Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Swiss bluegrass with The Long John Brothers
It took the Swiss bluegrass band The Long John Brothers only a few years to get to the stage they’re on now. First formed in 2012, their present line-up coalesced three years later, and remains the same today. The group consists of Sylvain Demierre on guitar and lead vocal, Jean-Michel Pache sharing lead vocals and playing the fiddle and mandolin, Olivier Uldry on redo-guitar and banjo, and Sylvain Merminod on bass.
That said, their roots go back much further. Pache and Demierre have known each other since childhood, and played in various local rock bands throughout their adolescence. In late 2012 they started their first grassicana outfit, but were forced to take a two-year hiatus while Pache spent some time in the US. Uldry was the next to join after first being recruited to play mandolin. However once Pache returned from the States, he took over the mandolin duties, Uldry switched to banjo and reso, and the band initiated a basic bluegrass approach. Once Epiney was added, the group was complete.
“Generally speaking, we all come from a rock background,” Uldry explains. “The influences range from ’60s and ’70s rock and roll to an aggressive style of extreme heavy metal. I played in a country band in the very late ’90s and early 2000s, but at the same time I found myself dabbling in bluegrass as well.”
Initially the Long John Brothers culled its repertoire from the music of Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Chris Thile and Michael Daves, and the Kentucky Colonels, among others. In due time, however, they began writing and performing their own songs, drawing on such eclectic influences as the Beatles, The Country Gentleman, the Beach Boys, Tony Rice, and Ricky Skaggs.
That said, they now have a sound that’s distinctly their own. “We have an acoustic and natural tone, with a very powerful and dynamic range,” Uldry notes. “We often play acoustically, but even in a packed bar or a crowded live venue where there’s no PA, we can still be heard in the very last row. I credit the powerful loud voices of Jean-Michel and Sylvain, as well as the fierce and aggressive playing style that’s shared by the rest of us. Still, we always favor the dynamics and nuances found in each song, and that allows us to sometimes play three hours in a row without feeling like we’re boring the audience. When we plug in, our rig is really simple — one mic stand with four microphones mounted on it. We all stand in front of it and the result is as natural as it gets, even on a small stage.”
Up until now, touring has mainly been confined to Switzerland and France. “We organized a few tours of our own, but these were usually limited to between five and ten dates in a row over the course of ten days to two weeks,” Uldry says.”This summer we played a total of 27 shows between mid-June and late July, and we could have played eight or nine more, but we were already very busy when those dates were offered to us. It was a really busy summer for us!”
The band’s schedule also brought them to several festivals. This past summer, they performed at La Roche Bluegrass Festival and Zermatt Unplugged, as well as various Swiss music gatherings such as Festicheyres and Chapel Festival. Uldry says that they’ve previously played at several other local festivals as well. “We all have a dream that someday we’ll be able to head to the US for a tour,” he adds. “I’m hoping some headline acts will read this interview and bring us over as their support.”
That’s already happened to a limited extent. The Long John Brothers opened for the Colorado based-band, Rapidgrass, in 2018 and then got the opportunity to jam with them and IBMA Momentum Award winner Chris Luquette at La Roche.
Uldry also says that the group’s music has been well received back home. “We always sell merchandise, CDs and vinyl at the end of our shows, and we get the feeling that our music meets the audience’s expectations,” he maintains.
In the meantime, the group is doing quite well as far as securing wider recognition. Their first album, Lost Forty-Niners, was released in September 2019 and they weren’t out promoting it live for long before COVID forced them to pause a few months later. “We were unable to play until mid 2020, but then only for a few weeks until everything was locked down again,” Uldry recalls. “However from this past June until now, gigs were once again allowed in our country, so we really feel like we can now treat this album as still fresh and new. We also put the album on a few platforms, including Spotify, Deezer, and Youtube. We’ve been emphasizing our own original songs, but we still play many covers, including Fox on the Run, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Black Eyed Suzy, The Weight, Panama Red, Rank Stranger, and Little Maggie, among them.”
Uldry also has his own thoughts as to why bluegrass enjoys such worldwide popularity. “It’s probably because the music is true and played without any artifice or complex gear, and the audience understands that and clearly sees what’s happening on stage,” he muses. “The melodies are catchy and the tunes are short, which means it’s definitely a super efficient style of music. There are so many elements that are reminiscent of traditional music and even various themes that bring back memories of almost everyone’s childhood. The Long John Brothers play for so many different types of audiences, from metal headbangers, to elderly people, to young people in their 20s, and when we play, we always have the feeling that there are no boundaries. So wherever they come from, or whatever languages they speak, everyone seems to find a common connection in bluegrass and a reason to enjoy our shows.”