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Alex King of Sicard Hollow on the Ethos of the Grateful Dead, Breaking Boundaries & More

Photo Credit: Kendall McCargo

Formed with a mutual passion for pushing the boundaries of genre, and heavily influenced by the Grateful Dead and New Grass Revival, the members of Sicard Hollow grew up sick of existing institutions telling them what their music should sound like. Before they met in 2018, none of the members even considered playing bluegrass – Matt Rennick (violin) was working on electronic music. Will Herrin (mandolin/vocals) was playing guitar in rock bands, and Alex King spent years as an artist without an art-form, searching for a home by pouring every bit of his sweat and heart into anything he was doing. Parrish Gabriel was added on bass in the fall of 2019.

The words above are from the press release for Sicard Hollow’s new record, Brightest of Days. With a string of successful festival appearances and tour dates across the country, they’re on fire right now. Guitarist Alex King took some time from the road of the road somewhere in Montana to chat with me about the origins of Sicard Hollow, the ethos of the Grateful Dead, the breaking of boundaries, and more.

Andrew Howie: Without getting too into the whole label thing, can you elaborate a bit upon the term ‘progressive bluegrass?’

Alex King: The progressive bluegrass thing is kind of a general term for taking a genre and doing your own thing with it. The traditional stuff is a bit more cut and dry, there are a few more rules to it. There’s a standard lineup of instruments and a structure of old-timey songs, there’s kind of a formula to it, in a way. With our music, there is no formula; we’re doing our own thing. It’s influenced by quite a few different genres, and most of those are not bluegrass. We have an electric bass. That is typically not the case for traditional bluegrass. We also don’t have a banjo as of now, and for most traditional bluegrass banjo is essential. We jam on stuff too, so it really breaks the mold in a lot of ways.

Just on this past run, quite a few people have come up to us after a show and said something along the lines of ‘I don’t like bluegrass, but I like what you guys just did.’ I think that is a testament to progressive bluegrass itself. It’s not really bluegrass; I do flat pick a guitar, we have a violin, we have a mandolin, but our bassist is playing funk licks, and I didn’t grow up playing bluegrass. So we’re taking our own thing and putting it to the string band genre. At various parts of our show, you could call it a bunch of different things.

AH: Why do you think some of these rules are so hard and fast within the traditional community?

AK: I don’t know honestly. I think people get stuck in their ways. We see that more with older crowds, but not all the time. I think a lot of people are getting past that point, but if you were raised on this music and it’s sacred to you in that way, I think anyone taking that and doing their own thing with it can be sacrilege. It’s an interesting thing to see who cares about that and who doesn’t. We played a venue once for this bluegrass jam; there are rules to this jam. As it goes around, no person takes an extended solo or breaks the structure. It’s frowned upon to do these things.

Members of our band actually kind of got asked to leave once because they would solo too long. To me, I don’t understand why that would ever even be a thing. Why are there these rules? But obviously some people are traditionalists and like to keep things how they are. You’ll run into those people everywhere, but in our scene, typically people who feel that way might not stick around at our show long enough to let us know. We break all the rules in the first song. That’s totally fine though, because we love and respect the traditional stuff too, we’re just doing our own thing with it.

AH: How would you say you’ve grown as songwriters between your first record and Brightest of Days?

AK: We’ve all grown so much. I can’t even begin to pinpoint one single thing, because we’ve put in so much work. The first album (which I love, don’t get me wrong, it’s genuine songwriting), that was us figuring it out; it was us throwing shit at the wall, this collection of songs that we had at the time. Fast forward a couple years, we’ve all been writing, and with COVID we’ve all had so much time to really hone our craft, and this second record is a testament to that. It’s just more mature and I think the message is still similar, like what I write about and what Will writes about.

The message that I want to portray always bleeds through. But musically our approach was different, a little more thought-out. We thought about it a little bit more. We brought in John Mailander, who is incredible, and he produced the record. We brought together different musical minds to put intention into how we wanted to present these tunes, and just ourselves as players, everybody’s leveled up so much. Three of us live together, and we just spent all our time at the house and just played and played and played and played. So I think people will really notice the improvement of instrumentation as well as songwriting. It’s kind of impossible not to grow if you’re working on something for that long.

AH: In your bio it mentions the Grateful Dead being a big influence on your sound. Would you consider that accurate?

