Ed Helms on Bluegrass, his Bill Monroe movie and the Naked Gun reboot

Ed Helms, star of this month for July Vacation remake, met Jacob Tilove and Ian Riggs when he was an undergrad student at Oberlin. They bonded like college kids do: drinkers, jokes, and jams as a bluegrass ensemble. When fate brought them to New York City, Helms, Tilove, and Riggs made their extracurricular activity official as The Lonesome Trio and became regulars at the Parkside Lounge in Manhattan.

Professions have taken them in different directions over the years – Helms went to Hollywood to become a movie star – but the trio persisted. Whenever they got together, they picked up their banjo, mandolin and bass (respectively) to unearth their sweet and melodious repertoire.

Twenty-two years later, The Lonesome Trio finally has an album (simply titled The lonely trio). Speaking to Esquire over the phone, Helms says there’s no particular reason it took so long, that’s how show business works. One day you’re overwhelmed, the next day you’re sitting at home waiting for the next project to get the green light, then all of a sudden you’re writing an album with two college buddies, because why not? Here, Helms looks back on the early days, shares the Trio’s choice whiskeys, and explains where his bluegrass and acting lives meet.

The Trio have been playing together for years. What do you each bring to the table?

It’s hard to say. We all write songs and we all sing lead on different songs, and we all sing backup harmonies on other songs and it’s really a collective effort. It always has been. It’s all very democratic, and every time a new song hits the table, we all agree to love it and get down to business.

If it’s democratic, how do you make a song exist and avoid speaking it to death?

We will all participate and contribute to the arrangement of our songs. To give it the trio treatment, we’re just going to start playing it together and finding harmonies together. We play it over and over and see what works for us. We’re arguing about how to end it or how that harmony should go, or where the solo breaks go, all those little details.

According to the official Lonesome Trio biography, the proto-group performed “basement parties all over Oberlin”. Were they wild?

Yes. There were a lot of people arguing over Kafka and what he was really trying to communicate with Metamorphosis. It was as crazy as the barrel parties in Oberlin.

The bio also notes that the three of you have come together around a love for whiskey. What does the Lonesome Trio drink?

At the time, it was all we could afford, namely Wild Turkey or a horrible Old Overholt. At the bottom of the barrel. Good rye whiskeys are usually what we’ll get before a show. Bulleit Rye is a favorite.

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There’s a line in one of your songs that’s pretty dark: “It’s all gone to Hell”. Are you inspired by your Hollywood experiences or the legacy of bluegrass?

I wrote this song. The chorus goes, “I know it’s all gone to hell. Who’s to blame? I can’t even say it. For a while it all looked so good, but now it’s all gone to hell.” It’s just a relational comment. There are certain relationships in our lives that implode, and it can seem really inexplicable and terrifying. You don’t know why, and sometimes relationships end for reasons that one person is keeping the other person, and it’s just not clear, and it just goes south and it’s heartbreaking. It’s more of a specific relational context, rather than just like “it all went to hell”.

Do you look to your past for inspiration in music? Making movies doesn’t seem to provide much food for bluegrass.

I feel like I don’t write so much about Hollywood stuff, but it’s not because it’s Hollywood. I just feel like it’s work! It’s my day job. In the same way that I don’t feel that an accountant who plays bluegrass at night wouldn’t necessarily write songs about accounting. They might, who knows? Maybe I could write some Hollywood songs related to work.

A Hangover conceptual album.

Law. The subject of acting in Hollywood does not lend itself to the idiom of bluegrass.

Have you thought about making a bluegrass movie?

In fact, I have. I didn’t edit it, but there was a project that had been around for a little while based on the life of Bill Monroe called You don’t hear me call and that just couldn’t emerge from the cogs of Hollywood funding. It hasn’t been revealed, or it hasn’t yet, but it’s a really, really cool movie and it would be nice to do.

You’ve performed the songs on this album for many years, but it’s only now that you’ve found the time to record them. Movies work the same – you’ve been attached to this summer Vacation remaking for years and now it’s up to us. How many plates do you have to turn to keep working in show business?

It’s kind of nature. Things just grind and grind, and you try to move the ball forward and try to move it forward, and then suddenly, “Bam!” It’s okay, it happens. It can grind for years, or it can grind for a month. In this case, an album, or in the case of Vacation, every time that happens, it is a miracle. Everything that leads there is only reality. It’s just the daily grind of trying to produce a creative production and get funding for it and all the hard work behind it. But when that actually happens, it’s a miracle. Or a matrix of miracles.

Speaking of long term projects, you have been attached to a Bare gun redo for a few years. Could it suddenly materialize?

The gears are turning. Or, should I say, churning. It’s unclear. He doesn’t have a start date or something, but I sure hope he does. Definitely still in the hopper.

Earlier than another Lonesome Trio album?

Yes. Hopefully it’s not yet twenty before the next one.

The Lonesome trio’s eponymous album is now available.

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Jeffrey G. Foley

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