Chris Pandolfi is sitting in his home studio in Denver, he’s surrounded by recording gear, instruments and sound absorbent foam. The eclectic banjoist from the Infamous Stringdusters is on a short break from touring in support of their latest offering Toward the Fray, which included a run of performances with fellow contemporary bluegrass pioneers Greensky Bluegrass and will soon welcome Dustbowl Revival.
Pandolfi has a refined calmness to him, a comfort that comes with experience and notoriety. He emanates an immediate civility that basks in the afternoon Mountain Time light that would couple well with a cup of fair trade coffee. Over a Zoom call he states “The Pandemic is over,” followed by an immediate “I shouldn’t say that.” After a shared knock on wood, he discusses the Stringdusters’ latest album, his podcast Inside the Musician’s Brain, post pandemic touring, the legacy of bluegrass and the acoustic renaissance.
Toward the Fray was written during the start of the pandemic, it has a girl with a gas mask on its cover. For lack of a better word, I’d call the visual artistic direction as ‘unflinching.’ What made you and the band decide to address the problems of the world on this album?
I don’t think it was necessarily a very conscious decision. I think – as is the case in songwriting, a lot of the time – these are just the things that came out. And as you get a little bit older – and you know, we’ve been around for like 16 years as a band – I mean, you just can’t help but notice these things. And then simultaneously, music and song writing, I think there’s an honesty in that craft that… it’s probably always there, but it comes out more as you develop as a songwriter, as a musician. So there were just a lot of common threads between the songs. And like I said, these are just the themes that people were addressing because they were just so unavoidable. And music and song obviously is a constant in terms of something that people turn to for connection with other people, for an escape from some of these things, for more understanding, for a release.
I think a lot of it happened very naturally. And the feedback has been awesome. Because these things are not just unavoidable for us, they’re unavoidable for everyone right now. I mean, the cover of that album’s crazy. I’ve had multiple people comment on how, sort of, it was like it predicted this whole crazy thing that’s going on in Ukraine. I mean, it looks like it could have come straight out of something that’s going on over there. So this was just a natural step forward for us. And something that I think also as you evolve as an artist, and as a human being, you’re less nervous about taking on these big topics. I think at certain points in your career, it’s impossible to not think about what you think people want you to address… or I should say – probably a better way of saying that is, sort of ‘playing it safe,’ and addressing themes that are easy and universal. Well, these aren’t necessarily easy themes, but they are universal. And I think that when songs give a voice to what we collectively are feeling there there’s an important thing going on there. Like I said, just people’s ability to tap into something and feel some release through music, some connection to other people. So, yeah, it was a very natural process. And now that we’re finally taking these songs out on the road, I think we’re starting to see that that side of the music is really having an impact on people.
I feel like a big thing with the pandemic, that we all sort of shared, was that we didn’t really have an end date on it. There was a lot of uncertainty. Do you think that this collection of songs would’ve come together in the way they did had you and the rest of the Stringdusters known you would’ve had about two years until you’d be able to tour freely again?
I don’t know. I mean, you know, hindsight is always 20/20. I think it’s important to remember that a lot of the themes that are addressed here pre-date the pandemic. And we’re talking about, you know, just simple stuff that you’d think would be a forgone conclusion in today’s world. Like equality. I mean, why are we still going back and forth about equal rights for all people? Or the fact that human lives are intrinsically valuable? I mean, really – we are still. We’re still fighting that fight. And ironically, maybe we’re even fighting it on a bigger scale than we ever have before.
I mean, there’s a lot of injustice in the world, and power just becomes locked up in the hands of a few people. And so I think we feel a responsibility to do something about that. And with whatever voice, with whatever resources we can. And I think all of that was in motion before the pandemic started, and a lot of that, most of that – maybe all of that – would have come out anyway.
So like I said, hindsight is 20/20, but I do think that the wheels were already in motion for this sort of directional change for the band. And then the pandemic was just one more thing that kind of exacerbated all of these problems and put them even more in your face, made them even more unavoidable. So that’s what really pushed us over the edge. And I think if you look at that album artwork, I mean, that’s some intense album artwork. That’s definitely not something that we would have done early in our career. And again, just the way that all of these issues, these problems, these challenges, have been amplified over the past two years. To me, that just kind of sealed the deal.
Absolutely. I’ve been enjoying your podcast. What led you to create it?
