How Kid Brothers From New Jersey Made The Banjo Cool Again

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Welcome back to Uncharted, an Uproxx original series highlighting the best artists you haven’t heard of, yet. With the support of our friends at Honda, we are following some of the best emerging talent as they follow their dreams and make great music.

Teenagers are constantly in the new, ahead of the curve. They’re onto the trends we find out about tomorrow, use apps we’ve never heard of on technologies we can’t figure out. That’s true of Sleepy Man, too. But there’s another side to these New Jersey teenagers, and what they’ve managed to achieve in their young lives by choosing the old ways over the modern is truly special.

Tommy, Robbie, and Jonny Mizzone are three everyday teens who wanted to start a band. So how in the world did they end up traveling a journey that started out in bluegrass, a genre that popular culture forgot in the ’60s, only to evolve into something more naturally roots- and Americana-based?

Where else but YouTube?

“I originally started to play classical violin, Tommy was doing rock on the guitar, and Jonny hadn’t even started playing banjo yet,” Robbie told Uproxx. But the brothers’ tune changed when they saw a decades-old clip of bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs playing the banjo. “We got a new appreciation of what we could do with our instruments from [the video]. Jonny picked up the banjo right after, because he was so inspired by that video. We all kind of put it together and formed a group from that.”

They named it Sleepy Man Banjo Boys – after Robbie, the youngest member’s demeanor while playing his instrument. (“The banjo was so heavy — he would come into our room as he was practicing and play with his eyes closed or have to lay flat on his back.”) Initially the boys were just uploading the results of their work to YouTube for fun, but the videos started to get wildly popular, and a light bulb turned on. “Yeah, it went viral out of the blue,” Robbie said. And once that happened it was like ‘We have a real shot at this,’ so we came up with a band name and we went at it.”

It’s almost ironic that kids who digest the majority of their music in a completely digital space like YouTube would find something so analog and off the beaten path. The merging of these two philosophies has created a sweet harmony for Sleepy Man. And, yes, while it admittedly would probably be easier to form a rock or pop band, the brothers enjoy the unique niche they’ve carved for themselves.

“We love pop and we love all that other stuff,” Robbie said, “but it’s just kind of a different style. There’s something about strings vibrating on wood. There’s a lot of complexity, it’s a more authentic type of music.”

And that small dedicated following has all but exploded. Sleepy Man has performed on The Late Show With David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live, in a number of TED conferences, and – any country musician’s dream – on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. But even with all of this progress, the boys have more in mind.

“We still love bluegrass, but as we’ve gotten older, our music tastes have definitely changed a little bit.” Citing possible routes for success like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, and Punch Brothers, the band has said their direction has strayed from straight-ahead bluegrass to something more palatable for the mainstream.

“We were always listening to instrumental bluegrass, that kind of stuff, but now we’re listening to music with vocals and more catchy stuff,” Robbie said. “The older records we did felt like kind of a novelty act at first – all the songs were ridiculously fast instrumentals, and they all kind of sounded the same. Now we’re trying to expand on our tastes and make it appeal to a general audience.”

“We want to introduce a different sort of pop music,” Robbie said. “There’s so many different sounds than the popular ones most people are listening to. If [bluegrass and roots music] got mainstream, I feel people would realize they really like it.”

And while Sleepy Man’s second studio album is soon arriving, and some big decisions concerning the band’s future are coming up – two members of the group are graduating from high school next year – ultimately, like their rootsy forefathers, they don’t necessarily need fame. They just want to make great music that makes people feel something.

“For me, personally, popularity isn’t what it’s all about. But if we got a really great platform behind us and we got to share our music with a bunch of people — touching people’s lives with our music – that’s really what’s the most important thing. If you got a bunch of people who can say you really helped them when they were struggling or were depressed or anything like that – if we helped them – that’s the ultimate goal.”

Whether it’s a fiddle or a Fender, that’s something we could all relate to.

For more from Sleepy Man, visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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