Paul Hoffman has a real appreciation for sunny, warm-weather days here in Michigan. The singer/mandolin player for Kalamazoo’s Greensky Bluegrass hasn’t let the long Michigan winters – or hard economic times – darken his perspective, despite what some music writers elsewhere in the country might say, especially in reaction to the band’s latest album, 2011’s Handguns. No, he and the band have just done what they’ve always done from their very beginning back in 2000: They’re kept playing and kept getting bigger and better. Understanding themselves more now as performers, players, and songwriters, the five-piece (made up of Hoffman, guitarist Dave Bruzza, banjoist Mike Bont, upright bassist Mike Devol, and Dobro player Anders Beck) has continued to build on their individual and collective strengths show by show. Together they’ll kick off their summer at Bell’s two-night Beer Garden Opener June 7-8, as well as perform at this year’s Electric Forest Festival June 27-30, where they were rained out by a thunderstorm back in 2011. On a particularly pleasant May afternoon, Hoffman talked more with Recoil about Greensky’s long history with Bell’s, their upcoming fifth album they just finished in the studio and have slated for this fall, and how they’ve grown into their new lives on the road.
Recoil: So just to jump right in, how excited are you guys about playing Bell’s two-night Beer Garden Opener [June 7-8]?
Paul Hoffman: Oh, it’s always really exciting, man. It’s going to be the ninth year we’ve done it. I don’t think we’ve done two nights, but I’m excited. We’ve got the time off before to rehearse for it and stuff, so I’m really, really excited.
R: With how long of a history you guys have playing at Bell’s, what does it mean to you as a band every time you have a chance to play there?
PH: It’s fun, being able to come from home, and go home [after the show]. It’s sort of a different show dynamic than what we normally do, and in a lot of ways our fans in Michigan are different than they are in the rest of the country, just as people and as fans. Like it’s different for us, when we’re on tour, we’re sort of like servicing our fans – which sounds kind of under-romanticized, it’s far more awesome than that – but when we’re at home we kind of feel a little bit more loose to do whatever we want to do. And I don’t know if that speaks to our fans [here] needing less, or being willing to listen, or whatever, but I think it’s because they’ve seen us doing everything, including suck ten years ago, so… You know we did a pair of Bell’s shows a couple of years ago, or last year, where we did one show all covers, because we had never done that in Kalamazoo, and we’d never really done that except for a Halloween show, or a festival set that’s specifically advertised that way. So we just out of the blue did it, and then encored with an original. And then the next time we came back, we did an all original show, which we’ve never done, either. We’ve never done. And there were people commenting to me that were at both shows who were like, ‘That was so cool and different!’ It’s stuff like that, that makes it feel like… If we did that in San Francisco, it might get a little more national attention, or it might get written up in some of the media outlets, but that’s not really why we were doing it. We save the special stuff for the home team.
R: With people coming up and talking to you about those shows, do you still feel the same sort of connection to the community here in Kalamazoo, even now that you’re spending so much time touring and playing all over the country?
PH: Yeah, totally. And that’s what makes it so different. When we’re playing at Bell’s, all the people are my friends, and I have a lot of friends in other towns as well, but these are the people that I drink beer with when I’m at another show, and all my friends that I invite over to my house when I’m cooking. It can be weird to think that all the people in the crowd who have paid to see us are friends who I’d play for them for free in their backyard or something, like it wouldn’t even matter to me. We’ve got to make a living, obviously, but it’s a different dynamic. And the [Beer] Garden Opener is particularly exciting just because it’s bigger, of course, and we’ve talked so many times over the years about doing our own festival thing, and over the last couple of years I really feel like this is our festival. For now, it’s one of them. It’s our first one, I guess. Just because it’s kind of a destination for some out of town fans, although it’s not like music all day and camping on-site, like people have come to expect with a festival, I really feel like that weekend in Kalamazoo is so exciting. It’s nice out, it’s the Art Fair, it’s the Art Hop, it’s booming. [There’s] sidewalk sales. Everyone that lives in Kalamazoo is outside. Everybody that lives in Cooper and Mattawan come to Kalamazoo on Saturday afternoon, like it’s a big day. We have bands fly in from Colorado, or Vermont, and they’re like, ‘Wow, your town’s really cool!’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, this is the most exciting weekend to live in this town!’
R: What has it meant to you to continue to call Kalamazoo home, and to have your roots here?
