Sunday, February 20, 2011

Greenland is Melting

Though Karl Seltzer picks a banjo in his band Greenland is Melting, he hesitates to call it bluegrass.

It's not because his band doesn't play bluegrass, though. Seltzer bobs and sways on stage beside Will Dueease, who plucks at a stand-up bass, and Shaun Pereira, who strums an acoustic; considering this, Greenland is Melting's lineup is as traditional as it gets, especially when fiddle player Jon Gaunt joins them on tour. And their 2010 release, Our Hearts are Gold, Our Grass is Blue, exhibits songs that amble to Dueease's bass-driven pulse, shuffle to the rhythm of Pereira's swinging guitar strokes, and feature three-part harmonies that slide around together with practiced precision. To both the trained and untrained ear, Greenland is Melting plays bluegrass music.

But, still, Seltzer balks. It's not because of the band's sound or instrumentation; instead, it's the weight of the term “bluegrass” that he worries about—the connotations the term carries, the history and tradition, the context in which this music is typically presented. Because Seltzer and his bandmates do not come from and do not perform in this context, he worries how bluegrass his band can really be.

“I always hate saying that [we're a bluegrass band] to people,” he says, “especially when we're talking to people who actually listen to bluegrass music. They'll [be] like, 'Do you know this banjo player?' and I'm like, uh... It happened in Wilmington the other night. This guy asked me if I listened to this one particular banjo player and I was like, 'No, I don't,' and he was like, 'Are you serious? You're a banjo player and you haven't heard of this guy?' And I was like...'Sorry!'”

Greenland is Melting is a band whose members weren't born and bred on bluegrass; the band didn't even have roots music in mind when it began three years ago. “When the band got started,” Pereira says, “it was more of like an indie kind of sound. There was a lot of electric guitar, electric bass, drums. It was a little more atmospheric at times, and kind of Wilco in a way.” The band's sound shifted, though, after Seltzer bought a banjo and they began to feel the influence of another band. “We all got into Avett Brothers and started writing Avett Brothers-y songs,” Pereira continues. “And then, after the drummer left, it just seemed right to make that the permanent situation for us.”

Perhaps it's because of this sudden shift at their inception that they feel uncomfortable in their bluegrass shoes; it may also be the reason why the band sees itself as more of an amalgamation of genres. “The way we classify ourselves usually when people ask is, like, bluegrass-folk-punk,” Seltzer explains. “We say bluegrass instrumentation, folk-style songwriting—usually storytelling or experience-based—and then we try to do a punk-energy aspect to it.”

Of course, it's that “punk” side of Greenland is Melting that seems to complicate things, at least superficially. Though forms of country and folk have found a home in punk-rock in the past five years, it doesn't seem like the scene would stretch so far to accept a style as traditional as bluegrass. Nonetheless, Greenland is Melting finds itself not only embedded in a scene known better for its slimy, distorted guitars; barked, bitter vocals; and execration to convention, but embraced by it. For example, Paper + Plastick, a record label arguably at the forefront of punk-rock, released Our Hearts are Gold; also, the band recently performed at a handful of festivals frequented by the subculture's assorted audience—including the Fest in Florida and, more recently, Death to False Hope Fest in North Carolina.

To Pereira, the perceived gap between bluegrass and punk-rock isn't difficult to bridge. “Bluegrass is very much a folk, outsider art kind of genre,” he says. “People that play bluegrass and listen to bluegrass are definitely not in the mainstream, especially nowadays. I think it's really funny that we are a subculture of this subculture; we're folk art for folk art.” Pereira also sees a more obvious element that ties Greenland is Melting to punk-rock: “It's road life, honestly. Punk bands have notoriously just been traveling groups of guys that can go from city to city and play shows. Bluegrass traditions are pretty much the same way. I think in that core, they're the same.”

