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First formed in 1996,The Willard Grant Conspiracy are often bracketed and tagged as a alternative county act. While like other groups and musicians working in the genre they use roots-based instruments such as mandolins, banjos, strings, accordions and h
First formed in 1996,The Willard Grant Conspiracy are often bracketed and tagged as a alternative county act. While like other groups and musicians working in the genre they use roots-based instruments such as mandolins, banjos, strings, accordions and harmonicas, and their lyrics are character and narrative-driven and often confessional in tone, this only partly defines the band's sound. The group's influences are wide and varied, and encompass a rich musical tapestry and heritage which, outside country, includes Bob Dylan, The American Music Club, The Velvet Underground. The Screaming Trees and Sonic Youth. Singer Robert Fisher has had his baritone vocals compared to those of Nick Cave and John Cale, and The Willard Grant Conspiracy have also at points drawn comparisions with Joy Division and Pulp.
The band, which comes from Boston, is a loose consortium, and other than Fisher, the only other full-time member is guitarist, Paul Austin. Other personnel are drafted in both as available and when required. Stage shows and concerts may feature anything between three and twelve members, while studio albums have employed the services of as many as fifteen musicians.Other regular members include guitarist and bassist James Apt who also plays with Magic 12 (the subject of an interview in last month's Pennyblackmusic magazine) ; violist and harmonica player David Curry and solo artist Edith Frost. Previous and present other musicians who have worked under The Willard Grant Conspiracy banner also include Saint Low and Madder Rose's Mary Lorson ; Come and Codeine guitarist Chris Brokaw ; Silos' drummer Walter Salas-Humura and Boston producers and engineers Peter Linnane and Pete Weiss.
Fisher and Austin have known each other since 1982, and spent the eighties and early and mid nineties working together in various bands. By 1996,they were playing in a punk group called The Flowers Tamers, which also featured Apt and which had recorded in 1994 an unreleased album 'Long Haul FinalTest' that featured several compositions that have since in reworked form made their way onto subsequent Willard Grant albums.
The Willard Grant Conspiracy was born out of chance when regular Flowers Tamers drummer Malcolm Travis went away to tour with Bob Mould in his then trio Sugar, and Fisher and Austin were invited by their fellow band member and friend, Dana Hollowell (now also a member of Magic 12) to test run his new self-built studio Dog Leg at his home on Willard Grant Street in Sudbury, a suburb of Boston. The band and its name developed from there.
The recordings from this session made up the band's debut album, '3 a.m. Sunday at Fortune Otto's', which the group self-released on Fisher's own small label Dahlia Records later that year. The group's second album 'Flying Low' came out, after the band were signed to the larger Massachusetts independent label, Slow River, in 1998. It followed this with a highly-acclaimed third album 'Mojave' which was released in Europe, where the band have a higher profile, in May of last year and then in September in the United States . A limited-to-2000-copies live album 'Weevils in the Captain's Biscuit' , which is a recording of a show played in Boston, was also released on the mail order label Return to Sender in 1998.
This year has been a busy one for The Willard Grant Conspiracy. The band's second live album 'The Green, Green Grass of Slovenia', which is again limited, was released on the German label Glitterhouse in August. A recording of a show performed in Slovenia from the first of the two European tours which the band played last year, it features guest appearances from all four members of The Walkabouts, with whom The Willard Grant Conspiracy were playing dates with at the time and have a regular partnership. The band's fourth studio album 'Everything's Fine' was released, again on Slow River, in September in Europe, and is due out in the States in February. The basics of the album were recorded at the Rear Window studio in Boston, while overdubs were recorded at Zippah Studios, the studio the group has used for all its recordings since 'Flying Low'. The Willard Grant Conspiracy are currently playing a fifty date tour of Europe, their fifth, to promote 'Everything's Fine' and will be touring Britain in late November and early December.
With just a day to go before rehearsals for the tour was to begin, and with only a week to go before it was due to start with a one-off date in London, Robert Fisher spoke to Pennyblackmusic on October 9th about 'Everything's Fine', 'The Green Green Grass of Slovenia' and the tour.
PB : Why did you decide to call the new album 'Everything's Fine' ?
