It's a sunny October morning — crisp, but not cold yet — and Mipso's three members are sitting in the airy backroom of Carrboro's Looking Glass Café. The pop-leaning string band has had a busy year, with a Japan and China tour and a new sophomore LP under its belt. Oh, and they finished school at UNC. Yet, today they seem quite at ease.
"We've graduated from Chapel Hill to Carrboro," bassist Wood Robinson jokes, though there's a kernel of truth; Mipso formed as a student band in 2010. Even as undergrads, though, these three eventually started selling out Carrboro live-music institution Cat's Cradle. Smart, grounded songwriting on new LP Dark Holler Pop, not to mention guest spots from members of Chatham County Line and production by Andrew Marlin of essential Chapel Hill Americana duo Mandolin Orange, reveals a band ready to graduate as musicians as well.
While it would be easy to draw a straight line from Mipso's college graduation to Dark Holler Pop's overall maturity, such a simple narrative likely misses the point. From purposefully risking small, potentially low-attendance shows early on — when they could have easily pulled larger crowds at on-campus events — to making friends within the Triangle music community they so cherish, Mipso's members did much of this maturing on their own.
This past summer, in particular, a partial Asia tour offered some lessons of its own: This lyrics-driven band is accustomed to playing to crowds with a common language. Establishing rapport with an audience could be a challenge, mandolin player Jacob Sharp says — even in Japan, which boasts a dedicated bluegrass tradition dating to the 1940s.
"It was obvious to us — especially on some of the new material — that we're not a bluegrass band," Sharp continues. Yet, they could establish a cultural shorthand, guitarist Joseph Terrell says, based on music and related references. ("We could mention Earl Scruggs, and they would all clap their hands.") Yet, songs like Dark Holler Pop opener "A Couple Acres Greener" consciously fuse indie pop and traditional elements; the track rides an almost neo-soul bass groove through the verse before striking out for bluegrass territory on a banjo-heavy chorus. And while Japanese audiences appreciated what they heard, they visibly connected more with the traditional sections.
So, the band found a happy middle, Terrell says: "We would play some of our own songs and then play a bluegrass standard and invite a banjo player from the crowd up to play for us."
If Japan proffered a tight, tradition-oriented bluegrass community, China threw a hard-partying curveball; both countries blew Mipso's collective mind, though in wildly different ways. In China, they saw only sunshine and played a Beijing show with a fantastically overblown flier claiming Mipso would "take you to the ocean of pop and hotly rock you up." Everything, it seemed, ran contrary to U.S. mainstream media portrayals.
"It was all the things you had heard, but it was also all these other things," Sharp says. "It was also this drunk Chinese businessman getting up onstage and saying 'play Country Road,' and we play it and the whole crowd's just belting it out."
And it may be Mipso's flexibility, its ability to adapt to changing situations, that's led to this band's startling musical growth. In a rambunctious Beijing nightclub, at a bluegrass festival in the hills above Osaka, or in a Chapel Hill studio, these friends seem most at ease when they're served a curveball. And if the excellence that is Dark Holler Pop is any indication, it's helped them become more aware as performers and more purposeful as songwriters.
"A lot of that comes with the clarity of not being students anymore," Terrell says. A lot of it, but not all.
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