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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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Cornmeal with jam
'We're out there just attacking our instruments.'
'We're out there just attacking our instruments.'
Credit:brett saul

Like the String Cheese Incident and the Yonder Mountain String Band, Chicago's Cornmeal brings elements of traditional bluegrass to a jam-rock style. During the past year, they've toured in support of their third album, Feet First. Last week I spoke to Cornmeal guitarist Kris Nowak about the band's background and style.

How did this band get started?

We all met when we were playing in two different house bands at a little bar in Chicago that doesn't exist anymore. My brother and I were playing in a Grateful Dead tribute band. The two original members of Cornmeal - Chris Gangi and "Wavy" Dave Burlingame - were in the other. When we all started playing together, we had a lot of passionate debates about the musical direction we would take. At first, it was just supposed to be a traditional bluegrass band, but then we faced the issue of getting heard in a loud bar. That's when we decided to add a drummer.

How is Cornmeal's style different from that of other jamgrass bands?

I would say our high energy is what distinguishes us. We're out there just attacking our instruments. A lot of jam bands have a sound that's happy-go-lucky and sublime. That's not us. Individually, each one of us is looking for that void in the music, that pocket that we can fill - and if it's there, we fill it. We're a little more gravelly, a little more working class. We're about heartbreak and sorrow and drinking, which I think is consistent with the character of original bluegrass.

Your brother is Cornmeal's drummer. Do you come from a musical family?

Neither of my parents was very musical, but my mom is a Slovenian immigrant, and she forced me and my brothers to be part of one of these Croatian music clubs for kids. So two nights a week, all through our childhood, we'd gather with a group of other families and the kids would perform. One night was singing and dancing. The other was for playing instruments. They'd put you in these funny clothes, and you'd feel jealous when you'd see your friends going off to play baseball.

What's the difference between Cormeal's recorded and live sounds?

We emphasize our songwriting on the album, so we spend a lot of time in the studio suggesting jams without actually doing them. Songwriting and improvisation are two different animals. Live, we feel free to experiment.

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