Bands To Watch Out For: Kitchen Dwellers (Interview)
Words, Photos & Interview By Mitch Melheim
Bozeman, Montana’s fastest-picking astronauts describe their exploratory take on bluegrass as “Galaxy Grass.” Ten minute jams, spacey effects, and genre-hopping covers are all typical of a Kitchen Dwellers set. The four piece is comprised of mandolinist Shawn Swain, guitarist Max Davies, upright bassist Joe Funk, and Torrin Daniels on the banjo. It's your ordinary bluegrass lineup, but it’s the way they choose to use these instruments that sets them apart.
The band formed in 2010, but have just recently cemented their lineup and musical direction with the addition of Davies. The new, still unreleased music that they’ve written since he joined the band pushes its boundaries well past bluegrass while maintaining the rich element of songwriting that you would expect from the genre. Daniels has emerged as the group’s primary songwriter, but if “The Crown” is any indication, Funk is an excellent songwriter who I would love to hear more from.
With eclectic influences that range from Pretty Lights to punk rock, their unique sound becomes less of a surprise once you begin to learn more about them. Daniels and Swain come from punk and metal bands, respectively, a far cry from the live electronic music Funk prefers or Davies’ prog rock roots. This combination of influences blend together to form a sound that is as quiet as it is loud and as spacey as it is fast, creating an element of dynamics that is rare to find in a string band.
They recently came through Portland, Oregon on tour with Keller Williams’ KWahtro project so I jumped at the chance to see them, even if just for an hour-long opening set. They made the most of their hour, impressing the audience with a myriad of originals and extended jams for an opening set. Starting with the funky and always jammed-out “Five Candles,” the band continued with heavy improvisation until a mid-set and woefully appropriate inauguration day cover of The Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Their metal/grass instrumental “Ebenezer’s Winter” was another highlight of the set and led into the tastefully expansive “Ghost in a Bottle” set closer.
I had a chance to sit down with the band before the show to pick their brains a bit on a variety of topics ranging from what the hell “Galaxy Grass” means to the band’s once revolving door of musicians that seems to have finally closed for good.
Max Davies: Yep, we're on the Cascadia stage this year.
Shawn Swain: I think it might be a Cascadia set and a bus set. Those bus deals are pretty funny.
MM: You’re one of those bluegrass bands that makes it awfully tough to label as a “bluegrass" band. What direction do you guys plan to take with your music? Will you remain a bluegrass band or would you guys like to push the boundaries more towards rock & roll like Greensky Bluegrass or maybe even beyond that?
Torrin Daniels: Yeah. I guess that's kind of the direction that we go for.
SS: Rock & roll bluegrass.
TD: It's more of a rock show than anything. We don't necessarily cater to traditional bluegrass. We do play it.
Joe Funk: I'd say we cater to it. We just don't play it that much.
MD: In every show we'll always throw in a couple of bluegrass songs, but the most fun parts are when we are playing our own stuff.
TD: Yeah. The biggest parts for us are the original songs and our improvised parts. The jamming is what we try to emphasize.
MM: Speaking of which, the Yonder (Mountain String Band) influence is very obvious even just from looking at some of your set lists.
SS: I saw that band like 80-some times.
TD: That was definitely one of the big influences for me as well.
MM: What about some other bands playing right now?
SS: I started off with Yonder, but yeah, Greensky is doing some really cool stuff right now.
TD: Leftover is also a really big one.
SS: Yeah. I grew up with Leftover Salmon and definitely listen to a lot of them. We're good friends with Andy Thorn. He helps us out with a bunch of stuff so that whole camaraderie thing there is cool and pretty neat to be apart of.
JF: A lot of the young bands that are playing too.
Everybody: Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Trout Steak Revival, Canyon Collective, Lil’ Smokies of course.
SS: Then all of the other genres too, like Twiddle and the Magic Beans.
