JJ Grey: No Connoisseur Of White Out
With Lochloosa, JJ Grey and Daryl Hance have expounded on a number of themes they first presented in Blackwater. Collectively known as MOFRO, with the aid of a drummer, bassist and, on occasion, a percussionist, the group has become a national act that proudly retains its regional posture and perspective. Here Grey speaks about the power of place, fireflies, forest fires and monochromatic blight. He also reveals why he's not an active member of the MOFRO listserve.
DB- I can remember you’ve said that quite a bit of your first album was written in England looking back at your life growing up in the United States. How about the songs on Lochloosa, where were they composed?
JG- Well, some of Blackwater was written in England and some was written here. The ones written in England were all written in my son's bedroom which was a little loft up in the attic of my in-laws house in north London. We had a little recording studio we set up there for me and Daryl [Hance] where we'd record everything. He'd spend a couple days up there working on a riff and then I'd go up there and arrange it and maybe put a bridge or a chorus to it and turn it into a song. Or I'd just go up there and write out a whole song.
Some of was composed at the same place and the same time. The song "Lochloosa" itself used to be this long intro to the song "Florida" but I liked slowing it down and singing to it so I changed it around and made it as it is. "Dirtfloorcracker" was actually written at the same time we wrote a lot of the stuff that became Blackwater while we were in London. Daryl came in there with music for the chorus and I made up the music for the verses and the bridges and put lyrics to it. But a lot of Lochloosa was written here. I wrote the song "Everybody's" just as we were pulling into Detroit in the RV. It came out of nowhere all at once. Sometimes it happens that way. For whatever reason when I'm riding down the road I have a better success rate than when I'm writing at home or sitting still. I've never been able to sit in front of a recorder and write a song. Most of the songs I've ever written were written riding down the road working at the lumber yard driving the delivery truck, the lumber truck.
DB- Do you typically store away lyrics until you have music that feels right for them?
JG- Nah. Sometimes I write just lyrics because the music sounds a certain way. I'll give you a classic example the song "Lazy Fo Acre" Daryl had done all the music to that, everything. He pretty much he had that one knocked out. Then he had to go home because his visa had run out. So one day I just listened to that music, started tinkering away and wrote the lyrics to "Lazy Fo Acre" which are sort of about summer time and hanging at home and it being hot. When he came back over he didn't know I'd done that and he said, "Hey did you listen to that music yet because it sounds kind of summertimey to me." "Well," I said, "Funny you should say that, check this out." And I played it for him. So I kind of let the music dictate what the lyrics will be about.
DB- Following Blackwater MOFRO did quite a bit of touring, far more than you had done ever before. I’m curious if that had any impact on your songwriting?
JG- The one thing touring has done is make me a better player. When I first started recording it was hard to make it through a pass of a song . I could pull it off in that kind of environment but to go play live every night, God forbid if I had to do any improvising on a regular basis, I would have really been in trouble. I guess I'm still in trouble a lot of times when it comes to that (laughs). But before touring I could improvise on a record because I didn't give a damn if I messed up. I could just back up and do it again and consequently I seldom had to back it up. But that first MOFRO tour I never rehearsed or tried to practice. Baptism by fire for me, that's just about the way I'll do anything, just do it and if you mess up nobody likes you. (Laughs) So that's what touring did for me but it didn't change my songwriting or approach at all.
DB- On the topic of songwriting, while people often associate you with your lyrics, Lochloosa also features some songs where you take on other personas and perspectives. Can you talk about that?
JG- "The Wrong Side of the Tracks" on the new record is not personal. I didn't grow up in that era in that part of Florida but I know somebody who did. That song is sort of about them although they don't know it.
I definitely write songs about other people. The song "Ten Thousand Islands" is about Edgar Watson and the whole thing that went down. Peter Matthiessen wrote a great book about it [Killing Mr. Watson]. One day the guy who owns the record label handed me four books. I read them and for the most part that book totally blew me away. If I knew how, I'd make a film about it but I'll settle for a song.
DB- Did he hand you those books thinking they might inspire your songwriting in some manner?
JG- It wasn't so much food for thought songwriting-wise as food for thought in general. He also gave me Harry Crews A Childhood: The Biography of a Place and I was totally floored by that and how much he feels the way I feel about growing up as I do except he's a little older than my dad. I know people who live right here by me who think like that when they have the time.
DB- The press in particular often defines your music by your geography. Do you find this limiting in any way?
JG- I definitely don't find it limiting. I've heard people say that such and such band is a southern rock band and they got mad and don't want to be called a southern rock band. Well to each his own fair enough but hell, as far as I'm concerned rock came from the south so damn near every band that's playing is a southern rock band really. A southern blues band really.
The point being as far as I'm concerned, the land determines what the music is going to be, not people. Reggae is no accident and neither is calypso or soca. They have a flavor and a sound and it's no accident that Mexican or Japanese music sounds the way it does. Or Irish rebel songs. It all sounds like home to me. Not my home but it damn sure sounds like somebody's home and I can appreciate that. When I hear "No Woman No Cry" I say, "Man that sounds like home to me," and that's all that matters. I don't care about any of this other stuff.
