Taking a lead from Tony Rice’s generation and trying to move bluegrass forward in the 21st Century.
Sicard Hollow are the new kids on the block for jamband-influenced progressive bluegrass, so new that they are still studying the history and techniques of the bluegrass genre. They are already making waves with their high energy shows and obvious musical chops, and what is also remarkable is that the band members were not particularly exposed to bluegrass in their formative years. The band has released their second album, ‘Brightest of Days’, and are keen to bring their music to as many people as possible. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with singer-songwriter and guitarist Alex King at home in Nashville to discuss how he came to bluegrass after being an obsessive Green Day fan, and why one of his current obsessions is the late great Tony Rice. What comes out in the discussion is King’s determination to really get to understand the roots of bluegrass and to continue to improve musically. There is more than a hint of pride around Sicard Hollow’s new record, and how they are beginning to make their way in the music world. The other thing that is very clear, is that whatever Alex King lacks in experience, his boundless energy and enthusiasm will be enough to keep Sicard Hollow moving forward.
Before we get to your particular take on bluegrass, why were you guys drawn to bluegrass as an overall genre?
That is a funny one, I don’t really know how we landed on it because none of us really grew up listening to it, our bass player may have had a little bit of country growing up in Texas but not straight on bluegrass. I was writing sort of singer-songwriter stuff, songs slowed down with sentimental lyrics and I didn’t really know how to make them exciting or energetic. Once we found Matt our violin player who could play so fast, and he could play intricate stuff and really beautiful lead, it started to make more sense to pump a little more energy into the songs. That led to us having the boom-chuck rhythm going, and before we knew it, Will had a mandolin, and we’d fallen into place as a string band. We then picked up a banjo player, who is no longer with us, and that kind of solidified the bluegrass aspect. Once we had a banjo, people were telling us you are a bluegrass band. The upright bass came later, and when that happened it was very evidently the genre we were trying to play. It was probably more bluegrass in the beginning because we now have an electric bass, but it is still grass, it is still rooted in that genre of music. It is funny how we landed on it, because five or six years ago if you had told me I would be playing in a bluegrass band I would have told you that you were full of shit, haha. Lo and behold, look where we are, it is a beautiful life we live and a beautiful journey, the path you are on may not be what you expected but it is the one you are walking on so enjoy it.
You were all Nashville residents when you formed the band, I believe?
Yes, we were, I’m in the garage of a little house in Bellevue which is just outside of Nashville to the southwest and is part of the neighbourhood of Nashville. It would take me like fifteen minutes to get to downtown Nashville, but it feels enough out of town, so I don’t feel as if I’m in a city. I’m a nature guy, and I run a lot and we have a river here, and there is an amazing park system about five minutes down the road from us. I get all my other amenities out here that aren’t part of the hustle and bustle of music city
Who are your main musical heroes?
It is an interesting thing the way I’ve tried to find myself a career in music, because it was not my original intention at all, and I didn’t move to Nashville to start a band, this is not why I came here originally. I had to get my life back on track, I’d gotten into some stuff I probably shouldn’t have done, and it was pure luck I came to Nashville and found these guys. Growing up I was obsessed with pop punk, a band called Green Day, and I absolutely idolised Billy Joe Armstrong. I grew up in the suburbs of Alabama, a nice neighbourhood and a nice family, and while I was never really spoilt or anything, I was trying to rebel against that. In my suburban middle school, I was the gothic kid wearing the studded belt and tight pants, with the Tim Burton Jack Skellington chequerboard socks, and I would wear a Green Day shirt every day of the week. As a child, that’s what I considered kept me in music, I would always obsess about a band, and I would have to embody that band everywhere I went so that people would know I loved that band.
