Q&A With Trout Steak Revival’s Travis McNamara

Trout Steak Revival just played a sold-out show in Denver to celebrate the March 26 release of its first studio album, “Brighter Every Day.” Pollstar chatted with banjo player Travis McNamara before the big day to discuss all that’s happened since the quintet won the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition.

Speaking of wins, Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival just happened to take home the trophy for best festival at the Pollstar Awards in February.

For Trout Steak, the critical acclaim and recognition that came with being the victor in the Telluride competition helped convince the band members to quit their day jobs and pursue music full time. Past winners include Dixie Chicks, Nickel Creek and Greensky Bluegrass.

Along with McNamara, the Denver-based bluegrass band is made up of a group of friends that includes Casey Houlihan on stand up bass, Steve Foltz on mandolin, Will Koster on dobro and Bevin Foley on fiddle.

Brighter Every Day is a follow-up to the two albums Trout Steak released on its own. The LP was funded by Kickstarter and produced by Infamous Stringdusters’ Chris Pandolfi.  

Take a listen to one of Trout Steak’s tunes with its beautiful harmonies and quick picking and it’s easy to see why supporters financed the album’s initial goal in just four days.

Steve Foltz, Will Koster, Bevin Foley, Travis McNamara, Casey Houlihan

How long have you called Denver home?

I’ve called Denver home for about five or six years now. And some of the other guys in the band are probably more around the eight-to 10-year mark. Except for Bevin Foley, our fiddle player, who has been living here her whole life. I’m from Michigan and as well as one of the other guys in the band. Two of the other guys are from Wisconsin originally but we all just found our way from the Midwest through various routes to Colorado, which we call home permanently now.

I was reading an article that pointed out that you and few of the other members of the band were summer camp counselors together.

That’s right. Will plays dobro … I met him originally when we were campers together at the same summer camp called Camp Henry in Newaygo, Mich. And so I’ve known him since I was 11 or 12 years old. We ended up being counselors together at the same camp, when we were in college, where we also met Casey Houlihan, who plays bass. He was a counselor as well. That was one of the first places that we started learning how to play music. It was all acoustic guitars around the campfire, playing Neil Young covers and stuff like that, just figuring it all out.

And here you guys are today, doing this as your career.

It’s good to be in business with your friends, you know what I mean?

I understand you play banjo in the band but you started out playing a different instrument.

Yeah, so banjo is actually my eighth instrument that I’ve been learning how to play. We used to all play guitar back in the Camp Henry days but nobody wants to watch five guys playing guitar on stage. We were kind of fanning out some of our instrumentation, basically one person would hop on an instrument and then another person would hop on the [next] week, kind of all trying different things out. I remember one of the first times that I played with these guys it was out at a place called the Bucksnort Saloon in Sphinx Park Colo. It’s this little nothing bar in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of Colorado. It’s a great place. And I was coming through town from Michigan – I was actually working out in California at the time so I was coming through Denver, and I called up Will and Casey, saying, “Can I come crash on your couch?” They said, “Sure, but we’re going to be playing a show at the Bucksnort Saloon in two days. If you can hightail it out here then you can sit in with us.” And I was like, “Oh, absolutely.” So I packed up everything into my car and drove out and we packed a bunch of our friends into this old cabin bar and we had a great time playing music. And at that time I was playing mandolin because I was kinda messing around on it. Later on, as the band kind of evolved, Steve was playing mandolin, he was getting really great at it and so I realized that (laughs) in order to stay in the band I needed to get a new instrument. So I went on Craigslist, bought a banjo and basically moved to Colorado to see if I could stay in [Trout Steak].  

Besides the banjo, mandolin and guitar, what other instruments do you know how to play?

I played piano, which was kind of my first love, my mom is a great piano player. I was in the drum line in high school so I played drums. And then I played guitar and then the harmonica, the ukulele, the accordion, the clarinet and then the banjo now, and the mandolin.

Last year Trout Steak won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band competition. Did winning really help get the band’s name out there? 

Yeah, it’s been great. We were really lucky to have the support that we did that day. There were so many friends we’ve made over the last five, six years down at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. All of the friends we’ve made from Steamboat Springs, Denver and Telluride and Carbondale and all these weird little towns we’ve played. It was a really great day to be out there with everybody.

