Interview: Greensky Bluegrass’s Paul Hoffman on “Stress Dreams” and playing arenas

They may have a rock’n’roll attituded and a light show but they still don’t have a drummer.

Can you still be viewed as a red-headed stepchild when you are over twenty years of age? I’m not sure of the answer, but that is the position that Greensky Bluegrass find themselves in having just celebrated their 20th  anniversary. The band was formed in 2000 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, by three fans of the Grateful Dead who also appreciated the qualities of acoustic music, and at the time included Paul Hoffman mandolin, Michael Arlen Bont banjo, and Dave Bruzza guitar. The current lineup was completed when Mike Devol subsequently joined on bass with Anders Beck on dobro. The band from the outset played bluegrass that was filtered through a rock’n’roll mentality and, as such, they have always been held at arm’s length by the traditional bluegrass community. This hasn’t stopped them from gradually building a fanbase that allows them to play arena-size shows with rock’n’roll sound and lighting systems, while still playing with bluegrass-influenced acoustic instruments. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Paul Hoffman over Zoom while he was travelling across America to visit relatives for Christmas to discuss their new record, ‘Stress Dreams’, and their response to the COVID lockdown as a hard-working gigging band, and also what it feels like to still be considered the bluegrass red-headed stepchild. Greensky Bluegrass may enjoy the trappings of a rock band, but Hoffman explains why drums have never had a role in their music, and it is also clear what a firm bond of friendship exists between all five members of the band. Finally, Hoffman explains why the band would relish the opportunity to bring their music to a whole new UK audience.

How are you, I hope you’ve managed to get through the pandemic safely?

We have got through it so far with no sickness, and apart from dates cancelled by lockdown, we managed to play every show we were booked for which is about as good as it could be given the overall circumstances.

How does it feel to have gone past your 20th Anniversary?

I’ve just turned 40 and I have been doing this for more than half my life,  so it is a really big thing for me, haha, but we have had some great experiences playing all over the country and in a limited way other parts of the world.

Unless I’ve missed something, Michigan is not a hotbed of bluegrass and jam bands. What inspired you guys all those years ago to develop your own take on the music?

We were always into acoustic music, and we all kind of discovered bluegrass through Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Old & In The Way individually. I went to college in Kalamazoo, Michigan, our guitar player grew up there, our banjo player moved there to go to college and so did the bass player. We all just really enjoyed the acoustic ensemble approach of bluegrass, and we were all into The Grateful Dead and liked rock’n’roll and jam music, and bluegrass is such a player’s music. There are lots of soloists in the acoustic ensemble, unlike rock’n’roll when generally it is just the guitar. We just sort of grew into our own sound from there, we still play bluegrass but we play it in our distinct way, I suppose, haha.

Did you ever manage to see Jerry Garcia before he died in 1995?

I did not, but some of the other guys in the band did.

Why do you think you have been able to build such a solid fan base over the years, your progress seems to have been steady but very solid?

I think it was kind of one fan at a time, as you said, steadily but slowly. We have never had some kind of big breakthrough though we have had some records do well on the Billboard Charts for bluegrass, but it is like small pond, big fish. We have toured relentlessly, if we went to San Diego and somebody liked us we came back for them, if we played in St Louis, Minnesota, and we got one or two fans we went back for the most part. We have toured non-stop for 15 years until COVID hit, and I think that word of mouth just helped. We could also maybe attribute some of the success and gratitude to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, in Colorado, which we have been lucky enough to play for the last 8 years or so. We have played it 11 times overall, and it is kind of a pacemaker for bluegrass and that modern new-age bluegrass sound. One of the years we were there David Byrne was a headliner, then it was Mumford & Sons and the Barenaked Ladies, so they get a kind of off-the-wall non-bluegrass headliner but Sam Bush has played it for 30-plus  years, and Tim O’Brien and Bela Fleck. It is kind of a home for our music, and we were embraced by that festival which gave us a bit of notoriety nationally at an early age, it definitely put a bit of wind in our sails. If Telluride likes us we must definitely be doing something right kind of notion, haha, but we could still go to somewhere like Lexington, Kentucky, and play a show for like 15 people, or something, but it didn’t get us down and we just kept doing it.

You have now played some significant venues like Red Rocks Amphitheatre and The Ryman haven’t you?

Red Rocks is our biggest gig and it is a great honour. We get to play three nights now and we have been selling them all out at 10,000 people a night, and it is pretty incredible. That is a lot more than 15 man, I can tell you, haha.

How has the band coped during the pandemic with the reduction in touring?

We made a record, haha, we have a new record coming out and we were sort of scheduled and planning to do so anyway, but I think the way we made the record changed. We were writing remotely and sharing music and recordings and stuff, digitally and remotely. I think when we got together to make the record we were so grateful to be together making music that it changed the creative processes in some ways. Normally we would be so busy touring that it is hard to take time off to make a record, and this was kind of the opposite because we hadn’t been touring at all so we were rejoiced at just playing together. So we made a record, and as I said we toured nonstop for over 15 years, so at the age-old trope of finding the silver-lining that exists for us, it was nice to take a break. I have a two-year-old, and one of my bandmates has a young kid, and it was nice to take some time and not be constantly moving. That said, I missed constantly moving the entire time, haha, but again age-old clichés, but it helps you realise what you have and better appreciate it when it is taken away. I learnt to appreciate what being home seven days a week was like, and I also got to appreciate what missing not being home was like.

