Steep Ravine swaps songs for Hawaiian hamburgers

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Making its start in January 2013 as a Hawaiian-bar-and-grill jam band, Steep Ravine and its unique version of bluegrass has recently found its way into the Bay Area music scene. Fresh out of UC Santa Cruz, the group hopes to put down roots in the East Bay, where three of its members attended the Berkeley Jazzschool.

Steep Ravine has already played venues such as the New Parish, the Freight & Salvage and Chthonic Theater. The band just released its first full-length, Kickstarter-funded album of original material, Trampin’ On, and leaves on tour Monday for Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and many places in between.

Jan Purat is on violin, Simon Linsteadt is on guitar, Alex Bice is on upright bass and Andy O’Brien is on mandolin.

The Daily Californian talked to the band about its influences, its new album and the terrible price of playing bluegrass for Hawaiian hamburgers.

Daily Cal: How did you come together as a group?

Jan Purat: We were all going to UC Santa Cruz at the time. Simon and I went to the same high school and had been playing music together for a while. We had a bluegrass jam at Andy’s house one time and then somehow got invited to play at this Hawaiian bar and grill. We basically had a regular gig jamming for tips and a free Hawaiian burger.

Andy O’Brien: It was an awkward place to play bluegrass, but we did it anyway because it was so much fun. Plus, the food gave you the shits every time!

DC: Where did the name of the band come from?

JP: We named the band after a hiking trail on Mt. Tamalpais. It leads from high up on the mountain down to Stinson Beach. It’s this beautiful canyon filled with old-growth redwoods. It seemed like a fitting name for our band.

DC: How did you get more gigs starting out?

JP: It’s been pretty amazing with this band how much people have reached out to us. We’ve had to do some work getting gigs but not as much as I had expected. I think a lot of people find it refreshing to see young people really focusing their efforts on this genre of music.

DC: Why bluegrass?

Simon Linsteadt: None of us come from a bluegrass upbringing — we have roots in funk, classical, rock and folk. I think I came to really appreciate the genre around junior year of high school. A lot of people don’t realize how embedded bluegrass is in the musical history of the United States. For me, bluegrass is the diamond of American music.

DC: When you write songs, do you try to replicate that traditional bluegrass sound?

JP: I think we draw a lot from bluegrass, but we also take a lot of elements from folk, jazz and gypsy jazz. Most of our originals have traditional bluegrass instrumentation but pull from a bunch of different genres. It comes naturally — I think that’s what makes us unique; we don’t try to sound like any one thing. Bluegrass is the main ingredient, but not the only one.

SL: Bluegrass is the pot in which everything is melted … Don’t put that in the interview.

AO: We all have very different backgrounds, and it’s hard to not reflect that in our music.

DC: How is the new album different from things you’ve done before?

SL: A lot of the stuff we do live has to be really high-energy because we’re usually playing in bars. This album was our chance to show a spectrum of sound; we have some gentle tunes and some more uptempo tunes, jazz-oriented tunes and bluegrass tunes. We had so much freedom to experiment in the studio.

DC: How was your first experience in a professional studio?

JP: We had an amazing experience at Tiny Telephone Studios. It’s one of the only studios in the Bay Area that records exclusively with analog, meaning that we recorded everything on tape — nothing digital.

SL: Our sound engineer, Jacob Winik, was incredible. He was basically our impromptu producer; he let us get all of our ideas out and made us feel
really comfortable.

AO: I don’t think Jacob has much experience recording bluegrass music, which turned out to be perfect. Since we aren’t really a traditional bluegrass band, his different, fresh approach was more coherent with our different kind of sound.

DC: Where will you be touring the new album?

JP: This will be our first big national tour. We’re basically making a loop to New Orleans and back — we’ll hit LA, San Diego, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Colorado and then Seattle, Portland and the Northwest. It was a lot of work to get all those gigs, but we’re really excited to finally have everything in place for the tour. It’s going to be great.

AO: Everything depends on our 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager. Once we hit the Rockies, all bets are off.

DC: Will you turn a profit on tour, or are you doing it for the exposure?

JP: It’s really up to us. Unlike a lot of bands, we can busk and play on the street — and we love to do it! If we busk on tour, we’ll definitely make some money. We’ve been playing at the Montgomery and Downtown Berkeley BART stations and doing really well.

Alex Bice: Busking is kind of like our 9-to-5 job.

SL: People are especially happy to see us in the mornings. I think they like to see that musicians can wake up early too.

DC: Why have you chosen to base yourselves in the East Bay?

JP: There are so many great venues to play in the East Bay. Plus, this is a great place to build a following; the people here are really receptive to our music. It feels like home.

You can keep track of Steep Ravine through its website and Facebook page. Its new album is available now.  

Contact Eliot Claasen at [email protected].