Five people were scattered inside Club Clearview, maybe 10. A dozen tops. Whatever the number, it wasn't enough people to qualify as an audience and certainly not a crowd. Walking inside, it seemed as though the group onstage had served every person inside Clearview with a restraining order, forcing them to remain at least 20 feet from the stage at all times. The band wasn't even supposed to be here, filling in after a last-minute cancellation by another group, so the only people who came to Clearview expecting Little Grizzly to play were the members of the band. Oh well.
Not that it would have mattered much that night, with the Dallas Mavericks in the process of squeaking by the favored Utah Jazz at the last second to advance in the NBA playoffs and the Dallas Stars on the ice and on the tube in their own NHL playoff game. The Toadies could have been on the bill and attendance still would have been sparse.
The four members of Little Grizzly didn't care who was or wasn't there. If you were standing against the stage, oblivious to everything except the writhing bodies in front of you wrestling songs out of their instruments, you would have thought there were 1,000 screaming fans pressed up against you, aching for more. The band looked as though playing a 45-minute set had replaced one of the legs of a triathlon, their shirts wetter than if they'd been pulled from the washing machine mid-spin cycle. Drummer Colin Carter beat his drums like they stole something from him, while guitarist Matt Barnhart appeared to be suffering appendicitis, doubled over his guitar, coaxing noise out of every chord. Barnhart's brother Jacob played hopscotch with his bass in the middle of the stage, Pete Townshend in thrift-store threads, and singer-guitarist George Neal screamed lullabies with eyes practically stitched together. It was loud and beautiful and everything else rock and roll is all about on its better days, songs that slugged you in the jaw then picked you up off the floor, dusted you off and draped an arm around your shoulder. And almost no one saw it.
Little Grizzly with Legendary Crystal Chandelier and Stumptone
It wasn't the first time Little Grizzly had been in a situation where the audience didn't care or simply wasn't there. It is a band that has played in front of 14 fans who hang on every word and 1,400 disinterested onlookers who only hung their middle fingers in the air (see: Little Grizzly opening for the Toadies at the Ridglea Theater last year). They make music because they love it, not because they want people to love them. It's a simple fact most bands have forgotten.
"We understand that we're a band that not a lot of people are going to like," Matt Barnhart says. "That's not a comment on anybody's taste or our own band's ability or the way we sound. I think we have a natural audience out there."
"They're all still at home with their moms right now," Neal adds. "Not going out much."
"It's like a pocket of 10 or 15 guys in a lot of different towns who are just like us, who are obsessive music nerds, but aren't scenester-type people or anything," Barnhart continues. "They're dorks that love watching Star Trek and listening to folk music. We just kind of understand."
Which is part of what makes Little Grizzly great: They do this for themselves. No one else factors into the equation. That's not to say they don't want people to listen to them or that they make music people wouldn't want to listen to. Sitting around a picnic table on the roof of the Dallas Observer office, Barnhart and Neal wonder who wants to listen to Little Grizzly's "old man music" besides those obsessive music nerds. It's music they (correctly) describe as "The Band meets Hüsker Dü," sped-up folk tunes smashing into a wall of sound or punk songs played on a backwoods back porch, depending on their mood and what's next on the set list.
The just-released I'd Be Lying If I Said I Wasn't Scared, issued on Barnhart's own Quality Park Records, plays both sides of the fence. Neal's sepia-toned lyrics (sample: "Every soul's afeard," the opening line from "I Thought I Knew Ya Better Than That") come down the mountain hand in hand with a guitar sound rescued from SST Records' late-'80s roster ("Today is the Day," "She's Away"). They're songs that know their history yet seem determined to repeat and revise it. I'd Be Lying is thoroughly American music, incorporating everything from gentle acoustic ballads to amplifier-tipping guitar heroics, sometimes on the same song ("Peel Back the Sun"). A record made by record collectors for record collectors.
Last year at this time, they weren't sure what they wanted to do, whether they wanted to be The Band or Hüsker Dü or something else entirely. All they knew is they were ready to explore all possibilities. That turned out to be a problem. Then, Little Grizzly was just starting to record its second album, following up 1999's Please Let Me Go, It Wasn't Meant to Be. It was a process that eventually lasted more than a year, or as Neal estimates, "Too friggin' long." As the sessions for the album dragged on and on, Neal kept writing songs, and the band continued recording them, dropping other songs to make room, recording others as many as four times, until everything made sense. Two songs were recorded two weeks before Barnhart was set to mix the disc and written not long before then. The disc they ended up with was, not surprisingly, drastically different from the record they set out to make.
"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."
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"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.
"I never wanna fake it," Neal says. "When I'm up there screaming and crying and whatever, I mean, that's all completely real. And it got to a point where I felt like people were expecting it, and we all felt like people were expecting it. Colin was expecting that people wanted to hear him pound the shit out of his kit every time on every song. And that wall of noise from Matt, and Jake standing on the end of the stage, glaring at people. I think we all thought we were in danger of becoming caricatures of ourselves. But I like being in a really emotional band. I love playing live. I love bringing people in and having them connect right there with us, going on an emotional jaunt with us for an hour or however long we play. That's real important to me. That's the kind of music I grew up on: really emotional rock. You know, The Who and...The Who." He laughs.
"I think it's important to all of us," Barnhart says. "We don't wanna be perceived as coffeehouse folk singers either. That's kind of the difficult balance. You do wanna connect with people, you wanna have an impact, and you wanna play your music well. It's just a matter of us playing the songs right, and if that happens, then, more than likely, everything will fall into place."