Colin Foulke, Student of Steel - Part 1

Classically trained on the cello, Colin slowly grew weary of jumping through the hoops of institutionalized western music... but then he discovered the handpan and embarked on a journey that would dramatically change his everyday life.

Podcast Transcription

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain! And this is the handpan podcast. The handpan podcast is about the simple joy of creating. It tells the transformation stories of people whose lives have intersected with the handpan. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Now almost 20 years into this art form, we get to reminisce about the past, marvel at where we are now in the present and dream about what's to come in the future. One of the stories I have had the chance to see unroll over the years is the story of Colin Foulke. This episode and the next one will be dedicated to Colin's journey discovering, pursuing and pioneering the handpan art form. I am excited to shed light on one of the key members of our handpan community, through this conversation. I hope you enjoy it.

Sylvain: Colin, a very warm welcome to the handpan podcast.

Colin: Ah, thank you for having me. And thank you for coming to my shop.

Sylvain: Absolutely. So we're recording this live, which is really fun. Um, we're in your studio in Santa Rosa, California, and um, this place feels really welcoming and warm. It's got a great atmosphere. I can see. I can tell that a lot of things have been made here.

Colin: Yeah. This, this is my third unit in this facility. I still have the one next door, which was my original one. Um, but when I got this room it was just that it was just this big open room and I was really excited to get it and then immediately overwhelmed with how much work it was gonna be. It was going to be to kind of get it into this state. It's not quite done, but it's evolving. But yeah, things are kind of finding their way. Most of my shops have little stations, so I have a station over here, there's an electronic station over there, there's a tuning, fine tuning station, my desk over there, so everything kind of tends to be stationed based, so a lot of those stations have slowly solidifying in place, but we're always prone to like just moving everything one day come in and be like, it's all wrong, move it around. So. But it's, yeah, it's, we've had this space for about a year, so it's. Yeah, finding its way.

Sylvain: Well, it feels very organic and creative, so it's, it's really good to be here. Let me set the stage. So Colin Foulke, you are known worldwide in the handpan community, um, for a number of things. First, your instrument, the ether is considered one of the top hand pans in the world. Second, you've significantly advanced the art form through a technique you call hydro-forming, which has made it easier to shape handpan shells and we'll talk about these things. Um, but first let's go back because you started as a player. How did you discover the handpan?

Colin: Oh, I, my story, I wish it was more unique, but it is probably pretty similar to everybody in the United States give or take. Um, it was uh, early 2007 and I discovered it on the Internet. I remember the specific day, my semester at school had just started. I was still a college student and somebody had sent me a message that had a link to a video with a Didgeridoo in it. This friend and I were trying to excite ourselves about playing music again and we started with the didge and the Didgeridoo, this video, this guy sent me, I clicked it, and then I clicked another video and it went to a video with a two didge players and someone playing this instrument. I didn't know what it was and so it was probably nine or 10 in the morning. I skipped all my classes that day. Um, I didn't like, I was still in my pajamas. I didn't get out of my pajamas and I, you know, I think like everyone was just completely struck by this instrument and couldn't leave until I at least figured out what it was, you know, that day. And so it was, it was actually the next video that I click then was a link to one of Dante's videos that became one of his kind of famous tracks. And so the first video I was like, what is that instrument? And then the second video I was like, oh, so that's how you play it. And so that, that was kind of my initial story. So that was 2007 and there weren't a lot of Hangs in the states yet. Um, and there were forums online that we could find information, but even that was kind of spar, so it took me a long time to even find somebody that had one that I could get in the same room with it and just even try it. That was, didn't happen until maybe 2009. So I kind of had this closet passion obsession about, about this instrument. And it wasn't till about two years later that I actually got in a room with one and played it. And my instincts were totally correct in that I loved playing it and thought this is what I'm supposed to be doing. So it was kind of this two year quiet researching obsessing. I think that's a fair word to use. Um, and it was maybe the first time I really trusted that kind of gut instinct where I saw this thing that I didn't know anything about and was struck so hard by it in the way that it seemed like this is what I was supposed to be doing.

