The Many Hues of Greensky Bluegrass
Chatting with Greensky Bluegrass on the ninth week of an almost complete tour across America, Anders Beck (Dobro) and Paul Hoffman (Mandolin, Vocals) talk about their journey to success, personal struggles and inspirations, songwriting and instrumental creative processes, and a little bit, of Phish.
Falling into the newgrass scene, Greensky definitely has a flavor of their own. How would you describe the twist you put on bluegrass?
Anders Beck: It’s uniquely us, which is appealing to a lot of people it turns out. We use bluegrass as the spring board to kind of create or own music. We have lots of influences from jam bands to traditional bluegrass to rock n roll and jazz-just all across the board. We use bluegrass instruments as the starting point and create our own thing that is an accumulation of all those influences. The original music is the key component, it’s hard to put a label on yourself when essentially what you’re doing is being yourself.
If you could throw any other instrument or instruments in the mix, what would they be?
AB: Well, we’ve done ‘em all really. A lot of drummers sit in and that makes it totally different. Having Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann from the Grateful dead was one of the coolest musical experiences of my life. Adding drums is always really fun, because we create this rock n roll sound without drums, which is on some weird level a point of pride that we can rock that hard without drums, and then when you add drums it becomes this whole other beast. I think pianos fit really well with our band, horns, and fiddles. Sam Bush has played shows with us where he played his fiddle for the whole show, which was a great addition. Being really musically open I can’t say there’s just one instrument that’s the one, because we love them all. We’ve had the guys from Toubab Krewe sit in with Koras and all those weird African instruments; we don’t even know what the hell they are, but they’re awesome. I don’t think I can pick one, because we’re down with them all; it’s fun.
What is the songwriting like in Greensky, is it a group effort?
Paul Hoffman: Myself and Dave, our guitar player, bring most of the stuff. We do the beginning stages and most of the development writing on our own, but the band is really involved in the arranging process. Songs reach the band at different levels of development, sometimes with little to no development. Maybe I just have lyrics and a chord progression, and some idea, but I write most of the lyrics alone.
Do these revelations of a lyric or a riff just come to you or is it more thought out?
PH: It varies for me all over the board. Sometimes I mull over an idea for a long time. A good example is the Handguns song. I had this concept of a lyric that went along the lines of going to buy a handgun and making less mistakes. I thought of the juxtaposition of owning a firearm and the self-prescribed making less mistakes. I couldn’t figure out how to use it at all and then one day I just sort of breakthrough and just sort of wrote what I did. Other times I just sit down with a guitar and start singing and it comes out.
Who wrote the new song, ‘Windshield’? What’s that song about for you?
PH: I did. I think that song is about a lot of the things I’ve been listening to. It’s certainly angsty. I wrote it in a very whimsical fashion. I didn’t expect anything serious to come of it. I was just messing around writing a really angsty, rock n roll, kind of screamy sounding song. I wrote it in seven minutes. I have a recording of myself writing it; it’s pretty creepy. That song was like an exercise in melody writing for me, and then the lyrics were this angsty stream of thoughts, just this thing I was spitting out. It’s pretty dark and angry, but it’s not like its about me finding out I was adopted. (Laughs) I just wrote it.
What is your biggest struggle in songwriting?
PH: Early on writing for the band was really hard because I tried to write bluegrass songs, and they were dumb. (Laughs) They were just really contrived. The struggle for me recently is I think I have a very distinct style and voice and occasionally I can sort of break that mold, and just create and idea they’re usually really spontaneous like that song. I wrote this song called I’d “Probably Kill You,” which I think is really different from all the other songs I write. Sometimes I write songs over pre-existing song melodies and then I re-apply the lyrics to new melodies, because it’s easy to write in certain cadence, in certain melodies. My mind connects the phrase of a long structure of a verse and then I write the new more complicated melody. I’m doing all sorts of crazy things to try and keep it fresh. (Laughs)
Is singing and songwriting more important to you than playing the mandolin, or do you hold equal passion in both?
PH: This is a very good question; I ask myself that sometimes. I think it’s an equal passion, and that’s what I really love about our band. I’ve found this home where I’m able to pursue those passions equally, and I think people are interested in both. We can play a fifteen minute improvised jam where we can explore our instruments and voice our ideas on them and then I can resume singing lyrics that I feel are very important and poignant and it’s like neither of the two things is just a vehicle for the other. They are both profound, and important to both me and our fans…grateful for that. I don’t think I see that in a lot of bands. Not to say that in those early Phish songs those silly lyrics aren’t serious, but I think to a lot of Phish fans it’s not as important what the lyrics to “Tweezer” are, “Tweezer” is just a vehicle for the song. I think they’re great; they have a voice of your own. I just sense that they’re not the same somehow.
I feel as though you guys have really polished and elevated your sound, and have been reaching bigger stages. Have there been specific things you’ve worked on as a group to make that happen?
AB: I think it has a lot to do with playing together so much for so long that we can read each others minds and finish each others thoughts musically so the musical jamming aspect of it has really come together over the past year or so on a whole other level. It’s something we’ve been working towards and not really knowing it. Playing 175 shows a year you get to this level where everybody’s so tuned in to each other musically. I think that’s a big part of it. The other point you brought up is also pretty true. As we get to play on bigger stages in bigger theaters consistently we can hone our sound to those places. We’re getting to create the sound we’ve all been hearing in our heads for so long. Playing in dumpy bars you can only get to a certain level of perfection, not saying we’re perfect, but when you’re playing places like the Fillmore in San Francisco the room is impeccable and the sound is impeccable and you can create the thing that you really want to. So as we play a little more consistently rooms like that we can create the sounds we’ve all been dreaming up. A fair amount of credit also goes to Greg Burns, who is our front of house engineer, and mixes the band. He’s helped us have this consistent thing where we can work to achieve something that we’ve been going for all along.
Your home state is Michigan, but you do a lot of touring in the west and in Colorado. Do you feel a greater attachment or popularity out west, or just feel the love in a lot of places?
PH: I think we sort of started having more response in Denver and the Northwest before the Northeast and South. There are certainly places where we’ve grown a little more and we get to play bigger venues, which is more exciting for us because we have more control over the show and we can be a deciding factor in the whole environment of the show; it’s not just about the songs we pick. It’s about the way the stage looks, how the security treats the fans, what the place is like, if there’s chairs or theirs dancing. Places where we’ve tracked more momentum and we have more fans we can play more fans, but that’s starting to happen everywhere and that’s exciting.
Do you feel like you’re a Midwest band?
PH: I think we’re a Midwest band. We’re not all from the Midwest, Ander’s isn’t. I think we’re different than the Colorado-different from every band, and every band is different from every band, but I’ve noticed some similarities with bands from similar areas. There aren’t very many bands from our area to compare us to so maybe that makes it easy to identify with it because it feels truly unique for me.