AK: I don’t think it as much influences our direct product. Obviously the Grateful Dead were improvisational masters, forefront of the jam scene, and we improv during our show, but if you heard us jam, nobody is going to say it sounds like the Dead. We all look like hippies and love the Dead, but the main influence was it bringing us together as a unit. The jam scene is where we all met each other. It was going to see jam band shows. I love the Dead and I listen to them a ton. Maybe lyrically it’s inspired me a bit, but I don’t think you could put my lyrics next to, say, Robert Hunter’s, and draw parallels.

They’re more of an inspiration as to what’s possible. We identify with them as human beings. They had this huge, successful career of just being themselves, which is what we want to do. I don’t care what anybody else says, the band believes in what we write. We believe in what we play. If you don’t pick up on that, that’s okay, you don’t have to listen to it. Those types of ideals of the Dead and the jam scene are more influential than you hearing a song and saying that lick is inspired by ‘He’s Gone’ or whatever. We are all Deadheads through and through though. We do play some Dead songs, but we don’t have a huge repertoire of their tunes ready to go. We try to steer away from that a bit so people don’t associate us with just playing killer Dead covers. I would rather be known by our original music, I think it speaks for itself.

It’s nice getting to explain it to people. Like I have a huge Dead bolt tattooed on my hip. We’re all super into them.

I will say this though: in some of my songs, I mention Grateful Dead lyrics. I haven’t thought about this until now. In ‘Motivation,’ off our first record, I say ‘inspiration move me brightly through/my darkest days I’m on my knees prayin’ like Terrapin Station, when Jerry says that. I took a little lyric and revamped it. So there are little easter eggs, little subtleties.

AH: Speaking in terms of what’s possible; where do you see things headed in the future as the genre boundaries blur and bend?

AK: I think as things progress in music, people are broadening their horizons as to what they’re consuming. Music has been changing so much, and all these genres progress in their own ways. I can’t speak on too many things, but that’s just natural progression. As one genre builds itself, somebody is going to come along and say ‘How can I do this differently?’ Just as a way to push the envelope. That wasn’t really what we were trying to do, ours is just organically informed and that’s what we were doing. I’m not really sure, I think it’s just the times. As things move on, we’ll start seeing a shift in most genres.

You don’t see much rock ‘n’ roll anymore. Modern day rock n’ roll is nothing like back in the day. But for better or worse, some of it is beautiful when people change things and add their own flavors, and other times it’s a little disappointing. What’s popular can become so twisted sometimes. I don’t want to say it’s because people get bored, they just push the envelope. We kind of do it but it’s not intentional. It just kind of happens like that because of all our influences growing up and how we all come together and build these tunes. It wasn’t ever something we tried to do, which I think is the best way to do it. We found our own sound pretty quick, and I’ve heard that from a couple people.

I think maybe a lot of bands never really find their sound over their careers; I feel very fortunate to have these guys and to be pushing the boundaries of the string genre in our own way. Maybe bringing in different genres hinders people from that. You could have a reggae track, a pop track, and some people can get confused if you don’t have that core sound that people identify with. If you’re too all over the place it can get a little confusing to the listener, but if you have that common core, then no matter what, people can identify your sound through that, no matter how you’re portraying it.

AH: At the start of our conversation you mentioned you were on the side of the road somewhere in Montana. How has Montana (and tour in general) been treating you?

AK: We are out here. I’m looking at the mountains in Montana right now. We’re heading back down south. We just finished up, I think seven or eight shows out here: four in Montana, a couple on the way up, and now we’re heading down to Nashville. It’s been incredible. We just played three shows with Spafford, they’re incredible. Bozeman, Whitefish, Billings. We did Kansas City, Lincoln, we’ve been road-doggin’ it hard. It’s been exhausting and rewarding at the same time. Living our dreams right now, a very, very beautiful time of life.

We’ve been to Montana before, but we had never played any of these places that we did on this tour. This was a very successful Montana run. I feel like we just established some roots in the state.

That was the case for this whole tour more or less; we played a couple venues we had played before, but I had never been to Cape Cod like we played earlier this year, we had never been to Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin, and all of this has happened in like two weeks. We’ve been really seeing the country. It’s interesting to show up in these places. Like Cape Cod, I’m 19 hours from home. We spent less than 24 hours in Cape Cod before I was back in the van going home. You wish you could stay longer, but it’s such a cool adventure, always being on the move, music taking you to all these places. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me in my entire life.

Check out the newest Sicard Hollow single off Brightest of Days, ‘Escape the Unknown.’

Andrew Howie
Andrew Howie
Andrew Howie is a Midwestern treasure who isn't exactly sure how to talk about himself without being sarcastic and self-deprecating. His music taste is pretentious and he wants to tell you all about it.

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