A Day at the Beach With Andy Falco of The Infamous Stringdusters
Our interview is about to get started at the time it’s scheduled, but Andy Falco’s first order of business is to order a turkey sub from his favorite deli. “We’re on the road so much, I’m never home,” he notes “But when I am home, I come here every day. They know exactly what I want. It’s a New York deli so you can’t go wrong.”
It seems strange to hear that the guitarist and founding member of the Infamous Stringdusters, one of the foremost practitioners in today’s crop of successful bluegrass bands, hails from Long Island and not Colorado or other points west where outfits of that ilk tend to originate, but Falco makes no apologies.
“I love Colorado, and I spend a lot of time there with the band and doing shows,” he asserts. “But I also love the ocean. That was one of the hardest parts about living in Nashville. I didn’t realize it at first because I never lived away from the ocean. There’s just something about it that’s just resetting for me. It’s a good place just to gather my thoughts. You can just sit there and listen to the rhythms of the waves. It’s a place where I can take solace. I draw a lot of inspiration for the music; there are lot of songs about the road. It evokes certain things. I can be inspired by the beautiful majestic mountains as much as the ocean, but it can also be about longing to get back to your family because you’re away so much. That was touched on in in this album.”
Either by chance or obvious intention, Falco’s comments offer an ideal segue way into a discussion of the Stringduster’s new album, aptly entitled Laws of Gravity. A follow-up a pair of offerings that seemed something of a novelty — 2015’s Undercover, wholly made up of cover tunes, and Ladies & Gentlemen which featured an array of notable female guest singers — the new album finds them mostly going back to basics, ploughing traditional tunes through original songs that tackle broader scenarios and circumstances. It’s a tack the band -- Falco, dobro player Andy Hall, fiddler Jeremy Garrett, bassist Travis Book and banjo player Chris Pandolfi -- have followed from the beginning, starting with the first of the eight albums they’ve released since they formed in a dozen or so years ago. Since then, their efforts have been rewarded with three early accolades from the International Bluegrass Music Association and a nomination for a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental in 2011.
LEE ZIMMERMAN: What was the thought process going into this album? It follows two records that seemed to sidetrack you, in a way. So, was this an attempt to get back on track?
ANDY FALCO: Yes, for sure. The cover thing was, honestly, just something we did in a day. We knew we were working on the Ladies & Gentlemen album, but it involved a lot of logistics, so it was taking a little bit longer than we thought it would. We were thinking, what could we do in the meantime that would be fun in the studio. And then we thought, let’s just record some of these songs we enjoyed playing and do them in the studio live. We did it standing around in a circle and then I took those tracks and mixed them in my home studio. That was something we thought would be fun for the fans rather than a formal album release, although it did do pretty well. With Ladies and Gentlemen, we thought it would be fun to do something a little bit different, just to shake things up a little. So we did that and it was really fun.
What was the overall goal you wanted to achieve with Laws of Gravity?
We just wanted to get back to what we do. I think it’s that way with anything. You can do special projects and shake things up a little bit, but ultimately, you get really psyched and just want to get back to do just what you do. I felt like this album was kind of a coming back home. We brought [producer] Billy Hume in because he is so amazing at being able to capture the energy of the band and translate that into a studio recording which is very difficult to do. He’s our guy when it comes to capturing that energy. We’ve gotten pretty good at knowing how we want to approach a record. We don’t use click tracks and layer a lot of stuff. I think that’s important. When you listen to classic albums, whether it’s the Beatles or the Band or whoever, you realize that everything isn’t perfect and all lined up. It’s not like the manufactured music that tends to happen these days. There are slight human imperfections which give it character. Humans aren’t perfect. That’s what makes these records so timeless. I think today’s productions are kind of getting away from that. We like to just go in and play the music. And that’s what we did this time around. Sure, sometimes you make some horrible mistake and you have to go in and repair it, but in general, we just go in and play the solos and lay it all down and it sounds great.
Are you always satisfied with the immediate results?
