Sitting down with JJ Grey is like sitting down with an old friend, someone you know that is doing well after falling away a little bit.
We’re friendly and warm, but the earnest ‘How you really doing dude?’ is always sitting under the surface. He’s as charismatic as they come but there’s a sadness there. Or at least a tough soul that’s walked a long road.
JJ is one those people that thinks carefully before he speaks and then delivers his message with a Matthew McConaughey Southern brogue that draws you in.
It’s disarming, and even toughened music hacks, whose hearts pump cold kerosene, can’t help but be lit by a little time with a person obviously working through what it means to be truly themselves, and the double edged honesty that that requires.
Trebuchet: This is your fifth album.
JJ Grey: No, it’s the seventh, I think I made a mistake earlier with another guy. But, yep Seventh one.
First one with Mascot [record label]. How did that come about?
I have been coming up here before even I was with Alligator and I’ve been trying to get something done. Mascot came on the scene as someone that maybe could do something with This River in Europe, but they had to pass because they got on the scene too late to do something. I mean, they would have had a week or something. So that didn’t happen. But we eventually met up and I got the impression that here wasn’t someone that had been affected by the pitfalls of music. Here was someone that WASN’T saying ‘Oh no, people aren’t buying records’, but someone who thought that when a problem arises a new opportunity presents itself, and they had the possibility to enjoy it.
They have a small number of acts but with every one of them they’ve done incredible stuff. Black Label, Beth Hart, Joe Bonamassa, nobody sucked and everyone was doing ok. That helped and tells you that they’ve got a good ear. Also that the acts they’ve got, they don’t take no for an answer and just keep going. I mean, I gotta say that Mascot have done great by a lot of people, new acts and even acts that might have peaked too. They’ve got them back on track too.
Especially if you’re stuck on the Blues hamster wheel in the US and Europe, a festival circuit than can go on forever and then when you go on to do a club date,people have seen you seven times on the circuit, so you wonder why your club date is empty! That said, when you first start out you want to play as much as you can and as often as you can. But then when you develop a pretty good sized audience you don’t want to play continuously. Even if they love you and love every note you play, they won’t come every Friday. It gets: ‘I’ll see him next Friday’. Before long its been two years since they last saw you because they’re always thinking: ‘Next Friday, next Friday’. I mean, you can play too much.
That comes about by only doing one thing If you only play these US Blues festivals in the summer time and you don’t play Europe or Australia…. This happened to some friends of mine. They had been doing that, and then when they came over here they had to step down from buses to vans and they didn’t like it. These guys were road warriors as well, but you know, they were like me. I mean, I’ve never seen a dime of money for touring, I almost don’t know what tour support even means. We’ve almost come on our own dime. We have to save up to come over.
This latest record, Old Glory, tell me about the title.Does it relate to the flag?
It’s nothing to do with the flag. Some people call the flag Old Glory but this is something else. I was at my grandmother’s funeral and my aunt and uncle, who sang with me on a track called ‘Sun in Shining (Down)’
jambalaya, or some kind of
dish where you can taste all
the elements but they all
blend together and make one
For me, I envisaged ‘Old Glory’ as the sun. It does everything, it lights this ball up and, chances are. everything we know came out of it. You know, when the solar system was made?, or however you look at it. So for me ‘Old Glory’ was about being connected to all of it. The sun, everything around you, your life and how you think about life, those two worlds.
If you live too much in what you think about the world you never get to live life. You only live what you think life is. Cause you’re always thinking about the past or the future and none of those exist, so you either live it or don’t live it. You either know it or you don’t and when you know it, it feels like that.
This is all stuff that just happened to me, by chance, and then I realised that I was never really living. Wherever I was, I was always in my mind about where I was going to be next, never about where I was. I was always the cat that couldn’t enjoy a sunset. ‘It’s beautiful!’, and I was like: ‘Yeah where we going next?’. That was my mentality. But now I try to be right here.
Life. I got kicked in the balls by life and woke up. So now if I see a sunset I really don’t care what’s coming next. I’m enjoying what’s going on here.
