Interview: Greensky Bluegrass Discusses Upcoming Album ‘Stress Dreams’, Year In Review, & More

If you are an avid fan or even just a casual fan of the bluegrass/jam band scene, you’re likely more than familiar with Greensky Bluegrass.

Since their 2000 formation in Kalamazoo, MI, the quartet — Anders Beck (dobro), Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), Dave Bruzza (guitar), Mike Devol (upright bass), and Paul Hoffman (mandolin) — have garnered a reputation as one of the best live jamgrass acts roaming the highways today. They’ve staked their claim as a hard travelin’ band who’ve earned a vast and dedicated audience over the years.

Rolling back and forth across North America on successive tours, the band is no stranger to selling out Red Rocks, and has graced the stages of The Ryman, The Fillmore Detroit, Riviera Theater Chicago, and countless others. Beyond steady dates over the years at festivals like Bonnaroo, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Austin City Limits, and numerous others, they also co-own 4848 Festival and Strings & Sol.

In 2019, their record, All For Money, marked their second #1 debut on the Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums Chart and third straight Top 3 entry. They’ve also earned critical acclaim from Billboard, Parade, NPR, and Rolling Stone who hailed them as “representing the genre for a whole new generation.” 

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And on January 21st, 2022, Greensky Bluegrass will be releasing their eighth album, Stress Dreams, via Thirty Tigers.

The guys were kind enough to answer some questions about the upcoming album, life on the road, and much more.

Surprisingly, 2021 is almost in the books. How might you describe the band’s 2021 in one word?

Rejuvenating: it has been nice to ‘get back out there’ and play shows again. At the same time, we were admittedly a little rusty on all the moving parts. Not just musically, also logistically, physically, mentally etc. So, it feels like we’ve had a unique opportunity to start fresh in a lot of ways. Musical approach, daily rehearsals, etc. etc. new life. 

So I was hoping you could talk about your upcoming album, Stress Dreams. Are there any overarching themes or motifs throughout?

There’s some themes throughout that manifest themselves into different songs in unique ways, but there isn’t an overarching theme that was intentional in some way. There’s certainly some loneliness and longing that we were all experiencing. I think people will relate to the material in a very personal way because we are all united through the struggle we have been enduring.

Was there a particular song or two on the album that was the most challenging to write and/or record, and if so, why?

I wrote a song that is a little more politically or socially driven than I usually embark upon. I was angry at the world around me. Protests in the streets turning into violent unrest. People showing little concern for the well-being of their neighbors. It all makes me sad. I normally write honestly about my emotional reaction to the world and its pressures. Somehow a ‘protest type’ song takes on a second person narrative that feels bossy to me. We’re all experiencing life in our own way, and I don’t presume to understand someone else’s perspective. Still, I try to. I couldn’t escape the subject matter though, so I gave it a go, and hope that people can understand or relate to the music. 

“…really I just think about a sold out multi-night run at Red Rocks, or presenting our own festival or playing on the beach in Mexico. And damn, those are all things we do every year. Sweeet!”

Do you find determining the order of songs on an album such as this to be a challenge? What makes “Absence of Reason” and “Reasons To Stay” the preferred bookends of the album?

“Absence of reasons to stay”… but really it is kinda tricky. It’s a game we play a lot though because our setlists are unique for every show, and we are constantly discussing new options for momentum and vibe. Different tempos. Rotating singers. Dark and light. There’s a lot to take into account when you start looking closely at the intricacies. 

How do you know when a song is finished? Do you find yourself perpetually wanting to keep tinkering and re-recording tracks etc.?

Maybe they’re never done. We are very much a live performance band. Sometimes I change lyrics after we make the record or we might switch some solos around. The commitment to ‘complete’ is the whole creative dance of studio work to me. At some point, we appreciate what we have achieved and present it. That’s not to say we pine over every song and are somehow uncertain they are ready when we ‘finish’ them, but sometimes we choose between options that think both have merit. 

What does a dream gig look like for Greensky these days? Venue, city, maybe a festival, green room grub, etc…

This type of question is always tough to answer because it feels like I’m supposed to present an imaginary place filled with new luxuries, but really I just think about a sold out multi-night run at Red Rocks, or presenting our own festival or playing on the beach in Mexico. And damn, those are all things we do every year. Sweeet!

Does the band have any pre-show rituals or things you do to prepare for shows, or is it just business as usual at this point?

There’s a rehearsal time shortly before stage when we talk and run through some of the unique factors that the particular show might include. Transitions or old songs we barely remember. We have a number of things we do to signal we are ready on side stage. It’s small, but we kinda always do it. Sometimes we do a twisty burning man handshake we learned 15 years ago in Telluride. 

You guys have been zipping along highways across the country for a few decades now. What is one of the band’s most memorable road stories?

Ha Ha. The most. That word always makes it so hard. Since you mention highways though, I think about traveling and that leads to rolling thru the countless times we broke down, and still managed to make it to the gig. Sometimes in a new vehicle or via plane. Or the time we played a late night set in Maryland and then flew to California on no sleep and played an afternoon set. They all kinda run together, and it’s hard to target in on a specific but the thing they all share is the memory of them being grueling and in the moment regretful. But in hindsight, they make me feel like we were heroes, and it was worth every flat tire and canceled flight. 

If you could go back in time to the humble Kalamazoo beginnings of Greensky Bluegrass and offer words of wisdom to yourselves, what might you say?

“Take the gigs that sound fun. Take some that don’t to help pay the bills. It will work.” But that’s sorta what we did. So maybe I haven’t learned anything. Ha Ha. 

Greensky Bluegrass will be playing New Year’s Eve Eve and New Year’s Eve at The Factory in St. Louis, Missouri, with Mighty Pines joining night one and Sam Bush to help close things out.

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