Interview: Jake Leg

KGNU’s Brian Eyster chats with Colorado band Jake Leg about their debut album, “Fire on the Prairie.” Jake Leg’s Justin and Dylan share insights into their songwriting process, the band’s origins in the Boulder bluegrass scene, their influences, and their unique banjo-less bluegrass style. They express their love for bluegrass jams and the community, aiming to keep this tradition alive through their music and performances (Interview date: 5/4/2024) 

Brian Eyster: I am thrilled to be joined in the studio this morning by two members of the great Colorado band Jake Leg: Justin Hoffenberg and Dylan McCarthy. Morning you guys. Thanks so much for popping into the Boulder studio.

Jake Leg: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Brian Eyster: Yeah, this is a great occasion. You guys walked into the studio bearing gifts: physical CDs of your new release, the debut Jake Leg release.

Jake Leg: New release. You’re the first person to see that in the flesh other than us.

Brian Eyster: Am I really? I will say it’s beautiful. The artwork and the way the whole thing is designed is really beautifully put together.

And I think that’s reflected in everything, the music and the whole band construct. So congrats. The band, it’s been a couple years and this is the first CD. What took so long?

Jake Leg: That’s a good question. That’s true.

Brian Eyster: People have been aching for this music. I know.

Jake Leg: Yeah. Band’s been together for about three years now and this has been in the works for some time. Probably about a year and a half from inception to release. Took our time. Wanted to make sure that it stuck.

Brian Eyster: No, congrats. I mean it as lovingly as possible: what took so long? But yeah, the time and the dedication and the details really pays off in the recording.I got a chance to listen to it last night. Really great stuff.

Jake Leg: Thank you. 

Brian Eyster: We’re gonna play a couple of tracks from it. And we’re also gonna most importantly say that the CD officially comes out a week from today on May 11th. And you guys are gonna celebrate.

Jake Leg: We are. We’re gonna celebrate at eTown here in Boulder. And we’re going to have our friends, the Cody Sisters with us, who you just heard in that last set playing a great song of theirs. Hopefully we’ll get to hear that next Saturday. But yeah, we’re going to have a big old party at eTown and Cody Sisters will play.

We’re gonna play a good set of music and then we’re gonna have an open jam. So we’re hoping that everybody brings their instruments. A real bluegrass jam. My whole thing, I like a good wedding or something. I’ve always disliked CD release parties that weren’t parties.

You advertise a party and then you go and you sit nicely and listen to a concert and go home. So we’re trying to make our CD release party, a party. Everybody bring their instruments. And then after we play, we’re going to have a big old jam and do the bluegrass thing.

Brian Eyster:  I love it. In the bluegrass world, even better than having cake would be having an open jam, I would say. Let’s play a tune just to give folks an idea of this music. I think we’re going to start out with the title track. You want to talk a little bit about how this tune came together?

Jake Leg: Yeah. “Fire on the Prairie” is the title track for the record. It’s the first single that we put out too. What can I say about this song? I usually start with the song idea and then it goes to the band to be arranged and whatnot. And specifically Eric is our lead singer. So it’ll go to him to listen to and learn and whatnot. I can’t speak to whether it sonically or lyrically actually reflects this, but I can say that “Fire on the Prairie” came from a time when I was listening to a lot of Cahalyn Morrison and Eli West.

A lot of those melodies and lyrics were swimming around in my head and I took a crack at my own version of that. I don’t know if I hit that, but I hit something. So that’s where “Fire on the Prairie” came from.

Brian Eyster: You hit your own thing, even better. Let’s check this out.

This is the title track from the new Jake Leg release Fire on the Prairie on the KGNU, Old Grass, New Grass. 

It’s a great tune. I always assume that the lead singer is the songwriter and in this case, it’s so interesting that you write the tunes and then hand them over.

