If the album notes for “Back from the Middle” are any indication, when Flatt Cheddar met for their interview Tuesday night, the progressive bluegrass band seemed to be short a person.
The members joked that they had only had the current lineup for six to eight hours.
Mandolin player Sean Raming had sent a mass text to his bandmates earlier that day. Rather than going back and forth, he was moving to Alaska permanently, it said.
“One of the best parts about the text message was he wrote ‘have a nice day’ at the end,” guitar player Gordon Sevee said.
Only two original members remain in the now four-piece; banjo player Andrew Schauer and Sevee. When the original bassist left, the band recruited Scott Stebbins, of the Bridger Creek Boys. Then, they replaced another female singer who moved with fiddle player Emilie Phelps. Dobro player Nash Reilly, who is also featured on the album recorded this spring, moved to Boston to pursue an electrical engineering career.
“With a band all in their young 20s, it’s inevitable that a bunch of people would move,” Schauer said.
Most of the members seemed to be taking it in stride. Phelps, however, said it felt somewhat like a breakup.
“I burst out crying, then roamed my living room shouting expletives,” she said.
As the conversation roamed, the band talked about various influences – Punch Brothers, Infamous Stringdusters, Joy Kills Sorrow and even friend and uber-fan Alex Marienthal. They discussed dynamics of their relationship, how the group interactions often sound like snippets from a comedic roast and how each has been given a name that would normally be associated with the opposite sex.
Each member’s musical history came into play, with Helena-native Stebbins’ and Santa Monica, Calif.- native Phelps’ discussing classical training and how it led them to bluegrass. As a counselor at the Arrow Bear music camp Phelps’ saw the students in the jazz and improve-bases sessions chose to play together on breaks. She saw an intrinsic motivation there that led her to branch out musically.
“You have more power in the band that you do in an orchestra,” she said.
Stebbins and Vermont-bred Sevee were both in self-described “really crappy” ska bands in high school, though Sevee’s father was a bluegrass banjo player. Stebbins’ bass teacher told him the Bridger Creek Boys were looking for a new bass player weeks after he had approached them about the possibility.
Schauer, who decided he wanted to play banjo in high school, said with all the members’ varying interests there is one common thread – bluegrass.
The members discussed the impetus behind their name. Flatt Cheddar is credited to a friend who decided it would be a fun band name while wandering the cheese aisle in the grocery store. It contrasts sharp cheddar, references music and plays homage to bluegrass great Lester Flatt of The Foggy Mountain Boys.
They discussed their sound using traditional bluegrass instrumentation and messing with the key and time signatures, the wildly varying songwriting process and the story behind such tracks as Sucker Punch (it was Schauer who felt the brunt of that one).
But the conversation kept coming back to Raming.
“I think Sean recruited every one of us,” Phelps said.
She met Raming at a party, where he was playing guitar and invited him to jam. Eventually, he would be the one to invite her to play with the group.
“Sean just pulled me aside in the music department one time and told me to come play this gig,” said Stebbins, who studied music technology.
Schauer knew Raming from the dorms before he even started playing mandolin. Sevee was in on initial talks about starting the band with Reilly and Raming.
While the members of Flatt Cheddar lament the move of a friend and loss of a bandmate, they turn toward the future. They will not actively seek a replacement mandolin player, unless Sam Bush or Chris Thile come calling.
“Just because he’s not playing doesn’t change the overall goal,” Stebbins said. “It just sucks.”
That goal, he said, is to go on the road.
“See the country,” Sevee chimed in.
“I want to see all the major cities in the country while playing music,” Stebbins said.
“While playing our music,” Schauer amended.
This week, Flatt Cheddar will play a block party, then join the John Adam Smith Band at the Zebra Cocktail Lounge on Friday, Sept. 6, at 9 p.m., the Stellablue Music Festival on Saturday, Sept. 7, at 4 p.m., the Bogert Farmers Market on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 5 p.m., and opening for Loren Madsen Walker & The Hustlers at the Filling Station on Wednesday, Sept. 11, at 9 p.m.
Rachel Hergett may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2603.