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Interview with Todd Fink of The Giving Tree Band

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The Giving Tree Band is an acoustic band I recently fell in love with. Their album Unified Folk Theory was produced in 2007. After I found their album, I decided to email the band and got an interview with Todd Fink. Pushy, yeah? But why not?

The band consists of Bob Salihar, Pat Burke, and brothers Todd and Eric Fink. The guys all sing on the album and the instruments used in this album include acoustic guitar, harmonica, mandolin, slide dobro, cello, banjo, steel-string guitar, nylon-string guitar, upright bass, vocals, dulcimer, and ukulele.

I wish them luck and blessings. Here is the interview. Hope you like them as much as I do.

I had never heard of your guys before I got ahold of your double CD set, Unified Folk Theory. Now I’m a real fan. You guys are great musicians. And I’ve got to tell you the resonator guitar (Dobro) is one tough instrument to master. Your bandmates, Patrick Burke and Bob Salihar are absolutely fantastic on it. And Todd, your banjo playing, wow! Loved it. I see that you guys all studied music in college but did you ever think that it would lead to the career that you have had?

I’m glad you are enjoying the CDs. In college, I was just happy to be exploring music and my own creative potential. I entered Georgetown’s school of business and was quite relieved when I transferred to the college of arts and science in my second year. Today, I don’t regret the business study and find that education to be a tremendous asset in the development of my current musical career. In school, I was listening to many different kinds of music and a lot of avant-garde jazz. It would be several years before honing in on my current acoustic approach.

I see that you’ve toured Europe and even played at the House of Blues and The Hard Rock Café.

Yes, but prior to The Giving Tree Band. In 2000, I was living in Dublin, Ireland and so took the opportunity to play a lot there and around Europe – mostly solo, sometimes duo. I also played on the street (busking) as much as I could which helped me become comfortable performing, especially in unconventional settings. In 2001, my brother and I formed an electric jazz/rock band called Stone Samadhi. We put out one CD, played the House of Blues, the Hard Rock Café, and toured the East Coast before disbanding in late 2003. Being a little tired of playing electric music and lugging around heavy amps and speakers, going acoustic was refreshing and more practical.

Was there some event in your life that triggered your interest in music?

Not really. I’ve been around music and instruments my whole life. My parents love music and even named me after one of their favorite musical artists, Todd Rundgren. My dad played multiple instruments and taught me a lot on guitar in childhood. I gravitated to the guitar right away.

In your musical tours, you must have met some of the greats. And you guys were just at the Chicago Green Festival. What was that like? Who would you say you were the most excited to be playing with?

I wasn’t familiar with the other artists at the Green Fest because we all played very different styles of music and had not crossed paths. I thought that all were very good and the diversity was nice. The fest itself was quite amazing. Seeing thousands of people coming together to share ideas and learn more about environmental and social responsibility was inspiring. It was funny because after performing we had our own information booth just like the other green businesses and organizations. It just seemed so outside-the-box for musicians but many people came to learn about the eco-friendly side of our band. Most musicians try to network with media and industry folk but we do more connecting with small green businesses, non-profit organizations, college environmental groups, and local organic farmers.

As far as meeting some of the greats, I have met a lot of extraordinary musicians but very few famous ones. I was happiest to have Indian Sitar Master, Shri Patrick Marks, join The Giving Tree Band on stage last year. It was a very beautiful experience. Even though our musical languages were very different, our minds and hearts were wide open. So, our East-West collaboration was actually quite effortless.

Your interest in the environment is evident on both your website and on your CD jacket. When did environmental issues become important to you? I mean you guys are pretty committed. “Ten trees will be planted for every 1,000 units sold.”

Again, I would attribute my love of nature to my parents. Growing up, my dad always made sure we had immediate access to the woods. I witnessed his devastation when he sold a piece of rural property and the new owners had it completely logged. I think that this love of nature was instilled in us from childhood, although it manifested more, later in life. Only recently, I’ve learned how to combine music with environmental efforts.

Eric spent a good amount of time researching manufacturing options for the double disc. We were quite amazed to discover Earthology Records and happy to have them do it. Their facility is wind-powered, and they use recycled materials and nontoxic soy ink printing. They will be planting the ten trees for the production of every 1,000 units to offset any CO2 gases created.

