CMG: David, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to talk with Chicago Music Guide.
CMG: You are one of the founding members of Greensky Bluegrass, The band formed almost two decade ago in Kalamazoo MI. Could you give our readers a bit of background on how you, Paul Hoffman and Michael Bont met?
DB: Actually, Mike Bont and I met in 1997, he was a guitar player and I was a drummer. Shortly after that a friend of mine gave me a guitar, and the joke was that if I played guitar, I would play Bluegrass. So Mike and I began playing open mic’s around 2000, and that’s how we met Paul who was going to Western Michigan at the time, and the three of us started playing together and that’s how we learned to play bluegrass. None of us were playing instruments that we started out on. We were just doing something for fun.
CMG: So Bluegrass is an adopted genre for you?
DB: Well, it was something we would all listen to. We all found it through the Grateful Dead and always enjoyed it very much. It as a way to learn about it and play. We played open mic’s for a couple of years and then Bell’s Brewery every week.
CMG: The band expanded to five, adding a Bass and Dobro guitar, giving it’s present configuration.
DB: Yes, around 2005, I think that’s pretty accurate we got a bass player. The band as it is now, with the five of us, has been around since 2007
CMG: Do the newest band members have background in Bluegrass/Americana?
DB: Yes Anders Beck, (our Dobro player) was in a band called the Wayward Sons in Colorado, and he played in a lot of bluegrass bands and Mike Devol our bass player was a classically trained cellist, who originally wanted to help us, like promote shows and such, but we needed a bass player so he learned to play bass.
CMG: Which artists were instrumental in determining a direction for you personally? For the band?
DB: Back when we were starting out, I listened to the Seldom Scene quite a bit. That is one major influence. I think the biggest influence in my life was the Grateful Dead, as cliche as that may be. That was something that was very eye opening for me. My uncle took me to some Grateful Dead shows in the early nineties in Chicago, actually at Soldier Field a few times. That was huge. I remember seeing a bluegrass band in the parking lot. My uncle noticed I really liked it and turned me on to Old & In The Way. From there, I kind of go backwards, discovering Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Red Allen and all those guys.
CMG: Creating new material is essential for visibility. Which band member(s) are most responsible for writing original songs?
DB: We all decide together. We all have such diverse musical tastes and that’s something that shines through our music over the years. We really don’t want to put ourselves into a box even though our name has bluegrass in it, it’s kind of a joke for a name. We challenge each other quite a bit and we inspire each other even more. It’s kind of nice to not say “this is what we do, just how we’re playing it,” but always keep exploring, trying new things. None of us has ever been scared or shied away from experimentation.
CMG: creating new material is extremely important in keeping yourselves in front of your fans. Which members are most instrumental in writing new songs?
DB: In most cases Paul writes the most and I write the second most, but as a band we create the songs together, and we arranged the songs together and bounce ideas from one another. So it’s definitely a collective effort from the beginning of the song to the end of a Greensky song would every member really contributing.
CMG: Because your blending of bluegrass and rock elements, you have been described as rockers in disguise. How do you feel about that label?
DB:I like it, I like it a lot. I tend to tell people that were just really a rock band. People come to our shows and we have a very intense light show and we’re very loud for a bluegrass band. We use these effects and we rock! We all come from that rock ‘n roll background instead of bluegrass. And as I said before we never wanted to put ourselves into a box or category, we just want to play music that makes us feel good. Music that makes people feel good. We like the fact that people connect with our lyrics and our songs. It’s a very reciprocal arrangement with our fan base.
CMG: Great to see! I see so many bands withdraw from their fans and isolate them.
DB: It’s a community. It’s really humbling and exciting to know that around our music a community has been built and people have formed lifelong friendships because they come to see our band and continue to see our band all over the country. And again, for lack of better words, it is humbling and really special to see the community grow around what we do and we’re as much of it as the fans are because without them we’re just a couple guys playing music. The big thing is the community.
CMG: Early in your professional life, you were an aspiring Luthier. What made you decide to stop building guitars to begin playing them full time?
DB: I was given a choice, I worked for a guy named Jake Robinson of Robinson Guitars that was in Kalamazoo at the time. Greensky began playing more and more, and one day I came to work and my toolbox was by the front door. Jake had a talk with me and told me ‘there’s a point where you either have to play them or build them’. We’re still great friends, it’s not a rift or anything. It was just a moment in life where I had to make a choice. I think I was better at playing them then building them anyway.
