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by Laurence Arnold / pictures by Paul Heartfield
It's the wrong side of the vernal equinox to be sitting outside of a café, but my guest was set to release a single called, appropriately, or rather not, Spring Released. He's none other than Grant-Lee Phillips, who recently visited these shores to play two, sell-out, dates in London ahead of the release of his second solo album 'Mobilize'. It was his first trip here since the demise of his much loved band Grant Lee Buffalo. He's looking fresh, while sporting a rugged Elvis look and enjoying the sunshine, hence the al fresco coffee. He's also in fine spirits and most of the interview is spent with both of us giggling as we chat and watch the people of London go about their business. Still, it started reasonably seriously.... with the drinks ordering. With that out of the way we got to talking. So, you're back again in London, do you like playing here?
Yeah, yeah... I do actually. The last few shows that we played in January were amazing, I couldn't have been happier with the response and the shows themselves. I walked offstage with a good feeling. You seemed quite bouncy onstage.
[laughing] Yeah, you know, a little extra bounce in the souls of my shoes these days. I think, in general I'm enjoying it a lot more than I ever allowed myself to before, I've become comfortable with it in a different way. The album sounds happier and, despite being called 'Mobilize' and you wearing a Napoleon outfit, it's not as militant. Even See America, which I initially thought would be a lambaste like America Snoring, is quite a romantic, almost Simon and Garfunkel view.
Right, right. I suppose I put a lot more stock in the quest to try and make peace with myself and my life and my chosen profession, as it were. I guess you'd call this a chosen profession, I'm not sure, somehow it seems to choose you more than you choose it. It was your calling, rather than you banging on its door.
Yeah, I just happened to pick up the phone and there it was chattering away... [Grant starts to laugh at his thought processes]... like in The Mothman Prophecies. So, you're saying that music is like a horrible Mothman that comes calling?! [laughter from both sides now]
Yeah, [still much laughter] that's a good way of looking at it!...and you still chose it!
Yes, even after all that
[the laughter subsides as the coffee arrives and we discuss the merits of each others chosen beverage. After a few sips we return to...]So, what's with the Napoleon outfit?
The photo on the cover [of 'Mobilize'] was taken by my wife at a costume party. Myself and a slew of other folks threw this crazy event and that was the getup that I turned up in. Everyone was told to show up with some combination of monocle, goatee, handlebar moustache, cummerbund, there was a litany of apparel and each of us had to perform. I believe that in the end I shared a telekinetic presentation, that was my offering to the group. My wife took a snapshot and now it's an album cover. Napoleon with tele-kinesis is quite scary, the things you could do - invade Russia without even getting out of bed!
I'm sure he thought of it. But, despite the cover, it is a very heartfelt album, are you happier working solo, with less constraints, do you think you could have made this album a few years back?
I don't believe so, I don't think I could have made it any earlier, if anything I'm able to act upon my impulses these days. I always felt a little uncomfortable with that position, being a songwriter within a band, it's often read as though you're speaking on behalf of the band and you're not really assuming such a position, unless you're the kind of band that sits down and writes all its songs together and Grant Lee Buffalo was never like that. We were fortunate enough to find roles within that umbrella of a band, Paul Kimble holding down the producer end of things, Joey Peters lending his musical abilities, it was as though we had each our own corner of the ring to go to and as soon as those positions was challenged the foundation was fractured. So, these days, I not apt to be distracted by such things, there might have been a time where it fuelled some sort of creative energy, but I anticipate the possibility that I'll be able to make many different types of record along the way. It also means you can pick and choose who you work with now. You've been cropping up on many a diverse stream of people, you were on the Eels album...
Robyn Hitchcock, Aimee Mann, Michael Penn. And all of these folks are bound to turn up in Los Angeles and they're people I consider friends and are people I look up to as artists. How did that Hitchcock joint tour come about? When I heard about it I thought, "what a great double bill", I didn't realise you'd be onstage together, aiding and abetting, with you doing most of the abetting. You'd certainly had raided Robyn's back catalogue and had chosen some obscure old ones that you were making him play. You seemed to be there as much as a fan.
