As it turns out, the details behind the making of Tornillo, the latest studio record from The Lil Smokies which was released to the world last Friday, are almost as beautiful as the album itself. The band recorded the new one down in the town it’s named after, Tornillo, Texas, at a revered recording space called Sonic Ranch Studio. As Matthew Rieger, guitarist for The Lil Smokies, explained to The Poke Around in a recent interview, the recording process here was a transcendent experience for the band.
If you’re not yet familiar with the band, this is a five piece progressive jamgrass band that seems poised to take over the bluegrass world at any moment. Their live shows explode with energy and emotion, and their sublimely crafted music fuels the fire behind those explosions. Tornillo, as Rieger himself confidently assured to us, is the latest evidence to this fact, with the record feeling like the band’s best accomplishment yet.
Our interview with Rieger comes from a little while back, not too long after the completion of the record, and before the band had set out on the road for their extensive 2020 Winter Tour.
The Poke Around: Hey, Matthew! Thanks for talking today. Where am I catching you right now?
Matthew Rieger: I am sitting in a vehicle right now, because the rest of the boys are sleeping—which is good, we need all the rest we can get. That’s one of the hardest things to get, on the road. But yeah, today we’ve got a day of rehearsal ahead. We’ve had a little break, and by little I mean more than I’m accustomed to. The most important part of these situations for me is to get unified, to get on the same page as a band. And certainly practice, but it’s a mindset that we want to get into, where we’re focused on the music, and being kind to each other, being on the same page as one another. That’s the point of practice and rehearsal, for me at least. To get on the same page and to really get unified.
Does that usually involve a certain process? Do you go about it a certain way?
Well, it varies, depending on what we’re preparing for. In this case, we are preparing for the new record, being released shortly, and preparing to play some of those new tunes live. Some of them we have played live, but the ones we haven’t yet, I want to get them ready, and move them from the abstract to reality. They’ve existed for awhile now, but only on the recordings. The transition to reality is going to be great for them, and I think they’re going to evolve now even as we start to play them live.
So I’ve seen you guys perform live a couple of times before. The first time was at FloydFest a couple years ago. I had no idea who you were but your reputation proceeded you.
Ooh, that’s good to hear.
Yeah! And I remember walking up to your set and the energy just being unreal.
Haha, that’s very kind of you to say. And we love that festival. We love Floydfest. But yeah, the mark of a live band that I enjoy—I won’t even say a good band or a bad one, just a live band that I enjoy—is that they take liberty in being in the moment, and creating something unique to that experience. Within the parameters of something that is familiar to the people, so they have something to latch onto. That’s what I love the most. But I also love being completely surprised at a concert. But when I see a band relaxing and letting go and making art, not just playing notes, those are the shows that I will look back on for the rest of my life and will be so grateful to have seen. And I like to try and do that with The Lil Smokies.
Honestly, it amazes me that you achieve that level of letting go, that risk taking, considering how hard you guys go sometimes. I remember wondering how you guys even keep up with yourselves.
Hahaha. I don’t know how I keep up with these guys, that’s for sure. It’s crazy.
Don’t think, I guess. Just go.
Yeah, exactly. You know, that’s a good way to look at your life, I think. Commit to something that brings you joy, follow it, and just hold on as best you can.
So, Tornillo. A gorgeous record end to end. I’m reading that you wrote a few of the songs personally for the record?
Well, thank you so much. And yeah, well so every song definitely has the fingerprints of all the players in the group. Generally speaking, there is a core songwriter attached to every song. I wrote three of them, Andy Dunnigan our lead singer wrote the bulk of them, Jake Simpson, our fiddle player, wrote one. But what’s brought in is the core of a tune, a synopsis, and then everyone writes a Lil Smokies’ song. There’s no one person that can write a Lil Smokies’ song. And that’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process with the boys. I’ve come in before with no lyrics, and a very broad idea of the chords, then I say “ok, let’s play this thing the best we can.” Then I take it back and redo stuff that I think is going to be more suited to what the group is going to play. So everyones responsible for what happened on Tornillo. But I am proud to say that I wrote three songs that made it onto the record, and I hope that people love them.
Would you say, listening to them yourself, that you’re happy with how the songs came out?