I have a tendency to think I can do it better and redo it, but as time goes on, we’ve tended to avoid that instinct and just allow what’s there to be there. We lean on each other for that guidance. Sometimes I might be saying to myself, I definitely have to redo that solo, but the other guys are saying, no man, you need to keep that. That’s why we have each other. We all trust each other musically and we all trust each other’s judgment and it helps us be more confident. That has a big impact on how the album goes down.
Were these songs honed on the road before you went into the studio?
They weren’t written in the studio, but we definitely brought the same philosophy into the pre-production. Where we would normally dive deep into each song and really arrange it, for the most part, we kept them natural from the get-go. We tried not to overanalyze the arrangements. You go into the studio thinking we have this many songs, and maybe one or two don’t work out, so you have a little leeway. But with this one we ended up keeping everything.
So, in other words, you don’t tend to road-test your material prior to recording.
With Ladies & Gentlemen, none of those songs were played live because we had the guest vocalists. So, sometimes it’s kind of a nice surprise to save certain surprises for the fans. I always enjoyed that when I bought a new album. There was the anticipation. You didn’t know what it was going to be like. And then the day comes and you listen to it for the first time. I think that’s a really cool experience as a listener. It’s also exciting as a musician. We start a new tour and we have this whole batch of new material that’s instantly injected into the set list. We do a long show, so there’s plenty of room to inject old favorites and include the new songs as well. It’s exciting for us as a band and exciting for the fans as well.
Is there any competition or resentment among the band members over whose songs are recorded?
We haven’t had that problem too much because, for one thing, we share all revenue in terms of the songwriting proceeds. All the songs on a Stringdusters album are credited to all of us. Even if I bring a song into the band, there could be a cool banjo part that changes the tone of the song. We all contribute to the end result. There’s also the fact that we like each other’s songs, so none of us have an ego where we feel my song or his song is better. There’s a natural scenario where it just balances itself out. We’re lucky for that. We have a natural way of being able to sort it out.
Bluegrass has really emerged to the forefront of this thing we call Americana. But it’s a fine line between new and old. So how do you maintain that reverence for the roots and still make it appealing in a contemporary context?
To me, bluegrass music just feels really good. It’s the rhythmic value, but there’s also something to be said for acoustic music. The thing to me that’s unique about bluegrass is how you’re creating these rhythms without percussion by using the stringed instruments. People weren’t exposed to bluegrass when I was growing up. Their only reference to banjos and fiddles was what they saw in movies like “Deliverance.” That becomes something that people just don’t understand or relate to. There may be people who still feel that way. But in the last few years, I think it has come more into the forefront, and people have been exposed to it more. The music has evolved and that’s a good thing. As a musician, you need to study the roots of the music to really understand it. You need to honor what they did back in the day, but you also need to infuse your own musical DNA to help it evolve. That’s the best thing you can do to honor the forefathers, to understand what they did, and then pick up it from there and make your own mark.
So what are those elements that you infuse in the music to make it sound contemporary?
I think the songs themselves are a great place to start — especially the subject matter of those songs. Nobody wants to hear me, a guy from Long Island, singing about a home in the hills of Kentucky. It’s not real. That’s not genuine. I think that’s the appeal of bluegrass music and folk music in general. In an age where music is so fabricated, people are looking for something genuine. That’s true in any genre of music. You can’t trick an audience. You just can’t. You have to stay true to yourself for better or for worse, and people will like it or they won’t like it. I think being genuine and keeping the subject matter of your songs relevant to what’s happening in the world is important.
That’s not always easy. Artists often get flack for being, perhaps, too preachy.
Ever since the Dixie Chicks thing with Bush, some artists are afraid to write about what’s going on in the world. They’re trying to stay neutral, and that’s not genuine either. Frankly, I’m tired of reading people’s posts on Facebook about how artists and musicians and actors should just shut up. No, that’s not right. This is not like some juggling act. This is art and there are breathing, living opinions about things. You don’t have to like those opinions. I certainly don’t want to go up on stage and start preaching to people, but I think the songs are fair game, and you should be able to write about whatever you feel, whether that’s popular or not. I think that’s genuine.
