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After long hiatus, bluegrass jam band back in action

Leftover Salmon will perform Thursday night at the Knitting Factory.
Leftover Salmon will perform Thursday night at the Knitting Factory.

After an eight-year hiatus, Leftover Salmon has re-emerged refreshed, refocused and with a new record. Last year the bluegrass jam band trailblazers released their first album of original tunes and they’re already preparing the next studio batch. In this interview, co-founding multi-instrumentalist and singer Drew Emmitt talks about the new album, the new lineup, and reuniting the band after the death of banjo player Mark Vann.

IJ: What caused the hiatus?

DE: It seems like so long ago now. … A lot of things contributed to it. We’d been hitting the road hard for a number of years. The passing of our banjo player was a big thing. We’d found kind of a replacement, a number of them, but it never quite felt the same. We were ready to take a big break and also see if we could do some things on our own. At that point it was the best thing we could have done. We didn’t know if we were gonna get back together. We needed to stop touring all the time.

IJ: You’ve talked in the past about how playing music can take its toll spiritually. What do you mean by that?

DE: It’s really tough to live on the road. Basic everyday things become difficult, like eating good food and being comfortable. You’re living in close quarters with a group of guys. … It’s challenging being away from home and family and the comforts of having your own space. And add to that putting on a show and putting out as much as possible every night. It’s a lot harder than people realize.

IJ: Did you ever have an inkling that maybe the band wouldn’t get back together?

DE: Once we started doing solo projects, particularly me and (guitarist Vince Herman), we enjoyed the freedom of being able to do our thing and do our band. It was exciting again. We started to think, well maybe Leftover Salmon is over and I don’t need to do it again. It took three years to really want to do it again and for the demand to get back up there. It was definitely an unknown and we surprised ourselves by putting it back together.

IJ: What was the allure of doing the side projects if you were already burnt out on music as a lifestyle?

DE: It was really empowering for myself when I started my own band. It was more of a bluegrass band. It was a really amazing experience getting out on the road and running my own business. I was the manager and the booking agent and the record company. It’s nice to know that without Salmon I can still make a living and support my family and pay the bills and have people come see the show without having the big machine and all those things in place to push it.

IJ: How did you know when the time was right to get the band back together?

DE: A lot of things came together to get us back out on the road. First we got back together to do the summer festivals. Then, our manager was urging us to get on the bus again and do one big tour. But the big thing was finding our new banjo player, Andy Thorn. When he joined, it really felt like a band again just because of the way he fits in and the energy he brings.

IJ: What is it about Andy that makes him so unique to this band?

DE: He was just so excited to play with us. He first saw Leftover Salmon when he was 14. His mom brought him to a show. It was a dream of his to be in this band he’s super excited to be doing this. He’s really easygoing and he’s still having fun. He hasn’t been touring for years and years. It’s helpful when you’ve been doing this half your life to have someone new with a new outlook.

IJ: How did the new album, “Aquatic Hitchhiker,” come together?

DE: We got together with Steve Berlin from Los Lobos and had a songwriting session in Colorado where everyone brought out the tunes they had been kicking around and turned them into songs. A month later we had studio time booked. We didn’t know how we were going to pull it together and somehow it happened.

IJ: “Aquatic Hitchhiker” is your first record of completely original tunes?

DE: Yeah, the goal was to not have any covers on this record. We always relied on traditional songs or obscure cover songs and we finally put out an album that is truly us. It was a lot easier than we thought it was going to be and that’s encouraging for when we go back into the studio.

IJ: Now that you’re back on the road, are you worried about the pace getting the better of the band again?

DE: We’re not going to let that happen again. We’re doing this big tour and the rest of the year is all one-offs and festivals until next September. We learned our lesson … the hard way.