ireallylovemusic versus grand mal's bill whitten
having been part of been part of st. johnny, bill whitten then spread his artistic wings and set up his own solo venture under the name 'grand mal'. so far there have been 2 well received albums, 'maledictions' on slash, and 'bad timing' on arena rock recordings. now bill has a fully recorded unreleased album for those interested. so, before that hits the play lists of the parallel world i inhabit, ireallylovemusic decided to catch up with bill and see just what makes him tick, and dream of david bowie's wonky eye.
on the PR piece that comes with the last Grand Mal album ('Bad Timing'), the opening statement was as follows : 'founded by former St. Johnny main man Bill Whitten, Grand Mal lives and plays in New York city'. just how important is NYC in the life of Grand Mal - and why ?
I don’t even know why I live here anymore..it’s expensive, smelly… it caters to the wealthy and the super-wealthy…I guess it’s a good place to get your mind stimulated. Lots of brilliant people everywhere you turn…you can get into an argument with someone here about Peter Kropotkin or about whether or not 'Tout va bien' is a better film than 'Un Film Comme les Autre'…that’s harder to do in Windsor Locks, Connecticut where I’m from..plus there’s a million musicians to play music with…and lots of places to buy books
how have things changed within NYC in recent times, it seems that to the outside world NYC has once again propelled several bands onto the world stage, with the Kills, Joy Zipper being the most recent that I rate. are you involved with the current New York cool thing, or do you avoid that aspect of the scene, or are you a revered figurehead of NYC based rock-n-roll ? and who do you rate from the current scene ?
I am of course not a revered figurehead…I’m friends with lots of good bands….Hopewell, The Silent League, The Fame, Vietnam…anyone of them could blow up…
going way back to St. Johnny. tell me about that band, what did you set out to achieve with the band, what were the highlights and the lowpoints? I have read several online pieces with the band being referred to as a late entry grunge band (!!!), did you ever feel part of the grunge thing, as I personally dont get the connection, Sonic Youth ? yes. Nirvana ? no. are you still in touch with any of the st. johnny boys in 2005 ? was the band an enjoyable period of your life?
I am not in touch with any of the st. johnny fellows…they were all fine young men.. last time I saw them…which would have been 1995....i no doubt owe them all apologies seeing as I was a horrible drunk back in those days…when I formed st. johnny in 1987 I had no goals other than to play some live shows and maybe put out some 7inch records…I was ambitious but perhaps not very canny…my favorite bands were mott the hoople and the new york dolls but we were somehow making music that was influenced by dinosaur jr. and my bloody valentine…I could barely play guitar so I tuned it in a way that made it easier to play..the guitar player who was in the initial version of st.johnny (he played on speed is dreaming and High as a Kite) was a remarkable player and he had an advanced sonic palette to draw from…he was responsible for the gigantic, droning sound that we had… I don’t know what he’s doing know…he had a one man band called “luxurious bags’ which was amazing..
I have 'Speed is dreaming' - should I track down more - or was that the best St. Johnny album ?
There was an album before “Speed” called “High as a Kite’, Which was a compilation of songs that had been released on seven inches…some good, inspired stuff..some incredibly sloppy, inept playing and singing too…most of it recorded at this strange man’s house/studio.. he was named greg field and he lived in Hartford….there were always lots of loaded guns and taser’s laying around….like most people in hartford he hated our music but he was willing to take our money..that was released on rough trade in europe and caroline in the u.s…there was one final album ‘let it come down’ that was released on Geffen records in 1995…that album was a response to what I perceived at the time to be a constant barrage of comparisons to sonic youth…
so I tried to make a classic rock album…no more indie rock…I wanted to be Ian Hunter!!!…so no droning de-tuned guitars…instead piano, harmonica, acoustic guitars, gospel choirs etc….the really noteworthy thing about that record is that in order to save money we bought a keg of beer on the first day of recording…a half-barrel… dave fridmann (who produced the record) agreed that It could be a money saving device…you know instead of buying case after case of beer we could just get a keg and be done with it…instead of course it was gone the first day and everyone was just shitfaced around the clock…or maybe it was just me who was drunk around the clock…who knows….
