Chicken Wire Empire is a Milwaukee-based progressive bluegrass band, formed by Ernest Brusubardis IV (fiddle), Jordan Kroeger (bass), Ryan Ogburn (mandolin, bouzouki), Jon Peik (banjo) and Greg Brundage (guitar).
Their most recent studio album, What Moves Mountains, released on January 1st, 2019, features a mixture of originals and some reimagined covers.
In November and December of 2019, they came to Europe to participate in the 9th “Bluegrass Jamboree”, playing 24 dates in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The result is the album Live from Deutschland Vol. 1, an amalgamation of 8 different shows, which was released on August 20th 2020.
“Live from Deutschland Vol. 2”, which is mostly selections of a set in the beautiful Parktheater Göggingen of Augsburg (Germany), will be released on November 20th, 2020.
In this interview, Ernest tells about how the band was formed, the origin of their name but, above all, about the incredible feeling of playing for their community in Wisconsin and, of course, about their experience at “Bluegrass Jamboree”.
Q.: How did you guys meet? And when?
E.B.: It’s been a bit of a journey. Jordan and Ryan had been playing in bands with each other for a while, and when I (Ernie) started leaving the classical world and getting back into bluegrass, I met Jordan at a show. Jon and Greg had already been mainstays of the bluegrass scene here. I think the group really solidified into this lineup around 2016, but we had all known each other for a while at that point.
Q.: Where does the name of the band come from?
E.B.: Have you ever seen Blues Brothers? You know the scene where they impersonate that country band and play in the bar with chicken wire in front of the stage? That’s where we got the name.
Q.: You come from a different background. Some of you used to play in jam bands, and others in traditional bluegrass bands. Was it hard to find the perfect balance at the beginning?
E.B.: The band started out being fairly traditional. I think the point was, although we came from different backgrounds, we wanted to play tradgrass and get it right. Not just play a sloppy version of it. Over time, we decided to incorporate different jam elements and different genres, but we still try to rip a good bluegrass tune in our sets.
Q.: Are you trained or self-taught musicians? How did you pick that specific instrument you play?
E.B.: We all have different backgrounds. Some of this could actually be seen in our film “All it Takes.” I (Ernie) went to music school for a Master degree in Violin Performance, but for the most part we are self-taught in music. I always loved the sound of the violin, and came from a musical family. It seems all of us have musical ancestry, and grew up just loving music.
Q.: You are all born and raised in Wisconsin. How important is for you to play for your community? Do you have a different feeling if you had to compare it to playing in other places?
E.B.: I feel that Jordan has worked pretty hard to continue the bluegrass community in Milwaukee. We realize how important and valuable bluegrass music is, and it really needs a community. A beautiful part of bluegrass is the jams. People from all over the place, with various musical skills, can all get together to play songs and pick tunes. There’s a jam at “The Gig” in Milwaukee every Sunday afternoon, if there isn’t a pandemic. Jon has led jams to the west of Milwaukee, and even has given classes to people who want to start bluegrass bands. I think the Upper Midwest in general has a great acoustic music scene, with plenty of bands from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois.
Q.: In 2016, All It Takes, a film focusing on your journey as a band, premiered at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee. If you had to reissue that film now what would you add or change in terms of gigs, experiences etc.?
E.B.: Well we have done a lot since then. When we made that movie, we were just starting to play outside of Milwaukee. Since then, we’ve expanded outside of our then tiny circle, even making all the way to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Musically we have also departed. You can see some of our first journeys of jamming in that movie. We also released a full-length album (What Moves Mountains) and soon to be two live albums since then.
Q.: How was living in Wisconsin before the pandemic and how is it now?
E.B.: I think it’s similar to the rest of the world. In Wisconsin we have a large beer/drinking culture, and while people are still drinking now, the bars are having a hard time. I’m scared to see how many bands and venues will be able to survive after this is all over.
Q.: As it’s happening all over the world, venues have been shut down and gigs have been cancelled but I saw you guys finding a pretty creative way of performing… you decided to play floating on the beautiful lake you have. How was that?
E.B.: The Funk-toon! Our friend Jesse Voelker once the pandemic hit started with a “Funk-Wagon,” which had a funk band on it and would drive around different neighborhoods. Eventually the idea arose to have a pontoon boat. It was by far our favorite gig of the whole summer. We had a bunch of people in kayaks behind us like little ducklings.
Q.: I talked to other artists from Wisconsin and I’m pretty much impressed about the sense of community that you have. There’s no competition but you often play together with other bands. What’s the feeling of having this opportunity?
E.B.: CWE loves to collaborate. Some of us will get together with another band (Armchair Boogie) and play traditional bluegrass songs. We love playing with Barbaro, because usually there’s an opportunity for us to do something together on stage. We are all in competition with each other for gigs, but not for music. We love it.
Q.: And to talk even more about this great sense of belonging that you have, to celebrate Milwaukee Day (April 14), in 2019 you released the single “Milwaukee”, a song written, recorded, mixed, and mastered all in Milwaukee. There’s a beautiful B/W video accompanying the song. Would you elaborate on the background of the song and on the concept of the video?
E.B.: Jon, our banjo player, thought it would be nice to get some footage of what we are doing while there’s nothing to do. We each spent some time just shooting some videos of what we are doing during the pandemic, and I think it turned out great.
Q.: In November 2019 you were invited to play the 9th “Bluegrass Jamboree”, 24 dates in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and you recently published the result of that experience, “Live from Deutschland”. You played in many different locations and places. How was touring in Europe?
E.B.: Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The audiences were great, and very receptive to our music. Rainier Zellner has done a great job in cultivating an audience that craves Americana/Country/Bluegrass etc. We’d love to come back! Italy is definitely on the list.
Q.: I have listened to your album “What Moves Mountains”, which is basically about the greatness of love. Would you tell more about it and about the people who helped you releasing it?
E.B.: We had a great time going into the studio. We worked with Vinny Millevolte who had recorded and mixed the first album. Some of the tunes we tracked one by one, but for the most part we all recorded in the same room with some isolation. We felt we could capture the raw energy better this way. We released the album ourselves, and feel really proud of it.
Q.: You already know I have a favorite song which is “Maker”. Would you tell me the story behind it?
E.B.: The song definitely has a story to it. But I think when we make our music, we’d rather have the audience figure out what it means to them.
Q.: And yes, I have another question for you. I’ve never found any artist/band suggesting a cocktail to be a perfect match with their music. In your case it’s “Ogtail”. Explain how to make it and the reason why you chose this one in particular.
E.B.: You’d have to buy the album for the recipe. Ryan Ogburn (mandolin) will often bring his own kit and cooler to make cocktails backstage. These are affectionately called “ogtails” and usually involve some form of alcohol and kombucha. A great way to warm up before a show. Or after. Or during.
Find out more about Chicken Wire Empire:
All pictures courtesy of Kyle Hilker/Shatter Imagery