Actor Ed Helms makes his living off laughs, but he takes his passion — music — very seriously. In between roles in the Hangover films, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and elsewhere, the 41-year-old is a bluegrass renaissance man, playing several instruments in The Lonesome Trio and running The Bluegrass Situation, an all-things-Americana hub that hosts an eponymous festival in Los Angeles and just curated a stage at Bonnaroo for the third year in a row. With The Lonesome Trio’s self-titled debut released on June 16 on Sugar Hill Records, Helms explains why he digs deep for roots music.
You recorded this album in two intense weeks in a studio in Asheville, N.C. Compare the process of making an album to making a film.
They’re totally different creative muscles. The best comparison would be cramming on a script deadline: long hours, late nights and just jamming to get a script done. It’s sort of a similar neural pathway to making an album, just kind of holing up in the studio, working super late hours, long days. But it’s so fun. There’s something very pure about it. You isolate yourself; you’re steeping in this creative stew. It’s a really special experience.
You play guitar, banjo, piano, trumpet, and harmonica on the album. Are you someone who picks up instruments pretty easily?
I can pick up instruments fairly easily, but at a very rudimentary level. I’m not a rudimentary guitar player or piano player, but that’s because I’ve worked hard at those things for many years. Other things I can pick up quickly but that doesn’t mean I’m very good at it. I played trumpet in junior high, but could I play a Miles Davis solo? Hell no.
There’s a song on the album called “Mr. Forture” that’s kind of a downer. It’s more of a blues song. It’s a side of you we don’t get to see very often. Do you get the blues?
That song is about being in a really dark and vulnerable and sad place, and just wanting some light, wanting something hopeful. That is something that certainly is part of my existence, like it is for everybody at some point. As a comedian and comedic actor, it’s easy to assume otherwise, but it’s just a very human thing.
What other kinds of music do you listen to besides roots and bluegrass? Are you a closet hip-hop fan?
I’m not a closet hip-hop fan. I do love some of the great hip-hop classics like anybody. I definitely went through a metal phase. I was super into Metallica in high school. I was obsessed with Van Halen. I’m a little odd with music, ’cause I’ll chase down a genre I’m not familiar with and I’ll go deep on that for a while. Like just recently I’ve been listening to some great old Percy Sledge and great old soul music, and it’s super inspiring. Like take “Stand By Me” for example. It’s phenomenal. When you listen to these arrangements they’re mind-blowing. Before that I got deep into gypsy jazz: Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt.
Steve Martin is another comedian who shreds on the banjo. If you and Steve had a “Devil Went Down to Georgia”-style throwdown, who would win?
Steve would walk away with it hands down. He’s an awesome banjo player. I’m pretty deep in the bluegrass community, and he is taken very seriously as a musician — for good reason.