The 1990s saw the underground uprooted and the mainstream flooded when, for one golden moment, no one seemed to be at the wheel. Our own history was rooted in Los Angeles near the end of the Eighties. Paul Kimble, Joey Peters, and myself had each come there to pursue our individual dreams. I roofed houses by day and attended film school by night. Joey held all sorts of odd jobs at the time we met, from stocking groceries to film crew work, often juggling several drumming gigs at once. Paul Kimble sold stereos, set up hi-fi gear while pursuing his own musical yearnings. From the time I had arrived in LA I had hopes of joining a band, if not putting one together myself. First came Shiva Burlesque, whose final lineup evolved to include myself as guitarist, co-songwriter and co-conspirator; frontman Jeff Clark; cellist Greg Adamson; and the rhythm section of Paul (bass) and Joey (drums). Personality conflicts and growing pains would eventually bring that group to an end after two albums, as a new decade was dawning. For Joey, Paul, and myself, Shiva Burlesque had brought us together, but our power as a trio would alter our lives.
Moonlighting under a different band name every show, we began to explore the songs that were gushing out of me in my mid-twenties. Longing to step forward with the songs I was writing, I needed the courage of a veil to fully accept my lot as a performer. Grant Lee Buffalo was precisely that.
In the early part of the nineties we began to work diligently on the home recording of several songs. A demo recording of “Fuzzy” was distributed by Bob Mould’s Single Only label in the summer of ‘92 and before long was gathering significant airplay at Boston’s WFNX. In October of that same year we signed a recording deal with Slash Records. Recorded at Brilliant Studios in San Francisco – a century-old steel foundry – Fuzzy’s eleven songs marked the group’s debut and provided a blueprint for all that we might become.
While we were able to capture the most dynamic aspects of our sound in ways that would have been impossible in the garage-turned-studio where the early demos were cut, it was the same acoustic-based song that blazed its way to Beantown that hurled us around the globe and back again with its international release. As I look back, “Fuzzy” was in undeniable contrast with the climate of the day. Still, it seemed to occupy a unique place in the musical terrain of the early nineties. We often found ourselves elected to the role of supporting act to the era’s more established artists: Mary’s Danish were among the first, followed by Ultra Vivid Scene, Paul Westerberg, Sugar, World Party, and Com in the first year of touring, then Pearl Jam, REM, The Cranberries, and The Smashing Pumpkins as we progressed.
Within a year of Fuzzy’s release, we went on to create Mighty Joe Moon, which gave us our first real exposure in the US. In many ways this album was the culmination of the confidence we had gained on the road and a deeper ambition in the album making process. In December of ‘93, as the year was coming to a close, just as the Industry was nodding off into holiday slumber, we returned to Brilliant Studios in San Francisco to record some of the new songs we had begun to perform at soundchecks, songs like “Sing Along,” “Drag,” and “Lady Godiva and Me.” “Mockingbirds,” written in the eleventh hour, would be quickly recorded and added to the album along with “Happiness” and “Honey Don’t Think.” The intimate charm of these songs has cast them among some of the most universally requested compositions in the entire Buffalo songbook. Mighty Joe Moon, the album, would eventually become our most popular in the US, as “Mockingbirds” gained single recognition on radio and MTV.
A good part of ’95 was spent touring – yet the longer we spent out on the road, the more we missed the studio. Playing short concise sets as an opener left us with little time to experiment onstage. If we were to create a third album of substance, it would require time to gestate, and a much-needed period of grounding back at home. In the summer of that year we finally unpacked our bags in LA, and I soon began to write for the next album with a daily attitude of discipline. Having developed an obsession with The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds around this time, the new arrangements were becoming more ambitious and the lyrics often more meticulous. After a few weeks of rehearsals, recording finally commenced in November 1995.
In keeping with the sweeping breadth of Fuzzy and Mighty Joe Moon, what became Copperopolis aimed for a similar diversity. “Arousing Thunder,” one of my favorites, hovers in a kind of beautiful fog, while “Homespun” conjures the violence and terrorism that had reared its head months earlier in the Oklahoma City bombing. There’s a strange juxtaposition of songs rooted in the very personal and also those that are entirely public. Although there was a growing concern within the label that more attention needed to be paid to producing a radio single, it’s fair to say that the greatest achievements of Copperopolis are to be found in its most subtle gestures. Perhaps this album, more than the others, is unconsciously preoccupied with endings and the pain of transition…
The demands, the sacrifices, and the expectations which the three heaved upon ourselves both on tour and in the studio would soon collect its tax. Paul Kimble and I parted ways following the promotional cycle for Copperopolis, and Joey Peters and I continued onward for a fourth and final Grant Lee Buffalo album, Jubilee. Producer, Paul Fox who had worked with XTC, Robyn Hitchcock and Victoria Williams, was brought on board to produce the album that also featured a host of guest musicians, all of them friends like Hitchcock, Jon Brion, Michael Stipe and others. Bassist Dan Rothchild (originally of Tonic and the son of legendary Doors producer, Paul Rothchild) helped us fill out the basic tracks for the record.
The sound of Jubilee was rollicking, stomping, and by far the most uplifting of all the albums in the Grant Lee Buffalo catalogue. I’ve often felt that some of this could be traced to Velvet Goldmine, the Todd Hanes film that I had written songs for leading up to Jubilee. The celebrational spirit of Jubilee actually brought a renewed optimism to me personally. The album was well received and understandably the expectations at the label were high, probably too high. Despite considerable success at radio with “Truly, Truly,” a shift within the industry was well underway. The scenery was changing and I was looking for new explorations. I’m sure we all were. Perhaps we always will be.
The original members of Grant Lee Buffalo have each gone on to various frontiers. Paul Kimble is both a recording artist, a touring musician and an album producer in his own right, Joey Peters continues to tour and record, in addition to his own involvement in film music. My own path, I can offer, has been interesting to say the least…