Grant Lee Buffalo was one of those '90s bands that seemed to be perpetually flirting with the big time. Each of their four releases was heralded by the critics, but mainstream success was always just out of reach. The enigmatic Grant-Lee Phillips decided to end the band in 1998 and start a solo career that has produced some wonderful efforts, including the recently released Walking in the Green Corn.
Speaking from his home in California and in anticipation of tonight's co-headlining gig with Glen Phillips at the Kessler Theater, he talked about his first job and how he never minded being in a cult band.
Wasn't your first real job as a roofer? Is that the worst job ever? It was one of the toughest, hottest and most dangerous jobs. I thought it pretty exciting. I enjoyed being out in the air. Quite a number of good songs came to me while I was up there. I can't complain.
I keep thinking about that scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy is about to get tossed off a roof. That was a pretty accurate depiction of what it feels like.
How did this tour with Glen Phillips come about? I met Glen about 15 years ago and we played together now and then over the years. We've been friends for a long time and decided to take that friendship out on the road. I was familiar with his stuff and he with mine, so it just seemed like a natural pairing.
But the music you made in Grant Lee Buffalo and Glen made in Toad the Wet Sprocket was quite different. Yes, I supposed that is true. We do have a few things in common, including last names. I think a lot of it has to do with what we have done since we were in those bands. There's also a lot to talk about on those long drives.
Do you play songs together? We flip a coin at the beginning of the night to see who will go on first. Each of us will do our own little set and then we will take a break and come back as a duo to play the rest of the show. I've learned a chunk of his songs and he has learned mine. We back each other up. That's a good way to do it. I enjoy harmonizing and playing second guitar quite a bit.
Does your set list consist mainly of songs from your most recent effort, Walking in the Green Corn? I've made it a point to play a lot of the new songs, but I likely to pull from any number of records: The Grant Lee Buffalo stuff and the solo albums. People love to hear the Grant Lee Buffalo songs and I love playing them. They haven't grown old for me. That's the great thing about playing live, you get to reinvent songs.
Does having a person in the crowd repeatedly yell out a song make it more or less likely that you will play it? It always depends on the song. There's always a handful that come up time and time again. There are favorites that older fans can agree on, although some people shout out some pretty obscure ones. Sometimes, I am stumped to remember those.
I've read that one of your favorite records is Days of Wine and Roses from the Dream Syndicate. Yes, that is a great record. I first saw them when I first came to L.A. and thought something really exciting was happening. I was born and raised in Stockton, California, and the Dream Syndicate seemed to represent some of the great possibilities in terms of putting out underground and independent music. I got a chance to see them play live when I first moved here. "Tell Me When It's Over" and "Halloween," those are great songs. I loved the energy of that record. They were signed to Slash and Grant Lee Buffalo signed to Slash as well many years later.
One reviewer wrote that Grant Lee Buffalo never escaped cult status. Did you ever want to escape it? No, that seemed like a descent achievement when I was up on the roof slopping tar. Just about all of my favorite bands growing up would be in that league. They were cultist. Once we get out of the league with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, there are a lot of cool bands. Even with the bigger artists, some of their best albums were underground. Look at David Bowie. It all depends on where you are in the world. There were places where we were bigger, like in Europe. There were times where one of our singles was big in France. It's hard to make rhyme or reason out of that.
There's something to be said for not wanting to go to an arena to see your favorite band. That's true. There is that side of it as well, where you have that sense of discovery of something that isn't on the radio. I love that. These days, you sort have to go out and hunt for bands, sniff them out.
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Would you ever go back to being in a band? Grant Lee Buffalo actually did a couple of reunion shows in 2011. It was just a small handful of shows and it was a lot of fun. We were curious what that would feel like so many years later. On tour, I sometimes take some sidemen along with me. It remains to be seen if I would want to put together a band. It seems intriguing, but I've always been lead by songwriting. If I write a bunch of songs that would warrant a band, maybe I would do that.
How did end up writing songs with Margaret Cho? Here in L.A., you cross paths with entertainers of all stripes. There was a club called Largo where I was performing at in the '90s, and a lot of comedians were performing there as well. Margaret was one of them and she is a big music fan to begin with. We developed a great friendship and a few years ago, she came to me and said she wanted to do a record, an album of songs. She had written lyrics and had just begun to strum a guitar. I jumped in, me and Andrew Bird and a bunch of people. That was really it. It was as simple as that. She is one of those fearless people who just jumps right in. It was a whole lot of fun to do that album with her, and it ended up being nominated for a Grammy.
Grant-Lee Phillips performs with Glen Phillips tonight, November 16, at the Kessler Theater.