I recently had a fun conversation with Mike Penny, a fantastic shamisen player based in Los Angeles. I was introduced to Mike by our mutual friend and colleague Kyle Abbott of Bachido, and when I started to check out his online lessons, youtube videos, and eclectic array of music, I became more and more intrigued to talk with him. One of the reasons I can relate to Mike’s approach to music is his ability to incorporate a diverse mix of influences, from European classical music to odd-meter Balkan music to Frank Zappa to the traditional style of Tsugaru shamisen. In the interview, we talk about how Mike got into shamisen as well as his involvement with Bachido, playing with taiko players, creating his many viral videos, and the controversy surrounding the new movie Kubo and the Two Strings. He sent me some of his music and I have included them in the recording. The titles in the order you will hear them are: Sou Da Ne, Leavin’ Fo’evah, It’s a Good Day, and Gan Barou.
Mike Penny has received several awards for his innovative performances and compositions using the Tsugaru Shamisen. In 2007, he received the Japan Foundation’s Uchida Fellowship which allowed him to study with one of Tokyo’s most highly respected Tsugaru shamisen instructors, Toyoaki Fukushi. Mike has given hundreds of public performances and continues to perform regularly as both a solo artist and in various ensembles. He has become well known through his many viral video performances on YouTube, and has gained a following for his unprecedented style of shamisen playing which combines traditional and extended techniques in a variety of musical contexts including jazz, Balkan folk, Western classical, and popular music in a fusion of both east and west, past and future. In addition to performing and teaching private shamisen lessons in his hometown of Los Angeles, Mike is also heavily involved with Bachido.com, the online international Tsugaru shamisen community which holds semi-annual international shamisen camps around the world at which Mike participates as an instructor.