Leftover Salmon – Drew Emmitt Interview by Joe Burcaw
Colorado’s deep-rooted connection to Nashville, Tennessee is much more important to the Bluegrass world than one (Joe Burcaw, ed.) would initially think. I was under the impression it was a sub-genre of Country music the Scots-Irish immigrants brought over to only the Appalachia region. Well, I was misinformed and thanks to Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt for setting me straight, and for putting me on the right path when it comes to retaining the rich history of Boulder’s Jamgrass scene. A genre mash-up which has blossomed west to the Rockies over the decades. Drew Emmitt, co-founder of road-dog legends Leftover Salmon, has been pounding the working-band pavement for over thirty years now. In 2021, he seems primed up and rearing to go once given the green light to tour again. Having to pull the plug on 200 plus gigs and being forced to hunker down at home can be taxing mentally, emotionally, and physically. Chatting with Drew made me realize that one can still stay positive and feel hopeful under extreme duress. He and the band have risen to the occasion and started streaming live shows back in January of this year. A perfect time to jump on opportunities when everyone is home yearning for entertainment. Earlier this month the band released its new studio album, Brand New Good Old Days, on Compass Records. A true masterpiece featuring blazing banjos, mammoth mandolins, and foot stompin’ backbeats to make yer ass shake in delight to the rhythms. Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ was chosen as a cover, and I have to say, I much prefer Salmon’s upbeat barnyard bash to the original. It’s not too often you get to appreciate an ensemble who have been around the block a few times still packing venues across the country, Leftover Salmon, still holding the torch and keeping the flame alive all these years later.
JOE: I know you have a brand-new album entitled Brand New Good Old Days, will you be pressing vinyl and CD or just digital at this juncture in time?
DREW: We are pressing vinyl and CD with our label, Compass (Records). They’re still firm believers in putting out some kind of physical product, which I personally think is cool. It's nice to have something you can actually hold in your hands and look at and put on your stereo. There will be digital too, so yeah, we have the vinyl and CDs in hand and we're pumped!
JOE: That is so great to hear! I love being able to physically hold something and the idea of having an inlay card with credits reading who played what. I miss that, I really do. The band has been around over 30 years, what is the recipe to your success in keeping the machine running for that extended amount of time? Let's face it, in this day and age, groups can barely get past the five-year mark before imploding.
DREW: Well, that's a good question, maybe because it has just worked for this long? We're very lucky to be able to have a career this long and have fans who have stuck around with us, and new fans too. Honestly, if we didn't have the fans who believed in us coming out to our shows, we wouldn’t have been able to continue doing it. I would have to say the fans are number one in that, and also the fact that we have a really good time playing together. It's fun and we get to do really fun things and go to fun places and play with all of our musician friends. It has been quite the amazing musical life with this band, that’s all I can say. I think it's just the excitement of getting on stage together and having a good time, I feel very fortunate that we get to do that.
JOE: This latest lineup has been together for almost a decade, is that correct? Having great chemistry definitely says something in regard to longevity.
DREW: Absolutely, especially after we lost our very close buddy and compatriot Mark Vann. We had such a strong band back then and the three of us, Vince (Herman), Mark, and I just had this thing, We had different rhythm sections and different keyboard players, but the three of us really were the foundation with the chemistry. I think we finally have that again and it took a little while. You don't easily replace a guy like Mark, that was very difficult. When Andy joined the band, it really changed everything, and Andy came out to play with me with the Nershi band and afterwards he came down and sat in with Salmon a few times. I was like, oh my god let's get him in the band now! When that happened it really felt like we got a band together and not just putting something together piecing it along as we go. He's a brother, we just love him to pieces, and he just had a new baby, but we really feel like there is chemistry once again. We've lost our keyboard player Erik Deutsche to the Dixie Chicks, which we're psyched about
for him. Even with that change we feel like the band's more solid than ever. We have such a solid five-piece that it just feels really good. We can have people come and sit in here and there, but we're set now.
JOE: Let's talk about Erik's departure. Number one, was he on the latest record?
DREW: Yes, he is.
JOE: Okay, number two going forward are you leaving the keyboard chair open and will you hire someone to take out on the road for shows?
