Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Ripple Conversation With Grifter

Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Grifter's fantastic sophomore album, 'The Return Of The Bearded Brethren'. So when the opportunity arose to have a chat with Ollie Stygall, Grifter's affable frontman, I was excited to say the least. Especially since he had no qualms whatsoever to speak to me after the two faux pas I made in the recent review. No, I won't tell you what cock-ups are, you have to find that out yourself. However, read on as Ollie and I discuss the past, the present and the future of one of England's finest bands.

Greetings Ollie and thanks for taking the time to talk about your band, Grifter, and your fantastic new album, 'The Return Of The Bearded Brethren'. First of all though, for those not in the know, who are Grifter? 

- Grifter are three guys, all old enough to know way better, yet young enough to ignore better judgement! We are myself, Ollie, on guitar and vocals, Phil on bass and Foz on drums and backing vocals. We've been around for 11 years, travelled the length and breadth of Britain kicking ass and taking names along the way.  

All this time together has certainly paid off since 'The Return Of The Bearded Brethren' showcases such a tight knit unit with a plethora of great songs and a great sound to match. Is Grifter your only band or did you all cut your teeth in other constellations?  

- We've all played in various bands for 20 years or so, most of which has been bands that play for a couple of years and then disband. Foz, who is actually from the West Midlands near Birmingham originally, did play in a psychobilly band called Lost Souls who gained quite a following in the UK and Europe. Phil and I both spent time in the 90's in a band called Nero Circus. The band was a bit of an oddity as it mixed up Trouble and Kyuss riffs with a bit of grunge and a shade of old school thrash, and were just starting to pick up on the stoner rock term as it was first bandied around. We shared a label with Welsh stoners Acrimony, who we all know went on to become semi legendary and now comprise members of Sigiriya. Other than that, we've been in all sorts of bands from grunge, to thrash, to death metal, to punk etc. 

 How did you guys meet?  

- The Plymouth scene at one time was fairly small and fairly close knit, it seems less so now sadly. I first met Phil 20 years ago when I moved to the city to join Nero Circus and he was friends with the band...he later joined. We've done a couple of bands since then. I first met Foz maybe 14 years ago when the bands we were in at the time played a gig together, then our paths crossed for a while. I believe Foz and Phil met while Foz was in a band called 16 Stone Mullet, playing stoner influenced stuff, and Phil joined to replace their bass player. 16 Stone Mullet actually morphed into Grifter when their guitarist went to university with the intention of coming back every other week to rehearse. We decided to do another band in the intervening weeks...but he never came back, so Grifter became the main thing.  

Having visited Devon that whole area to me would be a big inspiration for slow doom or more reflective shoegazing music, not balls-out heavy rock. What made grifter go down a different avenue? 

 - To put it simply, we like balls-out heavy rock. None of us really like slow doom or shoegazing music, we like stuff that totally kicks ass! I actually find slow doom unbelievably dull, I can't listen to it. Devon is a fantastic place to live...we have some beautiful coastlines and we also have Dartmoor, which is atmospheric and dramatic. For me it's one of the most beautiful parts of the country, but it's somewhere that I love to go to escape and enjoy with my family. It doesn't influence me in any musical way though. 

Do you have to travel far to get gigs? The West Country peninsula is kind of remote with really only Plymouth, Exeter and Torquay being the big towns. 

- We rarely play locally to be honest. We played Plymouth for the first time in about 18 months the other week. It was a huge success, so we're thinking of doing more there. We haven't played Exeter in about 18 months and Torquay for 9 years! There is a lack of decent venues down here. Therefore, we prefer to play elsewhere as we can get good crowds, better pay and it gets us out and about meeting new people, seeing different bands etc. We'll go anywhere if the promoter looks like he's going to do a decent job, if people want to see us and if we can afford it.

How was the writing/recording process for 'The Return Of The Bearded Brethren'? It sounds very relaxed and un-rushed and there are no signs of the dreaded second-album syndrome. 

