"It's important work for all bands to get out and just have a place for people to go, and all unify for a few hours about one thing, and all get-together and feel that positive energy. " Andy Falco, guitarist for Grammy award-winning band, The Infamous Stringdusters
Guitarist Andy Falco of the Grammy award-winning bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters is on the podcast for episode 120. Andy talks about his musical beginnings and the journey the band has gone on in the last decade. Also, hear how The Infamous Stringdusters write and record their songs and details about the new album Rise Sun. Andy also inspires everyone talking about just how important music, and specifically live performances, are in the world today.
Jeff: So I'd like to just kick this off, and I'd like to start by talking about this new record which comes out on Friday, April 5th, Rise Sun. It's your ninth studio record with you guys. Can you talk a little bit about what went into producing this record?
Andy Falco: Well, like most records we've done, we've sort of developed our recording style, which is to track live with the band. We do our live tracking, and then we add any kind of little bits and sonic elements that we feel are appropriate for a song after the fact. But what we did differently with this one was, before we even went into the studio, we knew exactly which 13 songs were going to be on the record, and we sequenced the album.
Andy Falco: So we knew the order of the songs, and this allowed us to really ... The idea really was to try to incorporate a little bit more ... Instead of having this separation between, "Okay, it's a studio album, in the studio, it's one way, and then the live shows have jams and these transitions and stuff, and that's that way." We kind of wanted to bridge that gap a little bit more.
Andy Falco: So by making the songs in order, we actually recorded the songs in order, and there were certain areas and certain places where we had transitions very much like a live show, improvised transitions that connect some of the songs. So actually, as you listen to the record from the beginning to the end, there is a flow that happens.
Andy Falco: Now, there's certain places where, just like on a live show, certain places where there's space between the songs but other places where it just goes right from one song, improvised jam, into another song. And also, by doing the recording in order, it really ... And this was kind of something that was a surprise. It really affected the energy flow of the record. As it's going down, it's kind of matching our energy as you are in a studio. So, in other words, the first track is Rise Sun. That was day one in the studio, and it sounds all sprightly and energetic and bouncy. It's like first day energy, you know? In contrast, the last track, Truth In Love, that was the last thing we recorded. It has a little bit more of a kind of, "We've been on this journey" kind of energy to it. But it's also got an uplifting message and a positivity.
Andy Falco: And another thing that was cool about that, doing it this way, is everything was informed by what you had done before, what you were doing after. You could really look at the record, truly, as a whole, in real time. It was like you were living inside the record for nine days as you were making it.
Andy Falco: So Truth In Love is the last track, and one cool thing, an example of a creative decision we were able to make because of this recording in order, was all those little subtle sonic elements that we might've put in this song earlier, or that song earlier, they all reappear on the last track, almost like as if it's a big grand finale of the record. Everything is in there somewhere. Any sound you heard on the record.
Andy Falco: And it just was a really interesting way to make a record that we'd never done before, and it was really fun, and we feel like it was really effective.
Jeff: That's exciting because, in the musical landscape that we live in now, we've gotten back to the 1950s mentality where the single is king, and it's not necessarily about the album anymore. And I'm really excited for your new record, because you guys went the opposite and were like, "We're gonna create an actual record," and it sounds like you created a story from start to finish.
Andy Falco: Absolutely. And it's designed where the tracks can live on their own. A lot of people like to ingest their music track by track, and Spotify, whatever streaming service, and that's fine. Hey, listen, people should take it in however they wanna take it in. But this record also, it really flows from beginning to end, and really, the whole concept, if you wanna get the full sort of sense of the whole record, is to listen to the whole record. Because it was really conceived as an entire project.
Jeff: That's so exciting. And you mentioned, going into this record, you had the songs already, so that way you were able to sequence it. What is your writing process like song-wise? When you guys attack a song, you have a wonderful five-piece instrumentation, and do you guys all attack it together? How does your songwriting process ... Where does that start?
