Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Drew Emmitt, multi-instrumentalist and co-founder of the jamgrass band Leftover Salmon, about the challenges the band faced early on, making their first album in eight years and his introduction to the mandolin.
CP: You guys are an incredibly hard to classify band, which is something you seem to take great delight in. Has that ever worked against you, booking wise?
DE: It's never really worked against us. We've always just liked to play many different styles. If we could be pigeonholed into one style of music we play, that would be "many styles," so we decided to call it "Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass" for that reason. [Laughs.] But you know, I think it's always worked to our advantage because it definitely keeps people guessing about what we'll play next. That's always fun.
CP: Do you feel like people expecting you to do the unexpected gives you a lot of leeway, in terms of reinventing yourself over time?
DE: Absolutely. It's really nice to have a wide-open palate to work from. Especially making our last record, in trying to decide what kind of record to make, we just let it fly. The songs came in all different genres, like they always do. That makes it fun, to not feel like we have to write a certain song or a "Salmon" song. It can be bluegrass or folk or Cajun or calypso - anything. It does make it fun. Our fans enjoy that they always get something different.
CP: Speaking of "Aquatic Hitchhiker," what were your hopes going into the studio again for the first time in eight years?
DE: We had been doing a few shows here and there for the last three years. This past fall, we finally did a tour of the northeast and did a little tour in February of ski towns. We were just getting things going again as a band after taking a break for about three years.
We never really thought we would make another studio record. We just thought we would play sparsely and do our side projects, which had been going really well. Once we started thinking about making another record and got used to the idea, it became really exciting to us.
We actually collaborated a lot on writing process for this record, which is not something we've done a lot of in the past. We usually just individually brought tunes to a recording project. This time, it was really a collective effort. That's what makes this record so unique, it's truly everyone pitching in, even the rhythm section.
We're pretty excited about it. We pretty much wrote these songs out of thin air last fall and went in the studio about a month afterward.
CP: Did the band writing as a whole have a different voice than you would have expected, given your individual writing styles?
DE: Yeah. In a way, Vince and I, especially, have always written the songs and brought them to the band, and we had our own ideas. It definitely changes the voice a little bit. It's surprisingly kind of rootsy and folky, in a way that our previous records haven't been. It's really cool. It's hard to put my finger on it, but it's definitely a different sound this time.
CP: Thinking back on the period immediately following when the group founded in 1989, was it a struggle to find an audience or did the genre-straddling work in your favor?
DE: No, I mean, at first, it was a little challenging because there really weren't any other bands doing this kind of music, this electric-oriented bluegrass. We had to get out there and prove ourselves at first.
There weren't a lot of bands at this level touring at that point in the early '90s. Of course, since then, the whole jam band world has really blossomed and become what it is today, but at that point, Phish was just starting, Widespread Panic was just starting. We were one of the few new jam bands out there, and we didn't even call it a jam band; we were just a bluegrass band trying to tour and play rock'n'roll.
At first, touring was challenging because booking the bands, it was hard to convince some of these club owners that this music was going to be accepted and that people would come and see it. Yeah, in a sense, it was challenging at first, and it took a lot of getting out on the road and playing a lot of shows to make it happen.
CP: Bluegrass traditionalists can be prickly about what's acceptable from bands. Did you ever get sour looks from bluegrass promoters or fans for incorporating drums?
DE: A little bit, but we come from the side of bluegrass that New Grass Revival created and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. We were following in their footsteps. New Grass Revival caught a lot of flak for many years. There were always going to be those traditionalists who don't like to hear drums or electric instruments in this context.
At the same time, there were a lot of people who were excited by it. Ricky Skaggs having us at his picking party in Wolf Trap, Virg., back in the day with Bela [Fleck], and Jerry [Douglas] and Sam [Bush] and all those guys was great because you could bring in a whole new audience. Bluegrass needs that.
People in bluegrass, even if they're traditional, see the big picture. They see that, in order to keep bluegrass alive, you have to do different things and expand the boundaries and pusht the limits. People saw this band as a way to do that in order to bring new people into bluegrass. I think we had a hand in doing that.
