Thursday, February 22, 2007
Friday, February 16, 2007
Shoulder Tap Records
Musically, Grant has never walked the straight path. In all his other various projects -- from defunct alterna-funk band Big Ass Truck to current outlets like the cover band the Glitches, the Alicja Trout collaboration Mouserocket, and Vending Machine -- Grant brings a quirky, punkish sensibility laced with a love for classic pop but just out of synch with expectations. You can hear it in the jerky rhythms he prefers and the strange harmonics that imbue his melodies. This anti-pop stance does not, on a casual listen, make for very accessible music; previous Vending Machine records have been, on the surface at any rate, jarring efforts with little visceral engagement.
But on King Cobras Do, Grant has struck a nice balance between pop songcraft and his own yen for angular detours. With lilting tunes and pared down lyrical imagery, tracks such as the bubblegum love song "Rae" (about Grant's wife) and the bluesy "Recording Your Thoughts" are some of Grant's most immediately appealing songs.
Even the more challenging material has a new depth. The father of two is very good at exposing the childlike whimsy in the current vogue of twee pop, going so far as to even give his 7-year-old son writing credit on "Saturn National Anthem." And even a song about death like "Desert Played Sun" is populated with children and animals, and full of playful humor. - Mark Jordan
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Friday, February 02, 2007
By Bob Mehr
February 2, 2007
FROM: The Commercial Appeal
On the surface, there's nothing really remarkable about Robby Grant. A quiet, unassuming 33-year-old, he's a husband, a father of two, a homeowner and has a job with a big title ("senior solutions architect") with local a advertising company. But Grant is also one of Memphis' more interesting singer-songwriters -- and has been for more than a decade.
Though he's probably best known as a member of now-defunct rock band Big Ass Truck, he's quietly built an impressive catalog as a solo artist, mostly recording under the name Vending Machine. Last month, Grant released his fifth album, King Cobras Do. A charmed collision of styles and sounds, its 12 tracks refract everything from '50s doo-wop to early '80s Australian pop through his own skewed kaleidoscope. Grant will mark the release of the disc -- and the launch of his new label, Shoulder Tap -- with a show at the Hi-Tone on Saturday.
Born in Little Rock, Grant grew up in a musical environment. His mother, who emigrated from England to the United States with her family during World War II, was a massive Beatles fanatic. His father was a Memphis native who'd fronted a mid-'60s garage outfit called the Deltas. "I have these vague, very early memories of him when he was singing and playing," says Grant. Grant's father was killed in a car accident when he was just 5, and the family left Little Rock and came to Memphis.
Grant first picked guitar as a teen and was soon playing in a succession of groups. "I've been in bands since seventh grade, and every group has been the logical extension of the previous one," he says. In high school, Grant, along with his classmate Steve Selvidge, formed Thrill of Confusion, which later became Fester, which -- after the pair graduated in 1991 -- evolved into Big Ass Truck. The latter group would enjoy a decade-long run and considerable national success, recording four critically acclaimed psych-tinged albums (including 1996's standout Kent) and touring heavily.
In the midst of his tenure with Big Ass Truck, Grant decided to indulge his avant-pop sensibilities, cutting an eclectic solo album as Robert Grant for North Carolina indie Yep Roc, before switching to the Vending Machine moniker with 2000's Chamber from Here to There for Boston's Powerbunny label. That year Grant joined his Big Ass Truck bandmates in the studio to write and record an experimental album called The Rug. But the group broke up soon after the album was released in 2001.
Meanwhile, Grant had begun teaching himself how to write computer code and do Web site design. "I was always interested in computers, long before you could go to school for that," says Grant. "So I had two tracks going at the same time. As a touring musician, you're not on the road all the time, so I had other jobs. Eventually, I stopped touring and those other jobs took over."
In 2000 Grant began working at local firm, Ringger Interactive -- the company's head, Paul Ringger, had been an early Big Ass Truck supporter and had actually released the group's first album. Ringger Interactive was eventually bought and Grant has been working at the new company since 2005.