I generally like all music but some folks hear bluegrass and they think of country and western. Others think of indie folksingers. Tell me, what would you say is the main difference between bluegrass and country?

I also enjoy all kinds of music. For me, music is music. With the passage of time, different traditions evolve and it becomes difficult to say what is what. I think that these descriptive terms often confuse more than clarify. In The Giving Tree Band, we are not really bluegrass because we don’t adhere to the tradition, but rather incorporate elements of bluegrass as well as many other traditions. We’re pretty much left only with “acoustic” to categorize our music and that’s very vague. It’s tough.

I would say that country music is a broad category that includes many styles that originated primarily in the south with roots in forms such as blues and gospel. Western is often grouped with country as a category and includes music that originated primarily in the west and included songs by settlers and cowboy ballads. Bluegrass is one of the sub genres of country. So, bluegrass music is country music but more specific. Bluegrass is distinctively all acoustic with the instrumentation of guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, and sometimes dobro. It has roots in traditional music of Ireland and the UK and developed in the Appalachian region of the United States. It also has elements of blues with the use of certain chord progressions and also jazz, as improvising a flat-picking solo related to the melody is common.

Same question about folk music and rap? Nah, I’m not joking. And don’t tell me anything too obvious.

Ha. Well, bluegrass is to country as rap is to folk. Folk, like country, is a broad category that includes many different musical forms. There seems to be little agreement these days on the meaning of folk music as evidenced by the wide variance in sound at any two folk festivals. I think this is because folk music is any kind of music that is an integral part of a particular culture and which conveys the real-life experiences unique to that culture. This community aspect to folk is more a criterion than any specific musical elements, which is why I say that rap is folk. Inner city youth, primarily African Americans and Latinos, are credited with the introduction of rap or hip hop as a cultural movement in the '70s. Although its roots could be traced even further to funk and soul. Conventionally speaking, however, we think of folk artists as the indie singer-songwriters you mentioned earlier, as exemplified by Woody Guthrie and later Bob Dylan. Lyrics are important in both folk and rap, but rap places more emphasis on the beat, which is often created by a DJ or producer. Folk music is usually created with instruments – often, traditional ones.

So where does your music come from? Spirit, soul, heart, mind? How do you guys collaborate and create songs? And how do you choose what songs to put on the album?

For me, spirit, soul, and heart are the same. All three refer to that invisible power behind everything that we do, and without this power, we could do nothing. So, yes, music comes from this. Between this power and the physical body is the mind. The mind directs the body and sense organs by which that power can manifest. So, music also comes from the mind. It is a paradox. Let me illustrate this with an example. Let’s say that I feel air moving down toward me in a room. I look up to see a fan, and conclude that the cause is the spinning blades. But, within the fan, is electricity, which is invisible. The electricity gives the blades the power to spin, and without this power, the fan can do nothing. So, electricity is the ultimate cause yet electricity has no motive, no purpose, and it doesn’t make sense to say that it is doing the work. Again, a paradox. The creative process is a mystery, and I believe that art and creativity are tools for exploration. The highest purpose for music is to inspire us to look deep within and to search for truth.

Collaborating with the other guys to arrange our music is the best part of being in a band. Usually, one of us brings a song to the table and it’s often just chords and lyrics. Then, everybody offers ideas and gradually we develop parts for everyone and it ultimately becomes a very orchestrated piece of music. Everybody in the group has unique strengths. Bob writes great lyrics and is a strong vocalist. Eric is also a prolific songwriter and a brilliant arranger. He comes up with amazing hooks and stops and could make the most basic, simple, and familiar three-chord song sound so intricate and new. Pat writes beautiful solos and is a highly talented multi-instrumentalist. He can play virtually any string instrument and has a very good ear for harmony.

