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The Willard Grant Conspiracy recently released a remastered 17 track "short history", 'There But for the Grace of God'. Back for a fourth interview with Pennyblackmusic, frontman Robert Fisher talks to John Clarkson about it and the songs on it's making
Robert Fisher, the frontman with the Willard Grant Conspiracy, has said in the press release to accompany his band’s new retrospective, ‘There But for the Grace of God’, that this latest CD” wasn’t my idea, although I take some responsibility for it.”
Described as “ a short history of the Willard Grant Conspiracy” and “ an attempt to look briefly at the 5 album/nine year history of the band, including moments from each record and some rare tracks unavailable until now”, Fisher compiled together the remastered 17 song, ‘There But for the Grace of God,’ which came out in October, at the bequest of audience members and friends. He was aided in this by long term cohort, Jeff Lipton, and the band’s first guitar player, Sean O’ Brien.
The Willard Grant Conspiracy was first formed in late 1995 in Boston by Fisher and guitarist Paul Austin. Both Fisher, who comes from a family of Californian Baptists, and Austin, who was raised in Portland, Maine, had moved to Boston in the early 80’s, and were mainstays of the local independent scene. They had played together since 1984 in various bands including Laughing Academy and the Flower Tamers, both of whom they had recorded unreleased albums with.
The Willard Grant Conspiracy was born out of what Fisher has since described as a “happy accident” when, with regular Flower Tamers drummer Malcolm Travis away on tour with Sugar , Fisher and Austin were invited with various other musical friends and associates by another Flower Tamers member, guitarist Dana Hollowell, to road test his new home studio in the Boston suburb of Sudbury.
The resulting recordings of that weekend became the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s debut album, ‘3am Sunday at Otto Fortune’s’ (1996). Fisher self-released it on his now defunct label, Dahlia records, before signing the band to Slow River, a then independent Boston label which was eventually bought over by the major label Rykodisc. Slow River re-released ‘3am Sunday at Fortune Otto’s’, and also put out the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s next three albums, ‘Flying Low’ (1998), ‘Mojave’ (1999) and “Everything’s Fine’ (2000). When the band’s contract with Slow River/Rykodisc came to an end, Fisher signed the group in an unique three-prong arrangement to Loose Music in Britain, Glitterhouse Records in the rest of Europe and Kimchee Records in the United States. The Willard Grant Conspiracy’s fifth album, the much-acclaimed ‘Regard the End’ , followed in 2003.
From its outset the Willard Grant Conspiracy has always remained a consortium and has had a fluid line-up. For the first four albums Fisher and Austin remained the only regular members, with other personnel coming and going depending both on the needs of the group and also their own other commitments. Studio performances and live shows have regularly featured anything between three and twelve members, a proclamation, “If someone tells you the played on this, they probably did” ,which was published instead of any credits on the sleeves, of the early albums proving to be quite literally true. When Austin amicably parted company with the Willard Grant Conspiracy in 2001 part the way through the sessions for ‘Regard the End’ to move to Seattle to get married and to form his own band the Transmissionary Six, Fisher carried on without him. Towards the end of 2002, after over 20 years away, he moved back to his native California. The Willard Grant Conspiracy has become an increasingly international concern, its regular touring line-up currently consisting of American, British and Dutch members.
While Laughing Academy and the Flower Tamers were both aggressive punk acts in the vein of the Screaming Trees, the Willard Grant Conspiracy has often been bracketed as an alternative country act. Like other groups working in the genre the Willard Grant Conspiracy use roots-based instruments such as mandolins, banjos and strings, while Fisher’s lyrics are character and narrative-driven. Its influences. however, are wide and varied, and encompass a rich musical tapestry which, stretching far beyond country, owes as much a debt to Bob Dylan, the American Music Club, the Velvet Underground, and Sonic Youth as it does to Hank Williams and Kris Kristofersson. In recent years, Fisher has become increasingly interested in traditional folk music. Several of the tracks on ‘Regard the End’ are traditional songs. Other songs on the album, while written by Fisher, combine the traditional with the modern.
The songs on ‘There But for the Grace of God’ focus largely on the early years of the Willard Grant Conspiarcy. Back for a fourth interview with us, Robert Fisher spoke to us about their and its making.
PB : You have said that the idea for ‘There But for the Grace of God’ is not yours, but you do accept some responsibility for it. How did this idea of releasing an archival record come about, and what did you mean by that ?
