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
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
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
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
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
JAMBASE: Tell me a little about each new member and what he or she
brings to the
CG: Drew is our drummer and he was the first to sign on. He was
referred to us by
other musicians in
Chicago, and he’s a Chicago guy. We looked all over the country, and we were definitely OK
with exploring people
outside of the area, but he ended up right in our backyard. He had been a fan of the band
for a long time and going
to Cornmeal shows for years. He really had a handle and grasp on what we do and also a
good feel for what we want
to bring out in our music. It was really cool to have someone come in with that level of
background knowledge on the
Scott, our guitarist, is someone who we overlooked for a long time, I think.
JAMBASE: What do you mean by that?
CG: He contacted me early – right when he heard – and said, ‘hey, I
heard you guys
are looking for a
guitarist.’ I wrote it off initially because he’s an electric rock ‘n’ roll guitarist. He
was playing in some pretty heavy
rock bands and Backyard Tire Fire…that right there is a good old, Gibson-loving rock ‘n’
roll band, you know?
I couldn’t picture it, to be honest. He was a rock guitarist and I was looking for a
solid, flatpicking bluegrass guitarist.
But six months later, on happenstance, we ended up doing what we call the Cornmeal Ramble,
which is a big jam we
do with a bunch of bands featured. And listening to him as part of the Backyard Tire Fire
part, I looked up at Wavy,
and I said, wow, he’s incredible. He can run the gamut of styles. It blew us away. And in
truth he brings to Cornmeal
a little bit more fire and a little bit more rock ‘n’ roll than we’ve had, which is a
really interesting and really cool
development. We’re relishing that, and he’s developed a few of his own guitars to fit
himself in what we’re doing.
JAMBASE: And Molly?
CG: Molly was playing in a Springfield, Missouri, band called Big
Smith. They’re a
regional band in that area
but also a band we’d run into a bunch in the festival scene, particularly places like
Wakarusa. They were a more
clear-cut band but she’s come in and been incredibly solid as a player and multi-
instrumentalist. She gets it; it’s
great. She’s also a really sweet person.
JAMBASE: Your lineup has her listed as a special guest, indefinitely.
Does she have
CG: Well, she’s going to be out with us for a while. She’s not 100
percent part of
the band yet and like I
said we want to be real patient to make sure we’re all a good fit for each other, so we’ve
agreed to keep things at a
trial basis. We’re keeping our eyes open in case for some reason we’ve missed something
along the way, but so far,
it’s been great.
JAMBASE: Are you focusing on the classic Cornmeal repertoire in these
CG: We are. The band had a pretty immense repertoire of songs by the
left – songs
accumulated over 14 years of Cornmeal. So we’re getting a lot of these new players up to
speed on the old stuff, but
we’re also hoping to concentrate on some new material, doing some demos and looking to do
some recording in the
spring to get a full-length [album] done. We’re looking to explore, for sure. But lately,
Wavy and I have been hard
pressed to bear down and write new songs, so we have been focused on learning the old
stuff so we can kind of
move forward and establish the chemistry.
JAMBASE: But you will be working some new songs into the mix it sounds
like. Of the
new stuff, are these
songs you and Dave already had going or are you actively writing with the personality of
the new group in mind?
CG: Wavy and I have been the principal songwriters, and Kris wrote a
lot, too, but
for me, anyway, I always
write with a certain voice. I always write for Cornmeal and it’s always the Cornmeal I
hear in my head. So I do have a
different set of tools now – Scott has a different style of voice than Kris did, for
example – and I’m starting to shift
and try some things that we may not have gotten away with before.
It’s really inspiring and I think it’s giving us this new fire in the belly to get out
there. And it’s definitely Cornmeal.
The overall songwriting style is the same.
JAMBASE: Do you think you’ll be on the road more after these initial
tours wrap up?
CG: We expect it to move forward without any hesitation. The road is
we find our biggest
comfort zone – out there on the road with our fans. We’ve never been a big studio band and
while that is something
we’re going to do more of, we definitely want to be back out there, especially on the
festival circuit. The fanbase has
been really supportive and we’re hoping to continue through the rest of the year and build
it from there.
JAMBASE: It’s good to hear about the positive feedback from fans.
Loyal fans have a
way of staying loyal if
you’re straight with them, right?
CG: Definitely. We wouldn’t move forward if we didn’t think we had the
players we needed and
didn’t think we could get to where we need to be again with Cornmeal. There will be some
growing pains as we feel
each other out, but the general vibe, the songs, the direction…all of this is going to
stay true to the Cornmeal we
know and they know. If the fans were telling us to hang up the hat, we would, but they’re