“We take a lot from a bunch of different genres of music and add them into our own arrangements while writing songs that aren’t straight bluegrass.”
Greensky Bluegrass have been putting their own spin on the timeless musical style for more than 20 years. They often incorporate various elements from other kinds of music into their own and in turn it’s made them grow into one of the premier bluegrass bands on the planet.
They also have various effects and lights accompanying their performances on stage, which is fairly uncommon for bands of similar nature. People will get to see those effects, lights, and a whole lot more when Greensky Bluegrass performs at the MGM Music Hall at Fenway on Jan. 20. Local jam band superstars Neighbor will kick off the show at 7:30pm.
I had spoke with banjo player and co-vocalist Michael Bont from the band ahead of the show about how it all started at an open mic, what gravitated him to his chosen instrument, the band’s most recent album, a festival they have going on this summer, and other plans for the coming months.
Greensky Bluegrass initially formed in the fall of 2000 by guitarist Dave Bruzza, yourself and mandolinist Paul Hoffman during an open mic night in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Was it a thing you guys used to frequent before the band started or was it sort of a one-time thing before you guys had the idea to be in a band?
Dave and I played it a couple times as just the two of us, but during the third or fourth time we did it Paul approached us, told us that he just got a mandolin and he really liked David Grisman. He asked if he could come play with us sometime and we obliged, actually the next day we had a gettogether at my house where he came and played with us. He didn’t know much about bluegrass at the time so we gave him a Bill Monroe CD and a Sam Bush CD. He then listened to them and he got the idea to do the bluegrass style back chop that the mandolin is so famous for. It just started out as the two of us and Paul out of nowhere approached us, I guess it was meant to be.
How did you start playing the banjo? Is it the first instrument you learned how to play or did you get around to it after playing other string instruments?
My first instrument was actually the trumpet, I started playing the trumpet in the third grade and then I started playing guitar when I was 10. In high school, I kind of got away from the trumpet and I was playing guitar in a punk rock band. When I got into college is actually when I started playing banjo, I think I was 24 or 25 when I first started playing it. I was really drawn to the hypnotic and rhythmic nature of the instrument. I’d gone to see a show where this band Great Lakes Grass was playing at Bell’s in Kalamazoo and their banjo player was really good, he actually currently builds all my banjos for me and we still keep in touch and hang out.
I was drawn to the sound, I was a big Deadhead at the time and I knew that Jerry [Garcia] played the banjo too. I started practicing and all I did for about a year was work and play banjo until I finally figured out how to do the rolls and really make the banjo sound like a banjo because it’s not as easy as you think it is.
That’s what I’ve heard from people that play it. It can take some getting used to, especially with the different techniques and various ways of playing it so it can be hard to get those down. Nearly a year ago, you guys released your latest album Stress Dreams with Glenn Brown handling the producing, recording, mixing and mastering. How did you get linked up with him for the album and what was the entire experience like making it?
Glenn has actually been an old friend of ours, he also mastered both our second and third albums for us after we recorded them with our buddies Ian Gorman and John Campos. He was just doing the mastering process for us on those albums and then eventually a couple years later we started recording with him at his studio in East Lansing [Michigan]. We recorded two albums there before heading to Echo Mountain Recording in Asheville [North Carolina], where we recorded three other albums or something like that. He’s kind of been our engineer for the whole time and the process with him is great, he knows how we operate and he knows how to get the best out of us when we’re in the studio which is really important when you’re working with a producer/engineer.
What do you think has evolved the most with Greensky Bluegrass since you, Dave and Paul started the band back in 2000 in terms of growth, how you manage yourselves or even the way you collaborate?
Mainly, I think it’s just our sound. The way that we’ve developed our own sound is very “greensky” I guess is the word I’d use for it. We started off with a very traditional style of bluegrass and over the period of a few albums, I always feel that our fourth album Handguns really established our sound. It’s been this process of creating in a way that we take a lot from a bunch of different genres of music and adding them into our own arrangements while writing songs that aren’t straight bluegrass.
Obviously our fanbase has increased and we’ve earned our stripes so to speak through rigorous touring over the years. I feel like the biggest thing is our own sound, even with our own particular instruments. From my standpoint, nobody really plays banjo quite like I do and it’s very recognizable which I think is kind of what you’re going for to get a signature sound.
Absolutely. You guys just announced this festival you’re doing called Camp Greensky that’s happening at Eldborg Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland from June 3 – 5. Is this your first time doing this? What’s the story behind this festival? It seems really unique, especially with the location.
We got asked by a few people there to come over and play and there’s a studio over there called Floki Studios that had an interest in having us. The idea was to maybe do some recording at Floki while also playing some shows over there. We kind of wanted to give people a reason to come see us beyond us playing there so we added Holly Bowling who plays with us a lot on piano and she’s amazing as well as our old friends Fruition, Neighbor, and The Lil’ Smokies. I look at it as kind of like a field trip, it gives us the opportunity to go someplace different, play and perhaps even gain fans in a different country and also just to see the world. Being a musician, you grow keen to the notion of traveling and if you don’t it might not be the right line of work for you.
It’s a way for us to travel, see someplace new, create some new fans and obviously bring people with us from the States that are of similar interests. The concert hall we’re playing at looks really, really cool and also it’s Iceland. I don’t know if you have an Apple TV or not but I like when they do the global screensavers that pop on and I find that anytime there’s a place I think is really cool it’s either in Chile or in Iceland so I’m pretty stoked to just check the country out. It looks beautiful.
With Camp Greensky coming up in the summer and this current winter tour, which includes a stop at MGM Music Hall, what are some other plans for Greensky Bluegrass during the next few months?
We have a second leg of our winter tour happening next month and we’re also going to be in Australia in early April to play the Byron Bay Bluesfest, which has been on our calendar on and off for the last couple of years. It’s gotten canceled for a couple odd reasons but we’re actually gonna be a part of it this time and then we’re going to be doing our regular summer schedule. We’re going to be playing some festivals which will be announced soon, we’ll be playing all over and hopefully we’ll be playing where people who want to come see us can come see us.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.