Xpress spoke with Leftover Salmon founding member, Drew Emmitt, from Colorado this past week. We talked about everything from music festivals, getting back on the road after the band’s 2004 hiatus, their first new album in 8 years (Aquatic Hitchhiker) and even Bonnie Raitt. Catch Leftover Salmon’s show at The Orange Peel on Wednesday, Oct. 10. (Special guest: Jason Carter of The Travelin’ McCourys. Doors at 8 p.m., show at 9 p.m. $20 in advance or $22 day of show.)
Xpress: One of Leftover Salmon’s founding members, Vince Herman, recently moved to Oregon. Leftover Salmon played a going-away parade in Nederland, Colo. How did that go?
Drew Emmitt: They shut down the streets in Nederland and had a huge parade. It really shows how valuable Vince is to that community and how much he’s going to be missed. Nederland’s not going to be the same without him, that’s for sure.
The number of music festivals has risen drastically over the past few years. Leftover Salmon played on the H.O.R.D.E. festival tour in the mid-‘90s — how do you feel about music festivals’ new found popularity and the evolution of the music festival?
Festivals have popped up everywhere. There’s still the mainstays that have really been successful. I’m more partial to, not the huge, huge festivals, but festivals more like the size of Telluride Bluegrass, High Sierra, Magnolia Fest, RockyGrass. It’s really nice to see that those festivals have been thriving and continuing. I think that a lot of people worried that with the big, big festivals that the smaller ones would go away.
Certainly, some of them did. Some of the really small festivals didn’t do well enough to stay around. Festivals like Shakori Hills, or of that size, are really important. Those are the festivals where people can really get into the spirit and the culture of it, like the camping. The crowds are a reasonable size, big enough to have a good time, but not hundreds of thousands of people. You know, those festivals have their place, but I’m more partial to the homegrown, more organic festivals.
It’s hard to pigeonhole Leftover Salmon into a musical genre. Terms like newgrass, slamgrass, jam grass, Americana or Cajun-infusion are often thrown around when talking about the band. Looking back after 20-plus years, did the band set out to twist, or bend bluegrass music?
We were inspired by bands like New Grass Revival: Sam Bush and Bela Fleck. Even the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They’re a little more on the country side of it, but they were taking bluegrass and putting drums and electric guitars to it. Hot Rize and Seldom Scene: Bands that were playing bluegrass, but bringing a little more of a modern twist to it, if you will. That appealed to us because we were kind of a rowdy bunch, and we weren’t thinking that our music was going to be four people sitting in lawn chairs. We wanted our music to be for people to get up and boogie to.
We loved bluegrass, but we didn’t quite know how to play bluegrass and have it be that kind of a feel. Have the music get people jumping up and down, dancing and going crazy. We decide we would add some drums and some electric instruments, and some different styles and incorporate it all together in that context. Originally, we just wanted to play gigs year-round. It was very difficult back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s to do that with bluegrass. It was primarily music that was played in the summer time, except for a select few bands that could tour year-round. Largely, if you were in a bluegrass band, you were playing festivals in the summer and that was about it. [Bluegrass] wasn’t really happening too much in bars, that was mostly for rock bands. We wanted to bring bluegrass more into the mainstream and be able to play the kind of music we loved and make a living at it.
You touched on touring year-round and you did that until Mark Vann’s passing, eventually taking a hiatus at the end of ‘05. Other bands that lost founding members have taken similar breaks from touring and playing together. Those bands found the drive and energy to pick back up and go out on the road, too. What makes now the time for Leftover Salmon to get back on a full touring schedule?
The break was really great for us because we had been touring hard and we were ready to stop. We were touring every month, pretty much. Two or three weeks out of every month. Just trying to keep the machine fed. We were having a hard time keeping that energy going that we had with Mark. We had some great banjo players play with us, but it never quite had that same fire that we had. So, we just felt like it was time to stop. I think Vince and I both felt like it was time for us to go out and do it on our own, and see if we could make that happen.
I had already made my first solo record and was putting together a band and I was ready to get out and see if I could do it on my own. Finding out that I could was a very empowering thing, as it was for Vince. After three years of taking a break, I think we started to feel like “let’s see what would happen.” I called up our manager one day and said, “What’s the interest out there in Salmon?” He said, “It’s strange you should call, because right now there are several offers for festivals. There’s an offer for Red Rocks.” So I said, “Let’s poke around and see if we can make this happen.” Before we knew it, we were gearing back up and taking these offers, and the next day Telluride Bluegrass Festival called. I was like, “Okay, let’s do this.” It really felt great getting back on stage. We had Matt Flinner on banjo and he was really great. He did those one-offs with us, largely. Then, I hired Andy Thorn to be in [Emmitt-Nershi Band], and he was such a great fit, I thought, “What about if he came and played with Salmon?” I told Vince about him, Vince checked him out and they did some picking together and he was all for it. So, we hired Andy. I think that was really the catalyst to getting back on the bus, making the new record and and really making a go at it. I think up until that time, it felt pretty good doing Salmon again, but we didn’t really have that missing piece until we hired Andy. Now it just really feels like a band again.
Do you think the break has helped you gained new fans?
Absolutely. There’s a lot of new people. I’ve definitely been meeting a lot of people who have heard of us or maybe had heard recordings, but had never seen us. At the time we took the break, I think there was a lot of interest. You know, a lot of times when you go away for a while it really piques people’s interest even more. We’re getting a whole new generation of people coming to see us, along with old fans. It’s really great to see. I definitely see the crowds growing again and the enthusiasm is definitely there.
On your new album, Aquatic Hitchhiker, you worked with Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. What did he bring to the table as a producer?
He had been recommended to us by several people, and we were very familiar with his work and Los Lobos. He was a great producer for us. He really understood what we were going for, and really understood the band. He didn’t try to change us into something we weren’t, or groom us for the radio. He just wanted to get the best album out of us, and I feel like he did that. He had great suggestions and was meticulous about getting good performances out of all of us. He helped with the songwriting. He actually came out to Nederland early last fall and hung out with us for a couple of days and helped us write. He had some great ideas and was a good catalyst for finishing the songs. We had no idea what we were going to put on the record, until than. He was really helpful in putting those songs together and helping with the arrangements: Above and beyond what a producer would normally do, great in the studio and really professional. A great person to work with.
What music are you listening to right now and what bands do you think are on the rise?
I got the new Bonnie Raitt record, which I think is excellent. The music she is playing right now is some of the best she’s ever put out. I also got the new Little Feat record, which is real rootsy — kind of organic. I’m really enjoying that. I’m also really enjoying the new Joe Walsh album, Analog Man, which I can really relate to. As far as up-and-coming bands, we’ve been doing some shows with the The Infamous Stringdusters, and I just think they are killing it right now. That’s a really great band if you haven’t checked them out. They are really awesome as far as in the bluegrass genre. Anders Osborne is doing some great stuff these days. He’s been around for a while, but if people haven’t checked him out, he’s really great. I got to play with him at Floydfest this year and it was really awesome.
What can the audience expect from the current tour?
Well, we’re really going to be featuring a lot of the new material from the record, as well as the old favorites. Like I said, the band definitely has a new fervor and a new excitement. It feels in a lot of ways like the old Salmon, and yet with a renewed energy. We’ve just been having a better time than ever playing music together.
With that, how does Leftover Salmon decide the set list for each show?
We try to make every night different. Sometimes we don’t even make set lists, we just go with the spur of the moment, whatever feels right. Sometimes when we do make set lists we don’t follow them. So, always the Salmon tradition has been to be very spontaneous and to go with the moment. Anything can happen on any given night.