By now the term – “not your dad’s bluegrass” is as cliché as “not your grandfather’s jazz.” And if you hear one more reference to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack for any band that employs a banjo, feel free to roll your eyes. Certainly the “newgrass” or “progressive” bluegrass movement has been alive since New Grass Revival hit the stage in the 70’s. But withfestivals like Bonnaroo and booking both Bela Fleck and The Arcade Fire, you’re bound to get creative inspirations that bury the old clichés.
So take a listen to the bluesy stomp of “Bring Out Your Dead” from Greensky Bluegrass’ fourth studio effort Handguns and you get something sounding like The Black Keys gone Telluride. Yes, Greensky Bluegrass are hardly strictly newgrass, as the Kalamazoo, MI band has won over crowds from Bonnaroo to the Northwest String Summit. The 14 tracks on Handguns stretch from the 11 minute jam vehicle “All Four” to the old timey flavors of “Hot Dogs (On Parade),” to the anthemic chills of “Don’t Lie.” On the heels of the release of Handguns, Glide had a chance to get some very personal and revealing insights from band members : Paul Hofffman (mandolin), Anders Beck (dobro), Dave Bruzza (guitar), Mike Devol (upright bass) and Mike Bont (banjo).
How was your summer? Can you talk about your most memorable performance or was there any festival of note that was particularly inspiring that stood out?
Paul: Looking back, it’s amazing how many memories there are backed into three months. It was a great summer….our biggest so far. Bonnaroo was really awesome and memorable. It’s an honor to be among so many different bands that we admire. Our crowd greeted us with wild energy despite the intense temperatures. Since 2000 we have evolved into "greensky" – something reminiscent to bluegrass but entirely unique. It was always developing in our approach to music. But now it’s part of the music we write and the way we perform.
Mike Devol: This summer was amazing as we continued to live up to our reputation as one of the busiest bands in the business, playing a string of festivals starting in early march, and not ending until this weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
The festival season is interesting for us. Being a "newgrass" band sees us in two situations: as a "token" bluegrass rock band in a myriad of rock festivals, and a few times as the "bad boy" newgrass band at more traditional bluegrass/Americana festivals. Either way, we have fun, and we do what we do.
This year, we visited several of our favorite festivals, including my personal fave (besides Telluride bluegrass, which awaits us in 2012), the Northwest String Summit. This festival outside of Portland, OR is hosted by our good friends and newgrass heroes Yonder Mountain String Band and is basically the quintessence of an awesome party. Our genre is tight-knit, so over the years our colleagues at these festivals have become our good buddies who we get to reconnect with at a slew of festivals all summer.
String Summit brings us all together in the greatest of festival settings, Horning’s Hideout, a perfect, lakeside, natural ampitheater in the midst of acres of beautiful redwood camping. absolute radness. One memorable new experience was our first Bonnaroo. I’ll admit that I was a little apprehensive about this one. It’s sheer sizsounded like a real pain in the ass, but wow was it awesome. There were thousands at our set, and besides almost sweating myself to death, I had a blast. There is no way to complain about the opportunity to see My Morning Jacket and the Arcade Fire from the front row. Hell yes.
Dave: This summer was amazing! Not one thing really sticks out. Everywhere we went and played was wonderful. We have great fans and it’s nice to see them growing. In the beginning, Paul ,Mike and myself wanted to learn and play bluegrass. We did just that. Over the years we started to incorporate all of our likes and influences into what we play. The band today is never what I expected. We have a unique sound that is truly ours. We work really well together, and we can almost finish each other’s thoughts. I love what we do, and to look back where we started, I’m proud of where we are now musically.
Anders: It was an amazing summer full of festivals for us. We played Bonnaroo for the first time this year and we were very well received, which was pretty exciting. Bumbershoot in Seattle was really cool too! It’s really fun to be a bluegrass-type band at these bigger rock and roll festivals because there is so much juxtaposition in what we do versus say an indie rock band does, while at the same time fans of music also seem to realize that we’re not much different than a rock band without drums. I also loved the bluegrass festivals like the 10th annual Northwest String Summit that our buddies Yonder Mountain String Band throw out in Portland… out there it’s more of a hang out and pick tunes with your old friends vibe…luckily we’ve got some pretty cool friends!
Mike Bont: It was an amazing summer; getting to play some of the biggest festivals on the planet has been a definite achievement. We made al ot of new fans and its really great to turn people onto our music; I feel like we offer something for everybody. The most memorable for me was our Thursday set at Bonnaroo. It was hot and humid all day and then, right before our set started, these clouds rolled in and cooled the whole place off. People came out and the set rocked!
