Interview with Hot Buttered Rum

2005 has already been a busy year for the Hot Buttered Rum String Band. Taking only three days off after a New Year's gig in San Francisco, the band embarked on a five state, eleven gig tour.
Interview by: Gregory Lake

So how did it go? Looking at the tour dates there was quite a spectrum from Las Vegas to Ski Jam. Any highlights?
HBRSB: This tour had us visit a few new spots such as San Diego, Las Vegas, and Steamboat Springs Colorado. It's always a highlight for me to simply meet new people in different parts of the country to add to this incredible network of people becoming part of our community and us of theirs. Ski Jam which was in Steamboat was a definite highlight and the other performers were Keller Williams and Michael Franti with Spearhead. It was an amazing week of music and our set was well attended by great fans from Texas and other states of the south. Another tour highlight was playing at Cervantes in Denver with the South Austin Jug Band and many of the phenomenal pickers who live in Boulder and the greater Denver area who came down for the show. The backstage there was insane!!

HGMN: Now for a little history of how you go to this point. Where does the name come from? How did you meet?
HBRSB: The name came from a memorable holiday party just before 1998 became 1999. I recall an evening of outrageously fun jamming, and this horrible, luke-warm-with-congealed-butter-floating-on-top beverage. The drink was dreadful, but the name stuck -- it always reminded us of the exuberant night of music. (We have since perfected the recipe).

HGMN: February 5, you are playing the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old Time Festival. What is this event and how did you come to be a part of it?
HBRSB: The SF BOT fest happens every year around this time, and brings some light to the winter months. Venues all over the city suddenly have all this great string band music, and life doesn't seem so cold and gray for a while, you know? Who needs Paxil when there's clawhammer banjo? It's mostly concerts, like ours at the Great American Music Hall, but there's also workshops, square dances, etc. I love it. This will be our fourth year performing at it, I believe.

HGMN: Also in February there is a multi-state tour with Honkytonk Homelice (with Bill Nershi from String Cheese Incident). Eager fans want to know how this came about. What is the relation to Bill Nershi? Are there any songs that you are working on together?
HBRSB: We first met Honkytonk Homeslice at a private event outside of Chico and it was "love at first note". Jillian Nershi, Billy's wife, has a beautiful voice and they perform as a duo. We've opened up for String Cheese Incident and met Billy at that time so there is a little bit of history. We plan to play together every night on the tour and are really thinking spontaneity more than anything else. I think he's eager to show off those great bluegrass chops of his and we're ready to rage it with him!!

HGMN: What is the best part about using biodesel? Do you use alternative fuel cars when you are not on tour?
HBRSB: The experience of pumping old grease out of a restaurant dumpster can be a downright frightening experience. But in that moment when the veggie tank is just warm enough... the driver calls out "Switching Over!!"... the sheer exhilaration hits you -- you are cruising down the highway for free... you are not supporting the war, not supporting Chevron, Exxon, or Shell, not contributing to the atmospheric carbon buildup... the wind blows in your hair, the smell of chow mein wafts through the air... in that moment, it all makes sense -- it was all worthwhile. Back home (we are ashamed to admit) that we all drive old clunkers that run on fossil fuel. We do try to carpool, ride bikes, and take public transportation when possible (when upright basses aren't involved). I hope to get an old diesel car to run on veggie oil when I have more time, but the truth is, we don't really spend much time at home these days.

HGMN: Who gets on the bus when you go on the road? Pets? What is the most fun thing to do to keep occupied during long drives?
HBRSB: We have a seven person road crew right now - five musicians, one sound engineer, one road manager. No pets, that we know of. Might be some stowaways in the food cubby now and then . . . iPods are key for long drives. And we pick, too, work on new songs, fiddle tunes, whatever. It's times like those when I love being in an acoustic band. We can play just about anywhere, and do.

HGMN: Tell me more about the Bluegrass Education Program, the "Origins of Bluegrass".Whose idea was this? Is there a teacher in the band? What has the reaction been?
HBRSB: Our bluegrass education program serves a few different purposes. We have all been music teachers, camp counselors, and educators at various times in our lives, so we love playing music with children. There is a profound need for music and art education in the public school system. Generally bands play in the evening; the education program allows us to work during the day too. We see ourselves as a part of the continuum of traditional music in America. In order to teach the bluegrass tradition, we first have to delve deep into learning and studying the tradition. Being more in touch with bluegrass roots helps to ground and guide our own music creation. The program has received great reactions from kindergartners, college students, and grandparents alike.

HGMN: You have a song that references classic literature, i.e. Moby Dick. Do you draw inspiration for songs from books?
HBRSB: Really, anything's a good excuse to right a song. John Hartford said songs are like rooms you sit in for a few minutes at a time, rooms you can visit again and again. Every tune has its own four walls so when you shut your eyes you can be completely there, apart from everything else in the world. I think as a band of songwriters we're trying to make every live set or record a house that holds together. So some rooms have big oak bookshelves full of dusty pages to turn, some have warm soup on the stove to fill up your belly, and of course you gotta have a deep dark basement to peek into, and maybe a great gorgeous view from that top room where the sun just pours in all day. You need all those things in a house.

