Dirk Mewes is a Colorado uilleann pipe (Irish bagpipes) player and also makes pipes out of his workshop in Berthoud. He spoke recently with Cillian Vallely, the uilleann piper with the ever-popular Irish band Lunása. Cillian has also recorded and toured with a diverse collection of artists and shows, including Natalie Merchant, Bruce Springsteen, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Tim O’Brien, and Riverdance. Cillian will be performing at the D-Note in Arvada May 18, 3pm, and holding workshops with Ryan McGiver, a folk singer and guitarist from upstate New York.
Dirk: “Thanks for speaking with me today! Let’s dive right in. The uilleann pipes seem like a very difficult instrument to master, being a piper myself, I have found that certainly to be true. At what age did you start playing the pipes, Cillian, and why did you choose the pipes?”
Cillian: “I think I started the pipes when I was eight years old. I was playing the whistle for a few years before that. My parents were both teachers of traditional music. They have had the piper’s club in Armagh for almost fifty years now. So they were running a little music school once a week. I used to just bring a whistle to that for a while. I remember my mother trying to teach me the fiddle, and trying various instruments, but my father was a piper and was teaching the pipes. I remember him giving me a practice set to try, and I took to it more than the other instruments.
“I never really looked back, you know. There were times when I couldn’t have cared that much about the music when I was a kid, but I always liked the pipes. I liked blowing them, and I liked the sound of them, you know?”
Dirk: “So at what point in your life did you decide that you could make a living playing music?”
Cillian: “I went to university, and I sort of studied things that I didn’t really care about. In the Irish system, you kind of have to decide what you are going to do when you are about 16, and I just did the degree in economics and business. I realized after about a month of the courses that I absolutely had no interest, but there was no changing or turning back in the system, so I finished it out anyway.
“And then I had to think of something to do, and I had no plan. So I went to Boston, and I was just going to get a summer job. But I started getting a lot of pub gigs playing music. And then I kept getting more pub gigs. And I was starting to enjoy the lifestyle of just playing music at night. So, I started getting better and better. I never really thought about whether I was going to keep doing it or not. I just kept going, and never looked back, so it just worked out that I was able to make a living. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stick to doing six bar gigs a week for the rest of my life. But I started getting better work, and getting recording work, and going on tour, and playing concerts. So, it became an interesting lifestyle, you know?”
Dirk: “It sounds like it was just a very natural progression for you.”
Cillian: “Yeah. I think a lot of things changed in my lifetime. Very few people would have played traditional music for a living. I wouldn’t have really known anybody. It would have only been the most famous people that you’d have heard about, but I think that the music became more and more popular. And it was sort of just more viable to make a living out of it. By about 1990, it was my main thing, and it was a good time, you know?”
Dirk: “It seems like in general that the uilleann pipes have seen a real resurgence in popularity in the last few years. There are more players now, and more people making the pipes than ever. What do you see as the contributing factors to the current popularity of the pipes?”
Cillian: “I suppose it is directly related to the music, itself, getting more popular. The music has gone from strength to strength, and pipes have gone along. And it’s not just done in isolation, there has been a steady increase in the amount of people playing the music. In terms of more popular culture, that can be changing – you know kind of a fad thing. There was a period in the 1990′s when pipes were getting used in a lot of commercials and movies, and I did a bit of that kind of work myself, but that’s just sort of an almost separate thing. The fact that the pipes were used in “Braveheart”, it’s a very temporary thing.
“But in terms of just the sheer number of people playing pipes, that’s been on a steady incline since the late ’60s, when it truly was at an all-time low. The more people play, the better standard the players are. Certainly, you see that with more makers, the standard of instruments is just getting better all the time. With the instruments that are made now, I’d say there has never been an era like it.
“I clearly remember teaching 20-25 years ago, and the pipes that would be brought into the class would make you cringe. And now, you go into a class and everybody plays an A, and it seems to be in tune, and people can’t blame the pipes anymore. There’s also a great standard in reed-making. With more people playing, and more people making them, there’s more quality players, and more quality instruments.
“In terms of the way the public’s being drawn to it, when people go to a concert and there’s a really good player on the stage, with a good sound, in tune, and playing well, you know people love the instrument. It’s a very special instrument in that sense, and definitely people connect with it. A lot of people put a lot of stock in the kind of things like Riverdance, Titanic, and Brave Heart, but I think that’s more in terms of influence, and a sort of making the instrument wider known…”
Dirk: “I grew up listening to ‘Planxty’, the ‘Bothy Band’, and the ‘Chieftains’, and there were pipes in all three bands, and I heard a lot of recordings of that, but I never actually saw a set of uilleann pipes until 20 years ago.”
Cillian: “Yeah, and people now can get a good set. They can hear whatever it is they hear – The Chieftains, or Lunása, or whatever it is at a concert, you know, and you can buy a record, and listen, and get hooked on the sound, and then they can go and find somebody to make them a set, and then you can get started, and it’s a relatively easy thing. It’s not simple, but it can be done! It wouldn’t have been the case 25 years ago. The internet is a great resource, as well. You can read forums, watch videos online of people playing – and you can even get lessons online!”
