Meet Erik Yates, of Hot Buttered Rum String Band
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Ingredients of Hot Buttered Rum String Band include elements of bluegrass, folk, jazz and soul. Throw in nearly two decades of playing together, a spoonful of community, a splash of doing good for the world and their newest album, and your recipe for a top-notch show is complete.
Hot Buttered Rum plays at 10 p.m. Friday, June 7, at the Old Town Pub in downtown Steamboat Springs.
Hot Buttered Rum features Bryan Horne on double bass and vocals, Erik Yates on banjos, guitars, woodwinds and vocals, James Stafford on drums and percussion, Zebulon Bowles on fiddle and vocals and Nat Keefe on guitar and vocals. Explore Steamboat chatted with Yates ahead of Friday’s show.
Explore Steamboat: How did Hot Buttered Rum’s members first get together?
Erik Yates: We’ve been around for almost 20 years. I went to college in Oregon with our guitar player, Nat — we’re the two songwriters. Nat grew up with a lot of bluegrass around, and in college, we were both studying all kinds of music. We wanted a way to integrate American music with all these other amazing kinds. We started the band as a way to imagine bluegrass if it was made in the Sierra Nevadas. I started out playing all kinds of instruments. I was a music ed major, so I was learning a new instrument basically every semester and would take them to parties — like the bass clarinet. Ironically, I think we’re more traditional sounding now than we were back then.
ES: How did you guys end up with your name?
EY: At this one shindig where we were dreaming up the notion of this band, hot buttered rum was the drink someone decided to make that night. It was cold and wintery out. The first few times we tried to make it, it turned out all runny and strange, but we worked out the recipe. I think we figured out the music better too, eventually. We found that people would be interested in the band name, even if they didn’t know us. It sounds better than “Gin and Tonic String Band.” In our first few years, we toured in ski towns — they’re ravenous for music all winter long. The name fit with our winter touring, but when we started touring more in the summer, we still kept it.
ES: What are the band’s top three musical influences?
EY: For bluegrass: Ralph Stanley, for the rawness and emotion, and how he lived his life. For their sound, how they put their shows together, and their lightheartedness and goofiness: Hot Rise, early on. Nat was really big into Phish and how they extended compositions. A lot of our early stuff was maniacally complicated not necessarily sophisticated; The Beatles, for the stylistic jumps that they’ll do from album to album. Tom Petty is someone we come back to again and again and again, for creating a song that’s super danceable.
ES: If you had to pick one HBR song for a newbie listener to hear, which would it be, and why?
EY: “Mighty Fine” off our new record. It’s current; we play it just about every night. It’s written by Nat. It’s got a good story to it, but you can also just let it be musical information if you want. It’s got a good hook, a good melody, some cool improvisational stuff when we play it live, sometimes.
What: Hot Buttered Rum
When: 10 p.m. Friday, June 7
Where: Old Town Pub, 600 Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $10 at oldtownpub.com
ES: What’s the best part of touring as Hot Buttered Rum?
EY: Certainly one of the best things are the people, the relationships we’ve made over the years. That’s sort of what life is at the end of the day. Getting to build those in all those different zip codes across the countries — I’ve felt really blessed to get to know people all over and stay in touch with people I wouldn’t necessarily get on a plane to go see, but it’s great to catch up when we’re in the same place. Musicians get started for the music, but you keep doing it for the relationships.
ES: A goal for Hot Buttered Rum has been “to change one bar at a time.” What change do you aim to inspire?
EY: That’s a quote from “3.2.” We’re from the San Francisco bay area, and we know a lot of people who are full-time activists. We all do work in our owl realms, but there comes a point when you realize, my job is to entertain people and uplift them. We can create a good space for people to be uplifted. You never know when someone walks into your set where they’re coming from. There’s a lot of incredibly alarming things going on across our country and world. We all need to put our noses to the grindstone and do good work, and when that work is done, there’s gotta be a place to let loose. We used to do a lot more songwriting that could be categorized as political or environmental, but I’m realizing a big part of our job is providing a space for people to cut loose. One thing we’ve done a lot with is Rock the Vote, getting people registered to vote. We’ve done that every four years, making sure there’s voting — because the more people voting, the better this whole thing works. It’s important to say, “Yo, we need you to vote.”
ES: Nat Keefe has taken several trips to Ghana, bringing American musicians to hold workshops and jam sessions with Ghanaian musicians and dancers. How has this influenced Hot Buttered Rum and its music?
EY: He went first as a student, then to make a benefit record. He went a third time and brought several musicians from the U.S., including (Elephant Revival’s) Bonnie Paine and myself. Bonnie’s washboard was a big hit, and they love the banjo there. We’ve shied away from incorporating Ghanian rhythms because there’s a danger of cherry-picking some elements of someone’s music. What we do, though, is think about the way consistent drum parts can form this engine together that’s unbelievable. Our drummer James, for about a third of a show, plays mandolin. So these ideas apply especially when we’re just a string band, so we’re all the drummer, responsible for the beat. Keeping that lively is a ton of fun. That’s where we’ve integrated it into our style of playing.
ES: What’s coming up for you guys that you’re excited about?
EY: We love coming out to Colorado, so definitely looking forward to the next few shows. Then our tour goes through California, Montana, Idaho and Utah. It’s going to be wonderful. Musically, we’re really still touring behind “Lonesome Panoramic” (2018). We’re still super proud of that. These are our 12 songs of the moment. We’re excited to bring that to Steamboat Springs. Colorado is really where we cut our teeth as a touring band, and it’s always so much fun to get back there.
Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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