By Cristina Schreil
The Infamous Stringdusters have a lot to feel positive about. Fresh off the heels of their recent Grammy win for Best Bluegrass Album, the band is at a sweet spot. And, it seems they’re looking to spread these warm feelings. They’ve just released their energized ninth studio album, Rise Sun. The message behind it is about spreading light, hope, and compassion, especially amid current political tensions.
As fiddler Jeremy Garrett explained, while the group members are at the top of their craft, they plunge into plenty of uncharted territory with the album—specifically in the recording process.
We caught up with Garrett, who spoke about the album’s uplifting message, his fiddle’s family history, and why he’s in his groove now more than ever before.
Let’s start with the new album. I read that Rise Sun came from a positive place, with a message about love and compassion. Can you talk about that?
Well the song itself definitely came from that place. We did a song on a previous record called “Let it Go” and it had sort of a gospel vibe about it and a positivity in the message. It’s been a big song for us. It maybe had a little bit of inspiration for what came next with the song “Rise Sun.” It follows in a similar vibe.
And then, the record was all approached differently than we’ve ever approached a record before. We’re all very seasoned studio musicians, we’ve been around the music scene a long time. This time we took time to be very creative beforehand before the session. And we got to the point where we delved in so deeply into the songs we decided to record the songs in the order as you see them on the record—kind of like we do at our live shows.
What do you mean?
If you’ve ever been to some of our live shows, you’ll hear our songs but you’ll hear that we blend our songs together in these things that we call transitions. Sometimes we’ll string four or five songs together that way before taking a pause. So we tried to bring some of that element on this record. It almost has that vibe of you being at a live show while you’re listening to it.
What inspired you to do things differently in the first place?
Several things probably. We’re all about the same age. As we evolve as human beings, we all tend to go down similar paths, even though we’re five individuals. We tend to struggle with some of the same things in the same times of our lives. Those things come out in our lyrics and the songs that we play. The political environment right now is a huge influence right now on how everyone is feeling and interacts with their family and their friends. That’s had an immense amount of inspiration over the lyrics and the record and that kind of thing.
We’ve also been a band for 13 years now. We’ve done a few records by now. This is our ninth record. You try to come up with a unique and individual idea of course every single time as an artist. You’re trying to paint an original picture every time. There are similarities that start to happen in the recording process over and over again. This time we’ve purposely tried to take that different approach. Sometimes we get criticized for being too slick in our scene. We’re more part of the jam-grass scene right now and some jam-grass bands aren’t into the slick sound or whatever. I get that. But, for us, it’s just who we are and how we play. We’ve all mastered our crafts. We’ve worked on these things for many years and we purposefully tried to play well and play with dynamics and approach music from a super musician-oriented standpoint to try to make the songs the best sounding they can be or be the most creative in that way.
This approach to try to blend—that’s always been the thing, too. You go into the studio and we lay down live tracks and everybody is so good at their craft that it ends up sounding like we could’ve overdubbed it a million times to come up with the perfect sound. This time we really went in to trying to get all the tracks as natural and as raw as we could make them be in the way that we do it. It felt like we came up with a pretty fun, organic sound. Billy Hume, our co-producer, he is a master and a sonic wizard at bringing all these ideas into fruition, making these transitions happen and putting a crunch on the sound so that when you’re listening to this record in your living room or your car you’re somehow getting a similar experience—perhaps an emotional response—to the music as you are if you’re there live. That’s our hope.
You’ve been speaking about the overall sound of the group. Let’s speak about your fiddling. Did you do anything different on this record?
I’ve been at it a long time: I started when I was three; I’m 40 now. I feel like I continue to still grow with this instrument. I’m coming into loving it more now than I ever have. I feel like I got a rejuvenation.
I sort of have a solo project going on at the same time as the Stringdusters. I incorporate a lot of my guitar playing, mandolin, fiddle and voice, with a looper, and do a solo show. I’ll be coming out with a solo record later this fall.
That stuff has made me way better of a musician than I used to be. I’ve been doing that for about four years real seriously. I spent some time before that in the basement trying to work out what that would be. It’s a project that started later on in my career but it’s given me a rejuvenation for music and getting excited about getting better on my instrument. By happenstance all the extra experience of trying to incorporate this looping technology with a violin has forced me into being a better violin player than I used to be. I feel like it’s carried over to the Stringdusters and so on this record I feel real confident about everything that I played. Not in a bragging sort of way—I feel like I’m in my prime as far as fiddle playing goes. As far as what I do and what I’ve learned and experienced in my life is learning how to play this instrument I feel like I’m doing it the best that I can right now.
