STANDING ON THE SHOULDER OF GIANTS: THE GRIP WEEDS
By Mike Doktorski
From the The Kinks to Oasis to the Stone Temple Pilots, the history of rock n roll is strewn with bands forged from the unique ties that bind siblings. New Brunswick's Grip Weeds follow in that proud tradition. Formed by brothers Rick and Kurt Reil in the early 90s, the Grip Weeds have since cultivated an avid worldwide fanbase with their infectious brand of psychedelic pop rock. Just prior to the release of their fourth CD Giant On The Beach, the Grip Weeds (Rick,Kurt, guitarist Kristin Pinell, and bassist Michael Kelly) kindly took the time to share with Night & Day some thoughts on songwriting, the new album, and all things Grip Weed.
NBU: How did the current Grip Weeds lineup come together?
Kurt: Rick and I have been playing together since we were kids; Kristin was in another band that was in the NYC pop scene in the early 90's. We were looking to toughen up our sound and Kristin was the natural choice. When she came into the fold, the band's sound really came together. Michael was the last to join- he just came in this year- his first shows were tours of Canada and Spain! It worked out so well we asked him to take part in the new record we hadn't yet started. The he outdid himself on the new CD!
Kristin: My entrance into the Grip Weed Circus was when I met them through mutual friends in the NYC music scene. Their songs had this kind of cool 60's retro style with a lot of harmonies and 12-string guitars that I loved. I got to be good buddies with them and went to a lot of their shows and recording sessions. Rick and Kurt asked me to play guitar on some of their demos and when they started making plans for their first album they were looking for some heavier rock guitar so they asked me to come aboard to replace a departing guitarist Our current line-up was completed when bassist Mike Kelly joined us last year. Mike and I had been playing together in a band called The Rooks. When that band ended we decided to continue to work together in the Grip Weeds. So here we are.
Rick Reil: vocals & guitars
Kurt Reil: vocals,
drums, & guitars
lead guitars & vocals
Michael Kelly: bass
NBU: I'm not gonna bother you with the "where did the name come from" question- you named yourselves after a character (Pvt. Gripweed) played by John Lennon in the 60s flick How I Won The War. And the new album Giant on the Beach evokes in many ways the sound of Rubber Soul/Revolver-era Beatles (the backwards guitar solo on Realities...nice!). Does it go without saying that you're all Fab Four fans? What were you listening to while you were recording this album?
Rick: Thanks for the Rubber Soul/Revolver compliment. Those records are such milestones for us. I don't know that we specifically set out to sound like the Beatles or those albums in particular with Giant On The Beach, but you're quite right to detect that they influence us in general. What those records have going for them is first, the songwriting of the Beatles, which is impeccable and probably the best ever in rock music or maybe all of popular music. Secondly, they created sonic environments for those songs which were tightly arranged, yet totally groundbreaking in their creativity and use of experimental production techniques. That band never tired of pushing the envelope. And in our way we tried to push our own sonic envelope on Giant On The Beach. We strove for a greater depth in songwriting, and worked to make the arrangements more powerful or poignant. We also wanted to harness our ever-expanding palate of production techniques. Since we record in our own studio, we are free to experiment much more than if we were on the clock. Also, without the benefit (or drawback perhaps) of an outside producer or engineer, we have to figure out techniques by ourselves, and we used that on Giant On The Beach. This is the first record on which we used computer technology, so while we look up to bands like The Beatles for their creativity and fearlessness in exploring the possibilities of recording, we don't necessarily try to copy their sounds. We didn't make this album to sound like anyone in particular, and we all listen to a lot of different music all the time. But what does happen is that when we start working on a song, it may suggest an influence, and then we may check out the song that it reminds us of. We do this a lot, not to copy, but to get ideas. We might have listened to The Beatles, but we also checked in on some new stuff. If you want some names, The Foo Fighters, also Rainbow Quartz label mates Outrageous Cherry. But overall we were trying for an evolution of our sound.
Kristin: We're all Beatles fans. We grew up listening to their music, so there's probably a thread of their influence in everything we do, but it's not necessarily a conscious act. It's like a backdrop that frames our culture and times- the Beatle influence. In making GOTB, I was listening to a lot of Paul Weller, his more recent solo stuff. His music encouraged us to get a bit more "out there" and crank up the intensity level of our recordings.
