SUNBEARS’ Jonathan Berlin on Playing Telluride with Johnnyswim, Being Inspired By Janelle Monáe and Meeting Ed Helms

The 42nd Telluride Bluegrass Festival featured four days of ace pickers – Ry Cooder, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Punch Brothers, Greensky Bluegrass – at 8,750′ high. Held annually the third weekend of June, SUNBEARS!’ Jonathan Berlin tells us all about this year’s festivities.

The obvious starting point: what was Berlin – the frontman of a Jacksonville, Florida psych pop band known for visually captivating live shows, equally colorful albums like last year’s excellent Future Sounds, and collaborating with fwends The Flaming Lips – doing at a bluegrass/ folk festival?

“I’ve known Abner [Ramirez of Johnnyswim] for a long long time, since we were kids, but never really played music together. Maybe a couple times. Walter [Hill], who plays with us in SUNBEARS!, also plays in Johnnyswim. They needed someone to play bass last week, so they asked me. Walt has been playing with them a long long time. They are technically a duo, but he’s travels with them almost all the time now. They even did an acoustic tour a couple months ago and they took him.”

“Telluride was the highlight of the tour last week. We did five shows, and ended it with Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The festival was incredible. Got to see some amazing musicians – some of the best in the world – stand up on stage and do what they do best, almost effortlessly. It was one of those things that kinda make you question everything. I just texted Abner today and told him that I had a great time, just being able to tag along and not having to be in charge. It was almost like vacation. Aside from that, I met a few [great musicians] too. Got to meet Bela Fleck and fan boy on him for a minute, tell him how much Flight of the Cosmic Hippo was a game changer for me when I pretty young.”

Berlin’s Telluride highlights also included seeing The Punch Brothers and Janelle Monáe. He explains:

I had only heard of [ThePunch Brothers] before. Walter and Wesley kept saying that we needed to go see them play. So, we headed over and watched their set from sidestage. When I walked up they were starting on this cover of a Debussy composition. ‘Passepied’ I think…

So they gave this long explanation and then they started playing and I was just blown away. I mean, I haven’t stopped listening to their last record since… repeat on my Spotify...”

“I didn’t know that they were the guys, or at least one of them [Chris Thile], from Nickle Creek!”

“I guess every year the festival has an ‘outside’ artist play; something that’s not in the [bluegrass] genre. So this year it was Janelle Monae, which I hadn’t heard her either really, but she and her band put on a great show. They all were like in character, which was also inspiring because I always feel like there is this struggle between being genuine and putting on a good show. Because it’s music, people want to believe that you believe in what you’re singing and that it’s coming from a humble and honest place. But then also, everyone wants a good show…”

“I dunno, maybe I’m rabbit trailing here. But it just kinda reminded me.. like ‘Hey, I have no idea if Janelle had a good day or a bad day. She’s honestly just kicking ass up there…’ and that’s just really impressed me! That’s something that I don’t know how to do. If I’m having a bad day, it’s hard for me to ‘check it at the door’ and put on a smile. I do my best, but maybe I could be better.”

Jonathan also tells us about meeting comedian Ed Helms at Telluride.

“I think that Gary Paczosa, he engineered the Johnnyswim album, is working with Ed Helms and his group, ‘The Lonesome Trio.’ We watched their set and Gary was there too and introduced us all. [Ed] was very kind and actually not goofy, which I was surprised by. I figured he’d be the life of the party, but he was just kinda keeping to himself and being chill. We didn’t hang out much, just ‘hey, hi, you were great, we played earlier, loved your set, we both know Gary, awesome, let’s get a selfie?’ [laughs]

And what’s next for Jonathan and SUNBEARS!?

“Well that’s a good question. I know when I get back to town and I’m going to start writing again. I’ve got lots of ideas about the next project, from songs to how the whole thing will look. Things are going to be a little chill for shows with SUNBEARS! because Walter is having a kid soon. Jared just got married in March, so he’s been busy with his wife [laughs]. So I’m kinda taking the down time to get started on the next thing. Hopefully I’ll have something together in the next couple months. I honestly can’t wait to get back to Jacksonville and start writing again.”

Johnnyswim is doing a live album in NYC at Rockwood in LES in a couple weeks. I’m playing guitar on that with Walt too. Should be fun!!”

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