So, it was Green Day, Blink-182, those kinds of bands when I was growing up, and then it was metal and hip-hop. I kind of meandered through a lot of genres before the second era which was defined by music, I would say was jambands. I love Trey Anastasio, I’m a big Fishead, and all of that led me to bluegrass and I can listen to Tony Rice all day and he is my guy for flatpicking, you know. I don’t think I would be doing it if I hadn’t gotten so obsessed with this man’s everything, his ethos and everything he was about was incredible, and you can’t really put into words what Tony Rice did for bluegrass guitar. Rest in peace to the legend, he is just a powerhouse across genres. I have had this melting pot of idols in my life which I think have made me the guitar player I am today. With the Green Day thing, people are coming up to me all the time at shows and telling me that they don’t want to offend me, but that I sound like the guy from Green Day, haha, and I’m just like you don’t understand how much that means to me. I don’t hear it myself in what I do, but when people tell me I’ll thank them. So, it is an interesting little path I’ve had that has led me to this string band genre.
Are you enjoying it?
Oh God, yes, it is the best thing that has happened to me in my entire life. We are busting our arses, and it is hard work, and we are in Music City, and we have the opportunity to make a career out of our band, are you kidding me, haha? That is breaking the mould in itself, tens of thousands of people travel here to try and do what we are doing. I came here to get my life together and it found me, and I’ve got these three great guys who are incredible musicians, and we have a manager who is very passionate about it, so we have all the pieces, and we are grateful for the opportunity, and we don’t take it lightly at all. We understand the door has opened a little bit, and when that thing opens you have to barge in, and that is what we are trying to do.
What is Sicard Hollow’s stage show like?
We are a four-piece band, and the shows are high-energy. It also depends on where we are playing, sometimes, it may be a little bar twenty-five hours from Nashville with a single person in the audience, and other times we are playing bigger venues to hundreds of people, and we know how to crowd. The shows have been getting better and better, and we are trying to be really professional about it. When we started the band, I had never performed on a stage, I didn’t know what that looked like, and I didn’t know how it felt. I get nervous before every show, but in the best way because I know we are going to do our thing, but I’m still getting used to the performance aspect. It is pretty natural to me and while I can’t speak for the crowd it is like a sacred experience for me, and an ideal show for me is when I have a kind of religious experience. For lack of a better way of saying it, I blackout sometimes, you just hit the flow state and you are delivering the message, you are listening to the tunes and the guys on stage, and you are navigating these songs and the jams and improvisations. When it all lines up it is truly a magical moment, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so high in my life, compared to just a good show that we’ve played, just a natural high. I think that is what we keep chasing, it is definitely the best feeling I’ve had in my life, and you can’t reproduce that with any substances, it is this tangible feeling that you can’t re-create artificially. The shows have really been getting better, we are playing better, and the chemistry of the band is getting better. If I could only say one thing about our shows it would be high energy, I think people have a hard time at least not bobbing their heads to the music, and we all take pride in that.
That is a lot of what bluegrass is all about.
Yeah, but not all bluegrass and I respect all bluegrass and some of it can be very slow and beautiful as well. We love all the traditional bluegrass, and we like the high-energy stuff because it is easier for us to play fast, if someone shouts out for a slow ballad we are like, we would butcher that one, haha, we could play that song at 160 beats per minute, OK let’s go and the band falls into place. We are really working on meandering through all the feelings and emotions that are possible through bluegrass, it is not all pedal-to-the-metal thumping stuff, though that is a huge part of the genre, there is also this other huge other aspect of slowed-down parts to explore.
What is your approach to improvisation and how do you avoid stepping on each other’s toes?
Listen, the biggest thing is to use your ears. It is another learning process because improvisation isn’t something you like just improvise because if you are not having a sound musical conversation there is no point. It is sometimes like speaking to somebody who is speaking in a foreign language, we could probably communicate a little bit through hand gestures but I’m not going to understand the minute details of your language. Again, it takes practise, and we are getting better at it, and bluegrass is very structured, it is really tight with everything in its place, so we may play two chorus and verses as in traditional bluegrass but then we may open it up to a minor jam. Once you’ve surrendered to the minor section it is OK, there is not a set thing for me to play here so now I have to listen. I have to listen to what the bass is doing, where the mandolin is chopping, I’ve got to listen to melodies that Matt is playing on the violin, and I have to hop on and create these musical moments that are happening in the now, and even if this is not a pre-determined thing you can have the language behind it.