There will always be the traditional people who want it to stay exactly the same, and we respect that. We have a lot of respect for the old bluegrass and roots bluegrass, and we can be a straightahead bluegrass band, if we want to be. That's all great, and I totally respect that. Those people are always going to have their opinions, but also, a lot of that culture really respects what we're doing and really enjoys it.
CP: When you were starting, did you feel like you had a lot in common with jam bands like Phish or Widespread Panic? Did you see your music as sharing much in common with theirs or did you consider yourselves to be in your own category?
DE: We had a lot in common. We got to know those guys, especially Panic, early on. I did feel like we had a lot in common with them. Phish had a lot of bluegrass roots as well. We were doing it in a lot of the same way, which was to just get on the road and play a bunch of shows. We were all kind of part of the same equation and the same movement.
We were going about it a little bit more from a bluegrass standpoint, because we were bluegrass musicians, first and foremost, but we had the same idea, which was throwing a bunch of music into the mix and not being easily classified. Phish and Panic share that, for sure.
CP: When you were starting out, who were some of your personal early musical inspirations?
DE: I was in my late teens when I started playing mandolin. I had been playing guitar for years, electric and acoustic, and had been writing songs. My mom actually bought me a mandolin for my birthday, just a cheap mandolin, and I took to it right away.
I started listening to David Grisman right off. Then a band called Hot Rize with Tim O'Brien. Then, I found New Grass Revival with Sam Bush, and he really became my favorite. I've since gotten to play a lot of music with Sam and gotten to become pretty good friends with him, which is a wonderful thing. Being able to spend time with someone I admire a lot has been great. Those guys have been my biggest mandolin influences. Jethro Burns [of Homer & Jethro] is another one and Mike Marshall. Those are definitely the main ones.
Actually, originally, before David Grisman, the first time I really heard the sound of the mandolin was in Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. When I heard "Battle of Evermore" as a teenager, I loved that sound. Really, even before I got into playing bluegrass on the mandolin, I was exposed to it through bands like Led Zeppelin.
CP: It's funny that you came into it through rock when many teenagers these days are being introduced to the instrument through your playing or guys like Chris Thile.
DE: Which is kind of funny. It's come full circle. Talk about full circle, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival last year, we had Robert Plant play with his band. To see Robert Plant coming and playing a festival we'd been playing for years was really ironic. It's interesting how the two worlds are coming together.
CP: Mandolin appears in many different styles of music. Do you feel like it's a naturally fit for the wide-ranging sensibility of jam music?
DE: Absolutely. I play electric and acoustic mandolin, and I think the mandolin, in bluegrass, is like the lead guitar. It translates really well into rock and calypso and all these styles we play. It's a very versatile instrument much more than just a bluegrass instrument. It's in all kinds of music.
It's also very rhythmic. When you're doing music that really requires a good, solid rhythm chop, whether it be bluegrass or reggae or calypso or ska, the mandolin is great for that. It really lends itself well to this type of music.
CP: When Vince Herman asked you and Glenn (Keefe) and Mark (Vann) to join him, did you expect the collaboration to work or was that a surprise?
DE: Originally, Vince had done some playing with my band, Left Hand String Band, and he branched off and started the Salmon Heads after that. We had our parallel bands going.
At Telluride, at the bluegrass festival, we all got together and played at a bar during the festival and entered the band contest as the Left-Handed Salmon Spankers. It was the Chicken Spankers, Left Hand String Band and The Salmon Heads all joined together.
The next winter, The Salmon Heads had a gig booked in Crested Butte, Co., where I live now. Some of the members didn't want to go that far - it was about five hours - so Vince called me up and said we should throw together a different band. We put together the bass player and myself from the Left Hand String Band and the drummer and accordion player and Vince from the Salmon Heads. That was the original band.
