Tilting at Monochromatism with Mofro
John "J.J." Grey is about to eat dinner. An hour before he and his Jacksonville, FL based band Mofro take the stage at Boulder, CO’s Fox Theatre, he has some time to enjoy the provided fare, which tonight is Japanese cuisine. Grey, in his camouflaged, mesh-backed J&L Lumber Yard hat and tan, striped, polyester snap-up shirt, struggles to sample the food with a pair of chopsticks. For someone who was raised on fried catfish and turnip greens, the concept is a little foreign. And as the discussion turns toward pop music and the melting pot society of American music, this particular moment raises the question if music regionalism is dead.
"Oh, cool," says Grey in a syrupy southern drawl as someone hands him a fork. He begins to enjoy the meal the way he knows how and for the moment, roots and regionalism seems alive.
As vocalist, guitarist and harmonica player for Mofro, Grey and his band membersguitarist Daryl Hance, bassist Fabrice Quentin, keyboardist Mike Shapiro and drummer Craig Barnetthave brought a renaissance to music regionalism. On their Fog City Records debut Blackwater, named after the particular North Florida region where they are from, Mofro’s sound is a condemnation to pop culture. "It is sort of monochromatic," states Grey about today’s state of mainstream music. "It is one color, a lot of bright lights, a lot of whistles and most of the time it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t stick with anyone. It is here for a minute and gone the next day. That is why Muddy Waters’ music will live on forever. Every generation can relate to it."
While Grey and company may not have grown up in Waters’ era, they draw from his influences, among other great blues and R&B legends, for inspiration. "I heard it a lot, but never didn’t appreciate as much until I got older and then I realized I understood every thing they are singing about or talking about," says Grey. "Like Otis Redding singing taller than the tallest pine/sweeter than any sweet grape on the vine.’" All that kind of stuff I can just picture cause he grew up where my grandmother did, so I can just picture all that stuff. If my grandmother or my grandfather or any of them picked up an instrument and started to play soul music they’d wind up sounding like him because they grew up in the same environment in the same way."
He continues to describe the effects of growing up in North Florida, surrounded by cool black water swamps and endless palmetto plains. "I figure, what the hell? I’ll just do what I know. And that is sing where I live and what it looks like," says Grey as he testifies to music regionalism. "Music sounds like a place. You drive through the streets of New Orleans and it is not hard to visualize New Orleans when you hear a Meters song. You are like God Almighty, it fits a hand like a glove.’ Everything about those beats or those rhythms and those songs fits it. And you drive through the backwoods of Georgia and you listen to James Brown and him singing Red Cliff Funk,’ you understand what he is talking about. The land makes that sound. It’s not just James Brown making it sound that way. The land makes it sound that way. Everything comes together. For that split secondthat place, the land, the culture, the way of lifeeverything around it shapes the music rather than the music sort of being shaped by looking at MTV or listening on the radio and trying to make a hit or whatever."
The years that Grey spent growing up in a very rural environment have shaped Mofro’s music to the day. "There was one moment when I was a kid," recalls Grey. "My granddad took me out to see this panther that use to come by the farm, years ago. It is gone now, but that moment sticks out." And with their shadowy musical dexterity, Mofro emulates that panther. "I think about it a lot when we play, but I don’t know why. I just think about seeing those eyes looking over above the grass, coming back down."
And when he sings It’s like watchin’ someone you love die slow/yeah they’re killin’ her one piece at a time/I know some fools who think I should let go/but they’ve never seen Florida through my eyes’ on "Florida," the sincerity of his smooth delivery over the steeped funkiness of the hypnotic melody renders the love affair with his home state. From the opening title track, the poignant homeland tribute, to the buzzing guitar riffs set above a deep funk bottom on "Frog Giggin’," the premise of Blackwater creates a stereo vacation to a disappearing land.
The strong sense of soul, conviction and class found on the album is made even more apparent as Grey begins to divulge his feelings about certain expectations for their music. "It is so much more cooler to do things subtly than to do things now like they do things so outlandishly. I feel like it hurts music. Not all music. I give you an example."
