The progressive bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters first emerged out of the Nashville music scene in 2006. Since then, they’ve had a major impact on modern bluegrass and Americana music — winning numerous awards, including a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for 2017’s “Laws of Gravity.”
Their new album “Toward the Fray” is scheduled for release in February 2022.
In advance of their recent show at the Center for the Arts, Infamous Stringdusters songwriter and banjo player Chris “Panda” Pandolfi and bassist Travis Book sat down with KHOL DJ Kevin Pusey to discuss their new album, the band’s songwriting process and a legendary early morning JHMR tram ride back in 2014.
Listen above for more and check out a transcript of the interview below.
Kevin P: First off, let’s just talk about the new album, “Toward The Fray.” What do you guys want to tell me about it?
Chris Pandolfi: Well, you know, there are a few things that are different about this album. One really notable thing is the process. You know, we recorded this during the pandemic. Of course, when March 2020 rolled around, it was all of a sudden this crazy time we were thrust into this world of the unknown. And then we got together in the fall of 2020 to do a drive-in show and some live streams and to record an album. And normally, when we would make an album, we would have a pretty good chunk of time for pre-production. We’d get together for, you know, five, six days total and run through songs and arrange songs. And we just didn’t have that time because we were all separated. And so we shared songs ahead of time and we came together and in about a day and a half, we learned all this new music that we had never played before as a group. And so, you know, there was something challenging about that, obviously, because we didn’t have the time to flesh things out. But I think, you know, it also gave us an opportunity to take advantage of all this experience that we have accrued playing together. The music was really fresh and we had the studio and I think we got great results on that front.
And then from a writing perspective, it has some definite serious themes on this record. I think as we get a little older and also, you know, we were just observing the world around us. And I think, like a lot of artists, expressing ourselves through song and expressing things that we are noticing and observations about our place in the world because a lot of you know, a lot of things have come to the fore in the last few years. You know, the pandemic has been a big thing, but there are other big pressing challenges that you just can’t ignore. So there is a lot of new on this record, but I think, you know, for Stringdusters fans, you’re also going to hear a lot of the things that you know us for. And it’s cool. We’re really proud of it and we’re excited to get it out there.
Kevin P: Yeah, the album seems like it’s a little on the political side, which seems a little different for a bluegrass band. Do you guys feel that way or where it’s just more of a situation at the time?
Travis Book: I think it’s a little bit of both. The thing about politics is that everything you do, you know, the thing is all politics are local, and everything you do has sort of political implications. And so I wouldn’t say that we set out to make a political record. But just by being aware and awake and people trying to pay attention and trying to grow and understand, you know, and be more compassionate, which is kind of I feel like kind of the ultimate goal of existence is to try to grow, grow in your compassion and your capacity for that. So, you know, yes and no, I think the record does have some political undertones, but that’s probably mostly because politics have seeped into so many parts of our lives. You know, so it’s a little bit of like a chicken or the egg kind of thing.
Kevin P: So, what is your songwriting process? Do you guys all come to the meeting with the song that you each wrote? Or do you write them together?
Chris Pandolfi: You know, it’s a mixed bag. There are definitely songs that are written by individuals. And then there are also our collaborative efforts that from more of an inception phase involve, you know, two or more members of the band. But ultimately, we all come together. And there’s this additional step of arranging the music for the band, which in a lot of ways is not really that different than writing, because that’s when a song sometimes less developed, sometimes more developed goes from being this thing that one person could play to being something that is a Stringduster song. So that involves, you know, all of us on our instruments, figuring out these different parts that may or may not be derivative of kind of the more standard bluegrass roles. Or they might be those things that really venture into this more modern musical territory. And we’re always trying to find ways to bring these songs to life in the best possible way. And the arranging process is our time to do that experiment with these different parts and different textures and different ways to make our instruments speak together to create a convincing statement. And again, you know, bring these songs to life. It’s very collaborative. I would say the writing is one term for it, but it’s a bigger, longer arcing process that we’ve always really embraced as a band. And I think, you know, when you have five people who are all artists with obviously very strong ties and a very strong common thread, but also very eclectic tastes and have different things that we’re into, it takes some effort and some energy to make synergy out of that. But that’s our job as a band, and that’s what we love to do. And. You know, we’ve always embraced that, and with this new record, we had a little less time, but we had a lot more experience. And you know, I hope that we will always do that as long as we’re, you know, playing together forever, hopefully, is writing music and bringing an original statement to life.
Kevin P: So, [in] 2014 I was on Jackson [Hole Mountain Resort] Ski Patrol and you guys came to town to play our Valentine’s Day party at the Mangy Moose…
Chris Pandolfi: This is a legendary chapter in Stringdusters history. Yes. Yes. You were part of the story that has been told many, many times. Two nights at the Mangy Moose. Yeah, stayed up way too late. And I’ll never forget. You know, it’s like 6:30, 7 a.m. and we are booting up in the dark, so hungover on the bus, you know, slept a couple of hours putting up in the dark to meet you guys for that early morning tram.
Kevin P: Yeah, we had a 7:30 [a.m.] tram. It was what we call an all-guns and bombs morning. And yeah, we took the early tram. You guys heard the patrol rap and then we hung out at Corbet’s Cabin and mountain station and we waited ’till the mountain was clear and then we skied, some amazing — I think it was like a 12-inch powder day. It was just amazing.
Chris Pandolfi: It was like 12 [inches] on top of, you know, 12 from the day before. And I was with you and we were so gung-ho that we just sent it and flew down and we lost the rest of the group, right? Yeah. And we were, you know, leapfrogging over one left the next to kind of stay ahead of the crowds. Yeah, but I remember being up in Corbet’s, you know that that morning and just thinking, you know, you just you can’t put a price on that kind of thing. It was just so cool and thank you guys for inviting us and taking us. But you know, we’ve been really lucky over the years to mix a lot of great adventure with a lot of great shows, which of course introduces us to a lot of great people and places. And Travis and I, especially over the years, have, you know, always made time and rented cars and stayed up late and got up early to go ski some incredible places. But that day is really high on the list of Stringduster memories.
Travis Book: I’ll never forget we were up in Corbet’s and then the question was like, ‘Well, do you guys want to go watch them throw some bombs in in in the couloir? Should we just go ride?’ We were unanimously like, ‘Ride! Let us out of this box. We want to go rip!’ You know, we were just out of our minds, so psyched to be up there. That was legendary.
Kevin P: OK, well, thanks for stopping by Panda, Travis, guys. Good to see you. So you’ve been listening to KHOL, Jackson. You’ve been listening to The Infamous Stringdusters and they’re playing at the Center for the Arts tonight. Maybe you can find a scalper outside and can get a ticket, but hopefully, you have a ticket and it’s going to be a great show. Thanks for tuning in to 89.1 KHOL.