Cornmeal is more than bluegrass. Think of this month's New Groove of Month as a 21st Century ode to what was (finger-picking hoe downs) and what could be (futuristic, high-speed jam grass). If that doesn't suit you, then look to the Chicago-based quintet as a tasteful treat of traditional sounds performed with a new flavor done so by a meshing of assorted instrumentation and a tasteful aptitude for creating melodies.
While around the block for several years, many points in the country have yet to be exposed to the June New Groove, but look no further than the friendly Midwest confines and you’ll find a band, a sound and a following ever-increasing and diversifying with each note played. Jambands caught up with Cornmeal’s string bass toting vocalist Chris Gangi to speak about what’s in a band, name, differentiating your sound and the future direction of old-time music.
CC- Tell me a little about the band’s name. Hoes does a name like Cornmeal help to capably define the band’s sound? Or does it?
CG- It was just one of those things that came up when forming the band. Not much of a profound story. Our guitar player at the time mentioned the name and everyone went with it. I actually believe that it is the reverse. The band’s sound usually defines the perspective of the name. It is a symbiotic relationship though, and they definitely work off each other.
CC- In the grand scheme of all these jam bands that populate an ever expanding scene, where does the band’s unique sound fall?
CG- We never really consider ourselves to be all that unique. We are under the influence of everything we have listened to past, present and future. It is one of those things that is hard to define as a 'sound.' Hard to figure where it came from and impossible to tell where it is going. We write and play what we know; what we feel. If it comes out from the outside perspective as truly unique, well, that is wonderful but to us it is just Cornmeal. It is all we know how to be.CC- Is that a definite spot along the sonic line or does the band’s sound, in your opinion, able to cross-pollinate between country, bluegrass and jam rock? And in doing so, how do separate yourself from the multitude of other bands that may fit into that very same categorization?
CG- We cross-pollinate everything. You have to, whether it is a conscious choice or not. Unless you are a robot and shut out all that is around you.
CC- What factors led to the ultimate formation of the band? Since that inception, has the ideology and direction of the band changed or do you find yourselves staying that same course?
CG- In early 2000 I got together with a few people to toy around with the idea of starting an acoustic based bluegrass band. Mostly as an outlet because we had all been playing in rock bands for so long. We wanted to get back to songs with stories, feelings and history. We picked up a steady gig and played twice a week at two different bars in Chicago for months. We were lucky to have them. It forced us to learn a bunch of material in a short time and work really hard at it. It gave us purpose to be doing what we were doing.
The ideology is the same but the direction is always changing. We want to create music that moves people, that has purpose. Every note, lick, riff, moment on stage must mean something otherwise you are just taking advantage of your audience.
CC- From In the Kitchen through present day Summer 07’, how has Cornmeal’s sound evolved? What tricks have you picked up, aspects of life acknowledged, fantasies have been fulfilled?
CG- In the Kitchen was recorded in 2 days while the band had only been together for a few months. Our line-up wasn’t even solid (and wouldn’t be for years to come) It is a straight acoustic album. We have since added a drummer and while the other recordings are acoustic based, our live sound is defined characteristically by the amplified tones of our instruments. In general we now play faster, harder and louder than ever before. It is pretty much a rock show with some acoustic music thrown in the mix.
We have learned a lot about what the band’s strengths and weaknesses are and I think the biggest trick we have learned is to utilize both aspects. Not be afraid of exposing the weaknesses but utilize them in a productive way. There is good in everything depending on your perspective.
CC- So it seems the band has endured a myriad of line up changes over the last several years. How has each change led to transition in the band’s sound? With your current line up now firmly in place, how does this sound compare to that of a few years ago?
CG- The band’s line-up has been the same for over 3 years now. It was the rocky first couple of years that the changes ensued. I think we went through something like 12 members in the first 2-3 years. Sounds pretty drastic but this is easy to do when you have a steady gig in your hometown for 6 years. Most of the musicians weren’t serious candidates anyway. There were a lot of fill-ins because most of us were still performing in other bands that went on the road. Those first few years were pretty interesting; so many great players coming and going, never knowing who was going to show up at which gig. It wasn’t till we started taking the band out on the road that the line-up started to slowly become more stable and we could see who was in it for the long haul or not.
