Perfect Sound Forever


Grifters band photo

interview by Jason Gross (Sept 1997)

Even though I MIGHT have known their name in passing, I really didn't know about the Grifters until Vince DeMayo aka Kenric L Ashe of Skin Flute dragged me to one of their gigs and insisted on seeing them whenever they came around (he put them up for some of their local gigs and they did remember him when I asked). I thought he was just being sentimental about some homeboys from Tennessee. After seeing them do a good show, I decided to pick up Ain't My Lookout and thought it was OK. Gradually it kept growing on me until I fell stone-cold in love with it. It was full of these great, beautiful melodies, rocking-out tunes and shitloads of craziness that you had no idea where it came from. In other words, it was the rock and roll of my dreams. I was a convert after that, spreading the word to whoever would listen. If I'm not as in love with their latest one, Full Blown Possession (on Subpop, it's probably only because I played their last one dozens of times more. Seeing them live again was a real revelation- a lot of their tunes that I loved and never thought would make sense out of the studio ('Covered With Flies' and 'My Apology' for instance) were being made flesh and blood right in front of me. Jesus, didn't I fall in love with them again...

When it came time for an interview, drummer Stan Gallimore and guitarist Dave Shouse gracefully bowed out, letting guitarist Scott Taylor and bassist Tripp Lamkins sat in the spotlight and have a FEW drinks there.

PSF: How did the Grifters first get started?

TRIPP: Dave got the band going about eight and half years ago. He found Scott through a lot of tapes and just decided he wanted to work with this weirdo, bascially...

SCOTT: Basically. He wanted to do something kind of BRASH...

TRIPP: They found me through a mutual ex-girlfriend.

PSF: When was that about?

TRIPP: '89. 1889.

SCOTT: Right after the Civil War was over.

TRIPP: Yeah, gangrene was setting in. At first, it was just the three of us and we were Bud for a while. Then we changed it to A Band Called Bud. They'd write 'Bud' on the concert schedules and everyone thought it was a drink special. So we needed to differentiate between the band and the drink special.

SCOTT: Then after a while we realized the drink special was more popular. There was nothing really spectular about us getting together. It was just kind of experimental to see what would happen and play gigs. But not to play records or make money. It took us about two weeks to get our first gig and practices were a joke. It'd be like 'where's Scott?' 'Oh, he's out following a girl at a Dead concert.' So eight years and one child later... now I'm finally divorced and I can follow the Dead again! Can't though since Jerry's dead. She probably killed him.

PSF: Do you think growing up in Memphis had a big influence on your music?

TRIPP: It's not as heavy an influence as you would think. Everyone's influenced by some form of Memphis music or another. It's not like we're influenced by all of them at the same time. It's hard to escape those good Stax grooves.

SCOTT: Hey, I got my Stax shirt on!

TRIPP: We're not anymore influence by Memphis music that any other band.

SCOTT: When we started out, there was the Alex Chilton camp with Panther Burns and the Hellcats and folks like that. A lot of hair bands were there too- a lot of Poison wanna-be's. There really wasn't a whole lot else there. There were a lot of good local bands but they never did anything- they'd have a party once or twice or month but they never got around to touring. Then after us, boom.

TRIPP: We were the bastard step-children of the Panther Burns scene.

SCOTT: Historically, I guess we're somewhere between Big Star and the blues. Memphis' best artists are always a little bit fucked up and do the wrong things. It's why the good stuff never really gets noticed. For one reason or another, they'd get the wrong deal or get a bad image or got too drunk at the showcase.

TRIPP: There were some people like Keith Sykes who showed some promise. He actually made it onto Saturday Night Live once. One of his songs got on the soundtrack of NIGHTHAWKS.

SCOTT: He's a big Nashville songwriter now. See, Nashville's not very far away (from Memphis). It's a very big industry town. You got New York, L.A. and Nashville.

PSF: Yeah but Nashville is so fucking plastic.

