Interview | Leftover Salmon

Words by: Lizzy Justesen

The boys of Leftover Salmon entered the bluegrass scene humbly, touring at local bars in mountain towns all over Colorado in a VW bus. Over 20 years later, Leftover Salmon dominates the contemporary bluegrass scene, with their self-proclaimed “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass” circus that tours all over the country. This summer, before embarking on a full-scale fall tour in September, Salmon has been seen from coast to coast – from High Sierra in California to All Good in Ohio.

Three years ago, here at JamBase – we featured Leftover Salmon: 20 Years Down River, a four-part celebration of Salmon's 20-year- anniversary, complete with interviews from various musicians both within and outside the band. Now, Drew Emmitt, a man of many titles (co-founder, singer, guitarist, fiddle and mandolin player) discusses what is coming next in this chat from just after last month's Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Welcome back from Telluride! You and Vince Herman have both been attending Telluride as spectators and performers for over twenty-five years. How has Telluride been a factor in your growth as a musician? What keeps you coming back to this festival?

Drew Emmitt: Boy, a lot of reasons. Number one, there’s this so much history there - just because we started out there. We formed as a band in the campground at Telluride. That’s where we used to go and watch all these bands that really influenced us as well, it’s like a big family reunion every year. It’s just an amazing time. Now, we get to play with all these people that we grew up kind of hero-worshipping; it’s a really great thing. This was my 20th time playing the festival, in various incarnations – Lefthand String Band, my solo band, Bill Nershi and with Salmon so, this was number 20, that was big for me. Number 13 for Salmon, but yeah, for us, it just really is altogether - the best festival in the country. For what we do, and for music in general. It is always a great time.

Telluride is held in Colorado, where Salmon originated. Many other bluegrass bands like The String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band also have roots in the Colorado area. Is there something special in that area that caters to bluegrass music or musicians in general?

DE: Well, I think a lot of it is Telluride, and a lot of it is Rockygrass. Colorado is a real rich, kind of fertile ground for music. There are a lot of great places to play. You know there’s the mountain towns, there’s Boulder, there’s Denver, there’s Fort Collins. It’s a great place to come and start a band without having to tour. People are very receptive, and there are great venues here – Fox Theatre in Boulder, Boulder Theatre, The Gothic, The Fillmore in Denver and then the ski towns are great places to play. Because people are ready to party and have a good time. And also, you know, Hot Rize was a big force in the bluegrass world, and really inspired us. They are from Boulder; they drew a lot of bands here. As well as New Grass Revival, and Sam Bush, and finally – we kind of got our turn to be in the chain of events, as a band, and were able to, in our own way, show people that it was possible to get out and tour without having a record label.

When we started, in the early '90s, we just got out of a school bus, and had no idea what the hell we were doing, and just made it happen. I think other bands were able to see that and think, “Oh, well, maybe we don’t need a record label. Maybe we could just get out on the road and start playing.” When we started doing that, there wasn’t another bluegrass- oriented band doing that. It was difficult. At that time, it was hard to convince people that electric bluegrass was something that was going to work. Obviously, these days, bluegrass has become a big thing in the clubs and theaters as well as festivals. It’s been really fun being a part of that chain. Like I said, we were inspired by bands, and then came along and did our thing and bridged the gap a little bit, and it’s just been rolling along ever since.

So, Colorado was a good spot for you guys to take off.

DE: Absolutely, and I grew up in Boulder. Went to junior high and high school in Boulder, and it was always my dream to be a part of the Boulder music scene. That was like my big dream. Little did I know that I would be touring nationally. Back when I was a teenager, that was big for me. I watched a lot of great bands come to Boulder, and it definitely inspired me to want to do that.

You recently announced the dates for this year's Fall Tour. This is going to be the first time many fans are going to see Andy Thorn, the banjo powerhouse that has joined the band since the passing of Mark Vann. What kind of energy do you think he brings to the band?