Since the demise of Big Ass Truck, Grant's put out a series of largely one-man band, home-recorded and self-released Vending Machine titles: 2002's Five Piece Kit, 2004's Kicked & Scratched, and a limited-edition CD of holiday songs, released late last year. A prolific songsmith, Grant is constantly writing and piecing together songs from fragments before refining them in his attic studio.
"Mostly, I just record these 10- to 30-second ideas on a little tape recorder, and build a collection of those and then take them upstairs and flesh them out as songs."
Musically, Grant's latest, King Cobras Do, mixes his well-defined brand of left-field pop with more meditative moments. "I've been listening to a lot of quieter stuff. And as far as writing songs, I've gotten more personal than I have in the past. I write more specifically about what's going on in my life," says Grant, referring to numbers like "Rae" and "Tell Me The Truth and I'll Stop Teasing You," sweet odes to his wife and baby daughter.
Grant's unique recording process also dictated the warm, easy feel of the album. "I work in the mornings -- really early, before the kids get up," he says. "My studio is removed enough from their bedrooms so I can record -- I can't play drums but I can play guitar and sing."
While generally working around his kids, Grant did end up in an unlikely collaboration with his young son, Five, who provided the lyrics for the track "Saturn National Anthem."
"I played it for him and he was kind of free-associating some lyrics, and I pulled them together and put them in the song," says Grant who gave his son co-writing credit. "I mean, I won't be a stage father by any means, but I'd be lying if I said that it wouldn't be great to have a family band someday with my daughter playing drums and my son playing guitar."
Unlike his last few albums, King Cobras Do received a proper pressing and release -- a change made possible thanks to MTV. In 2005, through a connection with local roots rockers Lucero, the network contacted Grant to license instrumental versions of a pair of Vending Machine songs for placement in its "Real World: Austin" series.
"It was funny 'cause I made more money from one placement than I ever made selling records or CDs with any other band I've been in," says Grant. With his MTV windfall, Grant decided to start a small label, Shoulder Tap, with his friend, New York City-based musician Yazan Fahmawi. The new album was released to stores a couple weeks back, as well as on I-tunes -- and Grant already has secured further placements for songs from the CD for the new season of MTV's "Pimp My Ride."
Although largely a recording project, Grant does occasionally play out with a live version of Vending Machine. The core group includes Grant's younger brother Grayson on bass, Circuit Bender veteran Quinn Powers on guitar, and his longtime Big Ass Truck bandmate Robert Barnett on drums. Recently, the group added a second drummer, the Secret Service's John Argroves. "Fortunately, neither one of the guys are 'check me out' kind of drummers; they really listen to each other. Plus," jokes Grant, "playing with two drummers makes me feel a couple feet taller than I really am."
In addition to doing a handful of local shows over the next few months, Grant will mount a brief tour later in the summer. "In the days of Big Ass Truck, you really had to tour and get out there and play just to connect with people," he says. "With the Internet, connecting with fans is much easier these days. My only regret is that MySpace wasn't around in 1996."
Grant's other band, Mouserocket, which he co-fronts with singer/guitarist Alicja Trout, has been on a semi-hiatus while Trout's been touring with her main project, the River City Tanlines. However, Mouserocket will be going in to Memphis Independent studio later this month to complete tracks for a new album, the band's first since its 2004 self-titled debut.
For Grant, the commitments of a family and full-time job don't allow for music to be a 24-hour-a-day passion anymore. But he says his wife, Rachael, who teaches art at the Montessori school that the couple's children attend, has allowed him to pursue his muse. "I've known my wife since we were in high school, so she's very aware of the things that are important to me," says Grant. " In the end, I'm just creating. As long as I can do that, I'm happy."
Thursday, February 01, 2007
I’ve known Robby Grant since the sixth grade. (We also went to religious school and high school together.) We always ran in the same circles, but didn’t really get to know each other until about a year ago when I cornered him at the Children’s Museum and convinced him to help me get a Rock-n-Romp started. Now Robby and I often call on each other for favors—me more than him—and meet up for lunch downtown when we have the time. I recently sat down with him (tape recorder in hand) at the Majestic to talk about music, parenting, and the intertwining of the two. — Stacey Greenberg
When did you start playing music?