RF : Obviously I accept some responsibility for it because it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t wanted it to. It really came about because of a whole bunch of people who at various points of time during the last two or three years have pointed out that the early records have been getting harder and harder to find. ‘3am’ is now almost impossible to get. They were all sort of a mind of "Is there anything you can do about that ?" There was nothing I could do about getting those records re-released because Ryko have the rights to those records. They’re only going to surface them if they’re selling, and they’re obviously not selling, so they’re not surfacing them. It is a kind of a vicious circle, and so I started thinking about how to go about it.
I was talking to Jeff Lipton about it one day, who is our mastering engineer and who has been that from the first record on. He suggested that we do a record which wasn’t a Greatest Hits record because we haven’t had any Greatest Hits, but something which looked maybe at the history of the band, and that maybe presented, not only songs like ‘Evening Mass’ which a lot of people know , but also some of our more overlooked songs. I said “That sounds like it might be a possibility. Why don’t you run with that and see what happens ?” And so it is really his kind of doing. He is the one who decided what songs to put on it and he is the one who put it all together. He’s got lots of archives of our stuff. He dug back and found the living room demo of ‘Bring the Monster Inside’, which appears on the album and other things like that which I didn’t even know existed. Without him it would have been impossible to accomplish it.
PB : You have said that Jeff is one of the few constants in the band. How did you become first involved with him ?
RF : I was looking for someone to master ‘3am’ , and I suggested it to Jeff, who I knew a little anyway.At the time Jeff had set up a computing system and a mastering system software suite in his apartment and so I went to him and I said “Are you interested in trying this ?” and he was. It was actually the first record he had ever done. I like working with him so much that over the years I have sent a lot of different bands and clients to him. As the Willard Grant has gone along so has he. He now owns a multi million dollar studio and he does great work. It has been like a parallel growth in some ways. He is far more successful in his mastering field than we have been as a musical entity, but it has still been a fairly parallel growth. It felt right for him to do ‘There But for the Grace of God’.
PB : You also enlisted Sean o’ Brien, who was a guitar player on your first three albums, into helping out as well. What was his role in proceedings ?
RF : He went to sit in with Jeff as he is also in Massachusetts where Jeff is. I asked him if he would sit in on the sessions and put in his two cents about what songs he thought should be involved and be like the musician’s ears at the masterings.
Between the two of them the result is there. I think they did an amazing job. When I listened to it for the first time, even if though I have been playing all those songs for years now, it still sounds like a record, rather than a patchwork thing. It feels like a whole. Even though the quality of the recording gets remarkably better as it goes along it still feels like a record to me which is cool.
PB : You were very against the idea of making a ‘Best of’ retrospective. You have obviously all three of you worked really hard to avoid that. What are you objections to that kind of packaging ? To pick up on your last point a lot of these things sound very disjointed.
RF : Yeah, they do. The other thing is I don’t think we have earned that right. Doing a ‘Best of’ is almost like putting a headstone on the band. We’re still very much a functioning band. The best of our work may still yet be to come, and so from that point of view I just didn’t want to do it. I felt really uncomfortable with that concept.
PB : One of the very noticeable things about ‘There But for the Grace of God’ is that the majority of the songs come from early era WGC. In fact only the last four songs on the album are songs that have come out in the last five years. You’ve talked a lot in the past about how a lot of what has happened in the WGC has been a “happy accident”. Was that a deliberate ploy to concentrate on the old stuff, or was it again a happy accident ? When Jeff started sitting down with the tapes was it simply a case of that this being what he wanted to go with ?
RF : I think that it is largely down to Jeff and the accidental flow of things. The most recent stuff like ‘Regard the End’ is still available, so there is not much reason to put that on the record. I have always hated it when bands release an EP, and put three songs from a record they have just released on the EP. I wouldn’t want to do that. I was keen to concentrate on stuff that was less available to people, and that was where Jeff was at as well.
PB : When Pennyblackmusic talked to you at the time of ‘Everything’s Fine’ you said then that you got Peter Linnane involved in the co-production on that album, alongside yourself, because you didn’t want to feel that you were
“the director of the movie and also in it.” Was that one of the good things about involving Jeff and Sean ? As you now live in California while they are still based in Boston, you weren’t able to be the director of the movie. While you had the final say in things, someone else was putting a lot of together.