Well, so, I guess one thing that was a factor is that I’ve been working with RJ at Osiris media for years, for before I even ever had the podcast. And he is a close friend and someone that I really believe in. And I think that he really struck out on a meaningful mission to become the leading storyteller in music. And I had always intended to start a podcast. And, you know, the roots music world doesn’t have much in the way of amazing podcast content that’s covering… like a renaissance in this music. I mean, acoustic bluegrass music is more popular at this moment in time than ever before. And so I wanted to capitalize on all of the awesome connections and friendships that I’ve made over the years. Just to help people tell their individual stories and to tell the collective story of what’s happening with this music. Because it goes so, so deep, but there’s so much noise out there. There’s so much music that it’s hard to cut through all of that. It’s hard to cut through the din and really capture people’s attention for very long. But like I said, there’s so much behind these amazing artists; Béla and his incredible, long career, and now this landmark new album you know, there’s a lot that goes into that. And so I just wanted to get some of that out there.
And also to create a platform and an outlet for myself – via the podcast in general, but especially like the intro segment where I get to just think through things that I think are interesting, that are on my mind that I think could inform people, inspire people, enlighten people. And again, just trying to put something meaningful out there into the world. So I’m in my third season now and it’s been great. I mean, the traction has been awesome. Guests have been awesome. And now I’m trying some new things, including this ‘inside the album’ format, which I just did for the dusters and I’m gonna be doing the same thing for Greensky later this season for Stress Dreams.
So yeah, there were a lot of good reasons for me to start Inside the Musician’s Brain. I mean, I love playing music and I’ve devoted my life to it, but there are other things that I love too. And connecting with people, learning from people, helping them to tell their stories is definitely one of them.
Nice. I think it’s also very notable to mention that in the show you do a great job with bringing important causes to your listeners, which I find to be very admirable.
Thank you. Yeah. These are just things like the topics that we address on Toward the Fray. I think for people they can be really overwhelming, and it’s like ‘where do I start If I wanna do something about this?’ and just having the conversation, shedding more light on it, giving some people ideas about little things that they can do. I know it’s helped me, and hopefully that’s something that helps other people as well.
“Throw a little bit of hope in the air” is what I always say. Sometimes it becomes something much greater. So I just want to move back into the album and some of your creative process. I really enjoyed “I’m Not Alone.” You mentioned it a couple times on the podcast. I was fascinated by the fact that Travis Book was inspired by different colors of paint layered chipping off his wall and that becoming the inspiration and that creative process juxtaposed with Andy Hall’s description of his songwriting process which was almost like he was – through spoken word and understanding of music theory – laid out a song in that way. So I was curious how the Stringdusters come together, with such varied sources and areas of initial inspiration.
I mean, that’s what being in a band is all about, you know, finding that synergy with other people. And taking the things that we all do well and bringing them together to create something that’s more than the sum of the parts. And we’re all very different musicians. We have a very eclectic set of influences. We also have different processes that we go through to craft music. We have, I think, different ways that we funnel our inspiration into new art. And that’s a process that we undertake as individuals, and that’s also a process that we’ve learned to undertake as a band. It’s not the easiest thing in the world. It’s something that you really need to learn how to do. And I think underneath that process, there has to be a deep, deep trust because when you have five people who have – I don’t wanna say vastly differing musical visions. I mean, there’s a lot of overlap in what we do – but we’re very different people. And to bring those people together and to make meaningful, convincing music that we believe in means that we’re not all gonna get our way every time.
We’re not gonna get all of our ideas as individuals over the finish line, there’s gonna be compromise. And what makes compromise work over time is trust because you know that these other people have put in the time. You know, that they are convicted, honest, original musicians and that they really have something to say. So it becomes really easy to trust them. And then that becomes really empowering in the creative process as a group. Because even though, like you mentioned, our processes are different as individuals, we can come together and use the best of those methods that we have, the best of the writing techniques that we have. And then, ultimately, the best of the material to create something – again – that’s just more than the sum of the parts.
We’ve put a lot of work into this side of the equation. Even though we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for Toward the Fray – that’s kind of the interesting thing about Toward the Fray. As years go by, we usually put more time into pre-production with every passing album, just because we have more resources and we just want to grow as a band. Then, all of a sudden, we’re hit with the pandemic. And we had… I mean, in less than two days, we learned, arranged, rehearsed everything – all the music on this album.
We had never played any of it before. So we were sharing some of this stuff online and listening to it. And then we got together and, you know, I forget exactly – but it was, like, a Monday and we were gonna hit the studio on Wednesday – and we’d never played any of this stuff as a band, not a single one of these songs.
So, the point of that is we didn’t have an endless amount of time to pour over all the details of the music to try a zillion little things. What we really had to do was rely on all this collective experience that we have as a band. And, again, on the trust factor. We know that everyone is committed to music really deeply. And, again, put in the time and just earned that. We’ve earned that on our own. We’ve earned that as a group. And you can really use that as a foundation for something meaningful because ultimately when you do hit ‘record’ in the studio, what makes good music?
