An Interview with Cornmeal

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    By Nathan Emerson | Photo by Keith Griner

    Over the past decade Cornmeal has worked hard and proven their presence as one of the top jamgrass bands. Through extensive touring and playing the major festivals, they built a solid following for their progressive bluegrass sound that blends reggae and psychedelic jams.

    A recent lineup change only breathes new life and excitement into the band. Through side projects, rehearsals, recording, and playing a handful of shows and festivals this year- they are ready for a Winter Tour. This tour they will have a fantastic fiddler Molly Healey formerly of Big Smith, and on November 8th in Madison, WI the talented Gina Tomantini (of whom worked with many professional acts) will join them again as she played the summer shows and a fall tour. All of these performances are a do not miss.

    As a longtime fan I was delighted to ask questions broiling in my head and was respectfully corrected on a rumor I heard about buying their tour bus. What a great group,  their responses were just as tasteful as their music.

     

    Nathan Emerson: Its been a long time since an album came out yet a handful of the bands staple songs haven’t been recorded. How is recording going, and what can we expect to hear?

    Chris: Well its been a slow process to say the least because while we are in the midst of wood shedding new material we are also rehearsing and preparing for this upcoming fall tour and getting the new members up to speed on the old material. We are patient though and really want to make sure that the studio isn’t rushed and we capture a memorable performance.

     

    NE: What was it like playing with the lovely and amazingly talented Gina Romantini on a leg of the tour this summer and did she ever stop by the studio?

    Wavy Dave: It is really great to play with Gina Romantini. She’s energetic, intuitive and very talented. Gina can “hang” too, which is important in a traveling band. It’s not easy being a young woman, thrown into a confined space with a bunch of guys for days but she quickly became a welcomed traveling companion. It’s good to have her.

     

    NE: During Shoefest this year both Gina and former fiddle player and friend Allie Kral were onstage with you, how did that feel?

    WD: I really got a kick out of watching her and Allie playing together during our set at Shoefest. Kind of like a passing of the torch.

     

    NE: When Allie Kral left was there any thoughts of replacing the fiddle with a different instrument?

    Chris Gangi: Not really. Fiddle is such an integral part of the music that we write I just couldn’t see it any other way. We have toyed around with the notion of adding things on top of the fiddle but that is something we might explore further down the road.

     

    NE: How refreshing was it to work stripped down as Chatsworth & Dupree this summer? Its also my understanding an album or EP will result from that, other than Chris playing guitar and mandolin -how will it differ from Cornmeal and what’s the future of the Duo?

    WD: The Chatsworth and Dupree project is a fun project for Chris and I. It’s like a Singer/Songwriter show case where we can interact with the audience, and It gives us a chance to explain to fans the origins of the songs we play with Cornmeal. Mixed with personal favorites, we also get to play other original songs that aren’t quite Cornmeal material.

     

    NE: Wavy Dave, can you talk about your banjo rig ?  Maybe educate the purists on Pete Wernick’s use of effects how you utilize them or who else might have influenced your manipulation of the banjo?

    WD: For the last 2 years I have been playing exclusively through a Fender Twin Reverb amp. My banjo rig has changed many times throughout the years and I’ve used many different pick up and amplifier configurations. When we started flying to shows and had to backline amps, the Twin was the most consistently available amp so I started using them. It turned out to be just the sound I was looking for. As for the use of effects and Peter Wernik, I think he was the first to use them. He first used a phaser on the banjo in the 70’s which gives it a slow-sweeping tremolo sound. I use a Boss BF-2B Bass flanger pedal which is similar to a phaser but gives me a little boost and a nice shimmery effect that’s almost unnoticeable. I also use a Boss RV 3 digital reverb/delay pedal to give a nice echo during really trippy solos. Lastly I use the reverb and tremolo on the amp itself. The tremolo gives me a nice swampy sound and I use it most when I back up the guitarist. I think the most important component of my sound is the banjo itself. I play a Nechville banjo with a Turbo Module. I’ve had it about 6 years now in which time it has seen 3 necks, electronics and hardware  changes, and 2 different resonators. There’s really no other banjo like it, you could say it’s the Wavy Dave model now.

     

    NE: Your birthday always seems to drop during Summer Camp music festival. Being in your home state and surrounded by a ton of friends bands who often jam on stage together – how special is it?

    WD: It’s really awesome to have thousands of people wish me happy birthday every year when we play Summer Camp. We usually have multiple shows each day plus sit-ins with other bands so it gets kind of grueling, but I always appreciate the opportunity to perform in front of so many fans.

     

    NE: Scott, as a musician you are always trying to reach new heights. Since joining Cornmeal do you find yourself trying to pick up more bluegrass techniques? What do you woodshed or have an ear for these days?

    Scott Tipping: Cornmeal has given me the unique opportunity to do what I do within their settings.  It’s a fantastic position to be in as I am picking up new music, new ideas and at the same time putting my stamp on everything. As far as woodshedding? I love playing everyday, it feels great. The biggest and hardest lessons for me with Cornmeal are some of the really fast tunes, I have relied on my right arm more than my wrist for picking throughout the years. It’s been nice to practice working with my wrist more.

     

    NE: We heard you play acoustic & Les Paul’s in your previous band ‘Backyard Tire Fire’, as well as other bands; Les Paul’s have a thicker neck and wider string spacing similar to an acoustic – what’s your difference in approach, especially in an electric bluegrass  band? Can you tell us about playing acoustic through effects pedals?

