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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 online and watch the videos and listen to their music. So by the time you met him in person, it was just, you just were meeting your physical form, but you felt like you already knew so much about them from following their kind of online presence and art form. Um, no. I specifically remember our meeting because I was sitting and playing and you just sat and we played for maybe 20 or 30 minutes and we didn't talk at all, which was great. I mean what was so great is that we didn't talk at all and I felt like by the end of that 20 or 30 minutes of playing, I knew everything I needed to know about you. I had a, a sense of your sense of humor in the, how we played, um, kind of your musical background in terms of how you would lead or follow or kind of have. It was just this big musical conversation that happened without any words transpiring. And I really think, I think you just, we were done and he stood up and just left and we really didn't say anything but we didn't. That was, we didn't need to. I feel like I actually referenced that moment quite a bit in that like, Oh, music specifically through this instrument, we can say so much and not have to talk at all. And I felt like, yeah, I was like, oh, I have a really good idea of who this person is, just from jamming with him for 20 minutes or so.

Sylvain: That's profound. And it's, there's not a lot of places in our modern lives where this can happen.

Colin: Yeah, it's limited these days.

Sylvain: I'm very grateful for these opportunities. So Handpangea 2013. By that point you had already started your journey making or at least tuning steel. So talk about that. How did you go from playing to making?

Colin: That's a great question. Let's put a pin in that 2013 handpangea because that was actually a really. That was a really big goal of mine to attend that and bring something I had made. So it's almost like if you rewind about one entire year, um, I went to Russia to pick an instrument up from victor who makes instrument called spb. And I sat with him for a few, one whole day in his workshop as he finished my instrument and then we glued it and he continued to finish it. And, um, it was the first time I'd been in a workshop like that where I actively got to watch somebody work in tune. I'd seen stuff online again, there wasn't a lot even back then. So this is, this is like April of 2012. And I remember asking victor like the kind of, the same question, how did you get started? Um, we did you have a history in steel pan? And he said, no, I was a, I'm a DJ in a techno in Moscow. What I heard was I'm a regular guy, meaning he was, my expectation was he was making something that was obsessed, high quality. I assumed that he was a steel pan thoroughbreds, someone who had come up through the steel pan and that was not the case. He visited some steel pan makers but you know, didn't study under them. So that was incredibly inspiring. Uh, you know, in my head I was like, oh, he's just a normal guy which is not true. Victors of super talented, you know, very, very talented maker and very, very smart. But it will, all it meant for me was, oh, you're not a steel pan guy.

Sylvain: It was conceivable it was positive.

Colin: That's what it was like flipped the switch of like, wow, that's possible. And so that was, that's probably when the seed was planted and in April of 2012. And then in the fall of 2012 I got married and I moved up here and I left a business. I had started down in southern California. So I had this kind of weird limbo where I could start my business back up here again. And so I realized now is we got married and we got back from my honeymoon. We kind of sat down and talked about, okay, we're married now. Let's talk about what our goals are. And essentially what I told my brand new wife, I said, I want to in hindsight, but I said, I want to quit my job. I want to attempt something that virtually everyone I've watched attempt it has failed. I'm definitely not gonna make any money for awhile and I'm probably going to have to spend a fair amount of money. Like, how does that sound? And very supportive and understanding wife said, that sounds great. So what? But for me, I wanted a little bit more structure. So what I told her, I said I would like to take six months. That's what I'm going to ask for six months of support to give this a serious go, to see if I can even do it, to see if, if I want to do it, you know, maybe it's something I want to attempt and then I'm just going to be okay not pursuing it. Um, which for me, there's value in just being like, great, I don't have to worry about that anymore. And so I had a lot of goals. So now fast forwarding, this is January of 2013. My end goal for that six months was handpangea 2013. I knew that Kyle Cox, of pantheon steel was going to be there, so I would have somebody to potentially check in with. But for that next six months I just worked in private. I didn't, other than a spare few people, I didn't tell anybody what I was up to. Kyle included. Um, and uh, I had a shop that's different than these ones. It was a room in a warehouse that had all white walls and no windows and so I really, I really actually just put myself in a corner in that room and just didn't leave until I had started to figure some of this stuff out and I knew that I had some, some resources that I could lean on if needed. Kyle being one of them, but I was really hesitant to like tap into that resource too early. I didn't want to come to him and be like, how do you tune? I wanted to come with a much more informed question. And so it actually got, there was like a week before hand, Pangea and I, I finally had one of these questions. Um, and so I called him and said like, Hey, it's Colin just to bring you up to speed. For the last six months I've been working in private and in this sense I was only working on barrels. So not handpans yet. And I said, you know, I brought them to me and I said, look, I have this question I was hoping I could ask you. And he was, I think it was Kinda like, Oh, good for you... Giving it a go, that kind of thing, not brushing me off. But um, so then the question I asked ended up being like a, it was a pretty serious question. It was a question about shoulder tones or tuning. I'm partial frequency, higher partial frequencies beyond the standard three that we tune. And I had a question of like, you know, I have this shoulder to tone that's in tune, but it's not in tune within the scale. Like can I, can I move that? And if so would I, should I move it sharp or flat? It just needed to go a half step in one or the other directions. And so he gave me a very good answer, which was essentially like, yes, you can move it, I'm probably going to be easier to go flat and sharp. But as soon as you move it, you're going to mess up the main note, so move it. And then retune the main frequencies and it's kind of becomes this game of cat and mouse. And then he finished with this great answer and his comment was, well, if this is the question that you're asking, after six months, you're probably doing just fine. And so for me, that was really encouraging. So then fast forward, about a week, I was in North Carolina and that's when we first met. And I did it. I brought an instrument, a steel pan that was a hybrid steel pan in that, um, it was made from a barrel, but it had dimples, like a handpan and a layout, like a hand pan. So senator note in the middle and eight notes around. Um, and it was, I was really there just to check in with Kyle. And there was a few funny things that happened. Uh, Kyle gave me some great feedback. And again, so the feedback that happened at Handpangea when he saw the instrument, um, he said, it seems like you were born to do this work. So I got to take that little comment back to my wife and that bought me another six months. She was like, okay, you're clearly, you're showing promise, so let's, let's keep this going.