In fact, Pereira would argue that the band's bluegrass instrumentation is part of the reason why they succeed on the road. Compared to other bands, who have to haul guitars, drums, amps, cabs, cables, and other hardware in trailers behind a van that fits their four- or five-piece lineup, Greenland is Melting only needs to carry with them their comparatively compact stringed instruments in their conversion van. “That honestly has lent to our ability to survive,” Pereira says. “If we weren't in this kind of instrumentation, if we didn't have a bluegrass style right now, I don't know if we'd be able to continue.”

“I don't understand how some of these punk bands are able to survive,” Seltzer adds. “We're good friends with Blacklist Royals. They have so much fucking equipment, really nice equipment, and they're driving around in this fifteen passenger van with this huge trailer lugging an ungodly amount of equipment. I can't imagine how much gas they eat up and how they're able to do it. It blows my mind, actually.”

The band agrees, though, that their most important connection to punk-rock is the performance. “When it comes down to the energy and style of showmanship,” Pereira concludes, “I think that's where they really blend well.”

Seltzer may hate to classify his band as bluegrass and may question its credence in the culture of mountain music, but he knows that mixing bluegrass instrumentation with folk story-telling and punk-rock principles—that not sticking strictly to tradition and convention—is really, in fact, an asset. Being a subculture of a subculture has given Greenland is Melting an opportunity to define their own identify and carve a cranny for themselves in a scene they appreciate and understand. It's a decision that has benefited them as a band. “If we had all come up straight bluegrass,” Dueease suggests, “we'd probably be in the bluegrass circuit playing straight, traditional tunes they way they used to be played.”

Since their 2010 release, though, the band has been interested in revisiting the traditional and conventional. At the end of the year, Greenland is Melting released a three-song EP titled Folk Songs from Florida: Volume One for free. On it, the band explores four traditional bluegrass songs, including one written by Manfred Mann as a rock 'n' roll song in the late Sixties and brought to bluegrass by Bill Emerson and his band the Country Gentlemen. Since then, “Fox on the Run” has been a bluegrass standard.

For their version, Greenland is Melting slows the song down to a lively wander. Seltzer's banjo cartwheels and Pereira whisks the strings of his acoustic during each chorus while, in the background, Gaunt's fiddle hangs in the air like a cobweb. The song slows further during the verse, where Dueease's bass tiptoes to halftime halfnotes before picking back up to it's previous pace, all as a two-part vocal harmony continues to tell a story of unlucky love. Something seems smoother about “Fox on the Run” and the other tracks on Folk Songs from Florida compared to the band's previous recording, possibly because the band recorded not only the instruments live (as they had with Our Hearts Are Gold), but also their vocals.

“It's kind of funny that we're actually going back,” Dueease says. “We did our own thing for our first album, Our Hearts are Gold, and we just now did Folk Songs of Florida. We [didn't] know those until after we recorded our first bluegrass-ish record. Now we're looking back and seeing what inspiration we can take from the masters.”

But this, again, is where Greenland is Melting resembles more a modern punk-rock band than a traditional bluegrass three-piece. It comes from their appreciation of the past, but their desire to reinterpret it as their own—to remake the conventional in an unconventional manner.

It's why Seltzer, Pereira, and Dueease struggle to call their band bluegrass; they know in their hearts that they've been playing punk-rock all along.

Seltzer, Pereira, and Dueease recorded these songs from a friend's house in Durham, NC the afternoon following their set at Death to False Hope Fest. All three members of the band performed the songs and participated in the interview. With them was Jeff from Rocket Fuel, who is buddies with the band and invited them to perform at a backyard barbecue of his a few months before.

"The Kitchen Song" appears on Greenland is Melting's 2010 record Our Hearts are Gold, Our Grass is Blue. "Wicker Chair" is a cover by Kings of Leon and originally appear on the band's 2003 EP Holy Roller Novocaine.

Visit the band's website for more music, including free downloads of Our Hearts are Gold, Our Grass is Blue and Folk Songs from Florida: Volume One.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Two for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2011. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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