Dirk: “In May you are coming out here with Ryan McGiver. Can you tell us how you met Ryan, and what we can expect to hear at your shows?”
Cillian: “I met Ryan, I’m not sure exactly when, it was at least five years ago… He’s from upstate New York, and had moved down to New York City, where I am living. I ended up doing a few sets and bar gigs with him. He’s a great player and a great singer, but apart from that, we became good friends, and enjoy each other’s company. So, we ended up doing a festival, and then we kind of turned the festival into a tour. So, Ryan sings, he accompanies the tunes that I do on the whistle and the pipes, – and that would be strictly Irish music. But then, he sings American folk songs. So, we have worked out a show combining the two. And I enjoy it myself. I spend most of the year playing, not just with Lunása, but also with other ensembles of at least three or four other people.
“So, I’m enjoying the freedom of just the two of us. It’s a smaller sound, but it gives us the freedom to do what we want. We change the repertoire up a lot, and I play some of the tunes that I’ve written myself. “
Dirk: “The pipes have been known to be more of a solo instrument, are you going to be playing more of a solo method as well?”
Cillian: “In this show I will do a few thing unaccompanied, and use a lot of drones and regulators, and then we do some things with just the chanter and guitar, and there are things that will match the chords of guitar – matching them with the regulators, and we do a bit of that on the songs as well, kind of using all the parts of the pipes, to back up the song.
“I enjoy both that part of playing with groups and not playing with groups, and I always see it as playing the thing that works for that particular setting. In a group setting, you’d put a lot less ornamentation in and a lot less of all of your piping stuff at the expense of everybody around you, but when you are playing on your own you have a lot more freedom do what you want to do… On the pipes, you would never play a set of chords on the regulators if there was a completely different harmony in the rhythm section. Whereas if you are the only one playing, then you can do whatever you like. It’s a very different musical experience – and I like that it’s different, because I like both things.”
Dirk: “You’ve been with Lunása for about 15 years now. What is that like, and how do you find ways to keep that music fresh?”
Cillian: “Well, I mean, it is difficult. The beauty of playing with the same people year-in, and year out is that is becomes very tight, very solid, you become very trusting of the other players. It’s a sort of very dependable thing, but you can definitely get jaded, over the years, if you keep playing the same material. So, we change the material up a lot, and we write some of our own music, and we try not to play the same things every night. We do solos, and we change them up a lot. But we don’t tour as much as we did before, you know. In the early days of the band, we were on the road 200 plus days of the year together, and none of us really played any other gigs, and it was harder to keep it fresh in that sense. Then we’ve had a new guitarist the last couple of years, that brings something new into the group, and we’d do the odd collaboration, and that sort of helps things, you know?”
Dirk: “You’ve also have had some help from you musical brother, as well, in the latest recordings.”
Cillian: “Yeah, with the ‘National Concert Orchestra’. Niall, my brother is a traditional musician, but he has studied music at college, and he’s always played classical music, and he’s done a lot of arranging in the last ten years, for kind of smaller ensembles. I took part in a lot of his projects myself. He had written the music for a BBC documentary on the ‘Flight of the Earls’. It was the 400th anniversary of that. We did a series of concerts for a twelve-piece classical ensemble. And he’s certainly been writing more and more. Then the opportunity came up with the RTE orchestra, and he arranged the music of Lunása for a full orchestra. It was a great thing to do! I played a lot of classical music growing up, and I had played in an orchestra for six or seven years, but I’d never played the pipes with an orchestra. So, I’d sort of enjoyed bringing the two things together, at last. I think it collaborates very well with Irish music.
“I think a lot of people are very taken by the ‘Celtic Rock’, but actually, I think that the classical music world is closer to the Irish music world. As long as the classical players stay away from the melody! I say that, kind of joking… The classical players are trained to be able to play anything. But when Irish music is written, it’s not written as played, and classical players play what they read, so if what they read is not written correctly, then what they play sounds. You know you could nearly start laughing sometimes if you hear a violin player play an Irish tune from a book. But, that’s because the music is written in its simplest form.
“People like myself that read and play, know how to play from sheet music, but if you don’t know both things, then you can’t possibly play from sheet music, because it’s not written correctly. It’s the same in any music. If you take a jazz book, and you played a transcribed John Coltrane tune, it would sound laughable, if you played it as written. You can’t possibly write the correct swing. There would be so many dots and little tags to get that rhythm. It’s like that with Jazz or Irish music, you write a basic form so people can identify the actual note to be played, and then you find the rhythm from listening, and you find the right groove.”
Dirk: “Is there anything else you would like to say about the collaborative work you have done with Niall and others – combining classical and traditional music?”
Cillian: “You asked about keeping the music fresh, and doing collaborations. I think one thing is that when you play professionally, you play a lot more, so you get a lot better than you would have been than if you played just once a week. You end up playing four-to-five hours a day, all the time. So, when you do something new in a collaborative project with classical musicians, or whatever, it definitely helps keep the excitement levels up. We’ve done a lot of that stuff!