What made you originally decide to go acoustic? What limitations has it provided you and how has the acoustic realm got you to the level where you are today in becoming a professionally touring band?
Paul: I’ve always enjoyed acoustic music and the unique listening experience of chamber music without drums. Since we are all have eclectic music taste and inspirations it’s created some unique challenges as we try convey what our imaginations conceive. That process of using bluegrass instruments to play a Grand Funk Railroad song, for example, has taught us just how few limitations there actually are. It’s also seemed to me over the years that being part of a niche genre of music made it easier to make a splash in the beginning. People who enjoy music with our instrumentation seek it out. And there are a lot less acoustic quintet’s that play bluegrass with rock & roll attitudes than there are four piece drum/guitar/bass/keys bands. Ultimately the songs separate what people enjoy but being part of a bluegrass community gave us a foot in the door to the right listeners.
Mike Devol: There was no point at which Greensky "decided" to go acoustic. Really, our career can be defined much more accurately as a transition from acoustic to otherwise. When i joined the band in 2004, Greensky was pretty much a bluegrass band with only an album’s worth of original music; we spent a lot of our set-lists playing the classics, and the more obscure bluegrass tunes as our original repertoire grew. It was easy to see that our sound was developing in congruence with our non-bluegrass influences, from the Grateful Dead and Phish to our current interests in (the un-definable) indie rock. Textures and content have strayed from that of traditional bluegrass and I feel like we’ve become by far more of a rock band with bluegrass instruments than a true bluegrass band.
While we’re trying to challenge the definition and boundaries of "bluegrass", I think we’ve been thankful, too, to be considered a part of the genre. There are a million great rock bands out there failing, unable to get a foothold in the sea of competition. Our acoustic instrumentation brings with it a niche market, one in which people are seeking new bands like us, whether they are bluegrass fans, or newgrass fans, or jamband fans. I think these dedicated fans and the people who book these kinds of shows have been instrumental in our survival. They were open before they even heard us to what we do because some could call it bluegrass, or Americana, and as they came to know us for the specific individual sound that we bring to the table, they have become Greensky fans, not just fans of our genre in general.
Mike Bont: When we started this, I never expected to be where we are today. I just really liked bluegrass from the first time Iheard it. The fact that there great songs, all this harmony singing and shredding instruments was something that excited me instantly. Suddenly I was totally obsessed with playing banjo ALL THE TIME! I literally would work mornings then, come straight home and play all night and the next day I would do it all again. I must of played eight + hours a day for a year. Most of my influences at that time were from jazz, punk rock and alternate music. Also, being a huge Deadhead, who was into the jam scene I think it was only a matter of time before these surfaced in our music which I think is awesome. It feels great every night to be able to play something new and different and to have band mates that share that same energy. I am a huge fan of our music, there’s nothing out there sounds anything like us. I guess were kinda reinventing acoustic music, drawing from all these other genres.
It was the sound of the banjo that drew me to the music. I had been playing guitar since about 10, and was in a handful of bands growing up. I was trying to figure out jazz guitar at the time, mostly by my own studies. It was pretty overwhelming, so i guess I was looking for a new challenge. We would go to this thing called " Bluegrass Breakfast" which as it leads, is breakfast with this old-timey band called “The Lonesome Moonlight Trio.” They had a great banjo player who worked at the original Gibson factory in Kalamazoo and actually was one of two people that Bill Monroe had work on his mandolin. I would go home and pick all day after seeing them, it was very inspiring.
Anders: I personally decided to start focusing on acoustic type music after hearing the dobro and realizing that it was the coolest and most unique sounding instrument I had heard in a while. I was getting deep into bluegrass music through working backwards from Old and in the Way all the way to Bill Monroe. Eventually, I settled somewhere in the middle and started to focus on the newgrass side of things as its is so improvisational and exploratory.
As far as limitations that being an acoustic based band have created, I cant really think of many. We’re certainly not going to get played on AAA radio, but to me it’s the blending of the bluegrass/acoustic sound and the rockin’ jamband type sound with really strong original songs that makes us unique. Having the word "bluegrass" in our name has been a curse and a blessing, I think.
What songs on Handguns do you feel will become constant live staples in your repertoire and is there any one song that best curates your sound as you best see it?