But since then, it’s been great. … Before the win, we were kind of getting surrounded by a really great team of managers and booking agents, and starting to write a whole lot more and play a whole more. [We] kind of had some things going for ourselves that we were getting able to work a lot more. But the win at Telluride does give people a reason to listen for five seconds longer and a lot of times that’s what you need. 

The Kickstarter for the new album mentioned that after five years together you guys decided to become full-time musicians. What were you doing before that point and when did you decide to quit your second job?

I quit my job a week after the Telluride band competition. (laughs) I used to do fundraising for public television for arts programming, which I loved. I love supporting the arts in Colorado and I got to meet a lot of great artists and musicians and really great people and, you know, it was definitely something I enjoyed. But getting the chance to play music all the time – you can’t turn that down. We’re so lucky … I’m in a band with my friends, my four best friends. If we’re not playing, I’m usually hanging out with them anyway.  And if we weren’t in a band, we’d just be hanging out. Now we get to pile in a van and travel around the country.

Brighter Every Day is the band’s first studio album. What did the band release before that?

We’ve actually put out two full albums that we’ve professionally done ourselves.  Our dobro player, Will Koster, is also a really talented audio engineer. He went to school at IU for it and he’s got a collection of vintage microphones and all this stuff. He’ll just talk your ears off about it. And it’s great. We recorded our first two albums in two different cabins up in the mountains of Colorado. The first one was outside Conifer … on 150 acres out on the South Platte River [at] a 100-year-old cabin. [We] just set up some mics in there, went in there for about three weekends and recorded our first album while Will is wearing two hats as the musician and the engineer, just kind of running into the control room and pressing record and running into the other room and taking some solos. We did the other one in Evergreen. … We’ve just been writing so much more music and we’ve been really trying to develop our sound more and we really wanted to see what going into the studio and trying to capture more of our sound in a real studio session. … We’re pretty pleased with the result.

Trout Steak’s Kickstarter goal was $18,600 to fund the album, but you ended up raising over $36,000. It sounds like working with Kickstarter was obviously a big success.

Yeah, yeah. We are so totally humbled by the amount of support that we received in our Kickstarter campaign and just totally thankful for our great fans and families for supporting us like that. It was funny, we said $18,600 as our goal because that would have covered just the bare bones of creating the record – you know, studio time, hiring a producer, mastering, pressing and releasing it. I was sitting at one of our favorite bars in Denver, the Park House, where a lot of bluegrass musicians hang out. It was two days into our funding campaign and someone came over and slapped me on the back and they were like, “Hey, congratulations, man!” and I was like, “What are you talking about?” And they were like, “You’re halfway!” And I looked at my phone and we’d raised $10,000. … It was this crazy thing that we didn’t really see coming.

We ended up raising the $18,000 in the first four days. And then we so we were able to go for stretch goals to do some stuff that we’d always really wanted to do with a record. So we were able to press the album to a 180-gram audio quality vinyl, which we’re really excited about. We got to hire a video team to do some documentary footage, as well as music videos. We got to hire, more help with publicity, tour routing all over the United States. We were able to do just so many more things with the record that we really wanted to do. We got to buy an extra day in the studio to lay down some extra tracks and really kind of put some creative touches on the record. It was amazing what our community helped us do and allowed us to do and, you know, we’re just totally indebted to them so we’re just going to go on the road and play real hard every night.

Can you talk about the writing process and vision behind Brighter Every Day?

You know, it’s been such a fun road to go down with all of these musicians in this band. There’s so many great songwriters in the band, there’s so many great creative voices, there’s so many talented musicians that I think that we’re probably starting to explore more of that individual songwriting sound rather than more of a straight-ahead bluegrass approach. Just starting to look at how to use these bluegrass instruments to say what we want to say and write the type of songs that we love to play and listen to and play to each other.

