Outside Usual Channels: An Interview With Grandfather

Glen Mcleod chats to Albini-produced New Yorkers about working outside the usual models of music distribution

Flicking through dusty vinyl in a Romanian charity shop recently, a protruding record inner grabbed my attention. Orphaned from its sleeve, upon its almost translucent white was printed a warning: ‘HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC’, text sitting directly above a skull and crossbones, skull replaced by a cassette tape. The idea that a few decades ago the cassette could have been seen to have had such a damaging effect on the music industry seems absurd now. Or is the absurdity the fact that a similar paranoia remains today, and new ways of distributing music are still being touted as the musical antichrist?

Enter Grandfather – a three piece from New York whose belief in their own music led them to put up their own money to record their debut album with sound engineer Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studio, then give the album away for free on their website. This kind of move could easily be derailed as some kind of PR stunt, but upon asking it becomes clear there are other motivations.

Finding the limitless possibilities of home recording daunting, Grandfather decided to go into Electrical Audio and pretty much record the songs live. Sometimes it seems that people enlist Albini for their recording based on his reputation, rather than his setup being the right fit for their band. Listening to Grandfather’s debut Why I’d Try, it doesn’t seem there could be any other choice. The recording is full-bodied and warm, and the songs themselves contain changing textures that develop and build like a pot of water being slowly brought to boil. Opener ‘You’re Strange’, like the rest of the album, has a dark and brooding exterior which is slowly chipped away the closer the listener gets to the crescendo, slowly revealing an unexpected hook at the centre.

The album seems a piece as a whole and the perfect document to introduce the world to Grandfather. So rather than risk people listening to inferior versions of the album and without the pressure of a record company curtailing such a decision, the band gave the album away on their website. As Why I’d Try trickles out into the world, the Quietus caught up with guitarist Michael Kirsch to talk about sidestepping the whole ‘industry’ side of music and doing things on your own terms.

Your album is called Why I’d Try – so why would you?

MK: We try because we love music. There are no rational reasons behind the pursuit of music. The odds are always against us and it’s proven to be an incredibly difficult path to justify to other people. Why I’d Try isn’t about the reasons behind our actions. It’s about the gut feeling. This record is the result of an incredible amount of persistence in the face of doubt. All of the lyrics in some way tie into this theme.

The recording of the album seems to have been a very considered process, financed by the band itself – only to give away the end result for free on your website. Does this mean that you see albums purely as a promotional tool to get people to experience the band live?

MK: Financing the recording ourselves allowed us to make an album without any pressure to make money. Our primary consideration was to make the best sounding record possible, given a very small budget. We all agreed to take a monetary loss on this album, so that we could distribute it more efficiently. We believe that a band’s survival is based on a wealth of people actively engaging with their music. In that sense, the most important profit for us was an audience.

I think that the ability to distribute digital music for free is a blessing. There are relatively no upfront production costs to distribute music digitally; there are no packaging or shipping costs involved. We can still monetise interesting physical packages, live shows and other limited experiences, so in that sense, the free digital files act as a promotional tool, introducing a large number of people to our band.

We ultimately wanted to give our music freedom from the record business. Music itself is not an object. It can never be owned and therefore, it should not have to be bought to be heard.

You have written extensively on recording the album with Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studio. To me he captures what it would sound like if the bands he’s recorded were playing in your front room. That being the case – does the record sound like Grandfather playing live?

MK: Yes and no. On one hand there is nothing we do on the record that we can’t do live. There is not a single instrumental overdub. Every part can be played note for note, without the use of samplers or other performers. On the other hand, there is a lot that we do live, that we don’t do on the record. Live, we allow ourselves the freedom to respond to the particular energy of the moment, and take the song somewhere it’s never been. This keeps things interesting for us, and for our audience.

The album was also mastered by Bob Weston – what do you think he added to the recording?