You’re in your element.
It feels good! It’s really nice to be able to lean on other guys that seem like they’re in that same stage of playing. This record is a deeper approach of me trying more technically advanced things than maybe I’ve gone for in the past. I’ve never tried to play it safe on a record ever. I’ve always tried to be as outspoken and original and unique as a player as I can be. I pride myself on that. Of course, I’ve listened to a vast amount of players to gain that sound too so there’s always the influence that’s there. I feel like I’ve really tried to make my own sound. This record is a deeper dive into all of that for me.
Can you offer a more specific example of how you’re technically pushing?
The song “Long Time Going,” which I wrote with Jon Weisberger, is pretty much like an old time tune but it’s a brand new song. I have a vast amount of experience in traditional bluegrass and some old time music, but it was a melody that I came up with in my head and inspired the song. The fiddling on that: I went for something that was more traditional than I’ve ever done. Just played more melody. That’s kind of the whole vibe of that tune.
I have a jam, “Carry Me Away,” a song I wrote with Kim Richey, this awesome Americana artist. That tune is cool because it’s built around a traditional bluegrass vibe and melody. There’s even an Old Joe Clark reference in the beginning as a signature line. It happened a couple of times throughout the song. I have a jam in that song where I sort of go for it a little bit more. I went for some things here and there, some deeper delves into some technical things with faster notes and position shifting—some different things that I might not have gone for in the past. I feel good. It’s something a little different than I’ve done.
How did your recent Grammy win affect your creative process on this record, if at all? Did it give an extra boost of excitement, was it extra pressure, or was it business as usual?
Well, all three, I would say! [Laughs.] Of course, when anything like that happens—and especially a Grammy—it’s cool because it made me reflect how people are listening to what you’re doing and that’s the main thing, right? When your art is getting out there. After winning the Grammy I heard from everyone that I ever even met, it seemed like. I realized, it is kind of a big deal to win a Grammy. It put a lot of gas in our tank, for sure. It gave us a lot of excitement. And it put the pressure on. That’s something I also like as a musician: I feel like it helps you stay on top of your game to have that pressure. To win something like that, of course you want to turn around and back it up and all that. When you’re making art and you’re talking about art, you can’t totally say that, because art is art. You’re not going to be able to plan, “We’re going to put out another thing and it’ll hopefully get us a Grammy.” That’s not what we’re trying to do. But, when we make music now, it’s in our mind that we’ve won this Grammy. It’s important that we have a big responsibility to make our music with that high level of integrity, to live up to that. That’s been a meaningful thing to all of us. And of course, it’s elevated us a little bit in the music scene, too. But, it is kind of business as usual, you know? We’re continuing to grow as a band and our audience is continuing to grow and more people are hearing about our music. All is pointing forward for us.
Tell us about your fiddle.
I play this old fiddle. It’s a violin that was made in 1914 by a guy named Herman Hagberg and he has a patent on this particular design of fiddle. I’ll tell you a quick story: My dad, when he was about 12 or 13 years old used to have this little dog. It got sick one day. His parents decided that they had to take care of it, it wasn’t going to live anymore. While he was away at school, they decided to take the dog away and they bought him a guitar. He came home and found out. The guitar really meant a lot to him after that. He played it every day.
He became known as the music guy around the block. Up the street there was this elderly couple. The lady used to play this violin in the symphony there in California where he’s from. One day she ended up getting cancer and she passed away. The husband said it just stirred him up too much to have [the violin] around all the time. One day, he walked down the street and he handed it to my dad and said, “You’ll know what to do with this.” So, my dad carried it around basically his whole life. He never really played violin. It was always sitting in the corner when I was growing up.
I started really young on, of course, on a really tiny cigar box or something. When I was 11 or 12 I was finally big enough to play it. That’s the fiddle I’ve always played.
What a cool story.
I love this thing. It’s probably the most responsive instrument I’ve ever played. It’s built special for me, it feels like. I’m really lucky to have it.
What Jeremy Garrett Plays
Strings: D’Addario Helicore Heavy Tension. “It’s an all around great sounding and lasting string.”
Pickups: LR Baggs and the Realist. “I use one or the other on any particular show. Both have qualities I like,” says Garrett.
Amp: Grace Felix instrument preamplifier/blender. “It’s a two-channel version of their product.”
Other gear: Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork Polyphonic Pitch Shift Pedal, TC Electronics reverb and delay pedals and a Cry Baby wah pedal. He also uses a short Boss Chromatic tuner TU-3s.