Jake Leg: Yeah. There’s parts of that process that I really like. Namely, I think at least for me as a songwriter, you can get in your own way a lot, just like second guessing yourself and not having confidence. Is this lyric good? Or is this progression good? And part of what I like about our process is I can get a song most of the way there, and I can still be unsure about certain things. And then it’ll usually go to Eric Wiggs, our guitar player, and first, and he’ll listen to it. He doesn’t even necessarily give me a lot of verbal feedback.

He’ll just absorb the song and then send me back a demo of him singing it. And some things might be altered a little bit, or it might be pretty close to what I gave him, but it’s really helpful for me because it removes me from the song a little bit. So I can almost listen to a little bit more objectively, like I’m hearing someone else’s song.

And so that gives me a lot clearer view of “oh, that part is cool, but this part maybe needs something else”. But it’s a cool process that, I think has worked pretty well. 

Brian Eyster: So there’s not necessarily like a back and forth like the Lennon McCartney thing?

Jake Leg: There might be sometimes a little bit.

Yeah, they’re all covers without an original version. There’s original versions on my iPhone that no one but Eric will ever see probably.

Brian Eyster: We should say, It’s an all-original record, which is so impressive for a debut to come out and be like, “we want to show you exactly what we, and only we do”.

Jake Leg: That’s why it took so long. And that was the basis for the group too, we went into it having a deep love and appreciation for bluegrass, obviously, but wanting to like make our own offering to that. 

Brian Eyster: I’ve seen you live and you guys will bust out the occasional Nordic fiddle tune.

Or take things in different directions.

Jake Leg: Yeah, that’s my fault. Yeah. We’re a banjo-less, air quotes, bluegrass band. When someone asks me if we’re a bluegrass band, we usually ask them back, “Do you know bluegrass?” And if they say yes, then no, we’re not a bluegrass band, but if they’re not familiar with bluegrass, then yeah, sure.

Yeah. We’re probably what you think bluegrass is. Bluegrass is malleable. It’s malleable. But yeah, it’s a full banjo-less banjo band minus one, all the banjo players can play along at home for the whole album. There’s no banjo on it. 

Brian Eyster: I love how you guys fill in the gap.

Especially, there are moments in that tune that all three of you were driving rhythms and cool interlocking patterns that I just really loved. I think a banjo would be too much.

Jake Leg: It would definitely change what we’re doing. I hesitate to say that it would be too much for all of my banjo friends, but it certainly would change the decisions we’re making, not having the banjo there opens up some space in the sonic world for us to fill or not.

I think particularly rhythmically we all approach the music a little bit differently than we probably would if there was a banjo just in terms of whether we’re trying to fill space or if we’re taking advantage of the fact that we can leave some space.

Brian Eyster: Nice. It’s interesting. The last time that you two were in this studio was talking about All Wheel Drive, which was a band covering a banjo album. So here we go. This is the reaction.

Jake Leg:  Yeah, we do love the banjo. Sometimes we’ll have a banjo sit in with us. But yeah, that’s the call to arms for that show on May 11th, the CD release party.

And the jam will be all banjos. Let’s see all the banjos show up. Army of banjo players.

Brian Eyster: Yeah. Love it. Just to remind folks we’re talking about May 11th at eTown Hall is going to be a CD release show for Jake Leg’s wonderful new record, Fire on the Prairie. Since we have the CD here, I know there’s three tunes that have been released officially.

Can we play one that has not been released officially?

Jake Leg: Of course we can. We can do a world premiere here on KGNU.

Brian Eyster: That would be awesome. Which tune do you guys want to play? “I Don’t Need No Whiskey”?.

Jake Leg: Yeah, we’re gonna play “I Don’t Need No Whiskey”, which is not going to be heard again until the full record comes out.

This is the first time until May 11th.

Brian Eyster: What made you guys pick this one?

Jake Leg: It’s sonically different than Fire on the Prairie for sure. And I guess if you would maybe say Fire on the Prairie was a little more progressive or modern. “I Don’t Need No Whiskey” pulls it back a little bit, maybe a little closer to a country song.