RF : That is certainly true. The first time I tiried to take a pass at it and Jeff said to me “What songs do you think you should be in there ?”, there would have been two CDs worth of material if we had gone with that. That would have just been absurd and ridiculous. I felt that it was important to let someone else do it because they can be a little more critical or opinionated about it or editorial than I can. It worked out for both those reasons. As you say I am in California and they are in Boston.I am also on the road a lot. It would be a lot more difficult for me to be there for every instance.
With the regular albums, it is different. With those records, I am pretty much there for everything, but for this it felt like it was okay to allow someone else to take command. Jeff has been involved with us for such a long time now that while, I don’t like the word much, I see him as a fan or better yet a typical audience member who likes what we do. I wanted the record to be created by someone who had that point of view, and not the point of view of someone from inside the thing. He certainly brought some interestng choices to it.
PB : It is a long CD. It runs to nearly 80 minutes. The WGC is not a band renowned for doing filler. Pretty much any track off your five studio albums to date could have made the CD. What was the ultimate deciding factor for what ended up on the cutting floor ? Was it just what flowed together ?
RF : Yeah, I think that more than anything else. Jeff and I had some pretty rousing arguments about what should stay on and what shouldn’t, and I had to give him the final decision because in a way it is his project. He worked incredible hours. Mastering is like a black art. People don’t realise what it is, and what is required of a mastering engineer. He worked for really long hours on this thing and he had really specific opinions about what he wanted on the record.
I got some of my choices in there but he definitely got a lot of his stuff going on on there. I really wanted ‘Another Lonely Night’ and ‘I Miss You Best’ on the record. I think both those songs are really strong songs, which maybe have been overlooked a bit,. He wanted ‘Bring It Down’, and the acoustic demo of ‘Bring the Monster Inside’ which I also feel is really wonderful.
PB : One of the great things about the CD is that while here is plenty for new fans, there is plenty for older fans as well who have been aware of you since perhaps ‘3am’ or ‘Flying Low.’
RF : I hope so. That was part of the intention. I wanted to have enough there which people hadn’t heard, and I think there is. There is stuff like ‘Love Doesn’t’ and the alternative version of ‘Sticky’. Those were only available on radio singles, and were never released. Unless you’re lucky enough to find them in some used bin somewhere, you’re not going to have heard that stuff. ‘Dig a Hole’ was on a CD with ‘Comes With the Smile’ about a year ago. Quite a lot. of people buy that magazine, but you’re unlikely to find it in Germany or Italy where we have a lot of fans. I wanted to put enough new stuff on there, so that people thought it was worth buying. They have all , of course, been remastered too which is good also (Laughs).
PB : The album starts with four tracks from ‘3am’, which is now, as you have said, just about impossible to come across. All sorts of stories circulate about the recording of that album, and the creation of the WGC alongside it. Is it true that that album was recorded in the course of one weekend ?
RF : The basic part of that album was. The basic tracks were recorded in one weekend. It took another couple of weeks to add some overdubs and to remix it . The basic tracks were there after the first weekend.
We had a really great time. It was a Fall weekend and on the way out to Dana Hollowell’s house we stopped at a farmstead and picked up a bunch of New England sweetcorn, which is umparalled. We had a cook out. While people were cooking other people were in recording, and everyone came back and forth. Like a lot of what has happened with the Willard Grant, it was both organic and magical at the same time.
PB : Was the band really formed that weekend ? There’s all these stories and myths about the band being formed on Willard Grant Street, and the band coming about because your regular band, the Flower Tamers’ drummer, Malcolm Travis, was away on tour. Is there any truth in that ?
RF : Yeah. It’s true. The genesis for the group happened though out of another band called Violet Crumbles, which by the time we got to doing that recording didn’t exist anymore. During the time Paul and I had the Flower Tamers, Malcolm was travelling around the world playing drums for Sugar. We had this other band which in which every member came from another Boston band, where they had their primary musical experience. This band was a fun thing, where we played new songs and different songs. We didn’t really gig. We maybe played two shows, maybe even one. I don’t remember.
The point wasn’t to play out. The point was just to play. I was living with Paul at the time, and it happened in our living room for the most part. Whoever showed up ended up playing and ultimately some of these people have ended up playing in the Willard Grant Conspiracy since then.
