Earlier in the month, I chatted with Greensky Bluegrass singer and mandolin player Paul Hoffman. As we talked about their last album, “Shouted, Written Down & Quoted” (released in September 2016), our conversation turned to its tracks and how they gravitate between complexities, undertones and emotions.
“Nope!” Hoffman suddenly commanded. Unsure where our commentary took a turn, I was managing an “I’m sorry, what?” before he continued.
“OK, sorry, go ahead!” he noted.
As it turned out, he was doing double duty: Hoffman was puppy-sitting for a young canine who was chewing the carpet at his feet.
Hoffman and his bandmates—Anders Beck (dobro), Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), Dave Bruzza (guitar), and Mike Devol (upright bass) were on a break for a bit over the winter and early spring. They only recently started their tour and are headed to ILM’s Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on May 14. It will be their return to Wilmington’s outdoor venue, which they were thwarted from playing during their last go ‘round in town. Because of bad weather, they had to head indoors to Throne Theater (then called Ziggy’s by the Sea). An energetic and improvisational bending of the traditional genre, the band manages to hook fans from their unpredictable style of playing.
“That Ziggy’s show ended up being pretty fun,” Hoffman recalls. “Well, it was supposed to be, that’s for sure. It should be nice to play some music again after having some time away from it.”
Taken from a line in “Hold On”—“Sometimes things are better left unspoken / should be shouted written down and quoted”—the title of their latest record is meant as a play on words to suggest the whole record is better left unspoken, unsung or unplayed. Like their previous five studio albums, they’ve continued to put emphasis on restraint.
“Not doing too much [and] creating textures that are more subtle and less sound,” Hoffman explains. “There’s one song, ‘While Waiting,’ where there’s only guitar for the verses, the other three of us don’t even play. Stuff like that.”
“Hold On” also has a lot of empty space left between the notes of back-and-forth and unison picks and plucks. It’s not an easy thing to do: showing restraint. Yet, it’s a skill Hoffman has developed with time and age.
“When you’re younger or newer to your instrument, there’s sort of a need to prove your prowess and show off,” he says. “Later, there comes a little bit of restraint with that skill and the ability to use your tools more sparingly.”
There are a lot of delicately sculpted melodic moments, too. Listeners can get lost in the instrumentals in the middle of “Room Without a Roof.” “Living Over” features a lovely mandolin solo. There’s no shortage of interesting chord movements, of which Hoffman and company often create intuitively.
“When we play live, we certainly experiment with all the not-pretty parts of music—fast and aggressive, dark,” he adds. “But I thought we did a good job on this record, exploring other textures and soundscapes.”
Atmosphere, of course, plays a large role in Greensky’s improvisation onstage. Whether the crowd is sitting, dancing or singing along, the time of day and day of the week … it all can factor into a live set. It makes what Hoffman and company do interesting to watch. Being able to step outside the music box, so to speak, keeps each show unique.
“It’s fun to take new risks every night and try different stuff,” he observes. “It affords us the ability to play a lot of the stuff we wouldn’t otherwise play because maybe we’d only play it once ever or once a year. It also helps give us a little break with other songs we play a lot and keeps it fresh for us.”
Hoffman and guitarist Dave Bruzza are the primary lyricists on the album. Hoffman usually has a hodgepodge of lyrics and/or melodies floating around his head, but where they land on a track is anyone’s guess. “More of Me,” for example, is somewhat an emotional rollercoaster between dark and idealistic lyrics. It’s hard to decide whether it’s uplifting or sad as hell.
“I can’t decide either,” Hoffman says with a laugh. “I think it was intended to be a little bit romantic, but there is definitely a strong sense of longing and disappointment also. . . . But I’m not sure if I landed where I meant to when I jumped into that one.”
Songs starting one way and ending up completely different was an ongoing theme when making the record. A large part of the evolution happened in production. Like their previous records, “Shouted, Written Down & Quoted” was released on their own label, Big Blue Zoo. But this was the first time they worked with producer Steve Berlin.
“Sometimes we were doing really experimental, weird stuff, and we were just like, ‘What the hell…’” Hoffman quips. “Having a critic along for the ride is really good for the [final] presentation and having true confidence in decisions.”
Working with outsiders, for a lack of a better word, on an album can potentially be tricky for a band. It’s hard to predict what their ideas are going to be or how attached they’ll be to them. It’s potentially another ego on the line, and they didn’t really know Berlin that well when they invited him into the studio in the first place. Yet, he proved to be in tune with their trajectory. Hoffman admits it helped not being specifically attached to songs in the way they presented them.
“I had some clear ideas,” he says, “but as far as tempos and textures, this is where we tried a lot of stuff out, and this is where our producer came in handy and was a strong asset. There were times where we just kind of lost track of what the path was. We were trying so many different things for songs . . . and, at the end, just really not knowing and having to make a decision with how to present some of these songs.”
Hoffman says he and the rest of Greensky Bluegrass have been writing new tunes already. While they won’t be playing them at live shows anytime soon, he estimates they’ll start recording in 2018. In the meantime, folks can see Hoffman and company live at GLA for an early afternoon show on Sunday.