HGMN: What has the reaction been to some of your songs that have a deeper political message? I am talking about John Walker Lindh, Less Guns More Butter. What message are you trying to convey to people who listen to your music?
HBRSB: Overall the reaction is favorable as most of our audience tends to share political tendencies with us. There is the occasional dissenting fan who will let us know of their views and that's fine. That's what it's all about, having conviction in who you are and what you believe and having the ability to articulate your positions. We choose to do that through song and will continue to do so throughout our career. We feel an urgency to speak our minds during this volatile time in history and hope our message is seen as one of hope and optimism as well as political and environmental responsibility.

HGMN: How does the mom in Jack Mormon Mom feel about being immortalized for going to see the Grateful Dead?
HBRSB: Oh, she just smiles every time we play that one. It's gotta be one of the sweetest tunes in our quiver. There's so much in there, about family and being young, and about getting older, too. It's funny about that tune - sometimes it sounds to me like a song of a much older guy, but I think Nat was able to capture that spirit of being young and rebellious because he's young now himself, and because he's tight with his folks and wants to understand, as well as any twenty-something can, what his parents went through before he came on the scene. Nat and I both have jack Mormon moms, actually. When my mom heard Nat's tune, though, she told me straight -don't you go getting any ideas. . .

HGMN: What is your relationship to the online community - Yahoo, In These Parts? Do you read the online discussions, participate? Do comments affect you?
HBRSB: We're so excited at the recent growth of our online community in both numbers and loyalty. People are using the forum to voice both opinion and to organize for both shows and common causes. We hope to see this part of our scene continue to flourish. We want to incorporate the talents of our devoted fans so that the discussions reflect the ideas and desires of those people. We check in from time to time and are constantly amazed at what people are saying and doing to bring our music to national awareness. Thanks you guys!!!!

HGMN: What are some goals for this year, musically, personally?
HBRSB: Zac Matthews responded: Musically, we hope to see Hot Buttered Rum stretching in two somewhat diametrically opposed directions: First we would like to develop more language and ability to play authentically in traditional styles like bluegrass, irish, and swing jazz. Then, weI would like to turn that knowledge upside down and pioneer some entirely new directions fusing and expanding upon these traditions. We hope this year will bring many new songs to our repertoire accordingly: for each original song, we will add a traditional bluegrass or swing tune. And of course every once in a while we'll go ahead and butter-up some totally unexpected, ridiculous cover tune.Personally I hope to experiment with a wide-range of facial hair styles this year.

HGMN: What music do you listen to? What is the last song that was stuck in your head?
HBRSB: Aaron Redner responded: I've been listening to a lot of Django Rheinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Bruce Molsky, who is a national treasure if you ask me, has also been on my stereo. Bela Fleck's great album, DRIVE, has been stuck inmy head as well and served as a source of inspiration for me. Mike Marshall has a new project called, "Choro Famoso" which brings music from Brazil to life, I hope people check it out!

HGMN: How do you feel about the state of music in California? From an educational, performing, fan perspective? It seems with all you do, i.e. performing, education, residency, you must get quite a few perspectives.
HBRSB: Nat Keefe responded: The Bay Area is a fun place to be for music. This is where a lot of the loose nuts from the rest of the country come to rest, and I'm happy to take my residence with them. As far as jamband music goes there's several bands I'm excited about (New Monsoon, ALO, Tea Leaf Green etc) who are based here. I'm happy when our times at home overlap and I actually get to hang out with those boys. San Francisco has a long tradition of great rock n roll. I think the scene took a dip, but it's on the rise. The three bands above are all going to get very big and carry the SF torch into the 21st century There's also a rich diversity of cultures here, and that is reflected in the music scene. Last night I saw Mike Marshall and Choro Famoso at the Freight and Salvage. It's amazing how many people in the Bay Area play Brazilian music well. And Mike had a lot of them on stage! When meeting musicians here it's not uncommon to meet someone who has studied Balinese Gamelon, Arabic call-to-worship music, Indian sarod, or Ghanaian xylophone. The more obscure, the more hip. Oakland is also the home to great hip-hop and electronica. I'm very excited that Heavyweight Dub Champion moved here from Boulder. They combine reggae and hip-hop in a way that is going to be very big. Check them out. The bluegrass scene is getting better. The efforts of the SF Bluegrass and Old Time Fest are much appreciated. There are several bluegrass masters who live in the Bay Area: Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Mike Marshall, Chris Thile, Darol Anger. There's a handful of good young bands. It's not as good a pickin' scene as Boulder, but we're doing the best we can!

HGMN: What beer do you like? What is the alcohol percentage?
HBRSB: We all love to sample the local brew wherever we go. If it's not that, it's probably a Sierra Nevada Pale. And yeah, we steer clear of the old 3.2.