Paul: I would expect this to be a difficult question to answer since our material covers a broad array of influences but we sort of unanimously agreed that "Don’t Lie" is as close as possible to the "quintessential" Greensky song. It is track one on the record and it’s one of the songs we gave away. That’s why. Anders and myself co-wrote this one and they way we arranged it capture a lot of sound-scapes that have developed from our live show. Since we started playing it this summer, it is growing into a great live vessel.
Mike Devol: Don’t Lie…seriously don’t. There are a lot of great songs on this album, and I think a few will be Greensky classics before we know it. One song in particular has been especially defining to me, and that’s, “Don’t Lie.”
If any song can attempt to sum up the Greensky Bluegrass sound, it’s gotta be this one. It was written by Paul and Anders in a peculiar way. i swear that Anders has been playing the instrumental hook of this song since I’ve known him, but we never knew how to make it into the instrumental number it was intended to be. More recently, Paul was working on a song that he couldn’t quite finish. The two brought their ideas together and created don’t lie.
This song showcases Hoffman’s songwriting skills, of which i have the UTMOST respect (he’s wise beyond his years), but also opens itself into a multi-textured jam section in the middle. I think these two aspects of Greensky’s music are what we are known for. In a similar contradiction, I think this song showcases a very basic bluegrass texture as well as a totally funky Afrobeat texture, which is defining to Greensky Bluegrass’s sound- a versatility and an obvious blend of influences that makes us unique.This song has already become a favorite in our live show, and not just for the crowd.
Anders: “All Four,” the biggest jam tune on Handguns is already a live staple so it was interesting to try to cut it down to a definitive version. We cut what is often a 20 minute song when we play it live into a 12 minute song for the record, which I think is pretty good! That was a pretty cool musical exercise for us. We will play all the songs on the record in our live shows, but “Don’t Lie” is really picking up steam as a jam vehicle more and more every time we play it. I really look forward to seeing what “Bring Out Your Dead” turns into in a live setting, but we’ve been saving it for the record release date.
Distortion and horns find themselves on Handguns– what inspired you to try different effects and sounds?
Paul: The songs are what really inspire us to stretch the imagined boundaries of bluegrass recording. The song "I’d Probably Kill You" always had horns in my mind when I wrote it. I try and write music that is bigger than what we are capable of so that we are reaching for something more developed than a few chords and some words. The studio process opens up so many doors to a musician/songwriter. Often things we wouldn’t even attempt to incorporate into our show. That doesn’t mean the art of making a record should be compromised because it might not be played that way live. But maybe it will….
Anders: We’ve been messing around with effects on stage for the last couple years… it’s gotten to the point where we all have pretty big pedal boards on stage, so taking some of those sounds into the studio was kind of a natural evolution for the band. When starting to work on this record, we all had more ideas on what kind of record we didn’t want it to sound like than what we did. So because of that we, in a totally backwards way, weren’t at all limited in our creative state. We don’t really listen to much bluegrass anymore, so our influences come from elsewhere. I’d rather listen to a Beatles album any day of the week that the homogenized stuff you hear on the Satellite Radio bluegrass station. The horns and the distortion and "weird" stuff on the record are there because we spent a long time thinking about how to present each song and make it interesting and unique. That stuff isn’t really there in an effort to make the record cool or hip, it’s there because those sounds serve the specific song best and make them better… hopefully!
Can you explain what each band member brought to Handguns and what each band members’ talents offer to Greensky Bluegrass to make it what it is?
Paul: People often tell me they are surprised how well we get along and how close we seem after all the time and miles we’ve endured together. It feels that way in our music to me as well. We all communicate differently and have a "unified unique" vision for Greensky. It’s like a checks and balance system. If something gets thru the whole quintet, it must have been the right decision. Sometimes we still change our minds later, new key for a song, different tempo, add calypso fee, etc. Bruzza and myself write most of the songs. As singers and lyricists, we are blessed with a strong arsenal of musicians to bring our songs to life. I’m primarily a one-guy-guitar-songwriter and I often have a clear idea of where Greensky should take it. Other times, the guys hear something different and trust them. Only to listen back and think, "shoot…thanks guys."
Mike Devol: Greensky Bluegrass is a unique band, and I feel that we all have unique talents and usefulness in the recording process, and in creating the sound that IS Greensky. We are not all cut from the same cloth, we don’t all listen to the same music, but somehow we can come together enthusiastically to create the music that we create. One thing i have always appreciated about us is that we are, above all, a BAND. We are not five previously-established hot shots who decided to come together and make some super group. Excepting the late addition of Anders on dobro, we literally learned to play bluegrass in each others’ midst. I think this has helped define our sound in a way that not every band can boast.