Robby: I was in 7th grade, so age 12, no 13. I had piano lessons when I was really young. I sucked at sports for the most part. Music was always a part of my life. My mom had a lot of great old 45s, a lot of great records. She was a fan of music. I got to choose what I wanted to play. I chose an electric guitar. I bought one with my cousin—we split it, but he never played it.
That was a good deal for you.
Why the electric guitar?
It looked cool. We went in the music store and it was the coolest thing in there. It was an Electra Phoenix with a whammy bar and it cost $100. My dad was a singer and my uncle played drums. My dad passed when I was really young (5). But I saw him sing when I was really little. Once I had the guitar, I immediately formed a band in seventh grade with my friend, Tom Martin. It was just the two of us for the first two albums. I like to learn by doing so I bought a guitar, formed a band, and started recording music.
How did you record?
With a jambox, and a tape recorder so I could multi-track. (This was all prior to being able to afford a 4-track.) It sounds a lot fancier than it was. We had skits and songs. We played at my Bar Mitzvah. We tried out for my high-school talent show every year. In 10th grade we did Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” In 11th grade we did “Pinball Wizard” by the Who, which probably wasn’t a smart choice since my high school had such a big hearing-impaired program. In 12th grade I played drums and we played “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Did you ever win?
So how did you go from not winning talent shows to being in the very successful band, Big Ass Truck?
It was a natural progression. We got a 4-track and did some recording with that. Then in college [The University of Memphis where Robby got a film degree] I got together with some friends [including Steve Selvidge] and started playing in a band called Thrill of Confusion. I spent a lot of time making videos too. TOC disintegrated and morphed into a band called Fester. Our drummer went away to UT, so we never practiced. We got together and just played noise for 45 minutes when we opened up for The Simple Ones and surprisingly Jared (the lead singer) liked it. However, I wasn’t interested in pursuing a noise band at that point. Steve got five friends together to open for the Simple Ones at the Antenna in 1991 and that was basically Big Ass Truck. We had a lot of friends and hung up a lot of flyers. We played frequently—once a month for four or five years. Then did more regional shows. Then we toured the U.S. for four years.
What was the band’s peak?
Our peak was the last record we made—we wrote it in the studio. It was the culmination of all the time we spent together. We were on some weird MTV show “Oddville.” We had a video—Robert Gordon shot it. It was on “120 Minutes” on VH-1. We had five CDs total.
Where in all this did you get married and start having kids?
Rachael and I dated as seniors in high school and have been together ever since. We got married when I was 24, so 1997. I was gone a lot during that time. I was on the road a lot. There was the whole “absence makes the heart grow fonder” thing going on. We had a lot of time to do our own things. I think that contributes to the fact that we are still married almost 10 years later. Five was born while I was still touring. I missed the whole first year of his life.
What was that like?
I missed being there—we were really busy—but having never been a father before I didn’t know what I was missing. We were the first ones of our friends to have kids.
Was Rachael like, “You suck?”
Not really. I’d be home for a few weeks at a time. I could never do it now. Five is seven now and he’d have like a million questions I couldn’t answer.
Did having Five contribute to the band’s break up?
Not really. We quit when we all still liked each other. We’d been doing it for 10 years and it had just run its course.
So what did you do when Big Ass Truck broke up?
After Five was born, I started doing side work for Paul Ringger at Every CD and then later for Ringger Interactive. I took a laptop on the road and built Web sites while I was in the van. I didn’t have to wonder what I was going to do when we broke up. I just started going to work more. I had a desk at Paul’s house. I was always home every couple of weeks—it wasn’t like I was out of sight out mind for very long. Paul taught me a lot and gave me a lot of books to read. We built a lot of sites together and I just learned that way.
So Five is two, you have a day job, how do you express yourself musically at this point?
Three or four years before Big Ass Truck broke up, I was already doing my own thing—I released two solo records, one under the name Vending Machine. It actually gave me a chance to express myself without the constraints of being in the band When it’s just me it’s like, “I like the beat, let’s record it.” I also just wanted to play guitar and not necessarily write songs, so I started playing in Mouserocket with Robert Barnett (from Big Ass Truck).