Every new member brought in something different whether it was a songwriting style or an element of improvisation that we grew to acquire. They all had some sort of hand in this band’s sound. Looking back with each change I think we knew we were getting closer to the band we wanted to be. The musicianship needs to melt together. And that is what we have now; complete continuity and symbiosis. The biggest difference between the sound now and then is that we are all serving the sound for the same purpose, collectively. We know each other so well on stage and off. The chemistry we share breeds into the music we play.
CC- As far the band’s instrumentation is concerned, does ‘progressive bluegrass,’ a term I’ve heard a number of times in describing the band’s sound, fit properly? Describe that intertwining of banjo, guitar and fiddle….
CG- I think that term did fit us years ago when writers/critics/ etc stamped us with it. We have grown past it at this point. What does it really mean anyway? There are so many new sub genres for bluegrass it is hard to count. It is a good thing. That means musicians out there are pushing the norm, redefining the elements. Music must evolve. There is nothing wrong with going back to the root of it all and mastering the original style but it is the ones that make it their own that keep moving the scene forward in a positive direction. There are so many bands out there no one has ever heard of doing it. Creating new platforms and breaking down barriers. One of the greatest things about performing throughout the country is running into all these bands we never would have seen if it weren’t for what we were doing.
CC- How does live Cornmeal compare to the band in the studio setting? Which format produces the best product and why?
CG- They are two completely different entities and really hard to compare. The studio for us is like boot camp. It forces us to break everything down and take a fresh look at what we are doing. Then rebuild it from there. I really enjoy the studio process. It takes a lot of forethought and analysis. Playing live for us is all about feeling and energy. It is a collaborative effort between us and the audience and the energy that shifts between the two. In the studio you don’t have that type of exchange so your analytical mind sets in and it is about performance. You have to get inside your head. It is a hard balance to be precise, perfect and tight without losing the feel and human quality to the music. For our last studio albums we made a conscious choice to focus on the entity of the song. We wanted to showcase the songwriting and not the jams with in them that may happen in a live setting. That is something we save for the live audience.
CC- Describe to our readers Cornmeal’s song writing process. Is this a collaborative effort or more of a Saddam-like dictatorship of sound where you’re running the show with an iron fist?
CG- For us it lies somewhere in between. There are three of us that do the writing. Mostly on our own but we collectively arrange and shape the songs in rehearsal. For me, I usually come into rehearsal with an idea and play it out using the band as my chalkboard. Wavy and Kris usually have the whole thing finished with a good idea of the direction of the song before they bring it to the band. From there we play with it, bending and shaping it until we get something that works with the band as a whole. There are a few songs that have been collaborations between two or more writers but as a whole everyone has a distinct voice in their writing and that makes Cornmeal what it is. We are fortunate to have three writers pumping out material. There never seems to be a shortage of songs. It affords us the luxury of being very strict on what songs we can choose to perform and what we don’t. I think sometimes bands out there today forget about the importance of a great song-about the art of telling a great story. And sometimes get caught up focusing on the jam. There has to be a balance between the two. Balance is the key to everything in life.
CC- How do you guys spend your time when you’re not on the road? Actually, do you even have any time off or are you a member of the jamband juggernaut team?
CG- We work on the road about half the year right now, so we do manage to have time off, but realistically we still spend most of that time off rehearsing, writing songs, working on equipment, or the bus, something Cornmeal related. We try to make time for ourselves and our relationships. It is a fine line but family is a really important aspect of all our lives and we put that in front of all we do. If it weren’t for our family’s support initially, I don’t think we would still be out here doing what we are.
CC- If it were a perfect world and you could share the stage with any musician, past or present, who may that be?
CG- Right when we were starting out we played a festival with John Hartford but never got a chance to perform with him. Shortly there after, he passed away. Playing with him would be a special moment for sure.CC- What would you be doing if it weren’t for Cornmeal?
CG- It is hard to imagine life without the “Meal." It is such a huge part of our lives. We have shared so many memories, met so many incredible people over the last seven years it is hard to picture where I would be. Playing music is such an integral part of our lives. It is who we are and what defines us. So whether it be in this band or not, I think we will all continue making music in one form or another.