Interview | Cornmeal Returns - A Chat With Chris Gangi

Written By: Chad Berndtson

:: Interview - Cornmeal ::

It’s a transition that might have killed off a lesser band: a decade spent building a following, achieving national attention, a fanbase and the respect of your genre elders, and then a near-dissolution, thanks to the exits of 60 percent of your personnel.

But Cornmeal lives again. The Chicago jam-grass outfit bid goodbye to Kris Nowak, JP Nowak and Allie Kral within the span of eight months heading into the spring of 2013. But through a hiatus, founders and remaining core members Chris Gangi (bass) and Wavy Dave Burlingame (banjo) have gradually rebuilt the band and are ready for a big return, with a national tour starting next week that will take them all over the Midwest, to Colorado, and to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of the country.

The new Cornmeal features guitarist Scott Tipping, formerly of Backyard Tire Fire, drummer Drew Littell and fiddler Molly Healey. JamBase caught up with Gangi to get the lowdown on what to expect.

JAMBASE: It’s great to see Cornmeal back on the road. Not every band survives losing a majority of its members in the span of a year, so I have to ask, was there ever a point in here where you and Dave looked at ending the band altogether?

CHRIS GANGI: I wouldn’t say we didn’t have that thought cross our minds, but it was never our intention. And hey, we had more of a heads-up about the departures than the general public did obviously so we had some time to sit on it and think.

But in general, no, we’ve never thought that was a necessary move for us. Dave and I started the band 14 years ago, and we’ve been through so much together, watching this slowly progress and grow. In the early years, members came and left so many times, so one way to look at it is that this is just another one of those hills we have to climb.

We believe that our fans are there for the music, though, and this band will prove that. We’ve had incredible support already from the community about this. It’s been a long, arduous process to find the right matches, but we’re confident we can move forward with this lineup.

JAMBASE: Everyone has their reasons for leaving a band, and I don’t want to spend too much time looking back, but why do you think Cornmeal went through these changes?

CG: Well, we worked together for eight years with that lineup, which is a very long time in this business. Everyone was getting older, people were getting married – all three of them got married in the span of two years – and I’m sure that had a lot to do with it.

They’re all still playing music, which is great, and Allie’s probably playing the most. But they’re not out there right now with the same intensity we all were together, and by that I mean we were all on the road probably 200-plus days a year for five years in a row. That takes a toll, and you question your mental state, and you also wonder what you want your life to look like. Chris had a baby, and Allie moved and got married, and it made sense for them.

JAMBASE: Did you look at all at changing the instrumental voices in Cornmeal or were you and Wavy set on recruiting players to play those same roles?

CG: Cornmeal has always been such a strong, fiddle-oriented band so we wanted to keep that there. As we’re progressing forward, we’re finding that there’s a lot of room to grow with the sound we have and develop it. So maybe we’re trying to look backwards and take that from the past, but we’re also looking to develop the sound that much more, and the possibilities become endless for that when you bring in three new people. Cornmeal lays so much improvisation into everything that this definitely gives us some new, interesting things to explore.

JAMBASE: Did you have these folks in mind? Did you audition a lot of people?

CG: We spent a lot of time, yes, and really wanted to keep it open and make sure we covered our bases. We didn’t want to make any snap judgments about moving forward and we were determined to be patient about it. So we won’t be coming out of it with 200 dates a year again yet, because we’re slowly building back the band and making sure everything is ready.

Auditioning people – and we auditioned a ton of people – is an exhausting process. But ultimately there is a feeling with certain people who come in and play with you for the first time and you look around the room and you’re pretty sure.

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