It can be a very simple thing, we are playing an A Minor here, so everyone knows where to fall in, and you know what the green and red light notes are. It can be as scary as hell, and Parish who is an amazing bass player even with jazzy time stuff, and he is like let’s start jamming here and I’m thinking of the progression, and he is like no progression, let’s jam. That was so scary for me because everyone in the audience seemed to be looking at me and I was just like, I really don’t know what is happening right now. What is so beautiful about that is personal growth even with the moments of uncomfortability, whether this is for the band or personally and ego-wise because you are not shining at the time. With all these musical ideas in my head, it is helping me grow and take a step back and just go it is OK I’ll let this section build, and sometimes we critique the shit out of it and I’m like, that was terrible, but other times the audience is like that is the best thing we’ve heard. It is all this weird head stuff and I’m just trying to let the music flow, and in my free time work on the arsenal of my musical vocabulary, if you’ve got a musical vocabulary in your wheelhouse you are going to have a more musical conversation.
You are about to release your sophomore album, ‘Brightest of Days’, how did you record it?
We are really stoked about it, our second studio album and we recorded it in Nashville over about four days in a beautiful room which was very comfortable with a fabulous musician producing, John Mailander who plays with Bruce Hornsby, and he’s played on a lot of records, and he has a very intellectual mind towards music. Bringing John in brought a whole new flavour to the songs and how we wanted to present them. It was engineered by another good buddy, Dan Davis, who is an incredible audio engineer, and who used to play banjo in our band when we first started. We have this cool relationship with him where there are no hard feelings, he has his audio career and we are trying to be a touring band, and you can’t line the two up when he needs to be in Nashville, and we are in Montana or somewhere. Life happens and you have to pick what you are going to put your energy into, and Dan was audio engineering. That was the crew, there were six of us in there and we just cranked it out, it was at a studio called, funnily enough, The Studio, about ten minutes down the road from our house. Each morning it was a quick drive there, it felt very comfortable, and we knocked out the tracking in four days, and it took a bit longer to get the post-production stuff done and put all the finishing touches to it. It was an inspiring process, and I’m ready to get back in there and do a third one, haha.
What are the songwriting dynamics within the band?
I write a lot of them, Will writes them as well, and the way we are going now if Will sings it, he wrote it. I take pride in my lyrics, and I like to write them by myself, and the way things are going we haven’t gotten into any collaborative efforts. I write every day, it is just something I love to do, what I will do is write lyrics and structure pretty much because it is what key I want to sing it in and how I want to sing it. All this stuff is up for debate, anybody in the band can tell me if they don’t like anything, and then it is up to me if I’m open to that to not take it personally. I’ve learnt to do that because not everything I write is going to be amazing.
I like to think I’ve built the foundation, and then you bring people to decorate it, interior design, and all that good stuff that makes a house liveable and inviting. We’ve got a good crew at that, so Matt will come in and write melodies, and he is so good they just come to him, and I’m not discrediting him, and great motifs that are recognisable as a section of the song. A lot of those are him just feeling it out, I will play it to him one time, and he is like, sing it, and next thing he is playing the fiddle to it, and he is ripping it up. A lot of the time the first idea of what he has is what ends up sticking. I wouldn’t be able to do that, I don’t have that type of thinking, or that skill set with the guitar to apply that to the songs. It is really a group effort in that regard, though lyrically I write a lot of it. We are learning how to collaborate with each other, particularly in being vulnerable with your lyrics. If I’m writing about a personal experience in life, then I need to write that because I’ve lived the experience and I don’t think they could convey the message I am after. It is working out, and there are so many original songs that Will and I have that we have not recorded yet. There are a lot of albums to be recorded in the future, which is definitely good to have in the arsenal.
How easy has it been to find an audience for your hybrid music?
