Interview | Cornmeal Returns – A Chat With Chris Gangi
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.
JAMBASE: Tell me a little about each new member and what he or she brings to the table.
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 band.
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 the job?
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 upcoming shows?
CG: We are. The band had a pretty immense repertoire of songs by the time everyone 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 really where 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 caliber of 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 not.