DREW: Well, this is a question I've been getting a lot lately. We’ve gone back and forth a few times where we had keys and we didn't have keys. We had a fiddle player for a tour and tried some different things. Every time we've had a great keyboard player that's stuck with us for a while, they end up leaving, like Bill Payne (Little Feat) who went to The Doobie Brothers. We were sad to see him go but it was great having him while we did, and the same thing with Bill McKay, he brought a lot to the table and was great. But every time we go back to being a five-piece it feels great, this is kind of what Leftover Salmon is meant to be, a five-piece electric Bluegrass band that plays Rock’n’Roll, or whatever we are.
JOE: This is exactly why I dig your music, you cannot pin point one specific genre stylistically, and that’s what makes you guys stick out from the rest. Getting back on the keys, do you think harmonically speaking the stringed instruments carry more of the melodies and that's why you can get away with continuing without a keyboard player?
DREW: Yeah, man, I feel like we've always leaned more heavily on the strings to drive the band and the keyboards generally play a supportive role to that. There have been some keyboard players through our history who have taken it over the top, some of those times with Bill Payne where we would jam out and he would take it somewhere and it was like, wow am I really standing on stage with this guy? We would leave the stage and Erik and Greg would do this freeform Jazz for like 20 minutes to a half hour and we would sit on the side of the stage and just marvel at it, which was so cool. So, there's definitely places the keys can take it where it's harder with just the strings, therein lies the adjustment. You know, it's all good as they say.
JOE: Would you guys consider yourselves part of the Jam Band circuit/world? When playing live, do you go out with a setlist and call off audibles as you feel the room?
DREW: We always feel a room and get a sense of where the crowd is at. Sometimes you can write a setlist coming out of the gate really raging with lots of energy, but I think it's important to be able to adjust as you go. If you stick to a rigid setlist regardless of the situation sometimes, it's not gonna fit. So, we just gauge things as we go. For bigger shows we really do try to follow a setlist because we have a better idea, like at a festival or Red Rocks. On those shows we tend to stick to the list a little more.
JOE: I was watching live at the Mission Ballroom in Denver from New Year’s Eve 2019, and you guys threw in this funky Mountain Fogged Down jam which was incredible. The back-and-forth trading of licks between the mandolin, banjo, and keyboards was a sight to see! Is that a staple tune that you throw in all of the time, or something that you perform once in a while?
DREW: Yeah, I mean we play it sometimes, but it's not a regular occurrence in the rotation but always one we like to play in honor of Mark Vann, especially on New Years Eve. But yeah, that's a fun one and over the years it has definitely taken on some different facets, regiments, instrumentation, and all kinds of stuff.
JOE: Would you say that you're more of a live band than a studio band? The reason I ask is because there hasn't been a lot of output these past 32 years, it seems like you guys are more of a touring entity rather than a recording entity, is that correct to say?
DREW: In the early days I would get frustrated that we weren't making more records but there was no time, right? We were on the road 250 plus days a year or whatever it was, so when do we make a record? As great as it was to establish ourselves as a touring band, I always thought it would be fun to make more records. So, it feels like in the last ten years we probably made way more records than we did when we first started out in our first ten years. I don't regret it, but you're right it would have been nice to have made more records. I guess there's a lot of that music out there on the internet as far as live shows, right? It's kind of like the Dead I guess, when you listen to the Grateful Dead radio channel, you're not listening to many of the studio cuts, it's almost entirely live. But we're kind of in that tradition too, yeah.
JOE: Do you find that a lot of people bootleg the shows when you're out there live? Do you find things filtering through on the internet?
DREW: Oh yeah, we've always encouraged it and who knows how many tapes
there are flying around out there. But yes, I am sure there's just about every show documented somewhere.
JOE: What's really good about that is if had a fantastic show back in 2002 in Pittsburgh PA You may have somebody out there who recorded it. So yes, that's kind of an attribute to bootlegging shows. Getting back on records, you were signed to Hollywood Records for two albums. Tell me about that experience of being signed to a major label and the pros and cons?
DREW: It was an amazing experience overall you know, there's definitely drawbacks to being on a major label but at the time we were really hitting it and there were many major labels that were interested in signing us. We would travel around getting wined and dined by these different record label execs and trying to decide who to go with. It kind of came down to Atlantic Records, which was super exciting, Hollywood Records, and Capricorn Records. It was pretty exciting for a young band out touring on a school bus to suddenly have all this interest from the record labels.
