Greensky Bluegrass photo by Dyllan Langille
Paul Hoffman Of Greensky Bluegrass Shares Heart-Warming Stories Behind ‘Stress Dreams’
Alternative Bluegrass band Greensky Bluegrass have just finished up a high energy tour up the West Coast, concluding with some some “at home” shows in Michigan. But soon they’ll be on their way to do a few shows in Mexico, then celebrating New Year’s Eve in St. Louis, before kicking off an East Coast tour in January in support of their new album, Stress Dreams, arriving via Thirty Tigers on January 21st. Singles from the album released so far include “Grow Together,” which has also received a very personal video from the band, and “Monument,” which highlights expanding songwriting in the band via an offering from Anders Beck (dobro).
We spoke with Paul Hoffman (songwriting, vocals, and mandolin) about the band’s journey through the pandemic period, the joys of getting together to record the different sessions that comprise Stress Dreams, and what he sees in his own musical future.
Americana Highways: I saw some very colorful pictures online from your Halloween show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Can you tell me about the suits that the band wore and how that happened?
Paul Hoffman: We always do a bunch of dumb stuff for Halloween! We had this idea to do Classic Country and New Country. We found a girl to make those suits for us, since you can’t really rent them, Nudie Suits. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the culture of those suits. I wasn’t really, and when we discussed doing it, I watched a Graham Parsons documentary and got really into it. It was pretty inspiring and fun.
AH: I recognized the tradition and the connection with Graham Parsons for sure. I really like 60s and 70s music and am aware of some of the clothing traditions.
PH: Yes, that Flying Burritos Brothers cover is classic, with all of them in Nudie Suits.
AH: Were they comfortable to perform in?
PH: Mine actually tore my mandolin up pretty bad with the sequins, on the back. I didn’t notice it until four days later. Otherwise, it’s all good!
AH: Sequins are dangerous! I was amazed to realize that the band has now been together over twenty years. How does that milestone feel?
PH: Twenty-one even. Last Halloween would have been our twentieth anniversary. It’s hard to believe. I’m about to turn forty, so more than half of my life has been Greensky Bluegrass. It’s pretty warped to think about sometimes.
AH: Did thoughts about that milestone shape the new songs on the album? I’ve heard some thoughts you’ve shared about growing together as a band over time.
PH: The struggle to remain creatively relevant is there. I’m sure it applies to all different types of art trades. Maybe it applies more with age, but you need to find a balance between creating new ideas and staying true to a signature that is yourself. To what extent should we just sound like Greensky? To what extent do we need to do the next new, cool thing? Even with this album, we found ourselves having that conversation a lot. We’d find ourselves in a natural place that we didn’t have to try too hard to get to. We’d think it sounded good, then have an urge to mess with it, so that it was different than anything we’d ever done before. But we’ve done a lot of stuff! Sometimes you have to surrender to the idea that the way that you usually operate is still being creative and relevant.
AH: On your previous album, All For Money, I know that you were specifically writing towards performance as a goal. Did you have any thoughts about how Stress Dreams would take shape, or was it more about gradually writing songs given the world situation?
PH: We already had studio time on our calendar, but we tend to be so busy touring that it can be hard to develop new material and write songs. We’re too busy out playing the songs that we already wrote and relearning the songs we haven’t played forever from night to night. But we ended up having to push that schedule back because of Covid travel restrictions. Beyond that, we just didn’t feel safe for a while. I don’t know that we were really ready then, anyway, but over the summer, we all ended up writing. “Monument” was written by our dobro player, Anders Beck, with a friend of ours from Nashville. Then, our bass player wrote six tunes, maybe three or four of which made the record. That’s Mike Devol. That was a new element to songwriting.
When Dave [Bruzza] or myself had written songs for the band in the past, the band as a group was really involved in arranging them from a skeleton of a song. It was interesting to reverse the role a little bit and for me and Dave to have input on their songs. Maybe this record is different from anything we’ve ever done because it has a wider reach in terms of songwriters. But there are a couple songs on there that I think are “quintessential Greensky,” though it seems weird to say that about my own band.
We spent a lot of time in the studio, too. Every record that we make, we tend to spend more and more time in the studio. We also weren’t seeing other people at all. We were quarantining in the studio. The first place we went was in the middle of nowhere in Vermont and we stayed on-site. We’d walk through the woods across this mossy bridge to the studio everyday and it was amazing. We hadn’t been with other people in months and we got to be together and sit around and be creative for days on end. I think that excitement about being able to be together must translate into the music somehow.
AH: Was some of that included in the film footage for the “Grow Together” video?
PH: Yes, that’s the mossy bridge! That’s our morning commute from the property that we stayed on to the studio. It’s in Guilford, Vermont. We were there when Fall set in and it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. We couldn’t see anyone but each other. It was great. There was a lot of hugging and staying up late looking at the stars. The album cover was shot in the place we were staying on that farm. It’s a long exposure shot.
AH: Is everything usually full nailed down on new songs before you go into the studio, or are you usually allowing some room there to make choices when recording?
PH: We do a lot of composing in the studio now, as well as finishing of songs. By the time we start tracking it, it’s pretty much nailed down, but sometimes we’re still building layers. We’ve retracked stuff differently sometimes, canning it, and redoing it to get a different vibe. I’ve read about Talking Heads going into a studio and composing there, and thought, “What a luxury!”
