Leftover Salmon: Self-titled and Unmiced
Mixing bluegrass, Cajun, rock, and polyethnic beats Leftover Salmon can morph into almost any setting, vesting these many styles with a feisty wit. This past year, the Colorado based quintet collaborated with two seemingly opposite music powerhouses: bluegrass legend Del McCoury and alt-rock stars Cracker. Yet, whether it was reinterpreting Cracker's back catalog in the studio or teaching McCoury a bit about Shakedown Street, Leftover Salmon managed to find both artists' "slamgrass" underbelly. Since the untimely death of Mark Vann two years ago, Leftover Salmon have also struggled to restructure themselves as a band – a transformation the group felt was finally ready to be captured on their new self-titled disc.
As the Leftover Salmon prepare for their busy summer of headlining gigs and festival spots, mandolinist Drew Emmit discussed with Jambands.com why the group is finally ready to call an album Leftover Salmon.
While touring with Del McCoury, how did bluegrass purists respond to Leftover Salmon’s eclectic sound?
It's hard to say. We would open with our acoustic set and a lot of them were there for that, but I don't think they stuck around for our electric stuff—-the big jam with Del and the Boys. It's unfortunate in someway because we really got to mix it up in a really fun way with those guys. It's definitely two different worlds coming together and there were certainly people that hung out, but for the most part they got see us acoustic and that's it. It might have been a little late for them [laughs]. But our fans loved Del. That was a wonderful, wonderful experience—a tour of a lifetime. Not only are they great friends and great people to hang out with, but we admire their music so much. As a bluegrass band goes, they are one of the finest bluegrass bands on the planet today, if not ever. It's an honor to play with them. We had such a great time jamming together and mixing it up— them coming to our world and us going into their world. It was a really beautiful thing. They put pickups on their instruments so they could play with us and we broke it down to two microphones and did the bluegrass thing like those guys. It was crossing genres and worlds for us.
Did you tailor your set list at all to gel with Del McCoury’s traditional background?
The thing is when we jam with those guys we are really focused on the bluegrass. We would do Bill Monroe tunes and Ron [McCoury] and I would do a duet on "Blue and Lonesome." We did get to do "Midnite Blues" with Del, which was great because we recorded that with him. I guess that was non-traditional, but besides that we really focused on the roots and the bluegrass tunes that we all knew. We'd do our electric thing for about an hour and then break it down and bring everyone out plugged inDel was playing with us plugged in and loving it. Jason Carter and Ronnie also sat in with us a lot during our set. I think they all really enjoyed being in our world. They spent a lot of time doing the bluegrass thing, but our world is a bit looser and traveling festival orientated [laughs].
What was the greatest challenge you faced playing an unmiced acoustic set?
There are a lot of challenges during that set, certainly the least of which is playing without monitors. You really have to be able to hear each other pretty well and really listen because largely you're hearing the sound of the instrument acoustically. It was a whole different world, especially if you're in front of a large crowd.
In a way it was like going back to our roots because we all started out playing bluegrass and playing small places without a PA. When we started Leftover Salmon it turned into more of a rocking thing— a dance party. But to go back to that was definitely pretty interesting. We were like well we've been here before, but under little different circumstances [laughs].
Last year, Leftover Salmon recorded an album of Cracker songs rearranged in a bluegrass setting. How did you come in contact with Cracker front man David Lowery?
Tony Furtado was touring with us, playing banjo after Mark passed away. He was friends with David Lowerythey had the same management. We were in Virginia and invited David Lowery to come down. He came down and saw the band and was really excited about it. After the show he was like, "Hay, I have a studio and if you get a couple days come on out and we'll cut some tracks, it will be fun." So, we ended up going to his studio basically sitting around in a circle and picking on these David Lowery Cracker tunes, which had become like platinum hits at one point [laughs]. It was pretty cool, especially giving a bluegrass twist to them all. We were actually really surprised when it came out and it was a real CD [laughs]. "Teen Angst" I really liked. That was our banjo player Noam's idea and it was fun turning that into a bluegrass tune.
Did Lowery have any previous bluegrass experience?
I am pretty sure this was the first time they played in any kind of bluegrass context. It was really natural because [Cracker guitarist] John Hickman really has this kind of alt-country thing going on and this was really right up out his alley. In general, they come from that roadhouse, honky tonk sort of attitude. It was a real natural progression. David Lowery was just really easy to work with and easy going. He's kind of like a mad scientist kind of guy, really a trip.
Did you struggle to adapt your Cracker covers to a live setting?
We never do them unless David is around. He came to a bar gig in Virginia once and it was really fun—he played about half the set with us. Then this summer we played the Mid Atlantic Festival. They came out and we played together.
This band is particular – we really enjoy being a supportive backup band. We really enjoy backing up someone else's music and trying to play their music instead of trying to make someone else fit in with what we do. Sometimes with Del, it was like how much can we really be a bluegrass band, really go into their world and learn from it. It enriches us when we try to play someone else's' music. It's really a great thing, so educational and really enriching.
If you could arrange another performers’ catalogue in a bluegrass setting, who would you choose to cover?
Bob Dylan comes to mind. I think that would be a really amazing to toy around with. He is definitely one my all time favorite songwriters. I'd also love to play with Page & Plant [laughs]. I think that would be amazing. But in terms of Dylan, Desire and Blood on the Tracks really lend themselves to being reinterpreted in a bluegrass setting; his mid-to-late 1970s output. Certain songs make great, classic bluegrass tunes. "Jack of Hearts" is one. I just heard someone covering that and was like, "wow, that's a really great bluegrass tune." It has a really great rhythm and tells a really great story. "Mozambique," more than bluegrass, could also crossover into the calypso realm, which is a huge aspect of what Leftover Salmon is all about
Why did Leftover Salmon self-title its newest disc so late into your career?