SCOTT: Memphis is the complete opposite. We're like the sister city. One's made of gold and one's made of black tar and bones. Memphis musicians play for the sheer joy of playing. You ain't doing it to be a rock star in Memphis because you ain't impressing anybody.

TRIPP: It's good for bands to start there because the scene is so apathetic that it makes you work hard.

SCOTT: No show you do on the road can be worse than a show you do in Memphis. The audience will not stand for cover bands. You got to be GOOD or people will walk out and never come back and then they won't talk to you later at the parties. It seems that by in large, for most of the people that we know in bands, they seem to be pretty damn good. Everybody in Memphis plays some kind of music.

TRIPP: For a long time, the axiom about Memphis was that it was filled with great musicians and bad songwriters. So we knew that we were cool because we were bad musicians. (laughs)

PSF: What about the scene there today?

SCOTT: We're never home!

TRIPP: I think it's the best it's ever been. There's more organization for bands to tour and hopefully bands can learn from our example! You just keep going out on the road and keeping doing it. The Oblivians and Big Ass Truck probably tour more than we do. We were the tour veterans in Memphis but we lost that.

SCOTT: We've been sitting on our ass for a year. Got fat and stupid. Now we're back out, losing weight and stupid.

TRIPP: We've been out to France and Japan, all those different places we never toured before.

SCOTT: We don't tour a lot now. Maybe two or three weeks at a time.

TRIPP: For Memphis though, aside from us sitting here in interviews talking about it, there's nothing unifying the scene there now. Maybe someone would write a book about this time and this music and we'd all get lumped together. It's not Athens where the art school or whatever kept producing all these great bands.

SCOTT: There's not a SCENE that the bands are growing out of. A band does a show and invites its own friends and then they meet people and other bands and other friends. It ain't like you can go out every night in Memphis and see a band. You can go down to Beale Street and see blues bands up the ass. Memphis is funny- sometimes NOTHING will happen at all. Saturday night, you're sitting at home and you're saying 'shit, I haven't seen Saturday Night Live in a while.' Then all of a sudden on a Tuesday, there's like six great bands playing.

PSF: How did the band first get hooked up with Shangri-La?

SCOTT: Shangri-La used to be a stress-management center. Sherman has a masseuse, sensory-deprivation tanks, 'brain tune-ups.' The tune-ups where these little ski goggles you put on with a little light in the middle that's flashing. I got to go into the tank a few times.

TRIPP: When you had this stuff in your eyes, they had new age music playing in your ears. With the lights going off, it's like really psychedelic and colorful. He did that for quite a bit of time and he made money off the East Memphis crowd. He turned that money around into a record store, which is what he always wanted to do.

SCOTT: You'd come in and do the tune-up and the tank and he'd have a little box on the counter with these records by local artists. We were one of the local artists who played a show, took the money and then used it to press up some records and basically did it ourselves. Finally he offered to produce us.

TRIPP: Sherman was a big fan of Dave's. He was one to dabble in this so we started out slowly. The first Shangri-La single was a hippy band called 611 that was friends of ours. He put out those two singles for us and he slowly got the hang of distribution and what was up. He really stuck up for us and he's really shrewd.

SCOTT: We started small. It'd be like 'here's the single...'

TRIPP: '... and you'll lose money on this. On the next one, you'll lose a little less money.'

SCOTT: Everything we've done on Shangri-La up to this point has been paid for. When you think of it as an indie market, that's a really good average. Then we sold a lot of records and he kept us with it. To me, when you're dealing with a label, the one real responsibility is playing. You go out and tour, that's all you can do. You make records and then you go out and tour and sell them 'cause the records are just an ad for the live show.

TRIPP: Yeah, I think touring is more important than the recording process. Of course songwriting's very important because you have to have songs. You go out and tour and get behind it. If you don't do that, you miss out on finding out what your songs are capable of becoming. Playing them over and over, night after after, the songs become something else. It's just good practice. It's made us better musicians.

PSF: You moved on to Subpop after being with Shrangri-La for a while. You think the sound of the band changed then?

