Greensky Bluegrass: Musical missionaries vary the template but still stay true to their muse
Formed in 2000, the five-piece, Michigan-based band that goes by the unlikely moniker of Greensky Bluegrass owes much of its success to its tenure at Telluride Bluegrass. In 2006 the band — lap steel player Anders Beck, banjo player Michael Arlen Bont, guitarist Dave Bruzza, bassist Michael Devol and mandolin and ukulele player Paul Hoffman — garnered their first major accolade by winning the festival’s coveted band competition. Four albums and seven years later, they’re still winning kudos from the Telluride troops; on day one of this year’s fete they were the band that everyone seemed to be buzzing about. And that was despite the headliners that followed, a line-up that included Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Steve Martin and Richard Thompson.
After their fourth album, 2011’s Handguns, debuted on Billboard‘s Bluegrass Charts at number three, it capped its acclaim by spending nine weeks on the chart, eventually garnering number 33 on the magazine’s year end list. Now, as the band finishes up its next disc, Greensky Bluegrass is clearly riding a wave of critical acclaim. Backstage at Telluride, we took the opportunity to ask Paul Hoffman about the challenges and triumphs of their trajectory thus far.
How many times have you played Telluride?
This is our fourth.
So how does Telluride differ from the other festivals you’ve played?
This festival is perfect for us. I feel like we thrive here… and we love it.
But what is it about Telluride that makes the vibe so good?
What they’ve done throughout the entire 40 years is to integrate other music into the mix, as opposed to presenting a single style of music all day long. And that’s exactly where we fall in. We’re a bluegrass band that can do other things too. An indie band that also plays bluegrass. The audience that comes here really appreciates bluegrass, but they can also be into seeing someone like David Byrne here as well. And that’s perfect for us, because the audience is really attentive. They really are listening. A lot of festivals we do are more like a party — which I’m into — but here they’re really listening. It’s hard work to be at a festival for four days… it’s hot, you’ve got to stake out a vantage point every morning… it can be a bit distracting.
Are you guys still based in Michigan?
That doesn’t seem like the most likely place for a bluegrass band. How were you accepted there?
It’s a really cool scene up there, but we haven’t spent a lot of time up there lately. We’ve been out on tour quite a bit.
How was it initially though? Was that kind of a difficult place to hone your craft?
I’m tempted to say kind of, but it was also a great to have the challenge of developing and creating our sound. It started out pretty informally. I remember when we were doing shows on the west coast of Michigan — we used to do a few shows every weekend, and we would just tour up and down the state on a regular basis — and I felt like we were really converting people to bluegrass. There are people in Michigan that are into bluegrass, but they don’t go to bars and clubs. I was the one that was booking the band back then, and I’d be making a lot of phone calls and I’d always be telling the club owners, “Don’t worry, they’re going to like it.” We weren’t their normal kind of band, so I’d really have to convince them. But after the show, people would come up to us and say, “I really like bluegrass. You guys are really cool!” So we started having a little more fun with the music and playing Prince covers and stuff like that.
What kind of covers were you doing?
“When Doves Cry” is the oldest, most off the wall cover we’ve done… we’ve been playing that since 2001. That was the real converter. When you’re playing a bar gig, and maybe there’s a five dollar cover, or no cover, they’re just there. They didn’t come to see us. They don’t care. So we’re playing all these bluegrass songs and then suddenly we start playing “When Doves Cry.” And the crowd is like, “We know this song,” and then they not only know it, but they like it, and you launch into a ripping banjo solo over the song, and they decide they like that too. And a couple of weeks later you might be talking to someone and it’s, “I started listening to Earl Scruggs because of you guys.”
That sounds like a pretty good strategy.
The earliest advice that a band usually gets is that when you start out, you have to play familiar songs first. That’s kind of the typical bar band axiom. So a lot of what we and other bluegrass bands do is play these old songs and arrange them in a different way. So we might all play this song or that song or an old blues song Bill Monroe might have played, but it’s all about the arranging. And the better we got at that, the more we wanted to challenge ourselves by reaching out. The day Michael Jackson died, we started playing “Beat It.” We learned it both ways. The original way and then a bluegrassy way. It’s all about how to serve the song in the best way with the instruments. It’s a really cool thing we do in the band. So those covers for us are a really important exercise. It teaches us how to make best use of our instruments, and in many cases, it’s a challenge because we don’t use drums or percussion. So we have to figure it out. It’s like, “If we do this…”
Is it a challenge to take what you do in the studio and try to capture that live sound and translate and harness it accordingly?
Yeah, but I really enjoy the studio a lot. It’s different to be in this jam band community where people come to the shows and support the music, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into album sales. But still, I value making records in the studio. It’s so much fun. It’s hard to capture that live vibe without an audience because when you’re in front of a crowd, songs get longer. With certain passages, you start to take your time. But the studio’s just not the place for that I don’t think. On our latest album, Handguns, there’s a song called “All Four” that we were playing live for two years before we recorded it for the record. It’s a fifteen minute song when we do it live. It’s got a really long improvised section, and we really struggled to figure out how to record it for a studio record after two years of playing it live with people’s expectations here or there. We kind of toned it down a little bit, but it’s still twelve minutes on the record. We take a lot of time in the studio to think about songs and how we want them to be perceived. We’re always trying to do new things. Sometimes we think, should we do this two times or four times? We don’t really know. In the studio, you do it, then listen to it, then listen to it again. Then you talk about it and listen to it again, and talk about it again. It’s so hyper focused. I love it.
Do you work with a producer most of the time?
We produced our last record and we’re producing the new one we’re working on now. Tim Carbone produced two records of our records, although we didn’t even know at first what a producer does. Tim really gets it. He knows the band, he likes the songs and it taught us a lot. It was nice to have a set of outside ears. The engineer we worked with, Glenn Brown, kind of fills that role. We’ll spend two weeks trying to work out different endings to a song and sometimes you need someone to kind of tell you what’s working the best.
Is it difficult to not repeat yourselves? Does that become a challenge at times?
With the new record we’re working on now, we’re recording it in the same studio, in much the same way as before, but we’re also giving ourselves more time. So we can mess around a little bit and try different techniques. We’re trying to make art, but when you end up working on the same song for four hours, you have to decide when to wrap it up and move on. On this record there were times when we asked ourselves, are we just making another Handguns? I don’t know the answer to that really. Maybe we did. There’s a victory and defeat in whichever way you look at it. When you listen to your favorite band and you hear a new record that’s totally different, you can be proud and interested in this evolution they undertook, but a lot of times you feel betrayed. So if it’s more of the same and it gets better, I don’t know if it’s too much or what.
Then again, you could use the example of the Beatles and the White Album. Every song seemed to break the mold and people thought that was wildly intriguing.
That’s kind of like the approach we’re taking on our new album. It’s kind of like a mix tape. We’re trying all these different things. One song is really bluegrassy, and then there’s one song which is kind of like my homage to U2 basically (chuckles). Then there’s some bluegrassy-esque fusion kind of songs. So it’s really all over the place. I love that though, even though I sometimes worry that the album’s not cohesive enough. I think that’s kind of the charm of our band, and a signature of what we do. Sometimes we’re playing a song like “Mountain Girls” and sometimes we’re doing something totally dark and scary.