Michael: The Beatles and George Martin, for me are without question, the ones that set the standard for writing pop music and turning it into a high-art form. I love all periods with a leaning towards albums like "Help", "Pepper" and "Hey Jude". For Giant On The Beach, there certainly was a sound I was going for on each track and derived ideas from past influences and used my musical instincts for guidance. For specific reference ideas I was listening to Jellyfish, The Grays, old Wings albums and XTC. The sounds on those artist's albums are all on the 'tastefully vintage' side, but with more modern production, which is what we were going for.
NBU: The songwriting on Giant on the Beach seems pretty evenly divided between Rick and Kurt. Is there a healthy competition there? Do you bounce ideas off each other, or do you each take control of recording your own songs? How would Kurt and Rick describe the contributions of Kristin and Michael?
Rick: There is a healthy competition between Kurt and I in as a much as we are often impressed by each other's songs and then challenged to come up with something as good as the other. We work both separately and together, depending on the song. Sometimes we each come in with a demo that suggest a good bit of the song structure and an arrangement. However, there are also collaborations ("Gone Before"). Kristin and Mike add a lot to the process, particularly on this record. There were a couple of my songs that I chose not to make demos of on purpose so that they would become band-arranged. One was Astral Man, another was Telescope. We kept playing them in rehearsal and they evolved with every member of the band making significant contributions to the way it came out. Kristin often comes up with leads that are breathtaking and take the song into higher emotional levels, Very compositional, like classical music. Mike is an extremely talented musician and composer in his own right, so he added that experience to the recording process. He varied his approach on bass so extremely from one song to the next that I like to think of him as being about 5 different bassists in one. Kurt is a master of harmonies. We tend to think very similarly in terms of drumming (unfortunately for him, I was originally a drummer) and we are both recording fanatics. We will study what so and so producer did on whatever classic record to get "that drum sound" or guitar tone.
Kurt: There's definitely a healthy competition there, but it's Ok because the result is that we both contribute better songs to the Grip Weeds. We've been writing separately a bit more these days, but we always bounce songs off each other. "Gone Before" is one instance where Rick had written part of the song- it was like a folk song. I thought it could be harder and more dramatic, and wrote the bridge to give it more drama. Maybe because I'm a producer I hear songs in my head as finished recordings- I heard this song heading in a harder direction, which is how it turned out. It's great as a songwriter to work with musicians who turn your songs inside out and figure out what makes them tick. Kristin and Michael are serious musicians who take the time to create fully realized parts that elevate the songs to another level.
Kristin: On this new album I have once again focused almost all my energy on the guitar work even though I did co-write "Closer To Love" with Kurt. He and I wanted to create a story with an early "Hollies" vibe. When I work with Kurt and Rick on one of their new songs the first thing I need to do is get inside it and find out where they want to go with it, specific sounds or instruments they might want to hear. I'll then spend alot of time working up different guitar lines and parts, playing off the song's basic riffs-kind of pulling the song open.
Michael: When getting parts ready for Giant On The Beach, the boys would give me CD demos of material or email my MP3 files of songs with and without the bass lines. For Kristin's song 'Closer to Love', she gave me a cassette recording made on a little Radio Shack tape recorder! Some of the material had some parts pretty well developed, which I just added to, whether it was further distilling a good idea or recommending the sound as to which bass and amp setup to use. With songs with no bass part, I was free to come up with my own material. Each Reil has a different collaboration style; Rick leaves all the doors open and will entertain all the ideas brought to the table, then sifts through and either picks the one he likes the best, or we construct a new part based on several ideas resulting in a whole new idea. Kurt is more of a 'director' in that when he wants a specific part, he pretty much wants that part down, but will swing with other ideas IF you present a compelling case for it. He also was open to trying new ideas as was I with regards to trying different basses and amps until we came up with what we thought was the best part and sound for the song. All in all, the whole process was intensely creative and balanced with just the right amount of fistfights and group hugs.
NBU: How does the experience of writing and recording Giant at your own studio (House of Vibes) impact the album? Do you ever miss the objectivity of an outside producer?
