Absolute Michigan sat down with Greensky Bluegrass bassist Mike Devol (pictured left) the other day. Like us, they are gearing up for the first ever Electric Forest that runs June 30 through July 3. Since forming in Kalamazoo in 2000, Greensky Bluegrass has become one of Michigan’s biggest musical exports. In addition to winning the 2006 band competition at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and touring the nation, the band will also be performing at both Bonnaroo and Bumbershoot this summer. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.
Mike told us what makes Michigan such a special place to be a musician, how the Electric Forest venue inspired one of Greensky’s best sets and how they will celebrate the summer by releasing a new album towards the end of it. Greensky Bluegrass is not your traditional bluegrass band. They cover Prince, they plug in and they are getting ready to go off at Electric Forest.
Has Greensky Bluegrass played the Electric Forest venue before and are you and the guys looking forward to this year’s festival?
We played Rothbury in 2008 and we played one of my favorite sets of all time. We opened the festival that year and we were playing just as people were arriving. It was epic. It was one of those perfect days where the audience is just getting to the festival and everyone is stoked to be there. I think there was something like 7,000 people watching our set. We were a Michigan band playing in Michigan at the inaugural festival. We are excited that Rothbury in some form is back. We are stoked it is happening again. It is a huge festival.
The lineup has a lot of electronic music that is really popular. The music will be an interesting blend. There are five or six bluegrass bands playing and I can picture it late one night with techno beats in the distance, someone will stumble upon a bunch of bluegrass musicians picking in a field.
You guys are playing Bonnaroo and Bumbershoot in Seattle this year and you’ve played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. All of those are huge festivals. How does the Michigan summer festival scene compare to the more nationally known festivals?
First off, we are super stoked to be playing at those big ones you mentioned. As far as Michigan goes, I think Electric Forest is going to be the biggest. There aren’t too many in Michigan but there are some really good ones. We play the Hoxeyville Music Festival in Cadillac every year.
That is a really fun one for us. We spend almost every weekend during the summer at a festival but Hoxeyville is great because all of our friends are there.
There are a lot of great Michigan festivals for our genre. Blissfest, Dunegrass and Wheatland to name a few. I know Wheatland is like Christmas for some people. I know people who have been going to that for 30 years.
Michigan seems to be a good place to play traditional American music like bluegrass with a very receptive and appreciative audience perhaps more so than other states? Why do you think that is?
Bluegrass is really popular in places with mountains and a lot of nature. There are no mountains here but there is a lot of nature. I discovered bluegrass after I moved to Michigan when I was 19. I came into bluegrass through the jam band side of things and I was really impressed by the kind of talent coming out of Michigan.
There is a lot of ridiculous talent here with Steppin’ In It, Seth and May and the whole Earthwork crew in Big Rapids. Musicians really come together in Michigan as friends and partners making the bluegrass genre grow in strength and presence. There are a lot of great Michigan musicians and a lot of people have really embraced it here.
I also think Michigan has more of a sense of state pride than a lot of other places and that crosses over into music. People in Michigan are stoked to be from Michigan. Michiganders live all over the country and when we travel to other places, I think a lot of them come out just because we are from Michigan. And that’s been a big help for us in a lot of cities.
Do you play a different set list in a venue like Electric Forest?
Our set list is always different. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever played the same set list twice. We have a pool of songs that include tons of bluegrass, our originals and a cover repertoire that has been Greensky- ified. Bluegrass is like jazz and we want to mix it up. We have a fan base that sees us a lot.
At a bluegrass festival we aren’t the traditional bluegrass band. We’ll play Prince covers instead of songs about the hills of Carolina. There was a time when we tried to cater to our audience but we’ve come to a point quite where we are just going to do what we do. We used to worry is we were too jammy or too contemporary. But now we just play our songs our way. There is no point in misrepresenting ourselves.
You mentioned that Bluegrass is like jazz. How big a role does improvisation play in a Greensky Bluegrass set?
We have a number of songs that at some point open themselves up to being totally improvisational. Sometimes there is a framework and we all know where it is going. It usually starts the same way and will revolve around a greater pattern. There are songs that we play for like 16 minutes and that’s like a pretty good chunk of a set.
There are other songs we put together that will open up and lead into another song. Within that framework we have to arrive at this texture on a certain chord to find our way to the next song. Sometimes though, it is totally unmapped and unpredictable. Sometimes we crash and burn. Sometimes we do things that are cooler than anything else we’ve ever done by tuning into each other and really playing together. Those are my favorite moments.
What else is coming up for Greensky Bluegrass?
We recorded a new album in January. We recorded it in Lansing over about 100 hours in eight days. It is called Handguns and we are stoked about it. It is slated to come out late summer and we can’t wait to share it with everyone. We are really proud of the new songs.
Greensky Bluegrass appears Thursday, June 30 at 9:15 at Electric Forest. Visit their web site for all kinds of information and “Radio Greensky.” Below is a video from their 2009 appearance at Rothbury, see some HD videos on their YouTube channel. Don’t miss this video video of Absolute Michigan friends May Erlewine & Seth Bernard sitting in with Greensky Bluegrass for Down in the Valley – an instant classic!