It only takes a few minutes. Sure, it’s supposed to be an interview and all that. But while chatting it up with Grant-Lee Phillips, once the mighty head of Grant Lee Buffalo and now his own man, the two of us hit on a plan: How to make Phillips the next P. Diddy.
Yeah, it seems a little ludicrous. Phillips can’t rap for shit. He’s more the sensitive-music-geek type—the kind of guy who organizes his records by their relation to the migrating patterns of swallows or something. But that doesn’t matter. It’s all about image. All you do is take Phillips’ latest single, the funked and creamy “Spring Released,” and make a video—the right video. No guy huddled in the candle-strewn corner playing his guitar and acting like a kicked dog. And no bouncy folkmiester jamming out in front of some coffeehouse crowd. We need the Dr. Dre 3: booze, bimbos and bombs. It never fails. It even worked for Monster Magnet. Just put Phillips in some swanky threads, have him hanging at a house party with a few jiggling girls, and then blow some crap up.
“No wait, I’ve got a better idea,” Phillips pipes in. “OK, people like explosions and people like dancers. So if we blow up some dancers, I think we totally have a hit.” Carson Daly should be calling any minute.
Of course, that would be going against everything Phillips has ever stood for: music over image, music that doesn’t pander to the McTweens of America. And let’s face it, Phillips just isn’t the kind of guy to do choreography. “I’d much rather be appreciated by a few folks that hopefully want to really hear my stuff than be famous for producing garbage,” he says. “Now and then interesting and meaningful music actually rises to the top and gets a shot at radio. Hopefully that shot is coming soon.”
If you believe all the current singer-songwriter hype, that day may be coming sooner than once thought possible. Since the success of Britain’s David Gray, a string of not-so-folky solo strummers have come out: Pete Yorn, David Garza, Jude. Hell, even Ben Folds went out on his own. And there’s more on the way. Labels are prepping to launch a second wave of guitar guys in the next year. The idea: Bad economic times call for more introspective music. Alan Greenspan might actually be credited with bringing about the next folk revolution.
Phillips should be leading the charge. Grant Lee Buffalo might never have been a chart topper, but the group had a following more loyal than a mob family. Phillips’ appropriately titled new disc, Mobilize (Rounder), should get those folks into a record-buying frenzy. Full of the same stark and intriguing characters that made him a critical favorite, the record is layered with keen observations and precise storytelling. Enigmatic lines like “done leveling my city of ghosts/cool ashes, like it’s all that she wrote/shake off the sadness soot” (“Sadness Soot”) litter the record. But Phillips never lets the melancholy seep into the music, instead opting for the kind of electro-enhanced folk that would make Bono plotz. Sexy and soulful melodies swish by like a model on a catwalk. Hooks scream for attention. And through it all, Phillips lets his voice shimmy for all it’s worth. Combined together, it makes Mobilize one of those records that you can’t exactly put a tag on—“I don’t know what it is, but I like it.”
It’s exactly what Phillips wanted. He spent months laboring on the disc, recording virtually all the parts himself. He says it was that process that brought the songs into focus. “I just acted on any impulse I had,” Phillips says. “In some ways that made [recording] a more immediate process. Before, in the time it took me to describe to another musician how I wanted things I could have done it myself. This way, I got to get more into the nuances, the stuff that makes a record really interesting to listen to.”
Of course, doing it all yourself does have its drawbacks: “I couldn’t just lay down a guitar part and then go get a burrito. It was all me. That gets tiring.”
That draining effect was only magnified by the still-prevalent rumors than Phillips was responsible for the end of Grant Lee Buffalo, something that he emphatically denies. He says it was just time for him to move on. He was frustrated by the group’s label, Reprise, and its lack of commitment to the band—promotion was virtually nil. He wanted out of the contract. Once that was done, he wanted to try different things.
“It seems at times that people still have the impression that I broke up Grant Lee Buffalo,” he says. “But my perspective is that I’m a songwriter and a singer. I was always doing my own songs, and I’m continuing to do that. When we started it was a three-piece and there were a lot of legs to stand on. When Paul Kimble left, it was just me and a drummer. That’s when the stress started to show. It became uncomfortable. But it’s not like I took a sledgehammer to it. It was just time to move on.”
And for Phillips, it was the smartest move he could make: “This is my life, it has been for awhile. And my relationship to music is growing. I enjoy it more than ever, so that makes everything worth it.”
Grant-Lee Phillips with David Lovering. The Zephyr Club, 310 S. West Temple, 355-CLUB, Tuesday Sept. 11, 9 p.m.