photo credit: Tobin Voggesser
Dave Bruzza is quite an affable guy. The guitarist and singer-songwriter, known primarily for his work with the jamgrass proponents, Greensky Bluegrass, peppers his conversation with exuberant laughter and numerous references to fun. Fronting his parallel solo project, Unsafe At Any Speed, the Kalamazoo, Michigan native is excited about Unsafe’s upcoming run of shows in the Midwest, starting May 12. Not only because it brings Bruzza back home, but because it allows the lifelong Chicago Cubs fan (and longtime season-ticket holder) to take in a game at Wrigley; get him started talking baseball and Bruzza goes deep, telling decades-old tales of some opening day heroics from Tuffy Rhodes. He’s just as comfortable discussing, as well, his sobriety as he approaches two years, drink and drug-free. Perhaps, he’s happiest, though, to be finding time for everything musically that inspires him–whether with Greensky, Unsafe, or releasing his first solo record; a 45 featuring two original surf rock tracks: “Heart of Santa Cruz” and “Pearl Street Lounge.” We spoke to Bruzza, at his home in Denver, just ahead of Greensky’s Jazz Fest appearance in late April.
I read that when announcing these Unsafe At Any Speed shows, you wrote, “I don’t know how to say this without saying it, but it’s not a Greensky show. It’s a rock ‘n roll band.” As a Greensky fan, I took that as a sign of respect and a compliment. It sounded like you’re anticipating Greensky’s devoted to come out in support, which I imagine they will.
When I first wrote that I wondered, ‘Should I have written that?’ The first time I went out (solo) I didn’t explain the project to anybody. A lot of people showed up expecting a bluegrass show. This is very not a bluegrass show. It’s an electric rock-and-roll band. I don’t even bring an acoustic guitar when I do these shows. It’s not a three-and-a-half-hour improv, exploratory thing. I do one set and it’s rock-and-roll. I do play a couple of songs that I would do in Greensky, kind of rearranged, but for the most part it is something completely different. I love being Dave from Greensky. I love Greensky Bluegrass. This is also another side of me that I don’t often get to give to the world.
Did the desire to play this music exist before Greensky, or is it something that you’ve wanted to do as a result of where you’re at now in your career?
This is something that’s always been around. Before Greensky I didn’t play the guitar, really. I was a drummer. I was in some blues bands as a teenager. And I always had a huge love for the Grateful Dead and things like that. I would end up in jambands and stuff like that. After Greensky took off, and I understood how to perform, this (project) definitely took shape. Around 2017 or 2018 I thought, why don’t I try something just for fun? The bottom line of this project is this is something fun. After the past couple of years I feel like it’s something that’s taken shape, in my downtime, that has a life of its own.
How do you know when you should give some time to Unsafe? Is it a creative inspiration? Diversion?
It’s pretty organic. There are certain times it really calls out to me. The beautiful part is that [Unsafe At Any Speed and Greensky Bluegrass] work so well hand-in-hand. Every time I’ve gone out and done a run on my own I always bring something back to Greensky that I’ve learned. I feel the same when I go out with Greensky. As a musician, I’m constantly learning and growing. It feels really good to spend my time creating, and it’s nice to get a fresh view on music in any direction. I’m lucky enough to have some fabulous musicians to cross-pollinate with on this project; a different format completely. But, it’s not for the money, I’ll tell you that. [Laughs.]
Tell me something you’ve brought back to or from either band.
The big thing that is always there when I go out with Greensky, or this project, or just sitting-in with somebody is that I learn to listen a little bit better every single time. I’m a heavy duty inward thinker. Sometimes things get stuck in there and I have to study it. I have to think about it. So, the overall thought of listening better is what I take away. In turn, it will show up in my playing somewhere else.
How did your affinity for surf rock fit in?
I love all kinds of music. During the early parts of the pandemic I was listening to a lot of really rootsy rock-and-roll. I was really intrigued by it. I heard something that sparked my interest and I had to do a deep dive; really listen to it. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, but during that part of my life I had time. I was listening to whatever I could find: new stuff; old stuff. It coincided with brushing up working on home recording. I had made home recordings but they were never any good. I started conducting experiments in my apartment, making these surf rock things for fun. I wrote about nine instrumental tunes and, for a couple of weeks, recorded them; just focused on that. After a while I realized, wow, this isn’t that bad. I really like this.
So, you didn’t set out with the goal of making a record? You were just working on your craft.
