“There’s this great duality to our band,” reflects Greensky Bluegrass mandolinist, vocalist, and songwriter Paul Hoffman. “We’re existing in a few different places at once: we’re a bluegrass band and a rock band, we’re song-driven and interested in extended improvisation.”
“We play acoustic instruments,” adds dobro player Anders Beck, “but we put on a rock’n’roll show. We play in bigger clubs and theaters, there’s a killer light show, and we’re as loud as your favorite rock band. It’s not easy to make five acoustic instruments sound like this – it’s something we’ve spent years working on.”
From these seemingly irreconcilable elements, the five members of Greensky Bluegrass have forged a defiant, powerful sound that, while rooted in classic stringband Americana, extends outwards with a fearless, exploratory zeal. The tension and release between these components – tradition and innovation, prearranged songs and improvisation, acoustic tones and electric volume – is what makes them so thrillingly dynamic, in concert and on record. “In theory,” Hoffman explains, “greensky is the complete opposite of bluegrass. So, by definition, we are contrasting everything that isn’t bluegrass with everything that is.”
That their sound is so seamless, so organic, is testament to Greensky’s enduring vision and tireless dedication. Since their first rumblings at the start of the millennium, they have emerged as relentless road warriors, creating a captivating live show while at the same time developing a knack for evocative, disarming songcraft.
Their fifth studio album, If Sorrows Swim – available September 9, 2014 and distributed by Thirty Tigers – is their most riveting yet, balancing gripping songs (by Hoffman and guitarist Dave Bruzza) and remarkably thoughtful, tight arrangements with an instrumental fluidity born of countless hours playing together – on stage and off.
From their unlikely base of Kalamazoo, Michigan (home of the original Gibson Mandolin-Guitar factory), Greensky – which also includes banjoist Michael Arlen Bont and bassist Michael Devol – arrived at their unique take on the bluegrass tradition by working from the outside inward. “I found bluegrass through the back door,” Beck says, “through the Jerry Garcia route. That’s how I got to listening to Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. It’s really interesting how many people in our generation got into acoustic music through that channel.”
Approaching their instruments from an open-ended, rock perspective gave them the freedom to create their own rules. “We were always coming at bluegrass backwards,” Hoffman says. “We were better musicians than we were bluegrass musicians. I mean, I didn’t buy a mandolin until I was 18. Dave didn’t start playing acoustic guitar until he was 18. Bont got a banjo when he was 20. We discovered that, when it came to learning these instruments, we preferred to do so by improvising and writing our own songs, instead playing standard material and fiddle tunes.”
The roots of Greensky Bluegrass lay in the friendship of Bruzza and Bont. While nurturing a nascent interest in acoustic music, they were joined by Hoffman. The trio shedded intently, playing informally in living rooms and at open mics for years before setting out as a band. Devol, a classically trained cellist, was added in the fall of 2004, and in 2006 Greensky Bluegrass won the coveted band contest at Colorado’s forward-thinking Telluride Bluegrass Festival. At that point, the members dedicated themselves to Greensky full-time and began widening their touring radius.
In 2007, dobroist Beck came aboard. From the sidelines, he was quick to pinpoint the band’s appeal. “It was all about the songs,” he says. “You can be the best pickers in the world or the most educated musicians, but, all in all, the things that connect with people are songs, lyrics, and melodies. That was the real kicker.”
By playing up to 175 shows a year, mostly in rock clubs and more open-minded festivals like Telluride, Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Greensky Bluegrass became a word-of-mouth underground sensation, cultivating a devoted legion of fans entranced both by the band’s improvisational acumen and the quality of their songwriting. Then and now, despite their wide-ranging musical interests, Greensky continues to work within the structure of a classic five-man stringband. “The cool thing about a bluegrass band or, really, any drummerless band,” Hoffman explains, “is that it’s like acoustic chamber music — challenging, exciting, and fun to play.”
“While there are potential limitations because of our instrumentation,” Beck adds, “a really big part of what is Greensky Bluegrass is about is to essentially ignore those limitations.”
The depth and sophistication of the band’s interplay is showcased throughout If Sorrows Swim, across a program of stirring, resonant original songs. Recorded over ten days, the album was tracked to two-inch tape. “The decision to use tape over digital recording is basically the decision to use less,” Hoffman explains. “It’s not about everything being perfect, it’s about capturing a moment in time.” the album mixes previously unrecorded, road-tested concert staples with new material carefully honed with the sort of razor’s edge focus that the recording studio inspires.
If Sorrows Swim opens with “Windshield,” a haunting rumination that slowly builds in emotional and musical intensity around an an insistent pulse from the bass. The desperation in Hoffman’s increasingly anguished vocal is slowly surrounded by churning rhythm guitar and incessant banjo before the tension is dispersed by a plaintive dobro solo. A brooding cello line deep in the mix adds an ominous undercurrent, and underpins the group’s swirling counterpoint as the track fades.
The album’s title derives from “Burn Them,” a minor key reflection set to a more straight-ahead, driving bluegrass rhythm. “There was something on This American Life,” Hoffman recalls. “Someone was talking about just how upset and sad they were. They were drinking a lot, but they just couldn’t drink that pain away. When I heard that, I thought to myself, ‘What if sorrows swim?’ I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind.” Tightly orchestrated, the performance is marked by ingenious touches. The transitions between the guitar and mandolin solos are delineated by a quick unison passage played by both instruments, and Bont contributes an especially nimble, melodic break.
Having two distinct songwriting voices further enriches If Sorrows Swim, with Bruzza contributing a quartet of varied, insightful songs featuring his burnished, soulful vocals. “Worried About the Weather” moves between a swinging half-time feel and a breezier, bluegrass tempo – reinforcing the contrast between relief and uncertainty embodied in the lyric. Bruzza’s brisk “Kerosene” features some of the album’s more daring improvisational passages, and highlights the band’s gift for electrically processing their acoustic instruments to emphasize the emotion behind their playing. Hoffman’s mandolin solo is colored by subtle delay, while Bruzza’s spacious, inquisitive break finds him employing a slightly distorted tone to further escalate the song’s intensity.
“What makes this album different from the last,” Hoffman explains, referring to 2011’s accomplished Handguns, “is that we paid so much more attention to what the song needs. At every juncture, we would ask, ‘Does it serve the song?’ We ask that a lot.” Throughout If Sorrows Swim, Greensky’s playing and arrangements are impressively intricate – and showcased in a rich, spacious sound that lets each note and accent sing and decay as if in slow motion.
The taxing yet rewarding process of recording now behind them, Greensky Bluegrass is anxious to unveil If Sorrows Swim’s unheard material in concert. “The live experience is this springboard,” Beck muses. “You just see what happens. When you’re improvising every night and taking risks, it becomes a very circular thing with the audience — the audience feeds off the energy of the band and the band feeds off the energy of the audience and it becomes a much bigger thing.”
With the release of their first nationally distributed album and a busy touring season ahead of them, Greensky Bluegrass are facing a new level of exposure. It’s a challenge they are up to, that they embrace. As their music and their audience has grown, so have they, and their sites are set ever-higher.
“When we were doing our first shows and making those early records,” Hoffman concludes, “it was stressful because we wanted to hit the right notes. We just wanted it to be good enough. But now, we want it to be great.”