That's certainly true. I fell in love with Robyn's work back when 'I Often Dream Of Trains' came out and, in fact that record was always a touchstone for me, it influenced me enough to want to make an album like that with 'Ladies' Love Oracle', something very stripped down. And what had happened was that Robyn would come around at times and we'd run into one another in various parts of the world and we struck up a friendship. Many years later when he would come to LA, he'd invite me up to play a song with him, he's so spontaneous in that way, he likes to throw things at you out of the blue and, I think recognising that, a light went off over both of our heads and we realised it could be something to take on the road. Gradually, little by little, we had dipped our toes into the possibility of being a duo and we performed two short tours on the American East and West coast. I caught some of the West Coast shows and it was very funny, you both looked like some vaudeville acts with the big rosettes on the microphone stands.
It was election year, before Bush-the-younger stepped into office and being summertime, near the Fourth of July, so I was able to round up some red, white and blue material, so we approached it as though we were both running for some ridiculous seat of office and it was a chance to mend the fractured relationship, which was probably already mended some two or three hundred years ago, between England and America. It was really wonderful, I mean, Robyn is like human caffeine, you spend a day with him and you find that certain faculties of your brain are erupting and pulsating in ways that they never have before. I get such a kick out of being with him to begin with and also he's someone who's been at it a long while and he's done it with a band and on his own, so I'm all ears when it comes to the wisdom that someone like that can impart.You spoke of how 'Ladies' Love Oracle' was very stripped down, was it hard to do that after the big band thing, to make that decision?
No, it's the kind of thing where my friend Jon Brion, he had built a home studio and he said to me, here are the keys, go do what you want for a day or two and I thought... 'hmmmm, what songs should I record?' and then it hit me that I could probably record nine or ten songs in the amount of time I could overdub one song and so that was basically what happened and, before I knew it, I had a records worth of acoustic songs. At the time I wasn't dealing with any labels, I had let go of my previous management who had looked over Grant Lee Buffalo and so I had very few ties, which was both challenging and also frustrating, but there I was. I could have done anything at that moment, I could have gone off to Ecuador and never came back, but, instead I went to the studio for three days and I walked out with something that was all mine and it's something that I've held onto, I sell it off the edge of the stage at times when I'm doing a solo show, I sell it at grantleephillips.com. It's a nice thing to have something that you can call your own, very few musicians have that and very few recording artists have something they can call their own at the end of their career. It felt very personal to me when I heard it, like 'this is the real Grant', as if you'd stepped out of the shadows.
I think that's true, to the degree that it's still a bit difficult for me to reconcile it is an album and it is out there, even if you have to dig around for it. I wouldn't have wanted to be any more precious about the production, I did it as quickly as I could. I think that's probably a healthy thing for someone like me, I could easily go hog-wild. Or do a Brian Wilson and multi-track.
I could and I have and while that activates a different part of you as a musician it might in some ways present a barrier to the very people you're trying to reach. Are you thinking of doing any more acting, you have a bit part in the 'Gilmore Girls' playing a troubadour?
I do! I play a strolling troubadour of old. It's a dramatic comedy that involves a young mother and her daughter, they're almost like sisters, they go through everything together and it's set in a small town in America and there I am, on the street corners, playing my songs and now and then they give me a line or two and I seize the moment to possibly take home that Oscar, I've got Oscar fever. Or at least an Emmy.
Maybe an Emmy, I guess you can't get an Oscar for a TV show Well, they might make a film of it.
That's true, maybe a spin-off. You could be like Jonathan Richman in 'There's Something About Mary'.
Yeah, my character's a bit like that, I've now got to the point where I speak about him in the third person, that's when you know you're an actor, or have lost your mind, or both. It's a nice little vacation from being Grant the musician, who I also speak of in the third person, apparently. I attribute most of this to a Phillip K Dick book called 'Valis'. He can be hard work!
I'm finding it actually makes my head hurt! It is frequently illuminating and now I need some paracetemol. I've discovered books, I think it's high time to make up for all the reading of novels that I've never had the discipline for.So, what's been keeping you occupied on the plane then?
I'm trying to mix it up, a little bit of sci-fi, I'm jumping back and forth. For a while I was reading a self-help book and I was reading the Mothman and somehow or another my unconscious twisted it all up and I ended up getting in touch with my inner pupae. It can be a dangerous thing to juggle too many books at once.