CMG How many guitars do you own? Are you a collector?
DB: I do collect guitars, yes. Earlier this year I decided to do an Instagram thing where I was posting about my guitars, talked about what songs I’ve written on them and what these guitars mean to me in my life. I have quite a few. Currently I’m doing a direct thing with the Santa Cruz Guitar Company in Santa Cruz California and that’s what I mainly play on stage. I think they make some of the finest guitars around. I think I have four Santa Cruz guitars currently, in fact they’re finishing up one of those today and I should have it by next week.
CMG: Do you have a favorite instrument? Is there one that is just magic in your hands?
DB: Oh yeah! It’s a Santa Cruz Vintage Southerner guitar I picked up in 2012. I no longer play it on stage as it’s been damaged several times in transit.
CMG: How many different instruments do you personally use during a typical performance?
DB: Only one for the full set. It’s also a Santa Cruz. I travel with one additional back up instrument.
CMG: Do you consider yourselves as ambassadors bringing bluegrass to the masses?
DB. Yes. I think a lot of people will come to see us and then go searching for more bluegrass
CMG: The band now has six studio albums under their belt with a new one, “All for Money” going to hit early next year, January 18, I believe. Just listened to the track “Do it Alone”. Amazing! Can’t wait to hear the other songs on the album!
CMG: You tour quite extensively. You are closing out the year at the Riviera Theater in Chicago on December 28-31, and with more shows well into 2019. That requires dedication and sacrifice. How do you try to balance work vs. life, family etc?
DB. I don’t see it as sacrifice since we’re doing what we love. I still get to spend time with my family and my dog. I have a very supportive wife.
CMG: Any thought of taking the tour out of the country, to perhaps Europe?
DB: By all means. We’ve already played Fuji Rock Festival in Japan and looking forward to others outside the US.
Chicago Music Guide would once again like to extend its thanks to you and your management for making this interview possible. Wishing you continued success and looking forward to seeing Greensky Bluegrass live in concert at The Riviera later this month!
Biography: After 18 years together, up to 175 shows per year, nearly 1,000 different setlists, six studio albums, and a litany of live releases, Greensky Bluegrass embodies more than just music for members Anders Beck [dobro], Michael Arlen Bont [banjo], Dave Bruzza [guitar], Mike Devol [upright bass], and Paul Hoffman [Mandolin]. Truthfully, it embodies an ironclad creative bond, familial brotherhood, and a lifelong commitment to fans. At this point, it goes without saying the band means everything (and more) to the Kalamazoo, MI bluegrass mavericks.
So, with a wink and a smile, they offer up a cleverly titled seventh full-length, All For Money, in 2019.
Hoffman dispels the obvious first: “Clearly, we aren’t a band all for money. We did it for romantic reasons such as love, catharsis, and because it mattered to us and the listeners. We wanted to have fun with the paradox of the title though. We’re truly blessed and humbled to have our dreams come true and do what we do. However, it would be easy to make decisions based on our needs to eat or the desires of others, but that’s not doing it for love. We love what we do, and we’re grateful for the love we receive in return from the people listening.”
As time goes on, the guys continue to do things for the “right reasons,” and that mindset resonates louder and louder amongst a growing fan base. A live force of nature renowned for bringing rock ‘n’ roll showmanship to high-energy bluegrass, the group has sold out hallowed venues such as Red Rocks Amphitheatre and the legendary Ryman Auditorium in addition to igniting stages everywhere from Bonnaroo and New Orleans Jazz Festival to Austin City Limits and Outside Lands. Their unpredictable performances remain the stuff of legend attracting diehard devotees who typically travel far and wide to experience multiple gigs. In 2014, If Sorrows Swim bowed at #1 on the Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums Chart, while the 2016 follow-up Shouted, Written Down & Quoted cracked the Top 3. Along the way, they have also earned praise from Billboard, AXS, Westword, and more.
On All For Money, Greensky once again aimed to progress. This time around, the musicians kept the show top of mind as they composed the music.
“We have a motto where we want every show to be harder, better, longer, and faster,” admits Hoffman. “With All For Money, I felt like we were serving the performance more by writing and arranging material in a way we would intend to play it on stage. We tried to incorporate a lot of what we already do live, which is different for us in the studio.”