TRIPP: It would have changed anyhow.

SCOTT: Yeah, it would have been the same no matter who or what we dealt with. We were using a four track then. Four tracks can make you really lazy because you know you're going to sound funky and you're using shitty microphones so you can blame it on that. With Euraka, we said 'let's do it on four track and make it sound as good as we can.' It's a real song record and we wanted the songs to show. We kind of knew that SOMETHING was going to happen after that- either moving up a level or getting back down to the basement where we could afford to live. Sound quality's sound quality.

TRIPP: I like good sounding records.

SCOTT: I like them too but I think ALL our records sound good. A lot of people may think the Sonics are weird but I like the sound of the drums through a jam box. Not on every song but the mood fits. Our new one (Full Blown Possession) sounds a lot better than the other ones SONICALLY but the guitars are out of tune in places (laughs) and the drums have never been in tune.

PSF: How do you look back at the Shangri-La material now?

SCOTT: Basically, the byline is that each thing that we do is the chronicle of the time. This single's what we sounded like that month. That album's what we sounded like for half that year. You look back at them and the songs themselves remind you of where you were then. It's weird to look at all the records as a whole. It's hard to pick one over another because they're all so different. It's like having six children and sure you like the first one a lot because it was the first one. But I love the middle kid and the baby's so sweet!

TRIPP: I see the new one as the baby and the first one as being the oldest.

SCOTT: It's kind of like, you got Bobby and Cindy and then in 2001, we'll have our Greg and Marsha record. But the Alice record is going to be one. It's gonna rock.

PSF: Did things change a lot for the band being on a bigger label?

TRIPP: We'd been getting offers for a while. For our first show in New York, Gerard Cosley came out and gave us a really good write up and suddenly we were the next big thing even though we didn't know it. Because of that, we started getting all these offers. It was really bizarre. We made some pretty good friends with Island Records- Denny Cordell was kind of like a mentor figure to us. He was SO cool and encouraging. It was nice to know that the guy who discovered Tom Petty liked us. They were really hot to sign us. We were really freaked out because that was happening to so many bands at the time. They would all get snatched up by a major label and then just squeezed dry.

SCOTT: We knew that this was too important for us to blow. We knew we needed to pay our dues and mature as musicians and songwriters. We were just started to get our feet wet to the whole world outside of Memphis. We were scared to death of having that taken away from us. So we just waited.

TRIPP: A main thing was also that we knew they'd want to get us to work with a producer. We had no idea what was going to happen. We weren't ready for that.

SCOTT: We were arrogent as hell. We thought we could do it better than anyone else and that's still sort of our attitude. At that point, we didn't want to relinquish what little control we already had. We just lassoed this tornado of a band and we were totally excited about what was going to happen to it. We didn't want it to fester and we didn't want anyone else to come in.

TRIPP: One of the good things is that we held out. It's like throwing meat in the water and getting a feeding frenzy going.

SCOTT: It's true. We got to meet a lot of great people and we're still in contact with them.

TRIPP: The offers were there. Stan found out that he was going to have another kid. We were kind of despressed because the band wasn't our meal ticket at all. So we thought maybe it's time to go ahead and try because we needed the help.

SCOTT: We were either going to go up or down. We needed to sign and make some money off it or we needed to scale down and just tour a little bit, go back to our day jobs, keep doing this. You reach a point where touring and working don't go together. As you tour more and work less, you have to tour even more because you're getting less money from work. You're out on the road a lot but you still got rent at home.

The offers were there and we knew that we could be living this way instead of scrounging. But if we would have taken any of the previous offers, we would have gotten screwed. We were getting offers when we were A Band Called Bud. That was really crazy. We were like 'you have GOT to be fucking kidding me.' It was a point of pride. We never shopped demos. We never contacted the lables. We never gave a shit. We were just going to do this ourselves 'cause in the back of our mind, we knew that if we played good shows and got good press, they'd come to us. Then they won't be in an advantage position. They'll be coming to us and asking us to do something with them as opposed to us asking them for something. I'm fairly happy with what we got with Subpop. I don't think it would be different that it would be anywhere else. I really like the people we work with at Subpop. We knew that no matter what label we signed with, there were going to be problems of some sort. With Subpop, we've had the least amount of problems.