Do you have like a whole in-house recording studio?
I’ve recorded all my records at home. I wouldn’t call it a recording studio, but I can go up at 5:30am and record what I want. I can’t schedule a whole session with other people—that’s hard to do. I like recording early morning, but no earlier than 5:30am.
When do you go to sleep?Robby: I usually go to bed at 11pm or midnight. I’ve got bags under my eyes.
What about including Five in your music?
The record before this, he’d scream and I’d loop it. On the last one I hit a wall a couple of times when writing a song and I’d play it for Five and say, “What does this sound like to you?” On one of the faster ones, he was like, “It sounds like cobras.” It actually inspired me to name the album King Cobras Do. He even wrote the lyrics to the Saturn National Anthem. He was sort of free associating words. I rearranged them a bit, but they’re his words. We also do a lot of recording where he’ll come up and he’ll play drums or guitar or keyboards and just make some noise on the weekends. We’ll take turns being boss. He’s a hard boss. For the past three years we’ve done a holiday song as a family and sent it out to friends.
Is Sadie (Robby’s two-year-old) getting involved?
She’ll bang on the drums and do her thing. She inspired a new song called “Tell me the truth and I’ll stop Teasing You.”
How often do you play shows?
Once every other month. My other band, The Glitches, has a few gigs.
Ok, wait. You are in another band?
I saw Jared (from the Simple Ones) at a PTA meeting—our kids go to the same school—and the school and I said, “We need a band to play at the thing at the end of the year.” We hadn’t had a chance to play together so we formed the Glitches, which is a cover band, and now we’re good friends. We play a lot of the school functions and it’s fun. We’re currently looking to play private parties…you know if anyone is interested?
So what do you do when you have a late show? Does Rachael come?
Sadie is experiencing the terrible twos so it’s hard to find a babysitter. Rachael probably comes to every other show. But we practice at the house so she’s very aware of our set.
Do the kids ever get to see you play other than at Rock-n-Romp?
Yeah we did a show at the Shell and the Center for Southern Folklore. I got Sadie some big soundproof headphones so she could listen.
So is being in three bands now somehow easier than being in Big Ass Truck?
Big Ass Truck was a lifestyle commitment. We practiced two times a week, we had beers after practice, we toured, etc. Now I’m more focused on end goals, like finishing a record. I have a show next week and the band has practiced for the last month so we can do several shows now.
Do you go out and hear music very often?
I don’t go out near as much as I used to. But with the Internet I can keep up with music via Myspace, web sites, and various message boards. It’s a pretty good alternative to going out. I can get 10 firsthand accounts of any show sitting at my desk.
What are your musical ambitions at this point?
At this point, just to keep making music. Big Ass Truck did some shows with Ben Harper and he was touring with his family. They had a separate camper. I saw him kiss his daughter goodnight before going to a show. I could see us doing that in a few years (not quite at that scale). Rachael likes to travel. For now, music from my last two albums was featured on “The Real World” and I just released some new songs to “Pimp My Ride.” I’m interested in doing movies. I just scored Glenn Hopper’s movie—The Hanged Man.
Do you see yourself having a family band someday?
Five takes piano lessons. I see music as a way to express myself, and I hope Five has something like that. I want him to be happy and have something that he enjoys doing forever. I might get Sadie to take cello lessons. We need someone in the family to play a classical string instrument.
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Stacey Greenberg's blog
Memphis Rock n Romp
FROM: The Memphis Flyer
Recorded under the moniker Vending Machine, Robby Grant's latest, King Cobras Do, is scheduled for release this weekend. On Saturday, February 3rd, he's having an album-release party at the Hi-Tone Café; the self-released CD is also available at Goner Records and Shangri-La Records.
With 12 songs and guests ranging from former Big Ass Truck bandmates Robert Barnett and Steve Selvidge to current Glitches bandmates Adam Woodard and Jared and Lori McStay, King Cobras Do runs the gamut from frenzied pop ("Babies," the album's opener) to blues rock ("44 Times") and surreal space music ("Saturn National Anthem").
