Interview: Chris Castino Of The Big Wu Talks New Bluegrass Album ‘Fresh Pickles’ With Chicken Wire Empire & Other Star-Studded Collaborators

“Are you as bored as I am?”

This was about all it took for an album to be brought into creation with a who’s who of bluegrass All-Stars.

Released February 4th, Fresh Pickles is the brainchild of Chris Castino and Chicken Wire Empire, who got together to re-imagine eleven tracks of Castino’s beloved band, The Big Wu.

The Big Wu started in the mid 90s, and quickly ascended from the comforts of the local Minnesota club scene, to playing H.O.R.D.E Fest, Bonnaroo, Gathering of the Vibes, High Sierra, and the list goes on. 

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In the spring of 2020 when life was brought to an abrupt halt, Castino reached out to the guys in Chicken Wire Empire and pitched the idea to bluegrass-ify a precise cluster of The Big Wu’s typically jam band-style songs. The two Midwest forces would then reel in the big fish of the bluegrass/jamgrass world such as Jerry Douglas, Vince Herman, Keller Williams, Sam Bush, and several others to take part in the album.

Co-produced by Adam Greuel (Horseshoes and Hand Grenades), the album was preceded by two singles, “Red Sky” and “Jackson County.” The album shines a whole new light on The Big Wu’s songs that their fans will surely take to, but also can stand alone as simply dynamite bluegrass tracks for those unfamiliar with the band.

Castino was kind enough to hop on a phone call with us to go into more detail about the album, the dreaded blank page, and much more.

I wanted to plunge right in and talk about your new album, Fresh Pickles. So why Fresh Pickles? As someone who loves pickles and pickled things, it certainly appeals to me, but how did you land on the title?

(Laughs) Thanks man, I love pickles too. My mother-in-law does a good one. Well, I was trying to think of something that encapsulates the fact that the songs on this record are for people who know The Big Wu, and have been listening to these songs for awhile. So essentially they’ve been “pickled” and “in a jar” for a long time.

The freshness is how these songs came alive in this recording. They took on a life of their own. It’s a paradox between the “fresh” and “pickled” happening simultaneously. And I also thought I wanted a title that was funny and fun almost, because I think this album is fun. I’ve written songs that are a little darker and emotional, but I thought the world could use a little levity. 

And how did this project come to life? How did the collaboration with Chicken Wire Empire come to fruition?

I think there’s a lesson to be learned from going with the flow. The last record I did was a solo record, which I’m proud of, but three days before the album release show, everything got shut down. And so I had to roll with it, and I found myself playing guitar a lot at home. Across the country, no shows were happening. Nobody was playing. So I called up the guys at Chicken Wire, and said, “Do you guys want something to do? Are you as bored as I am right now?” Some of the guys were Big Wu fans from their teenage years. So I said, “What if we pick songs from our catalog, tweak them, make them bluegrass, and see what happens.” It was just an idea, but they were immediately like “Yes, let’s do it.” 

Then it evolved into the next phase. I just started reaching out to these mega stars in bluegrass. Some I knew, some I didn’t. Once I got a hold of them, they were like “Sure, I’ll record.” It’s about putting things out to the universe and being in the flow. It’s been a beautiful example of something I really believe in from a spiritual standpoint. 

Can you talk more about how all those bluegrass mega stars got on board with the project? And did their parts get recorded in person or separately?

Nobody had to move from their couch. Well, that’s not exactly true. I think that even before Covid, that was becoming a trend where home studios, working on songs remotely, and collaborating were a thing. These guys were all equipped to do that. They had experience with doing it already.

Sam Bush had played a Big Wu show in the early 2000s, so I got to know him a little bit then, and Peter Rowan played with us too. And of course Vince Herman and Keller Williams I’ve known for a long time, but Jerry Douglas I did not know. I pitched to all of them in a sincere way- basically that I would love to have them on it, and it worked out.