JOE: Did you have A&R people who were approaching you back home, or was it more coastal like New York or LA? Where did the interest come from, was it from building a fan base in Colorado?
DREW: Oh no, it was definitely on the road. We would never have been able to do the Nashville sessions without a record label. That was a huge budget and huge production, so we're thankful to them. I think overall it was a great experience. Now I think it's kind of a thing of the past, mostly for our genre when record labels come after you.
JOE: Everybody has gotten swallowed up, there aren’t many major labels left to negotiate with. If you don't mind me asking, did you guys get dropped or was it a mutual thing where you wanted to cut the ties and move on after the two records were fulfilled?
DREW: They were exercising their option after two records and felt like that's all they wanted to do. But I think because we did the Nashville Sessions it really kept them interested long enough to get us some key opportunities, so we were fortunate there. If we somehow had a hit radio song and sold millions of records that may have been different, but yeah, we've never had a whole lot of radio support which I guess is common for our genre. These labels want to sell millions of records, and that’s not what we’re about.
JOE: It's a numbers game, I completely get it. Let me ask you something about the Boulder scene. Is Colorado home base for the Folk Bluegrass festival scene?
DREW: I would say yes, Nashville is sort of like the bookend to it. We’re more songwriting, and studio oriented but also a lot of those people that are in that scene live in Nashville as well. So kind of in a way like there's the Boulder-Nashville connection right now that kind of goes hand in hand. It has been that way for a while really, this is kind of where it's all based.
JOE: Are you are you still a member of The Left-Hand String Band?
DREW: If we ever decided to call it that again we could play it under that name for quite a while, but it kind of morphed into The Drew Emmitt band. The Left-Hand String Band name just sort of phased out, but we've talked about doing some reunions with whoever may still be around. So, there's always that possibility of playing at a place called The Gold Hill Inn west of Boulder where we used to perform live, we thought about having a reunion there.
JOE: I was checking you guys out and there was a cast of great musicians that accompany you. It must be nice to be able to hand pick who you want to play with, and surrounding yourself with such high level of musicianship. That's a gift!
DREW: Always a treat, and I feel very blessed and fortunate to have been able to play with so many great musicians over the years who have inspired me and pushed me to be better. It's like having professional athletes playing a basketball game together, they're gonna have a lot more fun than people who have only played once or twice. When everybody knows each other, you really can feel the music and really play well.
JOE: Speaking of great musicianship, you're a stellar mandolin player, and I am in awe when watching videos of you play. How did you get your start, and what was the impetus that made you pick up the mandolin, and who were your influences?
DREW: There were many influences, the first was hearing it in Rock music and not necessarily in Bluegrass because I was playing the banjo in a Bluegrass band, I wasn't playing the mandolin yet. Strangely enough, going back to being a teenager and listening to Led Zeppelin’s lead on “The Battle of Evermore”. That's what hooked me to the mandolin, the beauty of it being so jangly and pretty. It's got that beautiful open chord sound and I was really just taken with it as a Rock musician more than a Bluegrass musician. My friends kind of turned me onto David Grisman and Sam Bush and a local band called High Rise. This local guy named Tim O'Brien, who lived in Boulder, gave me mandolin lessons. He was my first teacher and really laid it out for me how to play the mandolin and you know how to look at it as a whole and all the positions and everything I needed to know. So, Tim was really instrumental in getting me going.
JOE: Did you study music in college or grade school?
DREW: A little bit. Well, I was always in bands in school like concert bands, and I was in the stage band during middle school and high school. So yeah, in elementary school I was in the concert band there too. I have always been around music and have always done music in school. I was jamming with people growing up in Tennessee outside of Nashville. It's pretty common to end up at a party with people sitting around in a circle jamming, and then the same thing when we moved out to Colorado. I was like, oh it’s the same thing here except it's a Bluegrass festival feel with people standing around campfires. What I've learned more than anything is just playing Bluegrass around a campfire, it’s where you cut your teeth, you know?
JOE: I was just about to say, it seems like the jam sessions elevated you into achieving success by shaping you into the professional musician you’ve become. I'll tell you, that equates to the East Coast cities like New York or Boston where I was pounding the pavement attending all these jam sessions that were more Blues, Funk, & R&B themed. That's where you get schooled learning quickly about your rhythm, timing, and what to play and what not to play. You really need that as a musician, hone in on your craft and getting your butt kicked.