Because when you’re working on a budget, you want to have everything ready to lay down. But as we’ve recorded so much, it’s gotten harder for us to be objective about it. We’ll play it one way, and say, “That’s cool.” And then we’ll try it another way, and say, “Hmmm, that’s kind of cool, too.” We can get really indecisive. For this last record, we also sat on stuff, with months between two sessions in October and March. I rewrote a bunch of verses, changed some stuff, and we canned a tune. It was interesting. It was different than we’d ever done.
AH: Are you ever concerned about changing a song to the point that it becomes a different song, or do you think of it more as something that’s evolving, so that doesn’t matter so much?
PH: Sometimes we go back if we’ve changed a song a lot and realize we may have overthought it. We’ll go back and start over. Some songs we just keep messing with but usually we only have enough time to record what we can use. This time, we still have some songs on the back burner that have been recorded, and we’ve never had that before. They may not be done, but we have a start. We had the time since we weren’t out playing shows. It was fun.
AH: I do get a feeling from the album that there’s an energy spread throughout the album pretty evenly, and maybe that comes from the various songwriters on this one.
PH: That’s awesome to hear, thank you.
AH: What made “Grow Together” a good song to release ahead of the album?
PH: We felt that song was a good representation of the band. It’s Bluegrassy but anthemic. At least I hope it is!
AH: I definitely think it’s “anthemic.”
PH: For me, it’s a powerful song. I wrote it about my baby’s mother right after my child was born. It was the first song I had written in a long time. I go through waves of not writing, unfortunately, between records. I just get burned out after working on fourteen songs and I don’t always know what the next idea is. But this one was really emotional for me.
When you become a father, people say so many cliché things, like “Time goes by so fast!”, or “I can’t wait to hear how much the perspective of your songs changes.” I would say, “My songs aren’t going to change! Do you know how much fear and anxiety goes into parenting? I’m still going to write the same dark shit!” Then, I wrote that song, and it happened to me. My daughter was sitting at my feet, four months old, and I was playing the guitar for her.
Recording that one in the studio was so powerful and emotional. We played it on that moss bridge because we loved the song. That one fell together pretty naturally. We tried not to overthink it.
AH: It’s very powerful. The music sets out a kind of anthem feeling, even before the lyric starts, and yet it builds up over time, too. It has a really positive surge to it.
PH: It does have a positive surge. It’s my first positive surge, my first really happy song I’ve ever written. There’s still that little blessing of doubt in there, though, “If we can find the time…” It’s like, “Life could be great, IF…” When I wrote that, I asked myself, “Why are you doing that? Why are you writing this song, that’s supposed to be a great, beautiful love song, and you’re going to put that ‘if’ in there?”
I like what we decided to do with the video, too, using a classic studio montage. When you watch the video and listen to the song, I feel like it’s also about us as a band. The narrative changed for me when I watched the video. I was moved in a whole new way that I hadn’t considered before, watching us all hug in the video.
AH: It does seem to say a lot about the where the band is right now, creatively and mentally, after over twenty years. Have you, personally, always wanted to be in music for the long haul?
PH: I remember a point where I realized that there was nothing else I would do, whether it was Greensky or something else. I think it was years ago when Greensky was going through a rough patch, I realized there could be no other work for me. I knew that I’d perform music, manage music, or promote music. I said, “This is who I am and what I do now.” I couldn’t just let go and go back to college or something.
Even now, our lives have been changing. Some of us have kids, and our touring schedule is changing. Some of us have side stuff. The nature of the business and success is to play bigger venues and play less shows. Now, I have a child to occupy my time between shows, but for years, we toured with no more than a couple of weeks off. Then, when we started having more time off, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I bought a house and I’m not handy. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I started doing pick up shows with other bands. That led to deeper introspection about what I wanted to do. But this is what I will do, for as long as I can, I believe. I think it’s where I belong, so I’ll stay here.
AH: The song “Absence of Reason” is also really interesting. Is this a pandemic song?
PH: I think I worked it during the pandemic, sitting alone in my basement for a long time. Sometimes I write a song and I don’t really know what I’m trying to go for. I wrote the first verse and it inspired me to write the rest of it. I let it sit for a long time. During covid, I realized it was relevant, so I finished it with the intention of that relevance. It’s a fun tune with a unique musical interval that we don’t usually use. It was kind of a musical trick, and we did something we hadn’t done before.
AH: What about “Give a Shit”? It’s not a simple song, in a way. It’s not about a moral lesson, for example.
PH: It’s got some heavy-duty wordplay, something I like to play around with. For that one, I wrote the first verse, and there’s a wordplay game where I’m turning phrases around in a different way. It became a daunting task on the other verses to continue the pattern I’d already started. Some songs like “Grow Together” come out of me as true emotional inspiration and I speak from the heart. With “Give a Shit,” I sat down and scratched my head. I wrote down a bunch of those phrases, like, “What if the captain sinks before the ship?” Then I thought about how I could still somehow prove a point or talk about something specific. But I’m often really proud of those songs where I work on them a lot, versus the ones where I just write from the heart, which is easier somehow for me.
AH: It has an interesting mood and tone, too, because I can’t decide whether it’s confessional or commentary. You have to withhold judgement, in a way, because it’s so relatable.
PH: I like that analysis of it. It’s one of those ones where it’s sort of tongue-in-cheek in some ways, because, obviously, I give a shit. I’ve been talking here about how much shit I give. But there’s something playful about that song. https://greenskybluegrass.com/#!/
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