I don’t think I could be any happier. Whenever a band goes into the studio, there are going to be things you’d wish you’d done differently, you know, nothing’s perfect. But I can say, looking back on Tornillo, that we went in with open minds and creative spirits. And came out with something that represents a little piece of ourselves, and what we want to be as a group. In a way I don’t know if I’ve done, thus far. It’s a level of creativity and stream of consciousness that I’ve not experienced before. We went in as a group and played these songs all in one room together. So you experience what it’s like to be at a Lil Smokies show more so than the other records. Tornillo is a really great example of what we sound like live, and who we are as people, but also in this very clean and controlled environment. You get this nice clean sound out of us. Whereas live, we can get a little dirty, haha.
So we went and created this live feel, and then we went and added to it, whatever our hearts desired. We had a great couple of folks in Mauro Castro and Bill Reynolds, the producer and engineer. It was a scenario in which we could follow our hearts and ears to no end. “What do you want to do here?” Bill would ask. And I would say, “I want to play keyboards,” and he’d say, “Okay, Naldo, let’s get the Nord.” We felt so comfortable and free. This was done at Sonic Ranch, which I couldn’t speak highly enough of. An incredible studio, and Tony is a saint of a man.
The headline here is that you get the feel of a live Lil Smokies show with the untethered creativity of a studio record. That’s how I felt. The limitations were only what I could play, there were no limitations as to what was available to us. And I hear that on the record, and I’ll be grateful for that for the rest of my life.
Sounds like a situation where imagination, also, is the only limit. That’s inspiring, when you hear about an artist getting to bring something envisioned in their mind to fruition.
Yeah, exactly. There’s an album by Frankie Goes To Hollywood called Welcome to the Pleasuredome. The opening track, “The World is My Oyster,” it’s got these lyrics like, “superstars never stop, even when they reach the top.” That was the kind of vibe I got from working on Tornillo at this studio, this vibe of “You can do it.” Which, so the record is named after the town where the studio is located, and I’d love to go back. It’s a magical place.
Right, definitely meant to ask you about that. Did you have the name of the record going in, or was it a decision made, then, after this transformative experience?
Okay, so I will try and do my best to tell this story. Let’s see…so we did not have a name going in. I really like to take time and let whatever can happen organically, and without influence, happen in that way. Sometimes you have to force things, it is business, in the end. Sometimes you do have to just make decisions and do things. But whenever possible, I like things to happen organically. So we didn’t have a name, and in fact, the last track on the record, which is called “Tornillo,” was really not even written. We had a framework and an idea. Andy wrote that one, it’s my favorite song on the record. I don’t even know what lyrics were written before the studio, I believe he wrote a lot of them at the ranch. And it was one that we had tried out at rehearsals, and I think the comment was that it was sounding like a Ken Burns soundtrack. Which is not in and of itself really a bad thing, I love the films of Ken Burns and I love the sounds there. But it didn’t feel right.
Well one night Andy and I were having some fun, not taking anything seriously for a moment, which is actually a really great place to be for art, if you ask me. We were just kind of goofing around at the piano, trying out this song. And then I looked over at Andy and said, “We’ve got to track this tonight. It’s gotta happen.” And he agreed. He said, “Yes, we’re doing this.” Then we started recording with Bill, who was all on board. It took us awhile, we didn’t know what we were doing, haha. We just started playing. And then we got a take that really felt nice. Then Jake came in and played, so it was just the three of us, piano, fiddle, and vocals. And the Andy says, “Well what about some guitar here, something coming in on the bridge, here?” And then we just went for it, and let whatever we heard happen. So, there’s some string parts on there, some horn parts on there, there’s a drum. Things that we had not incorporated prior to this. I get goosebumps thinking about that night.
So is that one of the songs that is yet to be played live?
Yep, we have not played it live yet. In fact, now I have to relearn how to play the piano, hahaha. If we’re going to be playing it live, I got myself kind of into a pickle. I grew up playing piano in the church. I no longer claim to any sort of religion or practice, but I will forever be grateful for those times where I learned so much. But I have not played piano professionally for a very long time, or really ever professionally—only in church, and in sessions. On stage, I haven’t played in fifteen years. So we shall see!
This tour should be fun then!
Oh yeah, it will be fun. Not to be cliche, but expect the unexpected. Expect to see a transitionary band, which is what we are right now. But that’s just life, you know? We are a transitionary species, transitioning through life. And that’s what Tornillo is, an evolutionary jump in who we are as a group.
