Experimentation is the key to success for Greensky Bluegrass
February 21, 2014
Mandolinist Paul Hoffman said the name of his band, Greensky Bluegrass, is a misnomer.
"We are very much a bluegrass band, but at the same time, not," Hoffman told The Park Record during a phone call from Columbus, Ohio. "Doing what we’ve been doing for so long and having such eclectic influences, we have our own ideas of what we want to do musically and what we want to achieve."
Those ideas don’t stem from what the band can do with our instruments, he said.
"It’s all about what we want to do with our instruments," Hoffman explained. "And that keeps it interesting, challenging and exciting."
Park City will get to experience the eclectic instrumentation of Greensky Bluegrass when it performs at Park City Live on Sunday, Feb. 23.
The current tour comes in the tail of an eventful 2013, when the band — Hoffman, guitarist Dave Bruzza, dobroist Anders Beck, bassist Mike Devol and banjoist Mike Bont — played more than 135 concerts including sold-out shows in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver and Portland, Ore.
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"We enjoyed last year and I think we’re good at being in the middle of the grind, playing shows," Hoffman said. "It sounds like a lot of shows, and we were away a long time from home and our loved ones, but it didn’t feel overwhelming."
Part of the reason is the band sees playing live as a selfless act.
"We sleep all day and then wake up to get ready for the show," Hoffman explained. "After we play the show, we go back to sleep and start the whole thing over.
"So I feel like I’m saving myself for the show every day," he said. "That’s seems to be my only priority, and we do whatever is necessary for the three hours we’re on stage."
Over the past few years, the Greensky musicians have seen and felt the rewards of their selflessness.
"We found ourselves playing small bars in neighborhoods and then return to these towns to play for sold-out audiences in theaters to 1,000 people," he said. "That has really humbled us."
Since the early 2000s, the Michigan-based quintet has recorded albums and toured across the country.
"It was really an informal start," Hoffman remembered. "We played a lot of open-mic shows for free beer in the beginning. That was kind of the goal back then."
Other goals included playing better, keeping current fans happy and gaining new fans.
"We also wanted to survive and eat well, but I don’t think when we got into my [Toyota] 4Runner with all our instruments and the upright bass and drove down to West Virginia and North Carolina, that we would be able to quit our day jobs," he said.
"We were just trying to make it work and come home without losing money and survive, and here we are, so many years later, still doing this. And, it is working."
Hoffman turned to the mandolin after playing guitar for a few years.
"I was a big Beatles fan growing up and they steered me into the musical direction," he said. "I began playing the guitar as an accompaniment to singing."
One night after he finished high school, Hoffman saw the David Grisman Quintet.
Grisman, known also as "Dawg," has played with the Grateful Dead and numerous live shows with the late Jerry Garcia.
"He inspired me to buy a mandolin," Hoffman said. "Listening to him, Sam Bush and the Seldom Seen, I tried to figure out what bluegrass and the mandolin meant in the whole scheme of things."
During that time, Hoffman attended concerts by the jam-band Phish.
"They made a big impression on my life about what a live concerts should be like," he said. "And I kept those ideas in my mind."
These days, Hoffman listens to everything.
"I don’t choose one genre over another, but I do listen to more rock and roll than anything," he said.
Greensky Bluegrass is in the midst of recording a new album, the follow-up to the 2011 release, "Handguns."
"We have to schedule time within the tour to lay down tracks," Hoffman said. "We took 10 days off of touring to go into the studio just to get it done."
The band approached the new album similar to "Handguns," meaning the band recorded in the same studio and self-produced the songs.
"The difference is that with every record, we give ourselves more time to record," Hoffman said. "That gives us the opportunity to experiment and try new things."
Greensky Bluegrass entered the studio with a lot of undecided musical ideas.
"We let the studio breed and develop the tunes this time," Hoffman said. "I think that translated to a cool and eclectic album, because there are many different musical feelings and tempos."
Experimenting over the years has led Hoffman to believe that it doesn’t matter what bluegrass is.
"For a long time, we didn’t tell people we were a bluegrass band, because we didn’t want them to think we played twangy music, but now we’re not really concerned about that," he said. "Some of the songs we play are bluegrassy and some of them aren’t."
Greensky Bluegrass will perform at Park City Live, 427 Main St., on Sunday, Feb. 23, at 8:30 p.m. Advance tickets are $20 and available by visiting http://www.parkcitylive.net.
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