Chicago Bluegrass: Q & A with The Grasstronauts Guitarist Lee Syrjanen

Chicago Bluegrass: Q & A with The Grasstronauts Guitarist Lee Syrjanen

It’s funny that the city of Chicago is actually a bluegrass-laden village of love.  Well, it always feels that way when you’re at a bluegrass show at least.  Everyone knows each other, at least for those hours, and everyone’s celebrating one mutual friend: the music, as we forget the day’s troubles and give into carefree dance.  Chicago has always been thought of as a blues city, but if you think of it bluegrass is not all that different in its essence, even though its therapeutic roots lie in rural Appalachia.

Musically, they both borrow from jazz  improv, use similar scales, and pass the melody around in group play.  Sociologically speaking, both genres’ lyrics and inspiration for creation are pretty parallel.   Struggles with  money, family, love, aging,  addiction, purity, sin, loneliness, hope, power, and difference are transcendent across the human condition, and even time really.   In that simplified skew,  maybe it seems to make sense that Chicago has become host to a similar culture of people who have been creating and dancing to some really good bluegrass output over the years.

Built upon the rich foundation of Alligator Records, Cornmeal and Sexfist /The Henhouse Prowlers, and encouraged to evolve  by newer festivals like Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival with headliners like David Grisman, Bela Fleck, Emmitt-Nershi Band, and many more, Chicago has been really fortunate to have such a diverse selection within the bluegrass genre in which to kick up some dirt. Recently I had the distinct pleasure of checking out the quickpicking Grasstronauts at Tonic Room and they were phenomenal.   A classic acoustic bluegrass sound, with swift dexterity, melodic sound, and just offering an overall good feeling  like when you first feel a sip of spicy wassail trickle down and warm you up on a cold winter’s day.  They will be playing November 16 at Chillfest as well, so go see the gents…they’re a good time.  At Tonic Room, I got a few minutes to talk about the band, and what they do, with guitarist Lee Syrjanen, and this is what he had to say.

Q: How long have you been playing together & how did it happen?

A: Drew and I have been playing together since late 2011, Greg and Jason shortly after that.  I think we practiced together for about two or three months together before we played our first show… they were pretty rough.  I listen to some of the old stuff we recorded in practice from those days and wonder what we were doing.

Q: Do you tour or have you toured?  Where is your favorite place to play?

A: We’ve stayed pretty close to our home base here in Chicago.  We get out to the burbs pretty often and a few music festivals around Illinois.  I’m guessing next summer we’ll venture out a little more.  I don’t know if I have a favorite place to play.  It’s really all about the crowd.  A crowd can really make or break any show, no matter where it is.  Some of my favorite shows have been at little “Hole in the Wall’s” that people just went absolutely nuts at.

Q: Very true about the crowd-piece.  When you do travel as a band, what is your favorite music to listen to?  Do you all agree or do you rotate whose turn it is to pick?

A: When we travel it’s usually in two cars.  We haven’t had any major disputes over music, but there could really be anything on in my car.  We’ve ranged from listening to “Doc Watson” to “The Residents.”  It can get weird sometimes.

Q: What unique qualities do you have as a band?

A:  I think we’ve been able to stay unique with our style.  I’ve had people describe us as anything from folk to thrash grass.  By no means am I saying that we’re the only people doing what we’re doing, but we were never trying to have a certain sound.  I just really like the fact that four people with different musical backgrounds got together, played, and liked what happened when they did.  We hope a few others like it too.

Q: What do you have coming up as a band you’d like people to know about?  Any upcoming shows, albums or new tracks you’re working on?

A: Our schedule is always getting added upon so I’d definitely encourage people to check out our website (, bandcamp ( or our Facebook page (  We’ve been in the studio for awhile now as well and we’ll be releasing a 7 song EP.  We’ve been recording in studio with Kevin Cebulski, who’s been so great to work with. I’m not sure when exactly it’s coming out, probably a couple months, but I’ve listened to some rough cuts and I’m really happy with what I’ve heard so far.  I’m still trying to figure out a way to get Drew to incorporate some saxophone.  He’s just unbelievable with that thing, I just need to write something that complements it well.

Q: In the way a company has a mission statement, what would be your mantra as a band?

A: I can’t speak for everyone but I just go the rule of always be proud of what you’re putting out there.  I’ll never put out a song I write just for something to have out there.  There’s no doubt I’ve written my fare share of turds, those get tossed or revamped until I’m happy with them.  It can certainly be frustrating because you think you should always be creating and doing more, but I think it’s important to always be proud of what you’re potentially asking other people to listen to or even pay for. Q
Q: And how did you come up with your name?
A: The name was an accident.  I think one day Drew told us someone said we should name the band “The Grasstronauts.”  A few months later we found out that the person actually told him something completely different.
Q: Who are some musicians that inspire you to keep creating, as cliche as that can be?
A: Musical inspirations is a tough one.  I play with bands all the time that I’m blown away by.  Henhouse Prowlers are a big influence to me, I try to get up to Martyrs’ every Tuesday I can to catch them.  Under The Willow is a band we’ve been fortunate enough to play with quite a bit this last year.  Those folks are just touring around in an RV all over the place, it’s pretty rad.
Q: If you were going to tell someone about The Grasstronauts who had never heard or seen you guys before, what bands would you compare yourselves to in sound or ideology?
A: I hate comparing us to other bands. If I had to throw out some bands that people MAY know of that we may sound a bit like they’d be Trampled By Turtles, Yonder Mountain String Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Pert Near Sandstone.
The Grasstronuats are Lee Syrjanen – Guitar/Vocals, Andrew Spear – Banjo/Vocals, Gregory Morland – Mandolin/Vocals, and Jason Leather – Bull Fiddle/Vocals and they are very cool and laid-back dudes.  Go say hi and see a show.



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