After eight albums and a career that goes back more than 15 years, Pert Near Sandstone have come to represent the essence of Minnesota’s thriving progressive bluegrass community, environs also inhabited by such likeminded luminaries as Charlie Parr, 4onthefloor, and Trampled By Turtles. The relationship between them and the musicians that make up Trampled By Turtles in particular is somewhat incestuous in fact. Both bands share a common player in Ryan Young, a connection that keeps the fiddler busy playing, producing, and engineering with Pert Near Sandstone when he’s not fulfilling any obligations with his day job.
Still, it’s not like Pert Near Sandstone have any dearth of talent within their own ranks. Each of its members — Kevin Kniebel (banjo, vocals), J. Lenz (guitars, vocals, horns, xylophone), Nate Sipe (mandolin, fiddle, vocals), Andy Lambert (drums), Sean Roderick (piano), Matt Cartier (clogs), and Olivia Quintanilla (cello) —contributes to the band’s signature sound.
Indeed, over the course of their eight albums, Pert Near Sandstone have managed to tow a fine line, one that finds them balancing between more traditional tenants and genuine populist appeal. Their new effort, Rising Tide, is another adept example of that varied approach, a celebration of fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar and relentless rhythms with the added embellishment of brass and strings. And though most of the tracks were written several months before release, many of them seem prescient, given the fact that they seemed to foretell the troubles and turmoil that’s befallen the country in recent months.
Bluegrass Today recently had the opportunity to speak with Nate Sipe about the new album, this year’s plans for their annual Blue Ox Music Festival and the band’s musical philosophy in general.
Pert Near Sandstone has always been known for its diversity and its willingness to bend the boundaries. Even so, your new album, Rising Tide, seems to find you pushing the parameters even more.
When we go into the studio to record an album, we really go in with our guard down and with full openness. That’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about this band. We’re not afraid to be eclectic. We’re not afraid to try new things. We put ourselves in the studio and sometimes we find ourselves outside our comfort zone. We really allow different things to occur that may have been unplanned. With this album, more than any of the others, we achieved that in terms of the finished product and ideas that we can further as a band. So yes, I’m really pleased with the way this album came out.
You ought to know, given the prodigious output of Pert Near Sandstone over the course of its 15 years.
Within that span of time, we’ve been able to further learn how to write songs for this group. We know what our strengths are, and what kind of direction we can go in with the music. In typical fashion, we tend to go in a lot of different directions within each album. We have elements of old time, we have elements of rock and roll, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of country. We have a well rounded eclectic sound. That’s what keeps me interested in this band through all the years of playing and touring. We don’t just have a single voice. We have four songwriters. We do different things to keep the audience interested and to keep ourselves interested. It’s fun to be able to apply that to a single album. It becomes an interesting sonic journey.
One of the songs that you contributed to the new album seems particularly prophetic given today’s tenuous circumstances. No News Is Good News. That’s a thought that’s circling through a lot of people’s minds these days.
It’s more important now than when I wrote it, that’s for sure. It was more of a personal, reflective song when I wrote it, but it’s really turned into a public outcry (laughs).
Certain feelings seem so universal these days.
Well, they are universal. It’s just part of our ecology as human beings. These things all percolate at the same time, and people are just trying to deal with each other and deal with these times. It’s a big element for society and for our culture. It’s surprising and yet, at the same time, it’s really not.
The other two songs that you wrote for the album — Peace of Mind and The Water’sHigh and Rising — have titles that make us think you had a premonition about what’s currently taking place in our country. How strange is that?
Yeah, when we were compiling the album, these songs really spoke to us. Water’s High and Rising is more or less the title track, and that was the original concept for the album. It’s our duty as performers in the public eye to talk about what’s going on. I’ve always appreciated folk music for the ability to do that. People can choose to listen or not, but I think we really captured that on the album.
You’ve even got a shout out from presidential candidate, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar. She introduced you at an event, didn’t she?
Yes, that was our last album release party for Discovery of Honey, and she came on and introduced us. We supported her agenda. We typically don’t get too political, but we all are political by nature and we support the things we believe in. So we weren’t afraid to get a politician on stage with us.
It can be a fine line. You’ll win some folks over but then there will be others who simply want to enjoy the music and not have to deal with any pontificating.
It is a fine line, but I’ve come to terms with it. I’m not going to apologize for what I believe in. You can take it or leave it. We decided as a band we don’t want to fan the flames, but we do want to provide perspective and I hope that’s what we’re doing.
There are several songwriters in your band, so how do you guys ensure that everyone gets their fair share of material on any given album?