MM: That Kitchen Cabinet set (superjam with Cabinet at Twiddle’s Tumble Down festival) sounded awesome.
SS: That band is awesome.
TD: That was actually the first time we had ever met them, let alone played with them. We met JP (Biondo) the mandolin player a couple weeks before that.
SS: We went to his house and drank a bunch of Yuengling.
MM: When in the northeast...
TD: Yeah, right? So that show was actually the first time we met the rest of the band and played with them.
MM: How did you feel that went?
SS: So awesome.
SS: That was one of the most fun collaborative things I've ever done.
MM: You tend to tour with non-bluegrass bands as often as bluegrass. You’ve done a lot of shows with Twiddle, you’re playing with Keller tonight, the Magic Beans not too long ago. Any other non-bluegrass that you guys enjoy playing with?
MD: Well, we're playing with Gipsy Moon. We've got a run coming up with them.
SS: Well, we did a run with Horseshoes, but they’re kinda bluegrass.
MM: Yeah but just like Gipsy Moon, they're tough to label as bluegrass.
SS: Gipsy Moon is crazy. I think Silas (Herman) is like the best mandolin player. I'm kinda nervous to try and go neck and neck with that guy for 8 shows.
MM: I saw you guys picked up a fiddle player for a few shows a couple months back. Was that just an experiment?
SS: We've known him for years.
MD: Yeah, that was a social experiment.
Courtney Kramer (Tour Manager): They scooped him up in Nashville to come play with them that night and then they asked him to come along for some more shows.
SS: Yeah, so he came over for breakfast and stayed with us for like a month.
TD: He's from Bozeman where we’re from and his name is James Schlender. He's pretty well known in the bluegrass community for how young he is. At the time we came through, he had just moved to Nashville and didn't have a band lined up yet or anything so he just hopped on tour with us for the last couple weeks of tour.
MM: So it was just having fun for a couple weeks and switching things up?
CK: Yeah. It was definitely an experiment because having a fiddle really changes things.
MD: It definitely changes things a little bit. Because when you’re used to improvising with just the four of us, as soon as you throw in a fiddle it changes the rhythm, it changes everything. It just adds a whole other element.
JF: Also having someone who isn't just us four who always play together. We've played together for so long that we don't even have to say anything to know where we're going. He's an amazing player, but it's just another dynamic.
TD: It really changes the feel of it because with four people and not having an instrument like a dobro or a violin that can really hold and sustain notes and fill up a lot of space and sound really big. Without that, we're used to having to hold down a lot more rhythm than most bands with fiddle have to do. It's sort of like if we were to do drums or something like Railroad (Earth) and when we add drums then shouldering the rhythm falls off of Shawn or Joe to hold it down all the time if you have something in there that can kind of go over everything.
MM: I saw that set on YouTube with Andy Thorn (Leftover Salmon) in Boulder. So that's the only fiddle I've seen from you guys, but I definitely support it.
MD: That's what everyone says. Like, "Sweet, you guys finally got a fiddle!"
TD: No, that's Andy Thorn. He kind of has a previous engagement.
MM: Speaking of adding members, how did Max join the band?
MD: I started a bluegrass band in Bozeman (Hollowtops) and our first show was opening up for the Dwellers, but it goes back even further than that. The kid (Tyler Shultz) that I grew up playing music with was their first fiddle player years ago.
MM: Did you guys used to be a five piece?
TD: Yeah. We used to be a five piece for a long time and then Tyler left and we got another fiddle player who only played with us for maybe nine months or something, then he left and right after that our first guitar player also left the band. At that point we had already known Max for awhile.
MD: And that summer the guys I was in my band with were gone so I did some shows with these guys. We did the two band thing for awhile.
TD: Max did doubleheaders for a few nights.
MM: The old guitarist wrote a lot of the songs on your last album, right?