Understanding each other’s strengths and yielding to them, I think we are able to create meaningful music at an incredible rate, which is one of the reasons why we released a double CD. There are 33 songs but we recorded even more than that. We cut some that we felt did not quite fit in with the rest. Basically, we want all our music to be excellent. We don’t want to have a few really strong songs and a bunch of mediocre ones. So, if we feel that a particular song is not being as well received as the others, then we either drop it or re-work it. This is very important to us. We’re not hurting for songs. We’ve got, literally, more than 100 new songs to learn from Eric alone. So, there’s no reason for us to put out anything less than our best effort.

Your new group is called “The Giving Tree Band” and your CD is called Unified Folk Theory. Could you tell us why you guys chose those titles?

The Giving Tree Band was inspired by Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. I think Bob came up with the name. We all liked it, especially because we wanted our group to be service-minded from the beginning.

Unified Folk Theory is a play on words. It references the Unified Field Theory in science also known as the Theory of Everything. We called it this because the album incorporates the musical elements and lyrical themes of many different folk traditions. It is sort of an acoustic integration of many different folk styles. On a deeper level, it is also a social theory and prayer for more unity among people.

Sometimes an album seems to tell a story but this album reminded me of Spoon River Anthology, like the collective voice from a typical American community. There is a song here for anyone in any kind of mood? That’s one of the greatnesses of grassroots music. But there’s more isn’t it?

Edgar Lee Masters lived near the actual Spoon River in Illinois. My brother and I live near the Fox River only a little ways to the east. Many of Eric’s songs are inspired by the lives of real people in this region, especially farmers. So, I suppose the album could have been called Fox River Anthology.

I think that there’s definitely music for everyone. We had already tested this in performance. We’ve played this music for people of all ages, from very young to very old, and all ethnicities and found it to be well-received. That’s not to say that it is highly commercial music as we think of contemporary pop music. Most popular music is actually only popular among the demographic that buys the most music. A huge pop artist, selling millions of CD’s, might, in reality be supported only by teenage girls, for example. So, our music is different and is not targeting any specific audience. Ordinarily, it would be very tricky to try to make music with wide appeal but without so much commerciality. It can be done with grassroots folk music.

Back in the '70s as a teenager, I developed a love of bluegrass and folksongs listening to folksingers and singer-songwriters such as Judy Collins. I loved the old Appalachian ballads, gospel bluegrass, and all that chillin’ with Bob Dylan. What or who influenced you?

I was first influenced by the music my parents were listening to, which included Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Beatles, The Who, Neil Young, Santana, and so on. Then, I worked my way to jazz and remained there for a good while. I could listen to one album for months straight. I especially loved Miles Davis and John Coltrane. My longtime hero became a British guitarist named John McLaughlin. He played on Miles Davis’ pivotal album, Bitches Brew. He was a pioneer of world fusion music and was probably the first western musician to adapt Indian classical music to the modern guitar. He made incredible recordings with phenomenal players from all different styles and all different parts of the world. He is the most innovative musical artist I’ve ever known. I have so admired his openness and ability to bring together so many musical cultures. He has musically inspired me enough for a lifetime. I had a unique chance meeting with him at a concert in Chicago, which happened to fall on my 25th birthday. It was at the Chicago Theater. My family and I were heading to our car along the side of the building after the show when John McLaughlin himself opened a side door and invited us backstage. We then had a very engaging conversation about music. I don’t know how and why it happened as it did, but it was a magical moment for me. It was also the beginning of a new musical direction.

I then descended from the heights of electric jazz fusion. This music can take one to outer space but it is, for the most part, personal. I felt more directed to make music that was more accessible and community-focused. I wanted to make music not for myself but for others and then I moved away from lots of electronic equipment to emphasize the beauty of simplicity. Only in the last several years have I really had any considerable exposure to great folk artists and singer-songwriters. Among my favorites are Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Utah Phillips, and more recently Ben Harper, Jeff Buckley, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Nowadays, I don’t listen to anything. I keep no music with me. I listen to the sounds around me, and when there are no sounds, it’s even better. I adore silence. I know it sounds strange being a musician. Music is a gift that I love to give, but I no longer feel the need to receive it myself.

What would you say has been the most exciting time thus far in your career?

The last few years with The Giving Tree Band have been the most exciting time. We've tried to make music without expectations, without so much desire for recognition. We've just been trying to be good and do a little good. It's a continuous learning process and a journey but there has been fulfillment in each step for me.