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to assess because I wrote it. But, yeah.

Brian Eyster: Nice. Let’s check it out. This is “I Don’t Need No Whiskey” from Jake Leg here on the KGNU Old Grass, New Grass.

What a great lyrical hook in that tune, I love that.

That was a great Dylan McCarthy tune from Jake Leg’s upcoming release Fire on the Prairie, “I Don’t Need No Whiskey”. We’re just calling it out.

That should be a jam standard, so all you pickers out there, pick up the album, learn the tune, and then take it to the jam.

A lot of love and heart and detail, attention to detail went into this. You guys recorded this in Longmont and would you sit down in the circle and play the tracks or is this kind of a live thing?

Jake Leg: We were all isolated. We were in separate rooms, headphones, the full studio set up but it was mostly tracked live. So some studio magic after the fact but for the most part everything to get the energy and capture the actual feel of humans playing music with each other.

Brian Eyster: Love it. So you guys are products of the Boulder Bluegrass scene and Dylan, you live in Lyons? . Justin, I think we went to the Rockygrass Academy together 24 years ago or something like that.

Jake Leg: Yeah, grew up here playing music and going to jams and being taught by Buck Buckner and everybody there in, going to Cafe Soleil and Foolish Craigs and the Southern Sun and the Acoustic Cafe up in Netherland. Oh yeah, all the jams that don’t exist anymore.

But that was part of my inspiration for what we’re doing at that CD release party too, because I grew up here going to jams, that’s how I learned. That’s how we all learn in bluegrass. And if I think of one thing that is what bluegrass is to me, it’s that it’s playing with each other.

And that’s like you said, that’s how I know you. That’s how I know most people in this music world is from meeting at a jam or a festival or at a coffee shop or a bar or something – that’s where we meet each other.

Brian Eyster: Yeah. That’s the spirit. I love that. That’s what makes this music so great.

Even folks that aren’t pickers still hang out at the jam on the edge of the circle and their energy is still felt. And the Boulder scene is still feeling great.

Jake Leg: It’s still going strong, which is really cool. Like I was saying, all those jams that I mentioned that I grew up going to have come and gone, but they’ve been replaced by just as many, if not more different ones hosted by other other great musicians and community champions, so yeah, changing of the guard and it goes and it goes.

Brian Eyster: Yeah. It’s great to have you guys together as a band and being a big part of this Boulder scene. As you said, you’ve been together for over three years as a band.

Jake Leg: Yeah, the band’s been together three years. We’ve played with each other in other outfits longer than that, but this one, three years and we’re going to keep going.

There’ll be more albums, four years from now we’ll get a second one out. But yeah, we’re going to keep doing it. We’re going to be around Colorado. We’re touring a bunch this year, going out, playing at the IBMA, the International Bluegrass Music Association Festival in Raleigh. Around this part of the country, we don’t hit Boulder proper all that often. So this is gonna be a fun rare, for me at least, hometown show. Yeah, and my brother plays bass in the band as well. It’ll be a hometown show for him as well, we’ll be back in Colorado more throughout the year and yeah, it’s cool doing the thing.

Brian Eyster: So if folks want to find out more about the band, online stuff, their website?

Jake Leg: Yeah, we got, I don’t want to say all the things. We’re not on TikTok, folks. Sorry. But we have the website and then Facebook and Instagram are both great places to keep up with us and find out where we’re going to be and just what we’re up to.

Brian Eyster: Great. And if folks want to see you live, it’s next Saturday. We’re talking about May 11th at eTown Hall in Boulder with the Cody Sisters. Tickets may still be available.

Jake Leg: Tickets are going quick, but are still available on, I believe. 

Brian Eyster: Great. Thanks so much for stopping by, you guys.

It’s been really fun. Congrats on the new CD. Congrats on having a physical manifestation of your music. It’s such a cool thing that I hope continues, but who knows? Thank you very much.

Jake Leg: Yeah. Thanks, Brian.

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