TD: Yeah. He used to write most of the material. It was definitely a lot different style than what we're aiming for right now. He wrote in more of a folk singer style. He would generally show us these songs and they'd be in the style of a folk song and we would just sort of add bluegrass instrumentation to it. So it was a totally different feel. Way less improvisation. A lot more focused on folk and traditional bluegrass.
MM: What is the biggest difference in your guys’ songwriting since he left the band?
TD: It's more cohesive. Somebody will bring up an idea of what they have for a song and everybody else chips in their two cents and since we improvise a lot more now, things have a lot more parts. It's almost like more of a prog rock approach on some songs. Like one of our songs “Ghost in a Bottle” has I think 10 parts to it which is sort of abnormal for bluegrass.
MD: Yes is a huge influence on us.
TD: I listen to a lot of Umphrey's (McGee). That's my big thing.
CK: Their big influence is Phish, too.
SS: I love that band.
TD: Joe brings a lot of electro funk to the table.
MM: Who specifically?
JF: Definitely Pretty Lights. Griz, the Floozies, Break Science, Manic Focus. That live funky electronic music.
MD: I love that everybody brings different musical tastes to the band. Which I think is hilarious and makes the band awesome.
MM: Speaking of that, I remember hearing in one of your guys’ shows that "Ebenezer's Winter" is from an old metal band Shawn used to be in or what exactly is the story with that?
SS: I used to be in a metal band so I wanted to write a metal song and I took the chord to a Bill Monroe song "Old Ebenezer Scrooge" and kind of twisted it around and turned it into a heavy metal song, so now it's "Ebenezer's Winter." Kind of an homage to Bill Monroe and my metal past.
TD: Me and him were playing "Old Ebenezer Scrooge" and he was like, "I want to change this." So we sat down together and changed it because that's kind of what I used to do, too. I was in a punk band and played drums in a lot of bands.
SS: Bluegrass can get pretty punk rock.
MM: We'll leave off with one suggestion from you guys to whomever may be reading this interview. If they are unfamiliar with your music and you had to pick just one song for them to listen to, which would you choose?
SS: "Ghost in a Bottle"
MM: Live, I assume?
MD: Really nothing that we've been playing recently is released yet.
TD: Yeah, I was gonna say that none of the current music which you would see on a set list right now is on our album.
TD: Yeah, we have live albums out.
SS: It's bitchin'.
TD: We have a good amount of shows on Archive. "Rejuvenation" from that Fox Theatre album is another good place for someone to start.
SS: There was some Andre Nickatina stuff going on with that one. We played some Nelly during that song at The Ogden.
MM: You guys told me once that you try not to play that song as much you once did.
SS: Yeah. It doesn't come around that often. It's one of the last songs that came from the former guitarist.
TD: He had written the words and then we all kind of arranged it together. Then after he left, we sort of rearranged it and added some parts so we've sort of felt alright about playing it occasionally, even though we didn't write the lyrics.
MM: Same story with "Redneck Bastard?"
SS: Yeah. That song comes out like once every 50-60 shows. Actually, we were told by somebody last time that we hadn't played it for 53 shows. How do they know this?
TD: Those old ones still come around every now and then.
MM: I feel like "Rejuvenation" just explains what Galaxy Grass is. If somebody asks me what that means, I just say, "Listen to ‘Rejuvenation.’ That's what it means."
TD: That one really does explain it.
MD: Right? Dude, the intro is all this kind of minor-y dark riff and then all of a sudden you come into this bluegrass rhythm and it's all happy and then you go dark again.
MM: How would you guys describe Galaxy Grass?
TD: I would gauge the potency of Galaxy Grass by how many different effects pedals you can use in one song.
SS: Yeah, that's pretty much what it comes down to. How much can you piss off the bluegrass purists? If they're pissed, we're probably playing Galaxy Grass.
MM: Have you seen that meme with Bender from Futurama that says, "Fine! I'll just start my own bluegrass awards with effects pedals and hippies?"
MD: No, but that is absolutely spot on.
TD: Send that to us. We need it.