The stylishly experimental, electronic-flavored music favored by artists such as Beck -- and, closer to home, former Memphian Shelby Bryant -- factors in on "Memories and Actions," "Desert Sun Played," and the aforementioned "Saturn National Anthem," while "Yawp" shares the same sonic space as Santo & Johnny's "Sleepwalk" transmogrified with, say, Southern Culture on the Skids' "8 Piece Box."
"Shelby has had a big effect on me," Grant admits. "When Big Ass Truck was recording Kent at Ardent, he lived right across the street from the studio. Later, when I started doing a lot of four-track sessions at my house, he was the first person I collaborated with. Recently, we've been in touch, writing and collaborating on songs over the Internet."
By now, Grant has bypassed the four-track machine for Sony Vegas, a program similar to ProTools -- and on King Cobras Do, he partnered with an up-and-coming lyricist, his 7-year old son, Five.
"He does a lot of free association," Grant says. "Sometimes I use his words as-is; other times, I'll turn a phrase around or just build on something he said.
"Upstairs, in my home studio, I have a piano and an acoustic guitar. I'll start with little ideas, just bits and pieces that I'll build on until the songs become what they become. I go back, listen quite a bit, and do a lot of editing, then move onto the next song. It's a constant revision," he says, noting that the process to complete this album, his fourth CD in six years, took 28 months.
"On 'Saturn National Anthem,' I had the song and the lyrics, but I felt like it needed something else," Grant explains. "I extended the first part of the song, but it still needed a solo, and it popped into my head that Steve [Selvidge] could do a spacey, wicked guitar part. I gave him the files, and he recorded it. In the case of Robert [Barnett], a lot of times I have ideas in my head that I can't play. He's such a creative drummer, and I'm a more keep-the-beat kind of guy."
When Vending Machine plays at the Hi-Tone this Saturday night, the band will be a five-piece, with Grant's brother Grayson Grant on bass, guitarist Quinn Powers, and two drummers, Barnett and John Argroves. For more information, visit Vending Machine's Web site at ChocolateGuitars.com.
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FROM: The Memphis Flyer
So much indie rock these days can feel so insular -- consciously separated from the larger world. But King Cobras Do, the fifth solo album from former Big Ass Truck singer/guitarist Robby Grant and fourth under the Vending Machine moniker, makes insular work in its favor. Recorded at the attic studio of Grant's Midtown house, King Cobras Do doesn't sound estranged -- it sounds homey, cozy. It radiates a unity of production, tone, and content.
The cumulative impact of this intimate album is that of an energizing hymn to domesticity in both its subject matter and musical spirit. With images of dancing in the den to daylight, the second song, "Rae," is a hand-clap-fueled love song to Grant's wife. The memories here are charmingly lived-in: "When you developed photos there/And we hung out and I sat in the chair/Nervous and scared around you" and "Remember when our room was just a bed."
The album-closing "Tell Me the Truth and I'll Stop Teasing You" is a delicate tribute to Grant's 2-year-old daughter. "The animal noises that you make never sound all that fake/It feels like there's an elephant in the room," Grant testifies, before a great little moment where he catches her yawning. And Grant's 7-year-old son makes a more tangible appearance, contributing some free-associative lyrics to "Babies" and "Saturn National Anthem."
On "Good Old Upstairs," Grant expands the theme with a personification of the attic home studio where the album was recorded. ("In my sleep, she nudges me/To come up and play around some more.") And, with his one-man band bolstered by an extended family of siblings (Grayson Grant), former bandmates (Big Ass Truckers Steve Selvidge and Robert Barnett), and friends (Jared and Lori McStay), the intimacy of the record is more inclusive than most bedroom pop.
Even the songs that don't take domesticity as subject matter -- the gently melodic acoustic/electric "Runaway"; the relaxed, toe-tapping "Desert Sun Played" -- sound like testaments to the creative comfort zone that home provides. The album feels like a spring breeze blowing through an open kitchen window; a front-porch packed with family and friends. -- Chris Herrington