MK: His magic touch. Mastering requires an uncompromising attention to detail. It is a delicate balancing act, setting levels and equalization to keep the listening experience consistent throughout the entire album. Bob was able to master our album without sacrificing the dynamics of our performances. Whereas many mastering engineers over-compress the mixes so that the album is perceived to be louder, Bob refrained from doing this, allowing the music to breathe.

If a record label approached you now about putting out your next album, would you consider it?

MK: Yes, we would definitely consider it. While I am confident in our ability to record and release music ourselves, there are other aspects of being in a band that require a lot of planning, that goes beyond the scope of what we are capable of. I think a partnership with a record label that has a strong roster of artists, and a great team of forward-thinking, motivated individuals would be great for our band. The most important consideration for us when thinking about labels is that they have a team who is actively experimenting with new methods and models to release and distribute music, and who give bands the freedom to participate in that conversation along with them.

I liked the various sketches comprising the artwork – were these influenced by the album itself or concept behind it?

MK: I can’t speak for Kendra, who drew the images, but inspired by her sketchbook drawings, we gave her some simple guidelines. We wanted her to keep it black and white, a stark visual representation of the band allowing the music to provide the color on it’s own. We asked her to draw 10 images, so that we could assign a specific image to each song. We also gave her all of our demos and asked her to draw them while listening to our music. We love her art tremendously and feel a profound connection to it.

You have a very full sound for a three piece – by the peak of the crescendo of most songs you sound like a band double your size. Achieving this as a three-piece must be good economically and on the tour bus?

MK: From a purely musical standpoint, I love playing in a three-piece band. There is so much space to fill, that it forces me to push my own boundaries. There is nothing to hide behind. Organizationally, being in a three-piece band is in some ways no different than being in a larger one. We began playing together as part of a five-piece band in 2007. Since then, we have gone down to four members and now three. One format isn’t any better than the other; it’s as simple as the chemistry between the members, and how they communicate and enjoy being around one another. Sure, we have more legroom in the van, though it’s still a relatively small space to share with other people. Getting along is the most important factor that makes it work.

Is there much of a local scene for bands in New York these days or do you think with everyone having access to music from pretty much anywhere the idea of music being geographical is an antiquated one?

MK: I think local music cultures are still prevalent, though the main difference nowadays is that some of the rigidity and insularity that defined local scenes is lessening. We recently connected with a few great bands out of Boston that we learned about through a digital compilation we were on thanks to Dan Goldin from explodinginsound.com. His website has enabled bands like us to become aware of budding local scenes outside of New York, and participate in them. In this respect, I think that scenes are still relevant – it’s just that the barriers to entry have changed for the better.

I can hear some lineage to Mission of Burma who you have previously supported, or perhaps the Wedding Present. Did either of these bands or others play a part in shaping your sound?

MK: Not consciously. I think we share a similar framework to both of those bands, though we never once referenced them while writing. If they have influenced us, it’s been purely by way of osmosis. The music that I tend to think about while writing is usually not in the three-piece, guitar-rock format, a strategy that prevents us from sounding exactly like another artist. In that sense, Bjork shaped our sound far more than Mission of Burma, or the Wedding Present.

Is the plan to tour the album for the next while?

MK: Our ultimate goal is to be out on the road constantly. We want the relationship between recording and playing live to be more fluid. I don’t think bands need to stick to a model based on ‘touring an album’. There are so many other ways to release recorded music and provide a live show that continuously evolves. We are currently discussing how we can keep people actively engaged with our band, both in the studio and on the road year round.

That being said, we are manically writing new music. Our debut record allowed us to sit back and objectively think about our music for the first time. As a result, we now have a much stronger identity, and a better understanding of what is possible for the band musically.

Lastly, have you ever had a load of Grandaddy fans turn up to your shows mistakenly, hoping to hear songs from the Software Slump?

MK: Unfortunately not. Our plan was to ride their coattails, though it hasn’t really worked. Perhaps we’ll change our band name to Justin Beaver instead.

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