I was speaking to Tim O’Brien about a year ago and he said he watched things in his garden grow and bloom he didn’t know were there.

Yeah, I did so much yard work and work around the house, just trying to keep busy and find ways to be productive.

You recorded your new album ‘Stress Dreams’, and you said the dynamics changed due to COVID, but what are the dynamics within Greensky Bluegrass?

Our process creatively and otherwise is almost tiresomely democratic, haha. Everyone has an opinion and everyone has a vote, for better or worse. We had some new songwriters on this record, our dobro player Anders Beck wrote a song, he has a few songs we play but we have never recorded any of them, called ‘Monument’ and I sang it, our bass player Mike Devol wrote several songs and he has never composed for a record. ‘Stress Dreams’ is one of his songs that the band just absolutely loves and adores, we had a fantastic time recording it and it is like this epic fantasy quest and it is really about stress, and making it through each day, but for us, it sounds like a fantasy novel, haha. So we had some new writers, and the two of those guys were always particularly vocal and important in the arrangement process. Normally it is me and our guitar player Dave Bruzza who have done the songwriting, and when we bring music to the band the whole band gets involved in voicing the song, arranging it, and figuring out how it works for our band. That is where the creative process comes in for the whole band, but having new writers, having those guys being vocal about their own ideas and for me to be able to do what they normally do, which is to offer insight into someone’s song because normally they are my songs. I’m like this is what I would like to do, and they offer their input, and to reverse that was just different, it was quite literally the exact opposite of what we normally do. It was fun, it was a new chapter for us in some ways.

Who produced the record?

We produced it with a friend of ours who produced our last record, Dominic John Davis, and he is the bass player for Jack White, and he works for our band in a kind of office capacity, and he has been a friend of ours for almost 20 years, and we’ve known him from Michigan for a very long time. So we bring him in, and our engineer Glenn Brown who we have been making records with for a long time, and who works as a producer as well. Those two guys bring outside influences, but they are also kind of part of our inside team, so we were just kind of us in the studio. Also, because of COVID, for the earlier sessions, we didn’t have anybody from the studio, we were working in a studio in Vermont and there was no house-engineer at all, it was like we were alone in someone else’s house, for safety. That was the coolest quarantine I’ve ever done, haha. It was sad and lonely to be at home sometimes, but to be locked up in that studio in Vermont for two weeks was really cool, haha.

In these days of music streaming, it is important to get singles out there. Who decides which tracks will be released for early streaming?

Like I said man, tiresome conversations, haha. We all just kind of chatted about it and it wasn’t that tough, we are proud of all the songs and it is a kind of a trend now to trickle them out, we are excited for people to hear the whole album and we still put together the record as a presentation of one piece, and we try and think of it as a conducive, flowing project from beginning to end. I’m excited about people being able to sit down and listen to the whole record, if people still do that, haha, I think our fans do, but I certainly do.

When you played to 10,000 people at Red Rocks, how did you maintain your acoustic sound?

We are loud, haha. We are very much a rock’n’roll band, and while we play bluegrass instruments and if you just look at us holding our instruments you may think it is acoustic and quiet, but we have a full spectrum rock’n’roll light show, we use a lot of psychedelic effects and we play long jam songs with long solos and transitions, yeah, it is rock’n’roll.

It may be rock’n’roll but you don’t have a drummer, why?

We don’t have a drummer, haha. One of the really cool things about bluegrass we love is the shared responsibility for the rhythm and the melody. In a traditional band, all the band members do all the parts too in different ways, but with bluegrass, it is like the bass is the downbeat and the mandolin is the backbeat, and the banjo does a roll and it is just a shared responsibility. The way we take turns playing the melody too, the banjo plays the melody, the mandolin plays the melody, the dobro plays the melody, and the guitar plays the melody, we all just love that aspect of it. The way our rhythmic pulse breathes and sort of ebbs and flows a little faster or a little slower, and the way that that is a shared responsibility is just so different to when you play in a band with drums, and the drummer has to hold a lot of that responsibility alone. It is like playing all the sub-divisions of the beat by himself, we love it, and I love bluegrass bands with drums like Leftover Salmon who are friends of ours, the Sam Bush Band, but as a mandolin player I feel like I would be bored if we had a drummer, I just love my job as the drummer, haha.

What drew you personally to the mandolin, was it the chop, what was it?