We have this extended musical family,. Everybody is allowed to come and go as they want, so really the formation of this band came from that, in which the idea was anyone could come and play. It wasn’t a set band. When we ended up doing the ‘3am’ recording we had all these songs we had been messing about with, and so we used those songs to road test Dana’s new studio.
I have never seen a reason to organise it more traditionally since then. It is tempting I have to say to have a more secure band sometimes because it would make planning and recording a little easier. The reality of things, however, is this band doesn’t make enough money to pay people a salary, and to be waiting for my call. They all have other lives, and they all play in other bands. The reality is that this way of organising seems to be the most honest way of doing things.
The side benefit of it is we have always surprised ourselves. We surprise the audience as well. I am a music fan. If I go and see a band what I want to go and see is of the moment. I don’t want to see the same thing which they played four nights before, and they will play four nights after. I want to feel like we are all in this together at that particular moment, and that my experience is a unique one and that every show is a unique experience.
PB : You recorded two unreleased albums, prior to that. one’No Such Thing as Clean’ with Laughing Academy in 1991, and ‘Long Haul Final Test’ with the Flower Tamers in 1994. Why did you decide to self-release ‘3am’ and not the other ones ?
RF : That is a good question. We had a label for the Laughing Academy, but we had not signed a contract with them yet,. They had already started advertising in national magazines that they were releasing the record. When we tried to get a contract out of them, they wouldn’t come to the table with the offer as it should have been. It was just a mess, so we ended up pulling the record from them.
With the Flower Tamers record we had been playing that kind of music for close to 12 years up to that point, and had done the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing in which we had tried to find people who were interested in what we were doing enough to put records out, and to help us get a foothold on touring.
I am proud of those bands, and what we did with both of them. Like the Willard Grant we were very atypical in both those bands to many other bands coming out of the Boston scene. A lot of the bands on the Boston circuit are garage bands and neither Laughing Academy or the Flower Tamers were garage bands.
We just couldn’t find anyone who was really committed to what we were doing. After chasing after it for a long period of time, you end up concluding the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing is something of a myth. You end up feeling that you are chasing after something that doesn’t exist.
I wasn’t as heavy as I am now, and I was a lot younger too, but I also got tired of hearing things like the band is awesome and the music is great but you guys are too old and you’re too fat. That was the kind of stuff I would hear from record labels.
I would look around and I would look at other musical genres, country music and blues, where image and marketing doesn’t involve the same sort of myth making. I ended up thinking that the right thing to do was to hold onto both those CDs and to keep them and honour the music. I didn’t , however, have the urge any longer to put them out.
PB : The phrase ‘If someone tells you they played on this, they probably did” was used on the first three albums. The first two albums didn’t even give a list of players. For a band with such a stage presence, why did you choose to remain so anonymous ? Was it simply just to take this idea of a consortium further ?
RF : Yeah, that is exactly what it was. One of my favourite bands of all time is the Mission of Burma. When I first saw them, I was struck by how non rock ‘n’ roll they were in the way they presented themselves. They came out and they basically wore their street clothes on the stage, and they let their music do the talking. For me that is an an important part of what we do. When we play live I want to make sure that it is an engaging experience. I want people to feel like they have seen something special, but at the same time I don’t want them to feel like they have had a performance laid on them.
I want people to feel they have got a connection with something that is real, and not something that is artificial, and so for the first couple of records I left the credits first and foremostly off because of that
The other thing is people feel they have to be really literal. If they see six people playing on the record, and they show up to a gig and there are ten people on stage or three people on stage, it confuses the hell out of them. They tend to be really literal about that, and I didn’t want any of that sort of confusion around that.
In fact what happened is that it just added to the confusion It didn’t really do what I wanted it to. What I wanted it to do was to create a floating image of a floatng kind of band, but I think people misunderstood it. A lot of people spent a lot of time trying to find out who was in the band as if it was some secret rather than actually dealing with the music .
Ultimately I think that it was a mistake on my behalf. I started putting credits on once I figured that out. All the players on the record were cool with the concept , but I think they all wanted their credit. The reason I didn’t put the credits on it wasn’t to keep anyone from credits, and when I figured out that people in the band wanted their credits, and realsed the confusion that it created, it was like “Okay, I am going to list people now, and so it’s not a problem. It’s what everyone else in the world does.”
