Many people think of Norway has a cold and foreboding place, a land intersected by fjords and lit by the rays of a midnight sun. Hardly a place where grassicana might find a proper home. So credit the quartet that call themselves Pine Hill for smashing those stereotypes and setting the record — literally and figuratively straight.
According to Svein Hermansen, the band’s lead vocalist and mandolin and dobro player, the band is a labor of love, which occupies their time away from studies, work and other music projects each of the members are otherwise engaged. Mats Glambek (banjo, harmony vocals), Gjert Hermansen (bass, harmony vocals) and Stian Iversen (guitar, 12-string guitar, lead and harmony vocals) fill out the line-up for the Bergen Norway-based band.
“It’s united us around a shared love for the bluegrass and Americana tradition,” Hermansen says. “It’s a project which is intentionally kept on a small scale, just to keep it fun and manageable. However we keep coming back to it at regular intervals.”
The band’s chief songwriters, Hermansen and Glambeck, were college chums when they discovered a common appreciation for bluegrass and harmony singing. Both had been playing music most of their lives, exploring a wide variety of genres that ranged from classical to pop, rock to electronica. However once they connected, their common focus started turning to artists like Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice, and eventually ventured furthered into newgrass realms courtesy of Nickel Creek in particular. They not only began arranging arrangements and harmonies that fit their needs, but also started writing their own songs in those styles as well.
“The only real bluegrass instrument we had was a banjo, which Mats had purchased with his savings at the age of 15,” Hermansen recalls. “Then, while I was living abroad for studies and work, I decided to try to learn a new instrument, and I bought myself a second-hand dobro, mostly because I didn’t know anyone else who played that. I taught myself to play through watching tutorials on YouTube and listening to Jerry Douglas, and trying to pick apart — no pun intended — what he was doing. I still remember the first time I managed to play along to his solo on The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn. After realizing that it was possible to learn new instruments, I then went on to the mandolin a few years later, and went through the same sort of journey, going between tutorials and listening to folks like Chris Thile, Adam Steffey on the early Alison Krauss albums, and learning a lot of fiddle tunes.”
Eventually, Hermansen’s brother Gjert joined the duo, beginning his tenure with the bass parts he played on their first amateur recordings. “Once we did our first live gig in a neighborhood cafe and bar in Bergen that was run by some friends of ours, he joined as a full member,” Hermansen explains. “We then went a couple of years — and a couple of new jobs, university degrees and children — before our next gig, but by then we had recruited Stian, who happened to be a family friend, to play the guitar.”
While the idea of Norwegian bluegrass might seem strange at first, Hermansen insists it was a natural transition. “The things that make bluegrass so compelling—the harmony singing, its origins in folk music, how the greatest songs achieve such effect with so few chords—were things we all loved in other genres, especially in the Norwegian and Scandinavian folk music tradition,” he explains. “Gjert and I grew up on that thanks to our mother, who seems to know around a thousand songs by heart. She was active in the folk dance scene in Bergen, and took us to dances and concerts when we were kids. I was thrilled to discover later on that some of the Norwegian folk tunes I remember from those dances are exactly the same as some of the fiddle tunes I came across when learning the mandolin. There’s so much shared history there.”
Bergen, he says, has a healthy folk, Americana and bluegrass scene, and it has for decades. “The bands have nearly all been cover bands, especially as far as the bluegrass bands are concerned,” he notes. “People here have imitated the style rather than push the boundaries. Actually, in our experience, there’s an irony in that many European bands that play bluegrass—especially the more old school kind—lack authenticity because they try too hard to be true to Flatt and Scruggs or something, which can put them in a sort of time capsule or give them an almost ironic kind of delivery. Of course, that’s at odds with the honesty and sincerity that the genre actually is based on. It’s really important to us that we can stand behind the songs we write and the music we make, and so it’s only natural that we expand the genre or mix the tradition with other impulses.”
Pine Hill currently has two offerings to their credit, an EP and a single, with a second EP ready for release soon. Hermansen says that the latter was recorded on a rainy February weekend in a house that dates from 1750, located on his old family farm in West Norway’s fjord country. The group mixed and engineered it themselves.
“I think our story says a lot about the appeal of bluegrass,” Hermansen concludes. “It shares some of the same roots as our folk music tradition and both have elements in common. It’s a genre and an approach to music which we’ve been coming back to for over a decade, even while our lives have taken different turns and we’ve played other kinds of music in the meantime. Acoustic music and harmony singing possess a special power, because the sounds are so natural to us, and there’s great strength in the folk tradition of creating a lot from a little. That makes it a potent symbol of the rougher lives which our forebears lived—be it in the Appalachians, in rural Norway or, for that matter, anywhere elsewhere in the world.”