“This all started as a series of jam sessions in the kitchen,” says Joe Funk, bassist for the breakout progressive bluegrass band Kitchen Dwellers. “We were getting together to play covers and traditional music and old-time tunes for fun after school, and everything else just really evolved from there.”
For Kitchen Dwellers, "everything else,” as Funk so modestly puts it, has been nothing short of remarkable. In the near decade they’ve been together, the Montana-based four-piece has performed for thousands at Red Rocks, shared bills with the likes of Railroad Earth, The Infamous String Dusters, and Twiddle, graced festival stages from Northwest String Summit to WinterWonderGrass, and transcended traditional genre boundaries, blending virtuosic bluegrass wizardry with ecstatic rock and roll energy and adventurous psychedelia. With their spectacular new album, ‘Muir Maid,’ the group has come fully into their own, seamlessly blending the past, present, and future of string band music to create their most daring and collaborative work yet.
“This is the first record with all four of us contributing to the writing together,” says guitarist Max Davies, “and the songs really reflect that. You can hear each of our different backgrounds and influences in the music, and you can also hear how much we’ve grown in the last few years, both as individuals and as a band.”
While much of that growth can be traced to the group’s relentless tour schedule, they’re also quick to credit the influence of The Infamous Stringdusters’ Chris Pandolfi, who produced ‘Muir Maid’ and helped the band reach new heights in the studio and beyond.
“We call it The Panda Effect,” says banjo player Torrin Daniels. “Just by hanging out with a musician like Chris, you absorb what he says and how he approaches songs, and all of the sudden you’re a better musician for it.”
‘Muir Maid’ follows Kitchen Dwellers’ acclaimed 2017 LP, ‘Ghost In The Bottle,’ which was produced by Leftover Salmon’s Andy Thorn and featured a slew of special guests, including Little Feat’s Bill Payne and Greensky Bluegrass’s Anders Beck. Tracks from the record racked up more than a million streams on Spotify and garnered rave reviews across the board, with The Huffington Post hailing the band as “a bluegrass phenomenon” and Relix praising the unique way the group’s songwriting “embrac[es] their love of electronica, metal…and everything in between.”
While those wide-ranging influences might not sound like typical fodder for a bluegrass outfit, they’re essential to Kitchen Dwellers’ eclectic identity. Mandolinist Shawn Swain grew up listening to and performing traditional roots music in Colorado, but his bandmates all come from decidedly different backgrounds: Funk studied classical and jazz as a youngster and cites Metallica among his biggest influences; Daniels spent his youth playing drums and listening to punk and metal before he ever picked up a banjo; and Davies found himself drawn to the intersection of rock and jazz, only stumbling upon bluegrass in middle school when he saw Bela Fleck perform live.
“The band came along at a pivotal time for each of us,” says Daniels. “Our tastes were changing and we were discovering all kinds of new stuff. Even before we started performing together, we were all going to tons of shows and becoming part of this tight knit musical community out here.”
While the Appalachians may be recognized as the birthplace of bluegrass, the Rockies boast their own vibrant roots scene, and Montana embraced Kitchen Dwellers from the very beginning.
“Bluegrass started out as music for and by hardworking, rural mountain folks, and that description fits Montanans perfectly,” says Daniels. “You’ve got a be a little tougher to get by out here, which is why I think this music resonates with everybody so much.”
When it came time to cut the new album, Kitchen Dwellers decided to tap into the intoxicating energy of their concerts and record everything live for the first time. They began by holing up in a New Hampshire cabin for a few days of preproduction, working out every detail of the performances and arrangements in advance, and then they headed west to Denver, where they captured the album raw and fast under Pandolfi’s deft direction.
“Chris isn’t the kind of guy who steers the ship,” says Davies. “He’s the kind of guy who helps guide you to a place you didn’t even know you wanted to go. He has this way of getting you to bear down and dig deeper than you ever realized you could.”
That depth is apparent from the outset of ‘Muir Maid,’ with album opener “Shadows” showcasing the band’s dazzling musicianship, airtight harmonies, and transportive storytelling. Like much of the record to come, the track features lightning-fast fretwork and brilliant solos, but far from showing off, the instrumental pyrotechnics here always come in service of the song, a guiding principal for the group.
“The person who wrote a particular tune isn’t always the one who ends up singing it,” says Davies, who shares vocal duties with his bandmates. “We base every decision off of what’s going to be best for the track, and to me, that’s the true definition of collaboration.”
With a title like ‘Muir Maid,’ it should come as little surprise that nature plays an important role on the record. The breezy “Woods Lake” looks back fondly on a life spent outdoors, while the charming “Driftwood” draws on memories of a summer spent kayaking around Alaska, and the rollicking title track pays homage to the boat Funk’s father sailed up the Pacific Northwest coast.
“That’s the kind of bad-assery we like to celebrate,” says Daniels. “I think we saw a lot of parallels to our own sometimes-harrowing journey in that story, as well.”
The trials and tribulations of the road are a frequent theme in Kitchen Dwellers’ songwriting. The jaunty “Broken Cage” spins a cowboy tail of life on the trail, while “The Comet” tackles the challenges of maintaining human connection when you’re always on the move, and the introspective “Phaedrus” takes its title from former Montana State University professor Robert Pirsig’s philosophical road-trip classic ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ Perhaps, though, it’s “The Living Dread,” a song with no lyrics at all, that best encapsulates what Kitchen Dwellers are all about.
“That song is a perfect example of the way our different musical backgrounds can all come together as one,” says Funk. “The intro starts with this electronic dub vibe, and then it goes into a metal-influenced section, and then it turns reggae and moves into bluegrass and works its way back to dub by the end. It showcases everyone’s own little flavor.”
When you’re a band born in the kitchen, flavor is everything.