Minneapolis, MN-based Pert Near Sandstone calls itself a 'modern American string band', yet appeals to the broader fan base of traditional bluegrass music all across the nation. Taking the string band tradition of old-time music into the future, the band recently completed its latest album Discovery of Honey with Trampled By Turtles member Ryan Young at the helm. Pro Sound News chatted with banjo player Kevin Kneibel about new discoveries unveiled and recording with old friends.
On banding with school chums:
We are a bunch of old friends that happened to be in a band together. We found each other long after having all gone to high school, while in close proximity near the same hometown. One of the guys that started the band was Ryan [Young], the fiddle player with Trampled by Turtles. He traveled full time with us for six or seven years before joining those guys full time. Since we are such close friends, we are always writing music and bringing stuff to each other. Then we finally get to a point where enough time has passed and we have enough material to do a new record. The previous three records we cut were done in this really great, acoustic sounding room in Minneapolis, which was a wonderful place and had awesome people, but we had done three records in a row and now we were looking to do something different.
On recording in the bunker:
Ryan had just recently started recording music again, after making our records back when we were just starting out. He had acquired a new house where we ultimately decided to record. The guy who owned the house before Ryan was a serious ‘prepper’—there were iron plates that surround the house and deep catacombs with shelves and shelves of non-perishable food—end of times! It was a really interesting and neat place that he bought, and it had a lot of weird character to it. And Ryan, who had his own character, set up a studio in the basement and was cranking out a bunch of great records. Our new bass player had just recorded a record with his other band at Ryan’s space, and ever since I heard it, I was super-moved by its rawness and beauty. Plus it made me nostalgic for how organic the process was with Ryan when we made our first three records with him. Everybody was really excited about it.
This is probably complete blasphemy, but I would say all the fancy acoustics simply don’t matter. It is all chemistry, and that’s what his studio provided beyond any acoustic treatment you could imagine. The gel and the glue were ready to stick before we even walked through the door. The chemistry between band and engineer is very delicate and can be like lightning in a bottle. Ryan is an age-old friend, and if he thought we were worrying about something that didn’t matter, he would tell us. Also, he cherishes the liveliness of imperfection. We could iron everything out and make it perfect, but nobody is going to notice that it is perfect and you are going to iron the life out of it. If what you have is jumpin’, it is way more important than whatever razor-thin thing that is sometimes focused on at the time.
On clogging it up:
About 80 percent of the percussion on record is ‘clogging’—that is, a guy in tap shoes tapping on a piece of wood. Clogging can be pretty loud, so we really have never been able to record the clog live with acoustic instruments because there is so much bleed. It is such a loud, in-your-face kind of thing. So we’ve been lucky that the cloggers we record are able to be really in tune with what it is we are doing. On this record, I would say that the clogger hadn’t heard between 50 to 75 percent of the record before arriving. We’d say, ‘This is it, this is what we’ve got down.’ Then they just figure it out—maybe listen to a tricky ending or something—then we just run it. The basic tracks are just bass guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle. Then when we get the foundation down, we do the washboard or the clogger.
On writing contributions:
One of the things about the genre is that it can be pretty eclectic, and we are certainly that way. There are four writers in this band and you can discern a different writing voice for each of the songwriters; we've all got our different approaches. Nate [Sipe, mandolin/fiddle] is the consummate writer who never leaves home without a notebook in his vest-pocket and is writing lyrics for years and years. Then he goes back every couple of months and knits them together into songs. J [Lenz, guitar] is pretty intentional both with his words and progressions, and is pretty complex in both respects. Justin [Bruhn, bass] is a great thematic songwriter and very melody based. When things are working well, our songwriting is effortless. To some degree, when you’ve got four songwriters in a band, the hurdle for the next record is a little lower because you are not writing 10 songs; you are writing two or three songs. You add it up across four guys and you’re ready to do it again.
On the detune in the tune:
On the very last song, there was a happy accident. I was trying to figure out what tuning to use for ‘Biting My Nails’. I kept tuning between these two banjo tunings and Ryan was like ‘We should record a bunch of that detuning—I will find a way to weave that in, because it's so melancholy and weird,’ he said. There were a lot of little things like that which Ryan brought to the table because he has such a great ear. I am impressed how all that got integrated into that song, because it was something that he just heard in his head.