We all worked on every part of this album. We arranged the songs as a group; tracked simultaneously; picked mics, amps, and processors. When we weren’t in front of microphones, we were in front of the studio monitors, listening to each other work, commenting, and encouraging. To say that this record was produced by Greensky Bluegrass is not even an exaggeration. This album was a group effort as much as anything I’ve ever been involved in, and I think we’ve all taken some special fulfillment in that.
I think that the recording process is fulfilling for us all in a lot of ways, and every time I walk away from the studio, I’m more proud of my band members than ever before. The challenge of the studio brings out the best in us I think, and it provides a unique insight into each man’s special contributions to the art that we create.
Paul is our most prolific songwriter, and Handguns features mostly his songwriting work. I’m in the same band, but I can honestly say I’m a fan. His lyrics are profound beyond his age, his sense for melody is beautiful and natural, and that boy can sing. He has a way of being the driving force in our recording process, which I imagine stems from his taking direct ownership over the songs we are recording. When he’s not in front of a mic, he’s never far from the console.
Dave Bruzza wrote several of the songs on the new album, and provides what I feel is the real bluegrass background of the band. He’s a great guitar player, and if you didn’t ever hear him talk, his singing voice would have you convinced that he’s a grasser since birth, raised somewhere in the gritty hills of North Carolina, he and Paul have for a long time been taken for brothers, and I don’t think it’s because they look alike. It’s their musical stylings combined that are Greensky Buegrass’s sound… the way they sing together, the way they play together.
We are a drum less band, so Dave and I are the rhythm section. He’s a forceful rhythm guitarist, and if you’ve heard any of his solos on the album, it’s clear that he is a shredder.
Mike Bont, our banjo player, provides the roots of our bluegrass sound. He’s just plainly a damn good picker..solid as a rock. He brings an unparalleled consistency to the recording process and doesn’t fail to deliver in his baritone harmony singing by not elaborating further. I am in no way discounting his contributions to this album…. he is just simply a rock.
Anders is our dobro player, and to me, he really brings the instrumental prowess to the record. He’s just really fucking good. He definitely spent the most time perfecting each of his solos on the record, and what’s left is gold. Seriously, listen to don’t lie, and try and tell me that his solo entrance in the Afrobeat section is not the coolest shit you’ve ever heard. He’s the latest addition to our band (even though it’s already been three and a half years), and I don’t know what we’d do without him. Anders was also good for some really cool conceptual ideas on the album, different sounds and approaches to the recording process.
I’m the bass player and I come from an education in classical music, so I find that in the greater process of the album, some of my greatest contributions are made early on. As the bassist, I am relieved of the soloing (and re-soloing, and re-soloing…) process, but I feel that my role in arranging has proved crucial in our band. I enjoy the process of taking a song from one guy on a guitar to a whole band’s worth of textures, solo-passing, singing and so on. I think my education has given me a solid sense of the musical big-picture, of the greater structure of a piece, and I feel I’m helpful in arranging our songs to follow a similar natural, musical framework.
I write my own vocal harmonies (and a few of the others), and sing harmony on most of the tracks on Handguns. As far as my playing is concerned, I work with Dave as half of the rhythm section, and i take my pride and joy being in-the-pocket. By favorite bass players have never been the flashy types, but the guys who know exactly what note to play, and right where to put it. It’s a subtle, non-glamorous art, and that is what I strive for.
Anders: Paul and Dave write the majority of the songs for the band and Paul wrote the majority of the tunes on the new album. From there, we really try to arrange the songs for the band as a group. Sometimes it’s a very simple process, sometimes it takes a long time for the truly "final" version of the song to be done. Paul plays mandolin in the band, but usually writes songs on guitar. Sometimes when he is bringing a song to the band at rehearsal, he has yet to ever play it on the mandolin… so it’s even new to him in some respects, which kind of levels the playing field since we are all trying to figure out where this song will go together.
Do you feel there is really are still a large amount of bluegrass enthusiasts that lend their ears to “acoustic” only? How important is it to expand beyond the old-timey bluegrass way and progress it?
Paul: I often think people spend a lot time discussing if the bluegrass right will approve of our lengthy jams and Prince covers but we’ve never encountered a lynch mob, received evil hate mail or given a refund to a "real" Monroe fan. It’s important to us to be different. It’s the nature of art. In the end, i think some traditionalist may not seek us out, but if we cross their path, they appreciate our enthusiasm. We end up being kind of a gateway grass band for newcomers to the genre. They may never have given Flatt & Scruggs 16 bars to prove their awesomeness until they figured out they like banjos by hearing us on Jam_ON playing a Paul Simon tune.