“We did a nice thing with Natalie Merchant a few years ago, and others with Lunása. Last year, I recorded with Bruce Springsteen. A few years before that, I did a thing with Tim O’Brian. In all these things, you learn a lot about yourself, and your own music my having to play it, or trying to play your stuff in those kind of settings.”
Dirk: “I have only heard parts of the latest Lunása recording with RTE. I am looking forward to hearing the rest of that!”
Cillian: “Yeah, it was a fairly interesting project. There was a great conductor who had knowledge of both genres, and that helped a lot. Niall’s arrangements were kind of done the way a lot of pop or rock arrangements are done with orchestras. The arrangements and chords of the band were kind of extended into the full orchestra. So, the kind of grooves and harmonies that we were already playing were sort of spread out among the rest of the instruments. And Niall picked the tracks that he felt would work best – just based on the sort of colors that he could have from the orchestra, whether it was strings, or percussion, and brass, and woodwind, and stuff, and sort of give all the parts of the orchestra a role to play.”
Dirk: “With your father a famous piper, and your talented brothers Niall and Caoimhin both sharing recording with you especially on Callan Bridge, is there a story you’d like to share with us about growing up with your musical family?”
Cillian: “I mean, it’s one of those things if you grow up, you grow up. That’s what it is. You can’t go back and grow up in another household, and compare the difference, you know? It was just part of life. With music school, it was always concerts, and practices, and sessions. My father taught me for the first few years, and then he handed me on to one of his pupils who was maybe only 15 years old, Mark Donnelly, he was a great piper. He taught me for a while, and when I was about that age, I was teaching some of the younger guys. You know, that’s sort of the way the club always worked. The pupils become the teachers, and it’s still going very strong. My younger brother Caoimhin, he’s a fiddle player now and piano player. We all came through that, and we have two younger siblings, Lorcan and Maire, and they all play. Not as much as the three of us, but a lot of it was taken for granted.
“I was more into sport, myself. I was a runner and footballer and I probably enjoyed that more as a teenager. But the music was there. I never gave up on it, I still played. I really got back into it when I was probably 18 or 19. The good thing was, I wasn’t a beginner . When I should have got my bug for wanting to play the pipes all day long every day, I wasn’t just starting, you know. I had already been playing for 10 or 11 years. I appreciate that now, but when you’re younger and it’s just there, and it’s your family, you certainly had no sense of feeling lucky or this is great. It’s only with hindsight that you realize that it’s a privileged upbringing of culture, you know?
“I have small kids now, so I’d love them to play, but I know the one thing I won’t be doing is ramming it down their throats. My father never did that with me. I just kind of went along, and if I wasn’t overly enthusiastic, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t forced. But you were surrounded by the music and you were surrounded by hearing great players. So you knew how it should sound. You always knew how it sounded when it was played well. So it was just a matter of practicing and figuring out how to do that. I think the approach of trying to turn kids into geniuses or trying to turn them into champion players, I don’t think it works, myself. They’ll either be good or they won’t.”
Dirk: “Can you give us a preview of what your workshop students should expect to learn when you’re here?”
Cillian: “I suppose there’s a limit to what you can do in any workshop. But I would certainly advise people about how they’re executing things. I think one thing, no matter how advanced you are on the pipes – or any instrument, is that you can always improve your sound, and you can always improve your rhythm. Piping can be incredibly technical and incredibly complex if you want it to be, to sound great. And pipes sounding good is not just about having a good reed and a good chanter, that’s only the start of it.
“I always feel that with teaching the pipes, a lot of what people would call ‘technique’ is really fingering technique, but there’s a lot more to technique than the just all the tricks with your little fingers. A lot of the technique is holding the pipes, applying the right pressure, and playing with good rhythm. You know I always believe everybody can improve in that department. I would listen to what people are doing already, and advise them how to improve from where they are, and also, obviously explain to people what I do and what I believe in.”
Dirk: “I have had several lessons with you in the past, and I’ve always learned something very valuable from you, so we’re all looking forward to your Colorado trip!”
Cillian: “Yeah, great! Looking forward to getting out there!”
Dirk: “Let me know if you want to go on a fly fishing or skiing trip when you’re out here – there will probably still be some snow left!”
Cillian: “Yeah, I’m a bit afraid of the skiing. I’ve never ski’d before. You’d have to put me on the baby slopes, is that what you call them? One of the times Lunása was out there, I actually didn’t go, but a number of the lads went to Loveland, was it? They arrived back black and blue. They had gone on the baby slopes, and then had gone for the big ones right away. There was black eyes and bruised ribs… It was nearly very bad. But they had fun, I believe.”
Dirk: “It seems like you guys always have fun.”
Cillian: “Oh yeah, well, we play to, anyway…”
Cillian Valley and Ryan McGiver will perform a matinee show at the D-Note in Arvada on May 18 at 3PM: The D-Note: 7519 Grandview Avenue in Olde Town Arvada (Corner of Grandview and Old Wadsworth) Sunday, May 18, 2014 3PM. $20 at the door. http://thednote.com
If you’re interested in participating in one of the workshops held by Cillian or Ryan, email info@IrishHouseConcerts.com. More information about Cillian can be found at http://CillianVallely.com. More information about Ryan at