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Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Boys of Pert Near Sandstone Discuss Their New Album, "Paradise Hop"

Pert Near Sandstone, a stellar string band that hails from the West Bank area of Minneapolis, has just released their excellent new album, Paradise Hop. Although the band is currently out on tour supporting their new record, the boys generously devoted a significant chunk of their precious down-time between gigs to participate in a lengthy, in-depth, career-spanning discussion.

My goal for this feature is to share the band's history, influences, discography, and impressive work ethic with a wider audience, while also sharing some fresh insights into the group with longtime followers and loyalists.

Hi guys. Let's start at the band's beginnings. I am always am curious of artists' formative experiences that spark the notion of the pursuit of a career in music. Can you briefly describe your own early experiences before Pert Near Sandstone, and what inspired you to learn, play, and write music?

Pert Near Sandstone: We’ve all come from diverse musical backgrounds. As we developed individually, we each tended toward acoustic music leanings. The collaboration with other people musically is what kept us each playing, eventually leading to playing together, which seemed to happen naturally for us.

Kevin brings a deep background of traditional and alt country sensibilities. He picked up the clawhammer banjo and developed his vocal style as Pert Near was discovering and edging our way into the local roots music scene in Minneapolis.

J has played in bands varying in styles from jazz, rock, folk and ska. He has a degree in music and teaches music lessons at several locations in the Twin Cities. He’s our captain on the stage and really drives us musically. Kevin & Nate both recall going to see J’s bands play during high school at the VFW’s and cafĂ©’s around the Minneapolis area.

Nate played rock & blues guitar in garage bands until he picked up the mandolin as an instrument easier to pack while he was traveling. While hitchhiking and hopping freight trains around the country, Nate fell in love with folk, old-time, and traditional fiddle music and he brought the repertoire that became the core of Pert Near’s musical approach. The fiddle became a serious aspiration when a personnel change in the band required him to work up that instrument more for the stage. He still shares his time evenly between the mandolin and fiddle.

Adam cut his teeth playing with a jug band at the Viking Bar on the West Bank and in old-time groups such as the Wild Goose Chase Cloggers and The Mill City Grinders (who also happened to be an influence of Pert Near’s).  J needed a guitar sub for a couple of tour dates, and Adam was who we agreed would be the best fit. After a personnel change, he stepped in on bass.

Andy Lambert often performs and records with us on clogs and washboard. He had spent time in the Wild Goose Chase Cloggers dance troupe and picked up the washboard while we traveled through Kentucky and the south a couple years back.

When and how did Pert Near Sandstone get together?

PNS: We were old friends from high school, growing up in Brooklyn Park, MN, just outside Minneapolis, on the edge of the corn and potato fields. A couple of us lived together a ways back and we started a weekly jam session that sort of evolved into the current band. Mainly, we were friends enjoying each others company and playing music that felt good to play. It sounded pretty good we thought, enough to book a gig at a couple local cafes.

Who were some of your common musical influences when you all got together? Along the same lines: were there any surprises and/ or new artists that you each turned each other on to?

PNS: The Americana music that influenced us most early on was the New Lost City Ramblers, Garcia & Grisman, and the John Hartford String Band. Being from Minnesota, we are also influenced by Dylan and the entire West Bank folk scene. It is still a rich and vital community. The scene was established during the folk revival of the 60s in Minneapolis, which was very strong.

The roots music community in Minneapolis inspired us as much or more than any national acts while we were coming up as a band. There are just so many great roots music acts in Minneapolis, it’s a pretty special thing. Some of those groups gave us our first opportunities to play in the bars and clubs around town. There was and is a lot of roots, blues, western swing, and jugband music stemming from the West Bank folk scene. KFAI community radio turned us onto these groups and notified us of who was playing where before the days of Myspace & Facebook.

The MN Bluegrass and Old time association is a great gem of MN as well, putting on great string band festivals. Early on we attended those festivals and soaked up so much great string band music. We played wherever and whenever we could and stayed up later and jammed longer than other folks at the fest. We were trying to make a presence, and we made some really great friends in the process.

On the national scene, we were influenced by young energetic groups like The Hackensaw Boys, Foghorn String Band, and The Wilders. A Prairie Home Companion turned us on to other music on the national scene too. When we saw the Wilders, our whole approach changed. They brought a barn-dance energy that we hadn’t seen other groups translate to the stage before then. Other groups had technical chops, but the Wilders made people dance! Shortly after, we bought the same mic that the Wilders used, and developed our own single microphone approach to performing.

What were the common bonds that drew you together and helped formulate the band's music/ performances?

Being old friends, the chemistry between us has been strong from the very beginning. On the stage, it always feels more like a family band. Gathering around a single vocal mic, it manages to still feel like we are just making music for ourselves, even when it's in front of a packed house. Growing up together as well as learning this music together, we know to how to support each others’ playing and how to get the sound we want to hear. There isn’t really a band leader in Pert Near, we perform with a mutual understanding of which direction each other is headed musically.

