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Greensky Bluegrass banjo player Michael Arlen Bont, who says he’s always been “pretty musical,” played both trumpet and guitar when he was younger. He was drawn to the sound of the banjo initially because of its “melodic and percussive nature.”
“I haven’t looked back since I picked up the banjo about 20 years ago,” he says in a recent phone interview. Greensky Bluegrass performs with Billy Strings at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at House of Blues
. “I was at a bar drinking one night and just decided that I should learn to play it without realizing how difficult it would be to learn how to play it.”
Greensky Bluegrass formed in Kalamazoo about the time that Bont first picked up the banjo. A number of local bands inspired the guys to want to play bluegrass, and the region’s local bluegrass acts would play at joints like the Cooper Café, where Bont says you could have a giant pancake and listen to some bluegrass.
Band members were still pretty green when they went to record their debut, Less Than Supper.
Prior to cutting that album,
the band had never been in a recording studio.
“It was really fun,” Bont says of the experience of making the album. “We liked the process of putting the music under the microscope. We recorded at a house on a little lake just north of Grand Rapids. It was a rustic scene and easy to immerse ourselves.”
Since the band didn’t have any interest from record labels, it put the album out itself, and it continues to self-release its albums to this day.
“It just made sense at the time,” says Bont when asked about what compelled the band to start its own label. “It wasn’t so much of a choice as much as we thought it was something we should do. Years later, it turned do out to be the right choice. We’re doing pretty good without a label.”
The last couple of records have really shown off the band's ability to work well in a recording studio. Along the way, the group has gotten a little help from its musical friends, and that's paid dividends. Los Lobos' Steve Berlin produced 2016's Shouted, Written Down & Quoted
“He seemed like a cool guy, and we sent him a demo, and he was interested right from the start,” says Bont of working with Berlin. “It was more about his cool studio attitude. He didn’t rule with an iron fist. It was like having a sixth voice in the band. That’s something we feel like we need in the studio. We are our own worst critics when it comes to the studio.”
The group then turned to Dominic John Davis for its most recent album, All For Money
, and the experience was just as rewarding.
“He’s been a friend of ours for a long time,” Bont says of Davis. “We didn’t need a producer as much as we needed an extra voice. He knows his way around the studio, and he happens to be an excellent musician. To have that extra ear is crucial.”
Bont says the album title is simply “a funny play on words.” The band certainly isn’t in it for the money.
“We weren’t sure how it would be taken by the public, but if you know our band at all, you know it’s not about the money for us,” Bont says. “We liked the juxtaposition. It’s our sense of humor. It’s like Spinal Tap.”
The album opens with the moody "Do It Alone," a song that benefits from its bellowing vocals and atmospheric interludes.
“We have this thing where we wanna be a rock band, but we play these bluegrass instruments, and we don’t have a drummer," says Bont. "We want to venture beyond the bluegrass sound, which is something we’ve always strived for. We can play bluegrass, but we’re finding out there’s so much more you can do even without a drummer. We can create these different sounds, so that when you close your eyes, you swear you can hear a drummer.”
In keeping with that perspective, Bont promise the band’s live show will be “rocking.”
“There will be lots of flashing lights," he says. "Every show has to be better than the one we just played. By the time we get to Cleveland, we’ll be in full groove mode. The shows are always good, but when we’re fully immersed in a tour, those shows tend to get really special.”