Cornmeal: Behind the Bluegrass

It was an extreme pleasure to have these guys (and girl) pop my interviewing cherry. I had been holding out for the one special band and it was as magical as I had anticipated. They were so funny and it was so great to finally get to find out this information that I had been itching to know for two years. And as I listen back on it you can hear Bill Nershi and co. warming up throughout the entire interview with songs like Hotel Room and Dear Prudence, which they did not play during the show. But these wisecracking’ bluegrass musicians were an interviewers dream.
Interview by Melissa Bruck

Cornmeal is:
Chris Ganji
Kris Nowak
JP Nowak
Way Davy Burlingame
Allie Kral

HGMN- I'm here at the House Cafe in Dekalb Illinois with Cornmeal before their show tonight opening for Honkeytonk Homeslice. Thank you guys so much for letting me do this. I've been seeing you guys play for two years now and I don't really know any of the history of Cornmeal. So, I would really like to know how you guys got started? Were you in any other bands before?

K. Nowak- Do you really wanna know about all this? (In his best old-timer voice) Well, it's a long story; it goes back to the days of yore. (laughter)

Ganji- Umm, I don't even know where to begin. The band has gone through so many formations in the past 6 years. So, 6 years and 6 months- 12 players in the first 2 years. The first two years were rocky.

K. Nowak- developmental stages (more laughter)

Ganji- Everyone in this lineup has been with the band a little over two years except JP, who has been in for two years and this is his anniversary month.

Burlingame- The band started out acoustic bluegrass, acoustic guitar upright bass.

K. Nowak- We've since become an electrified funk disco orchestra. (laughter) 45 piece.

Ganji- So, just from all of us growing up in the Chicago land area and playing together, there is just this hue network of Chicago musicians. Well, you know 'em all. We run into them all of the time and you see everyone playing with everyone. That kinda networking you realize if you are looking for a certain player, you can just jam with someone and if you have chemistry there, you like their musicality. And I think most importantly is this bands personality. It's huge because we are brothers and sisters. You got to live together.

K. Nowak -We all have huge personalities.

Kral -But some people say we don't have any at all.(laughter)

Ganji- That's a huge factor. I mean, you have to get along and respect what each other is doing musically and personally, with the band and elsewhere. Chris and JP are brothers.

K. Nowak -We met a long time ago.(laughter)

Ganji -Yeah, but oddly enough never talked to each other until the band. (more laughter) But JP joined the band about a year later after our last drummer went on to explore other projects and JP had just gotten out of an old country band, so it was perfect timing.

Kral -Hi Mom. Hi Dad .(Her parents walk through the door, not realizing their amazingly talented fiddle playing daughter was in an interview) (laughter)

Ganji - So, Allie had been playing in a bluegrass band in Champaign. She left that band and came and moved back to the St. Charles/Chicago area. We met her out on the road.

K, Nowak -Yeah, about three years after she was born in 1996.

Ganji - So that's how we got Allie. Wavy and I met when the stars collided.

Burlingame -Yeah, just a collision. And I'm still trying to get over it. (laughter)

HGMN - Can you guys name some of the bands or musicians that you feel have helped create your sound? Just name some of the people that have definitely influenced you? Whether it be old school or.....

K. Nowak -I would say, Dirty Denny, from Appleton Wisconsin. He works at a meat market.

Ganji - There's this song writer, Dirty Denny , and he writes hundreds and hundreds of songs. One of those unknown folk heroes, I guess you'd say. And he's taught us a lot on how to look at life. As far as you're trying to get at, we are pretty much influenced daily by everything that we listen to and anything we run into, like a lot of people we run into on the road and play with.

Kral - We've been getting into Railroad Earth a lot lately.

K. Nowak - Since we've been traveling and performing as much as we have at festivals and different shows, like doing this run with Honkeytonk , playing together with them up onstage every night, my influences have been coming strictly from who I'm playing with. When you first start playing you listen to radio and recordings and you kinda study it and do it that way, and at this point, it's become so much more of an active thing where I'm learning things onstage or picking in the parking lot type thing.

Ganji -I agree.

K. Nowak -And that's where a guy like, Dirty Denny, comes in. Nobody's heard of this guy before, but he's someone that we've been fortunate enough to know. And there's been many, many other musicians like that. He's just a good example.

Burlingame -And there's other well known artists as well. John Hartford is a big influence on songwriting, as well as overall sound of blending bluegrass with other different styles and obviously the greats, such as Bill Monroe. We all pretty much come from rock backgrounds too.

Ganji -Not all of us.

Kral -I was very classical and then straight to bluegrass. I listened to rock music, but I never played it.

Burlingame -Old and in the way and New Grass Revival also had some impact on us.

