By Brian Tucker
Asheville, N.C. bluegrass band Fireside Collective will perform twice in one day June 3rd in Wilmington, an early show at Burnt Mill Creek and later in the evening at Jimmy’s at Red Dog’s on Wrightsville Beach. Two shows in one day are a rarity for them but they’ll be shaping sets accordingly. Led by Jesse Iaquinto’s soaring, refined vocals and fiery playing, the band adheres to traditional sounds while moving forward with hints of other genres in their playing.
Below band members Tommy Maher and Jesse Iaquinto discuss some of their songs, recording their recent album Life Between the Lines at East Tennessee University, and covering Paul Simon.
Are two shows atypical for the band and will you work different sets that day?
Tommy: It’s rare we play two shows in one day, but it happens from time to time. One advantage we have, because the band has all acoustic instruments, is that we can cater to different venues and crowds based on the vibe we get. If it’s real rowdy and rocking we can plug in and get funky with our pedals and get the crowd dancing, but if it’s a listening crowd we can do the old-school single mic setup and still put on an entertaining and high energy show.
Smaller, more intimate sets, are they more fun, more constructive, for the band?
Tommy: We definitely like playing any type of show where the crowd is involved and interactive. In smaller rooms with a quiet crowd, we can really work the dynamics and go from very soft to quite loud, and it has a cool effect that is harder to achieve when you’re plugged in playing for a packed party crowd. We tend to talk more with the audience at smaller shows, since a lot of times they are interested in the back story behind the songs, and the history of the band, and the story of all the members. It’s more intimate, more personal. However, the rocking shows allow us to just rock out which can also be very rewarding.
“The Shadows & the Dreams” song illustrates taking bluegrass further. Energetic and fun, it’s a stark sounding song.
Iaquinto: “The Shadows and the Dreams” is a song about things coming to an end. But it offers a different perspective, namely, one that invites the listener to focus on the joys of the experience and not the actual ending of it. The song is basically an invitation to take a different perspective on the experiences we face and how we cope with them. Everyone we share our time with has an effect on us, and in many ways, these interactions shape who we become. The shadows and the dreams are the memories and reveries that hold those past thoughts and feelings, mainly in the subconscious mind.
How did “Revelations” come about? Was it a desire to maybe help everyone ‘come down to earth’ a little, to re-connect as people?
Iaquinto: I would say yes, it is an invitation to come back down to earth. It started as a literary experiment with a different rhyme scheme than I was used to using. It deals with concepts that have plagued mankind for ages, specifically the idea of the world coming to an end. Throughout the song it lays out the scenario of a possible apocalyptic event, but by the end, asks the listener not to focus on the fear and anxiety that that could potentially produce, but to look at our precious time here on earth. With this short time here, we might as well learn to love one another and make the world a more peaceful place, rather than focus on when and how the end might come.
You recorded Life Between the Lines at East Tennessee State University. Why there and what did it afford the band?
Iaquinto: Our guitar player, Joe Cicero, was attending school there at the time studying bluegrass and old-time music. When we began talking about our next album, he mentioned that the school had a great recording studio and some knowledgeable staff to assist in the process. As we looked into it further, we learned that the rate we could use the studio was greatly reduced due to the fact that one of our members was enrolled at school there. So the first major benefit was definitely financial, especially considering the enormous cost of recording a full length album in a studio.
The program itself is well known for providing a thorough understanding of bluegrass music and the students tend to graduate and go on to join established bands within the bluegrass and country realm. This made it easy to find session players who were eager to get some studio time in. In turn, we featured a number of students from the college, saved a whole bunch of money, and developed a positive working relationship with the university.
I think today you’re sharing the bill with Marcus King Band. Playing fests, larger showcases, do you interact with performers in other genres, connecting with them musically?
Tommy: It’s surprising how musicians from very different genres actually have a lot in common. Talking with some members from Marcus King’s band, I realized that we all have similar tour stories, a passion for what we do, and a mutual affection for our fans. We do our best to interact with as many bands as we can, and learn from people who have been doing this for longer than we have. Though we play what most consider bluegrass, it’s amazing how many compliments we get from rock n’ roll bands.
You’ve got a busy schedule playing and travelling. How do you maintain healthy stamina?
Tommy: It definitely feels like a blur sometimes, but we love visiting new places and will take a day to hang in the towns we play, if time allows. Eating right, getting sleep, and maintaining a healthy line of communication between the band members are all very important for band and personal well-being. Each member has different ways of staying sane on the road. I think a lot of people are naive to how difficult life on the road is, but the reward is that we get to express ourselves through music and make people smile all over the country, which is priceless.
Playing the instruments you do, namely violin or mandolin, will you always be learning, that instruments still have something new to teach? Can playing a cover, such as “You Can Call Me Al” highlight that?
Iaquinto: Absolutely. We are always experimenting with taking our traditional instruments into different genres. Everything from funk, to jazz, to classic rock, reggae, and even 90’s alternative rock, we love see what sounds we can create. “You Can Call Me Al” was one of the first covers we worked out in this band and we tried to do it very close to the original studio version. We have mandolin, Dobro, and banjo playing parts that are written for horns, but it works surprisingly well.
Throughout the song, we weave in and out of the bluegrass rhythm. We learned a lot about arrangement as well as the capabilities of our instruments. Lately, we’ve been going even further and trying out songs with completely different rhythms. On the mandolin in particular, it’s fun to imitate the snare drum and the hi-hat, as well as pick up on guitar riffs.
Or “Nine Pound Hammer.” I’ve heard that approached different ways. Why do you think that song remains a standard in bluegrass and what about it resonates with you, musically or even historically?
Iaquinto: “Nine Pound Hammer” is and has been one of my favorite bluegrass songs for a while. To me, it is a perfect example of bluegrass. It has an upbeat rhythm with many opportunities for improvisational solos on the various instruments. If you listen to the lyrics, you find that it focuses on one of America’s favorite folk heroes, John Henry. John Henry represents the human aspect in the battle between fast moving industrialization and the role of humans in an ever changing world.
When it was written, we were just entering some of the phases of industrialization where machines began replacing many workers. It is a concept that still applies today with computers and machines replacing human workers in large numbers. How do we respond to this? Do we find new ways of work, do we try to keep humans employed where machines could otherwise be used, or do we eventually stop working? “Nine Pound Hammer” maintains relevancy both musically and lyrically and when it boils down to it, it’s just really fun to play!