Has this come through your relationship with your farm?
Yeah I’m sure it has a lot to do with it. All those things. There’s a song called ‘This River’ off my last record, it’s about that looking out at these things, specifically St John’s River where it’s three and a half miles wide. It’s big. It narrows down to a little wider than the Thames and then it fans out. I mean, it speaks to you and slows you down enough that you can get off the hamster wheel. Which can be anything. Whether it’s a Blues hamster wheel circuit where you just get on and chase the carrot, chase the carrot, chase the carrot, oblivious to everything else. So Old Glory is about life and about being there in the moment.
For me that’s what a show is, sharing an honest moment with everybody. Which is the equivalent of having a party where everything clicks and it feels great. A good story, or a good film, or a good book where everything clicks.
So there is only one way that I can get there and it is to not try and get there. Just get out there and have fun.
This is a long way from what I thought you’d mean by ‘Old Glory’, I imagined it was going to be about patriotism.
I’m certainly patriotic to the ideal of what America should be. But America is no different than a lot of countries, the ideals of live and let live, and everyone try and help each other out, and try and be the best you can be. I think those ideals would make me patriotic to a lot of countries.
Seems like weather features in your music a fair bit, is that in response to a particular event?
Not really. Though I was in Miami the night before hurricane Andrew hit. This was in 1991 or ’92. Funnily, Anthony Kiedis was at the show, that hurricane was devastatingly nasty. Way worse than Katrina (Sandy was bad because it hit where people weren’t prepared for that sort of weather and it was a nasty, nasty storm). Hurricane Andrew had 200 mile an hour winds. There was a stretch where two or three of them hit my house. Fortunately I don’t live right on the coast so the wind started to lose strength, but this particular one, while it didn’t pack a super punch there were hurricane force winds for almost two days.
Usually you experience hurricane force winds for two hours, this was 30-something force winds and I started to lose pecan trees. The trees can normally take 120-mile gusts, but this never stopped. Its 70 or 80 mph for days, constantly. I started to hear trees breaking. It’s a weird thing that before Hurricanes come it’s very hot and then as soon as it hits it gets very cold. It’ll drop 30 degrees. The clouds looks different too, you can tell they’re getting pulled into something.
How did you work that into the song?
I don’t know, it just wrote itself. In fact I’d had that song around for a while but was never happy with how it sounded until then. Up until that point I had only used Voice and Dobro and then I thought I’d add just a little doodle track to it. Then I thought, well perhaps a little drums here, and I liked it. My wife always would tell me ‘Record it they way you always done it (guitar and vocals). Everyone loves that.’ So when I played it to her after we’d added all the bits I asked her [quiet voice] ‘What do you think?’ and she said ‘I love it, don’t change a thing’..
There’s a line in ‘Light a Candle’ : ‘Is there anybody out there as full of shit as me?’. Where’s that coming from?
That particular line relates to the most liberating thing I ever did. Realise I was full of shit and realise that I still am. Sometimes. Sometimes I’m not. In the extreme you could liken it to having an argument with someone and you’re screaming and saying all kinds of mean things to someone you care about and later on you cool down, and feel like an asshole.
Or you can feel guilty, which is another endless maze that you can wander down. But, any rate, the point is that you wonder ‘Who was that that got mad?’. What’s the difference between me, calm, calling that person to tell them that I was being an absolute idiot, what’s the difference between me now and me then? The only difference is that I was full of shit then. It wasn’t me really, but which one is which?
Well I spend this much time (well most people do) screaming and cussing and treating people like shit, but then the rest of our lives being normal. That wasn’t me. So the rest of the song goes ‘Feel my guilt but we can start over and over, and every day is New Years Day’. Get it right instead, become a different sort of victim where you feel guilt all the time for things you’ve done in the past. I mean I’ve got some loved ones that have done some crazy shit (laughs).
Everyone here is trying to figure this shit out. Everyone that thinks they’ve got it figured out is full of shit, more than likely. In fact the smartest people I’ve ever met haven’t figured anything out, but to me they look like they have. But you know, when you get deep with them they’ll tell you ‘Hey, I’m just holding on for dear life like you! I’ve learned a few things but there’s always something else’.