The chop and the accompaniment of the rhythm are what I love about the mandolin now, and I’ve grown into and I love my role, but originally I was a guitar player and I went to see David Grisman and I didn’t really know what the mandolin was. I was like this is really cool, and then I looked up Sam Bush and I was he is really cool as well, and it was just like I think I will get one of those. I then met the guys in my band a month later and started playing with them and never stopped, it was a kind of a whim decision that I would get a mandolin and it changed the course of my entire life. It called to me, and it worked for me too because I became better at it than the guitar pretty quickly, and it just made sense to me. I’m still rehearsing and practising, trying to get better don’t get me wrong though, haha.

Bluegrass can be very traditional musically with a politically conservative audience. Do you see any potential conflict between the current political split in American society and the different wings of bluegrass fans?

It is an age-old conversation, and we are certainly the red-headed stepchild of that, we are not embraced by the traditional bluegrass community, and never really have been, it is kind of not what we do. But also I think a lot of people spend time talking about it, and I don’t witness fallout from our choices. I guess a lot of the traditional bluegrass acoustic people just don’t like our band and don’t come out, we haven’t received awards from a lot of those organisations in recognition of what we have achieved. When we play a show I don’t feel people are mad at us or we are doing it wrong, so I guess those people just aren’t coming. We really honour and respect the tradition of bluegrass and we love playing it straight ahead, we really do, and in every show, we play several songs that are very straight ahead. We are also influenced by a lot of other stuff like jazz, and rock’n’roll, and we play that because it is who we are. If you are going to make and present music, be who you are, that is our motto, that is what I think.

David Grisman brought a lot of jazz into bluegrass all those years ago.

Yeah, and a love that latin gypsy vibe that Grisman does.

How many times have you seen Grisman live?

A ton, a real ton. I played a little bit with him, not a ton though, haha. It was kind of scary and it wasn’t as good as playing with Sam, Sam Bush. I know Sam better and he is a huge hero who has become a friend. We will be playing with Sam at our New Year show with him as our special guest and playing with us for half the show we hope.

Sam Bush was viewed as the devil child in the ‘70s, but he is a lot more accepted these days within the bluegrass community.

The New Grass Revival were a huge influence for us early on, the way they were very bluegrassy but also not because it was also poppy and fusiony and all that stuff. In so many ways what we do is just a continuation of that same story, to take that traditional bluegrass sound and expand upon it with our own ideas. When I talk to Sam about it, it is interesting that they were getting the same kind of flake that we are forty years later, nothings changed, haha.

The New Grass Revival were quite successful in the ‘80s, despite the hostility.

Yeah, they sort of came around with the pop recognition when John Cowan joined the band, and then it just didn’t work out anymore. But Sam Bush is the king of the mandolin these days, it really works for him and he is just being himself as well. Sam is just Sam.

How supportive have Thirty Tigers been to your ongoing success?

They have done a couple of our records, and they are doing a little bit more for us with ‘Stress Dreams’ and have kind of expanded their reach. I’m talking to you over the sea, haha,  which is a new thing for us, and we would love to come over there and play for you all over there. Our friend Billy Strings is going to play a show in London and we are really happy for him. International travel hasn’t been very easy for the band, we’ve been to Japan, Canada, and Mexico, and that is pretty much the extent of it. We were supposed to play a festival in Australia several times now but it was cancelled due to the birth of my child and COVID. Hopefully, we will be able to give it another shot.

What is next for Greensky Bluegrass in 2022?

We have a lot of touring planned with the record coming out. We are playing most of January, February, and March, straight through really, and we haven’t done that for so long now. It is crazy, but we still have a lot of summer stuff that has been booked for years that has just been pushed over, so we will make a lot of that up. We will play through the fall and then look to make a record after that, and as I said, maybe hopefully we will get to do some international travel. We would really like to go play for some new people.

Your model of persistent touring worked in the US, so maybe it will work internationally.

Maybe so, yeah, haha. There is something different about winning new listeners over, people who haven’t heard you before, rather than appeasing people who are already fans. As you said, our community of fans are fantastic and amazing, and they come to a lot of shows a year, and they support us religiously, but appeasing that appetite is different from playing to a room full of people we have never seen before. It is a different energy, and winning over or romancing if you will, a new listener is really fun. When we played in Japan it was amazing, just playing for people we didn’t even share a language with and watching their reaction. We hadn’t experienced anything like that in a very long time, and it was profound. Hopefully, more of that is ahead.

I’ve often wondered why jazz and bluegrass are so popular in Japan.

They really loved it.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, tracks or albums are currently top three on your personal playlist?

This guy Jafie Jurvanen from Canada whose band is called the Bahamas, I love his music right now. I listen to a lot of Justin Vernon and Bon Iver. None of those are bluegrass or americana, so in that vein there is Watchhouse. I really like them, and they were formally Mandolin Orange, and I was just listening to them before our interview, haha. Andrew Marlin the mandolin player is a friend of mine and he is a great player and a great writer. It is really good music.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I hope we can come see you soon. I’ve been there as a tourist several times, and I would love to come back as an artist. We will just keep truckin’ ahead, that is what we do, so hopefully we will make it over there.

Greensky Bluegrass’s ‘Stress Dreams’ is released 21st January on Thirty Tigers & Big Blue Zoo Records


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About Martin Johnson 204 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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