At what point did you focus on making more folk and bluegrass-oriented music, or is this album the beginning of that exploration?

I have done it in the past a little bit. In 2003, Jeff Austin and I recorded a bluegrass-flavored record in Colorado, and that was produced by Nick Forster. He’s the host of a really great radio show in Boulder called eTown, and was in the band Hot Rize with Tim O’ Brien. And before the Fresh Pickles record, I had worked with Chicken Wire Empire, and I think it was after Jeff’s passing in 2019, we wanted to do something of a tribute for him. So those guys were very familiar with that record that Jeff and I made. So we performed it locally in Milwaukee and surrounding cities. And that’s about it for the bluegrass connections.

Do you find determining the order of songs on an album like Fresh Pickles to be a challenge, and how important is that to you?

I actually take it really seriously. I think it can be as creative a process as the writing of the song itself.

It’s funny because people in the industry will tell you that the concept of an album is pretty much dead now, and people just release songs. And that’s fine and I get that, but in some senses, it’s like going to a show, and you’re listening to a set of music. So when I think of the album like a live set of music, I definitely put thought into the order based on a number of factors. And basically, there’s subtle ways where you’re arranging the songs so that when one song ends, the next song feels different. You don’t want your ears to get tired out. There can be a fatigue if you hear two or three songs that are the same, and you stop focusing. There’s also tempos, the key of the song- those are all things that factor in. I do think it’s important, and I love the challenge. 

What does a day in the life of Chris Castino’s songwriting process look like?

I think I used to try to rely on inspiration primarily. Because it does happen. And if I’m thinking about music, I can write a song without even a guitar in my hand- but that’s rare. I heard too many damn amazing songwriters say that they just have to sit down and work on stuff. These are my heroes saying this. That work ethic has to be involved.

But for me, I do a lot of voice memo recordings, and I kind of call it my “song seeds” or “song bank.” You take these seeds of the song and collect them, and I’ll see which are growing. Some I’ll delete, some don’t make it. But there will be songs that slowly germinate, and sometimes it’s years they’ll sit, but they’ll start to grow and I’ll build on them. And there’s also times where an entire song will come to you right away.

But I am an advocate for doing the hardest thing in the world, which is saying, “Alright, I’m going to take this time and sit down with a blank piece of paper.” Because that’s the scariest moment of an artist or anyone who is trying to create, is staring at the blank page. (laughs somewhat maniacally)

How do you feel in the final days leading up to an album release? Anxious, excited, happy, sad? Maybe just business as usual?

Oh I’m super excited. It’s been a magical experience, and one of my goals with this was to enjoy each moment of the process. I said to myself, “If you’re not enjoying the process of this, it’s not worth doing.” I think in the past, sometimes I was just doing them because I wanted a result. So I’ve changed my philosophy and it’s been great, challenging, and a ton of work. Especially after all the recording was done, and doing some of the grunt work involved.

There’s a bunch of things I had to learn how to do, just because the way that the game has changed. Keeping up with the new processes, and having learned all these things now for this record, it’s cool because I can imagine working on the next one and it taking about half the time now that I’ve gotten through the learning curve of the technology stuff. But I’m so excited. What I really love is that Big Wu fans are going to hear these songs in a new style and a new energy, but also these songs stand up so well just as these interesting bluegrass tunes, that you don’t need to know who The Big Wu is to enjoy them.

What might you have planned post-album release? Any tours or things lined up for spring?

So we’re going to be playing some shows regionally, and we’re working on playing some festivals in the summer. I haven’t played really any of the many bluegrass festivals except for maybe Blue Ox in Wisconsin, but our hope is that people will love the album, and they’ll tell their local festival organizers about it, and when we come knocking on their door maybe they’ll of heard of us. Those festivals are so much fun. It would be great to be around other bluegrass musicians, and would be a great experience for me. And I think people would love to hear this album live. It’s ready for prime time. It’s ready to play.

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