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Published: 2012/07/14
by James McManus

Greensky Bluegrass: No Rules (and Kazoos)

Greensky has been a fixture on the summer music festival scene for awhile now, how do you think large, destination festivals have affected your career as a group?

PH: I think that it’s been pivotal in exposing us to a wide range of listeners. In a lot of ways that seems like the obvious answer, but being a bluegrass band that sort of genre-bends I think it’s given people the opportunity to see us that wouldn’t normally think that they would like bluegrass. I came to bluegrass the same way—I liked the mandolin first, and then once I liked the mandolin it made sense to listen to bluegrass; I found that I liked it and was kind of surprised. I think it was three years ago—this is our third All Good in a row this year—three years ago we did All Good and we stayed on site, because it was far to leave and we wanted to have fun and leaving was kind of a drag. We decided as a band that it had been a long time since we did a pick in the campground. We felt like we were the token acoustic band because everyone there had electric guitars and drums—I think Pretty Lights may have been playing on the main stage while we were messing around in the campground. So we just played acoustic out in the campground, and CNN ended up doing some video footage of it and putting it on their website. We have a handful of very devoted fans that found us that night in the campground, and that was their first experience seeing us. I don’t even think that those people saw our sets at All Good that year—they just saw that late night pick and it gave them some insight into our personality as well as our music. Unlikely fans of the music become fans of, at least Greensky Bluegrass if not all bluegrass. Hopefully we lead them to a whole new catalog of listening, because I know as a musician and a music lover that there’s nothing more exciting than when you come through a door and there’s all this music you love that you never knew about.

AB: Festivals are an amazing way for fans to get to see a ton of music; I think that’s the most important thing. For us, we basically end up gaining a lot of fans at festivals, because especially now that we’ve been getting embraced even more by the jamband and just bigger music communities than just the bluegrass world we’re playing more music festivals, like Bonnaroo or All Good or Summer Camp, were it’s not tied to acoustic music or bluegrass it’s more just about music. That’s what I like doing because we get to be, not the token bluegrass band, but we sound incredibly original, more so than at a bluegrass festival. At a bluegrass festival we’re the token weird band. On a more personal level I just love the idea of a festival where you can just go for a weekend and be whatever you want and have as much fun as you want and focus on music or focus on partying or focus on whatever you want. It really is a vacation. These festivals really afford a place for people to go and hear new music and just be whatever they want and have absurd amounts of fun, which I think is really special.

Do you guys prepare differently for festivals than your own headlining shows?

AB: A little bit. When we’re doing a 75 minute festival set versus two 75 minute sets and an encore at a Greensky show, we tend to—I make a lot of the setlists with Paul—you try and not only please the people that are our fans, but also try and focus on what songs are going to draw in people that are like “Oh I’m not going to go see that because I don’t like bluegrass.” Then you think about them walking by, and what songs might draw them in. With ten thousand people at a festival, how do you get them to react to Greensky and sort of “get it.” And we try to cram as much music as possible into those 75 minutes. There’s never enough time.

PH: I tend to find that, when we do our own show typically we’re doing two sets, so we’re playing longer, and it’s a more intimate experience because you’re all going there for Greensky, as opposed to at a festival everyone is there for the event, or their favorite band is headlining the event or who knows why they’re there. So I think the festival sets tend to be more of a highlight of what the important material is at the current time. I think at a lot of festivals we play the same couple songs on our main stage sets because right now they’re important songs to us, and with a show of two sets in a theatre or something like that you’re more likely to get a random throwback song or something like that. I think both formats have their qualities. I really enjoy when fall comes around and you get to go back into the normal touring routine, and you get to stretch out a little bit more and try some new tricks. Then all that is like a brush-up and polish before summer comes around and we play these big stages, and it’s like “remember two months ago when we played that one song right before that other song, and it was really cool because we did this and this? Let’s perfect that and do it for 10,000 people instead of the 500 who were at that club.”

How does the experience of a bluegrass festival like Telluride compare to some of the larger Bonnaroo or All Good type events?

PH: I like playing at the Bonnaroo, All Good type events better. I like being the different band or the odd duck more. I feel like it gives us the better staging ground for our eccentricness and our non-bluegrass side, and then also the bluegrass side is more poignant in that setting than it is at a bluegrass festival. Just as an example, we played a festival called Romp in Owensboro, Kentucky last week, and Vince Gill played a bluegrass set before us, and then Jesse McReynolds played before him and both of those bands played “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” I was thinking “wouldn’t it be funny if we also played ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love?’” But I tend to notice at an event like Telluride, when Sam Bush and all these other great players are there, I get a little more intimidated because more people are aware of our craft, and I think as a band we shine playing for people who don’t already know that they love bluegrass. It’s like a conversion process—we’re crusaders converting the savage mainlanders to the new religion of bluegrass. Maybe part of that comes from… people ask a lot “what’s the bluegrass scene like in Michigan?” and the answer is “well, we are.” There are bluegrass festivals in Michigan and stuff, but I think a lot of our early shows in bars and locally were just like that—we were converting a lot of people to bluegrass, and that’s when things like “When Doves Cry” become good ideas. People who don’t like bluegrass are like “Oh, this is really neat!” I know it’s cheesy, but that’s ok.

One last question- who played the kazoo on “Hot Dogs (On Parade)?”

PH: All of us! That was the last thing we did, there’s a champagne cork popping there too if you listen carefully right at the end. We joked around about it the whole time and then did it. The funny thing is we played kazoos through the whole song, all of us. But we didn’t keep it all, but floating around in the archives somewhere there’s an all-kazoo version of that song. It’s pretty much one of the most atrocious things I’ve ever heard.

AB: (laughs) I think that was Dave’s idea. He wrote the song, and we all thought it was sheer genius, because what every bluegrass album needs is a kazoo section, of course. It was one of those things in the studio where it’s like “Is this a good idea or a bad idea?” And we don’t really know. When we hear it we’re like “Well I think it’s awesome.” And then once you send the album to mastering you’re still scratching your head and thinking “Is that awesome?” I think that humor is an important side of music along with everything else, which maybe comes from my background listening to Phish. At the end of “Bring Out Your Dead” on Handguns, which is a heavy, heavy track with distortion and everything, it ends and then the first thing you hear is a kazoo blast into a guitar instrumental song—it makes me laugh every time.

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