April 6 - April 12, 1995


The Grifters: Crappin' You

By Fred Mills

THERE'S AN UNWRITTEN rule in this biz that "Q & A" interviews are strictly reserved for those artists deemed significant by the celebrity journalists at Rolling Stone.

Well, screw that. I don't feel like talking to Jackson Browne. Memphis' Grifters, in their six years of existence, have amassed quite a lengthy, critically-acclaimed, body of work, carving out a singular niche that some trend-spotters call "lo-fi," but which actually embraces the entirety of rock's so-called rich tapestry. Grifters guitarist Dave Shouse appealed to my sense of perspective when he dryly remarked, "My first blues record was not Exile On Main Street."

So the man's got roots, okay? Professionally speaking, they stretch back to 1989 when Shouse, guitarist Scott Taylor, bassist Tripp Lamkins, and drummer Stan Gallimore all agreed that stealing a band name from a Jim Thompson novel had a certain aesthetic appropriateness. A couple of 7-inch EPs on their own Doink label and a full-length album for Chicago's Sonic Noise quickly earned 'em comparisons to Giant Sand, Mission of Burma, Pavement and Sonic Youth, and labels began asking for samples of their "degenerate hillbilly-skronk...blue-eyed Memphis soul that's refried, crackling and whipping around like the devil who doomed Robert Johnson." Being true Southern gentlemen, the band opted to go with hometown indie Shangri-La. Numerous discs later, The Eureka EP is just out and The Grifters come to the Downtown Performance Center on Wednesday, April 12.

TW: The Grifters have gotten terrific press, although a lot of it locates you in this "lo-fi" sub-genre of alternative: Pavement, Royal Trux, Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, Jon Spencer, Liz Phair...

DS: We've spent the last year trying to crawl out of the lo-fi/four-track lumping! I just did a Guitar Player interview about lo-fi stuff. I wasn't sure if I needed to look at the model numbers and serial numbers on all my gear, you know, for those stupid little boxes. I don't even know what brand my amp is! I guess they started reading about it and said, "Hey, this must be important!" I kept telling the guy, "This is insane."

Anyway, after all this went down and all the articles came out, we just sort of shook our heads and said, let's take the four-track and make the best recording we can, overcome the scruffiness, and really produce something. Four-track for us is easy--we get to go to an environment where it's comfortable and cost efficient.

TW: It sounds like all the press hype on you guys made you self-conscious.

DS: It was self-conscious! Do you remember Denny Cordell? He had done Shelter Records back in the '70s, Leon Russell, put together the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, found Tom Petty...Island Records coaxed him out of retirement. That label approached us in the fall of '92. We'd done the CMJ Convention and then we were a "buzz band." We got to know Denny real well, and he became almost a foster figure for the band, always talking to us about what he heard--"Don't give up your ideas, but sonically, I want to hear some things better." So we wanted to make a record that Denny would really like. And then he died all of a sudden from cancer. We dedicated the record to him.

TW: One consistency about Grifters records is the spontaneous element, like the Giant Sand approach--accidents happen for a reason.

DS: Yeah, people think about recording as making something for the future instead of just documenting the time that this is happening. But if something pops up, there's no way to recreate it, and I just can't imagine trying to erase it. On every one of our recordings something goes haywire. Leave it man, that's beautiful! Make your recording something different from your live show as much as you can. And vice versa...The new songs were written in the winter, and Memphis is strange in the wintertime, cloudy and gray from November to February. All these songs are a little bit moodier than usual. It's not a rock record by any means! Wayne (Coyne, of the Flaming Lips) said it sets the stage for people to try to guess what we're going to do next. So we'll see who wants to follow us.

TW: You toured with the Lips, also Guided By Voices. That's pretty awe-inspiring company to keep.

DS: With GBV, we closed some shows, and going on after that band didn't make a lot of sense. Like going on after Cheap Trick and The Who! Bob Pollard is an amazing musical mind. The Flaming Lips, too. No one can say they've done anything more than succeeded on their own terms. Warner Brothers was trying to sign us about a year ago, and we were really upset by the fact that "She Don't Use Jelly" wasn't as big as "Cannonball" or "Loser."

TW: So are you going to sign with a major?

DS: For three years we've been stiff-arming people because we knew the training wheels needed to stay on. But now it makes sense. One, there's money involved. There's no way we can keep jobs because we're always touring. And we've worn out the available independent distribution, still selling 10,000 records when we see bands putting out their debut (on a major) and selling 25,000. We've really weighed this, and the options we have are pretty diverse, from old-time staunch majors like Atlantic right down to the "new, reinvigorated" Sub Pop. What I want for the future is to be able to transcend the trends, you know? I see this alternative thing as drying up, people get tired of doing the same schlock over and over again.

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April 6 - April 12, 1995

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