PH: I love Kalamazoo. I’ve been to a lot of communities and a lot of cities, only for very brief amounts of time, so it’s hard to really say that I’ve got a feel for the community or something, but I’ve been to a lot of places that I might rather live for sort of aesthetic reasons, like access to water or more restaurants or something like that. But all my friends and family are here, and people that I, at this point, have invested a lot of my life having fun and growing up with, and you know, I can’t speak for my wife who lives here with me, but I travel so much for a living, my desire to live in a place that’s got some of those other things that we don’t have here has really dwindled. And when I’m here it’s more about being in my home, and going to Food Dance [Café] where I worked for nine years and seeing my friends there, and just really being with the people. As I look outside right now, it’s a gorgeous day in Kalamazoo today. People that live in Michigan in general know what it’s like to endure the gray harsh for four or five months and that the reward is worth it. Today is one of those days outside.
R: On the flip side of that, since you guys still write music here and still reside here, how would you say Kalamazoo, or Michigan, still influences you as songwriters and musicians?
PH: I think inevitably, I think in terms of my songwriting the road has a really big influence, and I tend to write a lot about sort of my experience and the struggles or just the disconnect or the story of being out there and like really putting your ass on the line every night. A lot of people have written that our music has this Midwest feel to it, somehow like this Rust Belt honesty or something, and sort of on the last album or two I’ve written a lot of songs that speak to the sort of common man’s blue collar struggle to survive as everyone’s being laid off and homes aren’t worth shit. So I think people maybe interpret that as I’m writing about Detroit, or like Flint, or Kalamazoo, or something like that, but in those cases those things are on my mind, those bigger pictures. I try to make my writing sort of like about how I personify something in myself or someone else that can be a bigger thing, and you know they’re like, ‘Oh that song sounds like it’s about Detroit and how much they’re struggling,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, I wrote that about a bad tour.’ [Laughs] So I don’t know. I think it has an influence in some ways, but I don’t know if I’d be different if I lived somewhere else. It’s tough to really wrap my brain around that.
R: What has been the biggest challenge to devoting so much of your life, like half of a year or more every year, for the past ten years, to being out on the road?
PH: I think the biggest challenge has really just been being away from home. It gets long and repetitive sometimes. Like I’ve noticed [it] on the last couple of tours. We used to go out, there was like a grander sense of adventure, we were like hitting the open road and seeing what we could find. [Laughs] And it’s still sort of that way, but now that we’re a little bit more professional, a little bit more dialed in, some of that sense of adventure has changed. Like before, when we would be on tour, there would be a slow night every now and then where we wouldn’t be so pressured to play the most awesome, high-energy show we could. And it sounds like we’re sort of coping out. And we always try to play the awesomest show we can, but it was nice to have this sort of sleeper show every now and again where there’s only like twenty people there and we can mess around a little bit. And now, it gets really intense. Four weeks in a row, five, six nights a week. Like looking out before we go on and seeing hundreds of people ready to throw down just as hard as the people did last night, and the day before. And we’ve got to muster up that feeling to entertain, because for us, it’s not like a play or something where we’re just playing this role and just going out there and performing. It’s something that’s really real, and when we’re making music, and it gets cool and exciting, we’re excited about it, and we think it’s cool. I find that that struggle to conjure that feeling, and to go out there and go, ‘Oh God, here we go again…’ It’s only like a preemptive feeling. So it’s like the time between shows that it drags and gets daunting, but the moment we start playing and people start getting into it, it’s like over. The thought of like, ‘Is tonight going to be OK?’ is just like gone. It’s almost like stage fright, kind of, not that I’m afraid to go out and perform, it’s like I’m afraid that I’m not going to be as awesome as I was last night. But then as soon as it starts, it’s like, ‘Boom. Oh yeah, this is what we do.’
R: Has there become something of a seesaw internally then, as things have kept picking up for you, for you to continue to play as many things and places as you can, while still making sure you’re doing what you need to for yourself?
PH: We’ve been sort of cutting shows every year for the last couple years. We play about five or ten shows less every year, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’ve also like made the tours a little bit more efficient. We almost always play five nights a week now, which is kind of our number. More than that, the sixth show gets a little difficult. But we do it, though, if math dictates we should and the math just makes sense. And we try not to play on Mondays, because no one likes to go out on Mondays. [Laughs] But you know in the beginning we couldn’t play that many shows in a week because we couldn’t fill it. It was just like we couldn’t get that many gigs because we were in that stage where we were trying to get as many gigs as we could, so we would go on tour and there would be more nights off, too. So what 165 shows looks like two years ago is a lot different than what 165 shows looks like five years ago as far as time away from home. And we’re moving towards a different touring model that allows us to be home for greater lengths of time, which has been really cool We’ve had a couple windows so far this year where we’ve been home for two weeks at a time, and we went years without doing that. The only time we had more than two weeks off in a row, for the first time in like eight years, was maybe a year ago in May. And since then we’ve done it again a couple of times, and that’s just been a really refreshing change. And we’re thankful to our fans for giving us that success, because it’s the success of each individual show that allows us to put them farther apart.