Another question I’m dying to ask—I read that you got to use one of Billy Gibbons’ guitars on the album?
Yeah! Actually, so far as I know, there were two. So, Tony at Sonic Ranch is a memorable man. He has a lot of passion. I think his affinity for fast cars is cool. His affinity for fast guitars is cool. I enjoyed watching him ice a birthday cake with a samurai sword quickly and accurately. And one of the other things he loves is memorable instruments, and he’s a fountain of knowledge about his gear, too. I would guess that he could go through his entire studio and tell you a little story, or a long story, about every single item. But two of the items—I don’t remember the year, one I think it’s called a Gibson Futura, similar to an an explorer. It’s an interesting body shape. And then a gold top Les Paul. The specifications of the instruments are not the important part, I think. The most important part of any instrument, or any studio or any person, is the experiences had. That’s what makes anything.
And since we’re talking about these specific guitars, well I went and looked at pictures of Billy Gibbons playing these guitars, they were actually played on stage with ZZ Top. And you feel that. You feel the experience of an instrument. What I felt with those was grit. And Rock and Roll. I played Rock and Roll for years, I know that Jake has played Rock and Roll. It’s not exactly what we do, but we all love Rock and Roll so much. And that’s why I think those guitars fit into the mix, into the songs, so well.
Well I’m excited to see you guys live again. I’ll be catching you guys most likely in New York City, my neck of the woods. At Knitting Factory. You guys played there last time, and I didn’t catch it but I convinced my friend to go. She sent me a text halfway through the night that simply read: “These guys are even better than The Infamous Stringdusters!”
Oh man, hahaha. I can’t say that I agree with that statement, but I’m honored to hear it. We love those guys, they’re dear friends of ours, and they’ve been great influences.
The Lil Smokies’ tour continues tonight with a show at The Independent in San Francisco, CA. See the full list of tour dates below, and for more information head to their website at http://www.thelilsmokies.com.
Jan 30 – San Francisco, CA – The Independent ^
Jan 31 – Morro Bay, CA – The Siren ^
Feb 1 – Los Angeles, CA – Lodge Room ^
Feb 5 – Beaver Creek, CO – Vilar Performing Arts Center
Feb 6 – Feb 7 – Durango, CO – Animas City Theatre
Feb 8 – Taos, NM – Taos Mesa Brewing
Feb 9 – Crested Butte, CO – Public House
Feb 12 – Aspen, CO – Belly Up
Feb 13 – Fort Collins, CO – Washington’s
Feb 14 – Boulder, CO – eTown Hall
Feb 15 – Salt Lake City, UT – The State Room
Feb 16 – Park City, UT – O.P. Rockwell
Feb 29 – Copper Mountain, CO – Subaru WinterFest
Mar 5 – Philadelphia, PA – Boot & Saddle
Mar 6 – Brooklyn, NY – Knitting Factory
Mar 7 – Washington D.C. – 9:30 Club *
Mar 8 – Charlottesville, VA – The Southern
Mar 11 – Boston, MA – The Sinclair
Mar 12 – Burlington, VT – Higher Ground Lounge
Mar 13 – Northampton, MA – The Parlor Room
Mar 14 – Jay, VT – Jay Peak Resort
Mar 27 – Mar 29 – Squaw Valley, CA – WinterWonderGrass Tahoe
Apr 8 – Madison, WI – High Noon Saloon
Apr 9 – Apr 10 – St. Paul, MN – Turf Club
Apr 11 – Steamboat Springs, CO – Bud Light Rocks the Boat
Apr 15 – Indianapolis, IN – Hi-Fi
Apr 16 – Nashville, TN – Basement East
Apr 16 – Apr 19 – Harrodsburg, KY – Cabin Fever Reliever
Apr 17 – Chicago, IL – Schubas (2 shows)
Apr 23 – Louisville, KY – Zanzabar ^^
Apr 24 – Pittsburgh, PA – Club Cafe
Apr 24 – Apr 25 – Baltimore, MD – Charm City Bluegrass Festival
Jul 9 – Jul 11 – Snowshoe, WV – 4848 Festival
Jul 18 – Jul 19 – Whitefish, MT – Under The Big Sky Festival
Jul 24 – Jul 26 – Lyons, CO – RockyGrass Festival
^ w/ Brent Cowles
* w/ Joe Pug
^^ w/ Town Mountain