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Members include Paul Kimble (born c. 1960, in Freeport, IL), bass, keyboards, vocals; Joey Peters (born April 9, 1965, in New York, NY), drums; Grant Lee Phillips (born c. 1963, in Stockton, CA; married to a musician), vocals, guitar. Addresses: Record company--Slash Records, P.O. Box 48888, Los Angeles, CA 90048-0888. Other--11333 Moorpark St., No.42, North Hollywood, CA 91602.
In a Rolling Stone profile Grant Lee Phillips, singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the Los Angeles trio Grant Lee Buffalo admitted, "I've always been fascinated by American history...But when I write songs it's more like a tornado came through history and picked everything up and spun it around. And when it landed, it wasn't history anymore, it was something else." With songs that "combine the simple structure of pop, the lyrical intimacy of folk and the pure passion of punk," according to Paul Zollo of Musician, the band has carved a rare niche for itself in alternative pop.
Phillips was raised in Stockton, California. Several of his ancestors were Pentecostal preachers. He grew up with an eclectic set of influences, as he revealed to Zollo: "I was listening to artists like [English rock chameleon and "glam" hero David] Bowie and [bubblegum-metal champions] KISS on the radio, and at the same time I was loving the music my grandmother loved--singers like [country legends] Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. So my vision of the ideal band at the time was kind of like [bluegrass icon] Bill Monroe meets ?1970s shock rocker? Alice Cooper. I dreamed of banjos and mandolins and fiddles and all, but with a lot of explosions." By 13 Phillips was playing guitar; it wasn't long before he tried his hand at writing songs. He later joined a band called Bloody Holly. "We'd get our PA system out of a country church and rehearse almost every night in my friend's garage," he recollected to Neil Strauss of Rolling Stone.
At age 19 Phillips left home and headed south. "I roofed houses for ten years," he told Judy Jade Miller in the Los Angeles Village View. "I was mopping hot tar in the day, going to film school at night, and on weekends, I was trying to put a band together." The Los Angeles music scene was still reverberating from the punk revolution, and Phillips's musical ideals were shaped by what he saw in tiny clubs like the Cathay De Grande. Though he would soon drop out of film school, his one-time goal of fusing the musical fantasy The Wizard of Oz with the true-life murder tale In Cold Blood, as he told Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times, could be seen as a blueprint for his lyrical approach.
Drummer Joey Peters moved to Los Angeles in 1985 from Santa Cruz, a coastal university town to the north. He and Phillips met soon thereafter and joined a neo-psychedelic rock band called Shiva Burlesque. Multi-instrumentalist Paul Kimble--who would settle into bass, keyboard, and production duties in Grant Lee Buffalo--had driven to California from Freeport, Illinois, having allowed the outcome of a baseball game determine his destination.
Kimble caught a Shiva Burlesque gig some time later and expressed to a friend his desire to "get in this band and steal the guitarist and drummer and start a band." Shiva Burlesque put out a couple of records independently, but the group split in 1989 and Phillips, Peters, and Kimble struck out on their own. Phillips noted to the Village View's Miller that in the waning days of Shiva, "I had amassed a whole slew of songs that I knew would never see the light of day in the context of that band. Joey and Paul were really excited about those songs, and they too knew that those songs could never happen in Shiva Burlesque."
Though the chemistry among the three musicians allowed them to accomplish a great deal in a short time, they were at a loss to find a name for the project. They went under a variety of monikers, including the Machine Elves and Mouth of Rasputin, changing their name with each early gig. The handle they settled on in 1991 reflected both Phillips's own name and his favorite themes. "Grant Lee Buffalo was sort of a character," he told Huh magazine. "A composite of Buffalo Bill and Harry Houdini and a whole lot of history and a whole lot of nightmares." Critics have been unable to resist pointing out that placing Grant and Lee--names of the two most famous generals of the Civil War--alongside the name of an animal extinguished by the settlement of the West also points out the nightmare side of history itself.
The band's weekly gig at West Hollywood's Cafe Largo helped Grant Lee Buffalo gradually amass a following. Meanwhile, they sent their demo tape to Singles Only, a label run by Bob Mould, founder of the influential alternative bands Husker Du and Sugar; the song "Fuzzy" was picked up by the label and released as a single in 1992. Mould later called the song "one of the strongest singles" in his label's catalog, according to Miller. The group continued to record and began drawing larger crowds; Slash Records executive Randy Kaye had been following the band's progress, as he told Miller. "The first couple of times I went [to Largo]," he recalled, "there was hardly anyone there and I just watched it build and build until I was waiting 45 minutes in line to get in--even when we were about to sign 'em."
The group finally agreed to sign with Slash and released its debut album, also called Fuzzy, in 1993. The album "was made under the most horrific conditions in many ways," noted Peters, who left the sessions to go on tour with alternative rockers Cracker for eight months. "It was a really stressful thing. It was the first record and I don't know that we entirely knew what we were doing." Critics took to the band even in its relatively undeveloped state; Thom Jurek of the Detroit Metro Times called Fuzzy "an embarrassingly naive, refreshingly brave collection of provocative songs that offer glimpses of possibility and irritation in their quirkiness."