Andy Falco: The whole process for us starts like this. Everybody in the band writes. All five of us write. And we might write by ourself at home, or some guys sometimes write with people that they write with, or whatever. But everybody's off writing all year round. And then, when we start trying to start thinking about, "Okay, we gotta start thinking about the next record," we will start a show and tell process where we kinda get together informally, maybe on tour, and a little bit at a time, a couple hours, a few times a week, where we just sit, each guy shows what they feel are their best potentials for Stringduster songs.
Andy Falco: And we do kind of like a crash through. The writer will just kind of play it down, and then we'll just kind of ... Not spend a lot of time arranging or anything, just kind of crash through it. Play it down. Record it on an iPhone just to keep it in a file, to keep everything organized. So we'll do that for a few months, and then we'll end up with maybe 25 songs that are contenders, and then we kinda see what we have. And we start to look for any kind of similar themes, any kind of connecting ... Sometimes you have certain songs that fit a certain category, a few songs that might be slower.
Andy Falco: So we'll do one of these, and a few songs that have more of an anthemic kind of vibe, and then some songs that have a bluegrassy, more trad vibe. We try to incorporate and show all the parts of our band and have everything sort of represented. We have essentially four singers, four lead singers. Like I said, five writers. Four soloists. But as we've evolved, we've gotten a little bit more away from the everybody ... When we were younger, making records, it was like, "All right." Every song, it seemed like, everybody had to take a solo. Everybody had to have a solo, and so you had a lot of these arrangements which are very trad bluegrassy. Everyone's just taking a half of a verse for a solo so we can fit everybody's solo in.
Andy Falco: Now, we're less concerned about all of that, and it's more just about the songs. We've evolved as songwriters and as a band, where we don't feel like we gotta ... We would rather feature one soloist for this song and let them really kinda take it to the [inaudible 00:07:41], rather than have to squeeze in. It doesn't really matter. But we do try to get ... Everybody kind of gets sort of a moment, and everybody has their songs. So that's kind of the process. We then whittle down the songs to a reasonable amount.
Andy Falco: I think on this album, 13 songs ended up being recorded, but I think the final, when we were sequencing, we had 15 songs that were potentials, that we kind of decided, "Well, let's do these," because we didn't wanna do more than 13 songs. And we had to leave out a couple things, and we just based it based on what fit the flow of the record best.
Andy Falco: That's how that goes. And I think, actually, what happens to those extra songs, often, is they become sort of things that we start doing live.
Jeff: Excellent. And I wanted to bring that up, too. You guys are known for your live shows. You make it so amazing to be in the audience for your shows, and audience participation is a big thing for you guys. How much of that comes into your writing process? Do you actively think of that, or does that kind of just flow with the process as you guys are writing stuff?
Andy Falco: Yeah, I think it does. I think we often do think about ... And that's another sort of part of the evolution, where we do try to make a record that also is gonna translate well live. Over the years of doing this and through experience, you start to learn, "Well, this kinda song sometimes works well for the record, but then we never end up playing it live, because for whatever reason, it's not the type of thing that works well live."
Andy Falco: So we kind of try to avoid that, because then it sort of ... We are a live band, and that's all part of the idea of bridging the live show with the records that you're making. It's not necessarily a live record. It's still a studio project, and we still use the studio as an instrument in itself, and are able to incorporate different sounding elements that we might not do live, necessarily. For example, I might put some pianos and stuff on the tracks, but I'm not bringing a piano to shows with me.
Andy Falco: But we do ... Those elements are usually things that we can recreate in different ways with effects and stuff live, and we do. But it is thought about. We still wanna have that bridge between the live show, what we're doing live, and the improvisation, and being free with the music, but also being able to have concise and good performances, basically, of the songs that are musical. And everything's deliberate, in a sense, too.
Jeff: Totally, totally. So let's go even farther back, Andy. As a musician, as a guitarist, where did that come into play in your life? Was it very early on as a child? Where did you kinda get bit by the music bug?
Andy Falco: Jamming with my older brother, Tom, when we were kids and he was playing guitar. He started playing guitar, and would give me a guitar, and say, "Let's jam," and he encouraged jamming. And it was just something that we certainly connected on, and then later, my little brother, he wanted to play something, and we just gave him a bass. "Hey man, play this." And he's a brilliant bass player in New York. He's a very sought after session and live bass player up there.
