The pandemic, for many touring musicians, was a rare chance to take an extended break and recharge their creative batteries. Not the Kitchen Dwellers, who are performing at Dec. 30 and 31 at the Commonwealth Room in Salt Lake City.
The Montana-based string band wanted to make a new album (which became the 2022 release “Wise River”) that made a statement about the group.
“We kind of took that route in just saying let’s use this time to our advantage. Let’s use this time to really come out of the end of this thing better than (when) we went into it,” said banjo player Torrin Daniels in a late-December phone interview. “So that was kind of the approach, I guess, going into recording ‘Wise River.’ We wanted the finished product to show that we had been putting the work in and that we didn’t take this (pandemic) time to rest.”
The result was a year-plus period in which the four musicians – Daniels, mandolin player Shawn Swain, bassist Joe Funk and guitarist Max Davies – improved and grew more collaborative in their songwriting and emerged with what Daniels feels is the best representation yet of the band’s music and playing.
“The first couple of albums that we put together were really evidence of us still trying to figure out what exactly we are and how we fit together and how to play our instruments and write songs and things like that,” Daniels said. “This most recent one (“Wise River”), I guess, is just a more mature version of whatever we’ve found ourselves to be.”
That Daniels feels the Kitchen Dwellers are only now really beginning to hit their stride as a band is perfectly understandable. The band, after all, is still relatively new, having formed in 2010 while in college at Montana State University in Bozeman.
It was actually a markedly different outfit at the start. Early on, the group had a fiddle player as a fifth member, and most notably, a different guitarist in Kyle Shelstad, who wrote nearly all of the songs for the original Kitchen Dwellers. The original group released a self-titled album in 2013 and earned second-place honors in new band competitions at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the Northwest String Summit before Shelstad split with the Kitchen Dwellers in 2014.
This left Daniels, Swain, Funk and Davies (who replaced Shelstad) to find a way forward as the Kitchen Dwellers.
“I think he really wanted to move back to the Midwest where he was from and the rest of us really had no interest in doing that,” Daniels said, starting to explain the split with Shelstad. “And part of it was creative differences. He’s much more of a folky type of songwriter and I guess maybe more of like the indie sort of feel to his writing. He has a band now that is much more fitting to that whole scene.
“I think ultimately it (Shelstad’s departure) was really good for us because we were able to sort of really pursue the type of music that we wanted to play,” he added. “None of us were really contributing to the writing of songs when he was in that band because he’s a very prolific songwriter. I think it maybe intimidated the rest of us, or made the rest of us feel that wasn’t our part to play, like we weren’t the songwriters of the band. And I think him leaving and us going our separate ways really enabled everyone involved, it empowered us to all pursue our songwriting.”
The Kitchen Dwellers’ music is certainly informed by bluegrass, but other influences also figure into the music. For one thing, none of the musicians played bluegrass or were in acoustic string bands before meeting at Montana State University. Daniels was into punk and heavy metal. Swain shared an affinity for metal, as well as the Grateful Dead. Funk was into electronic music and Daniels favored classic rock.
Those backgrounds inform the music of the Kitchen Dwellers, even though Daniels, Swain, Funk and Davies play instruments commonly featured in bluegrass. But the song structures often borrow from rock and pop, while there’s an energy and edge to the playing that aligns with the rock influences of four band members.
“It seems counter intuitive when you first look at it,” Daniels said of the transition from rock to bluegrass-rooted music. “I think it really translates well when you start playing bluegrass, especially if you grew up playing that punk style of music or metal style of music. You were already used to playing fast. And especially with metal, I’ve found metal guitarists and (players) like that have this dexterity and finesse to their technique because a lot of it is so technical and it involves so much thought and finesse while you’re playing, which translates well to bluegrass music. A lot of bluegrass instruments require the same level of finesse and attention to detail as far as your technique goes. So when you start to learn how to play acoustic instruments like that, a lot of the thought processes kind of translate over very well.”
In making “Wise River,” the Kitchen Dwellers sought to grow and evolve as a band by stepping outside of their comfort zones in several ways. Where the current lineup’s first two albums, 2017’s “Ghost in the Bottle” and 2019’s “Muir Maid,” were produced by musicians from the string band/bluegrass world (Leftover Salmon’s Andy Thorn on “Ghost in the Bottle” and Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters on the latter album), the Kitchen Dwellers reached outside of their genre for “Wise River” by bringing in Cory Wong of the funk band Vulfpeck to produce.
“He connected with us because he had sort of had this interest in working with a string band and working with bluegrass music, which is something he doesn’t typically do,” Daniels said. “So it was kind of like, we were coming together sort of as these two different parties from two different musical worlds to try to put both of our best feet forward to record this album.”
The four band members also agreed with Wong’s suggestion to work with Nashville-based songwriter Elliot Blaufuss to hone the material for “Wise River.”
“I think it helped bring a lot of new songwriting ideas to the table,” Daniels said. “I think it made us all better songwriters just getting the opportunity to work with Elliot.”
The Kitchen Dwellers have done a good deal of touring in support of “Wise River” since the album was released in April. The band has a busy year of shows on deck for 2023. But first, Daniels is excited about finishing 2022 with a pair of blow-out performances on Dec. 30 and 31 at the Commonwealth Room in Salt Lake City.
“We have these folks that follow us around the full year and a lot of them are really good friends of ours now. We feel like we kind of go through the whole year with a lot of them and we have these shared experiences with them,” Daniels said. “I guess for this upcoming new year’s run in Salt Lake, we’ll probably throw some new stuff out there that maybe we haven’t ever played before, whether it’s a cover or an original (song) or what have you. We try to throw some new stuff out on New Year’s. It kind of fits the occasion. Everyone’s done with their year and ready to celebrate. So we try to throw some stuff out there that leans toward that feeling.
“It feels like we’re sort of tying up the year and letting it all hang out on the last couple of nights,” he said. “So I’m really looking forward to that in Salt Lake. It’s going to be an awesome time.”