PB : Pennyblackmusic last spoke to you at the time of ‘Regard the End’ and a few weeks before you moved back to California . You said then that the WGC had “to learn to exist on it own and you had to allow it to exist on its own” and you couldn’t no longer go along supporting it out of your own pocket as you had done
previously. Do you think in the 18 months since that last interview you have managed to achieve that ?
RF : No (Laughs). No, I am trying really hard, but I have spent money on the last European tour and I also spent money on the last American tour. It is getting better though. It is forcing me to be a little more realistic, but it is a hard thing to juggle.
What I feel it comes down to is I think you have a responsibility to the music, and to the people who play this music, to put them in front of an audience and to hopefully let the music reach its potential audience. I don’t feel like we have done that by any stretch of the imagination,but I feel the only way to increase our audience for the music is to play gigs. What it gets down to is here’s a tour laid out in front of me, here’s an opportunity to play in front of the people, so do I do that and lose a little money in doing or it or do I not ?It’s not about my personal comfort. It’s about the music, and the people who play it and the audience who are out there hopefully. Maybe they don’t even know they are about to hear this music. In the end I try to take myself out of the equation.
Maybe it is me thinking bigger in my head than I should. Lord knows everyone has this problem. It is not just me. There are very few bands that are doing original, interesting, vibrant music that has substance and meaning, and that are allowed to do it and to make a living out of it, not be rich or anything, but just to make a living out of it. It is rare.
If I stop doing it there is surely someone there who will take my place. There is no doubt about that. I feel though that our music has not reached the potential that it deserves.
It is not my intention to sound egotistical , but I think our music goes beyond the people who play on it. There is a certain amount of craft involved when I write a song, but a lot of it is a gift. I look at it this way. I am in the right place when a song arrives, but for whatever reason I am chosen to be a funnel for that song. All these people come in and do their thing to it, and then the minute it leaves us it becomes bigger and its own thing. It’s not about me, or even the people who play on it anymore. It is about the song which has its own character and its own entity.
This last year we were in Belgrade in Serbia . I met people there who had been listening to the WGC for these last eight years, and they told me how much our music means to them.This is is a country in which eight or nine years years ago, when they first started to listening to our music and that of other bands, people barely had money to eat and for basics let alone music buying, but for whom our music has been an important part of their lives. That’s not something to get an ego about, but it means that our music is intransically more important than a lot of us expect. In the end I feel that we have responsibility towards the song and the music and whatever higher power has allowed us to create it.
PB : There was a stage, particulary back in the group’s early years, in which WGC albums were coming out practically every year, but now they have become slightly less regular events. You are also the manager of the band. As it has become more national and more global both in terms of its audience and its membership, do you find it harder to find time for songwriting ?
RF : Yeah ! That’s part of it. Part of it is just finding the time to go into the studio too. The first three records were all done within a year of each other, but I feel with those that we didn’t give people a chance to digest them properly.
As our audience gets bigger I feel that it is okay that we no longer put one out each year. You want to make sure that when you put out a new record that it is a different record than the one you have put out before. At the same time as the group’s manager I have to be enough of a business man, and to care about our music enough to hope than when I put out a record that it is going to reach the audience it is going to reach. ‘Regard the End’ is still selling to people who have never heard the band before. It has been almost two years since it came out. At what point do you say I give up on that record ?
PB : Has work on a new album of material begun yet ?
RF : I have some new ideas, and we have some new songs. I am going to be recording with Jackie Leven in Wales. I have also been talking for the last year and a half with a fellow, from Glasgow, Malcolm Lindsay, who is a strings arranger, about doing things together and I’m going to be giving him a song to work with. He’s going to write some strings parts that are in keeping with what the band does. They’re not just going to be supportive pads, and instrumental passages underneath the song itself, but hopefully they are going to be integrated into the band itself, and with string players who can improvise as well as read. We’re going to try that just as an experiment and to see how that goes.
I would like to continue to work with John Dragonetti from the band Jack Drag. . We did ‘Soft Hand’ together on ‘Regard the End’. He’s really busy right now. He’s doing a big television show and the music for that. It’s kind of hard to get some free time out of him right now, but I am hoping, as he has now like me moved from Boston and is now living in the LA area, that we’ll get the chance to work on a couple of things.
I don’t know yet what the new record will be or what it will sound like or anything because it is yet to reveal itself to me, but I feel that it is well on its way to gestation.
PB : Thank you very much.