Rick: We definitely don't miss an outside producer. Unless it's one of those great producer engineers like Andy Johns or Eddy Kramer, we would see it as an interference. We have such strong ideas of what we want to do and I've heard stories of producers wrecking albums with preconceptions of commerciality that turn out to be wrong. That said, we would love to have an experienced engineer sit behind the board and bounce ideas off of. Recording in our studio is an essential component of our sound. There are musicians who think they need big budget studios or certain kinds of expertise, but what I think they don't realize is that the most important factor (after talent and creativity) is TIME. Many a band have gone into a big budget studio and have gotten a terrible result because they had to rush. When you have to rush you can't experiment; you don't have time to make mistakes and find your own recorded sound. We're able to get very much the sound we want, especially on this record because by now we have some engineering skill and production experience.
Kurt: From the very start, the Grip Weeds were a DIY group. Early on there was no one there to help us and we had no choice, but now we're very used to handling all aspects of a production. We like having total control over our sound and presentation- for me, it's part of the package- equally important to the song itself is how it's performed and recorded. It keeps things simple to just handle it all ourselves, and take the risk to rise and fall solely on your own merits. Recording is like a big experiment- you never fully know how it's going to turn out- you just kind of guide the process along and hope for the best. It's something I enjoy. It's all about working with the right people who understand your vision. We 'd just prefer at this point to produce ourselves, but I'm not adverse to someday working with someone to get another viewpoint on our music. I'd like to work with an engineer though- that'd take the heat off us! Producing yourself works both sides of the brain- it's like singing and drumming. That comes naturally to me, but some people can't understand how I do it. I can't either, I just don't think about it. Performing and producing at the same time is similar.
Kristin: We are so lucky to have our own studio. It allows us incredible creative freedom and a real opportunity to explore ideas. Most independently financed bands could never achieve the "major label" sound that we get out of our basement. It would cost too much. The amount of hours and detail that went into this recording is huge. I don't think any of us really wants an outside producer except to give us some technical pointers. I personally feel very protective of the sound that we create ourselves and wouldn't want to give anybody else the control. It is however, sink or swim....We've learned by our mistakes. At least we seem to be getting better at it with each release.
Michael: This impacts the Grip Weeds in a number of ways. Everyone with a laptop and a copy of Pro Tools is calling themselves a producer these days. I think as producers, the Grip Weeds do a great job. Since we do all the work ourselves, this gives us the time to be more objective, take steps back and have a look at the overall progress, and the return to tweak, edit, and re-work if need be. For me, a producer by definition is someone with expert musical knowledge and can make a good song great through the process of hearing the essence of the idea, and honing and polishing that idea so that it becomes it's clearest possible interpretation. Certainly musicians like Sting, U2, Peter Gabriel, Sir Paul who are not just still around playing the 'nostalgia circuit', but still flourishing as artists with fresh evolving stylistic ways to express their music, make use of producers so they can just concentrate on the music itself. I certainly believe the Grip Weeds would benefit from another set of ears behind the desk for that reason. Self-producing rarely gives you the chance to get out of that 'producer-head' mentality, so it would be cool to run through a part just thinking about the performance without thinking "Oh, I just got an idea for a keyboard part".
NBU: The artwork on Giant depicts a painting of a giant genie gazing down at the band. Who came up with the artwork and concept?
Kristin: We all wanted something different and beautiful and fun. The genie cover painting is a gorgeous powerful image and Kurt's graphic design work is very cool. I was always really into fabrics, tapestries and Moroccan, middle eastern designs and colors. We were able to incorporate all that into the artwork. We scanned our clothes, our pillows...the photo shoot for the CD is my bedroom!
Kurt: Kristin came up with the idea. It can be interpreted in many ways, which is what attracted me to it- one way to look at it is that the genie represents our music, which we conjured up collectively and it's bigger than all of us. In any case, it's something we haven't done before- it's certainly different from our other covers. We didn't want something safe and obvious- we wanted to challenge ourselves and the audience.
Rick: The idea for the Genie came specifically from Kristin, but the whole band jumped on it. We had a meeting at Mike's apartment one night and he served up some kind of intoxicating beverage, and it all took off from there. We really wanted something different for this cover, not just a picture of the band or something that looked too much like the last one. The image of the Genie struck us as outrageous. There's a lot you could read into it. I find it to be an image of power, of unleashing huge creative forces and of wishes that will be granted. Of course, feel free to come up with your own interpretation. That's part of the fun.