RF : I think because it is really. We are celebrating music that feels great and important, and are enjoying it. Within the realm of what can be fine, everything is.
There is a dark joke too there as as well. We are poking fun at those journalists who think we are gloomy and have no sense of humour.
PB : There is a real undercurrent of humour to a lot of your work though if you look hard enough.....
RF : Yeah ! I think so It's dark humour, of the sort that you would find when you read Flannery O' Connor or something like that, but it's there.
PB : 'Everything's Fine' seems slightly more upbeat and lighter than 'Mojave', particulary on tracks like 'Christmas in Nevada' or 'Hesitation'. Is the title in part a reflection of that ?
RF : No, I don't really think that it is so much that. I acknowledge though that to a lot of people it seems to be lighter in tone . A lot of people say that 'Notes from the Waiting Room' , for example, is more upbeat.
PB : ....which is ironically the one about death.
RF : Yeah ! (Laughs !) Lyrically it is probably the most grim on the record.
I think there are a couple of reasons, to tell you the truth, though why it sounds the way it does.Firstly we recorded it differently than 'Mojave' or 'Flying Low'. I wanted a piano as the major voice on this recording, and one of the major changes sound wise from this and other records was that while we had used piano before, and while we had used organ before, we had never used the piano as the central voice. We found a studio, Rear Window, where we could record a grand piano at, and there we also had the opportunity to not only record that, but at the same time also to lay down bass, drums and acoustic guitar parts. We were, therefore, able to go in there and to do the basics with all of these instruments. It was great.
We also rehearsed the album really quickly .Terri Moeller from The Walkabouts who plays drums on 'Everything's Fine' told me the other day that we only rehearsed the album for nine hours before we did it. I was kind of stunned by that, that we brought everyone in together, rehearsed for nine hours, went into the studio and then laid down the tracks. The album has this feeling of a band really working together, and I think that you can hear that kind of joy on the recording when you've just learned the song enough to be able to have real fun playing it.
PB : Would you say that as a result it is a more spontaneous album than 'Mojave' which took you about three months to record ?
RF : I think that in some ways that is true, although 'Mojave' was also spontaneous. Some of the songs that are on it were written in the studio.'Mojave' was recorded though with the acoustic guitar and vocals first, and everything else being added afterwards, so there is a different feel to it.
'Everything's Fine' is also a shorter record. It's not as long as 'Mojave' or 'Flying Low'' or '3am', so I think the brevity of it may have something to do with the way it feels as well.
PB : How long did it actually take to record 'Everything's Fine' in all ?
RF : All the recording and mixing was done in two weeks.
PB : Both 'Flying Low' and Mojave' were co- produced by Pete Weiss and yourself at Zippah Studios.Both of you produced this album as well, but this time around Peter Linnane, who is the engineer at Zippah and who also toured Europe with you last year, has also been listed as a third co-producer. He played the piano on the album. What else do you think was he able to bring to the recording ?
RF : I wanted to give Peter a production credit, because he is a really invaluable person engineering wise.
He also has a great ear for melody, and I let him produce all of the vocal sessions on the album. I obviously have something to say about the way my vocals are done, but I don't like to feel both as if I am the director of the movie and also in it at the same time. I, therefore, really like having a co-producer during that particular process. Almost all the vocals, all the lead vocals, were in fact done for this record in one day. It was amazing. I don't know what happened to me, or caused it to happen to me, but I did all the vocals for this record in something like five hours. It was really bizarre ! That's not supposed to happen basically. We were all kind of shocked by that, but part of that must go down to Peter. I know Peter really really well, and I know and trust that he is going to get the right sound. I know when he says to me "That's a take. Let's go on" that he is invariably right.
I also had him produce the back up vocals. Both Carla Torgerson from The Walkabouts and Edith Frost sing back-up on the album . They had never met each other before they walked into the studio, but again it was like magic. Within ten minutes of them walking in, they were harmonising with each other.
PB : Moving on to talk about the lyrics, nature has a very strong part to play on this album. High valleys, deserts, roses, stars, mountains all get mentioned.You were brought up in California and spent a lot of time in the desert as a boy ? Do you think 'Everything's Fine' has such a strong sense of nature because of that ?
