Stress Dreams: An Interview with Mike Devol

Mike Devol

Photo credits: Dylan Langille

Although they have traditional bluegrass instrumentation, Greensky Bluegrass is anything but traditional. The band’s progressive blend of Americana and roots-rock melds into an experience closer to the jam band scene than porch-pickin’. Their progressive approach and focus on songwriting have garnered them an enormous following over the past twenty-two years.

Since 2004, the pulse of the band has been kept steady by bassist Mike Devol. His route to the instrument is one less traveled, as he began his studies as a classical cellist. That background helped to hone his musical sensitivity, supporting the band with thoughtful lines and solid anchors as the band digs into extended jams.

Devol’s contributions also include songwriting. Greensky Bluegrass has just released their eighth studio album, Stress Dreams, which takes its title from a swirling, contemplative piece in 6/8 that the bassist wrote.

We caught up with Devol to learn about his take on the bass, recording the new album, and how he approached improvisation.

Stress Dreams is available now on CD, vinyl and as a digital download (iTunes and Amazon MP3). Greensky Bluegrass is on tour now.

How did you get your musical start?

When I was four, I started asking my parents to take violin lessons. It was totally out of left field for them. No one in my family played instruments. I don’t remember, but I’m so grateful to them for making it happen for me, giving me private instruction at a young age, as there wasn’t a string program at my school. I switched to cello when I was eight.

How do you feel your cello experience affected your double bass playing?

Honestly, for the longest time, I just felt like a cellist playing a bass. I didn’t have go-to licks. I had primarily bowed an instrument and was now responsible for creating a big, solid tone out of this foreign object. I spent a lot of the first bit just figuring out how to get around the instrument and think like a bass player. Looking back, I’ve seen how my experience in orchestras and string quartets has really informed my approach to MUSIC more so than the bass itself. I think the fact that I didn’t have a traditional bass education (be it classical or rock or whatever) really affected the way I viewed my role as a whole and has left me with a pretty unique approach.

Did you get a bass teacher for specifics or just pick it up on the fly?

I never had a bass teacher, per se. I certainly would have improved faster technically if I had. Yet I came from a deep string education, so a lot of the principles of playing were the same. Along the way, I met and befriended a lot of bass players that I admired, and I grabbed bits from them. A few gems along the way to get me to the next spot. I’m still watching and learning as much as I can.

Who are your primary bass influences?

I’ve always dug bass players for the way they approached music more than the way they approached their instruments. In all of these cases, total mastery is included, but it’s never a flashy display of skill that gets me.

Mike Gordon (Phish): The way Mike and Trey create counterpoint is just incredible. The melodic lines he often plays in exploratory sections are so wonderful, and then he always finds his way back to the groove.

Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon): I think Greg is just my all-time favorite. He can play anything so tastefully. He really hits close to home for me because he plays in a band in the same family as Greensky, so watching him do what he does can be easily applied to what I do. I sit side stage and watch how he interplays with Alwyn Robinson (the insanely amazing drummer), and I’m just blown away.

Dominic Davis (Jack White): Dom might be my first bass hero. He’s a lifelong friend and collaborator with Jack White, and he plays in this incredible Michigan band called Steppin In It. He was the first reason I wanted to play upright. He just has this swagger and TONE. He kinda summed it up once for me: I was gushing about some virtuosic upright player I had just seen perform, dashing in and out of pizz and arco and just SHREDDING. Dom said something along the lines of, “I’m not gonna play all that, but I’ll play ONE NOTE better all day long.” To me, he’s always been about playing the right thing at the right time. The most important part of playing bass to him, and to me, isn’t about flashiness. iI’s about style. And Dom is classic. He’s co-produced our two most recent studio releases, and I love having him around. If he tells me I’m doing something he likes, I feel like I’m on the right track.

Greensky Bluegrass

How was the process for Stress Dreams different from the rest of your albums?

Usually, we’re refining material as we go, finding little moments on tour to mess with a song or dig into an idea. We had plans to start recording an album in late 2020 but found ourselves separated. So we each had to present our material from afar at first. It felt pretty inorganic but it worked out. We weren’t squeezing in work sessions, so out of necessity, we had to make time to get together to focus on this material alone. The result was a lot of attention spent on each song.

Was Stress Dreams cut live or each player recorded individually?

