It has been eight years since Leftover Salmon took an extended break with some members pursuing other musical projects and one musician going back to school for his doctorate’s degree.
Not only is the band back in action, but it will release its first album since it began its hiatus when Aquatic Hitchhikers lands in stores May 22 on LoS Records, the first Leftover Salmon album to feature all original compositions.
While going through a soundcheck in Lawrence Kan., Emmitt found some time to discuss what it has been like putting the band back together. Along with Emmit on vocals, guitar, mandolin, mandola and fiddle, the today’s Leftover Salmon lineup includes Vince Herman (vocals, guitar, mandolin), Andy Thorn (vocals, banjo, guitar), Greg Garrison (vocals, bass, guitar) and Jose Martinez (drums, percussion, cardboard box).
Why is now the right time for Leftover Salmon to reunite?
We actually started kind of doing shows back in ’08. We started doing festivals just to get our feet wet again. Now we’re just finally cranking it up again. We’re on a bus and this is our first real big tour since the hiatus. We’re supporting our new record that’s coming out in a couple of weeks, Aquatic Hitchhiker. Things are just heating back up again. It took us a little while to get to this point where we felt we could get on a bus together and do this again, doing festivals and one-offs just to see how it felt. It really felt like it was the right thing to do and at the right time.
Wasn’t Leftover Salmon a touring machine before the hiatus?
Oh, my God. Whatever, 200 days a year, it was just nuts. Going everywhere all the time and I think we really needed to take a break from that, step back [because] we were touring too much. It was really nice to get away from that and to ease back into it, do 50-60 days a year.
What do you and the other members of Leftover Salmon bring to the band now that you didn’t have before the hiatus?
Vince [Herman] and I have been doing our solo projects. I’ve been doing the Emmitt-Nershi Band [String Cheese Incident’s Bill Nershi] and the Drew Emmitt Band. Vince has been doing Great American Taxi. Our bass player Greg Garrison has been getting his doctorate in music. Our drummer’s been playing jazz gigs. I think we each gained a lot of confidence doing our own projects and seeing that we could have careers of our own away from the band. It has really taught all of us a lot. We come back to this band with a lot of freshness and a lot of our own confidence and enthusiasm from doing our side projects. I think it helps the music as a whole and makes it fresh again.
When the band began its hiatus, was there ever a fear that some members might have to quit music and get a day job?
I think there’s always that fear but I had already made a solo record right before the hiatus so I was kind of poised to get my own career going. Vince was just toying with the idea of getting Great American Taxi together, but I don’t think any of us felt there was any alternative to music. It would be crazy to go back and get a day job at this point. I can’t see it happening.
But there is always that fear in the back of your mind, “Oh, what if it doesn’t work?” It’s a really good feeling to know that individually we can have careers without Leftover Salmon. It gave each of us a lot of confidence. Like I said, we bring that back to the band and it really infuses freshness and a good energy to the band.
What can fans expect from the tour?
We’re playing a bunch of our new tunes from the new record, which is really fun for us. And we have Andy Thorn on banjo who is the newest member of Leftover Salmon. He’s just killing it and bringing a whole new energy and enthusiasm to the band. To us, it really feels like a band again. The shows we’ve been doing, a lot of our fans, I think feel that there’s a tightness that hasn’t been there for a while, and energy. So, we’re just having a great time.
Do you think your longtime fans will still feel at home with the band even though you’re challenging them with new material?
It really is a new band in a lot of ways, and in a lot of ways it’s like the original Salmon. It’s something new, like a comfortable old shoe.
When the band announced its hiatus, was there a feeling of relief, like the last day of school?
Absolutely. We had Noam Pikelny who is now in the Punch Brothers on banjo. He decided he was going to leave the band and go play with John Cowan. At that point it was really the impetus to stop and we needed something to stop us. I was thankful. Like, ‘Thank God, somebody is going to quit, so we’re just forcing us to stop. Let’s try to get this thing off the road and take a step back. It definitely felt like a relief at the time.
We needed to be home more. Touring as much as we were wasn’t helping. We were over-playing. We had been touring for so many years, I think we were kind of wearing it out. We needed some new energy, we needed a fresh outlook. That was the best possible thing we could have done at that point.
But there were no bad feelings among you, you could still talk to each other.
We were still friends but we needed space from each other and that was the best thing we could have done.
Before the hiatus, Leftover Salmon played a lot of festivals and you have a few festivals on your upcoming tour. Do you enjoy festivals, not just playing your own set, but hanging out with other bands?
