A Grifter chorus is a hard thing to ignore, and if you have any love at your heart at all for classic or heavy rock and roll, I can’t imagine why you’d bother to try. The Southern UK trio have been together nearly a decade, but following a demo and the increasingly solid High Unholy Mighty Rollin’ (2008) and The Simplicity of the Riff is Key EPs, they made a substantial impact with the 2011 full-length debut, Grifter, on Ripple Music — an album of impeccable catchiness and near-immediate familiarity that was nonetheless fresh and vibrant-sounding, like an old friend you didn’t know you had.
The band also appeared on Ripple Music‘s Heavy Ripples four-way split, but the album would prove to be one of 2011′s best, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Subsequent acclaim and momentum led Grifter to be forerunners of a particular side of the formidable and growing British scene that as guitarist/vocalist Ollie Stygall — joined in the band by bassist Phil and drummer Foz — points out was neither given to sludge, nor doom, nor fuzz-drenched stoner rock (not that there’s anything wrong with any of those), but straight up heavy in a classic tradition. Our paths crossed last month at the second day of Desertfest London, as the band headlined at The Black Heart, and they proved to be one of the highlights of the weekend.
I don’t mind saying this interview was a long time coming. Pretty much since before the album was reviewed, Stygall and I were back and forth trying to figure out a way to conduct a phoner without a phone. Where I used to be able to record from Skype on my home desktop, that computer shit the bed and my laptop was more of a prick about it. Finally, though, I gave in and purchased a program allowing me to record directly from an audio call and Stygall and I finally were able to connect after he and the rest of Grifter wrapped their tour with Orange Goblin, of which Desertfest was the start.
And though he and I were both sick at the time — the recording is a tradeoff of his coughs and my sniffles as well as his answers and my questions — he was still a good sport in talking about Grifter‘s next album, for which the writing has begun, the response they got to the self-titled and how that translated to the round of shows he’d just finished, a then-upcoming string of dates in Belgium that’s now begun and includes a performance at the Freak Valley festival on May 19, Desertfest and the strength of the UK scene in general, post-tour blues, and a lot more. The Skype connection started to feedback toward the end (as everything should), by the time our conversation was finished, I felt like it was worth the wait, and as you commence to read through, I hope you agree.
Complete 3,000-word Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
It was insane. Those guys are brilliant. I’ve known them for 16 years now. My old band did a tour before they were anything. They hadn’t even done their first album when we did our first tour together. So it’s nice to come full circle and tour with them again. They’re lovely, lovely guys. They treated us with real respect. They looked after us. Great hospitality. They let us loose on their rider. They were there every night, side of the stage, rocking out, laughing at us. And they put on a great show. It was a real lesson to watch them. But as well as the Goblin guys, every single gig – Newcastle was a little flat, but apart from that, every single gig, we got an insane reaction. We had a moshpit in Manchester. We had people chanting. It blew us away, really. It’s been, what, just over a week and a half since the tour finished, and I think we’re all kind of still feeling a bit of post-tour blues (laughs).
That was my next question, if after hanging out with Orange Goblin every night, you’ve got a bit of a comedown.
Yeah. I felt great on the tour. We were sleeping too little, we were eating bad food, we were drinking too much. But I felt great. Then I came home and within a couple of days, I was sick. I had to take time off work, I felt really ill. Everything just crashed, like, nah, this isn’t where I want to be. I don’t want to be stuck in work. I want to be back on the road. So there is a bit of a crash, and from Ben [Ward, Orange Goblin vocalist] the other day that he’s having a bit of post-tour blues as well. You get hyped up, don’t you? You get your buzz on, and you’re going off. You get buzzed up, you’re seeing and doing all this great stuff, meeting all these great people, and then when you come back to normality, there’s great stuff about your home life, but… there’s something missing when you get back and something that you haven’t got there to look forward to and your body just goes, “Nah, I’ve had enough” (coughs).
I know just how you feel.
