Grant Lee Buffalo shot to prominence when REM's Michael Stipe cited the band's debut album Fuzzy as his favourite album of 1993, but this was no media-darling back-slapping accolade; over the six years they were together, Grant Lee Buffalo's music garnered serious respect from the music press and audiences alike, collected on four albums of sparkling originality. Combining lyrical excellence with an alternative folk sound, Grant Lee Buffalo forged an atmospheric texture that simultaneously evoked historic America and lambasted the political development of the band's homeland.
If you like music that tells a story and that draws from the influences of pre-1960s blues, country and jazz, then Grant Lee Buffalo will not disappoint. Mighty Joe Moon and Jubilee are particularly recommended as excellent examples of songwriting and performing at their best.
The Story of Grant Lee Buffalo
Grant Lee Buffalo was based around the singing and songwriting talents of Grant Lee Phillips, who was born in 1963 and raised in Stockton, California, USA. Grant's father was a minister and his grandmother was a southern gospel singer, and in his early years Grant was drawn to the art of conjuring, which he would perform in his local area along with singing, acting and all sorts of other performance arts.
However it was the discovery of the electric guitar at the age of 13 that woke up the latent musical talent in Grant. He started writing songs straight away, and sloped through high school, putting various bands together and dreaming of bigger things. Eventually Grant left school. He also left Stockton, moving to Los Angeles, where he roofed houses in the day and went to film school at night.
About a year after Grant moved to LA, a friend of his from Stockton, Jeff Clark, followed suit, and they shared a house in Newhall, California. Grant and Jeff had briefly played together in a band in Stockton, so along with a drum machine they started writing and performing under the moniker Shiva Burlesque, with Jeff on vocals and Grant on guitar. Soon the drum machine had died, and after various other comings and goings in the line-up, drummer Joey Peters and bassist James Brenner joined the band and a self-titled debut album was released in 1988. By the time of the band's second album, 1990's Mercury Blues, the band had morphed into a five-piece, with Paul Kimble replacing Brenner on bass and Greg Adamson joining on cello, but internal tensions broke the band up and Grant, Paul and Joey started playing gigs as a trio.
The Shining Hour
After gigging under various guises, the trio settled on the name Grant Lee Buffalo and recorded 11 of Grant's songs at James Brenner's home studio. A number of these songs would appear on Grant Lee Buffalo's first two albums, and one of them, 'Fuzzy', was picked up by Bob Mould1's Single Only label and released in the summer of 1992, gaining a significant amount of airplay on Boston radio. By October, the band signed to Slash Records, finally tying drummer Peters - who had been flirting with another band called Cracker - to Grant Lee Buffalo.
The group's debut album, Fuzzy was recorded in just two weeks in Brilliant Studios, San Fransisco, and was released in 1993. Paul Kimble took the production controls, creating an atmosphere that defined the sound of Grant Lee Buffalo. Fuzzy showcased haunting, lonely acoustic ballads and driving, distorted electric guitar tracks, with Grant's highly distinctive vocals cutting through with at least as much power as the music itself.
Fuzzy did well, garnering critical praise and the unit-shifting accolade from Stipe that Fuzzy was 'the best album of the year, hands down.' Grant lee Buffalo had gone from obscurity to media darlings in a matter of months.
1993 was a year of touring and promoting Fuzzy, supporting established bands like Sugar, World Party and Ultra Vivid Scene. During soundchecks, the band would toy with new songs from Grant's growing repertoire, and in December Grant Lee Buffalo were once more at Brilliant Studios, with Paul Kimble again taking on the production. Here they recorded the basic tracks for a number of songs, including 'Lady Godiva and Me', 'Drag' and 'Sing Along'.
While the overdubs were being recorded in LA, a huge earthquake hit the city in the early hours of 17 January, and Grant's house - just 20 miles from the epicentre - was destroyed. This event inspired a new song 'Mockingbirds', which was quickly recorded and added to the repertoire, along with 'Happiness' and 'Honey Don't Think'. The completed album, titled Mighty Joe Moon, was acclaimed as a masterpiece when released in 1994, with 'Mockingbirds' being released as a single, accompanied by a typically surreal video.
Touring continued into 1995, which would see Grant Lee Buffalo support REM on their 'Monster' tour in Australia, and The Cranberries in the USA, capping a year in which Grant was voted as best male vocalist by Rolling Stone magazine. However the band missed the creativity of the studio environment and realised that there just wasn't enough time on the road to develop new material properly, so in the summer of 1995 the trio returned to Los Angeles and Grant started writing and recording demos. After months of developing the flavour of the new album, the band moved into the recording studio in November that year. Once again Paul Kimble produced the album, but pressure on the band had started to gnaw at the group's morale, and the resulting album Copperopolis, released in 1996, combined stark imagery tinged with only subtle hints of hope.
By this stage, cracks were beginning to appear. A batch of songs that were recorded for the British film Velvet Goldmine were again produced by Paul Kimble, but in April 1997 Grant fired Paul from the band. Despite the loss of such a key member, Grant and Joey kept going, eventually producing one of the most uplifting albums you'll ever hear. The duo drafted in keyboardist Jon Brion and bassist Dan Rothschild2 and started recording songs in a much more relaxed manner than before, allowing them to explore new approaches and ideas. Grant's love of conjuring provided the theme for the album's artwork and stage show, with the cover of the resulting album, 1998's Jubilee, depicting a magician and his assistant surrounded by playing cards, the Pyramids, lanterns, demons and a snake wrapped round a skull.
This confident showmanship extended to the music, which was like cheese compared to the chalk of Copperopolis. 'We wanted to make it stomp,' said Grant at the time, and that's certainly what they managed to do. The album was critically acclaimed and the record label expected great things, but despite success on the radio with 'Truly, Truly', changes at the band's record company got in the way. The record company declined to renew the band's contract at exactly the same time as Grant and Joey parted company and decided to drop the contract themselves, and the band formally split on 9 June, 1999.
Since splitting up, the various members of Grant Lee Buffalo have continued in music, with Joey Peters and Paul Kimble both touring and recording, the latter also producing albums for other artists. However the most interest is reserved for Grant Lee Phillips, who released an acoustic album Ladies Love Oracle in 2000, and a second solo album Mobilize in 2001 (though the former is not on general release and is only available from the Grant Lee Philips site mentioned below, and the latter isn't available on international release).
Meanwhile, Grant continues to stress that the door on Grant Lee Buffalo hasn't been completely shut, though the depth of his solo work is enough to keep the fans happy. Despite a general lack of recognition among the music-buying public, albums like Mighty Joe Moon and Jubilee assure Grant Lee Buffalo of their place in the 'brilliant but undiscovered' category of rock history.
Grant Lee Buffalo Websites
Official Grant Lee Buffalo Site - Stripped down to a history of the band (written by Grant himself), a discography and a few other bits and bobs, the official Grant Lee Buffalo site reflects the spirit of an ex-band rather well: there's not a lot to it. What is there is good, though.
Official Grant Lee Phillips Site - This is where the action is, with touring news, solo album sales, message boards, writing from the man himself, and the buzz that's associated with live performances, new albums and a solo career being forged. Nice one, Grant.