DB- Having said that, what do you think the impact has been in this country where the various regions seemingly are losing their individuality with the same strip malls and national chains everywhere?
JG- I think it's destroying it. I used a big word and Dan used it again on his web site, monochromatic. It's a monochromatic blight of pop culture, that's what it is. It's all one flavor, vanilla and a bland vanilla at that. Or it tastes like White Out, like nothing. It doesn't do nothing for me. I think it's pretty irrelevant but everybody's different. Somebody else might want to slap me in the face for saying that. They might think it means everything to them. If I went back in a time machine and described the way the world worked here right now to people forty years ago, shit they'd think it was a horror movie. People don't even live their own lives anymore, they pay money to watch somebody else's life on a screen and then they hook up to these damn games and pretend that they're other people all day long. I reckon folks back then would wonder, how do they eat? How do they get by? Well they don't have to worry about that anymore because they're standing on the shoulders of people that already did that for them. So they don't have to think about that. They can stand around and cuss the whole world and cuss the very shoulders they're standing on.
That's just the way I see the world and it almost sounds political. I'm totally into politics but that's why there's a curtain there, brother. I'm not Irish but I'm sure like an Irishman- politics is my own damn business as well as religion (laughs).
DB- You may not be Political but it’s clear your political with a small p, particularly regarding certain issues
JG- Although politics hasn't got shit to do with saving the environment or whatever you want to call it. The only thing that's got to do with that is dollars and cents. Down here where I live, anybody who has enough money to buy a big piece of property so nobody can tear it up, that's the only thing that's going to save the environment. Politics ain't going to save shit. I don't care who's in the White House or who's the mayor or who's the governor, there's always people who want to make money and there's always a way to do that. There's no utopia, there's no hard and fast solution other than if they can buy it we can buy it. That has a whole more to do with the reality that I know than sitting around in a coffee shop bitching about how Bush sucks which I'm sure he does. (laughs)
DB- But since as you suggested many people are plugged in and tuned out, there are few folks such as yourself who carry a passion for these types of issues. To my mind, I still believe that’s essential to effecting any change.
JG- Yeah and well maybe that's the truth too but I just ask for some realism. I have people approaching me about starting a Department of Peace as opposed to the Department of Defense. In a fantasy world that sounds great but this is the real world and the last thing I want to see is a government-run Department of Peace. Let's let the Department of Peace be these people out there bitching and protesting, that's a damn good Department of Peace. That's a way better one than a government-approved one where they're spending government money on it.
DB- Let’s shift directions. I’m curious what you took away from your first recording session with MOFRO and how that may have influenced Lochloosa.
JG- I think a record should be sort of like a book. Peter Matthiessen wrote that book Killing Mr. Watson and damn if I’d expect him to write killing Mr. Watson and again a third time a fourth time and barely changing it. Errol Morris, I love that guy. You never know what you’re going to get when you watch one of his films. It could be seemingly lighthearted like Vernon, Florida and it could be scary as hell like Thin Blue Line and I think records should be that way or at least that's the way I like to do records.
The first record Blackwater was like an opening statement to me, introducing people to this world, musically and lyrically. On this second record I said I'm not worried about making a funk party anthem. I just wanted to tell a story so there's lot of mid and down tempo material on the record and it is a lot moodier than the first record. Who knows, maybe with the third record I'll just want to rock the house for the whole damn thing.
I'll tell you, if aliens came down and you played them a cross section of music and then you played them Mississippi Fred McDowell, the aliens would think that he is the latest music, the culmination of all these other splintered kinds of music. They would think it evolved to this one guy who encompasses all these kinds of music with all this soul and it's one guy with a guitar doing it. They'd think that it had evolved the way things evolve, to the lowest common denominator, saying the most with the least.
To me there is no such thing as funk music there's stuff that's funky, it's nasty, it's dirty and that can be anything. Buddy Guy is funky as hell. Mississippi Fred McDowell is funky as hell. RL Burnside is funky and that's what funky means to me. That's why I've tried to quit saying it, I just had this different idea of what funk meant than a lot of people and I woke up on some people's bad side about it- "I thought you'all was going to play funk music all night." I'm like, "I don't know what you call funk music." I'm just going to go with soul music from now on because it's broader.
DB- So you find that people increasingly are come to your shows with particular expectations regarding your sound?
JG- Unfortunately, you always sort of feel that everybody understands where you're coming from. You write something and you're coming from here and they grab the closest thing that's relevant to them and it might be so far out of the box you're like, "What the hell?" That happens to me and I've got to accept it.
One of those thing I liked about that record Electric from the Cult, was that it was such a departure from the atmospheric sort of dark rock of the first two records. They suddenly hooked up with Rick Rubin and they sound like AC/DC.
But to be honest it's a miracle there was a first record because of all the things that went wrong in the studio.
DB- What happened?