We realized that we are able to facilitate audiences having a pretty good time, and we wanted to keep them dancing. More than impressing people with how awesome we can play our instruments, we worked together to develop a sound and style that was fun to play, and people responded positively- which we fed off of. That was enough for us to want to play more, and travel around the country playing for new audiences.

For newcomers to your work, can you briefly take us through the band's discography?

PNS: Our first recording, Live Just Outside Sandstone, was compiled as a response from our audience asking for an album to buy early on. We assembled it from the best recordings of various performances we had recorded to a laptop computer during those early gigs. We didn’t really put a whole lot of thought into it, but just wanted to get something out into the world.

The next two albums, Up and Down the River and Needle & Thread came out about a year apart, and are mostly original songs with a smattering of our favorite “barn-burner” traditional songs we were currently playing. They are both eclectic in style from song to song. We really aimed to make an enjoyable listening experience. These albums were self-recorded in J’s basement, mixed by Ryan Young, and also professionally mastered. Ryan was our original fiddler, and a founder of the group. He now plays full time with our good friends Trampled By Turtles. Once Ryan left the group, our style changed slightly. Our next album reflected that change of personnel and approach.

Out On A Spree was a concept album for Pert Near. It is made up of all traditional songs and fiddle tunes that we had played heavily over the two years it took us to record again. During those two years, we had to reinvent our sound, which had lost the tight mandolin/fiddle combination, and relied more heavily on the old-time fiddle repertoire Nate & Kevin had worked up between fiddle and banjo. During this time frame, J also had become an incredible soloist on the guitar, which is not typical for old-time bands. This kept us modern, as opposed to becoming something more like a square dance band.

We planned on coming back from Out On A Spree with an all original album. Our new record, Paradise Hop, is that album, with the addition of two traditional songs.

Can you discuss the band's writing and arranging process?

PNS: We love the traditional music scene in Minnesota, which we all grew up in. As writers, we like to incorporate that form in our writing, and try to bring in those archaic sounds and sonic elements, as well as the themes that remind us of that bygone era. We cannot help but add our own lyrics to traditional tunes, which kind of become new versions of old songs. We write new songs that we hope will stand up to the traditional songs we love. We each bring songs to the table, mostly complete, and then bounce ideas off of each other to create and collaborate on the arrangements.

What's the band's recording process like?

PNS: We try to record as much as we can live in the same room, and we find that usually the first take or two is the strongest. This most recent recording was arranged mostly in the studio, which was a different approach for us. Instead of trying to work through the parts on stage before going to the studio, we recorded with a bit more trial and error. We gave ourselves more flexibility in the project to imagine what could be added for harmonies or additional instruments. We ended up having a lot of fun, and it feels more polished in terms of what we want the music to sound like from the composer’s perspective.

One thing that I am so impressed by when I listen to your work is that the band clearly is influenced by different styles of traditional music, but yet finds an enjoyable balance between influences/inspiration, your own original ideas, the instrumentation, and stylistic arrangements. Can you discuss how this plays out for Pert Near Sandstone?

PNS: Pert Near Sandstone has accepted a position as stewards of traditional American string band music. We enjoy exposing people to the music’s sources and stories. That is as important as playing the songs and doing them justice in that respect. As a project, we have bridged acoustic music audiences from different genres and generations by mixing our original string band material with these traditional songs. It is homage to the song to present it as a selection, even if we add our own lyrics or chord progression, or play it at a quicker tempo. I guess we consider it as part of the folk process more than accurately replicating the original material.
How do you see these influences inspiring the band's work?

Pert Near Sandstone has a unique sound that comes by virtue of playing our instruments the way we do. We are not attempting to do anything beyond our command of the music, or beyond our capability as a collection of musicians, or beyond what we think may fit the song bag of the project. That said, our list of songs that we keep current and/ or might be heard playing out is quite long, so being able to provide that eclectic tapestry of American string band music, playing fiddle tunes, blues, ragtime numbers, and our own varied original material allows us to mix up our live shows.

We’re not a touring band that is going to hit the road playing from the same set list from night to night, there’s just too much material we want to share with our audience to allow for that. We consider what we feel like playing that night, what’s been working well, or needs more work. The stage is our distillery as well as our liquor store.

How intuitive is the arranging of the traditional tunes in your own voices? How do you strike the balance during your own writing of originals and how they connect to the traditional material you have chosen?

PNS: It is not a very big challenge at all. The rearranging of traditional material is a very natural response to the connection we have developed to the music, and to the specific song. We try to play songs that we relate to and can sing with an authenticity rather than phoniness or nostalgia. Modernizing the music is just an organic process of capturing the moment the song is alive for us now.

To write in a traditional style successfully takes a relationship with the music. Finding an individual voice in a song takes living with the subject intimately. 