They recorded March-May at Echo Mountain Sound in Asheville, NC. In the studio, they worked with longtime friend Dominic John Davis as producer. According to Hoffman, Davis offered a fresh perspective on “how to balance the studio and concerts.” Amplifying the sonic palette, signatures such as dobro tone, bass grooves, and banjo took the spotlight.
The first single “Do It Alone” feels equally at home on a festival stage as it does blaring through your soundsystem. Backed by a robust groove, the song transforms traditional bluegrass instrumentation into a rich sonic backdrop highlighted by a mandolin awash in a trio of effects as well as rich echoed vocals and emotive lyrics.
“I’d been trying to write a windows-down rock ‘n’ roll tune for a while,” explains Hoffman. “I got out an old guitar of mine, re-strung it, and immediately spit the song out. It’s meant to be an anthem. I ask myself, ‘Why do I do it alone?’ It’s because I’ve got a whole room of thousands singing at the top of their lungs with me. Whenever I write something emotional that might be difficult to sing, I’m reminded of the fact the crowd is there. Hopefully, it’s a reminder for other people as well and we all have something to chant together.”
Hot on its heels, the intriguing and irresistible “Murder of Crows” takes flight on kinetic performances as it delivers an emotionally charged message and provocative narrative. “This is a song that Aaron and I wrote about disconnection, drifting apart, loss, and remorse,” Dave Bruzza reveals. “It also touches on a cry for help and how it was not heard in time. A friend told me crows had funerals. He explained that farmers used to nail a crow to the fence or barn door to get rid of them eating the crops. Thee birds would gather, pay their respects, and fly off never to return. It was interesting. I began to think why people disappear in our lives. It came together with the mysterious letter someone received, and it all made sense to turn this into a story.”
Also originally penned by Bruzza, “It’s Not Mine Anymore”’ illustrates the group’s virtuosity with a “metal” spirit. Elsewhere, “Wish I Didn’t Know” hinges on a trance-y Mandolin passage that proves instantly hypnotic, and “Do Harm” taps into an upbeat bounce by way of an an off-kilter rhythm. Meanwhile, the title track spirals into psychedelic territory during a head-spinning two-minute midsection before culminating on an important statement.
“It feels liberating to be honest about it,” he remarks. “With the title track, we were asking more of the listeners than we ever have, but the line ‘If you need a voice, I’m yours friend’ is meant for them.”
In the end, all the right reasons continue to drive Greensky Bluegrass.
“As songwriters and musicians, we have a need for people to be on board, and we’re not just regurgitating the same shit,” he leaves off. “We’re pushing ourselves every time. I hope they want to listen to the record and hear the songs live. I hope they know we’re doing this for us and them.”
2018 Tour Dates:
December 28 – Chicago, IL – The Riviera Theatre #
December 29 – Chicago, IL – The Riviera Theatre #
December 30 – Chicago, IL – The Riviera Theatre %
December 31 – Chicago, IL – The Riviera Theatre – “Three Sets of Greensky Bluegrass”
*w/ The Lil Smokies
^w/ Lindsay Lou
#w/ The Jeff Austin Band
% w/ Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
ALL FOR MONEY WINTER TOUR 2019
January 10 – Albany, NY – Palace Theatre *
January 11 – Philadelphia, PA – The Met Philadelphia *
January 12 – New York, NY – Beacon Theatre *
January 16 – Covington, KY – Madison Theater *
January 17 – Nashville, TN – Ryman Auditorium *
January 18 – St. Louis, MO – The Pageant *
January 19 – Atlanta, GA – Tabernacle *
January 22 – St. Petersburg, FL – Jannus Landing Terrace ^
January 23 – Charleston, SC – Charleston Music Hall ^
January 24 – Knoxville, TN – The Mill & Mine ^
January 25 – Raleigh, NC – The Ritz ^
January 26 – Charlotte, NC – The Fillmore Charlotte ^
January 29 – Portland, ME – State Theatre #
January 30 – Boston, MA – House of Blues #
January 31 – Jim Thorpe, PA – Penn’s Peak ^
February 1 – Washington, DC – The Anthem #
February 2 – Washington DC – The Anthem #
February 5 – Cleveland, OH – House of Blues #
February 6 – Columbus, OH – Express Live! #
February 7 – Pittsburgh, PA – Stage AE #
February 8 – Detroit, MI – The Fillmore Detroit ^
February 9 – Detroit, MI – The Fillmore Detroit ^
*w/ Circles Around the Sun
#w/ Billy Strings