DREW: You can't learn that in music school, no. That's something where you have to get out there and you have to play with people working on your chops and learning the songs. Especially in the Bluegrass world, there's a language of knowing the tunes and learning all of these things by playing together, right? It’s the same thing in Blues and Rock, there’s a common language there as well. But you know, what I realized about Bluegrass is that there are Rock festivals where people stay up all night standing around campfires and picking. This was something I'd never seen before and thought this is the coolest thing ever. Yeah, people just hang out and play music together.
JOE: That's incredible! I came out of the Irish scene and after every gig people would go back to the hotel and jam in the round calling out traditional tunes & reels fiddling and banging on boughrans, it was fantastic being around that type of community.
DREW: I've been in some of those Irish jams and they are awesome! I've got a pretty good Irish scene here too. The old time/world music is a totally different animal from Bluegrass, it's all about getting into the trance. It's a meditation and community being with your fellow human beings sharing and connecting, which is really cool.
JOE: I agree100%, but let's now focus on the new record The Brand New Good Old Days. I saw a live version. I think it was just you and Vince playing in early 2020 at the Paste studio in Atlanta, right? Have you guys been sitting on this material for a while and decided that you want to release it now, or was it recorded pre pandemic? What is the background backstory?
DREW: It was really new when Vince and I were playing it together. We actually recorded the record back in October of 2019. It's a really great song to break down and boogie off. That’s a fun one to play.
JOE: I really appreciate your harmonies, the two of you have a nice timbre when both voices are blended together. I noticed that when watching a lot of the live stuff, can you contribute that to just being together for so long and knowing each other's vocal tone during the harmonies? Do you talk about stacking harmonies and including the third and fifth? Do you include a third part harmony anywhere in your music, or do you feel like it's better just having the two voices?
DREW: I love the three & fives, we definitely have several three parts, sometimes with me and sometimes with Greg and sometimes with the band, they can all harmonize which is nice because I love big harmonies. But a lot of times just the duet is nice in a lot of the tunes. Yeah, I'm a huge giant fan of harmonizing it's one of the coolest things ever.
JOE: That's why the kids need to listen to Queen for interesting harmonies. When Mark was alive, was he the third harmony voice? Did you have to find another voice after his passing to fill that void?
DREW: We really weren't doing the three parts until this latest incarnation. It was really just Greg and I doing it from back in the day until recent years.
JOE: Your voices complement each other beautifully and stand out powerfully. I noticed that your bass player Greg Garrison was credited as producer of the record, how did that decision come about?
DREW: I think it just naturally developed, you know, Greg's got an amazing ear, we're hearing mixes back and he's picking up on things that nobody else is picking out, he is very meticulous. He's a professor teaching music at CU Denver and I think it kind of comes through as his role in the band. He’s kind of the professor helping out with a lot of organizational stuff, and a lot of coordinating between the manager and the band etc. He's got a really good mind for that stuff and we're really lucky to have somebody like him in the band, and he's just kind of taken over that role. As far as producing, it just made sense for one of us in the band to be the one that is in charge of producing and not like all of us throwing too many ideas out there, which is generally what happens. Greg's a great person to put in that role and he did a great job.
JOE: Everything sits well in the mix, especially when listening with ear buds. As we said earlier, you need to build a team and you need to have people you trust that you're surrounding yourself with. It’s a great sounding record for sure. You chose Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” as a single, and brought new life into the track. Now for me as a musician, I find the chord sequencing a bit different with a lot of flat major sevens and an E minor floating around in there too.
DREW: Yeah, how the melody moves around is really crazy cool. When I first started hearing that song, I thought it had the coolest progression and melody and I never quite listened to the lyrics that much until I learned it. The words are crazy, but apparently, he just put them together as kind of a wordplay which is so cool the way the melody works with the lyrics. I had this Bluegrass idea that excited the band.
JOE: It honestly breathes new life into the track and brings an uplifting feel as opposed to the somberness of the original version.
DREW: Thank you, and I'm hoping people are surprised.
JOE: Was that your decision and did you suggest it?
DREW: Yeah, yeah, it just kind of jumped into my head as an idea one day. I sort of started singing a beat to a Bluegrass rhythm and thought that actually would work as a bluegrass song.