There are some songs on this album that do espouse certain points of view. The track “Freedom” in particular seems to address what you're referring to.
Jeremy wrote “Freedom,” but I wrote “This Old Building,” which is more along those lines, directly talking about my feelings about the election cycle. We’re all in this together and that’s just my take on it. I feel like if somebody’s getting upset because I’m writing about this, then you’re kind of missing the point about songwriting and music and art in general. You just have to be genuine and you have to be real, and I don’t think that watering it down is going to achieve that.
The song "Soul Searching" seems to address that point as well.
Yes, it does. “Freedom” and “Soul Searching” find Jeremy really looking inward, and it may be showing a certain vulnerability at this point. That’s real art to me, someone who’s showing what they’re going through.
“1901: Canyon Odyssey” is a real epic. It reminds me of something Aaron Copeland might have written for “Appalachian Spring.” Tell us a bit about the back story there.
My girlfriend’s father lives near the Black Canyon in Colorado. We were visiting and he took us out there to see it. He had given my girlfriend a book about the whole history of the area and we were hanging out in the hotel one night and read this story about an expedition when these two gentlemen went down to that canyon to explore it as part of a survey team. No one had really gone down into it before, and I thought it was such an amazing story. No one really knew what was going to happen. It was just like, “Sure, I’ll go. Why not?” So they embarked on this journey. They couldn’t take the boats in, they couldn’t fight the rapids, the canyons walls were too steep, but they did make it out alive. I was impressed by their courage. So I started putting the idea together. I was working with this young songwriter at the time, Travis McKeveny, and he wrote a line I just loved — “Staring down the barrel of the Gunnison.” He also came up with the title which I really love. He helped a lot with the song and I’m really proud of the way it came out. There’s a jam session part in the middle where they sort of dive into the rapids and see if they’re going to come out on the other side.
You have a soundtrack for a movie that hasn’t been made yet.
That would be cool. Looking through that book made me realize there are a lot of great stories that haven’t been told. I think there’s a lot of that in American history. Traveling around a lot, seeing our national parks and monuments, you might take it all for granted. When you’re walking on some trail somewhere, some beautiful place, someone had to go there first. It’s pretty remarkable stuff.
You have a very loyal group of fans, and the populism seems to be an inherent element in so much live music these days. It seems to be a spin-off from the days of the Grateful Dead and their loyal troupe of Deadheads, wouldn’t you agree?
A lot of that comes from the inspiration of bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish. When I was young, I used to see the Dead all the time, and seeing the way that culture worked, between the bands and the fans, is a beautiful thing. There’s a lot of things that have translated to modern touring that came from the Grateful Dead. We’re fans of that music, and we were in those audiences, so we’re trying to cultivate it the way we liked it... things we liked when we were going to those shows. So it comes naturally to us. It may not come naturally to all bluegrass bands, but that’s a big part of who we are. It feels natural to us.
Bluegrass seems synonymous with populism these days. It seems to lend itself to that total immersion and devotion.
Bluegrass has always been such a big community, whether it’s traditional or the more jammy stuff. That’s what attracted me to it in the beginning when I was playing electric music. I went to my very first bluegrass concert almost by accident and saw this community and I thought that was so special. It makes sense, because there are so many parallels between that bluegrass world and that jamband world, and now it’s sort of come together. The Grateful Dead and Phish were both supportive of bluegrass and exposed a lot of their fans to it. Bluegrass was always a sort of subculture of that scene. Garcia was doing albums with David Grisman. People were really appreciating the bluegrass. Phish would bring Del McCoury on stage and that introduced a lot of people to that music and it opened the door for people to then explore what else it has to offer. That’s what I did with the Dead. Bluegrass came later to me in life, but they turned me on to blues and country. I soon realized they were covering classic songs, and when you hear that, it makes you want to dig a little deeper. So I would credit the Grateful Dead for a lot of my explorations into American roots music.