All that ties into the song. And frankly I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for everyone that helped me. I’m not just talking about music, I’m talking about as a grown man.
To hell with what I’m supposed to be as a musician, that doesn’t mean shit to me. Never has and never will. I’m JJ Grey the entertainer one minute then John or something some other time. I’m just me.
[Laughs] I mean, I tried to do that but I sucked at it. I wasn’t good enough. When I was younger I tried to be who I was influenced by, but none of it worked. I just realised I didn’t have the talent to be somebody who was clever and instantly entertaining, it just wasn’t me.
The fact is that when I started to be me, people started telling me ‘Man that was great, now it IS entertaining!’. Everybody says: ‘Be yourself’ and we all try to live it, but it ain’t always easy, you know.?
That’s it in a nutshell and all along the way people have lit candles to help me. It’s easy to get into a thing where you say ‘I’ve done it all myself’, but nobody does it by themselves. Everybody has help, whether you want to recognise or not. Saying you’ve done it all by yourself is another way of victimising yourself and it’s a fun role to play, feeling sorry for yourself. I’ve done it. I’m as guilty as anybody else but sometimes you’ve got to get off your ass and get busy again. Be that salmon and swim upstream. People ask me where I’m going and I tell ’em: ‘I don’t know, I just gotta go that way’
Does that philosophy inform how you make music?
That philosophy, before I even knew it existed, made the music for me. For me, I woke up when life kicked me in the balls and I had a couple of good people steer me in the right direction with just a little bit of help. I felt like a scientist who had been searching for this universal equation that will solve all kinds of problems. He’s tried for years and years to make this breakthrough, wrote notes on everything and tried every experiment then one day he slipped, busted his ass, and hit his head… and it came to him in a flash. There’s the equation, and you run to write it down and then run back inside and look at your notes… and the same equation is written there. It’s written on everything you’ve ever done and it’s always there.
I look back at the lyrics to my songs and I can see that I’ve been preaching to myself all the time and it had been like water off a duck’s back for the longest time, right up to six years ago. Songs that I had been writing as a kid and on those albums, all of them, it’s all there. The Song ‘I Believe in Everything’, is there. I didn’t even know what that meant then, I just wrote down what came naturally to me, or came straight from my head. All this time I had been preaching to myself and didn’t know it.
Old Glory in some sense sounds like you discovering your own back catalogue then?
In some ways yes, and I hope that in a couple of years time the songs will carry an ever deeper meaning than they’re carry now. A friend of mine saw I was reading a really heavy philosophy book and he asked me if I had read it. I said yes, and asked him if he’d read it. He replied:’You never finish reading it’. He meant that you read it now and then read it again ten years later and go: ‘I was an idiot then, THIS is what it really means’. And then ten years later again, ‘Ah! Now THIS is what it means!’.
What is your band’s sound to you?
I want it to be like a jambalaya, or some kind of dish where you can taste all the elements but they all blend together and make one taste. I don’t really try to get all those different types of music in there, I just put in whatever pops into my head. For instance, when I’m with my guys I tell them ‘The beat starts here and ends here and it’s up to you to get there, however you feel right. You have fun with it!’.
Old Glory will be released on 24th February 2015
JJ GREY & MOFRO 2015 TOUR DATES
3/18 Islington Academy – London, England
3/19 New Morning – Paris, France
3/20 Kaufleuten Zurich – Zurich, Switzerland
3/21 Technik Museum – Munich, Germany
3/23 Batschkapp – Frankfurt, Germany
3/24 Kesselhaus – Berlin, Germany
3/25 Bluestage – Nuremberg, Germany
3/26 Rockpalast Crossroads Festival – Bonn, Germany
3/27 Paradiso Main Hall – Amsterdam, The Netherlands
3/28 Paard van Troje (Main Hall) – Den Haag, The Netherlands
4/2 – 6 Byron Bay Bluesfest – Byron Bay, Australia