I’ve always wanted to make a record on my own, being a multi-instrumentalist. I tightened the screws, as they say. I took two of the songs that I really liked and did the full distance. I’d never made a record on my own- a solo record- so I decided this was the time. Good or bad, I felt like the way to release this was to make a 7” 45 rpm record. Which I didn’t think anyone would have any interest in. [Laughs.] But I feel like I grossly underestimated the interest in me releasing this in this way.
And you’ll play these songs in the live repertoire?
Yeah, we’ll play the songs. I’ve been thinking, okay, these songs exist. They’re a tangible recording. And it’s just me playing (on them). Now, how am I going to approach this with the band? How will we deliver this live? I don’t think that will be an issue because these musicians in the band with me are incredible. I’m beyond lucky to have these guys come out and tour with me. I’m really excited to put these songs into that environment. It’s going to be fun. We’ve played surf rock before on different tours with Unsafe. We’ve played “Pipeline;” “Walk, Don’t Run;” an instrumental version of “Surfer Girl.” It’s not new territory for this project. But, it’ll be more exciting and fulfilling because these are songs that I wrote. I’m beyond excited to bring them to life.
As I hear them, both bluegrass and surf rock have certain keystone elements that signify their respective styles to an audience. Did you find that and do you make a point to focus on that?
I can see that. When you start to label music, there are certain things that are unique to a style of music; (in surf rock there’s) the dive-bomb guitar lick. Once you get into a style, there are certain things that define what it is. The bottom line, to me, and how I always approach music is that there are certain elements you attach to styles of music- sometimes they come out and sometimes they don’t. With Greensky we’ve been pushing boundaries for 20 years. Music is music. That’s the philosophy of our camp. We play what we feel is right. The word bluegrass in our name is very tongue-in-cheek, I think. We do play traditional bluegrass from time to time, but for the most part we play our own music.
Digging in musically, did you find again similarities between bluegrass and surf rock that you knew were there, or find ones you didn’t know were there, particularly with respect to the role of your guitar?
That’s a great question. These two styles of music in particular are very conversational. In bluegrass, you’ve got a lot going on, but everyone’s kind of talking to each other. There’s a ton of layers to it. I like the way the music moves. What I noticed digging in to all that surf rock was that there is a ton of conversational instrumental stuff. There’s a main melody, and a counter melody that always would pop out. And, for lack of a better term, they’re both so American and really fun.
You’ve chosen the Midwest for this Unsafe run. Any particular reason?
I’m from Michigan. Every time I’ve done something in the Midwest, it really feels like home. I’ve been living in Colorado now for about nine years, but going back to the Midwest- there’s something about this band, in particular, and the people in the Midwest and the vibe that really seem to gel. Granted this project hasn’t had a ton of exposure anywhere else. I did a run in Colorado but it didn’t seem to be the right weekend to do it. I feel really connected to the Rust Belt, and the Great Lakes, in particular. It’s nice to get home. I get to see some people which is great. I’ll be stopping in my hometown of Kalamazoo. That’s a huge connection for me. I love going back and playing at Bell’s (Eccentric Café). Not only for the people I grew up with that are still there but because [the band and the audience] work well together.
Every show will be different or fairly consistent?
It’s a similar show every night because of our limited rehearsal time. There will be some surprise nuggets thrown in there, too.
What’s your criteria for choosing a cover song?
A lot of it is songs that have shaped me as a musician. Also, if something just pops out. Just happens. Every time I’ve done a tour with this band- which is very few- there’s always been one song that just organically happens. I love Leon Russell and I’ve always related to the song “Tight Rope.” Sometimes I’m a little uncomfortable onstage. [Laughs.] It really spoke to me. The Dave Alvin song, “King of California,” I just love that song. Dave’s been a very inspirational musician to me. I like to pay homage. And, of course, we’ll end up playing some Grateful Dead because that’s just fun to play. The Grateful Dead has become traditional music to me. In a hundred years you’ll still see bands filling arenas with Grateful Dead music. It’s so deep in the American fabric. The Grateful Dead is why I do what I do.
Do you want Unsafe to eventually develop a sound all its own or is it preferable to be a catch-all, where you can do anything you feel like doing at that time?
A little bit of both. I want to be able to do this when I can do it. It’s a really nice outlet for me to try something different. It’s a fun way for me to express myself to my fans and to Greensky fans. Eventually this will have its own life. I plan to do more with it when I have time. Greensky is my focus. It’s where I live. I used to feel weird with, like, (being known only as) ‘Dave from Greensky.’ I’d think, man… But, that’s okay. I helped start that band and I’m proud of that. I kind of lean into it now. I just want to let people know I’m more than that. I want to be able to express myself like this when I can.