I walked in the dimly lit, popcorn-fragrant bar for the first time. The neighborhood drinking spot, Sullivan's Bar, was peppered with older gents, younger blue collars and a couple of rugged-looking women. After an interview with David Fleming and Steve Hoiberg, I left with a newfound appreciation for an under-recognized genre of music, a history lesson and a handful of knowledge nuggets I could apply to my own life.
Fleming and Hoiberg are two-fifths of Omaha's original bluegrass band, Southpaw Bluegrass Band. They're gearing up for their new album to be released in winter/spring of 2013, and they play The Lauter Tun this Thursday at 8:30 p.m. Below, they discuss their differing writing styles, life lessons and an affinity for Chinese and Soviet iconography. Stomp those feet, and read on.
Hear Nebraska: Have you always listened to bluegrass?
David Fleming: No, I actually was a straight-edge kid in high school. I liked Gorilla Biscuits, I loved Minor Threat, and I was a huge fan of Fugazi. And then I transformed and moved into Grateful Dead and The Fish. Well, it was probably Fish and then Grateful Dead.
Steve Hoiberg: Well, I refer to my musical tastes as "the four colors of music." The Silver Beetles — it was a pre-cursor to the Beatles — Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and then bluegrass.
HN: To someone who doesn't know or understand anything about bluegrass music, how would you describe it?
DF: Fun. I think it's fun. Whether you're listening to it, dancing to it, or playing it, it's just fun and upbeat.
SH: It's communal music. I've always found it to be communal and that it appeals to people who understand it, but it also draws people in who are not familiar with it.
There's something about bluegrass that nearly everyone can associate with whether it's the instrumentation or the themes of the songs or the lyrical qualities. It's invariably one of those things where someone who walks into a venue and says, "I don't like bluegrass." They're tapping their toe a couple songs in. It's rich and it's historical and it's communal.
DF: It seems like it just touches a nerve. The line we hear most is, "Gosh, I didn't know I liked bluegrass." I can't tell you how many times we've heard that.
SH: And it's not country music. I think that's one thing people need to understand. It's kind of like assuming that all Asian food is the same and it isn't. There are vast and different, just like bluegrass and country music. There may be some historical similarities but, I think a lot of times people jump to the conclusion that because there's rural themes it must be country music. It's not.
Life lesson No. 1
On the topic of being stuck in creative ruts, Steve and David chime in:
SH: From those ruts is born invention. What we've always found is if you think you're on a slide, or not playing your instrument, or writing songs as well as you think you should, it usually is a signal you're on to something.
DF: If you push through it and stick to it, it usually means something good will come out of it. It is proven through our history. Just focus on the long-term goals.
HN: The band started out as just you two. How did it expand and come to find the current members?
SH: We started off as a bluegrass duo known as The Bluegrass Communists, promoting bluegrass equality through all social classes. So Dave started getting a little conceited about introducing ourselves as The Bluegrass Communists at festivals and such and getting a band reaction, the assumptions being negative. I always thought it was a great thing, I mean the merchandising potential was through the roof.
Then we went through several alliterations and about five or six years ago, we came on to a group of five guys and both of our previous albums (Place Back Home and their self-titled album) we recorded with that group. Then just for kind of various different reasons, creative reasons or whatever they decided to go and form a different group.
So Dave and I decided we probably should press on because we had a lot of different material we wanted to record. We never really had considered Southpaw about the players but rather the composition. Just through the process of evolution we came together with three new guys that we met through different things.
DF: We had actually known them for a while. They were in a band in Lincoln, and we had played a couple shows with them. That's kind of how we became friends. We knew them for awhile and had troubles with the guys we made the last two albums with, and we've been fortunate through the years to have players who actually want to play with us. I mean being an original bluegrass band, we've been very fortunate.
SH: I know I said it wasn't about the players but, it kind of is. I mean it's more about the mission than the players, including us.
Life Lesson No. 2
SH: It's like life. You go through life and you meet different people, you occasionally get on different pathways and some people take it the wrong way and find it hard. Some people just decide to take it and keep on going and chalk it up to experience and that's the way we've always approached it.
We've always taken the bumps along the way not as obstacles but as just detours. It's amazing how many detours you go on before you get back on the main road.
DF: We're really excited about the current group of guys because they do bring a different feel just with their music ability. So the new album we're working on we're really proud of. The songwriting has really matured. We're stepping out of the three or four chords and moving into the five or six chords. We're really pushing the limits and these guys have really helped us. Good singers, good players, it's just a regenerated, "Yeah, let's do this! Yeah, let's redo this!"
Life Lesson No. 3
SH: Don't get your panties in a wad when life circumstances don't work out like you think they will. Again, that's life and you have a choice to go into a hole or just to persevere.
HN: You have an album projected to come out in the winter/spring of 2013. How does the sound compare to your last album? Is it going to maintain the upbeat and bouncy vibe?
DF: Well, I think it's hard for Southpaw to step out of upbeat. We usually don't play slow very often. I think as far as changes the upbeat and positive sound will stay. I think the music, and I'm talking musicality, is a little bit more advanced.
As great as some of our old songs were, I think we limited ourselves with the three or four chords. But now we're really stepping in and instead of doing just a verse and chorus. We're doing a verse and a chorus and a second chorus. Our chord progressions are much longer, and you've got to know the songs and play them. It ups the ante for the players as well.