 The writing was pretty slow. We’re not one of those bands who takes time out to write an album, we just write at our own pace and then, when we have the material we record it. We finished recording the first album in October 2010, so once that was done we gradually wrote new material until we had enough to record for a new album in June 2013. There’s no rushing the writing process, each song is worked and reworked until it’s the best we think it can be. Some are really quick. ‘It’s Not Me It’s You’ was done in the space of a couple of practices, and the riffs just came out of thin air. On the other hand, ‘Princess Leia’ led us down blind alleyways for months. We came very close to scrapping it until we decided to have one last ditch attempt to save it, and it came up in it’s current structure. Recording wise it couldn’t have been easier. We worked with Rich Robinson on ‘Grifter’, so we knew each other. He has a mobile rig and came to our rehearsal space where we recorded in a large room…it’s like Abbey Road’s main room. We prepped the room on a Friday and set everything up, so we were good to go on Saturday morning. Come Saturday, Foz nailed the drums in about 3 hours, Phil did the bass in about the same time. On Sunday, I did all the guitars, then a few days later we went to Rich’s house and I did the lead vocals in 3 hours before Foz did the backing vocals in 2 hours. It was all very quick but never felt rushed. We simply knew what we were doing. The mixing took a while since Rich took recording away and mixed it in his own time.  

Sounds like you have found your way of creating an album and that’s how it should be. But in this process, where did you find your lyrical inspiration for ‘The Return Of The Bearded Brethren?

Inspiration come from all sorts of places. Things I witness, observations, people I meet, things I hear etc. The album is a real mixed bag where ‘Black Gold’ is a simple tribute to Guinness, our favourite tipple. ‘She Mountain’ is an imaginary encounter with a horny, larger lady. ‘Paranoiac Blues’ looks at peoples’ paranoia at the world in general, inspired mostly by these crazy redneck bastards who builds stockades full of arms and food against some imagined Armageddon. ‘Princess Leia’ is about the way you carry early sexual fantasy figures throughout life, as well as saying that getting older doesn’t mean being written off. ‘Bow Down To The Monkey’ looks at religion from two angles; on the one hand people seem willing to waste this life and deny themselves pleasure in the hope of a divine afterlife. On the other hand, I am looking at the debate between evolution and creationism. We know man evolved from ape like creatures, yet many Christians believeGod created man in his own image. If that’s the case, God must be a monkey! ‘Braggard’s Boast’ is about people obsessed with image and one-upmanship. ‘It’s Not Me It’s You’ is about people who wants you to participate in their idea of fun, even though it’s not yours…and then accuse you of being miserable! How about I take you to a Slayer gig since that’s my idea of fun huh! ‘Fire Water’ is about the downside of drinking…the recriminations the day after when you feel like shit and realize you’ve been a total dick. ‘The Return Of The Bearded Brethren’ was written as approached our 10th anniversary. In 2005 we wrote a song called ‘High Unholy Mighty Rollin’ about how awesome it is being in this band. And ‘The Return Of The Bearded Brethren’ is an update using themes from the original lyrics to say, basically, that it’s still awesome!  

You haven’t really added any layers of extra guitars on the album, which I like. What you hear is what you get. 

– The songs were written as a three piece. They have to sound good to us in the rehearsal room, so we know they will work live. That means they’re written to work without extra guitars. If you listen to Phil’s bass playing under the guitar solos, it’s a work of genius. There is literally no room or need for extra rhythm guitar work to fill out the sound…Phil has it all covered. When we write songs, we don’t really think in terms of recording, everything is written to work live and if they work live, they don’t need extra shit all over them in the studio. We like the dynamics of being a three piece that allows each instrument to breathe, including the drums and the vocals. And that’s what we aim to capture in the studio. If you listen to the vocals on the new album, they’re also very similar to our live sound. Foz, our drummer, has started to do a lot more backing vocals live, and had the backing vocals arranged on the new album. When tracking ‘The Return Of The Bearded Brethren’, I kept the lead vocals stripped back and as bare as possible, so it wouldn’t mask what Foz was adding to the songs. So, to answer your question succinctly, we only put on the recording what the songs really need. If it needed any more, then they wouldn’t have been good enough. 

I agree and to me Phil’s bass playing is similar to Lemmy’s in the sense that both guys really play rhythm guitar on the four-stringer rather than regular bass playing. And that makes such a positive difference.

As we talk I bring up how they hooked up with producer Rich Robinson, thinking he is the guy who played, recorded and produced Lou Reed amongst others. Based on Ollie’s answer this is something that has already caused mass confusion. 

– I really need to clear this up now. Our Rich Robinson is neither the Rich Robinson from The Black Crowes nor the other guy. Our guy is an old friend from Plymouth who went away to university to study sound engineering and recording. When he graduated, we approached him to do our first album since we know him and he knows our sound and style. The first album sounded so good we decided to work with him again for the new one and he did an amazing job. He’s a good guy and really knows what he’s doing. As for whether we’ll work with him again next time I can’t say, as he has no premises and is studying to become a sports physiotherapist. It might be nice to try someone new and not get stuck in a routine, though I hope Rich keeps doing some recording work since he’s really good at what he does.  