I love our crowd, you could bring your 90-year-old grandmother and she could stay until the end of the show, she might not like it, but we have had all ages. We’ve had two-year-old kids in the front row and the opposite from all different walks of life and our music can speak to lots of different people. Obviously, we have our hippy crowd and we do identify as a jamband and there are people who are out there partying and taking drugs in a respectful way. Our view is do what you do at our shows but in a respectful way, so be safe and don’t push it past your limits and be respectful of everyone else who is there. If you stay between those two things, I don’t care what you are doing at our shows. We also have people on the complete opposite spectrum to that, and everybody can come together. I like to think that in the two or three hours of the musical experience of our shows people don’t really need to give a shit what they are doing in their free time or where they are going home to. We exist in this room as a unit having this shared experience, and I think our music calls for that because it has a message of hope. Believe in yourself, whether we are talking about drug addiction, your broken family, or whatever it is, I like to put a little dash of hope on top so that when we get in these rooms it can even be therapeutic. My time on stage is therapeutic for me, so I like to think it can be for the audience if they have problems. I really hope that the Sicard Hollow crowd doesn’t become just this but has a range of people.
Do you have much to do with the traditional bluegrass community?
It can be cliquey, but we go to bluegrass jams all the time and I’m studying and trying to learn the traditional bluegrass and being a disciple of Tony Rice I’ve listened to all that shit. It is not disappointing to think some people may stick their noses up at what we are doing, and I’ve never experienced anything like that firsthand. I assume if they don’t like what they hear because we take extended solos and have an electric bass that he is slapping, and there are lots of other elements that make our music non-traditional, I would like to think they would just leave the show. If you go to a strictly tradition bluegrass festival, and they are still out there, you can expect something like that, but if you go to festivals with progressive bluegrass acts and what have you, you won’t get it. Pick your festivals and a lot of people who go to the more progressive festivals may not even listen to the traditional stuff. It is really a generational thing, and not wanting to rant about it, if that is how you feel that it is fine with me. I understand how it might seem like moving into somebody’s town and just saying I’m going to do things my way, shit we’ve been here for forty years why should we listen to you, haha. To do what we are doing to push the boundaries of the genre you have to respect the traditional side of bluegrass, the roots, and grounds of where it came from. That is all we can do, we play how we play unapologetically because that is how we learn and that is what we will continue to do. You have to pay homage to the guys who invented the stuff and who we are studying to learn how they played. If you’ve been to see us and didn’t like us, then you don’t have to ever come back, haha.
At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what they are listening to now, the top three artists, albums, or tracks on their playlist.
I’m obsessed with this band, and I can’t stop listening to them, Atta Boy, and their record ‘Big Heart Manners’, it is like psychedelic indie americana folk, and this girl’s voice is insane, it is beautiful chill music, with wonderful songwriting and a very nostalgic sound. They have just released a new record, ‘Crab Park’, and if anyone is interested, I would implore them to give it a listen. There is a girl I’ve been listening to who is more on the pop side called Lizzy McAlpine, she is pretty poppy which may surprise people, and she has just released a record called ‘Five Seconds Flat’ and I love it, I love all her music. I’ve also been listening to a metal band called Black Dahlia Murder, whose leader has just recently passed away, ‘Nocturnal’ is a great album. The last one is David Grisman’s and Tony Rice’s ‘The Gasoline Bothers’ which has just been released, it’s an old record, and Grisman and Rice were called The Gasoline Brothers because of how they could jam, like throwing gasoline on a fire. If you are into bluegrass, and even traditional stuff, I would highly recommend that, and it has one of the best versions of ‘Salt Creek’ I’ve ever heard.
Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers?
If you read this, please check out our music, and spread the word if you like it. We would love to come and play over there. Everything we write is from our hearts to yours, there is a lot of love and affection in there. Go in with an open mind and an open ear, and again, if you don’t like it then don’t listen to it. We would love you more if you did, but we will love you even if you don’t.
Sicard Hollow’s ‘Brightest of Days’ is out now on as an independent release.
>>> Please help to support the running costs of Americana UK, run by a dedicated team in our spare time, by donating £2 a month to us - we'll send you an exclusive 20 track curated playlist every month plus the opportunity to win our monthly giveaway. Click here for more information.