On the way to the gig, we were thinking of a name, and Vince came up with, off the top of his head, and said, "Well, let's call it Leftover Salmon." We all laughed and said, "OK." We didn't think it was going to turn into anything at that point. We thought we were just going together for that gig. Out of that gig, people called up, and we started playing all around Colorado. Then, we went out to Salt Lake City, Utah, and up to Jackson Hole, Wy. From then, it seemed like a good idea to keep it going.
CP: Over the last 20 years, has anything about how the band has developed been surprising to you?
DE: It's surprised all of us that we gained a following and were able to tour the country and play to packed houses everywhere and all make a living doing this. I think we were all shocked that it developed into being a viable touring band.
Especially in the mid-'90s, we started getting all these festivals and these great gigs on the road. We've been kind of amazed that it has had this staying power and that we have such a loyal following. Originally, we didn't expect that to happen.
Our dream was always to be able to play in the bluegrass and the rock worlds, and that's what ended up happening. To be able to play the bluegrass festivals and then to go on tour was really something that was unheard of, to be able to do both.
Now, there are other bands that do that, like the Infamous Stringdusters and String Cheese and Yonder Mountain String Band, but at the time, who knew it would develop into this culture where we could straddle both worlds? That just really amazed all of us.
CP: How does it feel to see the results of your trailblazing in those second- and third-generation bands?
DE: It's awesome, you know? We were around when the Yonder guys first came to Colorado. We were playing around the area, and they moved in. Basically, Vince was giving them dinner and taking them under his wing. They were playing little bars around the area, and the next thing you know, they were blowing up.
They were very keen on watching what we were doing. We were obviously a big influence on them. It feels great to see that happening. They're good friends of ours.
It's the same thing with String Cheese. We had been around about five years when Incident got together, and they built their band based kind of on what our band was about but they gave it their own a twist.
It's been really cool. It's the highest form of flattery to have other people emulate what you're doing and turn it into their own thing. What's cool about Yonder is that they've kept it entirely bluegrass and have blown it up just as a bluegrass band without drums. That' s a really cool thing.
It's nice to be an influence on these bands and yet see them take it in a new direction because we were very influenced by other bands like New Grass Revival and Little Feat and Hot Rize, but we took it in a new direction. It's all part of a big chain. It's nice to see that all the work we did and the touring we did and the trail-blazing we were doing when we didn't know what the heck was going to happen has worked out well for us but for other bands as well. It's a great feeling.
CP: Andy Thorn joined the band in 2010, but he's far from the first new member to come into the group. How malleable are you all to changes to the lineup?
DE: It's been great. I actually hired Andy to be in the Emitt-Nershi Band, the other band I've been touring with. When Noam [Pikelny] started really playing a whole bunch more and started getting things going, we had Matt Flinner on the banjo, who is fabulous, but he had a whole lot of other stuff going on. Andy had already moved to Boulder, so we thought, "Well heck, let's get Andy to be in the band."
Since we've done that, it's really, really ignited the band and really made it feel exciting to be in it more than ever. His style really fits what we're doing. He's really got a lot of rock'n'roll in him, and he is a great bluegrass picker. He's really a great fit. It's made it feel like the old days again. It's made it feel like we're a cohesive unit again. It's really ignited a whole new era for us. We're really excited.
CP: Is it a stretch to suggest him joining the band had something to do with you starting to tour and record again? Were they linked?
DE: In a way. We were working up to that, but it really motivated us to get serious again. It just made it feel like a band again. I think a lot of it is Andy's enthusiasm, too. He saw us when he was 14 in Chapel Hill, N.C., and for him to be in this band is, I think, really a dream of us. In a lot of ways, it motivated us to tour more and feel like a band again.
CP: On this tour, will "Aquatic Hitchhiker" comprise all of the set or will you reach into the back catalog a bit, too?
DE: We're playing everything. We're mixing the new songs in with the old. We're dragging out stuff we haven't played in years. The new songs are really fun to play, but it's also fun to bring out the old, familiar material, too. When people come to shows, they definitely want to hear both. It's nice to have new songs to play, and we're all really excited about it. We're just throwing it all in the mix.