What brought on ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ as a cover? I know you are a massive Black Sabbath fan but that song isn’t the obvious choice.  

- That was down to Foz really. We had never entertained the idea of doing cover before but he has an electronic kit at home that he practices on. One day he came to rehearsals and started to play something. It took a minute or two for Phil and I to work out what he was playing. When he finished we gave him some applause and he turned around and challenged us to learn it for next practice, so we did. Then we played it at a gig three days later and it went down a storm, so we’ve played it ever since. We did debate whether or not to include it on the album, since we were aware of the potential criticisms but ultimately we do this band for ourselves, for own enjoyment, and we love playing the song. It fits so well with our sound and style that it actually feels like one of our own tunes now. The decision was made to record it and I think it came out pretty well. It’s humbling when people say they think we do it better than the original, which is clearly deluded but very nice to hear.  

Indeed it must be Ollie. Personally I think you’ve done a great job with it. You’ve turned it into your own song but you still hear the original underneath and in my opinion that’s how you record and play a cover.

Moving forward in to the future. What are your plans with the new album? Do you have any tours lined up?  

– This year has been a bit quiet for us as some family stuff has taken priority. But next year we do plan to get ourselves out there and play a lot more. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll be able to get fellow Ripple band White Dynomite over for a few shows in the UK and Europe. And we may have a festival or two to do as well. We know a good network of promoters around the country and are getting to know more in Europe, so getting gigs is not really a problem anymore. We just need to pick the good ones and fit them around work and family. Also, we plan to shoot a new video for one of the tracks at some point, to give the album a bit of a boost. Not sure which track yet but it’s on the cards. And we’re just starting the writing process again for new stuff, maybe for an album, maybe for an EP…who knows?  

That sounds very good and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the proposed White Dynomite tour. As for new material from Grifter, as a fan that’s always interesting to hear Ollie! While on the subject of shows, you have landed some prestigious festival slots. How did that come about?  
– Bloodstock was a total blag on my part. I just sent a cheeky message to the organiser on Facebook and within half an hour I was talking to her on the phone arranging a time slot. It did help that a mutual friend had put in a good word. We didn’t have to win any competition or anything, and it was an awesome day. Hard Rock Hell is another one. We were asked two years ago but didn’t get the message in time and they had to fill the slot quickly. Instead they invited us last year, 2013, and it turns out we got a much better time slot. The booker liked us so much he invited us back this year. We also played the very first Desertfest in 2012, headlining the Black Heart Stage and that kind of came about as a result of doing the Orange Goblin tour at the same time. The same year, we also did the first Freak Valley Festival in Germany and it came out of the blue, as the organizer got in touch and asked us to do it. We’ve been pretty lucky. 

So how was this year’s edition of Hard Rock Hell? 

– It was cool. Since we’ve played there last year, we knew the set up and what to expect. We actually got a pretty good stage sound after the first couple of songs – you put up with some teething troubles at festivals as it is all about a fast turnaround between bands – and we also had a really good sized crowd who made a lot of noise for us, so we very happy with how it went. A lot of people go to Hard Rock Hell and stick only to Stage One, where the more established and well-known bands play. And less people venture over to Stage Two which is more about up and coming bands, but we’ve played two years running now and had big crowds, so they’ve been kind to us. Personally, I prefer hanging out at Stage Two since it’s cool to see bands that are a bit hungrier, plus you never know if you’re going to see someone unknown who might blow you away. I usually find that Stage One has pretty lame sound quality and some of the bands are legacy type bands, playing out their careers and taking the cash. That said, this year on Stage Two it’s quite apparent that Rival Sons has a lot to answer for, as the whole retro middle of the road blues rock thing is gaining momentum, but a lot of that stuff leaves me a bit cold.

Our chat is drawing to a close but I have one final question to ask Ollie. Going back to your self-titled debut album, what on earth possessed you to write ‘Alabama Hotpocket’? 

– I heard the phrase and thought it sounded like an awesome song title. I then found out what it actually means and was pretty disgusted. But I still wanted to use the title, so I made the lyrics really vague.  

For those who doesn’t know what it means can look it up online. Personally I think it shows character and balls to stick to your guns, when you have a song or song title that might offend folks who can’t read between the lines and who has no humor at all. We need more people who stand their ground and Grifter belongs in that category for sure.

Time’s up and Ollie and I bid our adieus. It’s been a pleasure on my part to talk to one of the guys behind one of 2014’s best releases. So if you haven’t gotten a copy of ‘The Return Of The Bearded Brethren’ yet, you better get moving because it is a beast!

- Swedebeast

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