Colin: My history of music as someone who plays a musical instrument started in fourth grade, so I was probably eight or nine and I was given violin, which everyone was, but I am a large stature and was then. So they said, you seem like you're probably big enough to handle this other instrument. So then I was given a cello. So in fourth grade I think I was the only one who played cello because it was kind of the only one that was big enough for the cellos they had, I don't think they had any like half size, three quarter size. They had a full size and they gave it to the big kid, but I was, I was really struck by the cello as an instrument, it's range that has the lower end. Even how you play it and sit with it felt really natural. And so from grade four on all the way through high school, I played in the standard school orchestras and then I kind of, I've got to the point where they recommended that I go audition for more advanced orchestras and so I did that and um, sat first chair and all of those, um, but it was around maybe 14 or 15 years old that it started to shift of like, you're playing well enough, there could be opportunities in this and if there are opportunities we should push for that, um, opportunities being, you know, maybe scholarships or you know, um, opportunities to go to college for it or things of that nature.

Colin: And, and what happened in that shift, at least for me, and this is me reflecting now, you know, looking back 15 years ago when I was 15, I lost that kind of fun connection with it. It was, it wasn't like, oh, I will pick it up and play it because I want to practice that song. It was, you need to practice for two hours every day, every single day of the week. And we were driving long distances to see a teacher. I had graduated from my local teacher so we had to, you know, outsource to someone who is far away. And so the fun aspect got kinda just ripped out of it. So I still continue to play, but I kind of backed off and then once I went to college, like I just didn't bring my instrument. I left it at home. So this is kind of fast forward a couple of years this friend and I decided like we, we still really liked playing music, but at least for me I was interested in breaking free of the constraints of western classical.

Colin: So I wanted to go the full opposite end, which was like, let's go deep into world music. And the Didgeridoo, the didge is a great example of there's a few techniques that you should learn to play but beyond that there are no rules. It is the wild west of instruments, which is so exciting. And so it was that evolution that then led me to first the Hang and then handpans in general. So, um, yeah, it's, it's a long, kind of a long arc, one that I pushed away from for a while and then, um, uh, yeah, I remember actually talking to my mom about it once I started playing handpans and I think I said something along the lines of like, you remember all those cello lessons that you've paid for and drove me to like, I'm using that again, it's not with that instrument but that knowledge and didn't go anywhere and I just thought you should know, like I think it was worth it that I'm like, it's still there and I can still use it.

Sylvain: So in those years that you got into the handpan that's, it's around that time that you and I first connected, right? So I was looking for a paper trail of our first electronic communication and I think it probably happened before that I'm sure we had commented on each other's youtube videos before that I found a message from you dating back to 2010.

Colin: It was pretty early. Yeah.

Sylvain: Yeah. And the message was addressed to, uh, to, to meet, and my wife, Jill, she and I were just dating at the time, but you had heard a, um, a composition that she had made on the, on my Hang. And so you reached out and said, oh, it was an inspiration for me to compose this track with four tracks of cello, one track of, I'm assuming halo problem. And so, um, that's, that's the, the, uh, the earliest piece of communication that I could find. And then we sort of corresponded over the years. Um, a lot has changed since then,

Colin: A lot of change since then. Yeah, that's funny. I think I remember the track. No, my first exposure to you, it wasn't like, I think I'd seen videos of you playing this. This is in that window where I didn't have an instrument yet. Um, but someone had given me your cd

Sylvain: Oh really?

Colin: Yeah, the Hang jams the "Confiture de Hang". Yeah that one. And um, I didn't really, I didn't know much about it, this person had given me a bunch of cds. So I was kind of going through these cds and I put this one in and I, that was one of my favorite ones in the pack of cds that had been given and in my head I was like, these are professional musicians and then like actually looked it up and I was like, no, these are a couple of kids in France.

Colin: And it was about the same time that you guys started to do your multicam videos and some of those tracks where some of the tracks that were on this cd. And so that was like, that was really kind of both jawdropping and equal parts of inspiring, of like, oh my gosh, there's kids, this is so good. And then you're like, oh my gosh, they're just kids and this is so good. Um, so I, that was, I think my first exposure to you as someone who played this, that and then your videos that you had done with David.

Sylvain: At the Hang Haus maybe?

Colin: At the Hang Haus and then the one where you guys are in socks. Yeah, those ones. I listened to those ones.

Sylvain: So that was very early on. Yeah, yeah.

Colin: Yeah. So this, yeah, this, I guess this story goes way back in terms of being exposed to what the other person was doing with the instrument. Yeah. And then the video with Jill, I feel like that inspired a few songs for me. Um, I just really liked the structure. I think it was like a three count waltz maybe kind of.

Sylvain: And that was later on and really the community was starting to organize around events. And then I think you and I first met in person at handpangea in 2013. But it felt like we already knew each other.

Colin: Yeah. That's what the amazing thing about these events, is that there's people that you would correspond with o