Excerpts from Peter Browne's interview with Todd Denman on "Sounds Traditional" broadcast on RTE 1 (Ireland) August 21, 1997.


Music ends...

Peter Browne:

Two reels there, the Templehouse and Tommy People's, played on the pipes and on the fiddle by Todd Denman and Dale Russ from a new record called REEDS and ROSIN. Now both of those musicians live in the United States of America, but at the moment Todd Denman is in Ireland and is going to talk to us a bit about himself and the music and the new record. You're based in the USA, Todd, where?

Todd Denman:

San Francisco, California. And I've been there for about six years. Prior to that I was in Switzerland, prior to that I was up in Washington State, near Seattle.

Peter Browne:

And where were you born?

Todd Denman:

I was born in Idaho, actually. (laughs) And my father was in University (there) and went off to Boston University after that, so we were on the east coast very early and then we were in Germany for a year - all of this happened in my first five or six years - and then we settled in a small town in Ohio where I grew up and that's where I was first exposed to Irish music, actually, on the local student radio station. Some students had come over (to Ireland) and bought the Gael-Linn recordings and were back playing them on the student radio station and it fascinated me and I knew immediately that I wanted to play the pipes. And I had no idea there was any Irish connection in my family, at that time, I just fell in love with the music and it was only later when I pressed my parents for a little information I found out there was some Irish background.

Peter Browne:

What is that?

Todd Denman:

My mother's side, her father, her father's family, was from the North of Ireland.

Peter Browne:

Why did you take up the pipes, as opposed to any other instrument?

Todd Denman:

It's hard to say. It just caught my ear, and my heart, really. It went very deep. It was one of those moments where your life changes right before your eyes. Even though I had no idea what the pipes looked like, or how one played them, I was simply enraptured by the sound and I never expected to play professionally, I never expected even to play competently, I thought I would just do it as a hobby. And I'm sure my friends would be (heard) in the background now saying, well I'm still doing it as a hobby, (laughs) and that's where I belong! That's fine with me too.

Peter Browne:

How long were you playing before you managed to come to Ireland for the first time?

Todd Denman:

I'd only been playing two years. I came over in '82 and I'd just received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study piping with Denis Brooks, who now lives in Cork. And at the time he was in Seattle, and was a very charismatic figure. He's the one who actually started the San Francisco Pipers Club in 1975 in San Francisco and there were about twenty or thirty members, even back then. And then he moved to Seattle in 1980 and started a Seattle branch. And that coincided with my decision to learn the pipes and I met him - and I actually got my first set through the mail, didn't know how to put it together, didn't even know it was bellows-blown, didn't know anything about it, I'd never even physically seen a piper or a set of pipes, and luckily about six months after that I met Denis. (laughs)

Peter Browne:

If you hadn't met him, it would be nearly an impossible thing I suppose, for someone to learn just in a vacuum where there was no access to any other piper?

Todd Denman:

Right. I did manage in those first six months to get, you know, a dozen tunes off of some recordings and I was already playing the tin whistle because I couldn't get a set of pipes initially, I settled for the tin whistle, which turned out to be a good, you know, sort of start, a tutor almost, or training experience. And I transferred what I was doing on the whistle straight to the pipes, and had figured out the mechanics of the pipes enough that I could actually play, more or less correctly, and then I met Denis and you know, my horizon just expanded like crazy. So I was able to actually do it. And there are still Americans in different parts of the country who are totally isolated, have never seen a piper, except perhaps on Riverdance or something, on the video, and are managing to get off the ground just a bit. But we're trying, there's been a movement in the States for some time now, to at least through newsletters, and now with the internet, to connect with other pipers so that everyone has access to the same resources and information and help with reeds and so on.

Peter Browne:

When you did come to Ireland then, was it a big help to your learning?

Todd Denman:

Ah, a huge help. It's quite a story. I landed in Wexford. I just came to Ireland with a vague idea that I was going to come and learn what the music was like first-hand. And hopefully meet a few pipers. And I knew about the Willie Clancy Summer School, but I didn't actually know what time of year it was (held). And I happened to arrive in the middle of that week (but didn't know). And I had no money, so I was thumbing from Wexford kind of aimlessly into the country, and about my second or third lift, the fellow was listening to the radio and Pat Sky was being interviewed and they were talking about the Willie Week, and the driver turns to me and he says, "That's where you should be headed, boy!" (laughs) So I thumbed straight out to Clare and arrived by sunset. And I'll never forget, I stepped out of the car, and I walked down the main street and I saw people carrying uilleann pipes across the street, I saw someone playing there on the curb, and you know, in the first thirty seconds I saw more uilleann pipers than I'd ever seen in my whole life. (Peter laughs)

Peter Browne:

You must have been in shock!

Todd Denman:

I was. Totally! (Peter laughs) And it was a fabulous, fabulous week. And not only that, I walked halfway down the street and then I heard my name called out, "Todd!" And it was Peter Heelan, a friend of mine from San Francisco who plays pipes, originally from Dublin. He was there, he invited me in, gave me my first pint in Ireland, and invited me into his class the next morning, which was being taught by Joe McLaughlin, from Derry, a great, great player. And that experience with Joe also blew my mind, because he's a very fast, very tight, very syncopated, very ornamented player, and a bit like Robbie Hannan.

Peter Browne:

I was going to ask you that. You mentioned Joe McLaughlin there, and Robbie Hannan. What are the main pipers that you admire?

Todd Denman:

Stylistically, I like the tight, flat set players as well as the more open players like Denis Brooks, who plays in the mixed, sort of gentle open Leo Rowsome style with the regulators. At times I've favoured one over the other. But in recent years my appreciation is wide open for the whole spectrum.

Peter Browne:

This new record we heard a track from there a moment ago, Reeds and Rosin, it's yourself and Dale Russ who plays the fiddle. Tell me something about him.

Todd Denman:

Dale is a very fine fiddle player from Seattle. We were in college together at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and he was my first, direct musical connection. He taught me my first tunes. So he was a big influence on me (and my playing) early on...

[Dale is a highly regarded traditional fiddle player by people like Kevin Burke and Martin Hayes and his fiddle playing was influenced by the piping of Séamus Ennis. According to Todd, "I learned my first tunes from Dale, and he was literally my first pipe teacher because he was playing the fiddle with pipe-emulated ornamentation, and he was a big fan of Séamus Ennis, which we shared in common." -from the review by Larry Hill, Fiddler Magazine ]

Peter Browne:

OK. We're going to hear a couple of tunes now, again. REEDS and ROSIN is the name of this. These are the Holly Bush and Come West Along the Road. Tell me something about them.

Todd Denman:

The Holly Bush is a very nice tune. I got it from an unknown piper who I recorded on the streets of Milltown about seven years ago. I've forgotten who, hadn't written it down, so don't know who it was. Come West Along the Road I got from Dale.

Tune begins...


Aniar Records | Reeds and Rosin | Uilleann Pipes | Todd Denman | Interview with Ita Kelly