Leftover Salmon: Caught Up In A New Era (Interview With Drew Emmitt)

In case you haven’t caught up with Leftover Salmon recently, their latest press photo might look as unfamiliar as a new cast of Survivor. In just the last couple of years they’ve experienced a painful loss, added a keyboardist, joined up with a new drummer and bassist, and recently added a young banjo prodigy to the lineup. That alone is enough to make you think this Salmon would be fighting to stay afloat. But think again – as Leftover Salmon is moving into 2004 with a sense of rebirth, confidence, and consistency not felt in years past.

Better known as Colorado’s “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass” treat, Leftover Salmon has steadily bridged the gap of live music zaniness alongside accomplished musicianship, from low-key 1992 beginnings in Boulder, CO. That year, Leftover self-released their first album, Bridges to Bert and after a few years securing themselves as a trusted live act, followed it up with a live offering, Ask the Fish in 1995. Shortly thereafter, the band was signed to Hollywood records who released Euphoria in 1997 and the widely-heralded Nashville Sessions in 1999.

However, it was during these 1999 The Nashville Sessions that the then five-piece, which included -Drew Emitt, Vince Herman, Tye North, Jeff Sipe, and the late Mark Vann – raised many an eyebrow, from critics and fans alike. An accomplished collection of country/bluegrass influenced tunes with an array of very special guests, The Nashville Sessions sparked Leftover Salmon with immediate credibility in the songwriting department, and as a legitimate rock band; one who could very well grab some serious radio time. After all, any band that can assemble Bela Fleck, Waylon Jennings, Taj Mahal, Lucinda Williams, John Bell, Todd Park Mohr, John Cowan and Earl Scruggs in the studio for their record, must be worth hearing.

After nearly new two straight years on the road, Leftover Salmon is geared to release their first album of new material with its new lineup, while ushering in a brand new era. Produced by Little Feat keyboard wiz, Bill Payne, the release will showcase the band’s fondness for heart-felt music – encompassing a spectrum of folk, blues, Cajun, rock, and bluegrass. Five of the six band-members contribute new material, but this time co-founders Emmitt and Herman, along with keyboardist Bill McKay, bassist Greg Garrison, drummer Jose Martinez, and the newest and youngest member – 21-year-old banjoist Noam Pikelny – are out to prove there shall be no special guests. This era of Leftover Salmon is meant to swim alone.

“It’s definitely a new era,” says the young Pikelny. “This band has been an institution. I think anyone who has seen the band in the past will still recognize that a lot of the same elements are still there. But I also think they’ll hear the difference.”

The cornerstone of Leftover Salmon resides within the leadership and musicianship of Emmitt and Herman. Emmitt – a one man band in himself– is a versatile mandolin, fiddle, flute, and electric guitar player as well talented vocalist, representing the band’s reliable gun. To his side, Herman – now graying into middle age – represents the emotion and energy of Salmon, with his festive singing, and inviting washboard scratch. By continually keeping this unique festive spirit alive, the band has been reserving a side of their energy for their recent comfort within both the confines of maturity and musicianship.

“The band probably isn’t as crazy and off-the-wall as it used to be,” Herman ads. We still have a great time onstage, and the sheer joy of making music is still a big part of what we’re about. But we’re more focused on being musicians and on the arrangements now. We’re still as fun and as eclectic as ever, but we’re also more mature and more capable too.”

With the new album due next month, and an upcoming winter tour in some of the band’s favorite hot spots out west, it’s hard not to use the clichéd statement that things are indeed moving upstream for Leftover Salmon. So we let multi-instrumentalist, solo artist and co-founder Drew Emmitt explain the past, present and future of his maturing creation.

Leftover Salmon has slowly graduated into a more rock ‘n roll realm. Do you sense the band has a rock sense of immediacy that wasn’t there before?

Could be. Usually, what I tell people is, it depends on the night. We still do the whole repertoire we used to do back in those days. We tend to do a lot of bluegrass, but we can lean more towards rock, ‘cause of the Hammond organ, and Bill McKay’s addition has been more of a blues-rock kind of thing. Some nights we’ll play a lot more bluegrass, and other nights we’ll play more rock, it just depends on the situation. When we put out our live record (Leftover Salmon Live), it tended to have more rock on it, mainly because those were the songs that came out good on tape and the ones we were really happy with.

Do you feel the success of O Brother, Where Are Thou? added to the recent rise in bluegrass, and other bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and Sam Bush Band gaining wider momentum?

I definitely think O Brother, Where Are Thou? had a lot to do with it, and I think that this jamband crowd tends to be pretty open-minded to the bluegrass thing. Jerry Garcia had something to do with it as well, you know, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman doing their thing – Old & In the Way. We’ve been trying to do our part to bring bluegrass out there and then Yonder Mountain came along and there was another band doing that and String Cheese. But I think people are definitely more open now to bluegrass on a wider basis than maybe five or ten years ago.

Most of these younger bands have done quite well, but you guys were the Colorado forefathers of this movement, wouldn’t you say?

Yeah, (in a reluctant tone) we kind of set the track and blazed some trails for bands like that, especially Yonder. They moved to Nederland and hooked up with Vince, our singer, and Vince really opened up a lot of doors for them. So yeah, we’ve been basically carrying out a tradition that was laid out for us, [from bands] like New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and bands like that.

Jeff Sipe and Ty North left the band a few years back and you lost founding member Mark Vann, but the band not only manages to carry on, but carries forth a relentless positive energy and seems stronger because of it all. What keeps you moving forward?

