Almost a decade ago, a local band called Signal Path began cultivating a blend of electronic and folk/bluegrass music. The duo, Ryan Burnett and Damon Metzner, were University of Montana students and jazz musicians at the time, both looking for some way to break out of the oversaturated jam band scene. That jamtronic sound—acoustic instruments fused with electronica devices—was just taking root in other small pockets of the country, and Metzner and Burnett considered themselves, almost by accident, on the genre's cutting edge.
Over the years, the band grew to five and toured to some of the nation's largest jazz, jam, bluegrass and electronic festivals. But things came to an end in 2007 when the quintet decided to take a hiatus.
Now, Metzner and Burnett have resurfaced in Denver, Colo., and re-formed as a duo. They've also recorded a free-to-download studio album called Clash, and decided to hit the road for their biggest tour in three years. In anticipation of their homecoming, we caught up with Metzner and Burnett about the old days, weird venues and the jamtronic evolution.
Indy: Do you remember what it was like when you guys first came on the scene?
Burnett: I remember that time. We were definitely one of the only couple of bands in the country to be playing live electronic music. Not that it was this whole super unique thing, but it definitely was on the edge. It was post-Phish and String Cheese, and those types of fans were coming to our shows and hearing synthesizers and house beats, sometimes for the first time. And, you know, maybe we didn't do it that well, but it definitely took off. And it took us from Missoula into being a fairly legitimate national act.
Indy: How did you know you were cutting-edge?
Burnett: We were reading articles that said, "These guys are doing electronic music only it's with five jazz musicians." Every town and city we went it was the same article. It drilled it into our minds that we were doing something different. And that was one of the best things we had going for us at the time.
Indy: What was your most unexpected experience during those early tours?
Burnett: Austin, Tex. There was literally a forest in the middle of the city. We pull up and these two gnome-like hippies open the iron gates so we can pull in. It was a whole different ballgame. Once inside, you could look in all directions and see nothing but forest. We had speakers and full production like in a theater, but the equipment was all up in trees and there was a river running through the dance floor.
Metzner: Do you remember what happened there? There were like 800 to 1,000 people in the middle of this forest. Halfway through our set, the crowd—and we don't even know anyone there—started chanting "Missoula, Montana." That was so weird and so cool.
Indy: What's the worst place you played?
Metzner: The Smiling Skull [in 2003] in Athens, Ohio. We show up and it's this biker bar and there are two tiny speakers, no monitor and the stage is the size of a queen-sized bed, and so there was no room for our equipment. I set up a hi-hat and a kick drum and the other drummer had a tambourine. It was a complete set of improvised music for an hour and a half to no one. But we took it in good humor.
Indy: How has Signal Path's music changed over the years?
Metzner: Back in the day we were five jazz and rock musicians trying to play electronic music with acoustic instruments, and now we've delved so far into the electronic end of it that we're electronic musicians trying to bring in acoustic instruments. We've gone so far down the rabbit hole that we're trying to incorporate the acoustic stuff back in.
Indy: What's the future of Signal Path?
Metzner: Before it was all push, push, push. It was more about becoming successful. We were young and we were really trying to make it. So now, after coming off the road, we've grown up a little bit. We're able to let the music take us where it wants to take us. It's not us trying to ram the music or the band down anyone's throat anymore, that's not where our energy is best spent. It's best spent making music for people who want to hear it.
Indy: Have you seen the electronic jam scene blow up?
Metzner: To say the scene has changed from when we first started is an understatement. The scene has popped off. We're playing electronic music [in Missoula] the same night as Yonder Mountain String Band, a bluegrass band. And they are going to have an impact on our show. And vice versa. This blending of the jam and electronic world has taken on an entirely fresh energy.
Burnett: When we were touring before, it seemed like our opening band was always a jam band. And now our opening is always an electronic band hybrid situation. It's cool to see some of these bands and hear them tell stories of seeing us at Bonnaroo or High Sierra. That's humbling. I don't want to put us on a pedestal at all, but it does make everything worth it.
Signal Path plays the Top Hat Saturday, April 10, at 9 PM. Cover TBA.