Friday, July 13, 2007

Grant-Lee Phillips: Strangelet

Grant-Lee Phillips has been making sublime rock and roll since the late eighties, when he was the guitarist for L.A.’s Shiva Burlesque. But it was his next band, Grant Lee Buffalo, that would cement Phillips as an extraordinary songwriter with an angelic voice and a penchant for treating a twelve-string acoustic like it were a bad-ass fuzzed out Tele. Their first album, Fuzzy, got the attention of indie and college stations, including Boston’s WFNX in 1992, and they would continue to make majestic, bucolic rock through the late nineties.

Since then, Phillips has established himself as a solo artist, experimenting with electronica on Mobilize, releasing an album of sweetly melodic, acoustic guitar driven tunes on Virginia Creeper, and an homage to his eighties influences on nineteeneighties. Along the way, he has scored for television and film, played the town minstrel on The Gilmore Girls, and appeared on buddy Greg Behrendt’s daytime talk show. His latest album, Stranglet, veers into fuzzed out sixties garage rock while retaining some of Virginia Creeper’s sepia-toned feel. Besides guest guitarist Peter Buck (R.E.M.)He played most of the instruments himself, working with Eric Gorfain on the string arrangements. He also just completed the Various $& Sundry tour with Glen Phillips (formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket), the Watkins Family (Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek) and singer/fiddler Luke Bulla (Blue Merle).

Did recording nineteeneighties put you in the mood to indulge your rock side a bit more on Strangelet? There's a bit of a 60s low rock feel with anthemic lyrics.

I suppose the nineteeneighties album did in some way influence my approach to Strangelet. When you go about covering a song, it's an opportunity to deconstruct the inner workings, which can be very inspiring. I was actually working on the two albums at once but there's some bleed-over.

How did you choose to play most of the instruments on Strangelet? Is there any specific criteria using a band versus going it alone?

Very often, it has to do with timing as much as anything. In this case, I was writing at home and working through ideas in my studio. Recording has gradually become another useful tool for songwriting. If the song cried out for an overdub that I could play, the most natural thing was to play it myself. It’s really matter of remaining focused and dialing in the track as I hear it. I sometimes struggle to articulate what I’m hearing to other musicians, so again it’s often easier do it myself. When I’m aiming to record an album all in one go, I prepare the songs with the band of course and that can be a great process.

How did you work out the string arrangements with Eric Gorfain? I always wonder how that works, when you have someone like Michael Kamen working with Tom Petty, where the inspiration comes from and how that transfers to the recording.

Eric has an incredible ear and he’s very instinctual. We’ve done a few international tours together, recorded together and it’s always been very easy to work with him. He often finds that perfect little line and plucks it right out of the air. The two of us have developed a short hand when it comes to parts and arranging - that and a trust.

I sometimes create a demo of the song with various string ideas that he is encouraged to refine or refer to. Then I give him another mix minus strings for him to mock up to and we sort of carve away from there. It’s a unique partnership, most definitely.

As a solo artist, do you still have any desire for a band dynamic?

The truth is I often do work within a band dynamic when it comes to recording and performing. True at times, I’m apt to perform entirely on my own but whenever there are other musicians involved it tends to challenge and inspire you in various measures. Perhaps because I’ve always been the songwriter and singer, even in the old band, my job hasn’t changed all that much.

Was there a specific inspiration for Johnny Guitar?

It's rock and roll song in the classic sense... self destruction and a big beat. I was listening to T-Rex, Eddie Chochran and Gene Vincent at the time. There's a bit of X in there as well.

Had you played with Peter Buck before?

We've had a chance to play together here and there over the years but this was the first time that Peter and I ever recorded together. He’s always been one of my favorite guitarists. He works with textures and layers but always at the service of the song. Much of the album was completed before Peter came in but I had set aside a few choice songs in anticipation of what Peter would bring to the party. Those moments on the album are among my favorite.

How was the Various & Sundry tour? Do you think you'll ever record with that particular group of people?

The tour we just wrapped up with Glen Phillips, The Watkins Family, and Luke Bulla was thoroughly satisfying. I came back a better musician just being in a van with those guys. With any luck, we’ll take the show on the road again, in which case, yeah perhaps an album is possible.

What led you to record nineteeneighties? Was there some aspect of the nineteeneighties songs you thought was overlooked that you tried to bring to the surface?

These were the songs that meant the most to me at a time when I was first finding my feet in Los Angles. Sort like my top ten, although there were other songs I’m sure. In some ways my re-recordings are drawn from memory, rather than being a straight cover version. Those of us who came of age with this music have a deep connection to it and it says so much about our generational tastes. Most of these songs were never top ten but they have a personal relevance.

Do you ever get the urge to put the guitar away and write songs in a completely different way, like you did with Mobilize?

I’m often intrigued by music that’s made of different stuff than my own. At times, I’ll have to follow that and go exploring. Mobilize was like that. Every album is to some degree, some times it’s more pronounced. As a singer and guitarist, that’s the most natural place for me. It’s like the religion I was born into. Nevertheless, it’s meaningful explore and see what you can haul back home.

Are you still influenced by new music? Do you hear something like My Morning Jacket or even a new Willie Nelson song and think, I could go in that direction?

I do tend to follow my ears when they prick up at something new. My Morning Jacket have a great spirit about them. Big guitars, big reverb and yet it feels like those guys are discovering those things for the first. That’s the thing with music – it’s all in your ears and in your head. It has much more to do with that than any tangible components - so yeah, poking your head up out of the ground has a way of reminding you of this.

The Grant Lee Buffalo bio on the official site mentions WFNX specifically as the first station to give significant airtime to the band's first album, "Fuzzy." How important was that station in GLB's development? Has Boston been an important city for you in terms of a fanbase and touring?

Personally, I love Boston. It’s supposed to be a Virgo city. It was also the place where GLB first got a foothold and WFNX played a big part for sure. There are certain places that you’re drawn to, where you feel at home and Boston is that kind place for me.

What have you scored for television? Is that more of a working gig, or is there something about it that appeals to your artistically?

Film scoring is something I’ve always been drawn by. The power that music can conjure in terms of mood and texture appeals to me. In many ways, film music is more akin to classical music, in that it moves so freely from one emotional color to the next. Scoring What About Brian was a good opportunity to delve further into the process of composing to picture. The methodology between film and television is essentially the same. The job is always about aiding picture though and assisting the realization of the director’s vision. That’s where the work comes in and where you grow the most, artistically.

Were you sad to see the Gilmore Girls sign off? Was that a strange gig?

I took a walk through the back lot a few weeks ago. It was like walking through my old deserted high school. It is sad to say goodbye but it was fun show and we had such a nice run. It's now in syndication. I’m eager to see Amy Sherman Palladino's next show, which should be amazing.

Greg Behrendt mentioned he was thinking of making you the bandleader on his show. How close was that to happening?

Greg was indeed working to create a very different kind of daytime television show and in many ways he succeeded. Knowing how funny and fast on his feet he is, it would be somewhat criminal if he were confined to being a talk show host alone, however. Although the format did not have room for a band and therefore a bandleader, we did manage to work together on The Greg Behrendt show. The "Uncomfortable Phone Call," bits where I came on to break difficult news to a soon to be jilted lover or a soon to be ex-roommate in the form of a song, are going on my resume I promise. Crisis Counseling in Song Form.

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