photo: Cara Wasielewski
The members of The Giving Tree Band approach their musicianship a little differently than most rock or folk bands (the sound of TGTB is best characterized as a bit of both). The seven talented multi-instrumentalists who comprise the ensemble use their music as a vehicle for community-building and environmental stewardship. Their artist-owned label, Crooked Creek Records, purchases offsets to reduce its carbon footprint; several of their instruments—donated by Ohio-based Highland Strings—are handcrafted from reclaimed wood and coated with non-toxic finish; and their bio-diesel tour van—recently extracted from the mud in last month's flooding—will soon run on waste vegetable oil. Now the band has just completed a first for both the music industry and sustainable materials production: the world's first carbon-neutral album.
I met with four members of The Giving Tree Band at their recent gig at the North Park Village Nature Center. Brothers Todd and Eric Fink, Andy Goss, Patrick Burke and I gathered around a picnic table on an unseasonably warm October afternoon to talk about their music, their ideals and the production of their new green album, Great Possessions, slated for release next spring.
Tell me about the production of Great Possessions.
Eric: Well, we were able to do a lot of the manufacturing for our first album via wind power, with 100% post-consumer recycled materials and soy ink. We wanted to make the second album more on our level; we're not a large band with a lot of resources. The Aldo Leopold Legacy Center just opened six months after our search started. We were lucky to find it; it's considered the world's greenest building according to the LEED standard of building. At first they were taken aback that a band wanted to record an album in their conference center, but we pursued and, as they got to know us, they learned that our mission was true and we intended to do work that has never been done before. We camped out and rode our bikes 11 miles each way every day to record. The production was stripped down, but we felt that was a lot of the charm of the album. The Giving Tree Band is ideal for this kind of project; we weren't energy vampires at the center because we were just powering microphones and a laptop. At the same time, we wound up making our most arranged and experimental album; we were isolated and working ten-plus hours a day, so everything we did took a lot of thought, focus, purpose and organization. We'd wake up at 5:30 a.m. and bike to the center, then try to strap on the instruments and make an album…it took a few days to get used to it, partly because we were a little out of shape at the time.
How is the packaging produced?
Todd: The packaging is 100% recycled, 100% post-consumer content, printed with non-toxic soy inks and wrapped in corn cellulose shrink-wrapping. It's all biodegradable—every part of the packaging. At Crooked Creek Records, we’re offsetting our carbon footprint for production. All of the projects on the label will be carbon-neutral in some way.
On your website, you state that you believe in music as service. How does your vision statement guide your choices in the gigs you take?
Andy: There's some sort of charitable or ecological component to the gigs we do. For instance, this one, at the Nature Center, is the type of thing that brings communities together. We did a festival in Louisville that had a lot of activists and charities involved. We've done book fairs and played at hospitals...it's very different than what you typically expect.
photo: Cara Wasielewski
What inspired you to make the commitment to sustainability and service?
Todd: It was born in part out of frustration with previous attempts at making music—playing at bars and clubs and not feeling like there was a lot of meaning to what we were doing. We wanted to get away from music as purely entertainment. Music has a lot of power and potential to inspire and motivate people and therefore can really impact the community and the globe even in a very positive way. We created a vision statement; we wanted these ideals to be our guiding philosophy and not stray too far or compromise those values. This was a little scary at first because we thought, "Where will we play? How will we get by?" But it's proven to be a good path; it's opened a lot of new avenues for us and for other artists too. Many artists—not just musicians—have collaborated with us and taken these ideas even further. It's really encouraging when you see people from different disciplines coming forward to support and give us the thumbs up. It lets us know we're doing the right thing.
Also, our music is really fan supported. A lot of people pre-ordered CDs and created a sort of musical CSA. We use that money toward production and then give them the album when it's finished.
Eric: (with a chuckle) Community Supported Audio.
Todd: There you go. We think what we're doing can be really inspiring for a lot of other artists on the grassroots level. We want to stick with our small, independent, artist-owned album so we can do things environmentally correctly and continue taking the kind of shows we want and embrace the values that have provided so much fulfillment for us as artists.
The Giving Tree Band plays November 22 at the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival at the Congress Theater.