Obeying The Laws Of Gravity: The Infamous Stringdusters’ Guitarist Andy Falco Talks New LP, Collaborations & More
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Joe Russo, Oteil Burbridge, John Medeski, Marc Brownstein, Mihali Savoulidis, Marcus King, Chris Wood and many more. (A full archive of more than 40 The Art Of The Sit-In features is here.)
Laws Of Gravity released in January, is the most complete recorded statement yet by The Infamous Stringdusters, who these days find themselves perched inarguably in the vanguard of jamgrass bands and practitioners of acoustic roots music. Their shows are ever-more-exciting and lively, and their list of admirers continues to expand. Few ensembles get to be part of Phil Lesh & Friends, back up Ryan Adams and play with a who’s who of guest vocalists, all while advancing as a whipcrack-tight fivesome in the span of a year.
This year they’re busier than ever, notes guitarist Andy Falco, with a tour that picks up again March 15 in Cleveland and stretches into late April before the summer season kicks off in earnest.
Before that, however, Falco will be part of what looks to be an exciting supergroup, the Metropolitan Jamgrass Alliance, which plays its first show at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl on March 8 and combines him with Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone and Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jacob Jolliff.
As a rule, Falco’s a busy guy, and if you’re lucky to be in central Long Island, for example, when Falco and siblings Tom and Patrick are playing the Grey Horse Tavern as the Falco Brothers, well, consider yourself lucky.
Here’s Falco on the latest from ‘Duster land and beyond:
JAMBASE: You guys haven’t much left the road this past year. What are some recent, standout Stringdusters shows in your mind?
ANDY FALCO: Well, let’s see. The Fillmore the other night was pretty awesome, as always. There’s so much history, and when you play these venues that have such a deep history with your heroes, that comes through in the music, I think. It’s a magical thing. The Troubadour has a deep history too, that was a good night. But I can’t pick one, and I have to say we’re having a blast playing all of the new music. We don’t usually play any new music before the album is released. That’s something we started doing a few albums back, and it’s really fun to release the record and then inject all of this new material, seeing the crowd’s reaction.
JAMBASE: That’s the opposite of how a number of bands typically do it, which is to woodshed tunes on the road long before they’re recorded on an album. That’s a conscious choice for you guys, eh?
AF: We’ve done it before where we road-test things, but I think the way we’ve been doing recently is great. Laws Of Gravity was a very natural process for us. What we tend to do is rent a house somewhere nice and just show each other music and things we’ve been working on, and we end up with all of these songs. From there it gets narrowed down to what we’re going to record, and we really try to keep it natural — let the songs dictate the arrangements. On this record we went into the studio and recorded essentially live. There might be some overdubs later on, but what you end up with is an honest record we’re really proud of — and we’re really proud of this one.
When you take songs from an experience like that out on the road for the first time, you get to live them again because there’s new life that goes into them live. We add segues, we stretch things out, we try out new ideas. Typically, you don’t make another record for another year to 18 months, so that’s a long time on the road to allow a lot of life into the songs. They keep developing.
JAMBASE: Is there a tune you’d point to on Laws Of Gravity that really captures what The Stringdusters sound like now?
AF: It’s hard for me to do that because there are a lot of different aspects to The Stringdusters that make The Stringdusters us. We have multiple soloists and lead singers, and everyone writes music, so I think one of the beautiful things about this record is that it’s a whole record. As a whole, it takes you through every aspect of what we are. And that was a conscious choice for Laws Of Gravity. We have like 30 to 35 songs, and that list gets narrowed down, and it’s not that the songs that don’t end up on the album aren’t good. The ones that do make it seem to be working well together — they make a complete statement. That’s what we were going for. A full and a whole album.
JAMBASE: Have you guys changed much over the years? I mean, fundamentally?
AF: Yeah, and god willing, it will continue to be an evolution. You can only play music like this together and do it well if you know each other’s ins and outs and can essentially read each other’s minds. That takes years of working together and a lot of trust, but when we found that, we started to evolve as a unit, and then we were able to find our sound — our voice. It’s also helped us allow different influences into Stringdusters music without losing our sound.
JAMBASE: Among the highlights of The Stringdusters touring year were the shows you guys did backing Ryan Adams. You’ll do it again this summer at Red Rocks. What was your experience working with Ryan?
AF: He’s amazing. It’s really remarkable to be around someone of that caliber and witness it firsthand. He’s a guy who’s so talented as a songwriter that he can write a song on the spot because someone shouted something at him in the audience. And it might be funny, but it’s also creative — it’s a song, on the spot!
Getting to play that music … well, Ryan is always reinventing himself and doing different things and I think he liked the idea of going the acoustic route. Those songs work so well in that setting. We weren’t plugging in instruments, we were playing on microphones, gathering around big large microphones in a circle. It was really inspiring to play with him and we are excited to do it again.
JAMBASE: Did you know him at all before the collaborations last year?
AF: No. We met him through Nicki Bluhm, who has known him for a while. He had mentioned to Nicki at one point that he wanted to do an acoustic thing. Nicki did our Ladies And Gentlemen Tour and is a dear friend of ours, and she told him to check out The Stringdusters. So he checked us out on YouTube, dug it, and we actually met for the first time in Telluride. The first time we did it with him was sort of a surprise. We met in one of the condos in Telluride — we had a song list and everything and we were prepared — and we got together and played and the music and the vibe were right.
JAMBASE: As you noted, these things tend to happen best when they feel natural. Speaking of another collaboration that looks right and natural, you have a show coming up with Tim Carbone and Jacob Jolliff billed as the Metropolitan Jamgrass Alliance. What’s that?