Andy Falco: But that was really it. Playing with my brothers. And then starting bands as I got into junior high school, and always having a band. And even then, this was with my friends, then, at that point, and we would write songs in the basement. That's sort of what we did every day after school. We were kind of like sort of quiet kids. I wasn't really a sporty guy, really. It was definitely more of an artsy kind of kid, sort of. Having this connection with these other friends that I made and starting a band and making music, that's what we did every single day after school.
Andy Falco: We'd go to my buddy's house and go into the basement and cash out songs. We had little recording setups that started with a cassette four track, and eventually, back then, you actually could still buy eight track tape machines. An actual, real tape that was common, that you'd get at consumer level. And that was our first studio setup, and that's all we did. We played gigs, and it was going to Grateful Dead shows, which was ... My first show was in 1986. My older brother pulled me out of school. You'd never be able to get away with it today, but he kinda signed me out of school, threw me in a car with a bunch of freaky friends, and we went out to Connecticut, and I saw my first Grateful Dead show in [inaudible 00:13:07], Connecticut.
Andy Falco: It's life changing. That whole culture of the tape trading, and going to the shows. It was something that I just wanted to be a part of, and I knew I wanted to be a musician. That seemed to be sort of the direction. I played mostly electric guitar back then. I don't even think I owned an acoustic guitar until later.
Andy Falco: And then, to make a long story short, I eventually got into bluegrass, and found my way there. And then with trad bluegrass and all that, it was the opportunity to learn the music that I loved and also started touring professionally and stuff like that, out of Nashville. And then I joined the Dusters, and this band is all like-minded people. And it eventually evolved into something where it is. Not on the model that the Grateful Dead had, which is a lot of touring, different shows every night, a lot of improvisation, so it's actually very similar to that. Even though, when I was a kid, you ask me if I was gonna be playing bluegrass music, I probably would have said, "What's bluegrass music?"
Andy Falco: It's just one of those things where, in life, I think, as a musician, you just gotta kinda go with your flow and go with your gut and just follow wherever the music takes you, and this is where it took me, and I'm super psyched and proud of that.
Jeff: That's awesome. So going back to junior high school and your bands, I gotta ask, then. What kind of music were those first bands? What were you playing?
Andy Falco: Oh, man. We were writing songs, but also doing covers. But we were doing Doors tunes, Grateful Dead tunes, Beatles tunes, Traffic songs.
Jeff: Nice, nice.
Andy Falco: Pink Floyd. That was all the stuff that we were doing.
Jeff: So the other question on that is, because, most of us out there who have even dabbled in music, whatever, we all had bands as we were kids. And some of those names are the worst names in the world. Do you remember any of your first band names?
Andy Falco: Oh, absolutely. That band's name is Domain.
Jeff: Domain. I love it.
Andy Falco: Domain. And you know what, I'll tell you something great about that, too. So this is more for the guitar nerds, but I worked all summer when I was in eighth grade or something, ninth grade. I worked at the supermarket all summer. Worked my ass off stocking shelves so I could buy a new amp. Because my friend had this old Princeton reverb, this tube amp, fender amp, this thing's old and shitty.
Andy Falco: I gotta go buy ... I remember, I worked all summer, and I bought a Peavey Renown 400, which was a 400 watt amp or something absurd. Just this loud amp, solid state amp, and then I think my friend ended up selling that crappy old, and I put that in quotes, "fender amp." So then, the great thing about it is, I remember that amp so well because we had wrote on the amp in a blue marker, [inaudible 00:16:31] something, we wrote "Domain."
Andy Falco: So we sold the amp, like, "Let's get rid of this junky thing." Course, years later, when we started realizing that the old fender amps were the real deal and that's what we wanted, my friend decided that he was gonna buy a Les Paul and an amp, and he went to the used guitar store, that we had this great shop by us. And he went in there, tell them what he was looking for. "I'm looking for a small tube amp and a Les Paul." "Here's the Les Paul, we got this one," okay, "I'll take this one. What do you got for amps?"
Andy Falco: And they pull out this Princeton in the back, and there it is. It says "Domain" on it.