SH: In terms of pace, we've always been hell-bent-for-leather as the phrasing goes, but I think we've gotten to a point were we're more concerned with dominating the pace rather than chasing it. If you listen to some of the earlier albums, you kind of sense a point where it's almost like death metal. Bluegrass death metal.
I think the third one really homes in on what I call "the groove." That's sometimes a difficult thing to achieve because there are so many moving parts to bluegrass. I think we're getting there and now we're finally getting it with this third album.
HN: How do you go about writing your songs? With all the different fast-paced instruments, is it a challenge to bring them all together to create a song?
DF: We each write our own songs. I'll sit at home for hours on end in the "Dave Cave" and come up with different chord progressions and say, "Have I heard this chord progression before?" I'll come up with a chord progression and then go to Steve and say, "Steve, have you heard this before?" I don't want to repeat any chord progressions. That's what I do. So if it's a good chord progression and it has that "groove" then we'll pursue it. The hard thing for me with songwriting is coming up with a story. Or I'll just come up with a title and work around that.
For this album, all of my songs are I would say are based off some story in my life. Whether it's a friend who did me wrong or I wrote a song about my wife this time around. Just things that have happened in my life. Writing a song is like sharing a poem that everyone can get. You've got three minutes to tell a story with minimal words. Steve and I kind of work off of each other. So my process is I'll think of a chord progression, I'll come back and think of the story and try to work it into the song.
SH: For me, it's all about a phrase. Whether it's a musical phrase or a verbal phrase for whatever reason comes to me. That's usually how to happens, and I'll be mowing my lawn and I'll be like, "Oh!" If it's a musical phrase, I'll just be messing around on my banjo and it'll come to me. Just little phrases, they come in a variety of ways. It'll happen in a dream, or I hear something from someone, or my kids say something to me. I was doing laundry the other day and I just had a song epiphany. It's gone now of course.
DF: So there's definitely a difference in writing styles there. I like Steve's songs because he'll come to me with just a sheet of lyrics and sometimes I'll be, like, "I don't know, Steve." But once you start working through it and you get the melody and the chorus. It's like how do you come up with this stuff? It's good to have two different writing styles.
HN: Steve, I read you're interested in Soviet and Chinese iconography, have you found any ways to translate it into what you do musically? Did it somehow oddly enough lead you to bluegrass music?
SH: I think my attraction to Chinese and Soviet iconography and political things were spurred from my fascination with cult of personality. Guys like Mao Tse-Tung and Joseph Stalin and the way people rallied around him and the things that emanated from that. Musically, I've always been attracted to the same kind of people, those who always generate a mass following. I mentioned The Beatles. Same kind of thing but sort of the different cult mentality type thing. I've just always been attracted to that and really fascinated by that whole aspect of cult of personality and the reason and the purpose of why people are always drawn to a certain type of thing.
I've always found myself wondering about the certain type of thing with bluegrass. Why am I drawn to it? I think it's for the same reasons I'm drawn to these other types of things. There's something cultural about it, and I can't put my finger on it directly, but it's very attractive for one reason or another.
Cult of personality is a mysterious thing. There are so many levels of it. There are people that are drawn originally, and it's not unlike music because they are drawn to the original form of it, and then they become very involved. Then you have people who come along later that maybe are considered a second wave, and then a third wave. And then a 3A wave who are attracted by the whole materialistic aspect of it and don't really understand the root foundations of it. I think it's very easy to correlate political uprising and political movements with musical movements and genres.
HN: What are some of your favorite Omaha-area or regional bluegrass bands?
DF: Not in the area, but Finders and Youngberg from Colorado, I guess. Mike Finders is a songwriter and that's my connection. I like a well-written song.
SH: Mr. Baber's Neighbors. They're a band out of Des Moines. My brother plays banjo for them, so I'm a little biased.
DF: Two banjo players in the family!
SH: Yeah, I'm the oldest, and he actually got me started on the banjo. He's 10 years young than me.
DF: He was part of the bluegrass Colorado scene. Colorado had a really big bluegrass scene about 10 years ago.
HN: Do you think bluegrass is dying out?
DF: I don't think bluegrass is dying out. There was just a lot of media attention at the time. I think it's still strong, just the coverage of media and press isn't on it as much.
SH: It's like the folk revival. (Bluegrass) is being realized through jam bands that use bluegrass instrumentation as opposed to people coming in and learning how to play the traditional style.
HN: Is there anything you'd like to add? What are some questions you think are neglected in interviews?
SH: I think you pretty well covered it. We got to talk about a lot of things we normally didn't talk about.
DF: I think we're really impressed with the Omaha music scene outside from the people who go out and made it big already. There's a lot of good songwriters that when I first started out, it was just me. I got to know a bunch of great songwriters around town from open mic nights. We're just happy to be a part of the scene. We're stunned at the quality within the Omaha music scene.
HN: One more question: What's your preferred pre-show beer/drink?
DF: It's easy for me, Busch Light.
SH: Oh man, I don't know if I have a standard… I'd say a favorite to take up on stage is an IPA. An Odell's Mercenary IPA.
Kelsey Hutchinson is a Hear Nebraska intern. Steve and David have given her a new outlook on music and life. If you need to get the creative juices flowing, contact them. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.