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Sawtooth Brothers: Two pairs of Twin Cities brothers play a new brand of bluegrass

by Lillian Speakman

August 24, 2015

For most people, the words progressive and bluegrass don’t necessarily go together, but that may soon change. A group of four talented musicians looking to make a name for themselves, Sawtooth Brothers are a band that will redefine your understanding of what bluegrass can be.

Like the name suggests, Sawtooth Brothers comprise two sets of brothers: Clint and Luke Birtzer, and Ethan and Jesse Moravec.

At first glance these guys can easily be identified as a traditional bluegrass band. With their instrumentation lineup—fiddle, acoustic guitar, upright bass and mandolin—they look like most other bluegrass bands. However, the music they create is difficult to categorize: it transcends tradition.

The night I saw the band perform at the Aster Café in Minneapolis, they played a variety of music, including Neil Diamond's “I’m a Believer,” the Statler Brothers' “Flowers on the Wall,” and “Lonely Boy” by the Black Keys. Their set also contained several original songs, as they are currently working on their first album of entirely original music.

The band have released albums prior to this one; however, they have since undergone a lineup change and slight name modification, leading them to view this current project as a debut album. After playing together for nearly a decade, they've developed a close musical relationship.

When I asked the band members how they would describe their sound, they seemed unsure exactly how to classify it. A couple of terms were thrown out: there was "progressive acoustic," there was "newgrass," and mandolin player Jesse Moravec offered the all-encompassing “progressive newgrass.”

Guitarist Clint Birtzer explained, “it’s hard to classify because—and it sounds conceited to say it—we don’t really fit in a category.”

I sat down with the Sawtooth Brothers and their producer, Dan Deurloo, in Deurloo's studio and listen to some of the mixes for the upcoming album. The songs are full of complex instrumental arrangements, meticulous harmonies, and sophisticated lyrics.

Much of this unique sound comes from their writing technique. According to the band, they always start by first figuring out the perfect hook. After getting down the hook, “then each individual builds their part,” as bassist Ethan Moravec put it.

The brothers stressed that they strive to create songs that are hyper-arranged, which serves to differentiate their music from traditional bluegrass songs. Although each member writes his own parts, they all have a sufficient knowledge of each other’s instruments, which allows them to be able to easily collaborate.

“They can speak each other’s parts,” producer Deurloo explained.

This upcoming album has been a long time in the making, so much so that for Birtzer, “making the record almost becomes a part of life.”

The band agreed that they’re thankful to have the ability to spend so much time perfecting their songs. Although time-consuming and at times frustrating, they prefer this laborious method of cutting a record. For fiddler Luke Birtzer, the combination of extended studio time and Deurloo’s stimulation made the making of the album “much more of a creative process.”

The band hopes to have the album ready for release this December.

Lillian Speakman is a student at Hamline University.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.