K. Nowak -And of course, the Grateful Dead. They've had an influence on just about everybody. Except for Allie. (laughter)

Kral -No they definitely did.

Ganji -And now Dark Star Orchestra.

HGMN- Okay, well now I'd like to know about Griffins?

(Unanimous Uh OH's by all followed by nervous laughter)

K. Nowak -It's now a hole in the ground.

-Well for those of you who don't know, you guys played there EVERY single Wednesday for over 2 years, was it?

Burlingame -2 and a half years.

HGMN -I just wanna hear you guys's perspective on the whole place? Like what it did for the band, etc...

-You want the truth? (lots of laughter) It was an incredible experience. Bottom line. We learned a lot about each other and performing in front of an audience. And having to do it no matter what the circumstances are in your life and the audience's life or in the world that's surrounding you. We performed every Wednesday, without hesitation. Doing a steady gig when you're just defining yourself and still searching for all those pieces of the puzzle to put together, and finding that identity and figuring it out by a steady gig is the greatest experience you can have as a musician to grow. And we really strived for, and the audience pushed us, to play a different show every night. We never EVER played the same set twice.

Burlingame -And we would rehearse the night before and work up new songs and then the next Wed. night was a testing...

Kral -like a dress rehearsal

Burlingame -Yeah, a proving grounds for most of our songs in the last 2 and 1/2 years.

K. Nowak -So that's one major thing that we've had to adjust to. Not having to rely on that rehearsal every Wednesday. I mean, we relied on that for a bunch of stuff. We would prepare for the shows out on the road and we got that kind of comfort ability with Griffins, and those fans that we knew were going to be coming out every week. So, I would say about 2 months after Griffin's closed we had to sit down and have a talk, and take the same attitude and not be afraid to experiment when we are out in a different town. And I think it's been great to transfer that energy and that vibe to something we basically travel around with.

Ganji -And it's hard not seeing all those people that we would see every Wednesday, because we are on the road so much. And we don't play in Chicago regularly.

HGMN- It makes me sad.

Ganji -I know. We do miss seeing those people and interacting with them and we became friends with everyone that walked in that door. It wasn't just a band/fan relationship, it was more of a "let's go out on a Wednesday night and hang out" type of thing. We don't play to that kind of intimacy with an audience anymore. I mean, we see a lot of the same people and reoccurring faces, but we just don't have that kind of connectivity without that weekly experience.

HGMN -Well, I would like to know if each of you has a favorite cover that you've done? Or maybe one that you've put your own spin on or any that just stick out?

Kral -Sheep, Pink Floyd

K. Nowak -50 ways to leave your lover.

Ganji -Wavy, what's yours?

Burlingame -Drunk and Horny (lots of laughter) A good friend of ours wrote that song and we used to play it quite often at Griffin's. It's just a fun songs that everyone dances to and hoots and hollers.

K. Nowak - The hollers.

Kral -You forgot the flops.

Ganji -And the meeps, the creeps, and the deeps. What about yours there, Kristopher?

K. Nowak - I would have to say a John Hartford tune called, 'the wrong road again'. It's miserable, depressing and beautiful, all at the same time.

Ganji -Delicate and crass all at the same time. (laughter)

K. Nowak -John Hartford. John Hartford. John Hartford. You can't say the man's name enough. Probably, in my estimation, the single most underrated bluegrass musician and folk musician.

Ganji -Song writer.

Kral -I like all the songs we do by him.

K. Nowak
-He's a guy who passed away a few years ago. Just look at what the man did. And so few people are even aware of his existence. All of his stuff is great. It's all we listen to. Over and Over and Over.

Ganji -I get yelled at because it's all I listen to.

K. Nowak -Yeah, Chris and I are John Hartford addicts. We torture the rest of the band by listening to his music.

Ganji -Ahh, this is a hard question. I've never really thought about it. It changes.

Kral -Yeah

Ganji -Right now I really enjoy 'This Must Be the Place' by the Talking Heads. I just find the lyrics are really moving and fitting some times on stage, and you hear some of the imagery he uses to describe the situation. It really moves me onstage. And there are a lot of pieces that we transform and we've made our own. And anything by John Hartford. (nyuk nyuk)

HGMN- Now I want to talk about your latest cd, Feet First. I definitely think it's by far the best. You guys have just come a long way and it just shows how crisp the song writing and the originality of the music is really starting to just shine through. How do you guys feel about it? Was anything hard? Any challenges making it?

K. Nowak -You know , there was this period in time where everyone in the band was really going through a tough time and we hated each others guts. No, I'm just kidding.

Ganji -We sound like an emo band.

Kral -(laughing, sounding truly surprised) What?

K. Nowak -You know, you always hear that in rock interviews all the time. All the tension and struggles just brought out the best... No, it was an AWESOME experience.

