“We’re not a bluegrass band. You can’t help think about roots music, but it would be something more from ‘Bitches Brew’ than anything Bill Monroe ever did,” says Supermule banjo and dobro player Jim Chayka, alluding to the seminal 1970 Miles Davis jazz-fusion album.
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Yet, the band name itself evokes so much about the traditional artform founded in the early 1900s Appalachia and popularized by Monroe, the late, great father of bluegrass, with songs such as “Mule Skinner Blues.”
“A mule is an odd animal,” says Chayka. “It’s a crossbreed and so are we. We are an amalgamation and blending of so many different strains of music, it seemed like the right totem animal for us to bring all of our personalities and backgrounds into it.”
Supermule formed in 2007 on an assortment of American roots music ranging from bluegrass to jazz, classical, funk and rhythm and blues.
Years ago, Chayka played in 49 Special, a traditional bluegrass band that won the RockyGrass Festival Band Competition in 2009. Although the group went their separate ways not too long after the honor, it provided a springboard to future musical opportunities for the band members.
Guitarist Dan Booth started the ever-popular Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen. Fiddler Alisa Rose formed the Grammy-nominated Quartet San Francisco and recorded with Feist. For his part, Chayka worked as tour manager for heterogeneous world artist, Michelle Shocked.
“I had just gotten back from that tour with Michelle where I was exposed to a lot of different music,” he says. “I was interested in eclectic sounds and how to collaborate deeper within the San Francisco scene. In bluegrass, we can kind of be isolated and not cross over. I wanted to explore that in my hometown by jamming with a bunch of different people.”
Enter Front Country bassist Zac Sharpe and five-time California Bluegrass Association Guitar Player of the Year Yoseff Tucker of The Bow Ties, which won the RockyGrass band contest last year. Bring back a now well-seasoned Rose. Then add Ubiquity Records producer and multi-instrumentalist Nino Moschella along with world-touring keyboard virtuoso Mike Emerson and what you’ve got is one heck of a Supermule.
While the sextet may flow seamlessly between genres during its energetic live performances, bluegrass has always been the common denominator.
“As a musical construction it’s super accessible,” says Chayka. “It’s one of the most basic forms. Even though traditional bluegrass may have more of a boom-chuck feel to it, something also allows the music to swing. The rhythm lends itself to be altered in creative ways. It can be funky if you play with certain accents.”
Supermule’s six-song 2012 EP “Northern White Clouds” stays true to this philosophy with its a charismatic mix of vocal harmonies, jazzy jams, folk songs and funky drumming.
“What makes it appealing is that the themes are so timeless,” says Chayka. “You still feel you are tapped into older versions of these songs while so much of that resonates today and carries those themes forward in different directions.”
The group’s long-awaited follow-up, “Pretty Little Birds,” released earlier this year takes this formula a step further. The album cover features a worn-out rubber duck perched happily alone in a nest of sticks. The item was a lawn ornament in Chayka’s yard that happened to catch his attention one day late into the recording process.
“It seemed like it was in the right place at the right time and captured something about [the title track],” says Chayka. “It’s kitschy and cute on the outside yet weathered as the years went by. There are a few layers of wear and tear that allude to the themes of the music.”
The resultant album is a moving, expressive, open exploration of modern consciousness through long-abiding argot tinged with world-weary lilt.
“Unintentionally this music is a little bit darker, so there’s a little bit of irony in the ‘Pretty Little Birds’ title,” he says. “It’s a lonesome, emotional emptiness and other themes like that. But I think there is optimism and rowdiness or energy in there, too. It’s not self-pitying or anything like that. I just think it’s part of our zeitgeist right now, that there is a little bit of sadness and despondency that seems like a strain in society and the lyrics are an extension of that.” | alibialeworks.com