I’ve had a cough for a week and a half now.
How was Desertfest for you? I know you didn’t really get to hang out.
Yeah, because where we live – we live miles from anywhere – we didn’t get there until the early evening, and then we had to sort out our merchandise, and get our wristbands and stuff, and then the queues for the Underworld, to get in there, were huge. So we kind of just hung out and chatted with people. We hung out with the guys from Iron Claw, they were there. We had a good chat with those guys and caught up with some other old friends. But it’s a great atmosphere. The whole place was really buzzing, really friendly, really nice. Good to see loads of people that we haven’t seen in a long time, and the set we played, as well. We were a little bit worried because we knew we were overlapping with Orange Goblin, and we thought, “Nah, it’s going to be empty,” but we had a little hard core in there for us when we started, and then by the end of the set the room was full and we got a really good reaction. So it was awesome. It was a great way to start the tour as well.
It seemed to me you guys got a really good response. I was glad to get the chance to see you myself, but it seemed like the whole room was really into it.
We had some hard core guys down in the front who knew our lyrics better than I do. I messed up one song and those guys were singing it properly at me, and I’m thinking, “Wow, that’s embarrassing” (laughs). It was good to get that kind of reaction, because we thought, “Why are we headlining this?” We thought we’d be on about five o’clock somewhere on another stage. We thought, “Really, headlining this? Well, okay, we’ll give it a shot. At least we get to play for an hour, which is nice.” Blew us away. We were buzzing after that one.
How far are you from London? You guys are south, right?
Yeah. We’re way south. You know when the UK goes to a little point on the other coast? We’re kind of down that way. We’re a good four or five hours from London. We’re kind of tucked away from everywhere. The nearest city that gets anything that you’d want to go and see, really, is Bristol, and that is still a two-hour drive away, which, to you guys in America, two hours is like going down to the store, isn’t it?
Well, if the store is in Philadelphia, anyway.
For us, two hours is like, “Wow, that’s quite a long way.” Everything’s pretty close. But yeah, we’re pretty tucked away, away from everything, over here.
Will you tour more for the self-titled before you put something else out?
There’s a couple of things coming up next month. We’re doing Freak Valley, and we’ve got a couple gigs in Belgium as well, just little club gigs with an awesome Italian band called Doctor Cyclops (coughs). They’re very ‘70s, doomy, hard rock, bluesy stuff. They’ve got a new album coming out on World in Sound Records. The same label that Samsara Blues Experiment are on. Their album is out now. I think it’s called Borgofondo, and those guys are incredible. Great band. I recommend anyone to check them out. They’re also doing Freak Valley, and we’re doing these two gigs in Belgium with those guys. Our booking agent over here is talking about – he’s been in touch with Siena Root, from Sweden, about bringing them over for a few gigs, so there’s talk of doing some stuff with those guys, but we’ve got nothing fixed for any real touring, but there’s things floating around, there’s things being mentioned, but nothing cast in stone yet. But we can’t wait to do more stuff, man.
You mentioned being surprised about headlining at Desertfest. Were you surprised at the response you got to the record?
We knew we’d made a good record, but we kind of thought, well, with our style, we don’t fit firmly in the stoner thing, we’re not a doom band, we’re obviously not a sludge band, we’ve got this kind of ‘70s classic rock thing going on, and we thought we’ll get some people behind it who really like it, we’re gonna get some reviews that really just don’t like it at all, and we’ll probably get some reviews that are just a bit nothing, really. Just middle of the road, “This is okay.” Out of all the reviews we’ve had, I think we’ve only had one bad review, and the rest of them have been pretty awesome, and that’s blown us away, and to end up finishing last year on about 11 or 12 end-of-year best-album lists, we’re kind of, “Really? That’s pretty cool” (laughs). “Really? Is our album really one of the best of the year? I don’t know, but thank you.” That was awesome. It’s blown us away, and obviously Ripple are very pleased. They’ve asked us to do another album, so yeah, it looks like things are going well.