There’s probably a couple good songs on the record…I don’t have a copy so don’t ask me….the high point of st.johnny’s career for me was when we did a Peel session and we did a cover of “Mr.Clarinet” by the Birthday Party…there’s also was a 7 inch record from Twisted Village records called “Gilligan” that was pretty inspired..
then came your new solo project name - Grand Mal. where did the name come from, and how were things supposed to be different from your days in St. Johnny?
i formed grand mal in 1995…we got back from lollapalooza…we were on the little side stage with superchunk and others…and I decided I wanted to form a band where no-one would get mad at me if I wrote and sang all the songs…so I made it a rule that you had to be in another band…so you could express yourself somewhere else whilst I could write and sing my songs in peace…
also I wanted it to be more rock and roll than st. johnny…more ‘roll’…I took the name ‘Grand Mal’ from a st.johnny song…and of course have regretted it ever since…it’s too negative..i should change the fucking name or just release this next batch of songs under ‘bill whitten’ or something…dunno.
Grand Mal seems to be a project that has its roots firmly in classic 70's rock-n-roll with sonic references that dip into all manner of excellence (bowie, stones, t-rex). yet there are subtle differences in the 3 last albums - 'Malediction' was a machine based noisy album that combined processed beats and snarly guitars, 'Bad Timing' more of a live rock-n-roll band acting out personal fantasies, and the latest album (so far unreleased) a much more loose and laid back affair. are we to read something into this direction ?
I wanted the band to be a cross between Spacemen 3 and the Heartbreakers…for ’Maledictions’ we had no drummer for a long time so I got into using a sequencer and samples…it was just me and guitarist john devries (on loan from Agitpop, a band that was on Twintone records at one time)
By the time the record was made we had a full band…but the same mentality that held sway during “let it come down” was in place for ‘maledictions’ ie: we were all fucked up…off our rockers…it was a wasted opportunity….
“Bad Timing” was a response to “Maledictions”. “Maledictions” was filled with synthetic sounds and played by drug addled people…”Bad Timing” was all organic sounds and it was the first record I had ever made an album sober… the song “Disaster Film” pretty much sums up where I was at..
does the sound of the a grand mal album give an indication as to the state of bill whitten, as the new songs 'heres to our estrangement', 'cold as the stars' and 'people change (maybe they dont)', indicate a certain melancholy edge creeping in. have times been hard recently ?
I’v never been happier mark.. although some of the tracks on the new recording were written and recorded right after a long relationship had unfortunately ended…so that comes out in the music of course…what else is rock’n’roll for, I ask you?
'from hartford to times square' on the new album refers to someone making the journey from the outback to the glorious city. is the song autobiogrpahical, or have you always lived there ? in fact, a lot of the new songs seem to have an autobiographical slant to them - true or not, or do you write your songs with an eminem kind of approach?
I in fact made up the lyrics on a busride from Hartford to nyc…babies were crying, people arguing and I had just visited my parents in Connecticut…it reminded me of the first bus-ride I ever took when I was like 12 years old…a drunk man reeling up the aisle of the bus I was on yelled out:
“aint but two kinds of people ride the bus…either poor or crazy”…
I have tried lately to make the song lyrics simpler, more direct…reflecting the contents of my mind and my pockets..
have you ever wished you could maintain a consistent lineup for the band, or, do you actually like the fact that you are the boss and any folks helping out need to bow to your rules and regulations? in other words - are you a control freak?
I like playing with different people…it’s fun
You learn new things by interacting with new people…and they often bring enthusiasm to the table…if they are new to the music…
how do you enlist new recruits then ? do they have to have a passion for a long lost era of rock-n-roll, or is all down to having the right clothes/haircut ? are you a hard task master who wears out musicians and moves onto a new batch, or, is it all a question of finances ?
musicians are enlisted through the time honored method of talking to my friends…and friends of their friends “I know a guy who plays guitar like Ron Wood…he would love your songs” etc…
haircuts don’t matter obviously but if you like to play rock’n’roll in front of a bunch of jaded, demanding NYC rock fans you probably don’t want to look like you work at Radio Shack…
so, who makes up Grand Mal 2005 ?
