Whiskey Tango is a Denver-based jamband that can shift seamlessly from bluegrass and country to funk and good-times rock and roll. The band, which took the Denver Westword’s Best Jamband/Improv Group award four years in a row (2011-2014), continues to impress audiences in the state of Colorado and is taking their sound over the state line. Last year the group was accepted to play at Railroad Earth’s Halloween Hangtown Ball in Placerville, California, and they are now getting primed for roots festival favorite YarmonyGrass in Rancho Del Rio, Colorado (August 13-16). TipJar recently spoke with the band’s keyboardist and one of its founding members, Nate Todd.
TipJar: What’s your background and how did you get to the state of Colorado?
Nate Todd: I grew up in Amarillo, which is down in the panhandle of Texas. Amarillo is kind of a big small town I guess I’d call it. I moved to Colorado in 2007. I lived in Denver for a little while and then I headed up to the mountains before coming back to Denver in 2008 to attend school (at Metro State University). I actually moved to Colorado from Austin, where I lived for about five years before leaving Texas.
Your group Whiskey Tango started in 2009 right?
In late winter of ’09 I was in a band that played under the name The Five Points family band. Our mandolin player lived near Cervantes [Masterpiece Ballroom] in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver and we used to practice in a little space above Cervantes on Welton Street. We had different different musicians playing with us and sitting in and stuff. It was loose. This was back when The Other Side (next door to Cervante’s) was still called Quixote’s. We used to open up for people at Quixote’s, which at that time was located where the bar The Other Side is now. We were just getting started. We were looking for a banjo player and a friend or ours introduced us to Matt Gallagher, our current banjo picker. Matt was in a string band with some of his buddies from high school, including Zac Steinman (guitar) and Luke Kennedy (drums and occasional mandolin). So we combined our two bands and that was where Whiskey Tango pretty much began.
Where’d you get the band name?
Our bass player’s sister had a softball team called the Whiskey Tango Allstars and we thought that was a great name that had a cool ring to it. We adopted the Whiskey Tango portion of the name and we dropped the Allstars part as we didn’t feel it was appropriate at the time (laughs).
Did you know what Whiskey Tango meant?
I kind of knew the military jargon thing [Whiskey Tango Foxtrot], but it wasn’t long after we named ourselves that we started hearing about the “white trash” association. To us it was just two words that sounded cool, but it’s fun to hear all about the different meanings. We’ll have military guys come up to us and ask us about it. The best part is that it engages people.
When was the first Whiskey Tango gig?
I believe it was at the first Dancin’ in the Streets music festival that the Bianchi brothers put on in ’09. We didn’t play on the main stage, but we got to play inside at Quixote’s. We were joined by a local guitarist named Frank Tezak for that show. We just went for it and from there we moved on to playing at Owsley’s Golden Road at 22nd St. and Lawrence [later rebranded as Quixote’s]. We started playing there in the fall of 2009. We were a new band just trying to stretch our legs a little bit. [Owsley’s/Quixote’s owner] Jay Bianchi was giving us gigs and it happened where we started doing a regular Tuesday night show there. And occasionally we’d come in on the weekends and open for different bands. It was a cool weekly thing that was a lot of fun and it developed to a point where a solid crowed started showing up every Tuesday. Having a regular gig made us a lot better. We cut our teeth there and gelled as a band. We did it for a full year and then after that year was up we did one final Tango Tuesday blowout around Halloween of 2010. The whole experience really helped us grow a fanbase. It was a great place to start. During that time we also used to play a lot at this place down in Littleton called the Blue Mood Lounge. Matt, Zac and Luke all went to Columbine High School and grew up in that area and they knew the owners. We got some nice crowds there as well.
So that Halloween show at Quixote’s marked a turning point for you guys?
That was when we stopped doing the Tango Tuesday thing and started looking for more weekend gigs at different venues. The band started out because we liked to play and we were having fun, but after a year we had gotten pretty tight and we realized we might have something worth pursuing a little more.
Where did you play after cutting your teeth at Quixote’s?
We started doing shows at Cervantes, which is a bigger venue, and in Ft. Collins at Hodi’s Half Note, as well as in Boulder. We pretty much stayed around the Front Range for a while, taking any gig we could get. During 2010 and 2011 we played any gig we could and as much as we could and tried to reach as many people as possible in the Denver/Boulder area. We got more serious during that time and released our first CD, Groggy Mountain Mornings, in November of 2012.
Did releasing Groggy Mountain Mornings make a difference in terms of how much you played?
Yeah, it gave us something we could share with people including promoters, booking agents and so forth. It helped give us an air of credibility to have something official out there. There’s a certain level of prestige in having an album. It definitely aided us in terms of getting more press. It was a big step. It was important to us to be able to record a full-length album and have a collection of our best songs all put together. We’re really proud of it.
Nice. When did you start touring outside of Colorado?