Have you started writing for the next record?
Yeah, we have. We’ve got a bunch of new tracks, some of which we did play at Desertfest and on the tour, we played a couple of those. But we’ve also dug back into the older songs we never released and looked at them and said, “Actually, that song’s pretty good,” “That song’s got a good riff and a good melody, but I’m not sure, we can rework it.” So we’re actually reworking some older stuff, writing some new stuff. We’ve got two or three new songs that we haven’t even started working on yet that are gonna get thrown against the wall and see what sticks. I’d say at the moment we’re probably about seven songs for the album that are close to completion, and maybe another three or four that need to be properly worked on. We’re even considering – I don’t know whether we’re going to do it or not – but one of an older songs, “Sweat Like Horses,” which was on our first EP, we’re considering doing a country rock version of it, just for a laugh. Getting the acoustics out and maybe a bit of slide or something (laughs).
The other stuff, is that all from the two EPs, or is it older demos?
The stuff we’re thinking of putting on the album, it’s all stuff that basically hasn’t been released. It may have been recorded in the past, but it’s not been on any of the EPs. There is one track that was on the original demo that we did in 2005, that we’ve reworked a bit, we’ve rewritten the riff, we’ve rewritten the verse a bit, and that’s sounding a lot better, so we’re thinking, “Okay, well, we only had a limited release before, sounding better now, so we’re going to stick that on there. It’s a track called “Brother/Sister.” The other ones haven’t seen any formal release yet. I kind of don’t like redoing stuff too much that’s already been out there, because I think people can go and hear the originals.
I seem to recall reading that you guys were running out of copies of The Simplicity of the Riff is Key, though.
Yeah. We’ve got seven or eight left now, which is cool. I know the label has got more copies, but out of all the copies that we had, they’ve pretty much gone, and a lot of them went on the tour. We’ve been doing this deal with the album and the EP together, and people go, “Oh yeah, if I can get both of them for 10 pounds, I’ll have that.” So they’ve been flying out the door. I think the label did 500 in total, and we’ve shifted all but about seven or eight of ours. After that, once we’ve run out, people are going to have to go to the label to get them.
And the new songs that you’ve started to put together. Can you give me some sense of how it’s different from the self-titled?
(Coughs) There’s one track called “Princess Leia,” which takes us into the slightly heavier territory than we’ve gone before. That was one that our bass player, Phil, came up with the riff and a lot of the ideas, and it’s a real, heavy, stomping, driving piece, and we haven’t gone down that real crunching kind of riff thing before. That’s a pretty exciting one. We’ll see how that pans out, but it starts off like that, then goes into a big chorus, and it’s got a big breakdown in the middle. It’s the kind of thing we haven’t normally down. It’s got an up and down heavy breakdown that keeps shifting between. So that’s quite an exciting track to play, and it’ll be interesting to see how people react to that. I wouldn’t say it’s huge differences. What we’re going for is just writing the best songs we can, regardless of whether it’s a slow groove or an uptempo rocker. As long as the songs are great. We’re kind of doing the AC/DC thing – just writing great songs, but not changing our style too much (laughs).
Listening to the self-titled, that’s the thing that really stuck with me the most. The songwriting. You guys put together a lot of really solid, catchy choruses. There was a lot that stayed with you from the album.
I’m glad to hear you say that, because that’s kind of what we were going for, is classic songwriting. Verses, choruses, big hooks. Certainly for us, some of it comes down to the fact that we’ve got terrible memories. And if we write something and we can’t remember it the next day, we figure, “Well, it’s just not good enough,” but if we remember it two weeks later, we think, “Well, that’s quite catchy.” If it’s stuck there. That’s what it boils down to: Crap memory. It helps you write good songs (laughs).
You gotta have the hook, because you’re going to have to know the song.
