Coming off of a 2016 album in “Ladies & Gentlemen” that was a bit of a musical detour, the Infamous Stringdusters knew it was time to re-establish what the band is about musically.
But fiddle player Jeremy Garrett is a bit surprised by just how far back to their roots his group went on their new album, “Laws of Gravity.”
“We wanted to make a statement with this record that’s who we are and we’re back to our Dusters’ business, I guess you could say, but with a whole lot more experience under our belts,” Garrett said in a recent phone interview. “But you know what’s exciting about this record to me in some ways, too, is it even harkens back to maybe our first record, ‘Fork in the Road,’ in the sense that there’s a lot more bluegrass on there.
“It (bluegrass) has always been that foundation, and we kind of have over the years sort of expanded into more of a poppier side of things we could do,” he said. “So, this is kind of that way to come full circle and sort of bring it back in that way to be a little more calling upon that bluegrass and writing songs in that vein, not that it’s all bluegrass, but it’s definitely more so than it has been, I think.”
The band performs at 8:30 p.m. March 31 on the main stage during the WinterWonderGrass Tahoe festival at Squaw Valley USA.
The bluegrass emphasis on “Laws of Gravity” gets established with frisky opening track, “Freedom,” while other songs (“Black Elk,” “A Hard Life Makes A Good Song” and “1901: A Canyon Odyssey”) also demonstrate the group’s command of the bluegrass form. But “Laws of Gravity” also has songs that expand beyond bluegrass, including the graceful title song and poppier “Soul Searching” and “Vertigo.”
In reality, “Ladies & Gentlemen” wasn’t a total departure from the Infamous Stringdusters’ bluegrass roots. But it was a left turn in a couple of significant ways, beginning with the fact it featured 11 female vocalists (including Joan Osborne, Joss Stone and Sara Watkins) singing the songs.
Perhaps more than the previous five studio albums released since the Infamous Stringdusters formed in 2006, “Ladies & Gentlemen” also stretched the group stylistically.
The instrumentation, obviously, was still bluegrass, and several songs fit the genre. But many of the songs favored deliberate tempos and cross-pollinated bluegrass and blues, gospel, soul and other roots-y styles.
Looking back, Garrett feels “Ladies & Gentlemen” accomplished the goals the Infamous Stringdusters had for the project.
“We definitely didn’t want to go in a completely different artistic direction,” Garrett said of the “Ladies & Gentlemen” project. “It was just more of something special that we wanted to try and do.”
Back to bluegrass
“Laws of Gravity” certainly shows that the Infamous Stringdusters were ready to reach back into bluegrass. But the group had a few other goals in mind for the new album.
One key objective was to try and capture more of the group’s live sound and vibe on a studio recording.
“We have sometimes been criticized in the past for some of our records kind of sounding too slick,” Garrett said. “Between the group, we’ve had an extensive amount of experience in studios and have played with a countless variety of artists out there. So, because of that, sometimes we end up sounding too slick in a studio environment because we were kind of approaching it from we’ve made all of these great records with other people and that’s how we kind of approach the recording process, or have in the past. So, sometimes that comes across as too slick sounding or too produced.
To help achieve more of the organic sound and live vibe of the group, Billy Hume was brought in to co-produce “Laws of Gravity.”
Hume was no stranger to the Infamous Stringdusters, having worked on the group’s 2012 album, “Silver Sky.”
“You really try to make a conscious effort not to overproduce,” he said. “Let the songs, if they’re simple, be simple. If they’re complicated, come up with the best arrangement to emphasize the strengths of the song rather than have a complicated part just because we want to use our brains. So that’s kind of the way we approached it. And then having Billy record it, he really is a wizard. I mean, he’s more than just an engineer. It’s incredible what he does sonically with a record. He’s able to capture those natural, edgy tones that get that more raw sound. And with less production and more of that, I think that’s really what’s captured on this record, more than ever before.”
Staying true to the music
Perhaps and even bigger goal for “Laws of Gravity” was something the members of the Infamous Stringdusters — Garrett, dobro player Andy Hall, bassist Travis Book, guitarist Andy Falco and banjo player Chris Pandolfi — could only accomplish on their own — at least in Garrett’s view.
“This is coming from one person’s opinion out of the group, but I feel like sometimes we are slow to trust ourselves, our own instincts and all of the experiences we’ve had as musicians,” he said. “I feel like trusting ourselves on this record was the most important thing. I was so proud of us for all getting behind that and sort of going in that direction. In the past, it’s always been like because we’re a new group, you’re trying to think how to make it lucrative at the same time while trying to make art. And that’s just kind of like two disparate worlds that never really work well together. Everyone has to pay their rent, so you have to figure that out.
“But I think in the past we’ve made sacrifices because we want to sound a little more progressive, or we want to use a producer because you think he can get us to another level, or they have a big name, or whatever,” Garrett said. “So with this, (we were) trusting ourselves and fully just getting on board in that way and realizing people were trying to even suggest eliminating songs off of the record to us, and we ignored all of that stuff this time. We put as many songs as we wanted on the record. We feel like everyone’s playing is represented. There have been records in the past where there may have only been one guitar break on the record because we were trying to keep it within 12 songs or keep it within 10 songs. It (a song) had to be within three and a half minutes or else it might not be played on the radio and all these worries and concerns. This time it was more about the art and caring less about that other stuff.”
The music-first attitude carries over the Infamous Stringdusters live show. The group is starting to mix the new songs into its shows, but continues to change up its song set from night to night. This helps keep the group inspired on tour and also ensures that fans that come to multiple shows on a tour will get a different song selection each time.
“I’ve been in situations in early career years where I had to play the same show night after night,” Garrett said. “And it’s nice when you can nail your parts and you know everything you need to do for the night. But I really, we all do in the Stringdusters, enjoy the avant-garde, the improv. That’s what our whole thing is about.”