Sylvain: Um, that's a meaningful validation.

Colin: Yeah. I don't think I'll ever fully processed that, uh, you know, in that I, I hold him in his work in the highest regard. So a comment like that is, um, yeah, I can, I'll live on that one for the rest of my life. Right. So, so that was, that bought me the next six months. And then what happened in the following six months was that I needed a different shop. I need a real shop. I needed to buy some more real tools. The remainder of the year was just coming back and essentially just doing another six months of work, working to understand the variables of making these instruments and slowly introducing more variables. Um, in October of 2013 I went to Switzerland and sat with Ezhan of echo sound sculptures and which was a great experience. Um, he gave me some great pieces of advice. He said, you know, would it be okay if I give you some advice because Ezhan incredibly humble and polite and I kinda had to be like, Ezhan, here. I kind of flew halfway around the world and hopes that he would give me some advice and he said, you're gonna, be fine making instruments. That's not the problem. He was much more concerned about, oh, let's talk about business dealing with customers, that whole side. So he had some great advice on the business side. Um, yeah, that, that's where I retuned my first Hang was there with Ezhan. Um, he very gently pushed me into the deep end, which was, uh, which was lovely. And I left there with a great deal of confidence because of his, um, kind of hands off, very masterful guidance and mentoring in the few days that I was there. And then I got here and I got the rest of the tools to make a handpan. And then that was it. I just came home. So about a year after I started, I made my first, my first instrument and what it felt even more significant was I was really pleased with my first instrument. It is even to this day, it's still good. It's still very good instrument, but it was the set I was much more concerned of like, that's great. I did it, but can I do it again just to make sure, just to make sure it wasn't a fluke. And so then the second instrument that I built was really probably the one that put me on the map and I shopped that around for the next six months at a few festivals to kind of show people. So that's kind of that the beginning story.

Sylvain: Hey, I hope you enjoyed listening to Colin's beginning story. If like me, you've been blessed to be a part of this community for a while, I bet you felt a bit of nostalgia remembering Colin as a player or thinking back to your first handpan gathering. These are memories to treasure. Now, if you're new to the handpan, well, first welcome! Second, you've probably noticed that, even as young as it is, there's a lot of history to the handpan community. But please don't feel left out. Understand that you also are unrolling your own beginning story. That's why I wanted to share Colin's journey, how he developed a passion and where that passion has taken him. This wraps up part 1 of Colin's story and we will pick back up from here in the next episode. I want to let you know about the handpan podcast community. It's a facebook group where you can share your video and audio recordings, your thoughts and photos about your own creative journey. Social media can be pretty intimidating with everyone projecting a perfect image of their lives. The handpan podcast community is meant to be the contrary. There is no competition or ego trip. It is just a place for us to connect in a meaningful way. If you want, you can visit to pick up some cool handpan merch or, you can check out my "just a thought" series where I document ideas for future episodes. That's it for this episode of the handpan podcast. Thanks for listening and talk to you in the next one.

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