Who knows? About 30 different people played on the latest batch of songs…someone out of that pool of talent will hopefully play some shows with me..
your relationship with the Mercury Rev boys seems to hold you in fine form over the years, Grasshopper appearing on various albums, and the continual appearance of Dave Fridmann in the production seat. Tell me - what does such a high value name producer like Dave bring to the equation, and just how did this sonically enhanced partnership come into being ?
Grasshopper hasn’t played on any of my records since 1998…he’s a busy man
these days, to say the least…I ran into him at a show recently…he seems
well….he’s a unique guy, that’s for sure…as far as Dave Fridmann goes…we met in
1994 when St. Johnny was opening for mercury rev in either the u.s. or the u.k.
We hit it off and he agreed to produce us…I think he got a kick out of the
fucked up aspect of our band at the time…the drunken buffoonery…the shambolic,
chaotic vibe…the stuff that never came through on any of the records….it’s
always an honor and a pleasure to work with him
…he’s funny…fun to hang out with…a nice bloke
Do you have to stop him from adding lots of large cinematic orchestral backings all over the place, or, do you both share the same vision for the stripped down authentic 70's rock Grand Mal groove ?
No he never tried to make things all ‘cinematic’ or whatever…that never happened…if anything he would lean towards toughening the songs up….make them more rocking..
did Dave Fridmann ever pay you for installing the fiberglass insulation in his studio, or, do you call in production time as payback ?
that was the ‘barter system’ in all it’s glory….my greatest, most lasting contribution to music will be the work that I did on the Tarbox Tape Storage room…
I am assuming that your new album was recorded @ Dave's Tarbox Road studios ? Is the studio a back-to-basics affair, or a state of the art complex with all mod cons?
Actually the new record was engineered/recorded by me at my home…Dave only mastered the as yet untitled album… I am responsible for it’s humble sound…it was recorded on a very obscure machine…the Oswald 15 track…I had lots of shaggy haired men coming in and out of my apartment….i think my neighbors are gratified that I am done with it…
How did you decide upon which songs make the final cut?
The songs that made me cringe the least were selected..
I heard the demo for a song called 'in the year of the pig' that I thought was totally ace - but this has not appeared in the final listing, did Dave oust this one, or what caused you to drop this fine song?
“In the year of the Pig” needs to be fixed up…the vocals sound like crap and I don’t have the tapes in my possession…It will come out in some form, someday…we will play it live…
The new album has no title as of yet - have you anything in mind ?
LOVE IS THE BEST CON IN TOWN…
Your last album, 'Bad Timing' came out on the excellent Arena Rock Recording Co label, there was a few months in that period that Arena looked to carve out their own brand of alt.rock. They had a deal with Ryko in the UK, released some excellent albums (pilot to gunner/calla/superdrag/mono/the mink lungs etc ).. then suddenly it all came to a halt and now us uk'ers cant get the Arena groove at all. wha'appened ?
I don’t know what happened…I don’t really follow the business side of music…I don’t read the trades…
Over the years, you seemed to have fallen foul of several record label shakeups, yet always seem to be able to sort yourself out. have you become hardened to the whole industry process, or, do you hope that one day some suit at record label megacorp inc. will suddenly drop 'bad timing' into the machine and realise the error of their ways, and track you down for a blockbuster soundtrack placement ?
I am addicted to making music…someday perhaps I will see the light and stop trying to inflict my songs on the world..but until then…who knows…I don’t really have any expectations…I’d like for people to hear my stuff…
There’s probably an audience for it somewhere: maybe in Finland or Estonia…I would like to find out..
How do you maintain the urge to continue to make music when the financial aspect makes chasing the dream ever more difficult, especially for a songwriter who has decided that music in 2005 needs to sound like it was lifted out of some long lost 1973 studio tapes?
All I have to do is put on a record like: the Beach Boys “Holland” or the “Ballad of Todd Rundgren”…and after listening to it I think …damn I love music…
Do you have a normal day job to help pay the rent?
Yes I do….I don’t mind going to work…in fact I like it..
And finally - did you really dream of David Bowies baleful eye ?
Yes I really did have that dream…it’s probably a bad sign that a grown man still has dreams that are populated by rock stars…but what can you do…I remember one vivid dream where Johnny Thunders and I were teammates on my high school basketball team…I don’t think the team did very well..but we looked good…
love is the best con in town out now : full review
previous albums : review