I was picking the brain of a friend of ours who's in a band that got up there a little quicker than we did. So I asked 'what's it like? What's the difference of being on this label or that label?' He said 'the worst thing about it is that you're always a failure in their eyes. No matter how many records you sell, they're gonna say they want to sell more.' It's like you're ALWAYS fighting on a major label. They never sit back and say 'hey man, that's great. Let's party.' It's like with Hootie, their second record 'only sold' 500,000 or it 'only' got double platinum so that's a failure. All a producer is good for is to tell you it sucks. He sits there and says 'that sucks boys, do another.'

TRIPP: But he makes more money than you do. What does the producer think about the record? He says 'I don't know know, what do you think?'

PSF: Despite what a label might want from you, what do you want to happen with the band?

SCOTT: A bottle of J.D. for free. Check it out! We have arrived!!

TRIPP: We're never going to achieve that kind of mainstream success unless just through longevity. I think it would just be sweet to be a one-hit wonder. Just one dumb song that gets played every now and then and you get some kind of paycheck every year.

SCOTT: To me, it's the respect that we get in Memphis from musicians. It's like when Jim Dickerson knows your name. These kind of folks are my heroes. I was so into Memphis music and then to have them look at us as peers, that's AWESOME! Sam Phillips knows my name. I won't tell you what she told me...

TRIPP: Sam Phillips learned my name. Then got drunk and forgot it.

SCOTT: No, we're talking about Sam Phillips the girl. She's got Memphis connections. She's Don Nix's wife. Don was the engineer at Stax. His little brother Larry mastered all our records except for the last two. He also did the Big Star records.

PSF: Did you think Ain't My Lookout was a lot different than your earlier material?

TRIPP: We didn't have a lot of material ready when we went into the studio but we had a pretty good idea of what it was going to be. We went and laid as much as we could down. We did that album in about three weeks. It was still like the old days where we were just piecing the stuff together and we didn't know how it was going to come out. I think it worked out pretty good. It's fun creating that way together with everyone. Ideas are just bouncing off the wall. That's how we really like to work. Full Blown Possession was a little different because we were conscious that we didn't want to repeat ourselves. We wrote a lot of the stuff together at band practice.

SCOTT: We spent a lot more time in pre-production because we knew we were going to use a mixer. To us, mixing is not what you leave in but what you take out. You put two guitar parts down then you worry because you screwed up in the third bar and you have to put a whole other track down. We'll just pull it out in the mix. We thought that some guy was going to come in that didn't know shit about us. We were very conservative in terms of our sound.

TRIPP: We weren't sure if all of us were going to be there for the mixing. So we made sure that we didn't send out anything that was bad. We cleaned up everything in production. That's the main reason that the record sounds as polished as it does. We recorded half of it at Easley's. And then finished it at the new SUN studios on Beale St. That was cool because it got a different performance out of everyone, sort of. We had to switch to SUN cause Easley's was all booked up. The strangest thing was working with a professional mixer for the first time.

SCOTT: I worked at Sun and got to meet most of my heros there like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee. When the Stones are in town, there go there and jam so I got to meet them. I'd just smoke a joint and watch Keith fucking play.

PSF: I got a great quote from you that I wanted to ask you about. You were talking about this production and mixing process. 'I'm afraid a lot of our fans may think we've cleaned up our act to much. And this may be the case but as a friend pointed out to us, we never apologised for sound quality in the past and we won't now. It's a PRO sounding record and no, it's not as crazy sounding as the stuff we used to mix ourselves but it's supposed to be about the SONGS, MAN!'

