Blue Skies for Greensky: Paul Hoffman talks bluegrass. His way.
photography by Sam Balling
Not long into their set, Paul Hoffman kicks off his shoes, and it’s a sign that the jams have gotten deep. The vibe is collective, the sound somewhere between Grateful Dead and traditional bluegrass. The band ranges from Paul, with his long hair and shaggy beard, to Dave Bruzza on guitar with his close cut hair and moustache (“The man, the master, the moustache,” he’s introduced as by dobro player Anders Beck)- the quintet, complete with the indie-looking bass player Mike Devol and banjoist Michael Arlen Bont, have a way about taking bluegrass and making the most of it.
The last time the band was in town, they sold the venue out, and since the release of Handguns, Greensky Bluegrass has hit up festivals, performed for a spectrum of audiences, and all the while playing their hybrid music that has sucked in lovers of all genres of music.
Paul is relaxed, generally quiet, well-spoken, ushering us backstage to “where it’s quieter”. He offers me a drink and sits on the couch, leaning forward thoughtfully, collecting himself for the interview. While the band has a strong following and has a high level of popularity, they’re still like the young musicians that first got together to jam, which is what Paul makes clear, touching on the band’s beginnings, their writing process, and how they’re still leaning as they go.
What festivals are you playing this year?
We’re playing All Good, Delfest, a festival in Alaska called Salmonstock.
When is that?
The first weekend in August. We’ve never been. I’m excited.
Your sound is bluegrass, but you fit in with other crowds.
We appeal to a large group of people, which is nice. I feel blessed for that. As a musician, it’s encouraging and challenging. We have different dynamics to play, not always doing the exact same thing. It gives us opportunities to play different types of festivals; the venues vary less, but we play very bluegrassy festivals- we did Stagecoach, which is like the country Coachella. I tend to think we don’t blend in well there, but we do!
Do you tweak the level of bluegrass depending on where you are?
Yeah. Certain types of songs are more appropriate for certain settings, dark, trance jams… Every so often we play a sit down show. They’re more rare now than they used to be. The energy dictates what the music’s going to be.
Were you all playing bluegrass from the beginning?
None of us are playing our original instrument when we were young musicians. We’re all rediscovered in this bluegrass world. I didn’t even know what bluegrass was until I bought a mandolin and figured I should listen to Bill Monroe and find out what the hell is going on.
What did you play beforehand?
Guitar. Still do.
Do you remember your first show as Greensky Bluegrass?
Kinda. We did a lot of open mics. A lot. I remember those specifically. We used to play this place called the Blue Dolphin. It was super hole-in-the-wall, and we became so popular at the open mic nights that we started getting a case of Bells if we would go there and play. You’re not supposed to get paid to play an open mic, but they figured if we didn’t come, no one would come, so they said, “You can drink free beer all night.” And the best part about that was I was 19. [Laughs]