NORTH ADAMS -- The Deadly Gentleman started off as Greg Liszt's side project, giving him something to do when his main band, Crooked Still, wasn't performing. Now it's become so much more.
The band will perform tonight at 10 as part of the Freshgrass Festival at Mass MoCA.
"It went on like that for a couple of years, until Crooked Still went on a hiatus," Liszt said, "which was originally just supposed to be a year but has now turned into more like a year and a half or two years. In the meantime, I've just been doing Deadly Gentlemen full time."
Liszt recruited his bandmates in the Deadly Gentlemen while he was on tour with Crooked Still, with the idea that the opportunity to perform different material with different players might compliment the more traditional style of Crooked Still.
"Traveling around on tour, I was always on the lookout for progressive, young, instrumentalists who play bluegrass instruments," said Liszt. "I just gradually met all these guys in my travels across the country, and then the band formed pretty organically after that."
The bluegrass scene is geared to meeting up and having musical conversations.
"The world of bluegrass is not that big, so whenever somebody pops up who's good at playing one of these instruments -- the mandolin or the fiddle or the upright bass or something -- we meet each other right away," Liszt said. "That's one of the really cool things about a festival like Freshgrass, these national festivals are the main meeting place for bluegrass musicians all over the country. Most of the other members of DG I met at various festivals across the country."
Liszt began playing the banjo at age 15 and, though his interests at the time were more varied than just bluegrass, it was inevitable he take to that style.
"You can never really get that far away from bluegrass if you're a banjo player, no matter how diverse your style is," he said. "It's always going to have a bit of that twang that just reminds people of something organic that is frequently called bluegrass. And I think that's a really good thing. I guess I've been associated with bluegrass all along."
He knew immediately that banjo was something he would like to pursue professionally, but he didn't have any real work playing and was doing well enough in school that he thought it wise to take that route in life and carry his banjo along with him.
"I was really interested in biology," said Liszt. "I went to college at Yale and then I got a Ph.D. in biology from MIT. All the while I was playing a lot of banjo on the side, and performing around town, locally, and it was midway through graduate school that I got my first band, Crooked Still, together and we started getting more and more gigs all over the place. By the time I was finishing graduate school, it was pretty clear that I should just do music full-time. It's not necessarily the career path I would recommend for any other aspiring musicians, but it worked pretty well for me."
Liszt says that while he doesn't think his science education has influenced his music in any direct way, his understanding of, and experience with, scientific method has informed the way Deadly Gentleman functions.
"I do always think of DG as an experimental project on some level. We're always trying to find new things for ourselves to do and play. In that respect, my approach to leading the band is very much like the approach I would have taken if I were leading a small research group or something, in the respect that we're always trying new things and moving in the direction of things that work and moving away from the things that don't work."
The band does like to experiment, but Liszt says that the vocal stylings tend to offer the biggest changes from album to album, more than any other aspect of the music. The evolution began with a distinct vocal style on their first album.
"It was a mix between rap and a spoken word monologue," Liszt said. "We've changed a bit from original banjo rap days. There's no spoken word or rapping on the latest album. We still revisit a lot of that material in concert. We try to make our concerts as diverse as possible, given the fact that we play five bluegrass instruments and you have to try pretty hard to differentiate songs from one another. We end up revisiting some banjo rap songs and playing some instrumentals the other guys in the band have written."
"Our previous release, ‘Carry Me To Home,' featured this unconventional gang vocal style that was really fun to record, and it's still really fun to do those songs live.
"We didn't use a lead singer on that album, we just all chimed in with these very highly coordinated arrangements that featured everything from shouting to three-part harmony to rapping in harmony to oohs and ahhs to singing, and everything in between. The vocal style on the newest album is more convention, pretty much straight three part harmony all the way through."
Liszt counts the diversity among the players as a major part of the band's strength and appeal. Guitar player Stash Wyslouch brings an unexpected connection to heavy metal into the mix.
"He had a heavy metal childhood," said Liszt. "He somehow manages to bridge a gap between heavy metal and bluegrass in a way that feels quite natural and has a lot of energy. It's cool, it's a really interesting approach, because a lot of bands that bring that energy to bluegrass play thrashgrass, which is loud and fast and not necessarily virtuosic. Stash's thrashing is always grounded in quite a bit of virtuosity, which I personally appreciate a lot."
Another band member brings his own modern edge with some legitimate lineage -- bass player Sam Grisman is the son of legendary mandolin player David Grisman.
"He has this feel that you can't really get unless you've been trained since birth by David Grisman, which was actually the case for Sam," Liszt said. "He just has a really exceptional feel for all different kinds of acoustic music, everything from traditional bluegrass to rock music played on bluegrass instruments to Grateful Dead covers, he always has just the perfect feel, the main thing you're looking for in a bass player. He also brings a credibility to the band. If we cover a Grateful Dead song or a David Grisman song, there's a little more substance there, just because of what it means in Sam's life and his upbringing."
With a more melodic and easier listening experience for the latest record, the band continues to offer their own take on bluegrass, one that walks a line between traditional and forward movement. Given who they are and when the band exists, it couldn't be any other way, and the band is careful to not be something it isn't.
"Our band is obsessed with traditional bluegrass. The Gentleman's favorite band overall is the Stanley Brothers, which is funny because we don't really play such traditional bluegrass ourselves. We definitely like it and listen to it a ton, and respect it a lot."
"But also we're not the Stanley Brothers. We didn't grow up on Clinch Mountain in 1932, so I guess we don't feel like we own traditional bluegrass on that level, and for that, we leave it to people who do. It's fun to dabble in it and play the traditional bluegrass song, just for kicks. If there's one thing we're always trying to do, it's be ourselves."
The Deadly Gentlemen can be found online at deadlygentlemen.com.