As Balkan folk and gypsy-jazz enjoy a revival — thanks to Americana acts fleeing an increasingly co-opted middle for less crowded environs along the fringes — Fishtank Ensemble enjoy the security of territory staked out almost a decade ago. No carpetbagging gypsy hipsters here.
The multicultural Los Angeles quartet features Serbian Djordje Stijepovic, who learned his slap-bass technique in European gypsy bands, guitarist Douglas Smolens, who built his chops up playing flamenco, and the married couple of French fiddler Fabrice Martinez and Sacramento singer Ursula Knudson.
Knudson and Martinez met cute in Venice during Carnival 11 years ago. "It was very chi-chi and I found that boring. So one night I went to the casino," Knudson recalls. It was there that she and a friend saw a locally famous Italian singer's band, then met them backstage. "I said, 'I don't speak Italian, I speak French, I'm sorry' and [the singer] said, 'Well then you can talk to this person, he's French,' and I turned around and I saw my husband."
They talked all night and, that fall, Martinez came over to visit her. He got an apartment, then created a band consisting of her, him and his roommate, since-departed accordionist Aaron Seeman. They met others at a jam session, which went so well that they put together a second show.
It's since evolved from there. The Fishtank Ensemble name came from the bar where they all first met and jammed.
The band grew to a six-piece, releasing two albums with that lineup, before scaling back to the four current members.
"We found that was the basic sound we could do," explains Knudson. "It was more efficient. You can travel in one car and we could tour a lot more."
Knudson's old-timey, shoulder-shimmying persona may steal the spotlight, but her opera-trained voice is well-suited to the band's supple sway and sprightly bounce. In April, they released their fourth studio full-length, Edge of the World, which adds new flavors to the mix.
"This album's getting us more into Turkish and Greek styles," she says. "[In the past] we'd dug deeper and deeper into our original sound and only stretched out a little bit from the initial approach."
After heavy touring, the band hopes to stay closer to home in the near future. This could be their last time through Colorado for a while.
"We're taking time to settle back and find some more inspiration," she says. "Trying to have a career here could have totally different results than touring a lot did. We might even be more productive musically."
They're also looking for opportunities similar to last summer's when they played at the Hollywood Bowl with the L.A. Philharmonic — twice a day for two weeks — for a children's play in which the protagonist goes to Slovenia, finds Fishtank Ensemble camped out by a river, and learns how live music brings people together."
As for what happens next for the band, Knudson's taking it a day at a time. "I've learned in my life to take the time it takes to process things, and figure them out instead of being impatient."