By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"We kind of started recording the album when we were in full-testosterone rock mode," Neal says. "Because none of us had ever really played that way before, at least with this band. We were just all so ready to plug in and go crazy. And, I mean, we were really good at it, but after a few months of that, we realized that some of the songs that we really liked weren't getting played because they couldn't be played that way and whatnot. I don't know. So it was just a matter of getting over the initial rush...because Matt hadn't been with us that long at that point, and we'd just been a three-piece. After we threw him in, we just kind of went nuts. Jumping around and sweating a lot."
"A lot of broken instruments," Barnhart adds. "A lot of spitting and stomping."
Barnhart's addition last year to the existing lineup added a healthy layer of muscle to Little Grizzly's songs and its live show. The fuzzy folk-rock of Please Let Me Go gave way to rock-rock, and though it worked live, without the spitting and stomping and broken instruments, the recorded versions of those songs made Little Grizzly sound like a band that couldn't play very well. "We just had to kind of like back away from that, and then that kind of changed the way we were thinking," Neal says. "A lot of the stuff that we were recording was done in that insane, Hüsker Dü-wannabe sort of style, and it just didn't really fit a lot of the stuff very well, so we had to redo it."
The results of some of those sessions were particularly disappointing for Barnhart, who recorded the album at the studio he co-owns, The Echo Lab. The band was picking up recording time on the cheap (meaning: pretty much free) at the studio whenever there was an opening, recording a song or two here and there. Conditions were less than ideal for recording a full album, stopping and starting and stopping again. Plus, the identity crisis the group is still, in some ways, dealing with made getting the songs down the right way difficult. But the band members played their way through it, finding themselves and the album as they went along.
"The recordings just didn't translate the songs well," Barnhart admits. "And a lot of that was related to how we were playing the songs. As we were recording, we just learned to play better as a band. When I first joined, we started implementing a lot of this chaos and noise, and it was really fun, but after a while we realized, after recording, 'Hey, wait a second.' It's really fun live, but when you actually sit down and listen to what you're playing, it doesn't really sound that great. When you listen to it with headphones and relax with it. I don't think it would have shocked people. I just think they would've thought it sucked, which is pretty much what we thought when we heard it."
It wasn't until the group recorded "The Unruly King of Cats and Dogs" last July that they knew they had something to work with, that they'd found the sound for which they'd been searching. "That kind of set the tone for the rest of the record, I think," Neal says. "After we heard how well that turned out, we weren't afraid to be so...We realized we could be poppy and not be ridiculous with it."
Even after they found their sound, finishing the album and staying together as a band seemed, at times, as though it would turn out to be an either/or situation. As weeks became months became a year and change, nerves frayed and tempers flared. The tension spilled over into Little Grizzly's live shows, to the point where Barnhart claims their CD release party at Dan's Bar a few weeks ago was the first they've played a show "we've been entirely happy with in about five months."
"We were so pissed off that this record wasn't done," Neal says. "We were all getting on each other's nerves. This band almost broke up probably a dozen times over the last year."
"There was about an eight-month stretch where--I mean, I deal with most of the business side of things, and George writes all the songs," Barnhart says. "So he and I talk a lot. And there was about an eight-month stretch where our phone conversations, every single one of them, ended in an argument. Not necessarily a screaming, yelling, call-the-cops-cause-Donny's-beating-me-again argument, but it was definitely tense. There were times when I wanted to throttle him, where I was going to drive to his house and kick his screen door in."
"Same here," Neal adds. "And it was usually the dumbest little things that would set things off. Scheduling things, the color of T-shirts, just the dumbest, stupidest shit."
Sitting next to each other at the picnic table, it's clear that's all behind them. But the band's raucous live shows--which Neal says are "probably three or four notches above the record, as far as volume and intensity"--aren't a thing of the past. Not yet. They've toned it down recently, only because people were starting to come to Little Grizzly shows for the onstage theatrics, not the songs. The group also added keyboard-banjo-guitar-whatever-else player Howard Draper recently, meaning they'll be able to play the songs the way they always wanted them to sound. Still, the eyes-wide-shut emotion will always be there, because it's part of how they listen to music and how they play it. While they don't want to become parodies of themselves, they don't want to change just because of someone else's ideas about their band. They just want to do what they believe in, no matter what the result is.