George Neal likes the characters in his songs to suffer. Chalk it up to a streak of aesthetic sadism if you will, but for the better part of the last two decades, it's a tendency that has allowed Neal to produce some of Denton's most compelling and underappreciated song craft.
Beginning in 1996, Neal fronted the band Little Grizzly and sang his fractured, mostly tragic narratives in an existential yelp that recalled Wayne Coyne and Will Oldham and was backed by a rhythm section rightly described as The Band meets Husker Dü. And though their profile never rose as high as contemporaries Centro-matic or The Baptist Generals, Little Grizzly and Neal himself became essential fixtures in the Denton music community for nearly 10 years.
But after putting Little Grizzly into permanent hibernation four years ago in order to finish a master's degree in art history, Neal has returned with a new band, The Slow Burners. And the man behind the project now seems more enthused than ever about playing and writing.
The group has just released its first EP, Returning to the Air—a precursor to the full-length effort the band plans to release later this year—and to be sure, the same lyrical suffering continues on this release. Doomed soldiers, cancer patients and failed fathers populate Returning to the Air in a tableau of calamity that will feel familiar to longtime Grizzly fans. It's the result of Neal gravitating toward characters that are forced to ask the big questions: "One of the things I write about a lot is things you are willing to die for—what are the costs? I don't think I ever give an answer because I don't know myself."
Neal fell in love with rock 'n' roll as an escape from the small-town, Last Picture Show kind of existence he chafed against as a kid.
"I always felt outside of everything," he says. "I mean, my brother and I were watching Bergman movies. In Graham, Texas."
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But it's songwriting that's held Neal's attention all these years.
"[At first] the idea of rock 'n' roll is a confrontation between you and the world you don't want to be a part of," he says. "But then what? You have to rearrange and make sense of what you're doing."
And, after 17 years, has Neal found in Denton what he couldn't in Graham?
"Definitely," he says. "It's why I'm still here. Not in a pandering way, but it's great finding community and finding people that are supportive. I think every artist wants that."