R: You guys are a sort of success story for building a fan base the old-fashioned way, show by show. Do you think that’s something that’s lost on new bands coming up who don’t understand the importance of putting in that grueling road work?
PH: I see some other bands out there that get it. You know, when I look back… Recently I’ve been reflecting on it a lot because we had a band that went out on tour with us that are friends of ours, and it was their first time on the East Coast everywhere, and they’re like in a van and the van broke down, and they’re like crashing on some floors and things like that, and I look back and think about what we did to really get where we’re at. And looking back, I realized there wasn’t a lot of thought put into it, per se. We were just doing what we needed to do next, and we had a greater plan for five steps ahead as we were going. But I don’t really remember a lot of points where we just didn’t do what needed to be done. It wasn’t like we didn’t have a choice, but it was more like, ‘We just did a West Coast tour in October. Now we’ll have to come back in March or April.’ And it was like, ‘OK, that makes sense.’ [Laughs] And then we just did that, over and over again, for the last eight years.
R: Now there’s so much emphasis on digital downloading, and having so much music available to people online immediately, and I know you guys had some of your music available online for free, but it still seems like you’d rather people’s first exposure to Greensky Bluegrass be at a live show. Do you feel that’s the best way to first discover your music?
PH: Uh, not necessarily. That’s actually a really interesting question. No one’s really ever asked me that before. I think because of the way the band is, and our live shows are pretty exploratory and different, and they’re all very unique, that there’s certainly some importance to what the band does live and experiencing it. But as the band has grown, I think that our studio presence, and our song content has sort of taken us to a new level on that campaign. And I know that some of our fans aren’t as into the studio type thing, like they’ll come to eight shows a year, but they don’t really listen to our studio albums, or something. I think they can go the complete other way too. I think people can discover our records and fall in love with the songs, and then come see us live and hear the songs they love and sort of become part of the energy that’s in the room. Either way, really, works. I hope people can discover it from satellite radio and our studio records, because we’re just about to put out a new studio record, and that’s always the goal to reach new people.
R: I want to get to the new record, but I also want to talk a little about how you’ve been able to reach a lot of new people through all the festivals you’ve played over the years, like Telluride [Bluegrass Festival in Colorado June 20, where the band got one of their first big breaks winning the fest’s band competition in 2006], obviously, or Electric Forest [Festival here in West Michigan June 27-30]. How big of a role do you feel like playing at festivals have been to building your fan base and your success?
PH: The festival thing is really important, and during the course of our career it’s really grown a lot. Looking back together to before we were playing all these multi-music festivals, or multi-genre festivals, I don’t think so many existed. You know like Bonnaroo just had their tenth year and we’ve been touring for eight-ish [years]. It wasn’t as popular to play them [before now] and I think it’s totally awesome. I really am grateful for the type of band that I’m in when we get to do these things because we really get to cross over to so many different places. You know the two that you mentioned, Telluride being a pretty contemporary bluegrass-ish type thing. We fit in great there. That’s our bread and butter home base, and that’s exactly where we belong as far as a festival lineup goes. And then Electric Forest we’re a really unique side of the coin at that one, a very small percentage of what’s going on there, but totally appropriate and it gives us the opportunity to be exposed to a bunch of people who might not think they would like our band, or wouldn’t seek us out. And it gives us a chance to play to a lot of different types of fans and really kind of well-round the band. Not that we’re trying to appease the greater whole at some sacrifice to ourselves, but we truly are a crossover band that your grandma could love, that your heavy metal brother-in-law could love, that your Beatle-loving mom could love… like it really works for everybody because we’re sort of incorporating so many different pieces.
R: What do you remember from your first Electric Forest experience?
PH: [Laughs] That we only got to play for twelve minutes because the lightning storm ruined the party. Waiting onstage for ninety minutes waiting to play. That sucked. Oh well. Nobody’s fault really. I remember feeling extremely flattered, and moved, by all the people standing there in the rain and screaming for like ninety minutes waiting for us to start again, which we were not able to do, because the schedule wouldn’t allow it, and it gets complicated, and nobody’s to blame but the weather. But boy I was flattered. The moments still really move me when I see what people are willing to do to watch the band and that’s something that feels important and amazing to me. I mean I think our music’s great and we work really hard for it to be that way, but when I’m reminded how much it means to someone else; it’s a really powerful thing.
R: You’re also going to be playing Red Rocks [Amphitheatre in Colorado with Railroad Earth] this summer [July 12]. What does it mean to you as a band to be playing there?
