Leftover Salmon doesn’t have a lot of troubles. They’re a strong, long-lasting band that knows what it is to be professional, traveling musicians. Playing in Eureka Springs, Ark. during Hillberry 2, Leftover Salmon will surely bring the bluegrass…and the funk, and the Cajun, and the vast talent that’s been building over the last 26 years, including banjo player Andy Thorn.
GW: What are some fun experiences you’ve had during the late-night jamming at music festivals?
AT: I remember we led a Parade [at Mulberry Mountain’s Music Festival] around with some of the Elephant Revival crew, Vince and maybe Allie (Kral] straight on stage while Cornmeal was playing. They didn’t see it coming at all; we basically paraded across the stage and off the stage, kept on going into the campground and ended up at some campsite were Elephant Revival had all of their friends. We proceeded to jam all night – I think I fell asleep in my chair with my banjo on my lap.
GW: So how do you feel about Arkansas?
AT: I haven’t played a whole lot in the state. Mulberry probably isn’t a great picture of what Arkansas really is. It definitely shows you what kind of beauty there is in Arkansas. I don’t know what the normal crowds are like for shows there but I think people come from all over to go to Mulberry.
GW: How would you describe the music of Leftover Salmon?
AT: It’s a mix of a lot of different styles. We can be a rock band one minute and a total bluegrass one minute, then we’ll throw in some Cajun. It’s just original music – they used to call it polyethniccajunfusionslamgrass. They used to be a little bit more Cajun than we are now – they used to have an accordion. Now we just go with high-country slamgrass.
GW: Why’d you move away from the Cajun style?
AT: We still do some, but they had an accordion player in the band for a few years. The instruments we have now lend themselves more to bluegrass. But we still do some, Drew breaks out the Cajun fiddle.
GW: How would you describe your style as a banjo player?
AT: I took a long time to elevate the banjo to the level of what the electric guitar does in a band, or what the piano can do. I think I figured out a few ways to take the energy a little higher than what banjo usually does. Then there’s the electric banjo, and that you can sort of play like a guitar.
GW: Are there any instruments you’re trying to learn how to play?
AT: I mess with instruments a lot; fiddle, guitar. I was a guitar major in college. I play a lot of other instruments but I try to stick to banjo – that’s what I do for a living so I have to practice that.
GW: What’s your favorite instrument you can’t play?
AT: Jazz piano. I really love that. I was a jazz major all through college and high school; I love that sound, the soft ballads. The kind of sound you can produce with one person at a piano. Bill Payne, our piano player is pretty great. I like to watch his fingers and I’m just like…wow, how is that coming out?
But fiddle is pretty much my favorite instrument to listen to.
GW: Do you have any favorite fiddle players?
AT: I love Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth; I love Allie Kral, Jason Carter from Travelin’ McCourys. I get to play with all of them often, which is pretty great. And then my old friend Bobby Britt from Town Mountain is definitely one of my favorites.
GW: Who are some musicians who have been teachers for you?
AT: Local guys. I grew up in North Carolina so a lot of the local musicians were a huge influence. They just do it for the love, but they just play – it’s kind of a way of life out there. It’s pretty inspiring to be around those kind of guys. Everybody in the band that’s been doing it for a living for so long. I try to watch and learn to keep it going…the goal is to not have a real job, you know.
GW: Who’s the longest-running musician in your band now?
AT: Bill, the piano player, was in Little Feat. He’s been on the road for about 44 years, since he was 20. He’s on tour with the Doobie Brothers right now. He’s got quite a resume when you look at his discography. The fact that he wants to still be out there doing it…he loves to play and it’s really inspiring. If I can have that kind of passion still when I’m his age that’ll be pretty great.
GW: Can you picture yourself being a touring musician for 44 years?
AT: I could if it continues to go well, yeah, definitely.
GW: How did growing up in North Carolina inform the music you play?
AT: My parents really liked bluegrass so they took me to bluegrass festivals when I was growing up. I actually saw Salmon when I was in high school multiple times. I used to go to Merlefest every year – you could see everyone there. Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Leftover, String Cheese. I had a banjo when I was 12 so I feel lucky I got going young.
GW: What’s a song that have been really influential to you?
AT: I don’t know a specific song, I’d just say really old, authentic bluegrass. It’s kind of timeless – the raw stuff like Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe. Most of the bluegrass you hear is plugged in, but authentic bluegrass isn’t what’s popular now. If you go back and listen to that it’s really true.
And our stuff, I really do like a lot of the old Salmon stuff. I used to have the album Euphoria in high school – a lot of the songs like “Highway Song” I used to love.
GW: What do you think is a special aspect of the jam band genre? What draws people to listen to jam bands?
AT: Probably that you never know what you’re going to get. If you see more of a pop show, if you’ve seen it once you’ve seen it 100 times. They even say the same jokes onstage. The things you think are spontaneous aren’t. That’s what’s so great about jam band music, there’s a lot of improv. That, to me, is much more interesting. Most jam bands have a lot of tunes so you’re never going to get the exact same show twice – we have a song list about 400 songs. I only know half of them, but I don’t really need to know all of them.