Well, we had about five different titles for it and we really couldn't agree on what was the best one, so we were like, "lets just call if Leftover Salmon because its kind of like we are starting over again." It’s a whole new band and we are going on after Mark. It’s a big turning point for us, and kind of a new beginning. By calling it Leftover Salmon rather than a continuation, it's almost like a whole new era for us.
How did you come to choose Little Feat member Bill Payne as Leftover Salmon’s producer?
When we had our benefit concerts for Mark Vann when he was ill, [Little Feat's] Paul Barrere and Bill Payne came out for those shows and played all five nights. We really formed a connection with them then and they were very supportive. Their presence was amazing and playing music with them was amazing after being such big Little Feat fans. So when we were trying to figure out producers for this record we were just trying to think of who would be really good organizationally—who would really bring all of this together. When Vince and I had gone out to the 25th Anniversary of Little Feat concert with Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jackson Browne, and Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Payne was the driving force in keeping it all together. So we had this vision of him: not only do we love his music, but he is really great at bringing different sounds together. He plays a particularly beautiful solo on "Whispering Waters"—-it makes me feel like I am at the ocean.
When did you feel, as a band, you were ready to record following Mark’s passing?
It's been two years—-March 4th. It was time to make a new record. We did the Cracker record, but that was just kind of for fun. We had some tunes we had been playing live for a while and, if we were to go on as a hand, we really needed to put out a record and establish that we were still out there. I think a lot of people in the industry thought we broke up. They were like, "Oh their done. Their time has passed." But its quite the opposite of that. We are really feeling strong, having fun, and playing great shows. This album is really a great way for us to establish that.
Do any of your new originals deal directly with Mark?
There is a song our bass player Greg Garrison wrote called "Fayetteville Line." It's about hanging out with Mark in Arkansas, picking banjo on the railroad tracks. It was really great that Greg wrote it. Vince and I especially were so close to Mark. I tried to write about it, but it was almost too much in a way. Greg really had a great approach and came up with a great tune.
Did you take any songs out of rotation after Mark’s passing?
Absolutely. The songs he wrote like "Funky Mountain Fogdown" and "Five Alive." We still definitely do tunes he helped write, like "Head Bag," but those particular signature tunes we don't do anymore.
On your newest disc, which track are you most proud of and why?
I feel like on Bill's tune "Just Keep Walking" we play really well as a rock band. It has a live feel and I feel really good about it. "Whispering Waters" is special because we have been trying to record that for years. It's been very difficult because its mostly a live tune. But I think this time we played really well as a band and came close to capturing what we do live the studio, which is pretty difficult for that particular tune.
On the flip side, were there any songs you recorded in the studio before playing them in a live setting?
There is one, which is a song I wrote. I had been working on for about six months. It's the last song on the record and called "Weary Traveler." Basically, it has been rattling around my brain for a while. It hadn't even been written down. We got into the studio and I said, "Let's try to play this tune." I didn't even know how it went. We started playing guitar and singing and within an hour it had been recorded.
This summer, you played at Blues Traveler’s Red Rocks concerts. Did you adapt your sound to their rock and roll audience?
We play more of our rowdy stuff at a show like that; maybe more of our rocky stuff, instead of our bluegrass tunes. At a rock show like that, it really allows us to run the gamut of what we do instead of limiting it to more of a folksy/bluegrass show.
Leftover Salmon is slated to play a slew of festivals this summer. Which are you most excited to perform at?
I am real curious about Bonnaroo. We haven't done a Bonnaroo yet and this will be our first experience. I was just looking at the lineup and everyone is going to be there. I was glad to see a lot of our buddies will be picking, so there will be allot of collaborating going on.
Who do you plan to invite on stage?
Sam Bush for sure. Maybe Michael Kang or maybe Billy Nershi we'll see if he wants to pick. Maybe some of the Yonder Boys and if Jimmy Herring is kicking around it would be great to get him on stage too. He's a good buddy of ours we haven't seen for a while.
Perhaps I am a bit Jammys obsessed, but if you were nominated for another Jammy next year, which category would you be most proud to be recognized in.
I think it would be cool if we could get nominated for our new album. I feel like its something for us to proud of. It's a time when we went through so much: losing Mark, trying to go on and really not knowing if we were going to go on. When we finally got to a point when we were going to go back and make this record its really kind of a big deal. It's an opportunity to start over again.
Did Leftover Salmon ever consider parting ways after Mark’s passing?
I think each of us did personally. We never got to a point when we were like, "Are we going to still do this?" We kind of plowed right through it. We never stopped touring. When Mark was sick, he never stopped playing. In his last days he really encouraged us to continue playing because he wasn't giving up. Here was a man who was dying and all he wanted is to see the band he helped create keep going. We were we like, "we can't quit now." We have been really fortunate to find someone like Noam to pick up where Mark left off.
Did Noam find is challenging filling Mark’s shoes?
Absolutely. But before Noam came into the picture, we had Matt Flinner for about six months. He was playing really well, so Noam wasn't just coming directly and filling Mark's shoes. It made it easier for him to really supply his own style and do his own thing. One thing Noam did is he got an electric banjo made by the same guy who made Mark's. It's really nice how he fulfills both the bluegrass playing and the electric playing so well. To me that was the biggest challenge. Certainly, there are great bluegrass players out there, but there wasn't anyone who could really rock like Mark on the banjo. As amazing of a jazz player as Bela Fleck is, no one could really rock like Mark. I think that was the biggest challenge for us and I feel like Noam is really fufilling that.