PH: Yeah, man, it’s just hard to believe that it’s happening. I mean we worked really hard to get there, and it’s sort of a prestigious merit badge. And you know even more than being invited to do something like that… Like we recently played The Fillmore in San Francisco, and when we got the offer to do it and we talked about doing it, it was really scary and really flattering, but then to go do it, and to succeed and to almost sell it out, was like, ‘Whoa! This thing that I was afraid to do because I thought was bigger than us was actually just right.’ When you combine how amazed I was that we were getting to actually play The Fillmore and how afraid I was with the success that it was, it’s just like, ‘Whoa!’ I feel like an outsider looking at it and just being overwhelmed.
R: Did you have that same sort of outsider reaction when your latest album, Handguns, went to Number 3 on Billboard’s Bluegrass chart [in 2011]?
PH: Yeah. You know I was happy with that. We did something different and more mainstream with that record in terms of the process with which it’s released, and we gave half of it away [online for free] a couple of months before. We really tried to play the record game, so to speak, which is a weird game. It’s all about how many people buy it the day it comes out, and it’s all about anticipation, and sometimes it’s not about how great the record is, it’s just about how highly anticipated it is. But that being said, that was really flattering. It was like, ‘Wow, something serious is happening here with this record.’ We got a lot of praise for it, and I wrote a lot of those songs over the course of like two years, so that was a big chunk of my life that I poured my creative soul into, so for it to be so well-received was just really flattering.
R: Coming back around to the new record you mentioned you just finished working on. How different did want that to be from Handguns? Did you set to head in a different direction?
PH: Not exactly, actually. We sort of equate it to the next step, and farther, as opposed to different. It’s sort of misleading to say it’s the same thing. That sounds lazy, or just wrong, I don’t know. But we sort of did. [Laughs] We went to the same studio and used a lot of the same methods, but the material speaks to a different place, and there’s some different arranging, and we did some different things as a band than we’ve done on other past records, and we made some choices musically that we haven’t done before. The last record was really educating for us, it was the first one that we self-produced, and we started learning a lot while we were doing it, and taking our time to make choices, and hearing the different options available to us, and we just did more of that this time, but with the palette of all the stuff we learned from last time.
R: I know that thematically Handguns had some darker themes to it, both in the music and in the lyrical content. Do you feel like this album, in comparison, will be more upbeat?
PH: [Laughs] Uhh, no. There’s a couple lighter tunes. Not many. [Laughs] I don’t do well in that writing style. I don’t spend a lot of time with, as a writer, the joy songs. It’s weird to put it so frankly, but I’ve heard writers equate it to our Midwest lifestyle, and that kind of goes back to what I was talking about earlier. But I have a hard time saying that, because it feels too bleak to me. It’s like it’s because I live in the Midwest in this winter for four months with no sunshine that I write bleak sad songs, and if I lived in the mountains where it’s sunny all the time, and I was just bumming around outside that I would write happy songs. I just don’t really believe that, honestly. [Laughs] It could be true, I don’t know. I sort of see music as like a blues thing, like it’s a form of catharsis, and sometimes saying the painful thing that’s really hard to say in a song, that’s one of my strong suits in songwriting. That’s why my lyrics are, like, I can’t believe I’d say it like that and just put it out there and say something that’s so obvious, and so bleak, it like helps heal the wound. You know, it’s like once you say it, and acknowledge it, even if it’s really bad, it’s actually an enlightening healing process. Maybe we need to start covering “Walking on Sunshine” or something. [Laughs]
R: How does it feel to be taking some of these new songs and be playing them for the first time out at some of these summer shows?
PH: I’m excited. A couple of the tunes we’ve already played live, so we’ll be featuring those. We’ve started talking about what the festival sets are going to look like. You know, as a band we sort of carve out the most important main thing, the best representation of the band right now for the festivals. Like when we play main stage at Telluride we’re probably not going to play a kick-backed original song from 2004 just to make the set different. We just won’t. When we play whole shows we’ll do stuff like that. We mix it up and do a little of everything. But it should be interesting to see how the summer plays together. We’ll probably start playing one of the songs from the album and we’ll start pushing it as a single that we haven’t played yet. And it’s a really sweet song, so I’m really excited to play it for people. It’s cool, it’s a hard-rockin’ U2-esque bluegrass piece, and I’m super excited to play it. We’ve been sound-checking it for like four months. [Laughs]
Greensky Bluegrass will play both nights of Bell’s Beer Garden Opener June 7-8, and perform at the Electric Forest Festival June 27-30. For more, click over to greenskybluegrass.com.