DE: Well, you know after Mark passed away we had several banjo players’ play with us for various lengths of time. Starting with Tony Furtado, Matt Flynner, Noam Pikelny – everybody was great, but it really didn’t feel like we had a unit, like how we did before with Mark. When Andy joined the band it just felt like he was just a good fit. Finally, we had a unit again. It felt like a band, and the energy was back instead of just putting back together something that was broken. Now, it feels like we have a real band again. It’s a great feeling, he’s a great player, great energy and very enthusiastic, and very happy to be playing in Leftover Salmon. It’s a very great thing.

This summer is the first year that Leftover Salmon, as a whole, is playing the Northwest String Summit in Oregon. I know you’ve been there with your band, and Bill Nershi - are you excited about playing together at Horning’s?

DE: Very much so. We did do a surprise set there, a mini-set that the Yonder boys kind of pushed us to do because Jeff Sipe was there, Tye North, our old bass player, and Vince and I were there. We had Danny Barnes on the banjo, it wasn’t really Salmon, but it was kind of like a thrown together version of Salmon. It was really, really fun and I think we all kind of got it in our heads that it would be fun to play there as the real thing.

Leftover Salmon vintage press shot
Emmitt, Vann, Garrison, Herman, McKay, Martinez

Leftover Salmon has always been known for its fun loving approach to making music. Over the past twenty years, through the loss the band has endured – has your attitude about making music changed at all? Do you think you approach it the same way you did when you were starting out?

DE: There are similarities; certain aspects are almost the same as they were. But, a lot of time has gone by, we’ve been through a lot, and we’re a little bit older. It is definitely still exciting; I think we’ve all learned a lot as musicians and as people. The approach is probably a little different because of that. We’re not striving so hard like we used to when we were first getting it going, we’re enjoying a little more success now and that’s always a great thing. But I think, by and large, yeah – it’s exciting, and fun, and it’s in the spirit it’s always been which is having a great time, and really enjoying playing music together and whipping up a good party – which is what Vince Herman does everywhere he goes. That’s the definitely the same, hasn’t changed.

You’ve played many gigs from tiny bars to sold-out festivals. Are there any musical goals you guys still have?

DE: I want to go play the places we’ve never played. We’ve played Canada and in Mexico now, we’ve played Alaska, which seems like a foreign country – but it’s not. But we haven’t been overseas at all. I think that’s my next goal, to get over to Europe and Japan and play some different crowds and cultures. We’ve played every corner of the United States, and that’s great and all, but it would be really nice to go play somewhere else. That’s something that other bands in this genre have done, and we just haven’t really made it happen. I think that’s probably my biggest goal right now is to do that, and bring that music to some other cultures.

So, an international tour might be in the works one day soon.

DE: We are going to island hop the Hawaiian Islands in January; we are real excited about that. We are doing New Years up in Seattle, and then we are going to do three days in Alaska, and then we’re going from Alaska to Hawaii. It’s going to be quite a fun winter month. Doing Mexico and then doing all that. We are definitely getting to where we are branching out and starting to do different things. Because when you’ve been touring over 25 years as a band, I think, it’s time to get creative and do some different things. That’s what we’re thinking about.

Not many bands make it up to Alaska for a gig, what’s that like?

DE: Playing in Alaska is awesome, it’s really beautiful. We played up there last summer at a festival called Salmon Stock, strangely enough. We’ve been up there a few times, and Billy and I also played up there and it was really, really great. People just love live music up there because they don’t get a ton of it. People are always very enthusiastic and excited, so it’s always really fun.

What music are you listening to now?

DE: My favorite bluegrass band is the Del McCoury Band. We also love Hot Rize and anything that Sam Bush does. Tim O’Brien, Bela Fleck and all those guys. We are definitely fans of the Yonder boys. As far as up and coming bands, I think that Greensky is really sounding good. Another band, out of Colorado, called Head For The Hills that is really sounding good. I got to produce their last record, before this new one, and so they’re really sounding good these days. There’s a band out of Austin called Milk Drive, a bunch of young kids, really good. Another band called the Deadly Gentlemen, who we just were at a festival with last weekend in Kentucky. Sounded really good. Just really great pickers in that band. And also, Sarah Jarosz, she’s just amazing. We’ve been kind of around her, watchin’ her grow up since she was about 12, back in the days at RockyGrass, sitting in on jam sessions. She had an amazing set at Telluride this year, just really really great.

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