Michael: Well, the image of the cover certainly has evolved to all kinds of symbolism that means different things to different people, but hey, here's the truth. All of us sat in my living room one afternoon and started charting out ideas for the cover of the album, the website and all things Grip Weed. I broke out the beer and bourbon, and the ideas were flowing all over the place, just like the beer. Then Kristin says "we should call it 'Giant On The Beach', and then Rick says "yeah, that's cool, I love that". I say "Hmmm…that certainly conjures up some cool imagery". Kurt says "I don 't know, Giant On The Beach?". It was Kristin's idea, bless her little rockin' heart.
NBU: Has the band members' involvement in various side projects over the years informed the work of the band? Or are side projects and the Grip Weeds deliberately kept separate and distinct? Does the experience of producing other bands (at House of Vibes) impact the work of the Grip Weeds?
Kurt: When we produce other people, we work very closely and almost become members of the band- that gives us a perspective on their working methods, and sometimes it's influenced us to do things differently or try other ways of working that we wouldn't have thought of before. It's an added benefit of doing production work. It's similar with the side projects: Occasionally, I work with Jim Babjak and Dennis Diken from the Smithereens in Buzzed Meg. We play mostly Jim's songs and I'm the front man- that's different for me, having spent most of my time behind the drums. For one thing, it's made me a better guitarist, which directly impacts the type of songs I'm capable of writing.
Rick: Side projects enrich the sound of the band, especially if they involve working with bands that don't sound like the Grip Weeds. I find that working outside of the band allows me to work in different ways in o things that I might not have thought to do. Kurt and I have done production sessions with other bands who work differently from us, and we learned a lot of useful things from them. We were also forced to develop some of our studio skills more quickly because when we produce bands, THEY are on the clock and we have to make them sound great quickly. Of course, they benefit from techniques we worked out more laboriously in Grip Weeds sessions, so its beneficial for everybody. One of my side projects is a group called The Wyld Olde Souls which is much more acoustic than the Grip Weeds and features two female singer songwriters. I have approached this situation much differently than The Grip Weeds, yet what I learned in that project I was able to apply to Grip Weed recordings.
Kristin: We all continually work with other musicians. It keeps us fresh and interested. The Grip Weeds right now are a huge job and very time-consuming. It's taken all of my focus.
Michael: As far as side-projects are concerned, I can say that the Grip Weeds have certainly enhanced my side projects in terms of live performance and new musical ideas I can bring to the table. The Grip Weeds certainly have a very genre-specific style heavily influenced by a literal who's WHO of rock. This benefit works both ways as my side project influences and musical choices are now part of the Grip Weeds evolving musical palette. I constantly strive for higher musical challenges through my works in jazz and orchestral writing, and certainly these factors manifest themselves in my playing, which then of course show up on Grip Weeds CDs, just don't tell the band I was going for that Charles Mingus vibe on "Telescope"!
NBU: So what's next for the Grip Weeds? What are your plans around the new album? Will you be touring?
Rick: We will concentrate on promoting Giant On The Beach. Specifically, we have not yet learned how to play the whole album, which I would like to do. I don't mind "resting" some of the older material to concentrate on the new stuff. Its very challenging and for me its where the development of the band is. I would also like to see this record break us to a wider audience. It would be good for the band to be able to play a longer show at a bigger venue, maybe with a little production value in the show. We have a sizeable catalog of songs now, many in different styles and sometimes the club gigs can be limited in what you can play.
Kristin: After the new year we will be doing more live shows and our record label, Rainbow Quartz will be releasing the CD worldwide. We are currently working on shooting a video and building our website. There is talk of going to Japan and Europe which I am really looking forward to.
Kurt: Yes, touring here and in Europe and probably Japan in 2005. The label wants us to get out and promote this album- we plan to stand behind- or below- our genie!
Michael: Wow, it's been such a wild year for me. Each move towards what we are trying to achieve just gets bigger and bigger. Gigantic things will be happening, be careful for what you wish for!
For a listing of upcoming shows and to purchase a copy of Giant On The Beach, goto GripWeeds.com.