AF: The idea was inspired by things that happen in Colorado, actually. Andy [Hall] and Chris [Pandolfi] have The Bluegrass Generals, which is something they do out in Colorado, and I was like, why not do something like that in New York? I enlisted Tim and Jacob; they both live in the New York area like I do. We’re the core band, and we have Ryan Cavanaugh, who’s a true virtuoso, joining us. I’ve known him a long time, from back in the Nashville days. And then my little brother Patrick, who’s a great bass player and who was our first call to fill in for Travis [Book] when Travis had to split because his baby was being born.
It’s going to be a fun night. It’s really just something in the spirit of jamming that goes back to places like Bill Graham’s Fillmore, when that kind of stuff among musicians used to happen all the time. I love stories of people like Mike Bloomfield playing with Al Kooper and then Johnny Winter would show up for whatever and they’d just play cool stuff. That’s always happened in our scene to a certain extent, and it happens all the time in the funk world. I don’t see it as much in the sort of acoustic, jamgrass vein so that’s what we’re going for here. I hope people will come out for it.
JAMBASE: Will you be playing stuff from all over?
AF: Yeah, you know, we’ll be picking out tunes. It’ll be a lot of, what do you guys feel like playing. All of us have a deep vocabulary in this genre and are excited to explore together.
JAMBASE: All three of you are known for what might be described as vanguard bands in jamgrass. As a fan, it’s really seemed like we’re in another golden age of this music and younger players who want to pick — does it feel that way to you?
AF: It really is. There are a lot of young folks too — Billy Strings is out there doing it, Fruition is great — who have embraced this side of the jam scene, the acoustic and jamgrass music side. It’s awesome to be part of this right now. It’s really vibrant. We go out and do festivals and hang as much as we can and sit-in with each other.
You know the sit-in has always been sort of one of those things in our music. It happens a lot more now, I think. When I used to go to Grateful Dead shows, I mean, it was a big deal if someone sat-in with the Dead because it just didn’t happen too often when they were big. You had Branford [Marsalis] out a bunch, and the Neville Brothers and other people, but when it happened, it was like, oh wow, something amazing and momentary just happened.
We love that spirit. One thing we do see nowadays, because it does happen so much, is that it’s even gotten to the point where promoters are hiring individuals from bands to be sit-in guests, to create and package that kind of experience. That can be cool, but a part of me also feels like that’s contrived. To me it’s coolest when it happens really naturally — when you have musicians hanging out and you make the call right then, hey, wanna come play with us?
JAMBASE: People look forward to seeing collaboration, and they tend to know and feel if it’s packaged, even if it’s still cool.
AF: Definitely. We were just out with Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. We had them up every night and it was fucking awesome, and it was just a bunch of friends getting together and saying, why not, what do you wanna do, let’s play some music. We did it around one microphone. That kind of stuff is special for us, and I think that if it’s special for the musicians it’s probably going to be special for the audience.
JAMBASE: You mentioned your brother Patrick. Those of us who live in the New York area do get to catch you guys as the Falco Brothers from time to time. Your shows at the Grey Horse Tavern [in Bayport, New York] are a lot of fun.
AF: Oh man. [Co-owner] Linda [Ringhouse] is someone I’ve known for many years. In that area, it’s a small place, with a little stage, and the vibe there is so cool and they’re so cool about music. She just wants musicians to come in and do what they do, and it kind of goes back to what I was saying about venues and the magic in them. It’s really cool to be able to go down to a place like that and experiment with things. I live out there [in Central Long Island] so I’m more likely to get to do things out there than in Brooklyn.
That said, I have other projects brewing, including one with [Railroad Earth’s] Andrew Altman. It might be an electric thing and might involve a couple of the guys from [Leftover] Salmon, too. Altman called me recently and was like, “We should put something electric together.” Sometimes that’s all it takes. You get motivated and it becomes very fun and interesting as a departure from your main gig, but also something that keeps you fresh for your main gig.
JAMBASE: Do you have a favorite sit-in story from the past year Andy?
AF: Probably playing Lock’n with Phil Lesh & Friends. Oh yeah. It was amazing because there was some plane trouble, I understand, and Phil was kind of running late. It was incredible to see him roll in, with everything late, and just minutes before we went on stage. He just got on with it. The stage turned — that big rotating stage they have at Lock’n — and just before that they put his bass on him, and he checked his bass, and then he faced like 20,000 people and he just had this big smile on his face. That’s amazing. He had a hard travel day, and he just smiled, and then he ripped.
It was an honor to get to do that — I’m a Deadhead, so for that reason, especially, and to play that music with Phil, and Page [McConnell and [Jon] Fishman and Anders [Osborne], and Derek [Trucks] and Susan [Tedeschi] sat-in. That Phil thing though, to see it: it was like, no matter how hard of a day you’ve had, it’s time to play and it’s time to play great.
JAMBASE: There were so many of you up on stage and yet you all did a pretty remarkable job keeping the music uncrowded. Did you have a particular special moment?
AF: Playing “Terrapin.” That was one of my favorite tunes to hear the Grateful Dead play, and I was hoping we would do that one. Phil had it in the set but what was cool was he kind of wanted to do another thing. He’s not just looking to recreate what the Dead did, he’s looking to continue to explore the songs and the possibilities. So the idea he had was that we should all do the beginning “Lady with a Fan” section more stringband-y. That’s what he said! And I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but what we think he meant was that he just wanted it to be more airy — put more air into that beautiful melody and let it build into all the other sections and then peak with the big jam similar to the way the Dead would do it. That was my highlight.