You really have to believe in what you’re doing and you really have to believe in it deeply – to where you can meet that moment and be in that moment as completely as you possibly can. And if you’re doing stuff that you don’t believe in, that’s basically impossible. So I feel like Toward the Fray was this amazing kind of intersection of all these things that we had learned to do over all the years that we’d spent as a band. And then all the latest and greatest material, but without a lot of time to learn or rehearse. It was just like, ‘here we go, we got these new songs. This is the Stringdusters. This is what it is.’ And that’s what came out.
You did mention that roots and acoustic music is going through a renaissance right now. So, kind of a two part question for you: The first one is when did you realize that that was happening. And two, considering that you’ve pretty consistently put out albums – I believe this is your 12th now – and they’ve all come out within 24 months of each other… what are your thoughts on your own impact on that renaissance?
Well, I’d love to take credit for the acoustic renaissance and maybe we have played some part in it. And we have – I mean, we’ve been playing an interesting role in everything that’s going on. And what I mean is – we are a rare band in that we really started in the bluegrass world.
I mean, we were living in Nashville, there weren’t all these festivals, like there are now. There was no WinterWonderGrass. There was Telluride, and that was kind of the only game in town. And the scene has changed immeasurably in the time that we’ve been a band. And one of the best ways that you can best encapsulate that change is that when we started out, ‘bluegrass’ – as a marketing term – was not something that we wanted to move towards. So bluegrass was something that people associated with, you know – that’s like ‘their grandfather’s music.’ And it’s like ‘hillbilly music’ or ‘from the south’ or whatever. Now, bluegrass, of course, is some of the sickest music ever. And it’s some of the most soulful, virtuosic… and not only that, but also culturally important music – I mean, it’s one of the true American art forms – but it just wasn’t that popular. And it’s gone through ebbs and flows. When we started out, Yonder was kind of the main event – and String Cheese [Incident], you know, [Leftover] Salmon, but they were both on a break. But regardless there just wasn’t this clear cut path to play bluegrass in front of a huge crowd with production and lights and sound and all that stuff.
Well, fast forward 16 years and that has changed. Bluegrass is super popular right now. And people are falling in love with it for all those reasons that I mentioned. It’s just so real. It’s got this amazing, organic sound. It’s exciting, it’s got this insane energy. The playing is – especially in the more bluegrass world – it’s just incredible.
I mean, it’s really a remarkable form of music. And all the while, we are one of the bands that – like I said – we really came from the bluegrass world. We didn’t come from the jam world. We didn’t come from the rock world. We incorporated those things later on. And there’s an authenticity there too.
I mean, I was going to Phish shows before I ever got my first banjo and we have some really diverse influences that way. It’s not like… you know, I was born in New York and I came to the banjo through Béla Fleck.
But then we all kind of converged on bluegrass and that was what we loved and that was our mission. And we got together and then our mission evolved, and our mission was to just to create original music, and there were these other influences trickling in. And then all of a sudden over time, something starts happening and there’s all these new bands coming up. And it’s like Greensky was a few years before us. And then we came around and then all of a sudden it’s Kitchen Dwellers, Little Smokey, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. You know, all these festivals – Blue Ox, WinterWonderGrass – the scene is just percolating.
And now you have guys like Billy Strings playing bluegrass in arenas, you know?
But this was not going on when we started. And I think in some way it was inevitable, because this music is just so engaging and organic, and I’m proud of the role that we’ve played in that whole process.
And the thing that I’m most proud of is that we play music that we love and that we hear and that’s really uniquely us, but we really try to keep some of those amazing fundamentals of more traditional bluegrass alive. And I’m talking about the picking, and the singing, and the chops. And there’s a great full circle moment for us right now because we’re nominated for a Grammy for a tribute to Bill Monroe. And in all of this – this progression of bluegrass and our progression as a band – to be recognized for an album that points listeners back to the forefathers of this music. To me, that’s something I’m really proud of. And if we’re out there playing our music and that turns people on to Earl Scruggs onto Bill Monroe… well, I’ll consider that something that I’m as proud of as anything in my career. Because they don’t get enough recognition and they don’t get enough credit for it. And none of us would be doing any of this. If it wasn’t for those guys.
Béla Fleck once described album arrangement and song composition as jigsaw puzzles. And as a fellow banjoist, do you have a mental image when it comes to your compositions?
Well, I can say I definitely identify with that idea, because arrangement and writing are things that you can learn tools to take on. And, you know, I went to Berkeley. I was the first ever banjo principal at Berkeley college of music from 2001 to 2003, I was at Berkeley and they had never had a banjo principle before.
