'Office' Star Ed Helms to Release Debut Bluegrass Album (Exclusive)

Helms talks to THR about his Lonesome Trio band’s in-the-works album, playing this weekend’s Bluegrass Situation music fest in Los Angeles and why he supports TreePeople’s mission to green the city.
Lincoln Andrew DeFer

He's known worldwide as Andy Bernard on The Office and Dr. Stu Price in the Hangover movies. But bluegrass aficionados can also vouch that the actor plays a mean banjo. This weekend, Ed Helms will be picking one up again when The L.A. Bluegrass Situation, the bluegrass music festival he co-founded two years ago, kicks off for a third time at Los Angeles live music venue Largo (366 N. La Cienega Blvd.). The actor's Ed Helms and the Lonesome Trio band is performing on Friday, May 4, as part of an already sold-out variety show, The Whiskey Sour Radio Hour. Helms and bandmates Jacob Tilove and Ian Riggs have been playing together for around twenty years since they attended school at Oberlin College. After school, says Helms, "we found ourselves living in New York City a little later and we played at dive bars and friends' parties. It was this fun side thing for all of us," says Helms.

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The Bluegrass Situation music fest seems to already have established a firm foothold in urban Los Angeles. Five of its six shows this weekend are sold out, including a Saturday performance featuring actor/banjoist Steve Martin and North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers and a Sunday night concert benefit for L.A. environmental group TreePeople. Still available: Tickets to see a show with actor John C. Reilly, guitarist Tom Brosseau and Lavender Diamond vocalist Becky Stark and guests on Thursday, May 3, at 10:30 pm.

If you can't see Helms this weekend, stay tuned. Helms tells THR that he and his bandmates are working on their first album after almost two decades of performing. "We've been laying down some demos and kicking them back and forth. We've been been playing together so long, we have so many original tunes. We’ve made recordings for friends and family for years but we’ve never done a proper album," says the actor. The group is considering self-releasing the album when completed. "It’'s unclear if a label is the way to go. The Louis C.K. comedy model is kind of also crossing over into the music world and obviously Radiohead kind of threw it up online for a donation of four or five dollars. We are figuring that part out," says Helms.

Sunday's sold-out finale concert takes place at TreePeople's headquarters in Coldwater Canyon Park in the Hollywood Hills. "I just love sort of conceptually being up on top of the ridge up there in the woods for the concert. Bluegrass music started in the trees of the Appalachian hills," says Helms. He supports the group for its environmental outreach to schoolchildren and for its work planting trees around Los Angeles. "What I get from it is a feeling of being responsible citizens in a giant urban environment and helping increasing awareness of our environmental impact and how to better manage it," says the actor, who recently voiced the character of the greedy, environmentally destructive Once-ler in the new Lorax movie. Since its founding in 1973, TreePeople -- which works to engage communities in greening their own neighborhoods – has worked in planting 2 million trees in Los Angeles, a city that is lacking in tree cover and has some of the worst air quality in the country. TreePeople planted almost 15,000 trees in 2011 and provided tours focusing on the urban environment for almost 10,000 elementary students.

Helms admits that he has a love-hate relationship with his favorite tree: the jacaranda, whose lavender flowers are just now coming into bloom throughout Los Angeles. "I live on the East Side and there's a little street near me that has a canopy of jacarandas. So when those guys burst into lavender glory, it's a beautiful little tunnel of purple. I also have one in my backyard. And then they drop those flowers and they get all sticky and gross on your windshield. On the one hand, they are so beautiful. On the other hand, they are like ‘Screw you and your cars for screwing up our environment. This is our revenge.'"

He's also a supporter of Education Through Music L.A. (ETMLA), which works to keep music and arts program in public schools. "This year, some of the proceeds from merchandise sales in particular will be helping out ETMLA," says Helms. He finds recent and planned severe cuts to arts funding in Los Angeles "totally terrifying."

"It's kind of one of those things of who do you get mad at. People that decide budgets for education have to make hard choices. If you keep a music program, you are going to be cutting something else, physical education or language, whatever else. So it's a bigger question of why are the schools under-funded in the first place. But keeping the arts in schools it not a luxury. Art are not just fun, they are not just a diversion. They are so closely tied to childhood development and brain development and confidence and the social life of a child. And they get kids and families involved in schools in ways that, you now, the best math class in the world never could," says Helms.

If you're new to bluegrass, Helms recommends checking out some of his favorites: The Del McCourry Band, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and The Punch Brothers. "I have a very liberal interpretation of the word bluegrass. The purists would say it's only this traditional high lonesome sound and that is all stuff we celebrate. But to us it's anything that feels like a legitimate offspring form. That universe could be Mumford & Sons, The Decembrists and Old Crow Medicine Show." He’s looking forward to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival coming up in October in San Francisco. "It's this great event that [the late] billionaire financier Warren Hellman started. It's sort of the spirit that we share which is that it's great music. Willie Nelson played up there and no one would call him bluegrass but it's just sort of open arms to people who kind of cherish the tradition."

To help fans keep up with shows and happenings within L.A.'s burgeoning bluegrass scene, Helms has also just launched the Bluegrass Situation blog. "It's a one-stop shop for all news, events and community-related content for all Southern California roots, Americana, bluegrass music. Hopefully it will have a real ongoing presence and something to rally the L.A. music community who don't really have a rallying point in Los Angeles right now. We're trying to build a community and get people together."