Anders: I think there are a lot of bluegrass music enthusiasts that lend their ear to acoustic only stuff, and that’s great for them to know exactly what they like, but our fan base is way more diverse than that. We’ve been lucky to be embraced by many different subsets of music fans; the jam band fans, some of the bluegrass folks, the Americana songwriter lover type people, and of course lots of people just like us that you can’t put a label on no matter how hard you try.
Obviously hooking up with a T-Bone Burnett or studio honcho would help things, but within your circle is there anything you can do that would help expand the Greensky brand besides working hard on the road?
Paul: Think DJ Shadow would do a remix of our album? Maybe Pretty Lights would sample something. He. He. I dunno. I tend to think the unexpected helping hand would be the most useful. Expand the expectations. Think outside.
Anders: Sure. Got any ideas? But seriously, we work really hard at trying to figure all of this out! i just don’t feel like it’s necessary to be public knowledge.
You spend an enormous amount of time on the road. How much is touring an essential part of what you do?
Anders: We play almost 200 shows a year, so it certainly is an essential part of what we do! I don’t really see us getting on VH1 or MTV or AAA radio or becoming a part of pop culture anytime soon, so for us the model of success is really a grassroots model. Its old school, but it’s real. I’d much rather have a smaller group of dedicated fans that love our music and will always support us as long as we keep making great music than to have some sort of one hit wonder thing happen and be forgotten.
Yonder Mountain String Band and Old Crowe Medicine Show and to a lesser degree Railroad Earth have maintained great success in the newgrass/acoustic realm – Greensky is just about there- what do you think your sound brings to the scene that those bands don’t?
Anders: Wow, that’s a tough question to answer without sounding like it’s a contest. To me, all those bands you have mentioned have great songs and songwriters, which I feel like is one of our very strong suits, as well. You can be the best musicians in the world, but without killer songs that connect with people you are only going to get so far. I do think that the songs, sound-scapes and jams that Greensky creates are different than anything currently in the scene right now, but I’d rather have the fans do the actual defining of those differences.
You cover songs like Ween’s “Falling Out” “Driven to Tears” by The Police and “Down With Disease” – are there any particular covers you really enjoy tackling?
Paul: Hard ones, and challenging ones. I have a particular inclination, much to the band’s dismay, towards 80’s covers. Something about those pop beats and synth melodies lend so well to our instrumentation. We do it because it’s fun for the crowd and fun for us. It’s important to play our music and we do on our records and for most of the show. Then we play our versions of other’s songs. The show is about a good experience and for me a little Prince is usually just that. We’ve learned so much from stretching our sound to illustrate the rock of "the band", the funk of "Grand Funk Railroad" or the space of "the Grateful Dead."
Anders – Ha! "Down With Disease" was a onetime only thing since Phish was playing in Detroit the same night that we were doing the first night of our Garden Opener shows at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo. A bunch of our hardcore local fans are also pretty serious Phish fans (a few of us in the band are too), so playing “DWD” was our way of sort of thumbing our noses to our friends and fans that skipped our show to go see Phish. My love for different covers changes all the time, so it helps that we really try to mix them up a lot. We did the entire B-side of Abbey Road on New Year’s Eve last year (unannounced to anybody… we just learned it all that week and busted it out in the middle of one of the sets). That was really fun, challenging, scary, exciting and rather fulfilling once we hit the last note. The next set was a breeze!
Are there any albums out there that you are listening to on the road or have you seen any other bands recently that have inspired you?
Paul: There would be a ton I bet. But maybe it wouldn’t be that shocking. I often find inspiration for writing and arranging in the music I listen to that is farthest from us. My newest favorite is Death Cab for Cutie since I bought their recent album for our bass player in exchange for him driving a 5am shift for me. It’s a funny joke when i end up falling for the band like a teenage crush and now own almost their entire back catalog. Same thing happened to me with Arcade Fire. I was so proud when they won the Grammy for "The Suburbs." I subsequently saw them twice this summer and they reminded me it’s ok to get an aerobic work-out on stage and let myself get carried away. Their show is amazing. Specific example of a musical influence came to from a song on The Slip’s Eisenhower. I discovered them after seeing Surprise Me Mr. Davis at High Sierra. One of the songs, "Airplane/Primitive" introduces the chorus with no lyrics the first time. I remember specifically thinking, that is a great trick. I’m gonna do that and… Listen to "lose my way". I wrote it and that does happen.