Reunited Memphis rockers the Grifters still learning from their mistakes
Where most bands want to avoid making mistakes, reunited Memphis rockers the Grifters thrive on them.
"We found early on that when we make a mistake playing something - like when somebody hits the wrong chord or plays the wrong part at the wrong time - we really enjoyed how we recovered as a band from that mistake," said singer/guitarist Scott Taylor, who joins singer/guitarist Dave Shouse, bassist Tripp Lamkins and drummer Stan Gallimore for a concert at Ace of Cups on Saturday, Oct. 17. "You have to listen to each other and figure out what went wrong and where we are and where we're going to go from here. And that's all happening within a two-bar span."
The challenge, according to Taylor, became how to let these welcome missteps happen naturally, because, as he put it, "if you're doing it on purpose then it's not really a mistake anymore."
"And the easiest solution to that problem was to drink a lot," said a laughing Taylor, who first reunited with his bandmates for the November 2013 premier of "Meanwhile in Memphis: The Sound of a Revolution," a documentary that traced the evolution of the Memphis indie-rock landscape and included scenes with the Grifters, who formed in 1989 and initially broke up in 2000. "Over the years, we've kept that seriously-don't-take-it-serious vibe. We were very serious about the songwriting and all of that, but at the same time we were trying to find these ways to let the songs breathe on their own. It's sort of like a jazz approach to pop music, without sounding too pretentious, because we weren't that cool - or good."
Some, like band friend and fellow musician Jeff Buckley, might disagree with this assessment. In an interview prior to his 1997 death, Buckley described the Grifters as "the real thing," a compliment Taylor brushed aside in typically self-deprecating fashion, saying, "By 'the real thing' I think he just meant we weren't very good at the business side of [music]."
Coming up in Memphis - a city with a rich musical history but little of the industry infrastructure prevalent in other similarly celebrated towns ("Nashville has the studio system, the booking agents, the managements companies; Memphis had none of those," Taylor said) - it shouldn't surprise that the band doesn't tout its business acumen. What that city did provide, however, was a gritty urban landscape and a diverse, creatively driven scene that informed everything from the Grifters' rollicking, unpolished sound to its restless, fiercely independent mindset.
This sense of exploration carried over into the five full-length albums the band released in the '90s. Taken collectively, the recordings depict an artfully sloppy quartet adept at holding it together even in those moments when it seems everything is falling to pieces - a barely composed vibe reflected in its album titles (see: One Sock Missing, from 1993). Even so, the music swings wildly from sputtering blues ballads to revved up, fuzz-rock outbursts, rarely feeling beholden to a particular genre or era.
"That was kind of our problem back then, too. We were just smashing a lot of things we liked doing together … and it could be hard to describe what we did," Taylor said. "To our advantage, it was also hard to say we were bad at it, because nobody was really sure what the hell we were doing in the first place."
The music remains similarly unsettled these days, and the bandmates are still pushing to find new ways to approach material they laid to tape decades back.
"We have a hard time practicing and not rewriting all the songs," Taylor said. "We just practiced last night and we're still hammering out this bridge we've been working on for 15 years."
One thing that has changed in more recent times is the band's state of mind, and Taylor said the foursome is approaching this reunion free of the pressure and the sense of expectation that nipped at its heels throughout its initial run.
"There was that added anxiety of really wanting the band to succeed on the first go-round," said Taylor, who hinted at the possibility of new recordings ("There's a certain amount of new material, but we have no idea what we're going to do with it, honestly") as well as more concrete plans to reissue the Grifters' 1992 debut So Happy Together. ("We actually dug the tapes out, so that will probably happen.") "Now we don't have that [pressure] and we can approach it on a purely musical level, which makes it a lot more relaxed. It's simple: If people want to hear us play, then we'll come and play for them. It's not so much about trying to trick them into liking us anymore."
Ace of Cups
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17
2619 N. High St., Old North
ALSO PLAYING: Connections, Surfer, Tuesday Night Music