It took four albums, but Grant Lee Buffalo finally has something to celebrate: a hit single.
Granted, “Truly, Truly” isn’t racking up huge sales and airplay at Top 40 radio stations – just yet – but it’s a bona fide smash in modern rock circles. It stands at No. 11 this week on Billboard’s modern rock tracks chart and is in the Top 10 on Pause & Play’s weekly Picks list.
Is this a harbinger of better things ahead for the longtime critics’ darling? Drummer Joey Peters hopes so.
“We’ve always measured success,” Peters said recently, “just by the fact that we’ve been able to still do what we’ve been doing, that we’ve continued to make records, and now we’re on our fourth. Having a hit song would only be icing on the cake.”
That fourth album, “Jubilee” (Slash/Warner), is the Los Angeles-based group’s most coherent and inspired to date. It’s easy to see why: A disgruntled band member quit, new blood was pumped in, an outside producer was used for the first time and several friends stopped by to lend a hand.
When Peters jokingly says, “Making this record was a jubilee, it was a jubilant experience. Truly truly, it was,” he means it.
Peters can pinpoint the time and place when he and frontman Grant Lee Phillips first envisioned “Jubilee” and a retooled Grant Lee Buffalo sound.
“When we finished making ‘Copperopolis’ (in 1996),” Peters said, “I recall Grant and I driving around in Sweden. We were on a promotional tour and we were already starting to talk about how the next record might sound like. We were going down these certain roads of wanting a record that was starker, sparser, much more impactful and harder edged, more rhythmic. Even the construction of the album, we wanted to cut it a little bit more live, play more music in the studio, and even back then, we thought, ‘Well, maybe an outside producer would help.’
“Grant and I had been working on these songs while we were on the road with the Smashing Pumpkins in the summer of ’96. We brought along a small dressing-room drum set and a guitar and a tiny amplifier. We were working on ‘Truly, Truly,’ ‘APB,’ the groove to ‘Testimony’ and ‘Super Slo-Motion,’ kind of cataloging these things. We had a DAT player and put ideas down on it. We were already in the mind-set of working and ‘let’s make a record.’ “
Bassist Paul Kimble, who produced the group’s first three albums, was on a different page. A different book is more like it. After “Copperopolis” wound down, Phillips and Peters began demoing and working on rhythms for “Jubilee,” while Kimble steered clear of them.
“We didn’t realize it would be about a year later that Paul would leave the group,” Peters said. “It was kind of obvious he was in a different space, musically and creatively. It was very difficult to get him into the rehearsal place to learn songs, and I think Grant was really exhausted by this process, pulling him along. Paul’s a really talented musician, but the inertia to get him working sometimes was very overwhelming. He and Grant also kind of stopped talking.”
The “Jubilee” tracks were quite a departure from the textured aloofness of “Copperopolis.” Phillips’ songwriting became more extroverted and energetic, Peters said, and the melodies were clearer and choruses were emphasized.
They tested the songs during shows at a friend’s club, Largo, in Los Angeles. It was there that they met Kimble’s eventual replacement, Dan Rothchild.
“We started rehearsing with him,” Peters said, “and he took to the material. We asked if he was available to do the record, because he had just gotten off the road with Tonic, and he had been a big fan of ours. He’s a great bass player and full of ideas.”
Then they enlisted Paul Fox, who has produced XTC, Robyn Hitchcock and 10,000 Maniacs, among many others.
“We were familiar with his work from several records,” Peters said, “and we’ve been friends with Robyn Hitchcock for many years. And Robyn had suggested Paul as well. He said, ‘Paul’s great. He becomes your dad in the studio.’ Paul was like the designated driver, he allowed us to get out. He made a comfortable environment for us and technically he got all his requirements met and then he just wanted good performances out of us.”
During six weeks of recording at A&M Studios in Hollywood, several of Grant Lee Buffalo’s admirers got in on the act. Hitchcock, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, E from the Eels and Andrew Williams of the Williams Brothers provided background vocals, and Wallflowers organist Rami Jaffee, The Figaro Brothers’ multi-instrumentalist Phil Parlapiano and pedal steel player Greg Leisz also contributed.
“All I knew was,” Peters said, “that what went on this disc had to be full, bursting forth with energy, enthusiasm and joy. There’s something intangible that if you can get it on the disc, it’s really magic. And it happened.”
BWF (before we forget): The group has since broken up. … The Grant Lee Buffalo album discography – “Fuzzy” (Slash, 1993); “Mighty Joe Moon” (Slash/Reprise, 1994); “Copperopolis” (1996); “Jubilee” (Slash/Warner, 1998).
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