We tracked live with usually a scratch vocal. In most cases, the soloists did some overdubbing. Paul and I were in the main studio room, with Anders, Bont, and Dave in isolation, but in eyeline.

Tell us about your writing process, especially for the title track.

I’m still learning about it. In a nutshell, It’s a borderline obsessive exploration of an idea until it starts working or becoming something that does. Stress dreams specifically came out of a simple strange desire to write a song in 6/8. Noodling birthed what would eventually become the main theme, and I chipped away from there – how to use this as a hook, how to send it in to a verse form, how to introduce a powerful chorus, and then what should this “jam” be? I wrote it all on bass, and my approach is much more compositional than songwriter, I think. I wasn’t sure what this song was about lyrically until long after I had conquered the music problem I had created for myself.

What basses did you use? On Instagram you had a P-bass in the studio with you- was it used at all?

I recorded the album with my Eminence bass. All for Money as well. It’s just my instrument these days. I switched from my full upright out of necessity when Greensky started to fly a lot. And while I was initially reluctant, what I found was an instrument that was able to do a lot more of what I needed it to do in the live setting. Now as I’ve played it and developed my sound on it for several years, the way I can use it is a lot more nuanced. I love my upright and play it a ton at home, but the sound I’ve found on the Eminence has sort of become my sound, I guess. I love playing electric, but I’m just ok at it. Its just such a guitar. I’m a bassist by way of the cello, so it started as a foreign object for me. Now as I’ve played it more and moreover the years, I love how becoming an electric player has also opened up my upright playing. Something about the sheer accessibility of the neck. I didn’t use an electric on the album, but I do often for rehearsals and thus far for all of my writing.

Do you have preferences for recording your bass to get your sound?

The mix of the amp in the room making the eminence more of a live upright is key to the sound. We usually use a DBX compressor on the way to the amp and an LA2A compressor for the DI.

Bluegrass bass can be very simple, but a lot of it comes down to precision and nuance in your playing. What tips do you have for timekeeping in that setting?

Fall in! The way our band (any string band) interplays rhythmically is crucial to the whole vibe of a song or piece. I try and always play very intentionally. I keep in mind to not simply “play along” but be clear about where I’m placing my part of the pulse. I’m the kick drum of the Greensky drum set. I’m neither leading the snare nor following him, but working together in real-time. It can be very fluid, and it’s a constant give and take.

You’ve mentioned before that an obstacle coming from the classical world was opening up to improvisation. What was your experience like in that transition and what advice do you have for players getting into jam settings?

Keep it simple! Don’t overplay. For me, the improvisation exploration has been vastly more about how to lead my band in a jam than it is to solo. Keep in mind the bigger picture at all times – the building of tension and eventually resolve, the “big 4” (and 8, and 16, and 32).

Greensky Bluegrass has always been a band that tours a lot. What is your favorite part of being on the road?

I’ve met so many different and interesting people over the years. While touring has lost a lot of its novelty for me – it’s about the shows, and not especially the travel now – I feel so blessed to have such a network of friends in so many places. I feel like it’s easier for me to keep up with people all over the country, as I’ve been in their town once or twice a year for like the last 2 decades.

Also just the time with my band and our crew. Greensky is lucky that we’re actually friends. We don’t have a lot of time anymore to get out and see the sights together, but boy have we made some memories, and we have a lot of fun just being total dumbasses together.

What’s coming up next for you?

More! I’m on a little break in the middle of a larger tour right now. Come mid-march, we’re slowing down a bit for some family time before the summer festival season!

Greensky Bluegrass

Greensky Bluegrass Tour Dates:

Feb 17The Pavilion at Pan AmIndianapolis, IN
Feb 18The Fillmore DetroitDetroit, MI
Feb 19Riverside TheatreMilwaukee, WI
Feb 20The PalaceSt. Paul, MN
Feb 22Agora Theatre & BallroomCleveland, OH
Feb 23Old Forester’s Paristown HallLouisville, KY
Feb 24Iron CityBirmingham, AL
Feb 25The TabernacleAtlanta, GA
Feb 26The TabernacleAtlanta, GA
Mar 16RevolutionFort Lauderdale, FL
Mar 17Jannus LiveSt Petersburg, FL
Mar 18Suwannee Spring ReunionLive Oak, FL
Mar 19Charleston Bluegrass FestivalCharleston, SC

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