You guys are booked up! How difficult is it for you to balance your home and family life with such a busy schedule?

It’s not so hard for me. Busy-ness is no obstacle to cheerfulness. I live with my brother, and we’ve been musical teammates for a long time. So, there’s not too much difference between family life and work life. Our parents live in California, and we see them often. In other people’s minds, it looks like I sacrifice certain things, but I don’t really feel like my life is lacking anything without those things.

Much of your business savvy is probably hard-earned, right? The music business is tough I hear. Or is the folk scene less like dog-eat-dog and more like bunny-nibble-bunny?

I like that. From unhappiness and dissatisfaction, I developed my current business philosophy. Instead of struggling to get our music noticed, I try to notice the struggle of others and connect the music with their cause. If we stick to this, then everything is easy because there’s plenty of need in the community and world. I think we’re kind of conditioned to think that everything is a competition. If we can break out of this artificial race, then the river of life will transport us very naturally and at a comfortable pace.

There are many idealistic songs on this CD as well as some heart-felt ones. Some of them really touched me. Before I ask about my favorites, can you tell me which ones are your favorites?

It changes all the time. Some songs have been with us a long time, even prior to The Giving Tree Band. Sometimes we put songs away for a while and then one day it’s great to bring ‘em back into the set. "Focus On Change", "Reflections", "Guardian Angel", and "Blessed Are The Peacemakers" are some of my favorites.

But you guys seem involved in all areas of your career as well as with the environmental cause. How do you manage both with such skill? And is there ever a conflict between business and creativity? Let’s face it, mammon is tempting.

Basically, there’s no separation. Everything my brother and I do in our personal lives, we try to do in an environmentally friendly way if possible, affordable, and practical. So, naturally this is our approach to music-making and the music business. There’s no persona or image we’ve created for the band. We decided let’s just be ourselves all the time. So now, we just do what we do.

If a conflict arises, then managing conflict is what really requires skill. In some cases, we have to sit down and discuss before making a decision. Other times, we have to re-evaluate our core values.

I absolutely loved "Wild Girl," “True Love, and “That Don’t Make it Easier.” They’re not only romantic but they are incredibly singable. It almost made me feel like I was at a Ceilidh.

That’s all Bob. He’s head of the romance department. You’ll find some of his songs are about lost love and yet they’re pretty fun and upbeat. That’s because he’s had time to heal or move on and the song evolves also- the tempo speeds up and it becomes livelier. I find it amusing but sometimes we don’t recognize this until we listen to older versions of the song when the events were fresh in his mind.

I also loved the life-anthems such as “One Life at a Time,” “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” “Ever Since The Day” and “Focus on Change.” Neat harmonica on "Focus on Change", by the way. I saw a documentary the other day about genetically-modified foods and although I am something of an idealist, I didn’t have much hope the average person could stop some of the harm being done to our food and environment. Your album is hopeful but tell me – no one else will know – do you think music still has the power to change a culture in which kids are taught from birth to be cynical? I mean, some folks would think hope, dreams, faith and all those terms are a bit corny.

I think we often hear about faith, but rarely see it lived. Because of this conditioning from birth in our society, living faith is rare. To speak about it becomes lofty idealism. But it doesn’t matter. If you cover gold in mud, it’s still gold and still valuable. We need to identify more with our higher selves, the gold within us all. Music has the power to change a culture if the musician can change himself first. That’s why Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” I’m still very much trying to change myself. Yes, our album is about hope and a positive vision for the future. I don’t know what it’s impact will be on our culture but I hope it brings joy and inspiration to the individual listener. For those who become established in a better way, their life will be better. This will become evident and others will see this and become inspired. No arguments, no convincing, and no force will be needed to change others. If we want a cleaner environment, then we should first clean our most immediate environment- our mind and body. It will be very natural and easy to then clean the environment around us. And if we want peace, we should be peaceful- peaceful thoughts, peaceful speech, and peaceful action. If we can transform ourselves, then we can transform others very easily.

To answer your question more simply: it all depends on how much love there is in the message. Love is the most important ingredient and the most powerful force in the universe. Love can do anything.