Thanks for taking the time to share so much of the band's history and approach to making music. Let's dig into Pert Near Sandstone's new record, Paradise Hop. You have said that "the band set out to make a different kind of record." And that  you "wanted to capture the raw, live, old-time sound that they have developed over the years".

Can you discuss the band's "plan" behind making the new record?

PNS: Pert Near had planned to record an all original “concept” album to answer the all-traditional “concept” album that came prior. We want to capture a live sound on all of our recordings, which is why we try to record live as much as possible. We had the benefit of getting that sound mixed with really good tone in the studio we chose, which is one of the best for acoustic music in the country. It's called Wild Sound Studio, and it is in N.E. Minneapolis.

The old-time sound is our unique combination of instrumental styles, attack and tone. We are not trying to copy the sound achieved by other groups, but embrace the elements that work well with our group: “raw, live, and old-time” is how we describe that sound.

How do you see the new record within the band's discography now that it is finished and out there?

We see Paradise Hop similarly as the previous two original albums (Up and Down the River and Needle & Thread), though perhaps this is a more matured and experienced effort. It is more intentionally recorded, rather than being strewn together loosely in the "basement tapes" style of these first two albums.

What would you say sets Paradise Hop apart most from the other records? Along the same lines, what would you say connects it most to the other records?

We feel it is more introspective, while speaking primarily in a first person voice, and with an emphasis on longing for the subject. Also, it better harnesses our capabilities as individual songwriters, and is more accurately articulating what we hear in our heads, as well as what we all want to hear from the band.
What inspired you/ influenced you while making the record?

As a group, we each have our own individual tastes. Bluegrass and old-time is great traveling music, so we listen to that often in the tour van. We’ve recently been most influenced by groups we encounter at festivals and while touring, including The Infamous String Dusters, The Foghorn Stringband, Head For the Hills, and other bands who are on the forefront of their local scenes. They have all inspired us to try new things.

We would also include specific artists like The Band, Highwoods String Band, Charlie Parr, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Tom Waits,  and Neil Young. These all get a bunch of play in our van on tours too, as well as a lot of old-time recordings from from 1920’s and 30’s, as well as ones today.

What has been most rewarding and/ or challenging of being out of the West Bank area of Minneapolis?

PNS: The challenge with living there is bridging the generations. The old school West Bank folkies and bluegrassers did not accept us into the community hastily. It took years of playing, connecting, and eventually being on A Prairie Home Companion before our contribution was fully acknowledged by some. It might be that we are not purists, even though we have a deep appreciation for the source material. We do our best to have a warm, welcoming acceptance toward the bands coming up under us on the scene, of which there is a whole new generation now emerging that is discovering folk and roots music. 

Can you discuss your impressions of the music community in the West Bank of Minneapolis?

PNS: The friendships and collaborations between musicians in this community are vibrant and exciting. It draws creative people in from the region and it is a hub for the area. It is also isolated in the Great North, therefore, it has a strong "do-it-yourself" work ethic, and the audience has a strong loyalty to the scene.

We see this on the road with transplants who file out to see us and turn their friends onto the Minnesota bands. Musicians in this scene rely on each other for support rather than competing. Pickers and singers sit in and mix in all the time in recording sessions and performances.

What can folks expect from the Pert Near Sandstone shows?

PNS: Our shows usually involve a lot of sweat and beer, fast paced rowdy stomping, and an "on-their-feet" and dancing crowd. When we have Andy Lambert, our clogger, things can get even more rowdy. Watching him dance with us really gets people excited!

We have always been pleased to reach an audience from a very broad age range. We have young and old who come out to see us play, whether it be a rock club or a theater. We gather a wide spectrum of people, which also speaks for the popularity of the music as a whole now. It’s incredible to see people filing out to see acoustic shows where once only a rock band would have been able to play.

Will you be touring nationally? Any plans of stopping in NYC and/ or Brooklyn?

PNS: We are looking at heading south & east in February. Not sure if we’ll make it to NYC, but would love to if it works. We had a blast the couple of times we traveled out that way.

What have you been listening to lately?

The usual assortment of traditional fiddlers and string band groups, old 78’s from digital archives that Nate & Adam get nerdy about too. John Hartford, Tom Waits, Josh Ritter, Charlie Parr, Pop Wagner and Dakota Dave Hull’s album Airship and the Brass King’s Washboard, Rope, Guitar are some other favorites.

When we’re around Minneapolis, we love going out and seeing our friends perform and there is no shortage of good shows. Lately we’ve been out to see The Brass Kings, The Boys N The Barrels, The Sans Souci Quartet, The Cactus Blossoms, The Pistol Whippin’ Party Penguins, The Roe Family Singers, Charlie Parr, and Doug Otto and the Getaways.


  1. Very solid interview. I am not familiar with this band but it sounds like they are worth getting to know.