The Many Hues of Greensky Bluegrass
Anders, you mentioned at Harvest Festival that a lot of the bands in the newgrass scene, that you now play alongside at festivals, were great inspirations to you when you were making your way. What has been the biggest, ‘holy shit, this is happening?’ moment for you.
AB: I’d say having Billy and Mickey play with us is probably still the biggest ‘holy shit moment’. Having gone and seen a lot of Grateful Dead shows growing up, that’s something I never imagined happening in my wildest dreams.
What impact has the Grateful Dead played in your life musically?
AB: In my life musically, growing up I listened to a lot of them. I was lucky my parents let me go see them a lot when I was 15, 16 years old. I still thank my parents for that and tell them they’re crazy for doing it, but thanks anyways. I think musically the impact it has had on me is that improvisation is one of the truest art forms that there is-the idea that music can go wherever you want it to go on any given night, or even just sitting in your basement or whatever, that there’s no rules or boundaries, that’s probably the biggest part for me that I learned from that music. In hindsight I think it doesn’t have to be perfect, you can take chances, and that’s one of the key tenants of our band. We can take chances every night, and I’m not gonna say it always works out, but you have to leave behind the safety net to really create something that is potentially really beautiful. If you never take chances you’ll never know.
PH: I definitely listen to the Grateful Dead. I got more into Phish as a fan. I think it spoke to me a little differently. There’s a little more excitement to it for me. I listened to Grateful Dead as a teenager and it opened a lot of doors. I love the Grateful Dead, don’t get me wrong, I just didn’t become the fan of Grateful Dead that I am of Phish. If I hadn’t been in a band I probably would have gone on Phish tour. I would have gone on tour one way or another.
What is it about Phish that is particularly inspiring?
PH: They’re just badasses! They have a really unique sense of counterpoint, the ways that those guys melodically play. It’s really amazing what they’re able to do and it’s just always really excited me. They have the gusto to compose some pretty intense music right off the bat so they found their musical voice over a very complicated palate of songs. Those early songs and the composition, like all the songs on Junta, they’re all very elaborately composed. It’s just really intense music. It’s not like they were in a garage playing three chords getting to know each other. They were like lets play this really fricken complicated music and once they mastered that, the rest is history as they say. I notice in their later band history that there’s this strive for simplicity compared to their early music. I love that band; they really inspire me.
Do you still find yourself on Phish tour?
PH: I went to Tahoe; I went to a few shows this summer, yea. I can’t go on tour because I have my own shows to play. They don’t tell you that when you join a band.
Have you guys ever covered a Phish song?
PH: We played “Rift” for Halloween, and a couple times since. We played “Down with Disease” once too.
What have your other musical inspirations been?
AB: I’m a huge Phish fan- like 135 Phish shows before 2000. That’s kind of one of my biggest influences, that doesn’t really come through in our music necessarily because it’a a different thing, but musically that band taught me most of what I know, which is kind of weird because we don’t sound like them. I’ll never be able to play like Trey (Laughs), but he is still one of my biggest influences in how I approach playing, just like the overall improvisational nature of it and the listening those guys do with each other when they play; that’s been a huge influence on how I approach music. Closer to bluegrass, guys like Jerry Douglass, who is this amazing amazing dobro player. As a dobro player, he’s a huge influence because I can translate what he does to what I do. A guy like Trey, I can’t translate what he does to what I do. There’s another guy, Billy Cardine, who I think is one of the greatest musicians out there, and has been a big influence on me as well.
PH: I was pretty influenced by the Beatles early on. My mother is a big fan so I was saturated in Beatles music, making mix tapes for her off her records. I listened to a lot of music that way sort of transferring their technology from LPs to tapes for their cars. In my adult songwriting stages I am really influenced by a lot of different things. I’ve become even more inspired by the art of songwriting. Anything that I can listen to thats different or has some thought put into it. I sort of find inspiration in everything. If it’s more outside the box I find it more inspiring to translate it to our ensemble and to write for what we are which is sort of a drum-less, sick, rock band.
What were your biggest struggles in trying to make it musically, either in your playing, or mentally?
AB: On a real musical personal level I get stuck inside of the same box sometimes, and when you’re trying to constantly learn more you hit these plateaus as a musicians where you feel like you’re not getting better, you’re not getting better, and then you get these breakthroughs, and thank god for the breakthroughs because it’s so challenging when you feel like nothing is changing and you’re working really hard and your playing is not evolving. I’m trying to really evolve, a lot. On a personal level, it’s just holding it together when you’re playing 175 shows a year and to try and keep believing in the music. I’m thinking more to 4 or 5 years ago when we were playing bars every night. It can be rough, it can be really rough, to keep the creative juices flowing when we’d be having these really hard tours. I guess that being said I’m just really thankful we all believed in it enough to keep going. The key element was that we really did believe in the music and the songs to the point we thought it was going to work. So I’m glad it’s going so well now. It’s exciting to look back and be like, we were kinda right!
PH: Time. There’s not enough of it. We dedicated a lot of time, played a lot of shows, and been on a lot of tours. There’s never been an overnight explosion of our success. I’m not bitter, mind you. We’ve put a lot into it. The biggest hurdle we’ve made is the sacrifice for music, but it’s made us a great band; we’ve played a lot of shows. Like Anders said, we really are just able to read each others’ minds, and I think that’s why we force ourselves to try new things so that we’re finding new ideas and trying to experiment in new ways.
One thing I’ve always appreciated about Greensky is the cover selection. How do you choose your covers?
PH: You must not have heard all the covers we’ve played, because we’ve definitely played some bad ones. It’s sort of a group decision. We’ve done two Halloweens of all 80s music, so that’s led to a lot of covers because we intentionally picked them in that decade, but they didn’t all stick around; some of them were just novelties for the Halloween shows. Sometimes I’m self- conscious we play too many. Phish plays covers; they’re my hero band, so we can play covers right? (Laughs) It’s the singing of a song that makes me wanna play it-something I like to sing along to when I listen to or a song that I think is really great. Sometimes it’s totally off the wall that it will work well. We play “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen. One of the tricks for arranging non-bluegrass for bluegrass, in my opinion, is that we play it fast to preserve the vibe of the original song. It’s got the intensity and the upbeat energy of the original even without the drums. We play it a little bit faster than he does, and I sing the phrasing most of the same way he does, and that feels more cool to me. We’re playing it bluegrassy, but I’m still singing it the way that it is. It’s as if the bluegrass was in the song all along. I could just hear it when I listen to it.
What is your advice for young musicians trying to find their way?
AB: Be really critical of yourselves and your songs and your playing. For me songs are the big thing. You can be the greatest musician, or the worst musician, and it doesn’t really matter if the songs are killer. I spent a lot of time with Benny Galloway whose a great songwriter and he taught me the power of a song, and editing a song until it’s right, and by right I mean damn good.
PH: Keep doing it. It takes time.
What do you feel music has brought to your life?
AB: Everything. As a fan of band it’s always been the go to thing. Music has been my life for a long time. As a musician it’s given my life purpose on some level. It sounds kind of epic and maybe a little cheesy, but I have purpose; I have something to do with my life. I have something to share with people. I feel extraordinarily lucky that my job is to make people happy. That’s probably the simplest way to put it, and I think we all feel that way. It’s sort of easy to get lost in it, but I think we are all constantly reminding each other how lucky we are to get to this. We are all really thankful this is the way it turned out and we’re not working in gas stations, or behind desks, or growing weed or whatever. We get to make people happy on a daily basis and it’s a hell of a good feeling.