When Greg Istock dropped a piano on a hard drive in his studio, his heart sank. Somewhere in the now crushed piece of equipment were months worth of lush recordings from 3hattrio—a dynamic desert-based string outfit.
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Istock, whose music roots are deeply tied in Caribbean music, is joined by Eli Wrankle, a decades younger violinist who was raised in Southern Utah under classical music traditions, and Hal Cannon, a banjoing folklorist who immersed himself in the evolution of Native American music and cowboy country.
The pioneering trio is not interested in continuing on pre-paved paths of their original influences. Instead, 3hattrio ventures into uncharted sonic territory. From far-reaching corners of their own artistry, the experimental group braids those broad strains together pushing new bounds. Threading through these three is their common ground, each rooted in the untamed nature of their surroundings. The Virgin River, winding tirelessly through the dusty Mojave, serves as a wellspring of inspiration. As a trio, they continuously wield this landscape to create something momentous.
“I wouldn’t say we set out to do anything, when you experiment you don’t lay any ground rules,” Istock tells American Songwriter. “We know that the landscape influences us, but we aren’t always sure how.”
Since their first album release, Year One, in 2014, the trio has a deep understanding of what each of them is capable of. To capture their craft in its truest, rarest form, 3hattrio records everything they do.
Over the summer of 2019 in that same studio, looking out across Zion National Park, 3hattrio flooded tapes with some of their most ingenious jams yet. Cannon recalls feeling especially enthused by his new instrument, a cello-banjo, comparing his infatuation to that of a “new lover.” Like Cannon, Istock and Wrankle remember well the emotive experience of recording this music, but when they sent the hard drive off for repairs in New York, the three could hardly remember what the music they recorded in those sessions sounded like. This felt especially discouraging when the company sent a blank tape and explained there was nothing they could do to salvage the files.
By some twist of fate, a second tape arrived, unannounced a few weeks later. When Istock plugged it in, fragments of files flooded in, sending the artist back through space and time to the hallowed moments of their creation. With minimal edits beyond file repairs, 3hattrio delivers The Lost Sessions—a body of brilliance that stirringly survived by the grace of the music gods.
Listening through to what seemed almost unfamiliar to him, Cannon began putting pieces back together of what happened that summer in the studio.
“We really couldn’t remember creating certain songs on the album,” Cannon explains. “And then, as I remembered us playing together, looking out enormous windows, the only explanation is that the desert really took us over in those moments. We weren’t musicians, we were just responding to our surroundings.”
“Attack of the Shadows” captures this enthrallment with hypnotic rhythm. The group remembers settling into a trance and just going with it. “It could have gone on all night,” says Wrankle. “We didn’t want to stop.”
Istock adds, “When we play it, it does something, it settles everyone down. It’s eerie, it just relieves people.”
Journeying tracks like “Gallus” and “On the Run” evoke the galloping progression of the group’s experimentation. Wrankle wrote “Never Going Home” one night sitting up in the dark. His violin solo—a first—adds levity to the ever-building soundtrack, conjuring a peaceful resolution. “Disquieting,” runs nearly ten minutes long, exposing the beauty of their uncut approach on this album versus previous. The cinematic track is etched with whispering vocals intended to disorient the listener within their own setting as they uncover imperceptible corners of their imagination.
“We’ve done this all along, but did not have the confidence to leave the voice-chorus song world, and this one we did,” he explains. “This includes little bits of poetry that prompted us, different things that primed the pump.”
Cannon points to “Lost in the Woods” as an example of this free form construction. He penned the poem that was shaped further by Istock to inlay the instrumentation. The prose details a spooky night where a group goes missing deep within the trees. Each verse builds further anxiety: Nary a moon, trails to nowhere / Pine Needle picture – the night is ink / Pinhole stars – all tangled up.
“There’s something about the song where you can really feel the disconnect between those lost and the others who are looking,” Cannon shares. “It places me in the woods, envisioning both sides of that story.”
The Lost Sessions paints a portrait of the American Southwest through the lens of three spiritually connected onlookers. Rather than purvey the traditions that rose from the dusty desert roots, 3hattrio gives rise to a newfangled soundtrack that traces the outer rims of the webbed lineage to then brave the undiscovered. The pain of magic lost, then regained, is all part of this sound.
“We weren’t a bunch of chickens about what we were releasing this time, so didn’t edit too much,” says Istock. “It’s not much different from going to the beach in our bathing suits, and not wanting to be seen,” Istock laughs. “But now, we’re going there and we’re gonna let everyone see us in our suits.”