An interview with Michael Bont of Greensky Bluegrass
by Ryan O’Malley
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Over the last 17 years, Greensky Bluegrass has become one of the most beloved acts of the evolving bluegrass’jamgrass/acoustic scene. Hot off the release of a new studio effort– Shouted, Written Down & Quoted– the outfit is in the early stages of a lengthy winter tour to support the album.
We recently caught up with founding member and banjoist Michael Bont, who had just returned from the acoustic island getaway known as Strings and Sol, and was taking a well-deserved break before the current tour. Bont chatted about the relaxation of Strings and Sol, the new album, the current tour, and surprisingly, showed a bit of nostalgia for late ’90s dance music.
LMNR: You just got back to Michigan after performing at Strings and Sol down in Mexico. Any noticeable differences you came home to?
MB: It was definitely an 86-degree temperature change when I got off the airplane. There’s definitely two feet of snow on the ground, and I think the only one excited for winter is our dog. It’s definitely a change, but living in Michigan my whole life, it’s really easy to switch gears and get into winter mode.
LMNR: Aside from the warm climate, how was this years’ installment of Strings and Sol?
MB: It was a really great experience for the band and for the fans as well. I feel like it was a really good time for the fans to have potential one on ones with their favorite musicians. For the musicians, it’s a great time for us to get together as peers and just hang out; there’s not too many times in a year where we get to hang out and drink cocktails together on a beach.
LMNR: Like Strings and Sol, the festival scene has been a staple for Greensky Bluegrass. What have festivals done for the band over the last 17 years?
MB: I think the festival scene has been super huge for us. To get the exposure to new people who may or may not be into our band just because we have the word bluegrass in our name, I think is huge. Nine out of ten times someone will approach me and say, “Hey man. I don’t even like bluegrass, but you guys are great.” I think the festival scene has a lot to do with that.
From the YouTube channel of Garygor1960:
LMNR: What do you feel about the current status of the bluegrass genre? Many bluegrass bands are going electric with drums, electric guitars, etc.
MB: The scene is really just about the development of the genre. Using the influences of the old bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe – people are starting to put their own spin on it. I think that’s important to the evolution of any genre of music. I mean, what would rock and roll be without Jimi Hendrix, for example.
LMNR: When you first got the desire to perform music, what drew you to the bluegrass scene?
MB: For me, it was the sound of the banjo and the fact that there was this genre that didn’t need any kind of amplification or special effects. You basically could get together as a group and jam acoustically. Bluegrass is one of those genres – like jazz – where there’s this whole kind of back story of songs where ‘the language’ makes you able to sit down with anybody because you know these old standard songs. I was pretty heavy into jazz at the time and I was struggling to be a jazz guitarist, and figured out that jazz guitar is really hard. When I picked the banjo, I think I picked an equally hard instrument to play.
LMNR: Your new album Shouted, Written Down & Quoted just came out in the fall. How do you feel it represents the band after being together for 17 years?
MB: I think it’s really just us becoming us in terms of musicians. For the longest time, we used to play behind one microphone and be really traditional bluegrass. We thought that was just “it,” but things changed over time. We started getting direct inputs because we were playing in bars and people couldn’t even hear us. We needed to get louder, so it all kind of happened accidentally in a way. It was really interesting.
LMNR: Was the recording process different than previous efforts?
MB: Very similar, but the fact that we did it in two separate sessions took a little more time. I think that was crucial because it gave us extra time to go through all the material. When we were recording the material, a lot of those songs were kind of unrehearsed. We kind of wanted it to be like that, with the spontaneity of learning the song, talking about it, and evolving it in the studio. We as a band are really into that process, and it’s really cool when you start something you have all these ideas and eventually you strip them away and bring them back to decide on what stays and what goes. We really like that part of the process, but when you’re limited on time, it doesn’t give you the freedom to get into that. That’s completely different from a live show where a moment happens, and it passes and that’s it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the studio time gives us time to hyper analyze a few seconds of music over and over again, if we want to. That extra time is really crucial.
LMNR: With a new album out, are you guys already looking at planning your next studio session, or are you going to sit back on this one for a little while?
MB: I don’t think there’s any plans to sit on it, but I also don’t think we have any plans to go back into the studio right away. I think our studio time is very organic, in the terms of it happens when it happens.
LMNR: Have a majority of the songs from Shouted, Written Down & Quoted been finding their way into your set lists?
MB: We’re just starting to put a lot of the new songs into the rotation quite heavily. It’s not like you’re going to hear the entire album; you’re still going to get a Greensky show. Like I say, I never know what to expect for a Greensky show.
LMNR: This piece is primarily to preview your debut at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe, Pa. on January 26. I know it’s been six years, but the band previously played at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in the same town.
MB: “That’s the other venue in the area? I definitely remember that place, and that’s the last time we’ve been in the area. It’s amazing how time flies like that. If that’s the case, then there will be plenty of new material.”
LMNR: Do you have any favorite places to play on the East Coast?
MB: I’ve always liked the East Coast, man. We always do a big East Coast tour and a big West Coast tour. I love the East Coast tour because the time between cities and venues isn’t great, so you’re basically waking up in the tour bus every single morning in the next big city in the United States and you can walk around or do whatever. I like that whole part of it. We have a lot of fans on the East Coast as well, which really doesn’t hurt things.
LMNR: How would you best describe what’s in store for the people who come out to see you on this tour?
MB: Smoking crater (laughs). The show should be great. As a band, we’ve been playing quite well lately, and I think people should expect a really awesome show.
LMNR: What are you currently listening to, or what is on your mind in terms of music?
MB: Jock Jams. “Ya’ll ready for this?” I just had an impromptu late night ’90s MTV Jock Jams dance party on the beach at 4 o’clock in the morning, so that’s what’s on my mind.
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