While attending our first Forecastle Music Festival in the lush green fields of bourbon-country, Louisville, Kentucky, we had the pleasure of speaking with bassist, Mike Devol, who joined the group in 2004. Greensky Bluegrass has quickly risen to popularity over the years since they began, and have risen to the top of the Billboard charts with their fourth, most recent and critically-acclaimed album, Handguns, reaching No.3 on the charts. Greensky Bluegrass formed in 2000 by banjo player, Michael Arlen Bont, Dave Bruzza on guitar, and Paul Hoffman on mandolin, and began in Michigan. The year 2004 saw their musical debut with Less Than Supper, and in 2006, were winners at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, earning them a top spot on the main stage at the 2007 festival. Shortly thereafter, they released their second album, Tuesday Letter, and in November of 2007, also released their first live album, Live at Bell’s. Their third album, Five Interstates, was released in 2008. Greensky Bluegrass have toured and shared the stage with Sam Bush, Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain String Band, Bela Fleck & the Flectones, and numerous others.
Discover what Devol had to say about influences with their music, plans for their upcoming release of their as-yet-untitled album, his admiration for Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin, favorite gigs and much more:
Who are your favorites (that you’re looking forward to at Forecastle)?
Mike: Randomly, I was looking forward to seeing Animal Collective tonight, but I know they cancelled, and we kind of got a set upgrade because they did. So, that works out in our favor somehow. I was sort of excited to have that experience. I thought it was going to be fun. Now, I get to see Robert Plant, who I’ve seen in the flesh before, but have never seen perform, so that will be pretty cool. Otherwise, our set was going to be at the same time on a different stage and would have heard him screaming in the distance, and heard about it.
I was very curious while reading about you guys that you’re all from Michigan. What led you to progress to bluegrass music because it’s not really common there?
Mike: Right, it’s not exactly common. There is a Michigan bluegrass scene; it’s just scattered. I think there’s a bluegrass scene almost everywhere, but it’s not always evident or outward in the community. It’s got to be pretty outward. In Michigan, it’s just like anywhere; there are people who are devoted to traditionalist bluegrass and that’s sort of how I classify the bluegrass scene, I guess, that there is. But, we come from the other side of that. We came into bluegrass through the non-traditional entry; sort of the Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead, even Phish. I used to think “Old Home Place” was a Mike Gordon song; I freely admit now a little hint of shame. So, we kind of came into it from there. We spent years being emulating traditional bluegrass bands, and learning bluegrass songs, and dedicating ourselves into becoming that. I think that as we learned to play our instruments and to create these bluegrass textures, from there we sort of branched back into our other influences, I think, which made the sound we have now. I think we’re capable of doing the traditional thing and take pride in our ability to emulate those sounds, but like doing our own thing too.
With your most notable and critically acclaimed album, Handguns, released in 2011, do you have plans for an upcoming release?
Mike: We’ve got more than plans. We actually have just finished a new album. We recorded near the end of January in the same studio in Michigan that we recorded Handguns. Actually, within the last few days, we just finished the mastering process. So, the music is done and we’re excited about it. It’s not officially titled and we don’t have an official release date. We don’t have our art stuff and all of it together; we have a bunch of songs, though, all of which may end up on the album, and some of which may or may not be saved for another release. It’s cool, I think it’s sort of a furthering of what we felt we started with Handguns. We produced it ourselves like Handguns, so there’s no outside influences, but more original material and interesting new sounds. There’s a lot of new material. With our older albums, we developed new material over time, playing it live, and then that version of the song ends up on the studio album release. With Handguns, we had a few songs that were first heard in their album form, and first designed to really close when we went into the studio to put ’em down. This is sort of a furthering of that; we’re saving a lot of the new stuff and not playing it live until we release the new album. We’ve got to save something, you know, so we’re excited about the new material. It’s hard to save. It’s an insane amount of willpower.
You guys have collaborated with a variety of bands, from Sam Bush to The Avett Brothers, to Yonder Mountain String Band and more. What has been your best gig as a band, thus far?
Mike: You know, there’s so many fun ones. There’s one that’s ringing right now. This Friday (July 12), we played at Red Rocks for the first time, so that was one of my favorite gigs ever. That was sort of a daunting achievement in my mind; not even a daunting achievement, but just a really awesome experience that I wanted to have. It’s not like we played Red Rocks, and our career is perfect and we made it, but in a way, at least we get to play Red Rocks, and you can’t take that away from me now at this point. I’ve gotten to play on that stage. It was really fun. Railroad Earth were the headliners that night and they’ve been our friends for a long time. We’ve collaborated with them in many ways. There the first band that was really successful, and kind of took us under their wing and have taken us to their crowd and to their world. We get a lot of our fans through those experiences and them. It was cool to play our first Red Rocks with them, and cool that our relationship has continued the way it has so that we’re both in the place where we should be playing Red Rocks together. It was really nice, really fun, and had a bunch of family out and so it was good in all those ways. That’s a favorite, and having Sam Bush out at the Fillmore. Fillmore is one of those gigs where I’m just stoked to be in the building and then we got Sam to come out and be here with us; that’s another great one.
You all have played many festivals. What do you like the best about them?
Mike: I am, in a way, being a professional musician, takes you out of the experience of going to shows. I don’t often get to go see the bands I would love to go see when they’re in places because I’m somewhere else playing shows. Festival season is time to get to see other bands play and that’s great for us. We end up at a lot of festivals with the same bands who exist in this new-grass genre, and there’s a lot of festivals that lean towards bluegrass and sort of mix that up with rock and stuff. We end up at a lot of those, so we end up becoming buddies with a lot of those bands. We get to see our friends play live, but I’m especially fond of the bigger festivals, like Forecastle here. I get to see Robert Plant play live. I mean, that’s mega-rock God stardom. I remember my Dad was stoked at my first expression of interest in Led Zeppelin. All of a sudden, Led Zeppelin I appeared under my pillow one night, and I was like “Yes, Dad!” and down in my room rocking the stereo; that’s huge. I’m stoked for Robert Plant and a bunch of stuff.
What’s your guilty musical pleasure?
Mike: Katy Perry. I legitimately love her last album, and it’s guilty because I do have to find myself admitting it. I like to run enough so that I don’t get completely horribly out of shape. I run to a Katy Perry album; gets me pumped up. It’s sinfully, disgracefully, sucrose and the way it’s produced I love it. I’m sorry world, I love Katy Perry for her music, not her cupcake costume.
Thanks for the chat, Mike!
Greensky Bluegrass bring the fall tour to Atlanta, at Terminal West, on September
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