From zany Daily Show correspondent to anger-prone Office boss to tooth-missing Hangover bro, Ed Helms has defined comedy for more than a decade with quirky, physical humor. So, naturally, his next career move is a no-nonsense bluegrass album with his band, The Lonesome Trio, which he started with two of his best friends, bassist Ian Riggs and mandolinist Jacob Tilove, from his Oberlin College days.
“A lot of people assume the music is going to be comedic, just because of my pop culture context—and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable assumption,” Helms tells EW of the band. “But it took shape very organically and it’s very earnest, almost ridiculously earnest.”
Listeners shouldn’t let Helms’ raucous banjo playing as Office loudmouth Andy Bernard deter them. The Lonesome Trio’s self-titled debut—which EW is proud to premiere below—hones a style of tender, melodic bluegrass that harkens back to the tunes of the genre’s greats. Or, as Helms puts it: “Basically our influences are anything before World War II.”
The sometimes comedian, sometimes bluegrass performer chatted with EW about foregoing U2 as a teen, his connection to Bonnaroo, and just exactly why Office showrunner Greg Daniels decided to have Andy Bernard play the banjo.
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me a little about the new album’s origins.
ED HELMS: I’ve been playing music with my two best buddies for over 20 years. We started playing together in college. We all moved to New York City [in 1996] after college to pursue our separate passions, but we kept playing occasional gigs at dive bars and friends’ parties. We got entrenched in the New York City acoustic bluegrass music scene, but we just never took it that seriously, because we all had other things going on. We mostly did it as a social outlet, because it was a great way for us to hang out and we also liked each other’s songs.
Five years ago some of our buddies in the music world were on our case: “What’s your excuse? You guys have all this great original music, you put on great shows, get it out there!” That was the little kick in the pants we needed. We finally bit the bullet and did this recording—and I’m super, super excited about it.
Who are some of your influences?
Heavy influences for us have been Tom Waits and a lot of the original icons of bluegrass like Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe. Even some cowboy music, like the old Western cinema cowboy tunes, Dean Martin stuff. It’s all just kind of old; if it’s old, we like it and respond to it. Basically our influences are anything before World War II… and a lot of stuff after it. What the hell am I saying?
How did doing TV and film influence the album?
A lot of the songs on that album, predate any work I did on TV or movies. A lot of people assume the music is going to be comedic, just because of my pop culture context—and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. But it took shape very organically and it’s very earnest, almost ridiculously earnest. Not to say that it isn’t cheeky or sly in places, but it’s not a comedy album by any stretch. That’s typically not how our shows go either. We try to be very entertaining and have a light-hearted, fun show, but it’s not a comedy show per se.
How did you get started playing music?
I got my first guitar for Christmas when I was 13 and started taking lessons right away. I had this great guitar teacher in Atlanta, where I grew up, who was steeped in old time music. He was popular and a lot of my schoolmates went to him, but he was mostly teaching them the latest U2 song or whatever. I think I was one of his only students who responded to the old stuff. He was really excited by that and was an early influence and mentor for me. He was also a great banjo player. When I was 17, my high school did this production of Cotton Patch Gospel, an obscure bluegrass musical. They needed a banjo player, so my teacher taught me some banjo. I just learned those tunes for that show, and that was my intro to the banjo.
I was lucky to get to college and have [Lonesome Trio mandolinist] Jake [Tilove] as my roommate sophomore year. There wasn’t a lot of bluegrass going around. It seems much more embedded in pop culture now, but at that time it was hard to find. I was very lucky to have a roommate who was just starting to fiddle around with a mandolin, was kind of getting interested in it. We turned into this feedback loop of passion for it and also became best friends in the process. I feel so lucky to share this creative endeavor with two of my best friends from that time in my life.
As somebody who was a big Office fan, I always kind of chalked Andy’s musical talents up to, “Oh, Ed probably just learned that for the show or something.” But you have this whole musical background.
Office showrunner Greg Daniels found out I played banjo, so he wanted Andy Bernard to play the banjo. I was like, “Does that make any sense? This seems a little odd.” He said, “No, that’s why it’s great! We gotta incorporate the banjo.” It’s a bit of an anomaly for his character, but it’s a fun, weird thing. But all the music is very much an intrinsic part of me, and probably one of the more annoying parts of me, if I’m honest.
You’re playing at Bonnaroo this weekend. Tell me about your connection to the festival.
This is our third year there. I helped start a music blog called The Bluegrass Situation—we also produce a festival in Los Angeles called the L.A. Bluegrass Situation. Bonnaroo has been a great friend to us and three years ago they asked us to curate a stage for a day. We’ve done that every year. The Lonesome Trio chimes in at the end with a big superjam with all the acts from the day. It’s the best. This will be the first time that The Lonesome Trio is billed, because usually we’ve just showed up as part of the superjam. But we’ve got our own little set squeezed in there which is going to be really, really fun.