The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Salmon with Drew Emmitt
Aquatic Hitchhiker is Leftover Salmon’s first studio album in eight years, and it follows on the heels of several reunion gigs which have welcomed old and new fans alike. The album is a refreshingly potent yet relaxed work, which features all original compositions, a Salmon first in their career. The album also includes some of founding members Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt’s most engaging work in quite some time, while capturing a very unified band without a hint of the fractured quality that often haunts a veteran outfit who have seen too many battles in a musical war long since abandoned. Such is not the case with Salmon as they continue to write vital new material, while playing some of their best gigs in recent memory.
Jambands.com spoke with Drew Emmitt at the tail (and tale, for that matter) end of their latest tour leg before the festival season kicks into high gear. The musician is direct, humble, and astute, without being overly detailed and exaggerated—a sublime trait that has also suited his music for years. To be sure, Emmitt has some fiery moments on the new record, as well as some sweet and soulful vocals. We are catching Emmitt at a good point in his career, and he is observant enough to realize that crucial fact as he also juggles his own solo band and the work with the always fascinating Emmitt-Nershi Band.
RR: How is the tour going?
DE: Oh, yes, it’s been quite a tour so far. It’s been really great. All the shows have been great, really great crowds, it’s been really fun playing music, and the band is really sounding great and better than ever. We’re having a great time, and it’s going really well.
RR: I am sure the Salmon tours are a dream come true for a lot of longtime fans, and the band members, too. Are you seeing some new faces out there, too?
DE: Absolutely. I was just thinking about how I’ve been meeting a lot of people who have never seen us before. They’ve heard our music for years, or they’ve heard about us, and they are seeing us for the first time, so there is definitely a lot of that happening, which is really cool.
RR: Before we continue with our conversation about your work, I wanted to ask you about your personal impressions after the recent passing of Levon Helm.
DE: I really only got to meet him one time, and that was in Washington D.C. Little Feat had a gig celebrating the anniversary of the Waiting for Columbus record. I got to meet him, and play with him there. He was such a great person, a sweet guy. He borrowed my mandolin, and we did “Rag Mama Rag.” He didn’t have a mandolin, and he said, “Can I borrow your mandolin?” And, I said, “Of course,” it was such an honor to have him play my mandolin, and we played that together. Sam Bush and I played fiddle on that with him. He and Richie Hayward both played drums, which was really, really cool. He was really a great guy, and we definitely got to hang with him, and he was very, very cool.
RR: “Bayou Town” off the new Leftover Salmon record, Aquatic Hitchhiker made me think of Levon Helm’s music, as well. Let’s talk about that work. When were the thoughts put into play about getting new Salmon material together? Was it around the time that the band was slowly venturing out onto the road?
DE: We didn’t think we were going to make a new record. After we had gotten back together and done these reunions, we were taking it a step at a time. We finally started talking about it, I guess, last spring and summer. We finally made the plans, and we booked the studio and time. We really didn’t have any of these songs; it wasn’t anything we’d been playing, so we got together last fall. We had little bits and pieces here and there, and we got together as a band and collaborated and with the help of Steve Berlin, he came out and, actually, really helped the songwriting process.
RR: How did you get Steve Berlin to produce the new record?
DE: We got him through our booking agent, who also books Los Lobos—Josh from Monterey. He ran it by Steve Berlin, and Steve was definitely way into the idea. He was very excited about it. We had heard he was a great producer. He produced one of String Cheese’s records, and Billy [Nershi] told me he was great to work with. He was very, very involved from the beginning. He came out early, and was really into the songwriting process with us, he was in on the whole session and putting the songs together, and he was really helpful with all of that. He was just a joy to work with, and he was a great mediator for the band, as far as really bringing everyone together, and he had great ideas.
RR: Speaking of great ideas, Andy Thorn is the newest member since 2010. What does that do to the dynamics within Salmon to have Andy as a member?
DE: It really brought back a lot of excitement and a lot of cohesion that we were missing after Mark [Vann]’s passing. We had other banjo players that were great, but they never really quite fit what we were doing. Andy just really fits our sound, and he fits our whole vibe. He’s got great stage presence. He’s just been a breath of fresh air for all of us. It really kind of feels like the old days in a lot of ways. It really feels like a band again. He’s a big reason why we are out here on the road doing this again and making it happen.
RR: Why do you think that is? Do you think he instilled some spirit or something that had perhaps been missing? Did he bring something new to the table? Or, is it because when you all play together, it feels so right?
DE: I think it’s all those things. He’s got really great energy. He brings new ideas and he really fits in well, and he’s really excited about it. He saw this band when he was 14 in North Carolina. It was definitely a dream of his to play in this band.
RR: One of my favorite albums in recent years, which I reviewed for the site, was your solo band’s 2010 Long Road. I am curious that with that band going on, and your incredible work with Billy Nershi happening, as well, how do you choose material for Salmon, and what is the writing process like for that entity?
DE: It’s kind of like putting on a different hat in that, I think, when we make a Salmon record, we try to write in different styles, and try to bring those different elements into the whole process. I really wanted to write a Cajun-y song, so I came up with “Bayou Town.” I really wanted to bring in a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll and bluegrass, and, so, everyone brought in something different. That’s really how this band operates. That’s what is fun about it, too. There are no boundaries. It is whatever you feel. (laughs) That is really what has made Salmon great over the years—we don’t pigeonhole our sound; it’s pretty much wide open. There’s definitely styles we like to focus on like Calypso, Cajun, bluegrass, especially, and a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll. I think, once again, we’re really able to bring those elements together for this record.
RR: You are talking of different elements that also contain similar attributes, and it makes me think of “Light Behind the Rain,” which was written by Andy and Benny Galloway—great hook, great atmosphere, and a tremendous guitar solo, too.
DE: That’s me. (laughs) Thank you. I appreciate that. That’s our rock epic on the record. It was kind of interesting that the banjo player was the one that brought that tune. (laughs) It’s pretty cool how that worked out.
RR: And I think that perfectly underlines what you just said about the various sounds being brought into Salmon. “Gulf of Mexico” is the opening track on the album, which you wrote. Tell me about its origins.
DE: I came up with that idea first about a year ago. I was on tour with Billy, and we were down in the gulf, way down in, I guess, Biloxi, Mississippi. We had a couple of days off, and we just hung on the beach. It just kind of came to me. It was a basic idea. I wanted to have a swamp-y feel to it. That developed from there. [Salmon] recorded that really late at night, so it has that nice, laidback feel.