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Boston Calling Preview: Grey Season On Songwriting And Skydiving

“Folk rock influence comes from the best medium that we could find between maintaining the power of song and the value of acoustic performance, with our angsty, youthful need to rock out,” Burns said.

G uitarist Matt Knelman first heard singer and guitarist Jon Mils through the thin dormitory walls of 98 Hemenway Street at Berklee College of Music back in 2011. The two had only met once before during an orientation session their freshman year, but Knelman didn’t need to see Mils to know that he liked his sound. One night, Chris Bloniarz was getting ready to go to bed when he heard Knelman and Mils playing guitar and singing outside on the street. Bloniarz ran to grab his banjo and joined in on what eventually became “Lost and Found,” and Grey Season’s first song as a band.

Born in Boston, the five-piece folk rock band has come a long way since its beginnings at Berklee. In between jamming together out on the streets, recording a full length album, Time Will Tell You Well, and finishing out the last leg of its East Coast music festival tour at the third-semiannual Boston Calling Music Festival this weekend, Grey Season has been keeping more than busy in the past year.

In 2012, Mils moved into a house in Allston with bassist Ian Jones, who had been friends with drummer Ben Burns since junior high. Grey Season added its fourth and fifth members and rounded out its final lineup when the band decided to bring in Jones and Burns into the studio with them to record Troilus, their debut EP. The trio enjoyed the new sound so much that they brought Jones and Burns on as full members. They weren’t hired guns by any means—they had taken their music to a whole new level.

“I’m in a position of privilege in so many ways and also as a human being,” Burns said. “What I value about being in a band doesn’t have to do with what’s happening externally. The reality is you could play every fest in the U.S. and there could be a lack of chemistry or sustainability in the band dynamic.”

For Grey Season, some of their fondest memories have come from their time spent busking or street performing. A few years back, the band was playing in Harvard Square when a couple dressed in full ballroom garb began dancing in front of them. A girl contacted them later saying she was touched by the performance and that she worked for a skydiving camp. The next thing they knew, the band was playing music in exchange for free skydiving sessions.

“It’s just a fun, no stakes, have a good time type of performing experience,” Bloniarz said. “There’s none of that built in stress that comes with playing a real gig. People come and people go, and it’s very organic. It’s really satisfying to see a crowd of 60 or so people all stopped and standing on the street. You’re holding them and they all want to keep listening.”

Grey Season has come a long way since its days spent busking on Newbury Street and playing at local bars and radio stations. After a show one night at the Middle East in Cambridge, producer Benny Grotto approached the band with the opportunity to record a full-length album. A successful Kickstarter campaign and several weeks of recording sessions at Levon and Bond Studio later and the rest was history.

For Grey Season, music has always served as a common thread. The son of a saxophonist and an Irish bluegrass singer, Burns chose to play drums in the fourth grade because he was too embarrassed to be on stage and wanted to be in the back. Jones was raised in a classic rock household, where the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were common background noise and old recording equipment filled their basement walls. While Knelman and Jones bonded over their shared love of blues, Bloniarz was a mandolin player from Long Island with an affinity for rock and roll. Mils then brought his blend of traditional Irish folk music and classic rock to the band’s unique sound.

“Folk rock influence comes from the best medium that we could find between maintaining the power of song and the value of acoustic performance, with our angsty, youthful need to rock out,” Burns said.

While other bands might have hit a snag trying to reconcile such varied sound influences, Burns describes the process as a “clashing of different sensibilities.” Mils, Burns, and Jones serve as the group’s main songwriters, with Mils focusing on lyrics and Jones working on melody and song structure. With a folk rock and roll sound, the band has the best success when they aren’t writing plugged in. At its core, Grey Season is a band bolstered by its versatility, with each member skilled in playing more than one instrument and working through a song as a unit by deferring to each other’s best talents.

G rey Season truly came together as a band while on tour. A major milestone came this year when Grey Season performed at South by Southwest. After being chosen by Sonicbids to perform at Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, the band recalled long nights crammed in a car together driving down to Tennessee, the communal nature of being backstage, and spontaneous on-stage collaborations. The concentrated amount of diehard music fans was an added bonus.

“We’re usually happiest when we’re on the road going somewhere together,” Bloniarz said. “That’s when we bond the most, when we’re the most excited. When we’re in a car or on a plane going somewhere, it gives us a much needed jump start to revitalize our spirit and our enthusiasm to be around each other.”

Grey Season has blazed its way through the music festival circuit, starting with SXSW, Newport Folk Festival, Lowell Summer Series, Bonnaroo, and finishing with the Boston Calling Music Festival this weekend. For Grey Season, unsuspecting nights and incognito connections seem to go hand in hand. Back in March, Grey Season was playing a showcase down at SXSW when someone had seen the band’s set and connected them with Boston Calling. A panel ultimately selected Grey Season, along with Dirty Bangs and Bully, to play at the festival.

“We honestly have been so blessed when we’re standing backstage, we’ll be like seeing a lot of our favorite artists and it almost feels like we’re going to get kicked out because we don’t belong there,” Burns said. “There are a lot of other bands that are just as good as us and we don’t take that for granted. We’re trying to soak it all in. It’s all happening really fast.”

At the rate that Grey Season is moving—with an album slated to release next spring and a new live music video set to come out after Boston Calling—it doesn’t look like they’re planning on slowing down anytime soon.

Featured Image by Ellen Sargent Korsh

September 23, 2015