It’s a super organic thing. We’ve always had an organic approach to how we write music. There’s very much an openness that we each have to ideas. There are very instances that I can recall where we shut down an idea. It’s always, ‘Sure, let’s try it.’ There are ten songs on this album, but we recorded 14 and they didn’t all make the cut. But after those 14 were cut, it wasn’t because they weren’t good enough. They maybe fit a different theme, and so maybe we’ll use them down the line. Things kind of naturally get vetted. It’s like, is this a song that we feel maybe isn’t strong enough to be performed, thence won’t put it one the set list. We’ll launch it in the studio. So it’s a natural vetting process and we’ll leave it up to the songwriter if you write a song and want to present it to the band, let’s try to work it up. When there’s some down timed we’re all sitting on the coaches in the green room, let’s run through it. That’s how it’s happened over the years and that’s how it works.
Is it a challenge to tow the line between trying to please the purists and at the same time, attempting to push the boundaries? You’re paying heed to tradition but still trying to keep your contemporary credibility as well.
Early on, we had to deal with that. We’d try to get a gig at some of the bluegrass places in Minneapolis, but they said we weren’t bluegrass enough, so we didn’t get the gig. We weren’t quite traditional enough. We’ve dealt with that from the very beginning. At this point we’re just trying to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. We’re not trying to fit any particular category, so we’re not bothering to try and please a particular audience. Of course we want to provide something to our fans that they can relate to and enjoy, but quite often we’re just writing for ourselves, and when we’re on stage we’re feeding it out to the audience, but it’s just as easy to simply play music for our own enjoyment. That’s been kind of our MO.
I’m a huge fan of traditional music and bluegrass, and all of us have such a wide catalog of music we’re interested in, so we still hold on to those roots where we started. We’ve learned how to work together as a band sonically and to collaborate, and we just kind of hold onto that. We have the seed of what makes it work for us as a band.
You do have a lot of interesting and disparate elements in your band. Very few groups have a full-time clogger. You also integrate brass into your sound as well. It’s really an interesting mash up. So was there any predetermined strategy in the beginning as far as integrating all these elements? Or do you just let the music take you there naturally?
Yes, absolutely. There are several songs that I wrote that I had a specific approach in mind, but once we start playing it, it acquired a different sound. Whoever happens to be singing it might have a different approach in mind, something that wasn’t there at the beginning. So we’ll kind of run with it. We’re open to the muse that way.
Of course you’re part of a vibrant scene up there in Minneapolis, but many people may not realize that that region is such a breeding ground for bluegrass.
The area does have a pretty rich history as far as traditional music, due to all the immigrants that settled there in the last century or so, all the farmers and the Germans that came over, and even the folks from Appalachia that moved around so much. But it was really in the 1960s when the folk boom occurred in Minneapolis that it kind of kicked in. The University of Minnesota was a hotbed for the folk revival. With that, you had Bob Dylan and Spider John Koerner who influenced so much of the music that came after.
We love that we’re kind of a continuation of that scene. When we started this band, we discovered how influential it was. We grew up with the music itself, and we feel like we’re kind of stewards of it now, kind of at the forefront of a new folk boom or a new bluegrass revival that occurred around the period of Oh Brother Where Are Thou. We were kind of in the right place at the right time. It allowed us and some of our friends like Trampled By Turtles and Charlie Parr to get propelled into a national spotlight. Minneapolis is a great scene. It’s one of those pockets of music, a microcosm like Seattle or Austin.
You have your own online festival, the Blue Ox Music Festival coming up here soon, do you not?
Yes, we kept our original album release date for Rising Tide, because we decided that the music needs to get out there instead of delaying and delaying it for a year, we’re just going to put it out there. It’s not about a huge party or selling tickets. It’s more about us giving back to the community. So instead of delaying the festival until August, we decided to keep the original dates and turn it into a little virtual festival and give them a little taste that they can enjoy from their own homes and allow them to share the experience. Fortunately, we were able to bring in some of our friends and so the Blue Ox Music Festival will happen.
How many years have you been curating this festival?
This will be the sixth year. We’re getting a few bands from other locations and they’ll do pre-recorded sets, and then there will be a few bands that will actually be at the campgrounds when the festival occurs. We’ll be doing our social distancing in a large empty meadow where we’ll have the stage set up, we’ll have a camera crew running around, and we’ll have a technical team capturing audio. It’s going to be a bizarro festival, but we’re going to give viewers a good experience and share some music that world needs right now while celebrating our new album. We’re really looking forward to sharing these new songs that we’ve had in our back pocket for a year or so now.
Who will be participating?
Sam Bush, the Traveling McCourys, Del McCoury, Molly Tuttle, Them Coulee Boys, Charlie Parr. It’s going to be quite a party. Those artists who are able to will actually join us on the festival grounds. I think people are looking forward to making some music for the audience and for the friends. The gathering might have stopped but the energy is still there, and we’re happy we can help provide this experience for people and get our new music out there at the same time and give people a sense of hope and continuation. I think the new album speaks to that, maybe not entirely directly, but in some ways more than others. It’s one of our more topical albums and I think it gives people something to relate to.