TRIPP: Yeah, we stick by that. If you're still recording things lo-fi and it sounds great, then it's got to be the songs. It's not like we wrote the songs in a more luxurious environment or anything like that. It was the same process basically. We apologized for making a 'slick' record in the liner notes, saying 'don't worry, we're not going to clean it up anymore than this.' The next record isn't going to be the same. We just want to go back to the old way of recording things in all sorts of ways and piecing it together and getting different types of sounds as opposed to 'a slick re-cord the way it's supposed to be done.' We wanna get back to having fun. Hopefully, nobody's going to be looking over our shoulders.

PSF: In the notes to Full Blown Possession, you were making kind of a statement about not ever having hip-hip beats on a Grifters record.

TRIPP: It was more slamming at bands that have been doing that. I can't really blame 'em since I was saying before that I wouldn't mind being a one-hit wonder. But we don't want to compromise to reach a bigger audience. It seems like a lot of bands like Cake were indie bands five years ago and now they've got drum machines. That's fine- I'm not saying that they're wrong for doing that but if it's more of a challenge to stay true to yourself, we'd rather do that instead of meeting the desires of the record buying public. It's not THAT important to us to sell records. It'd be NICE but I'd rather selll records because someone clues into what you're doing. 'AMERICA GOT WHAT THE GRIFTERS ARE DOING AFTER EIGHT YEARS!'

PSF: So do you think the band has at least been artistically successful?

TRIPP: Oh yeah, definitely. We just want to be able to look back at our career and say that the compromises we made were acceptable ones. Or we can find a way of lying to ourselves where they're not compromises. (laughs)

SCOTT: Those liner notes are a little tongue-in-check but I always liked Tripp's notes- kind of like messages to the listener. It's personable. We try to keep SOME connection with the people. I like to think that we're an easy, approachable kind of band. Try not to be assholes... sometimes... Tripp's just a dick and I'm an asshole so we're a great combination.

PSF: You were talking before about how the songs came together.

TRIPP: It's been the same process. Me and Scott and Dave write things. Dave more than anybody else comes up with fully realized songs. He works things out a lot more than we do. Scott comes up with a lot of songs too but his are very open-ended. They're usually three chords so there's a lot of room to play with them, which is fun. I pretty much write a hundred riffs, listen to Scott's songs and they say 'hey, I got a riff that'll fit right there!' Sometimes I'll have songs and I'll just give them up to the band thinking it'll be good song for Scott or Dave to sing. Once the ball gets rolling and we start putting everything together, everyone has a say. It'll be like 'that part's working' or 'that part'd be a lot better if we slowed it down.' We ALL work on the songs no matter who gets them started. We like to say they're band songs because they're all credited as written by the Grifters. Stan doesn't write any music but he totally has a say in how things sound.

SCOTT: That's important! I wish I had that power. I'd go 'man, that sucks!' and they'd say 'OK, you don't play on that part then.' (laughs) Stan created the 'bops' in 'Mysterious Friend' (from Ain't My Lookout). Dave was writing it out and saying where the snare hits go, saying 'bop... bop... bop' and Stan said 'man, keep doing that! That shit's great!' So that became the whole part of the song. He didn't hit there but we got good 'bop's instead (laughs).

TRIPP: We did slow the riff down too because it sound like 'Gimme, Gimme Good Love.'

PSF: Scott, how do you get your songs together?

SCOTT: (dramatically) Oh, I just draw from the maelstrom of my life... I write a lot anyway. Every now and then, I'll sit down with a notebook and a guitar and fiddle around. Sometimes, I'll get a great idea and it'll all come right out. Sometimes I'll have an idea and I won't know if it's good or not and they'll let me know. It all depends. Other than just writing for the band to play, as a writer, you're always trying to challenge yourself and experiment with things. I went for a while where I was trying to write a song about one certain action and I tried to make a list of actions. One of them was burning up your diary, like when people break up with a girl and they burn all their pictures. So I wrote a whole song like that and it became 'Return To Sender' (from Ain't My Lookout). It's like one simple action where a girl's standing there and lights the shit on fire.