JG- Our whole first session had to be scrapped because the drummer we brought in didn't work. He was somebody who autitioned one time before we left England and this wasn't his kind of music. When we did the rehearsal in England he played on a trap kit and a cymbal because that was all I could afford to rent and it was a pretty good session. When he got over here I knew we were in trouble when he wanted double kick pedals and giant crash cymbals. I was like, "Man that's for a whole different kind of music than this. That's bull in a china shop shit." So that didn't work out and the whole session had to be scrapped for the most part and we started over again.
DB- Speaking of which, let’s talk about the current players who are out on the road with Daryl and yourself?
JG- Right now we've gone Adam Scone who to me is one of the sickest bass players of all time. He plays a left handed bass, organ bass. He's like a traditional organ player. The State Department sent him on a world tour as the ambassador for the Hammond B-3 organ for the United States because man, the guy's sick. He plays for Lou Donaldson when Lonnie Smith can't do it. He can trade licks with the heavyweight jazz dudes. He's awesome and he still has a fiery hot attitude when it comes to playing the organ, that's what's killer.
George Sluppick on drums is the same way. He's the best drummer I've played with. You couldn't ask for a better drummer to play this kind of music. He actually played on 90% of Blackwater and about half of Lochloosa. He was brought in to salvage that first session that guy destroyed. George was playing with Robert Walter's 20th Congress and he took a quick break and came down to the studio for a week. We thought we were going to get down a couple songs to augment and patch together what we had in the first session. But he came in a week and knocked out everything. Then he had to go back because he had commitments and played for Robert for three or four years. The guys we were playing with were great but I just knew in my heart that I wanted George Sluppick on drums. He's my favorite drummer like that. All those other guys are right there close but he's my favorite. I guess it's because he was born and raised in Memphis and he knows that Muscle Shoals Stax soul thing inside and out. Same thing with Adam.
DB- I’d hear to your thoughts on a few songs that appear on Lochloosa. For instance, "How Junior Got His Head Put Out"?
JG- That's about a guy roughly the same age as me and he used to bully people on the west side. He had some run ins with people I knew and people I didn't know. This girl I used to date he dated her, then she dated me and then this other old boy dated her. Well he snuck up behind this other old boy, hit him with a bat and made the dude deaf in one ear. Just stupid stuff like that. Eventually he got killed over being a jerk. He got shot and that's what the song is about, it's about him.
DB- "Pray for Rain"?
JG- One time I asked my dad to ride with me. I had to make a delivery right near Lake Lochloosa. We were going through one of the worst droughts ever, the worst in fifty years, whatever that means. No rain in sight and we made the delivery and were on our way back north coming up 301 and the sky was black in front of us. It wasn't that way when we left and I thought, "Damn, it's finally going to rain." Except it kind of looked brownish and we finally realized it wasn't just a forest fire, the whole world was on fire. When we got home they had just about evacuated my parents place and a friend of mine had to sneak past the evacuation line to get his dogs. Man, the whole world was on fire and they were still running ten inch wells untapped on golf courses
JG- There's a book called Summer by Alice Low, illustrated by Roy McKie. It's an "I Can Read It All By Myself Cat in the Hat" book. I used to love this book and there's a picture in it of these kids catching fireflies. I used to see fireflies when I was a kid. We'd have a cookout and shuck oysters and you'd see fireflies everywhere. But it's just gotten to the point where you don't see them any more. So I was just thinking about that old book and it made me think, you don't see fireflies anymore. So that's the inspiration for that song. I went and bought the book on Amazon and lo and behold we have fireflies again this year. Not as much as we used to but they're coming back more this year than last.
DB- You mention Amazon, in terms of the internet, there is a very lively MOFRO listserve. Do you ever check out what people are saying there?
JG- I used to, I don't any more. It's sort of weird to me. I've never been involved in anything on that kind of level. It gets to the point where every show, every second, every thing that happens on stage gets critiqued. Shit, I don't want to read that. And a lot of those people are listening to the live CDs where somebody might have a shitty board mix that has no bass because the first thing that's not going to be on there is bass. Anything that has any volume on stage is not going to be on there. You're going to have a shitload of kick drum and a hell of a lot of vocal.
It's just weird. I got tired of reading it, tired of reading what I need to do. It seems like some fans want to build a super group where you do this like Widespread Panic, this like Ben Harper, this over here like Bob Marley. If you don't like it, take it or leave it because this is what it is.
We played one time, it was an environmental benefit and I read one paragraph out of a book called Crackers in the Glade by Rob Storter. It was written a while back but it reads like something you'd see today, about how the world's gone to shit environmentally. It was just a little paragraph and man, people bitched and raised hell and got into arguments with each about whether I should have done it. And I'm like, "Dude, it was an environmental benefit!" After that I decided I'm not getting into this any more. I'm not getting into an argument with some guy on the internet because he didn't appreciate the fact that I read that. He wanted it to be a funk party all night.
DB- Final question. You’re about to do some shows with Galactic. What do you have planned for that?
JG- I'm going to do some songs with them and at a couple of them I'm going to open up with my own acoustic baptism by fire as I told you before. So tell everybody to get there early to watch somebody under pressure, watch somebody sweat on stage.