JOE: You never got to play this out live, correct?
DREW: We did it live when we were filming for our stream in Denver. But yeah, we have not played a lot of this record live. We have not played live so we're really excited to do that coming up in the next few days.
JOE: I noticed you have a spring tour set up, yes?
DREW: We have a long weekend Thursday, Friday & Saturday. Thursday we're at the Planet Bluegrass festival site in Lyons Colorado and that's going to be super cool. That's kind of our home base, that's where we grew up in Bluegrass. Then we're headlining the next few nights at Red Rocks with limited COVID seating at around 2500. It is almost a 10,000-seat venue but I think there will be enough people to really make it feel like it's a show. But it'll be different and more intimate, so I'm actually looking forward to that.
JOE: Do you find that when you hit the road you need to be with other groups doing a package tour, or do you feel that you have enough fans where you’re able to fill a couple hundred to a thousand seaters? For instance, a lot of bands will go out on the summer circuit and do all the festivals and then during the off-season they'll do weekend stuff here and there. What would your touring schedule look like if there was no COVID?
DREW: Well, things have changed over the years. We definitely hit touring really really hard, especially during our first 20 years, and we consistently had really good crowds across the country. There’s always going to be your nights that aren't that great, and you get through it. But we've been lucky that we've had a really consistent crowd and fan base over the years. There are enough people across country that know us and want to come see us. Yeah, it's good doing theaters and some bigger clubs and some outdoor venues. Let me just put it this way, it's maintained a good level you know, it's not like we ever got huge. We've gotten to a point where it has been good for many years, and really fun, no complaints honestly. In the last few years, we've definitely been looking at winding down more and being more strategic and not doing as many big tours. I think everybody's kind of ready for that now. We have plenty of heart and it feels good to be a little more strategic and a little more selective. It opens up all kinds of other possibilities and people want to do their own solo stuff and try other things and there should be time for that. I think we're in a really good place right now.
JOE: You've been around for so long and have built up your franchise and branding for the band. There are a lot of people that are weekend warriors who need to sustain their income by working a day gig, which there is no shame in admitting. There is a stigma that's attached to working a day job and that you're not a true musician in the sense if you need to supplement your income with a 9-5er.
DREW: Not at all, I started out working for years while we were getting The Left Hand String Band going and I couldn't make a living playing Bluegrass back then. Bluegrass wasn't really something that you play in bars and theaters unless you were a huge act. But now of course you can do it, back then you had to have a job living the standard ‘don’t quit your day job’ mentality. Anyway, you can make it work and I feel very appreciative that I've been able to make this one a living.
JOE: Have you guys been doing a lot of live streaming during the lockdown last year into this year or just select shows?
DREW: Yeah, we've been releasing streams that we made back in January at the VA center in Beaver Creek and also at The Oriental theatre. We filmed all those shows and we've been releasing those leading up to this weekend.
JOE: Do you think this is the wave of the future right now as far as people doing that? From an audio standpoint are you happy with the end result?
DREW: Yeah, I think it came out great but it is what it is. It's a video and not a live show, I think it has been very helpful during the pandemic having so much online, and it has been pretty much all people have had. So yeah, I think it's a great thing to have, and think it will moving forward. It’ll definitely have more of an impact on the business in general and I think it's going to be used more. I don't think it's necessarily the way of the future because what people really want is that live experience, and when that comes back there's gonna be some smiling faces.
JOE: There's gonna be a lot of babies born and a serious boom.
DREW: Yes, exactly! Somebody equated it to the roaring 20s.
JOE: Well, that's a great comparison for sure. People are itching, they want to get outside and see shows. As human beings were meant to be social and congregate around each other, but we’ve been cut off from that crucial necessity.
DREW: Yeah, we're not meant to be isolated like this. Even though it has its place it has been challenging to be isolated. I am looking forward to getting back together, that’s for sure!
JOE: Amen to that! Well, thank you so much for your time and graciousness allowing our conversation to go a little longer. Before we go let the people know where they can reach you on the social media handles.
DREW: Just go to the website: www.leftoversalmon.com. It has all the contacts and management and social media and all of that stuff.
JOE: Well, very good my friend and thank you again. Be safe out there!
DREW: My pleasure, see you out there and have a good afternoon.
JOE: You too.
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