Photo: Denise Siegel-Phillips
Of Torn Boys, Shiva Burlesque, Grant Lee Buffalo- the pre-solo years
interview by John Wisniewski
Central Valley California native Grant-Lee Philips moved from art and comedy into music, forming the short-lived Torn Boys in the 80's with fellow singer and guitarist Jeffrey Clark. The both of them then forming Shiva Burlesque, releasing music at the end of the decade. Without Clark, Phillips took along Shiva's rhythm section, bassist Paul Kimble and drummer Joey Peters, to transform the combo into Grant Lee Buffalo, who put out four well-regarded albums of Americana music in the 1990s. In the new millennium, Phillips has gone solo pursuing his folk-Americana muse infused with a melodic sensibility and his passionate voice and even made several appearances on the iconic TV show Gilmore Girls. Here, Phillips talks about his early days, his pre-solo years, his music influences, his evolution as an artist and his plans for archival releases.
PSF: When did you meet Jeffrey Clark and become a member of the Torn Boys?
GLP: I met Jeffrey Clark and Kelly Foley at a party in our hometown of Stockton, California in early '83. My friend and bandmate, Ian Osborn, had been telling me about "The Torn Boys" just days before. He had heard them on the local college station out of UOP. Ian and I shared mutual aspirations in music and film. The two of us had planned to move to LA that summer before his young life was cut short in an accident. It was a tragedy that left an imprint on me, deepening a determination to pursue my artistic ambitions - dreams that my friend had been denied. It was Ian who introduced me to Jeff and Kelly.
Interestingly, I had assumed the post of guitar player by my late teens, largely suppressing any desire to front a band. Despite the time I had racked up, playing guitar, singing, writing songs and performing, I took a step back when it came to doing what I wanted the most - to be a singer. Ian had fronted our little band with a ferocity that I marveled at. I just knew I had a lot to learn and The Torn Boys were a pivotal introduction. Jeff and Kelly were artists who wrote their own songs and devoured music with a keen ear towards the exotic and compelling. 15 minutes with either of them and you'll walk away with a list of 15 bands, painters, writers that could set your mind reeling. It's still that way with them. We clicked over Bowie, Eno, Neil Young, Bertolt Brecht among other things. They invited me to sit in with them and keyboardist, Duncan Atkinson, performing on a radio show at UC Davis and the Blackwater Cafe in Stockton. We eventually recorded several songs at a home studio in Stockton. A huge moment for me, brief as it was, being a Torn Boy.
PSF: What was the concept for how the band should sound?
GLP: This might be one to ask Jeff and Kelly. I don't know if there was ever a discussion like that. How a band develops its collective voice seems to be a combination of influences and bathtub chemistry. They loved The Velvet Underground and Television and covered them in their early shows. A songwriter builds on the music that swims in their head - the jukebox up there. It's much the same with any musician, each of us with our own vocabulary. How all of this makes its way to our fingertips and tongues is a whole other thing. It's deceptive to conclude that a band can be built or reduced to a few components that are cobbled together. In the best case, a band will betray its influences, fall short of its idols, and find itself in the process. Torn Boys struck me as a unique beast from the moment I heard "See Through My Eyes."
PSF: When was Shiva Burlesque formed?
GLP: One of the early realizations, for me, was how much I enjoyed writing with Jeff. I had started writing lyrics at 14 and was about 6 years into it when we met. I was extremely taken with his writing. To my ear, his vocals and lyrics were a distinct package. Our pairing made for something special. It led me to push my guitar playing in so many ways, and to think in terms of recording, which I loved. Within a few months of leaving home for LA, Jeff joined me. We became room-mates for the next four years, living in Newhall, California. Our house was like an art encampment. There was ivy growing through the walls, an old upright piano, a hot plate and a microwave oven where I made Irish coffee. I'll never find the time to go through the boxes of cassettes and video tapes that we churned out. We liked the juxtaposition of words and sought out a band name that revealed our fascination with mysticism and debauchery, landing on Shiva Burlesque. I had spent my teenage years performing at a Vaudeville theater in Stockton. Burlesque was also a nod to that. The contradiction was intriguing.
PSF: Could you tell us about recording the first two albums Shiva Burlesque and Mercury Blues?
GLP: The first recordings Jeff and I did were on a 4-track. I calculated how many weeks I would have to work and rationed out how much lunchmeat I could live on to purchase a Fostex 4-track cassette recorder. Jeff had figured out how to program a drum machine and I had started playing more 12 string acoustic. Our tapes were getting more adventurous. As we encountered other players in LA, we began to record in actual studios. Jeff and I had met Bruce Licher and the IPR [Independent Recording Projects] circle. That opened up our eyes to a DYI way of recording and distribution. Jeff proposed we record our album in Venice Beach at Radio Tokyo. It was a small room but it felt like the possibilities were limitless.
We had spent a lot of time making demos, rehearsing and performing, leading up to the album. We played up and down the West Coast, in San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, LA, San Diego - sleeping on floors on long weekends, in between our regular day jobs, roofing in my case. This preparation paid off. With our self-titled release, Shiva Burlesque began to transmit an actual signal. A signal that was picked up by David Fricke at Rolling Stone and Allen Jones at Melody Maker, despite our tower being planted in the high desert outpost of Newhall. We flew to New York City to play the Pyramid club at the CMJ festival in '88. Things were taking off and along with this momentum, there were fissures. Nothing stays still, certainly not in a band. We were growing as a band and as individuals. We went into our sophomore album, Mercury Blues, with a new line-up. There was a shift in the energy by the time we recorded Mercury Blues. The title really nailed it.
PSF: Why did Shiva Burlesque breakup?
GLP: Within a few years, we had developed new strengths and curiosity about where to take it all. Jeff and I were writing more independently of each other. I was now married. Jeff and I, while friends, were no longer room-mates. At 26, I couldn't stave off the singer and writer in me any longer. Roofing, quite literally left me feeling like I was walking out on a ledge, one I had already spent 7 years on. With considerable anguish, I made the leap to go on my own. I look back upon this period and our creative output, from 1983 to 1990, and I can't deny how it shaped my life.
PSF: When and how did Grant Lee Buffalo form?
GLP: I had begun to write some of the songs that turned up on Fuzzy, prior to Mercury Blues. There was a lot of writing that took place between '89 and '92 when Grant Lee Buffalo recorded Fuzzy. Initially, I envisioned a sort of alter ego in Grant Lee Buffalo, a way to focus my writing towards a central theme. It's a phase I still go through that involves writing, sifting, collating and sacrificing some songs so that other songs might survive. Around '91, I went in to record a large group of potential songs. There was no deal, no label. The song "Fuzzy" was one of those songs. It was really through these sessions that everything came together. The song selection was refined. It placed the three of us on a new path. For Joey and Paul and I, sharing roots in Shiva Burlesque, gave us greater confidence in the studio. By the time we recorded our first album, we had some experience in the studio, which helped a great deal.
PSF: Who are some of your favorite music artists?
GLP: I have too many favorite artists to dignify the word, "Favorite." A few of them, like Neil Young, are forever on my personal playlist but there's always room for something new.
PSF: What kind of future plans and projects do you have?
GLP: This has been a year of reissues. Shiva Burlesque, Torn Boys, Grant Lee Buffalo and some of my solo albums have gotten a fresh coat of paint in recent months. My first solo album, Ladies Love Oracle, will be reissued on vinyl by Yep Roc in early 2024. Meanwhile, I'm on the road a lot and closing in on a new body of work, with plans to go back in the studio in 2024. Full steam ahead!
Also see Grant-Lee Phillips' website