Friday, April 22, 2011

Packway Handle Band breaks the grass ceiling

Posted By on Fri, Apr 22, 2011 at 11:30 AM


There’s a joke the members of Athens’ alt-bluegrass band Packway Handle Band like to use when speaking of the mainstream bluegrass circuit. While one of the most talented and largely accepting musical worlds around, the quintet kids about the genre’s “grass” ceiling (Get it? Grass/glass? this thing on?) with regards to the relative inability to necessarily “hit it big” playing the music. If any grass band is up for the challenge, Packway’s a likely candidate. Their collective influences (prior to the band) were pretty much everything but bluegrass, and since forming in 2003 they’re developed a clever (but respectful) variation of the genre’s traditional elements that’s turning heads far beyond their hometown (particularly for their live show, which features all members jammed around two condenser mics, deftly swapping places and maneuvering for the proper audio mix). As guitarist/vocalist Josh Erwin speaks, the band’s more or less one year removed from their last studio album, What Are We Gonna Do Now? — and they’ve had plenty of time to reflect on how the album’s changed their perspective and fueled their fire for the future.

One year later, put some hindsight on What Are We Gonna Do Now — how has your perception of some of these tunes changed, both on record and in a live setting?
Josh Erwin: It’s fun putting an album together and deciding what will be on it, for sure. But when you get something down and you’re playing stuff [live] based on your [recorded] interpretation of it, you spend almost as much time scrutinizing what you did and how it changes you. There’s a song [on the record] called “Outskirts” that’s a little bit more of a slower song. We played it for a year or so [before recording it], and the song was really cool. When we recorded it, it turned out to be a more highly-produced song than normal. There’s some layered fiddles on there and some extra reverb and all sorts of little tricks. So we finished it, and we were really with happy with it, but we went and tried to play it and couldn’t capture that sound. We didn’t do any justice to it because everyone within the band has a different and higher standard for the song. So that’s a song that’s actually been pretty much dropped from the set list in the wake of the album. But then again with that song, that’s one that we’re sort of playing around with with new instruments on it [live], so it’s been this sort of fun and new evolution of the song.

Has the introduction of new instruments changed your live set up at all? You guys have become pretty well known for the simple live set-up of just two condenser mics with members rotating around and away to create the proper effect?

JE: We’ve started expanding it a little bit more. We’ve got a drum set we bring with us, and Michael (Paynter, mandolin & vocals) brings a cajon with a kick pedal to use as a bass drum, and he’s got a snare. I’ve got a telecaster I’ve been using for a few songs. And we’re even messing around with some keyboards and more stuff like that. [But] the set up has really only changed just a little bit — still a majority of our set is done on the double mic setup. It’s a very interesting facet of what we do, and it makes it more interesting just to be on stage and play. It’s a more interactive thing and it’s a lot more fun to watch, so that will always remain. We’ll always be adding and trying new things, but I think having that as our base to come back to is going to be very important.

In what ways has that setup made you a better musician?
JE: I feel like I’m able to listen a lot more to what is gong on and put it all together in a group setting. So I think it makes you more sensitive to not being overwhelming in a group and learning how to work well within a mix. Being able to listen for harmonies has become such a familiar feeling. I’ve always got Tom in my right ear as a reference point (laughs). It would feel really weird if Tom and Michael were to switch spots on the stage, no more than foot and a half difference — it would completely throw off my reference point (laughs).

I’ve always thought of that fluid, teamwork-style setup as a pretty good metaphor for you guys as a group. Have you come to know the ins and outs of each others moves off stage just as well as you do on stage?
JE: It’s pretty predictable what’s gong to happen after hanging out until five in the morning like we did the last two nights (laughs). Zach (McCoy, bass) has this weird internal clock where he will get up at 8 or 8:30 in the morning, no matter what happened the night before. Tom (Baker, banjo & vocals) will get up and wander off and go read. Andrew (Heaton, fiddle & vocals) and I will probably go for a run at some point. Michael will sleep until three in the afternoon. Or four if you let him (laughs). You can pretty much predict it now. And it’s the same when we’re about to go on for a show. As soon as we say ‘okay, we gotta go. let’s do this,’ two guys will want to go pee (laughs). No matter what. When you hang out with people way more than you do with anyone else, you know what is gong to happen.

Your shows are usually at best when they take on a group party vibe — and the videos for “Sinner You Bet Get Ready” and “What Are We Gonna Do Now” are great examples of that, ya?
JE: We went and bought a keg and just got everyone together. It was fun to have a project and have everyone show up when everybody’s job was fairly easy — just follow the band around and sort of sing along with whatever words you got. And it’s always nice to do things in an atmosphere where, if something doesn’t work out, you can just do it again, and that gives you more beer and more time to just hang out. So it was a total sort of party thing. It’s always fun getting people riled up and watching everybody have a good time.

So what’s on deck in the next six months to a year?
JE: Summer is still sort of shaping up, but hopefully we’ll find some festivals to hop in with. We had a good run up in Maine and the Northeast last year, so we’d like to be able to be a bigger part of that scene this year. The hope is just to continue what we’re doing and to continue being savvy and really focusing more on getting our ass in gear and getting projects narrowed down to where we are actually working more together on things and having everybody on the same page to get even more done.

Packway Handle Band
with Cahelen Morrison Eli West. Early Show: 7:30 PM, $15/ GA, $75/table. Late Show: 10 PM, $12/GA, $60/table. $20 GA for both shows. Sat., April 23. Eddie’s Attic, 515-B North McDonough St., Decatur. 404-377-4976.

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