Superstar rockers Pearl Jam, meanwhile, were so taken by Fuzzy that they invited Grant Lee Buffalo on tour with them. The band had to turn the offer down, though, as they'd already committed to touring with Paul Westerberg, founder of post-punk giants the Replacements. Pearl Jam--impressed that Grant Lee Buffalo honored its commitments even when it meant less exposure--later gave them another shot. Phillips told Strauss of Rolling Stone that watching Pearl Jam from the wings "was inspiring," especially given the group's preference for changing its show from night to night. Grant Lee Buffalo, too, has "always been into the idea that you don't come to a show to recite something, you come to share in something that's bigger than any one of us."
It was live performance that solidified the group's identity. Touring intensively in support of Fuzzy, as Peters told Strobe, "expanded our idea of what the band could sound like." With Phillips on amplified twelve-string acoustic guitar, Kimble alternating between his punkified bass playing and elegant turns at the keyboard, and Peters lending subtlety to the trio's considerable rhythmic drive, the emphasis is on dynamics. When Phillips and Kimble simultaneously stomp on distortion pedals, the group can change from delicate folk to explosive rock in the blink of an eye. "It's like a complete change of scenery when that happens," Phillips observed in Musician. "Suddenly, out of nowhere, we've got on new costumes, and there's different lighting."
Fuzzy didn't fare especially well commercially--except for the title song's inclusion on a film soundtrack--but the band continued to build a cult following. 1994 saw them at work on a new album after an exhausting and at times exasperating period on the road that included being stranded in various parts of Europe and having equipment and CD masters stolen from their tour bus. "Once we started touring, everything I had known up to that point was shattered, and we were all forced to think about life in a completely different way," Phillips told Pulse! writer Jon Wiederhorn. "Basically it was like we were kidnapped by the carnival."
The January 17, 1994, earthquake in Los Angeles destroyed both Kimble's house and Phillips's trailer; the two temporarily set up camp in the backyard of Peters's home. "They were both living out in the tent, and the crows that live out there would wake them up every morning at six after we'd been up working on the album until three," Peters explained to Alan Benson of The Boston Phoenix. "That went on for quite a few weeks." Yet Phillips turned the wreckage of his former digs and the upstart noise of the birds into the ballad "Mockingbirds," which would serve as the first single from the 1994 release Mighty Joe Moon. Produced by Kimble, the album expanded the scope of the band in terms of its sound and its subject matter. "We were able to try things and push the boundaries of what we'd done before," Peters told Benson, while Kimble pointed out that the band had so many ideas that they "thought it was more essential to sort them all out and get what we wanted on tape than to have some big-name producer."
Featuring the raucous, expansive "Lone Star Song," such encounters with the canvas of American myth as "Sing Along" and "Lady Godiva and Me," and incorporating cellos and other eclectic instruments, Mighty Joe Moon--supposedly named for a recording engineer who regaled the band with stories--was a bold next step for an already ambitious troupe. "As great as it is, Grant Lee Buffalo's debut merely signaled the arrival of a songwriting genius," opined Raygun critic Robert Levine. "Mighty Joe Moon shows what he can do." College Music Journal (CMJ) agreed: "Once again, the L.A.-based trio's songs are tenderly intimate, yet grand, juxtaposing an astrally high, lonesome sound with concrete, earthly fortitude."
Despite critical acclaim, Mighty Joe Moon failed to achieve impressive sales; its subtlety no doubt prevented it from competing with the "New Punk" and other aggressive music then dominating Billboard's Modern Rock chart. Grant Lee Buffalo went on tour with top-grossing rockers R.E.M. on that group's first road trip in five years; when R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry suffered an aneurysm during a show, Peters finished the set. Though that tour was put on hold, the L.A. trio struggled on. "I'm aiming for the transcendent," Phillips declared to Ann Powers in Rolling Stone. "A lot of people, I fear, have given up on that."
by Simon Glickman
Grant Lee Buffalo's Career
Band formed in Los Angeles, CA, c. 1992; debut single, "Fuzzy," released on Singles Only label, 1992; signed with Slash Records and released debut album, Fuzzy, 1993; toured extensively, including opening stints with Pearl Jam and R.E.M., 1993-95.
- Selective Works
- "Fuzzy," Singles Only, 1992.
- Fuzzy, Slash, 1993.
- Mighty Joe Moon (includes "Mockingbirds," "Lone Star Song," "Sing Along," and "Lady Godiva and Me"), Slash, 1994.
- (Contributors) If I Were a Carpenter, ("We've Only Just Begun"), A&M, 1995.
- Copperopolis, Slash, 1996.
- Billboard, April 17, 1993.
- Boston Herald, November 3, 1994.
- Boston Phoenix, September 23, 1994.
- College Music Journal (CMJ), November 1994.
- Detroit Free Press, April 23, 1993.
- Huh, October 1994.
- Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1994.
- Los Angeles Village View, September 23, 1994.
- Metro Times (Detroit), April 21, 1993.
- Musician, April 1994.
- Pulse!, October 1994.
- Raygun, October 1994.
- Rolling Stone, August 19, 1993; December 1, 1994; April 18, 1996.
- Spin, October 1994.
- Strobe, September 1994.
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