Catching up with the Frosty Bottom Boys

Frosty Bottom Boys - Music In The Garden
Frosty Bottom Boys - Music In The Garden

The Coolest Band We Know

In July we celebrate summer and our nation’s birthday. When we think of festivities, we think of PFS staffer Cody Johnson’s Alaska band, The Frosty Bottom Boys. Those of us who live away have had few opportunities to hear the joyous sound of the Frosty Bottom Boys in person, though the views we’ve glimpsed via podcasts have made us want more. We cornered Cody for a few minutes to find out more about the boys in the frosty bottom band. Read on.

So, Frosty Bottom Boys: Where did the band get its name?

In 2009 Andrew Balser (our fiddle player) had some friends over for a movie night at his place.  Several of us who went to Andrew’s had played music together up at Toolik Field Station during the previous summer.  The movie that we watched was Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and if you have seen the movie the protagonists form an ad hoc musical group called the Soggy Bottom Boys.  After the movie while we sat around chatting, Christie Haupert quipped that we should call ourselves the Frosty Bottom Boys, and thus an actual band was formed.

We noticed one of your members went to a permafrost conference. Are you all scientists? Really, who are you guys?

Four of our six band members have science backgrounds.

Jock Irons (guitar) was a Ph.D. student who conducted research at Toolik back in the 80s.  He now works for UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology as an IT specialist.

Ben Abbott (mandolin) was actually my undergraduate field assistant at Toolik Field Station in 2007 while I was working on my Ph.D. research.  While still an undergraduate at Utah State University Ben worked at Toolik in 2008 as well, as the assistant to the Arctic LTER’s senior lakes research assistant.  In 2009 (after finishing his undergraduate) Ben Started his own Ph.D. work at UAF (still working at Toolik), funded by Breck Bowden’s Thermokarst Project.  As an aside, Ben presided over my wedding to Amy.

Andrew Balser (fiddle) began working at Toolik Field Station the same year that I did (2001).  He was the first GIS specialist that Toolik had on staff, and really developed the Toolik GIS office.  He left the Toolik job in, I believe, 2004 for greener pastures in the private sector.  However, he returned to Toolik when he began a Ph.D. program at UAF, also funded by Breck Bowden’s Thermokarst Project.

My own (Cody Johnson (banjo)) science background includes conducting research on lakes around Toolik as an undergraduate research assistant, master’s student, Ph.D. student, post-doc, and PI from 2001 – 2010.

Jake Chavez (guitar) worked at Toolik off and on for several years as a helicopter mechanic for Bristow.  Jake still works for Bristow, but now primarily is deployed to Prudhoe Bay.

Finally T.J. O’Donnel (bass) teaches 1st grade at Pearl Creek Elementary School in Fairbanks.  We were introduced via our mutual friend Marin who found us both in the same predicament searching for chicks to raise after losing chickens to a fox last summer. In passing Marin mentioned that T.J. also played the bass if we were looking for a bass player.  It just so happens that we were and T.J. joined the band in August 2011.  (As if they weren’t busy enough with their work, chickens and two daughters, T.J.'s wife Nicole just published a book of poetry focused on Alaska called Steam Laundry)

Where did you meet and how long have you been playing?

Most of us met at Toolik Field Station (Ben, Andrew, Jock, Jake, and Myself).  Ben, Jake and I have been playing very informally since 2007.  I started bringing my banjo to Toolik in 2004, and just picking around to pass the time in the evenings with whomever brought instruments.  Ben, Jake, and I played with a mutual friend (Ken Fortino) at Toolik for several years and we called ourselves Kenny and the Pingos, although to say we were a band would be a huge stretch.  Jock and Andrew started playing with us in the fall of 2009, and T.J. came on board the summer of 2011.

Do you write your own songs?

Ben and T.J. have a few original songs, but for the most part we do covers of songs that we like to listen to, only adding folksy bluegrass flair.  For example, this cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers song ‘Under the Bridge’

Best concert memory?

It’s hard to say, but our most recent Music in the Garden event in Fairbanks was fantastic.  However, I would attribute a lot of that to the outside venue in the UAF Botanical Garden, the perfect weather, and the great crowd.  Probably the gig I felt the most privileged to play was the retirement party for Terry Chapin at UAF.  Terry is an amazing scientist (and Alaska’s only member in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) and a great fiddle player as well.  We had a great time playing his retirement party with Terry on fiddle and a square dance caller keeping the crowd in-step.

Are you planning to tour the lower 48, say around American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting time?

I wish, but not likely.  All of us have day jobs that keep us pretty busy. It is actually incredibly difficult to get a gig all six of us can attend.  Between those of us with field work, children, and/or deployment to the North Slope it is kind of like herding cats to get us all in the same place at the same time.

Any favorite YouTube videos we can post?

As far as I know we don’t have any videos on YouTube, but we do have several songs and videos on our Facebook page. Also, here is a link to a great podcast from our performance on Alaska Live