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Grant-Lee Phillips Exclusive Interview
By Red Alert

Recently Theredalert conducted interview with Grant-Lee Phillips. The excerpts from the interview follow:

Was the notion of putting together an album of these covers something that had been percolating for you for awhile, or was it a lightning bolt, “A-ha!” sort of thing?

It was probably something that had been brewing for a while.  I'm definitely a fan of all the songs that I covered.  Little by little, I've learned a few more chords to the songs, a few more lyrics, and I actually began throwing some of the songs into my set a few years back.  It was a pretty organic process.  That's kind of my aim, as I look down the road into the future:  to tackle various projects like this, or in different genres altogether, in addition to putting out records of my own material.

It must be exciting, too, to think that you may be introducing some of these bands to a few listeners.  Maybe not R.E.M. or the Pixies, but a band like The Psychedelic Furs probably has slipped past a few radars, especially for the younger generations.

Yeah, I guess that's true.  By and large, the album struck a nerve for those of us who lived and survived to tell the story of the ‘80s (laughs) and who recall this music as much more important and much more a representation of our experience than the Billboard charts would indicate.  That's a fascinating thing, I think, knowing how people are so aggressively marketed.  But you could find an entirely different selection of albums that meant as much to you, even though they weren't forced down your throat.  That's somewhat what this album collection is—songs by bands that were alternative before there was a name for it.

When you moved to L.A., how difficult was it to find these songs?  Was that alternative community easy to find?

I moved from a rural background, outside Stockton, so my exposure wasn't incredibly great until I came to Los Angeles.  When I did, I had long tentacles that led to all sorts of music.  It was a good time for me to have those relationships; I was in my early twenties and my feelers were definitely up.  I wanted to soak up everything I could.

Were you playing shows right from the outset?

You know, when I first came, I was trying to put a band together, but I was still a bit too young to get into the clubs that I wanted to play.  My partner, who was the singer, would go in and drop off our tape and I would sit out in the car and wait.  (laughs)  He'd come back and tell me, “It's wild in there!”  There were a lot of things going on in the underground, like Dream Syndicate and Green on Red, and all these underground things that were gaining popularity overseas.  Just the idea that those records were being made, in and of itself, was fascinating to me.  They really were bands—little bands, kind of like my fantasy of The Beatles, where you have little amplifiers and little guitars.  (laughs)  As opposed to the whole Sunset Strip thing, which was all about excess and big hair and big success.  Philosophically, it was such a different attitude.  The lines were clearly drawn when I arrived in Los Angeles.  I think they're a little more diffused these days.

I think so, too.  Also, I remember, having also come from a rural upbringing, being amazed to find out that other people also really loved the Pixies.  That was exciting to me.  Now it feels more like “Aw, you know about that band already, too?  Bummer.”

It's a funny thing and it's indicative of a generation desperately wanting to have its identity—and wanting to share it, but only to a certain degree.  I think that was really true of bands like R.E.M., too—I know it's true, I've had conversations with Michael Stipe about it.  When they were coming up, there was only a handful of people around, and then overnight they were on everyone's lips and on everyone's turntables, and that totally shook a lot of the original fans.

That level of scrutiny has long been in place, then.  I see it so often now, particularly with punk bands, where the so-called “original” fans can be quite vicious about things like a band changing record labels.

Yeah, right, that's true.  Like the jerks who beat up Jello Biafra because he wasn't punk enough for them.  Right…except for inventing the stuff, except for being a pioneer.

Were there any songs that you knew you wanted to do on nineteeneighties that didn't make the cut for whatever reason?

[David Bowie's] “Ashes to Ashes” was an important song to me when it came out.  I covered it maybe five years ago, but it just didn't make sense in the context of this album.  I've since gone back and recorded it with a string quartet, and it makes more sense like that.  For whatever reason, an album demands to be what it's going to be, and unfortunately—well, fortunately—I only have so much say about it.  They're like living things.  (laughs)  You can prune them or chomp them down, but they have a way about them.

Did you approach any of the original artists and ask for blessings, or is that simply a label-and-publisher affair?

I think the plumbing had long been laid out.  I believe I did tell Robyn Hitchcock that I was wanting to do his song.  Meanwhile, the rest of it is kind of a formality, I think—not a formality among the artists, but the label.  There's some sort of formula for that, which is good, because it ensures that the original artists get compensated for their work, but it also allows for the interpretations.  I think it's a good idea, especially these days when we're so wasteful with everything.  We should at least try to get a few more miles on our songs.  (laughs)  Mileage per song, that's the issue.

Yeah, it's hard to get listeners to listen to a song straight through once .

That's true.  I grew up with albums, and there was so much work and so much money put into making albums.  It's all become about that one little three-minute song that might turn heads on the radio.  But you know that as soon as you're off that song, it's “What do you got next, boys?  Time to make another record.”  I'm still an album man, myself.  But there are great bands like The Smiths that made great, weird singles.  There were a lot of bands like that in the ‘80s that elevated the concept of a single—The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, there are a slew of them.

Read the whole interview at Theredalert

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