RF : Yes ! Part of it is that. Boston, although it is urban, is a very green city though, and I have always lived in places which have elements of that.
All the songs on the record were written in a relatively short period of time. We were away on tour for about six months of last year and when we got off at the end , everyone in the band didn't want to see a stage for at least two months. I wanted to do some travelling, so I ended up going to visit family and friends and spent those two months away. I visited California and Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Tennessee and Georgia. I sort of wandered around and took my guitar with me, just so that I could practice. I don't usuallly write when I am on the road, but on this occasion I ended up writing, so a lot of these songs were written while I was out and about in these particular places. It is like a sense memory thing in a weird kind of way. You get home, and even though you carry that stuff with you all the time, being there sort ofreminds you of the elements that are significant about it. They just started showing up on the songs and I think that's why they are there. I feel that geography can be an important part in any creative endeavour, whether it is songwriting or poetry or whatever it happens to be. It can be a really important element in setting a scene.
PB : Religion is another of the major themes of the album. You were brought up a Baptist, and while you are no longer practicing, you've cited the Baptist church in the past as a major influence. Do you still feel that way ?
RF : Yes,very much so ! It was a really formative experience for me when I was young. Anybody who has been raised in that strict sort of upbringing will say that, regardless of the religion that we are talking about.
Early on, I experimented with a lot of different religions, and I was really drawn to charismatic religions in particular. I think partly because of the theatre, but also because I am fascinated by what faith can do for people. I am always humbled by it. While I am no longer practicing, I 'm not an unbeliever. I've seen things that it seems to me can't be explained in any other way. In a non-religious way spirtuality is an important part of life for me also. I am a recovering alcoholic, and part of it comes from that and the drinking. One of the things that I have to focus on is that there is a higher power.
With The Willard Grant Conspiracy, I guess there is a religious aspect to our music, but not like in a preaching way. I think and feel that faith is an aspect of everyone's life.Whether they call it faith or higher power or whatever they choose to call it-it could be a belief in anarchy-everyone seems to be looking with it for something larger than themselves.
PB : And basically then that is what every character on this album, and every other album are doing. They are searching for something.
RF : Yes ! Exactly ! That's really what life is. Life is a search for something, and for something that means something, and for situations that can provide you with salvation and illumination Laughs). Hopefully it is a very long learning curve.
PB : Hopefully ! Yeah ! Many of the characters on the album are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics....
RF : Or down-and-outers or loners or whatever.
PB : Do you see the album as a result of that as redemptive ?
Yeah ! I think so. I think there is a redemptive aspect to our music. I don't call what we do the blues, but it is similar you know. The subject matter of the blues is never really pleasant, but listening to it is. You can walk out of a blues club feeling just like you went to church .I think there is an aspect of that in our music as well. Also as a fan of music, and Paul also feels feel this way, it has provided us with the sort of serious medication to feel better and to find the healing power in it.
PB : How long have you been recovering from alcohol from ?
RF : This is my twenty first year !
PB : That's good.
RF : Thank you, but I still take one day at a time . Not a day goes by when I don't think "A drink would be nice." (Laughs). I have known too many people who have been thirty or forty years sober and who then lose the resolution and suddenly fall from grace.
Not that I really think being sober is such a graceful state (Laughs!) I'm not judgemental at all about other people using alcohol. There are people who can use alcohol and it's fine. They have no problems with it. The reason why I don't use it is quite simply an aversion of choice. I know that if I did I would be dead now,and I choose not be dead. I wouldn't particulary advocate sobriety for anyone else though, although I would say, without preaching anything, that if people have problems I hope they go and get help.
PB : Do you see the album as more or less optimistic than previous records ?
RF : I don't know. I think our stuff is pretty optimistic in general. To write this kind of stuff, you have to have the optimism to know that things can be better.A song like "The Work Song" from 'Mojave' definitely has an optimistic feel. I think so for that matter does 'Evening Mass' from 'Flying Low'. There's a feeling there that things can be redeemed.
There's also an ordinariness in the characters I write about. I try to make them that way because I think that they resonate better. The person you meet down at the quarter storecould be one of those characters.They're not exotic in any way and I think that bears some optimism as well.