Jeff: No shit.
Andy Falco: I think he probably sold it for 50 bucks or something, and ended up buying it back for 600 dollars or something.
Jeff: Oh my God. That's amazing.
Andy Falco: I don't know where that amp is now. I wish I had it, actually. But yeah, that was the name of the band. Domain.
Andy Falco: But actually, that name isn't the worst. The worst name I think we've ever had, that I ever had in a band was when I went to college in Oneonta, we were gonna have this blues band. And I was like, "Well, what's the name of the band?" And he was like, "Blues De Jour." And I was like, "Uh, dude. We can't do a show as Blues De Jour. I don't think that's gonna happen."
Andy Falco: And so then, we went through a bunch of names, and then we ended up ... Where I went to school in upstate New York, in Oneonta, all the bars were on a street called Water Street. And so we ended up just being like, "Well, let's just call it the Water Street Blues Band."
Andy Falco: And that's what it was for years, and it eventually ... Even after Oneonta, we did that in the northeast. Back in the days when the Wetlands was open, and [inaudible 00:18:16] car wash, all those on the New York scene. Plus this sort of New England college scene, we're doing a little bit of that. Kind of like the similar place, where most started.
Jeff: Yep. Yep.
Andy Falco: But we didn't get that far at all. And eventually, it disbanded, and stuff. But that was it.
Jeff: Yeah, shoutout to Oneonta. I actually ... We're based in upstate New York, I went to school in Oswego, I partied a lot on Water Street. I know exactly [crosstalk 00:18:41] probably a lot of the bars you played.
Andy Falco: Oh, God, yeah. We used to play at the Copper Fox, the Oak, there was a place called Diana's which is now the Chinese restaurant on the main street there. But yeah, we used to play Diana's, and that was when we were ... I got kicked out of school, of course, because I was just playing music all the time.
Andy Falco: That was the start of all that. Then moving back to New York, Long Island, where I'm from, and started playing in ... God, I was in, I think at one point, eight different bands. One of them was like a Motown band called "Souled Out," S-O-U-L-E-D.
Jeff: Oh, yeah, yep.
Andy Falco: One of them was an original rock band with my friend Arty from high school, who was more of a rock, Neil Young-y kind of songwriter, and we did a bunch of gigs together in a band as the "Harlem Men." Then, of course, I had the blues band, and I had all that stuff. So there was a time when I was just playing as much music as I can with a lot of the older musicians on Long Island as well, and learning a lot.
Andy Falco: Specifically from a guitar player named Donnie Solenzo, who is still out there playing, and he's one of the greatest guitar players I ever saw. And I kinda started really getting ... Watching him, his shows, and getting to hang with them and learn a lot from those guys.
Jeff: That's awesome. And that kinda brings me to the question I get to every guest I have on this show. From just being hungry for music in junior high school and playing in a bunch of bands, to college, to beyond, to now. Everything that the Stringdusters have achieved. What fuels you specifically to keep writing, playing, and doing your thing?
Andy Falco: That's a great question, and it's obviously a lot of work, and it's a lot of sacrifice. You're away from your family. And now, we're not kids anymore. We have wives and there's children involved, so you're spending a lot of time away from home, and it is sort of a lifestyle. So that was a great question. What keeps you going?
Andy Falco: Well, I think it kinda goes back to when we're talking about writing this album, which has a very positive message to it. A message of hope. And I think part of that comes from ... Not to get corny on it, or anything, but we live in really fucked up times right now, and things are crazy. The divisiveness, and it's gotten really dark. No matter how you look at it.
Andy Falco: It becomes evident to us that, with shows, you look out into the audience, and everybody's smiling, and everybody's having a good time. And we're smiling, we're having a good time. And you're looking around at people, and nobody's divided. People are together, and you really do feel like this work has become maybe more important than ever before in our lifetime of doing this, just because it's so important to bring people together. Those opportunities have become so far and few between, because people are too busy yelling at each other on Facebook or disagreeing about shit, or freaking out. And it's important work for all bands to get out and just have a place for people to go, and all unify for a few hours about one thing, and all get together and feel that positive energy. I think it's so important.