GW: Do they end up playing songs you don’t really know?
AT: Yeah, as a banjo player that’s not hard to do, though.
GW: How has being in a jam band improved or changed the way you perform outside of the band?
AT: It teaches you patience when you’re building a solo. You don’t want to blow your whole load too soon, basically. It took me a long time to get used to that because bluegrass isn’t really like that. I was never really in a group where you had a lot of time to expand your solo. Now, when I’m playing with another group, I feel like I don’t have enough time. But I don’t do that much traditional stuff anymore. Most stuff out here in Colorado is a little jammier.
GW: What are some tones you like to take with your music?
AT: I really like minor songs, those are my favorite. I really like the minor keys a lot and the kind of progressions you can have there. I like writing faster instrumentals that are in a minor key – they’re fun to play.
GW: How is being a musician different than you thought it would be?
AT: You realize it’s mostly about the traveling and the stuff in between playing the music. When you’re just watching you think it’s the best, but playing music is only about 10% of the experience. Most of it is driving around, flying around – the work part is getting there. That’s what I didn’t realize before I was actually doing it.
GW: Is something you like to do in every town you go to?
AT: If there’s anything to do outdoors, I try to do it. I go out of my way to go on a hike or ski. If we’re in the city I’ll wander around all day and look for a good restaurant. If I wasn’t doing that, I would be really unhappy on the road. So I try to get out and see whatever is cool in that area.
GW: Are there any places or landscapes that bring you a lot of peace or happiness?
AT: My favorite is skiing. If I can ski all day and play a gig all night that’s about as happy as I can be?
GW: Do you waterski?
AT: Yeah, I do. I try to. That’s what we’re going to do this weekend – we’re going wakeboarding.
GW: Do you feel like you gain a lot of energy when you’re on your breaks?
AT: Mainly I become sane again – it’s just the balance. It’s also a lot of fun around here. Last night we went to see Yonder play a surprise show at a bar.
GW: What’s one of your favorite things about being a professional musician?
AT: The people I’ve gotten to play with. We get to play with Sam Bush all the time – he was one of my heroes growing up.
GW: How do you think bands can create change in the world?
AT: I hope we’re involved in that some. Vince is really outspoken about some stuff. He’s very political, like about mountaintop removal – he’s written a few songs about that. He’s part of HeadCount, an organization that gets people to vote. So he’s trying to get a lot of stuff done. On a bigger level, look at Neil Young’s new album The Monsanto Years. He’s done a lot with FarmAid. It’s hard to get a lot done when you’re in a mid-level group like us. It’s good to see big artists get things done a really big scale.
GW: So what’s some change you believe in?
AT: Oh boy. I’m not that political. The environmental stuff is what I’m most into. So, I should probably get involved in that more.
GW: What are some good changes you’ve seen in the world? You get to see a lot more of the world than a lot of people probably do.
AT: Just the acceptance of all types of people. It’s been really cool to see that come around with marriage equality. That’s been one of the biggest things this year. And my dad is married to a man so it’s very cool, even in a state like North Carolina. There’s still a lot of headway to make.
GW: What’s a band you used to not like much that you now appreciate?
AT: I think I could say that about Widespread Panic. I thought I didn’t like their crowd a whole lot based on a couple of experiences. We got to play with JB [John Bell] and he’s a really nice guy. Meeting those guys and seeing them again gave me a new perspective on it, and it’s awesome.
GW: What’s a really good memory you have a being in Leftover Salmon?
AT: A lot of these excursions we get to do. We got to do a Hawaii tour last year – we went to Maui and a lot of those people probably didn’t know who we were. We hosted a BBQ for free at this beach and all these local people came and we ended up having this jam with all these people. We get to go to Mexico every year for Strings and Soul – those are really cool experiences.
GW: Are there many countries you haven’t visited that you would like to?
AT: Many. We haven’t played outside of the country much at all. We hope to do that in the next few years. That’s definitely a goal right now. You can only play so many gigs in America without overdoing certain regions.
GW: What do you think is on the most delicious sandwich?
AT: That question I do like. My favorite sandwich is a really good BLT. The best on in the world is from Merrit’s General Store in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It’s really good local tomatoes and bacon, but they pile it high. You can get a sandwich that weighs a pound.
GW: If you had a superpower what would it be?
AT: I want to be able to teleport. Then we wouldn’t have to be in cars half our lives. It would improve everything about being on the road.
GW: Do you think if you were able to teleport everywhere you would get tired of playing music?
AT: The band broke up for a few years so I feel like everybody is good at getting along with each other. You spend so much time with those people – you know to not press their buttons and just stay on their side. But conflict does happen and you just talk it out. Everybody knows how to be with each other and be happy.
GW: What’s a quality or trait you admire about each person in your band?
AT: They’re all really great – they’re just really fun. We don’t take it too seriously, that’s my favorite thing about being in the band. It’s just music, have fun with it. We rehearse just enough to just get up there and kill – we’re the perfect level of fun and professionalism.
GW: Do you have anything to say to Grateful Web readers or festival goers.
AT: We’re excited. And love the Grateful Web – still one of my favorite t-shirts.