It was a radial thing. We started by pushing farther and farther out to various ski towns in the Colorado mountains, and then we did a show in Texas and in Oklahoma. Last fall we got accepted to play at Railroad Earth’s Hangtown Halloween Ball, which is a cool festival not too far from Sacramento (http://hangtownhalloween.com/). We anchored a tour around that date. That tour took us through Utah, Nevada, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, where among other places we played at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley, before ending up at the Hangtown fest in Placerville. That was the first time that we hit the road in a serious way.
Did you enjoy the experience?
Oh yeah, we loved it. It was a ton of work, but it was infinitely rewarding. It was a dream come true to be on tour and be out on the road. It was a major milestone for the band.
Were you able to cover your expenses?
Yeah. We always try to put everything that we make back into the band so that we can do stuff like taking those tours. We make a little money along the way, and we try to make sure that we have all our expenses covered.
What more established groups do you guys identify with?
There’s definitely a few bands. In terms of our influences we like the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. And we actually did a cool bluegrassy thing called Pickin’ on the Rolling Stones recently. But our roots are entwined with Colorado bands like The String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon. We’re walking in their footsteps. They were the innovators of what we do and we just try to take that vibe further down the road through our own songwriting and compositions.
(Nate Todd. Photo by IdeaZign Media. http://ideazignmedia.com/)
Have you had the opportunity to meet some of the major artists on the roots music scene in Colorado?
Yeah Tyler Grant has helped us a lot. He and his band The Grant Farm are great. Grant Farm has played at our annual Black Mountain festival a couple times. And Tyler puts on a fest at Quixote’s called Farmstival, which we were part of. Through our association with him, we met people including Billy Nershi (of String Cheese Incident) and Tim Carbone (of Railroad Earth). Also Chris Thompson of Coral Creek has helped us a lot. He also plays at our Black Mountain fest. Last year we did a Whiskey Wednesdays thing at Quixote’s, where we had some really great guests sit in, including Dave Bruzza from Greensky Bluegrass. We get to meet and play with some stellar musicians. These experiences always have an impact on us and make us want to play better.
How might you describe your sound?
We have elements of bluegrass, but we also have drums, keyboards and synthesizers, so we’re also a rock band. We try to push the envelope in terms of the sound. With Luke being able to put down his drums sticks and pick up a mandolin we’re able to straddle genres. You’ll hear some country, funk and even some jazzy stuff. We want to showcase that we can play in a variety of genres.
Who writes your songs?
It’s a group effort. I’ll have some lyrics and Matt and Luke usually come up with a composition to go along with them. It’s collaborative. Once we kind of hammer out the basics of a song we present it to the whole band and try to fine-tune it and get it exactly how we want it on stage. Our process seems to work out pretty well.
Any particular tunes people might want to check out?
To get familiar with us it’s best to download our album, Groggy Mountain Mornings, which is available on our website at http://www.whiskeytangoco.com/. All you have to do is sign up for our mailing list and you can download it for free. Also they might want to check out our recent live stuff on Archive.org. And we have a few good recent videos on YouTube from Manitou Springs and there’s a good clip from YarmonyGrass on YouTube as well.
Who is in Whiskey Tango at this point?
Our current lineup includes myself on keys, Matt Gallagher on the banjo, Zac Steinman on guitar, Luke Kennedy on the drums (and sometimes mandolin), and Ryan Thrush on bass. They’re all great musicians. This lineup can really cook. Past members of the group were Ryan Hall (our first mandolin player) and Bill Wells (our original bassist, who left the group a little over a year ago).
What are your plans for the immediate future?
Well we just finished playing a bunch of dates here in Colorado and up in Montana and Wyoming. We headed north instead of west this summer. We decided to hit up the Big Sky country. We wanted to get in with some of the venues and markets up there in places like Bozeman and Jackson. People might not think that there are thriving scenes up there, but it’s a great place for a band to make an impact. We’re heading to New Mexico for a little while and then we’ve got YarmonyGrass coming up August 13-16. That’s always a blast. Also we’re going to get back in the studio. We’re putting together a concept album. I’ll leave it at that. We have a lot of the material written and we’re hoping to get into that project sometime in October. And we’re putting in for a more festivals next summer.
Anything else people might want to know?
Yeah, we’ll be hosting our Black Mountain Family Reunion again this fall up in the mountains outside of Colorado Springs. It’s located in a little town called Guffey. One Memorial Day weekend back in 2010, a buddy of mine and I were sitting around in the park and we decided that we should start a music festival. My friend had a friend who had some land in Guffey. So the first year we built a little stage off an old beat up pre-’50s flatbed pickup truck that was sitting on the land up there. We just extended the stage off of the truck bed. The fest gets a little bigger and better every year. We’ve improved the sound system and gotten better lights. What started as a more intimate gathering, has grown a bit. It started as a one-day thing and is up to three days now. We get quite a few people in, but we like to keep it small. And we try to have themes every year. We’ve had an Alice in Wonderland theme and this year our theme will be Star Wars. The fest will take place the weekend after Labor Day, Sept 11-13.
Special thanks to Preston Heffley and IdeaZign Media.
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