Kral -It was long awaited with the line-up we have now. I think all of us were ready to get in there and do it. We wanted it.

-We had to. As we said before, the line-up had changed so many times. Our last two albums had our last two members on it. This album represents who we are now. And I think it's a very good representation of what we do.

Ganji -There's been a lot of song writing going on, a lot of interaction between us in the song writing, which hasn't really been done in this band before. We'll do that more and more as we kind of grow together and come up with ideas together. It's a lot easier collaborating than holing up in your little writing cabinet and writing songs without any kind of influence from each other.

K. Nowak -And I think that's how bands get into that situation where they get so much tension. People are isolated in their corners and when they come together it's not a common vision. And I think it's a clear common vision that we all share with the direction of the music and what we want to represent.

Ganji -I think all in all we are extremely happy with the album. We spent 7 months on this album. All the others were done in fewer than 3 months. We knew it going in that we were going to take our time with it because of our tour schedule, and we went through everything and made sure of everything that it was right before we kept it. And we shaved down a lot of our songs and got down to the root and to the feeling and meaning of each tune before we went into record it. And the arrangement process, got rid of a lot of stuff that didn't need to be there and added the stuff that made sense. It was a common live thing that we would do from improvising. And I know I'm really happy with it. Everyone's playing on it was top notch. The recording and the engineers we worked with were great. And now we'll just see what the country thinks.

K. Nowak -I think the process that we went through, and taking these songs that we had been playing for so long into the studio, kind of forced everyone to go back and relearn and re-evaluate the part they've been playing for two years , maybe tweak it a little bit. And I know I can speak for myself when I say I keep finding all these things in songs that we've been playing seemingly forever and make a whole new discovery of it. And in turn re-discovered the band in the process. If that makes sense.

Ganji -It definitely did.

Kral -Yeah. It was like, 'I've been playing the wrong chord for over 2 years. Wow' (laughter)

Ganji -What do you think?

HGMN -Especially after hearing it live so much, It's like the other way around. And to hear it so short and crisp and clear on a studio album, I love it! I listen to it all the time and turn it on to people, some of whom don't really consider themselves bluegrass fans. It's definitely solid and will represent you guys clearly to the masses.

Ganji -The hard part about the album was that all of our songs are so improvisational. To pick really which ones, we wanted to represent that side of us but not take it so far. We wanted to let people know that there is a little something, you know, something something there.

-Something solid. And there is an actual arrangement to the songs.

Ganji -Yeah, I also want them to know that we are able to break away from strictly improvisational, too. It was a big challenge.

Burlingame -We also wanted to put more songs on the album and shorten the length of the songs, to put more on the album and give people their money's worth.

HGMN -How do you guys reflect on all the success you've had lately? Like I just saw that you were playing with Peter Rowan and now traveling with Bill Nershi.

K. Nowak -I'm sorry, we can't answer questions like that anymore. We are too big for you now. (huge laughter)

HGMN - How you guys feel about being on the road a lot more?

Ganji - We love it. This is what we've been gearing up to do for all these years. We've been working things out and trying to be prepared for this time in the bands career. We still have a lot of work to accomplish musically and business-wise. We just continue to grow and feed off each other and continue to be happy playing. That is the #1 key. We are happy playing together. Once we become unhappy playing together, it doesn't matter what level we're at beacuse it would all wash away. So, that's the cruicial key. And musicians forget that so easily and get wrapped up in things. It's been great and we are fortunate to meet a lot of really good musicians who have looked at us as peers and want to work with us and create music together. And that's what Kris was saying earlier, influencing each other and the community influencing itself. There is a lot of the building process of looking back on the music before. But, there's also this big 'let's look ahead to the future.'

HGMN -What would be your ideal show?

Kral -I want to play at Red Rocks

Burlingame -Tonight's show.

K. Nowak
-Whatever that ideal show would be, you have to take that mentality to every show you play, whether there's 2 people in the room or 2,000, or two million.

Ganji -You know playing here with Homkeytonk Homeslice is pretty much an ideal show for us. We've been having a good time together.

K. Nowak -Yeah.

Ganji - So, it doesn't matter what venue we are at and what city, the point is what really happens onstage. So, ideally, I'd like to not make mistakes onstage. (they all laugh in agreement)

Kral - I'd like to suck a little less.

Ganji -I mean there's dream places to play, but..

HGMN -like....

Ganji -I don't know. I've never really thought about it.

HGMN -I was on Jamcruise. Now that's a location.

Ganji -Yeah, I hear that's a pretty good time.

Burlingame -Headlining 10,000 Lakes would be nice.

Ganji -Mach Pichu would be nice to play at.

K. Nowak -Mushroom pizza?

Burlingame - Or Pompei.

Ganji - Somebody already did that but I can't remember who ; )