Grey begins with enthusiasm. "They call rap the sort of the blues of today. But it doesn’t have the power of even if you go to a T-Model Ford show and you watched T-Model Ford play for an hour. You leave there knowing that the anger and power you hear in ten seconds of one song would make the heaviest of all rap sound weak and watered down. And he ain’t cussed. I don’t know what it is. There is just something that says heartache, soul, true pain for a black man that grew up in North Mississippi. And when you leave you believe it. And not because he grew up in North Mississippi and not because he is a black man. Life just worked out that way for him.
"But the angry rap or angry heavy metal, super metal, death metal or angry teen angst is just so….......there’s no real anger here. There is nothing to be angry about here. You see a show of T-Model Ford you are like Oh yes.’ And you have a smile on your face the whole time. And he is doing it the subtle way. They are both singing about the same sort of stuff. It is just one is way over the top and you don’t believe it and the other one is you don’t have to understand one word he says. You know who he is and what he is about before you leave. He can go play in Germany and nobody understand a word. Hell, you can’t even understand a word here in America. I just hope we can get one millionth of a percent of that in what we do and we will be alright and I will feel good about what we do."
The environmental musings and cultural celebration that is found in Grey’s lyrics may be second nature to him, but another aspect of being a musicianpracticingis not. "I am extremely lazy," he confesses. "I can’t practice. I try to do it and I want to get better at playing the guitar and harmonica and everything. I’m just too lazy. I just go up there and frown around with it and hope that if the music is right, everything will fall into place. If the attitude is not there, I am in trouble. Cause I am not good enough to get by on technical ability which I personally lack. So I just have attitude every night. And that is pretty easy because it is a fun attitude.
"But some nights I can play guitar and it feels like the guitar is playing my hand and I am focused. And some nights you get to a point where you are a deer in headlights. And it doesn’t happen that often anymore but if it does," says Grey, "I just grab a couple shots of Jagermeister and just forget about it."
Like all emergent acts, Mofro may have their off nights, but Grey understands there is more to music than just playing well. "As long as there is attitude, conviction and belief," he asserts, "which is the easiest thing in the world to do to me. I don’t know how successful we pull it off or I pull it off personally, but it was a whole hell of a lot easier just to be me like this, right here, where I’m from."
As the conversation continues, the more Grey opens up about their music and why they may sound like they do, it becomes apparent that Mofro is as authentic as the sincerity exhibited in Southern hospitality. "The more you have to think about it, the more out of the moment you get," says Grey. "Some people are really so good at playing, they don’t have to think and can play it really complicated and that is sick. That’s not us and that ain’t never gonna be us. I’m too lazy. I don’t have the ability to sit there where I could really learn how to do it. I want to and I think I have gotten a lot better over the last two years since I have really started playing it."
Though he may have only been seriously playing the guitar for a short two years, his love for the guitar came at a much earlier age. Clichs it is, a Lynrd Skynrd album he received from his sister may have instilled a performance bug at an early age. "She bought me Gold and Platinum. I would sit out there and air guitar and just love it," recalls Grey. "Well, every instrument whenever I could. Throw the guitar down, pickup the air drums. Throw the drums down and pick up the air keyboard and whatever else I could play. And as it went on, I got further and further into liking music."
Grey will gladly cite various musicians and a rural upbringing as two major influences on his music today. However, Grey may not declare the religious rearing he was taught as a kid outright. A Mofro performance testifies to that. But he does recognize the role religion plays in all music.
"One of the things James Brown used to say was that the blues would have never existed without religious aspect being there," says Grey. "Same thing within the islands and everything. Bob Marley and all that is rooted in religion. No matter what any believe, some of the most powerful music is rooted in religion. The Blind Boys of Alabama and their gospel music. And I am not saying that God is on their side or none of that cause I have no idea. I don’t know about any of that. I am not a philosopher or none of that. I do know that you can’t question what is going on onstage. You can’t question what is going on onstage with Bob Marley or some of the other cats and their Rastafarian religion and so on and so forth."
The way Grey croons about the his Florida upbringing, offers his genuine take on his musical ability, or expresses what musical regionalism is may not be successful in the eyes of pop music culture but comes with no sacrifice to what really matters. "I feel happy. I don't feel like I could be any better or be in any better position or anything else." And with a musing of satisfaction he adds, "I'm stoked."