Interview with Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass!

Interview with Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass!

Bluegrass, Americana, folk. These are some of the richest traditions in American music history, and they are currently experiencing a massive revival. One of the groups cresting that wave and leading us into the future is the explosive Greensky Bluegrass. Their high-octane performances weave pensive, weighty lyrics into screeching psychedelic bluegrass, with their own je ne sais quoi twist on the genre. Recently, Paul Hoffman (mandolin, vocals) took some time to answer some of my questions about where bluegrass is at right now, their newest album, and the soulful, healing nature of their music, in advance of their FIRST-EVER four-night at any venue, hosted by Chicago's Riviera Theatre.

As any fan of bluegrass in general will tell you, the music itself is subject to the whims of the artist. Hoffman described the Greensky method of getting their music out there, saying, "We used to play more of the songs before [recording them]. Nowadays, not many songs are played live before we lay them down. We started playing one of our new songs this summer, one in the fall, and another a couple weeks ago, but I suspect we will bust out a lot more of them in Chicago. But before we recorded this album, none of the songs were played live. It's nice because then they [the songs] have the freedom to change and we can try a bunch of different stuff with them and figure out what they are while we have them under the microscope."

He continued though, stating, "That being said, we are not a band that is tied to any of these decisions though; songs are going to grow after the studio process. They are going to change, and people are going to hear them a year from now, and they're not going to sound like the record anymore. We might decide we have a stronger idea and just go for it. The record is a moment in time." That constant shifting is part of what has ingratiated Greensky so deeply in the jam band circle, where their shows are lauded for their improvisation and left-turn shifts in dynamics.

Speaking of their live performances: Greensky is known for one of the most fast-paced, grin-inducing, emotional shows in the musical world today. The fan community is very active and tight-knit. Hoffman described his gratitude and amazement at the scene thusly: "I am grateful for that process that we have and are a part of. It's really powerful. I think the community that our fans have created for each other and themselves astounds me; how kind they are, how people who don't know each other can wind up next to each other in row 3 at a show and realize they both love what's happening and decide to be friends! So begin many friendships. I've watched a lot of this over the years; people that I know, fans, etc., become friends, and now they're inseparable at every show. For us to be the catalyst for that is really powerful, the value of that is immeasurable really."

So where does that camaraderie come from? In Hoffman's words: "I think the nature of our music, being really energetic, and at times really psychedelic, kind of heavy and fun, it's like a party. It's an event, you know? You go, you dance, you have some drinks, see friends, celebrate, juts have a good time. But if you pay attention and listen, there's a lot of really heavy lyrical content going on that's not so happy, and I think that breeds catharsis. I think it creates a safe place for you to confront your fears and responsibilities that you're suffering with, and that's music for me. I'm just grateful that the things that I love about music are working for us and for our fans. I don't know what more I could ask for really. You know, one minute people are partying, hugging, putting on fake mustaches, and two songs later they're weeping in the front row. Where else do you get that experience? You're having the most fun of your life, but you're suffering through whatever pain you're going through, and to let that all out, that's awesome, and I don't know where else you can get that."

In their 18+ years of existence, Greensky has gone from three to five members, and begun touring with a full light show and a more rock and roll vibe than "traditional" bluegrass or Americana. I asked Hoffman about maintaining the music's vision and not being lost in the doldrums of making music for money. His response showed how the group has managed their mission so well: "It's an interesting process. I'm not the kind of artist that's so blinded by creativity that I think it's bad to make something people like. You know there are times where we think we've gone too far and think nobody will like what we're doing. It still needs to be pleasurable and entertaining. We want to make really awesome music and art, but we're also entertainers, and we value that a lot. That's not to be an underrated part of what we do. So I think understanding all those facets is important. Sometimes we play old songs we don't like so much, and we do it for the fans. Other songs we play a lot because we like playing them. Ultimately, somewhere in this lesson is being true to yourself. I would say enjoying yourself every night is the final piece of the puzzle. If we're out there having fun, having a good time, all these people flock to this because they like it and they like to see us like it. It seems simple, and everyone says it, but man, it's true."

Hoffman also spoke about pleasing crowds back in the day vs. their current situation: "You know, when were a younger band and we would go to a bar and nobody knew who we were, it was a lot easier to win people over. Now there are people who love us, and follow us all around the country and see us all the time, and they're easy to please too! They love, they love everything we do. But the pressure of continuing to keep it fresh, unique, as high-energy as it was last time, and all those variables, just to keep ourselves up to snuff, it can be kind of intense, especially compared to those old bar days, where people would hear us just start doing this psychedelic stuff out of bluegrass, and that would turn their heads! Sometimes I do miss those moments."

On the topic of "then vs. now," Hoffman spoke at length about how the bluegrass/Americana/folk world has grown since he's been playing music: "Most of the bluegrass that I am familiar with is a lot like us in a lot of ways, in that it is real progressive. The instruments aren't being constrained to what they were originally designed for. I say this knowing that the 'traditional' bluegrass world is ticking away without me, and I don't participate in it much. But there's a whole lot of this bluegrass, Americana kind of stuff that I really like. The community that we run in, you know, groups like Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, we've all been doing it for quite a while. So the sense of family and community vibes when we go out there and play shows together, it's cool. Because in one sense we're in direct competition with these bands, but people's passions drive them to like a LOT of different things, you know? That is never to be underestimated. Just because you didn't like one book by Hemingway doesn't mean you won't like them all, right? There's no rule that says you can't like Billy Strings and Greensky."

So what's next for Greensky Bluegrass? As Hoffman puts it, "This Chicago run! We start our tour like ten days later so also, so that's pretty exciting. And it's the album tour! So we get to play all this new material, and it should be fun to play it live and work it out. This record is a little bit more show-friendly. Some of the stuff record is a little difficult to work into a show because it's so weird. Also, we've never done a four-night run. People have made four-night runs out of separate two-night runs at close-by venues, but this is our first four-night run at any venue ever, so that's very exciting."

Greensky Bluegrass is on top of their game and one of the most exciting and invigorating shows in the musical realm today. If you're in Chicago for the NYE festivities, don't miss out on their first-ever four-night run at the Riviera! Mind-melting, cathartic, blissful, moody, spaced-out, psychedelic, sizzling: all these and more describe the sheer force of a Greensky Bluegrass performance. If you haven't seen them, this author could not think of a better first run of shows than this NYE four-night extravaganza.

Tickets and more info here: https://www.ticketfly.com/event/1786450-greensky-bluegrass-chicago/

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