Andy Falco: I think that really is what drives the desire to get out and live on a tour bus, as much as we do. Which is like living on a fishing boat. There's twelve bunks in there with eleven people. But we love it. We wouldn't do it any other way. And I think the love for it, with the desire to wanna be feeling like we're doing something that's good for the world by bringing positive energy, bringing people together, along with all of touring bands that are out there, I think. It's important work.
Jeff: Yeah, I totally agree, and that's an awesome answer. And I kinda wanted to ask you at the end, here, with the music industry the way that it is, the way the world is, even, a lot of people are looking towards positivity, and music is one of those avenues that's amazing. Do you have any advice for the younger generation out there that might wanna be trying to break into the music industry? Or the bluegrass industry as a whole?
Andy Falco: I think people should just be genuine. I think that's what it all comes down to, is people look for ... You can't trick people into doing something for any other reason than what's ultimately, genuinely coming from your heart as an artist. You just can't trick people. I don't think I could go out and convincingly do some kind of style of music, or sing songs about stuff that I don't feel strongly about, because it just wouldn't be convincing. It just becomes words and sounds.
Andy Falco: And I think audiences are really in tune with that. As we've evolved, I think a big part of our evolution was looking inward more at ourselves, and becoming more and more and more and more genuinely ourselves. And that is what, I think, becomes communicative to people. And all artists that I see that are doing well are all people who are just playing real honest, genuine music and singing real honest, genuine songs. And I think people look for that. So that would be my advice.
Jeff: Excellent. Excellent. Well, I am so excited for your new record, which premieres on April 5th, just on the heels of this episode, actually coming out.
Andy Falco: Yeah, man.
Jeff: [inaudible 00:24:58] full length studio album, it's on the heels of ... And by the way, congratulations on last year's Grammy win. That's amazing.
Andy Falco: Thank you, thank you.
Jeff: I gotta ask real quick. Did that get into your head at all, coming into this album?
Andy Falco: Well, I'd be lying if there wasn't a thought of ... We felt really good about Laws of Gravity when we made that. We're really proud of that album. And when we started to make this record, it was like ... After that, we have to deem it at least as good as that.
Andy Falco: Whether or not it gets to critical acclaim, that doesn't even matter. Really, what matters is that we feel like we put out something that's as good or better than that. You kinda have to have that, because, just for your own self as evolution. You don't wanna go backwards.
Andy Falco: But at the end of the day, really, the end of the day, next morning, after the party wears off a little bit, next day. You get back to writing songs, and you get back to searching for the real important messages that you're feeling that you wanna try to get out into a song, and I think that's ultimately what happens.
Andy Falco: But yeah, you have a little bit that you're kind of like ... You know.
Jeff: No, I get it. But that's really inspiring that you guys stay true to who you are, and you're learning. Like you've said, throughout a decade plus, you guys have learned even more of who you are, and it shows with every record that you come out with. So I'm really excited for this new record, and obviously, you guys are gonna be on tour for the better part of this year. I was looking at your tour dates, and on your website, as well, which I'm gonna put in this episode. But do you guys social media? What's the best way to follow the journey of you guys through social media?
Andy Falco: Well, there's a lot of places. We have the, of course, Instagram, Stringdusters. We have Facebook, we have a YouTube channel, which, actually, I just started doing a weekly vlog on there.
Andy Falco: So we'll have episode seven coming out this week, and it's every Wednesday. And people can go and subscribe to that channel, and I just kinda chronicle what our days are like. Sometimes I'm hanging out with other musicians. Like the last one, I did an impromptu set with David Bromberg at a rural tavern near my house. Sometimes, it's us at soundcheck. Whatever. Just gives people a real inside look at what we're doing.
Andy Falco: So they can subscribe to our YouTube channel, but really, it's all those. We're everywhere on the socials.
Jeff: Excellent. And I'll put that all in this episode as well. Congrats on all your success, and I look forward to the future of everything that you guys are bringing out.
Andy Falco: Thank you.
Jeff: And I'm really excited to hear what's next for you guys.
Andy Falco: Hey, man. Thanks for taking the time. It's been a pleasure.