J J Grey & Mofro

Flying the flag for The Blues

With a brand new album ‘ Ol Glory’ due out on Mascot, group frontman J J Grey meets our man Sargeant in London to discuss the songs, players and a whole lot more…

JLTT: Tell you what, JJ – when I played the new record through it’s obviously not blast in your face rock n’ roll. It seems to be going for sequence of moods and tapping into what I’d call elemental music – gospel, blues, folk, rock n roll, funk. Kind of a journey, in your head, is that about right?

JJ: I hope so. I hope a seasoned listener would get that because I didn’t aim at that when I was writing the tunes however when I put them together I wanted it to feel like a show. Comin’ out, not full guns blazing but just come out with a little bit of everything of the song , just back off a little bit and then keep lifting it. Move through different things and different moods. I just listened to it in my head and that’s how I hoped it would come out when I played the record and it was finished.

When I listen to it, there are echoes of keynote records here with the ambience of it. ‘Exile on Main Street’, ‘Some Girls’. ..I don’t know if you are familiar with those records?

I’m not, not fully . Well, ‘Exile on Main Street’ that’s The Rolling Stones. Yeah I love their stuff.

I mean that was a factor when The Stones were living in the South of France and all sort of things came into play there. In fact, Bill Wyman who I know, found himself living next door to a guy he found out was a painter. Turned out to be Chagall!

(Laughs) Wow!

He had a routine – he’d get up, paint, go for a walk, have his lunch, do a bit more painting and call it a day. Like an office routine. So with Bill you can talk about Chuck Berry and Chagall…

(Laughs) Awesome, Pete!

There’s a very reverby vocal sound to much of this record. The first song ‘Everything Is A Song’ has a Ben E King sort of change, sounds very confident. How do you get such a rich guitar sound? It’s got a sort of Gretsch sound to it.

I tell ya, I played very little guitar on this record. I played solo on one or two songs but Andrew plays the rest. Andrew Drew, he’s playing through a Guild T100-D. ’66. He also has a ’64 which sounds just as good if not better, actually. That’s why I went out and got one and it’s what I play on in the studio. It’s a true hollow body, it’s not a semi-hollow body and Jim there has a whole collection. He’s got an entire collection of all the Fender Tans, all the Fender BlackFaces, all the Fender Tweeds. He’s got one of everything. It’s just so much fun to play in his studio on his gear. The other secret weapon to me, which really took it to a different place was, believe it or not, a relatively cheap RCA SK 1-46 ribbon mike.. it just for whatever reason, just beat the pants off every other microphone we had. We had never used it and Jim had just got it back and re-ribboned. I don’t even know if it sounded like that before the ribbon was redone. Another secret is Dan very rarely uses compression, he uses it straight to tape. So we record a two-inch tape and smack it on tape pretty hard, to even it all out.

Elementally, it’s almost like a Mel Tormé sort of recording but your voice is so different from his.. you’re getting a different edge on it and it’s a tender sound.

I hope so. I sort of lost my voice while I was singing on this record. Everything I sang on this record was at my house in my personal studio.

This is in Florida?

Yeah. The studio I recorded all the tracks in is the same studio I’ve recorded every record in. In fact, it’s about the only studio I’ve ever recorded in in my life. It’s in St Augustine an hour from my house in Florida. When I was in the studio with some of the guys, some of the lyrics weren’t finished and honestly my voice was going through a wonderful change. When I got home, I really learnt how to sing like without shouting or yelling. It got to where I just opened my mouth and it would just fly out

Well Elvis Presley wasn’t a loud singer.

No. I sing loud live but I learnt that even that doesn’t need to be as loud.

Dead right.

I grew up singing over loud bands with crappy PA systems but you can’t do that in the studio. I had to learn to not be the guy I am a hundred and seventy five times a year, for that one day in the studio.

You tell me it’s recorded in Florida and I believe you. But it sounds like Muscle Shoals

(Sighs and laughs) Ha! My biggest influence is the Muscle Shoals rhythm section… Roger Hawkins my favourite drummer of all-time and all those cats. They played on lots of different records. Dan our producer loves all that kind of music as well so he knows. We’re on mostly the ribbons, mostly the tape and that kind of gear and influence from those tracks.

The best John Hammond record is called ‘Southern Fried’ on Atlantic and it’s got all those Muscle Shoals guys on it

I’ll have to check that out !

‘The Island’, a very lonesome sound and I wrote ‘Kriegeresque slide’ ie The Doors. It has a load of midnight sounds with the slide. The vocal sounds like it’s down a well. What inspired ‘The Island’?

There’s an island near where I live and it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth I’ve ever been. I’m gonna end up living there at some point; it’s nine hundred acres and eight hundred acres of it is national forest and it is right near the ocean. All the different things and its history made up the lyrics then in the studio I just played acoustic guitar and just added everybody else one at a time.

