purchased his album Nerbu Message that he did with George Rrurrambu and it was just awesome. I reckon one of the best albums Australia has produced. I took a moment to fan-boy Nicky Bomba and I just told him that I loved that album and his face lit up. He put me on to Mento, the Jamaican banjo folk music. From then on, I knew what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, living in Australia the paradigms are extremely narrow for playing that sort of music.
In 2004 I went into some formal jazz study at NMIT for a diploma in jazz. I was the first 5 string player in Australia to ever do that. Pete Somerville was my principal studies teacher and we then wrote the curriculum for what they now use for studying jazz banjo. There have only been a couple since who have followed that path and a few in the next generation who I think will take it on. When I did that, immediately the bluegrass guys shunned me. I copped a lot of flack from the bluegrass crowd. I tired to do this here in Geelong too but kept getting knocked back because they said the banjo is not a jazz instrument. I was flummoxed but knew damn well the heritage the banjo has in jazz. But I did it in Melbourne and that developed my love of jazz on the five string. But in doing that the jazz guys wouldn’t have anything to do with me so I was stuck in this nowhere land between the folkies and the jazz guys, so I had to forge my own path.
What are some classic banjo recordings that everyone should listen to?
As far as bluegrass goes, you’ll probably want to listen to Bela Fleck and his album Tales from the Acoustic Planet. Someone who crosses the line between jazz and bluegrass is Allison Brown. I also listen to a lot of New Orleans style stuff too. If you’re listening to four string tenor, it’s the Irish tenor but if you are listening to New Orleans, it’s the plectrum with a banjo and you need to look for Don Vappie.
How many banjos do you own?
I have one acoustic, one electric and a bunch of hybrid ukulele instruments. But it’s the Goldtone electric banjo which has really blown my mind and changed the way I play the instrument. There’s no model to work off because nobody has ever done this in Australia before. It’s a Goldtone EBM-5, I find it a lot more natural and it responds really well to warm valves. Playing in Zeptepi, I play the electric banjo a hell of a lot. It sounds pretentious when you say it yourself but we are re-inventing what banjo does in this context. We have a live EP coming out this year on which you will hear the sound of the overdrive banjo for the first time in Australia, where it’s not used a gimmick. It is actually a major part of the composition and sound, which is through the warmed up valves, cranked. We got accused by a German reviewer of having too much electric guitar once. There was no electric guitar on there whatsoever. It was all banjo.
What do you play the banjo through?
I play it through a Vox Night Train. I usually have it at the 30 watt setting. Everything I get is from natural gain structure. I just crank the gain then warm up the valves. I got a head and cab with it, a Vox speaker box. That’s a 10 or 12 inch Celestian speaker. I don’t really like the wall, you know the massive Marshall quad box thing. There is definitely enough power and volume with what I am playing through now. If we need any more, playing a big gig, it just goes through the front of house. I love that tone. There’s something about the Night Train, the look of it, the sexiness of it, the compactness of it and the sound of it.
Your overdrive just comes from the amp?
Yes, no pedals, no nothing. When I grew up playing guitar and going to watch bands. We’d go down to the Barwon Club and I think I was the only guy that wasn’t impressed by these guys just jumping on pedals all night. You know, are you playing guitars or playing pedals? That was a pivotal moment for me and I was determined to get a natural sound and get as far away as possible form the artificiality. A few years later when I ran into the banjo, it was purely an organic sound. Pedals, no I don’t like them.
Is the banjo a difficult instrument to capture in the studio?
It can be. I have done a lot of sessions and I think the best guy I have ever worked with is Phil Threlfall at The Base. He did Zeptepi’s last album and he’s genius. He just looks at a room and knows what to do. He is the sound engineer for Bliss N Eso. The cool thing about a banjo is the crappier and more out of tune it is, it still sounds alright. It still has that rustic feel to it. If you just put a compressor mic in front of that and get a good instrument or vocal mic that is going to capture it from an acoustic point of view, you’re going to come out ahead. With the electric, you just put a microphone in front of the amp and rock out.
Does it hold its tuning in the same way as a guitar?
Yes, but it’s probably a little more dynamic. I find with my acoustic that it responds to humidity levels a lot more than a guitar. For example, if there is rain coming and there’s big low pressure system, she won’t stay in tune. Guitars always break strings, whereas banjoes rarely break strings and that’s because guitars are all wood. With a banjo you have that trampoline surface to take away all of the tension. If a string is going to max out with tension it is going to dissipate through the head. That means that your strings get older, so they lose their intonation a lot more than a guitar. As soon as my intonation goes, I change them and that’s probably every three to four months. If I get it in tune and play a G chord up the neck and know my pitch is set right and it’s slightly out of tune, then I know it’s time to change them.
Zeptepi is your main band at the moment?
At the moment yes. Phil Dean is the main singer and songwriter and I do quite a bit behind the scenes composition and stuff. He’s the best captain I have ever worked for. How we met was funny. I was writing folk songs about the local area and he was writing folk songs about the local area. We both wrote a song about the Loch Ard, the Cape Otway shipwreck. He got into it through his love of history. I got into it because it is my local area. We started flagging each other on MySpace and he got me over to do some session work on the Storm Clouds album and after that he said do you want to come onboard full time. My band (The Black Swans of Trespass) was always in a state of standing operation so I said yes. The thing I liked about Zeptepi, was when I went to see the band … they were just a good honest rock ‘n’ roll band… few pedals, great rhythm section, great lyrics. I think we work well together because we are both full time musicians. A lot of the people we have had through the band, it’s been their hobby or the thing they do after work. We are in a position now where we have some wonderful guys onboard. We have a great fiddle player Claire and she’s studying jazz at NMIT at the moment. We have a bass player who is classically trained called Pat and they are both full time musicians. Previously when we’d be on tour, Phil and I would be sitting around the accommodation between gigs and pull out the instruments to have a play but the others wouldn’t. Whereas with this line up, before we have pulled our instruments out, Pat and Claire have got theirs out and we’re having a jam session in between gigs. That’s a sign of a serious band.
Zeptepi has a following overseas …
We do. This is the thing … we often say we are the biggest band in Australia that nobody knows! When we went over to England, we went as a trio because we just couldn’t afford to do it as a band. We did quite a lot of gigs. We had bands like The Only Ones and The Waterboys hitting us up for advice. Unfortunately that has not translated to as much interest in Australia. When I talk about this, I talk about it from a Zeptepi point of view but it is not just us. We have great talent in this country but nobody invests in it. That lack of investment reflects culturally. There are tons of guysI know who have abandoned Australia and gone to the UK or Germany or America and done well. When I say well, I mean that they earn enough to pay the rent, buy a car, look after themselves. It’s not like that here. The next question is why not go overseas? Well if I could go back to my twenty year old self, the first thing I would do is pack up and go. It’s that old saying, all you need to be a millionaire is lots of money.
What’s happening for the rest of year?
Zeptepi is half way through a 6 month break and about to get schedule done for next year and that’s looking rich. There’s the Port Fairy festival, Night Jar markets here in Torquay and the Cowrie markets as well, which is always fantastic. We’re not going overseas next year but maybe the year after. As for me, the gigs I am looking for are restaurant gigs where I can just sit down, get a meal and play my classical stuff, Scott Joplin stuff. I am looking more to get away form the CC identity and spend more time on Zeptepi because it’s a great band.