It’s always been our bread-and-butter doing festivals. We’re really excited; we’re playing Wanee soon, Shakori Hills and Telluride Bluegrass. We can see bands we don’t normally get to see and hang out with our pickin’ friends … It’s just great. To me, the best part of the year is the summer festival season. It’s going to be a good one.
Didn’t Leftover Salmon have a few of its own festivals?
We did Salmon Fest. We did a couple in Lyons, Colo., at the RockyGrass site. We did a couple in Missouri, south of St. Louis. It was great but it’s a big responsibility. We may dabble in that again, but I think, personally, it’s better to play other people’s festivals, let them deal with it.
Do you think the Colorado music scene has grown in the years during Leftover Salmon’s hiatus?
There are so many places to play in Colorado; it’s such a vibrant music scene. The front-range – Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins – the mountain towns, ski towns, you can literally make a living in Colorado without ever having to go out on the road. Because of that, I think a lot of bands end up moving there to get their careers started.
It worked for us. We didn’t leave the state for three years. It’s a great place to be and so many musicians gravitate there for so many different reasons; it’s created this huge wonderful scene. There are so many great pickers and bands just spontaneously getting together. I think it’s definitely rocking.
What bands from the Colorado music scene have impressed you as ones to watch?
There’s a band called Head For The Hills from Fort Collins. I produced their latest record and they’re a great band. Elephant Revival has been doing really well. There’s a band called Whitewater Ramble that’s doing pretty well. I have a buddy, Pete Kartsounes, that has a solo band and he’s really great. Those are just a few of the many bands emerging, but those seem to be some of bands that are just starting to get stuff done. Greensky Bluegrass, they’re kind of from Colorado, I think they’re moving there. I kind of consider them sort of a Colorado band as well. Of course, Yonder Mountain String Band is killing it. And The Fray, of course. And DeVotchKa.
What do you perceive as being different about today’s live music business that wasn’t around during Leftover Salmon’s original run?
Everything’s different with the Internet; the live streaming and people downloading shows. The record industry is completely different because of the Internet. I think that everything is based on the live show. That’s the most important thing you can do is put on a great live show. I think it’s more critical than ever to get out and tour and create some excitement. And maybe sell some records, too.
What’s your take on fans shooting cell phone videos and then posting them on the Web?
I think it helps. I think the whole YouTube phenomenon is great. People can go on YouTube and check out what you’re doing. Sometimes it makes me feel like I wished people would be at the show and not necessarily film it with their cameras for later. I wish they’d be in the moment more. That’s my only complaint. Other than that, I think it’s great and it’s all part of the whole digital revolution going on. I’m mixed on the whole digital thing. Being old school, I think it’s great but at the same time I kind of miss the days when people would just come to the show and have a great time.
Let’s reverse that. Have you ever been at shows where afterwards you wished you had shot some video or recorded some of the music?
Absolutely. But I’m a firm believer in taking in life as it happens and taking mental film or mental pictures of things. But I definitely felt that way, like “Wow! I wish I could hear that again. I wish I could see that again.” I wish I had a film of Robert Plant playing Telluride last year with Band Of Joy. One of the most amazing things I’ve seen or heard. But at the same time it’s in my brain, it’s in my psyche.
Does Leftover Salmon have any long-range plans or are you just taking it as it comes, concentrating on the new album and the tour?
I think right now we’re really focused on promoting the record and getting our touring thing happening. I think we want to get creative, see other parts of the world, I think we want to go to Europe, maybe go to Japan and Australia if we can and branch out. We’ve been doing this so long, why not do some different things? It looks like we’re going to Mexico in December with Yonder Mountain and the Infamous Stringdusters. We’re trying to put together some dates in Hawaii and really make this sustainable and be creative about it. We’ve done the touring grind for 22 years and I think it’s time now to see what else we can do with it.
What do your fans not know about Leftover Salmon?
For me, I think what might be surprising is I love to be out in nature. I love to ski and ride mountain bikes. I like to get away from the whole music scene whenever I can. I live in a small mountain town in Colorado. I think it might be surprising for fans to know that we’re normal people. We like to do normal things and have a good time when we’re not on the road.
What advice can you give a teenager just now picking up a guitar and hoping for a music career?
Don’t be afraid to dream. You can achieve anything you want if you stay focused and keep at it, and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t. Don’t be afraid to try.
Leftover Salmon plays the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival in Silk Hope, N.C., April 19; Atlanta at Variety Playhouse Sept. 20, the Wanee Festival in Live Oak, Fla., April 21 and Greenville, S.C., at The Handlebar April 24. For more information, please visit LeftOverSalmon.com.