Interview | Photos | Chris Pandolfi | The Infamous Stringdusters

By: Casey Shafer

Newgrass quintet The Infamous Stringdusters took things to another level with the release of their fourth studio album, Silver Sky. As the band gears up for a batch of Fall dates in support of the record, Banjo player Chris Pandolfi settled in for a chat about the third annual Festy Experience (full review coming soon), the Stringdusters' songwriting process, the shifting dynamics of the music industry, and much more.

Click here to see photos from the Stringdusters' performance at Brooklyn Bowl on October 16!

JamBase: The third annual Festy just wrapped up. How was it?

Chris Pandolfi: Oh, man it was wonderful. It has become a thing that a lot of people look forward to, and we put a lot of time and energy into organizing. It really is a high point of the year for us, in terms of broadcasting to the world what we are all about musically as well as our lifestyle. From sustainability to aesthetic choices, it is a way to tell the world who we are. It has grown up into this event that we are really proud of and we already gearing up for year four.

You kind of just touched on something that I find interesting. You guys have had a big year so far, with your performance on Concrete Country, your busy tour schedule, and with The Festy obviously. When you were in Berklee [College of Music] together and you were talking about starting a bluegrass band, did you ever think that your style - or the bluegrass style in general, really - would become as popular as it has within the mainstream crowd today?

I think a lot of that came later. When you are starting a band, you are just trying to stay alive - you are literally just trying to live to the next day. The attitude of, ‘Where am I going to get my next meal?’ just kind of consumes you for the first few years. Once it becomes a real entity, the picture of where you fit into the music community starts to take shape. Early on, we all had really high aspirations. But if you look at the history of the Stringdusters, much has changed... and [the string-music genre is] reaching way beyond what even we are doing. I think it’s an amazingly fertile time... Our concept of who we are and where we want to be has really taken shape.

Music and art always evolve, and I think we are a part of this movement to bring bluegrass into the mainstream. It’s something that I really believe in. It’s definitely not a trend. It has been built much more on authenticity and a real lasting musical tradition that goes back way before we started playing, and it will be going long after we are gone. To be a part of it right now is really exciting.

Billy Hume
You guys just released the Silver Sky deluxe edition. Billy Hume produced this record and, traditionally, he isn’t known for working with string bands. I mean, he has produced artists like Ludacris, Lil Jon, and even Will Smith. How exactly did that come about?

Our manager has had a long standing relationship with Billy. We did what a lot of bands do for the first few years: We sort of picked from the engineers and producers that were from within our world (for) our first few records. It wasn’t just because we wanted to do something different - we did want to do that, but we wanted to set ourselves on a new course and build a relationship with a producer so that recording didn’t become something we just do every two or three years. It’s a very odd element of the touring life - you go out on the road 200 days a year, and once every couple of years you go into the studio. Those [recordings] don’t just happen automatically. We wanted to build a flow into our recording schedule, and part of being able to do that was building this relationship with Billy. He is really on the team. He was at the Festy all weekend and he set up a studio at the house that is on the premises.

Within our band, we each bring so much to the table in terms of creativity, aesthetic ideas, and an eclectic range of influences. Billy brings this amazing sonic element that isn’t often heard in the acoustic realm. The music still retains its authenticity, but it has a new sonic light that makes it more palatable to more people. The recordings have this bigger bolder sound to me, and it’s something that is unique and new. Teaming up with Billy was one more step in the quest to take our music and do big things with it. He is an awesome that guy.

You mentioned all of the different things that each individual member brings to band. How has the writing process changed since the departure of Jesse Cobb [mandolin]?

The Infamous Stringdusters by Suzy Perler
Everything is very collaborative now. We share all of our songwriting credits. That age-old rule of the songwriter making most the money is gone. I mean, we are in a band; we all spend 24 hours a day working on this, and one small piece of it is songwriting. Why should that be disproportionately rewarded? Once we made the call to share the writing, it took a lot of pressure off the very natural desire for each musician to get his song on the album. It’s always been a tricky struggle that a band has to navigate, and this was our answer to it. In the wake of that, we are seeing a lot more heartfelt collaboration.

Was this something you are doing going forward or is that just how you handled Silver Sky?

We started [truly collaborating] with this record. Before that, we were just like every other band: Each member had his own songs, and it was becoming formulaic. For instance, I would have my one instrumental, and Jeremy and Andy and Travis would each have their couple of songs, and then there would be a cover. That worked for us for awhile. It was a safe way to do it. Now we are trying to transcend that. Now that we are starting to reach a lot of people, it’s time to make the best and longest-lasting compositions that we can. And I think that this is one of the final frontiers of the band. We are really great at putting on a live show, but now we are more focused on songwriting.

So with that on mind, are you planning to record more on a regular basis?

Yeah, we are planning to do it again soon. Another discussion we are having is, ‘What is an album now? What is the most effective way to release it?’ And these questions have to be asked in [terms] of the Stringdusters because it is a little different for everyone. We are trying to figure out not only how to make great music, but what to do with it once it’s made.

The concept of creating albums is definitely not what it used to be. You are seeing a lot more singles and splits - the way in which people seem to be consuming music has fundamentally changed. We are seeing a shift to the streaming services like Rdio and Spotify, for example. It seems to be the way consumers are headed in terms of how they listen and discover new music. It’s an interesting shift because it seems artists are either strongly opposed or strongly in favor. Where do you fall?

The Infamous Stringdusters by Suzy Perler
It’s foolish to be opposed to something like Spotify. These services are an artist’s best friend when [getting a band] going. [Laughter] I mean, if you are consumed with chasing the dollar and you think that Spotify is taking away from your royalties, you have to ask yourself where the money would be without these services. As far as a music-discovery tool, all of these streaming services are amazing. The reason [I’m in favor of them] is really simple: Music has seen a lot of interesting trends in the past 10 to 15 years, particularly when you look at the rise and fall of traditional record labels, and things are totally different now. [In that regard], streaming services have really leveled the playing field. Fans have the ability to audition all the music that is out there and make their own decision.

If you have a lot of money behind you... the record behemoth still exists, say, for the Taylor Swifts of the world. But there is so much great music out there and [streaming sites] bode really well for a band like ours. We have a sound and we all worked on learning our instruments for 15 years before we even set out to play. [These services allow us to succeed without being] mired down in the [record industry] game. It’s just a matter of getting your music out there - and what better way to do it than [streaming online]? I have discovered more great music in the last year that I probably had in the last 10. That has everything to do with the [companies] that you are talking about.

It’s funny because Billy [Hume] was just calling me, and when I get off the phone with you, he is going to send me the stems of a few songs from our latest album [for me to] remix. I am into electronic music - Mike Snow and Radiohead and Passion Pit and a lot bands that are new and cutting-edge [so I’m bringing some of that to the table]. We are sort of taking a page out of Purity Ring’s book [i.e.], release these tracks again in a different package. That [concept] is influenced by all of this new music I have discovered. Sure - we are still trying to figure out how to navigate this new world of recording and selling music, but I certainly think these trends are a very positive thing. The disappearance of the old industry? I welcome it...absolutely.

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