    ST: The approach is surprisingly similar. Tire Fire was rock based and Cornmeal is bluegrass based but both bands have lots of different roots on display throughout their sets. The key is to play with energy and try to find some soul within the moment. It has been difficult to wrap my head around playing an acoustic with effect pedals. I have always seen the electric and acoustic as two separate worlds. But Cornmeal has built a tradition of melding the acoustic guitar with effects. It has actually been a lot of fun more me to approach the guitar like this and rethink my live sounds. I have had an old Taylor of mine out on the road these days but am preparing to take a few guitars out on the road soon enough. I want to explore the possibilities and different tones of various acoustics within the electric settings.

     

    NE: Dave Littell, how do you go about playing a style on drums that traditionally doesn’t exist? I’m guessing one can emulate washboard, brushes, and borrow from country & western but whats your personal attack on bluegrass drumming? And how hard is it to keep away from doing punk blast beats on the snare when they are playing chop chords?

    Dave Littell: Well, there are a few drummers who have kind of created this style of drumming, so I take some ideas from them; but the main idea is just to propel the music so it’s more about driving the train and using my “vocabulary” to steer it sometimes. I’m influenced by everything, really. A lot also has to do with the tempo.  Some of the more midtempo songs have a bit of a swing to them, so I borrow from my jazz bag. You get a bit faster and the bluegrass “train” feel can become a bouncy double time rock feel, etc. Sometimes we breakdown into funk and reggae grooves, which is a bit more familiar territory for me. Of course when you get up to those fast tempos it can be a bit thrashy and punk rock, which is kind of what we are going for at times. I guess the main difference would be that there is still a bluegrass “feel” even at the high tempos. It’s a different, bouncier groove and you have to float above it and be nimble with it. Also, I don’t really syncopate the bass drum patterns, which would be more characteristic of the punk style. I play “4 on the floor” pretty much all night.

     

    NE: It sounds like you familiarized yourself with the songs. How did you go about that – through albums, live recordings, or were you intune with most of the songs already?

    DL: The funny thing is that I was just a fan of the band, so I knew the style well already. I’m a bit younger than these guys and I used to go see them when the would play a weekly gig at this dive bar right by my apartment in college. So I was just that kid in the crowd. Most of my close friends in Chicago, I probably met at Cornmeal shows, they were totally where the party was happening. Then 8 or so years later I get a call to tryout for the band. So anything can happen!

     

    NE: Chris, I read in Victor Wooten’s book how much bluegrass music has in common with jazz, playing bass in a progressive bluegrass band can you touch on that comparison?

    CG: The bluegrass form was derived from early blues and jazz. The improvised solo sections and trading of instruments in an important part of the longer form of bluegrass. As well as the bass player being the time keeper, at least in the groups without drums. When you add drums to both those styles the roles of each player shift and bend a little. All in all they both rely heavily on improvisation.

     

    NE: How do you form your setlists?

    CG: Setlist writing is something that has developed over a long time and many shows. I try to be conscious all the time about what songs move the audience in a particular way and then try to develop a storyline through the music. It’s important that we take our audience on a musical journey with twists and turns and peaks and valleys. The band naturally plays to this sort of unspoken dialogue between the audience and us and when a setlist is spot on for the night you walk away knowing it.

     

    NE: Cornmeal was driving Dark Star Orchestra’s old bus last I knew – who are other groups or musicians who helped you out over the last 10 years and are still mentors today?

    CG: Not sure where you heard that we have DSO’s bus but that isn’t true at all. We bought a bus about 7 years ago and have been converting and maintaining it ourselves the whole time. I sort of have become a bus nut through the process. But yes DSO has been instrumental in supporting our band throughout the years. There are so many great, giving, humble musicians that we have come to know as peers throughout the years that helped us out with advice or gave us an opening spot on a show or just were fans of the band early on that really helped propel the reputation of Cornmeal, bands like Umphreys McGee, moe., Railraod Earth, and Leftover Salmon to name a few.

     

    NE: Now the important questions – how much vinyl starts out on the bus, and by the time you get back home how much more made its way on?

    WD: How much vinyl is in the bus at any time varies, depending on who you ask. I have never brought any records on the bus at the beginning of a tour but the most I have acquired by the end is 10. I try to limit the number of used records I buy because I have to stash them under my mattress in my bunk. It gets kinda lumpy if I have too many.

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    Nathan's father wanted to name him after Jimmy Dean, the country musician and sausage entrepreneur. Nathan grew up in a small town about 40 minutes from Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown, and Iowa City. What seemed like Mayberry was surrounded by urban areas with live music. His grandfather owned a restaurant in Chelsea, IA that had live country music and polka dances every Friday night for 30 years. Never learning the drums, he still banged on them with eating utensils, to the burger and buffet eaters pleasure we are all sure. It was also at his Grandparent's house where they would let him slap the keys of the family piano and sing words. His most memorable song was "Me and Uncle Max Driving Down the Road on the TV". Nathan's first concert was The Kenny Wayne Shepard Band when he was in middle school, even though Nathan was listening to and playing in mostly heavy metal and hardcore bands at the time. It was in 2002 when his musical tastes were forever changed at a show with jazz band Galactic opening up for Widespread Panic in Cedar Rapids, IA. This would later be known as Michael Housers' last show, as he passed away only six months later. Although he attended shows before, he has since scowered the Midwest for the next fix. Nathan's tastes kept growing as he correlated the complexity of bluegrass with jazz. He continues to play music but mostly stays focused on learning the pedal steel guitar. He now lives in Waterloo, working as a Drug Store Manager In Training and drags his beautiful wife Leilani around with him to shows when possible. He still hasn't learned the drums or piano.