And it was even a few years after I left that they started the American roots program. So I wasn’t really learning from banjo players, but I was learning all kinds of music theory and composition. And I think that the area that education helped me most was in my composition, because there just are all these tools and tricks. And as you become more experienced, you just have this sense of what’s possible. So like, for example: You’re writing a song, writing a tune. And you have these innate ways of knowing, you know, how things can start and get moving and how to build momentum, to trade the solos, around how to break the form up.
And that’s a big part of what I’ve learned to do and what I love to do. So when I’m writing, my first thing is just to really try to write a great melody, try to write a beautiful foundation for music – but then there’s this whole other part, which is sort of what you’re alluding to, kind of getting a mental picture of what the music can sound like. And that’s the part where you translate this thing that might just be like a minute or a minute and a half of music into something that unfolds over five minutes for five musicians – or whatever it ends up being, but in the case of the Stringdusters, something like that. So, like, my instrumental on our new album “Revolution,” it starts just writing this thing and I don’t even know what the chords are yet or anything. I’m just following this idea. And then there’s this whole other process of translating it into something that will work for the band. And that’s definitely something that you hone and get much more experience with over the years and something that I’ve worked on a ton.
I saw that Billy Strings was one of your earliest guests on the podcast. When you interviewed him at that point, did you see how far he was gonna take off and how quickly?
I mean, I don’t think anyone saw how far his thing would go. I mean, he’s the biggest bluegrass act probably of all time at this point. I mean, he’s just bringing the music to so many uninitiated people. So I don’t think anyone could have ever predicted that. But I certainly recognized in him something very special and he plays with a type of conviction that’s very, very rarely seen. And I think the best way to describe it is just like, he believes very deeply in what he’s doing.
And that’s been an inspiration to me. And I remember when I read the New York Times article about Billy that came out and he described that music basically saved his life and it was enlightening because it helped me understand, I think, why he’s such a great musician and also why he’s so successful. Because there’s an honesty implicit in what he does that the rest of us have to really search, to find. Music for him was not like some hobby. It was like a ticket out of a really hard life. It was something that he had to take. You know, this wasn’t like something that he picked up because he needed a new thing to do. It has a deeper meaning to him. And the rest of us, we have to find that meaning in our immune music.
And I think it’s absolutely there for everyone on different levels, but that’s a really deep thing. And I think that’s what makes him so connected to what he does and makes people connect to what he does as well, because there’s just a level of honesty and conviction in there that is rarely seen and rarely harnessed in musicians. And it’s awesome to behold. And of course, ultimately, it’s so great for everyone in bluegrass. I mean, he’s bringing this music to all kinds of people who have never even heard it before. So, it really bodes well for the rest of us. And it’s really just awesome to behold, I’m really happy for Billy and his whole team.
Likewise. So just to get back to the Stringdusters – I know you guys are getting back on the road, and you’ve been on the road. Could you speak on the importance of engagement, the oddities groups have experienced during the pandemic, and any new innovative ways you plan to use or implement while you’re on tour?
I mean, yes, but I don’t know what they are yet because that’s the kind of stuff that we figure out when we get together. But we’re excited. I mean we are as excited about music as we’ve ever been. I know that I’ve worked so hard on music over the past year. And for a number of reasons, because, you know, I always want to be evolving as a musician. And I think also because the pandemic presented some real challenges and took us away from performing, which, you know, I never thought to think about it – but the rest of my adult life, I had a gig every other day. You know, I never had more than a couple weeks off. So you keep this knife’s edge focus, just honed in on this craft of being on stage.
And, and then it kind of went away, I think for everyone in some capacity. And now I feel like we’re back to where we’ve got that going again. And we’re on the front edge of the equation. We’ve got this new album. Everyone – I mean, I just feel like my bandmates are, and me as well, just as fired up to get out there and play music as we have ever been in our whole careers.
And, and it’s an amazing energy. You know, I always say one of the greatest things about being in the Stringdusters. Because the level is so high, the chops are so insane. You know, it’s just always – I wanna say an inspiration, but it’s a very literal form of inspiration where when you show up for tour, you need to be ready or you’re gonna get left in the dust.
So, you know, that’s, that’s always been, that’s always been the case with us and it’s always, you know, it’s like you get your ass kicked and you gotta really up your game. Well, now that equation is really rolling again. And we’ve had a lot of dates under our belt, and now we’re going back out to do our own two set shows.
So I don’t really know exactly what’s in store, but I know that there is an energy and an excitement that leads to those kinds of things. That’s really brewing right now.