And it’s great being in a band with five singers and songwriters, just because it’s such a collaborative way to play music and to write and to make albums. Everybody writes, everybody sings lead, everybody sings harmonies on each other’s songs. We share writing credits for everything that we do, just because we want to really keep this little space that we’ve created, we want to keep that pure. … We’ve been getting better and better about working with each other on these songs and crafting them. … Somebody will help out with an intro or an outro or a bridge or if a certain turn of phrase isn’t working out. The more that we can kind of … take our egos out of the art, the more we can just work on the art. It’s really difficult but it’s really fun. I think that the album is a reflection of that. It’s been a really positive record I think for us, just in that we’ve played these songs out so many times. We’ve really been road testing the material and I think it’s a really positive, kind of hopeful record. That stuff just feels so good to sing about night after night. … It feels good for [the audience], it feels good for us. We get energy from them and so we just ended up writing some songs that are chasing that.

We play these places [where] it’s Friday night, you know, and these people have come and they pay good money to come and see you and that’s like their time, their Friday night. They just had some crazy week of work [and now] they’re spending their time with you. And it’s our responsibility to release that kinetic energy in them. They gave that to us so we don’t want to waste that. We want to make a night of it, you know?

Well, you just answered my last question. I was going to ask why someone should go out to one of Trout Steak’s shows but that’s the perfect answer.

Cool! (laughs)

It sounds like the atmosphere is really positive and it seems like fans are kind of guaranteed to have a good time.

Yeah, we hope so.

Oh, one last thing – can you explain the meaning behind the band’s name?

About a month before I moved back to Colorado to join the band … the guys went out on a fishing trip up into the Sawakeen Mountain Range to this secret camping site. … The way that I’ve heard the story is in total idiot male form they brought no food and they were just like, “We’re going to catch everything!”

They brought lemon, salt and pepper and some fishing poles and obviously some whiskey and things like that. They went up there and it poured rain for three days straight. And the fish just weren’t biting at all and they were stuck up there just getting hungrier and hungrier, sitting in their tent. One of the guys had brought a mandolin that was rented from one of the local music shops, so they were drinking whiskey and getting drunker and drunker, playing songs from 10 to 10. And they would send one guy out into the rain to try and catch fish and people would be getting drunk inside the tents and finally they started yelling at the guy to “Bring me a trout steak!” And that’s where it started.

Upcoming dates for Trout Steak Revival:

March 28 – Fort Collins, Colo., Aggie Theatre (appearing with Cabinet) 
March 31 – Saint Paul, Minn., Turf Club
April 1 – Wausau, Wis., Red Eye Brewing Company          
April 2 – La Crosse, Wis., The Root Note                
April 3 – Madison, Wis., Brink Lounge    
April 4 – Berwyn, Ill., FitzGerald’s             
April 9 – Indianapolis, Ind., Hi-Fi                
April 10 – Benton Harbor, Mich., The Livery         
April 18 – Boulder, Colo., Boulder Theater (The Infamous Stringdusters)  
April 20 – Boulder, Colo., Boulder Theater (The Infamous Stringdusters)
April 23 – Ashland, Ore., Brickroom Gathering House        
April 24 – Eugene, Ore., Sam Bond’s Garage           
April 25 – Portland, Ore., Goodfoot
April 29 – Bellingham, Wash., Green Frog Cafe       
April 30 – Seattle, Wash., Nectar Lounge     
May 1 – Spokane, Wash., The Bartlett          
May 2 – Moscow, Idaho, John’s Alley          
May 3 – Moscow, Idaho, East City Park (Moscow Renaissance Fair)  
May 6 – Sandpoint, Idaho, DiLuna’s Cafe   
May 8 – Missoula, Mont., Top Hat    
May 9 – Bozeman, Mont., Peach Street Studios       
May 15 – Beulah, Colo., Songbird Cellars    
May 16 – Poncha Springs, Colo., Elevation Beer Co.           
May 22 – Colorado Springs, Colo., La Foret Conference and Retreat Center (MeadowGrass Music Festival)            
May 24 – Colorado Springs, Colo., La Foret Conference and Retreat Center
June 5 – Pagosa Springs, Colo., Reservoir Hill Park (Pagosa Folk n’ Bluegrass Festival)
June 12 – Palisade, Colo., Riverbend Park (Palisade Bluegrass & Roots Music Festival)
June 20 – Telluride, Colo., Telluride Town Park (Telluride Bluegrass Festival)
July 17 – Steamboat Springs, Colo., Strings Music Pavilion (Strings Music Festival)
July 18 – North Plains, Ore., Horning’s Hideout (Northwest String Summit)

For more information please visit TroutSteak.com.