I think our crowd has been really great in supporting us through our changes, and of course losing Mark was a big thing. We didn’t know how people were going to respond to that. But we were lucky, when we got Jose (Martinez) and Greg (Garrison) on drums and bass, they really fell into a great supportive role of the music and really played well together. In a lot of ways, I feel they are the best rhythm section we’ve ever had. We’ve been lucky to have the right people to help us continue. I don’t know, I guess it’s something we enjoy doing also.

Your winter tour is loaded with ski towns like Durango, Telluride, and Bend along with a bunch of other mountain destinations. Do these communities out west serve more of a purpose for the band?

Yeah, it’s more within our tradition and our culture to play places like that. We just did a bunch of dates out east this fall with the Del McCoury Band and that went pretty well, but the east is tougher in general for almost any band, except for Vermont. Vermont is like a really, really good place and I think the rest of the northeast seems a lot more jaded. When you go out west and you go to the ski towns, people just want to have a great time. They’re not so concerned about whether everything is perfect and if this is the band they should be seeing. If there’s live music they’re going to go out and have fun.

Also, you’ve always managed to keep Leftover Salmon true to its roots, never succumbing to trendy genres like trance or funk.

We’ve never patterned ourselves after anything really, we always play music we enjoy playing. Like you said, stick to your roots.

What caught a lot of people by surprise was the magnitude of The Nashville Sessions album. Here you were with legends like Taj Mahal and Waylon Jennings and people you really wanted to assimilate the band with. It’s a classic record. Was that the epic example of what the band could accomplish?

It was epic, and it was really a pinnacle for us as far as recording – it was like a dream. Meeting all those people, a lot of them we had performed with before, at festivals, but we had never met Waylon or Lucinda Williams. Every day we went into the studio, you know, it was just like this fairytale. In the recording studio was Earl Scruggs and in the afternoon Del and Ronnie McCoury are coming down and tomorrow Waylon is coming down and Randy (Scuggs), John (Cowan), and Bela (Fleck), and on and on…it was just a really great experience.

How did you get so many of those acts to collaborate with you. Aside from Euphoria, the band had yet to make a dent with its studio albums?

Part of it was that we performed with a lot of these people, and just called them up personally and asked them if they wanted to come play on the record. The people we hadn’t played with, Randy Scruggs we were connected with – Randy knew Waylon, which is how we got Waylon there and of course his father (Earl) and Lucinda Williams. We played with Widespread Panic so we called up John Bell and there was no problem, and we met Taj Mahal on the H.O.R.D.E. tour and had done some playing with him as well. So, really it was a lot of personal connections we had.

Your last album was with Cracker, so it must feel good to go back into the studio with the new band pushing things in a fresh direction. Can you give us a quick preview?

It’s real rootsy. There’s some bluegrass on there. There’s basically only one rock tune on there, so it’s getting back to our roots. Bill Payne from Little Feat was a producer and basically his approach was to get us to sound the best that we can sound and not try to change what we do. And he was wonderful to work with and actually plays on one of the cuts and takes an amazing piano solo.

What has the recent addition of 21-year-old Noam (Pickelny) added to the band?

He’s an incredibly technical banjo player. He took banjo lessons from Bela Fleck when he was ten and it shows. He’s just a brilliant player, and it inspires us, and inspires me. He definitely has his own sound and brings a whole different flavor.

You have a very distinctive voice that seems a perfect fit for the band’s bluegrass sound? Are you continually striving for that fit or did it always kind of sound like it?

I listened to a lot of great vocalists and really tried to emulate them, like John Cowan is one of my favorite singers and collaborators. I’ve always loved great singers, like Lennon and McCartney and I’ve really just tried to expand my range over the years. Actually, I think from when this band started I feel like I definitely gained some notes I didn’t use to have.

What do you think has stopped the band from becoming a major touring institution like a Widespread Panic or The String Cheese Incident?

Well, basically we had to make our own way and we’ve never had any money behind us. And I think those bands in particular have had a lot of money behind them and they have big management teams. We’ve always had to be really concerned with making a living and supporting our families. We haven’t had people come around and say “ok, we’ll give you x amount of money.” I think that pretty much a lot of the bands in the jamband world have that, but we’ve never had that kind of backing. I don’t want to name names, but I know its made the difference in other bands. Plus, we never had an agenda, but we’ve never thought of ourselves as becoming a big machine, we just do what we do. We’re kind of a blue-collar band.

How do you compare the band of the late 90’s lineup with Jeff Sipe, Ty North and Mark Vann, with your current lineup?

We still have the same repertoire plus the new tunes, and we can still draw everything we had back then. I think it’s a totally different band, no question about it. I think it’s more solid and more consistent would be my first reaction to that question. I felt like there was some inconsistency and not nearly as much commitment as there is now. I just feel it’s a much more solid unit than it ever has been.

How do you separate Drew Emmitt, the Leftover Salmon musician from Drew Emmitt, the solo artist? Are you working with two on–stage identities?

Not really. I mean, I do a lot of the tunes I do with Leftover Salmon on my own, but it’s just a little more stripped down and a little more casual, and it’s simpler. I live in Crested Butte and I just did a benefit show for a school we’re trying to start. So, it’s just really easy going. It’s just four of us on stage, no drums. It’s a nice break for me and a nice diversion from Salmon…which can be like a big crazy party.

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