[again, the conversation degenerates into fits of laughter from both sides of the table]
It could have been worse, it might have been Mothman and a yoga book.
Yeah, so if you see me fluttering around a lightbulb, it could be that I'm having a lightbulb moment. I'm just trying to make some sense out of this life, both in career and in leisure. That's why your head hurts. As Syd Straw once sang "you think too hard, you'll blow yourself in two". The answers to life are found in song lyrics.
At times. I've certainly got more out of Dylan songs than any self-help book. You should read Bob Dylan lyrics instead!
Yeah... [laughs] "don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters." Like in the Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy where they need a question for the answer 42 and someone says "how many roads must a man walk down".
It wasn't the 'Summer of '62' was it? No, that's Bryan Adams. That was the Summer of '69.
Oh yeah, I thought they were late, I stood around on a street corner. No, that's a film about losing your sexual innocence, that's another thing you shouldn't get mixed up, Bryan Adams and that. Apparently someone at a Ryan Adams gig shouted for that song recently.
I read that, he must get a fair amount of that. You'd have thought someone would have taken him to one side when he went solo...
Yeah, "you're gonna need a clever line or two". He seems to have no problem making a name for himself these days, good for him. Very diplomatic!
Yes, there's something about the architecture of London makes me feel a bit diplomatic, like an ambassador. Until you put on your Napoleon hat and start invading places by telekinesis.
Hopefully I've invaded some deep personal space with this record, it's also a playful record, it's got a good balance. There are lyrics that make me laugh, for one reason or another, songs like We All Get a Taste for instance.
There's not many historical references on the album, apart from Batman and Robin. Before you've had John Wilkes Boothe, Lady Godiva... That's true. I've always been fascinated by outlaw characters, like the ones you mentioned. I created my own characters in a few of the songs, as in Beautiful Dreamers there are a few different scenarios. Are they a continuation of Jupiter and Tear-drop?
I think it's a bit like that, it's very much like that, it's a good point. But, yeah, Batman and Robin turned up, I'm trying to remember how I spelt Robin... I'm sure it's with an 'I'... [rummages through the lyric sheet]... yeah, it's 'I'.
That's good, it's probably better for history's sake. I often think of Robyn Hitchcock when I sing that lyric. I try not to over-think things now, there must have been a point where the fabric of Grant Lee Buffalo was very much laid out and that's a tough place to be as a band. It was quite an historical name, mixing yours with such an American symbol.
It automatically had a lithograph look to it. This was a chance to meet a lot of challenges head on, even the notion of using non-traditional instruments and to embrace certain tools, things that the computer could offer that would have seemed very incongruous with the palette of Grant Lee Buffalo. I think we were always trying to throw a dash of that in, but what began as a dash was reduced to a smidgeon and that itself was reduced to a pinch and before you knew it, it was another Grant Lee Buffalo album, like a body refusing a liver transplant, there were certain things that Grant Lee Buffalo was going to be and certain things it would never be. It was very good at what it did.
Yeah, I think so, but it was a resistant animal and it knew what it wanted to be. It still has a timeless quality.
I hope so. A collection of some of the finest moments from all four records and some b-sides was put out recently called 'Storm Hymnal'. I was happy to see that see the light of day, it was something that the record company ushered more than the band, but in the end it was something that at least represents out efforts. So, if they have their place in history, where's yours, are you going to just wander through it like a troubadour?
If anything I feel less encumbered by my place in history and I feel a lot freer to draw upon my influences at random and so the product winds up being, possibly, a little more eclectic, much more unconscious. On a given day I listen to anyone from Johnny Cash to Bjork and so on and so on. It's likely that my influences will be processed to turn up in ways that they wouldn't have turned up before and that's a healthy thing I suppose. In the end... I hate saying that damn phrase 'in the end', I've gotta find something to replace that... now where was I? In the end.
In the end, please kick me in the end... I forgot what I was on about, but it had to be important! I guess the stuff takes on a form of its own, no matter what, no matter how I struggle to mould it into being something that I recognise, no matter how much form I try to bring to my career it's going to be what it's going to be, I find, No matter how much I attempt to control it, that's what I've come to accept. That seems like a worthy revelation!
And, with that he was off, guitar case in hand, ready to serenade the world as he passes through. Grant-Lee Phillips has left the café.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002