That’s it. And I’m a fan of great choruses. I grew up listening to bands like Aerosmith and stuff like that, ZZ Top, that hit you with choruses and hit you with hooks. I want people to be able to go away and remember it.
Can you tell me what inspired “Gone Blues?”
Um, I wrote that literally within a couple of days of my mum dying. It’s basically my sort of, “You’re gone…” It’s frustration that that person’s not there anymore. You’ve got so much left to say, but you can’t reach out to them, you can’t say it anymore because they’re not there to hear it. And it was kind of written within two days or so of her passing. The lyrics just came to me, and it was – originally when we did it, it turned into an uptempo blues rocker, but when we came around to doing the album, Phil, our bass player said, “It’s not right like that, just do it on the acoustic.” So we did, and that’s how it came out – which is how I heard it in my head from the start.
You wrote it acoustic?
Yeah. I kind of wrote it as a very simple, slow blues. Took it to the band, it turned into an uptempo rocker, and then it came back full-circle, really, when we came in to do the album. There’s a recording of it we did at the same time we did the Simplicity of the Riff EP, that is an uptempo rock version. But it never quite worked. But it was kind of fun to do that, with all the backing vocals and slide bits and stuff.
I thought the song worked really well acoustic. Do you see yourselves doing more of that? I know you mentioned the country rock remake of another song, but will you include more acoustic stuff?
(Coughs) Yeah, I’d like to. I’d like to. I grew up, my dad brought me up listening to Chicago blues and old Delta blues and stuff, and I like listening to that stuff. I like playing it. But it’s something you can’t force. You can’t just go, “Today I’m going to write a blues song. This is how it’s going to be.” When it feels right, it’ll come out. I guess that’s what the blues is all about, really.
I know you said you’re tucked away geographically and apart from London and the bands surrounding, but it seems like the UK right now has a lot going on, and in some ways Desertfest just emphasized that. Can you talk about your experiences with the UK scene, touring around or just getting to know people? Is there something you think makes the scene as strong as it is at this point?
It is a strong scene over here, and there is a real sense of, we’ve got a lot of contemporaries who are all starting to achieve stuff and are all getting good places. There’s a lot of diversity in the bands. On the one hand, you’ve got a band like Dopefight – this mighty sludge, heavy-riffing noise. We played with them the other week, and they could play alongside us doing classic rock kind of stuff. Then you can have a band like Domes of Silence, who sound kind of like Queens of the Stone Age-y kind of stuff, and it’s all accepted within the same realm. A lot of the bands are really helpful, really keen to help each other out, keen to arrange swaps. It’s healthy. I know a lot of the bands become friends. It’s nice to play with them, and there’s always gear sharing with no problem. The only hassle here, really, is not so much the people in the bands, it’s getting people in to gigs. You have a lot of days where you have 20 people, and it’s frustrating, because mostly you end up playing to the bands and the bar staff and three blokes. There’s more people in bands than fans of bands over here (coughs), but you do it because you love it. So you get out there and play. You play to the other bands and gradually more people start showing up. But the best place to go and play is London. You’ve just got to keep ripping it, otherwise you never leave your rehearsal room. But London, that place has got a real vibe going. I guess the guys at DesertScene, who did DesertFest, have helped it a lot, and there’s a place called The Unicorn that’s a real hub for this kind of music as well. The camaraderie between the bands is amazing, but there’s less fans (laughs).
Do you have any idea when you’ll record next?
I think we’re looking to record maybe September, October, November, which will make it almost exactly two years from recording the first album. Then we’ll just take it from there, really. We’d got good feedback from the Orange Goblin tour from promoters and various people who run venues, so we’re looking to maybe put together some more stuff using those guys, and Orange Goblin have said they’d like to take us out and do some more stuff with us, so we’ll drop everything and do that if they ask us (laughs). We’re rolling along nicely at the moment. We’ve got these gigs in Europe coming up, and we’ve got the album, so we’re good.
Tags: Grifter, Ripple Music, UK