A couple of songs are both wistful and sorrowful, a hint of repentance and world-weariness. Explain “Soul Bird” to me.

You might have noticed that the four of us each have a solo song on the double album, kind of a singer-songwriter thing. I wanted to do this to show the diverse musical personalities we each have. “Soul Bird” ended up being my solo piece but I never intended it to be on the album. It was one of a collection of songs I wrote and recorded for a compilation of devotional music. Eric produced that CD and the other guys really liked the music. Bob especially advocated for “Soul Bird” to be on the album. It does have some desperation to it. It’s because I wrote it right before I left for India last year. I took a trip there for six months because I was deeply craving for spiritual guidance. “Soul Bird” is about recognizing the pain of being separated from the divine and the intense longing for reunion.

Would you mind sharing something about yourself that most people probably don't know?

Hmmm, what’s something interesting? Well, my bed is a thin piece of wood placed on the floor in my room. I sleep on this without a pillow. It sounds uncomfortable but it’s not once you get used to it. A soft bed supports the body in any position, but I have to place my body in a very good posture first and then go to sleep.

"Nada Yajna" and "Crooked Creek Crawl" are the only instrumental tracks on the album. You did a nice bit of fusion in Nada Yajna and all four members of the band did an excellent job on Crooked Creek Crawl. Do you think you’ll ever do an all instrumental album?

When I played electric guitar, I used to write a lot of instrumental music and long instrumental breaks in songs. Crooked Creek Crawl was a collective effort that came together nicely. Nada Yajna was a composition of mine that was probably inspired by fusion music. I like when an odd time can groove in such a way that it feels natural and common. In that piece, it begins in 3/4 but with the accent on the third beat instead of the first. It gives it a unique feel and then it shifts a couple times between 3/4 and 4/4 time before heading into a chromatic section of 7/8 time. I like the discipline required to play in odd time signatures especially when it sounds right and not chaotic or weird for the sake of weird.

I think it would be really nice to make an album of instrumental acoustic music. I don’t know if we’ll do it, but the possibility is certainly there.

A couple of songs such as “Blessed are the Peacemakers” mention God. I like that. The album has a gentle spirituality about it.

“Gentle” is the key word. We want this music to be for everyone, so we take care to be sensitive to the different beliefs people have about spirituality. However, there’s a lot more common ground than people think and we try to emphasize this to promote more unity and harmony.

“West Coast,” “How can you know,” and “Alabama Road” have that American wanderlust thing happening. I liked that these songs were modern and yet maintained to somehow make the high-lonesome mood of the old traditional songs more modern.

Eric heads up the travel department. “How Can You Know” is a song that he wrote about a month long road trip that we took across the country in 2004. He really gets around- locally, regionally, and nationally, and he meets a lot of interesting people in interesting places. His songs are a musical diary of his real-life experiences and odd encounters. He’s well acquainted with that traditional high-lonesome sound but is definitely able to put a modern twist on it.

Thank you so much, Todd, for allowing a crazed fan to bug you and interview you. I just want everyone who loves acoustic music and bluegrass to know about you guys. Thanks for the interview.

No problem. Thanks for asking me.

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  • Carole McDonnell

    A small addenda to my review:

    The UNIFIED FOLK THEORY CD Release Show will be at

    Frank Lloyd Wright’s UNITY TEMPLE on

    Saturday June 23rd, 2007 at 8pm $15

    875 Lake St. Oak Park, IL

  • Anita

    Loved the interview and I also am a big fan of The Giving Tree Band. They’re awesome. See you at the Unity Temple Todd.

  • your wiki guide

    a long interview but very interesting to read. it just gave me more reasons to like The Giving Tree Band…I wish I could have the same chance to conduct a personal interview with them, too!

  • Carole McDonnell

    Hi Wiki Guide:

    Why not ask one of them? It wasn’t really that hard for me. Good luck. -C

  • Jean

    The Giving Tree Band is an amazing group. They bring lots of energy to their performances. And, they live what they sing–peace, unity, sharing souls.
    This was a wonderful interview. The Giving Tree Band deserve all the recognition they can get.

    Carole McDonnelle shows much talent in this interview, bringing out fine points about the band.