It sounds as though there’s a guest maybe ? I have no notes…-

Some of the bits of slide that may really leap out is my buddy Luther Dickinson from The North Mississippi Allstars….

I know Luther and Cody, yeah! I had a great interview with them when they played The Borderline in London we had a drink and a chat.

Good guys and great players.

They know what they’re doing and it’s all feel. Now ‘Every Minute’, there’s a female vocal on there isn’t there? Who is it?

There is. It’s a friend of mine’s daughter and she’s young and actually runner-up in Miss Florida. Her name is Karen Dennis.

She sounds like Becca Bramlett to me.

Well she did a great job, she came in and sang all the stuff for me in one day over just a few hours.

I noticed that it has a ‘Waiting on a Friend’ vibe to it.

Yeah. I wanted it to feel like maybe ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ as it takes off easy and builds.

Right. ‘Night To Remember’ is a real foot tapper. Grainy horns and a great tone from a Fender Rhodes piano. The reverb… there’s the very first Dr John record called ‘Gris Gris ‘..on Atlantic but the only other record I know that has a reverby sound like this is one you may not know called ‘1969’ by The Afghan Whigs…

I don’t know it but I’ll have to listen to it though – cause’ I’m a reverb freak. Well I tell you what the reverb unit was. You’re gonna laugh, Pete. It’s a Sansui reverb unit that used to come with stereos in the sixties/seventies with this little psychedelic window lit up in it that doesn’t really do anything. It’s just a spring reverb unit in that and that’s one reverb. The other reverb that Dan uses is another spring one that he has.

What it does, it makes you lean forward not back. This is really what you’re bottling on this record I think. ‘Light a Candle’, very deep soul sound. It has a Little Milton feel to it and I don’t know if that’s someone you’ve soaked up or heard in your travels.

That was definitely me trying to channel my Otis I think in some ways..?

It’s gotta be because you don’t wanna be a doppelganger or tribute act.

No and I can try and channel Otis but it’s not gonna sound like Otis! (Laughs) No matter how hard I try! I had to learn that the hard way a long time ago.

Neat clavinet on ‘Brave Lil’ Fighter’.

Yes there’s a clavinet and an RMI . Yeah we tried to play it through amps and stuff to bust it up a little bit more and get it a little meaner.

That’s the best vocal on the record.

It’s the one song I didn’t have lyrics for until the last minute and I knew what I wanted it to be about. It just sang itself man I didn’t even try. It was my favourite vocal track on the record, so it’s funny you say that.

Sometimes the music’s in your head and you have to channel what comes out.

Exactly. The crazy thing was, the day I sang it my back was against the wall as the record was needed now and we’d blown through every deadline by months. My voice was shot and I went done there and it just flew out with no effort. I’m very happy with that track.

Sometimes good comes out of bad. ‘ Home in the Sky’ , there must be a story here as it’s a really spooky number?

Yeah it’s just about the whole idea that all this information in our heads, in my opinion, is not just trapped in our heads it’s floating around everywhere and you pull it out and that’s when you feel like you don’t have anything to do with it.

(we talk about Devon Allman – PS)

Great writer. His own numbers are really good.. See I couldn’t figure out why, here’s this guy from Florida and he’s sounding fairly close to Jason Isbell who used to be in The Drive-By Truckers. This is your twist…

The other thing is, Pete – where I grew up its ‘countrified’ it’s very Southern. It’s hardcore-Southern where I grew up and in Florida people think of Disneyland and retirees that live on the coast.

And the disco sound in the South like K-C and the Sunshine Band

Yeah way down South and those sounds were nasty. That studio sounded great. I can’t remember the name but that’s where Clapton recorded ‘Layla’ or whatever. Funnily enough, when I told Dan that the producer that I lived in Florida and there was a studio down the road from me he said ‘There’s no way we can record a record to sound the way you want it to sound, the way I think it should sound as well. I agree with you on how it should sound. The one studio is gone and there’s no studio in Florida that I can think of. So I sent him my buddy’s equipment list and he was then like ‘Oh yeah. We can record there’. The gear inspires you to play a certain way so the gear is part of the track. You pick up the gee-tar and you play something you’ve never done before in a way you’ve never done before. It’s just inspirational. Plus, it’s on the ocean – I get to hang out on the beach every night.

Explain this to me please, ‘Tic Tac Toe and the Hurricane’ there’s a side to you which is halfway between James Taylor and Pete Seeger. The folk Anglo-American tender sounds and that comes out on these songs. I’m wondering if you do solo shows.

I do. I do shows where I just play foot drums and I’ve got a whole acoustic drum kit with real snare, real kick drum everything. I play it and I play acoustic guitar. I did two full tours of that a couple of years ago when I had some time off but normally I’ve been so busy and I just love playing with the band. I did four shows like that this year and then I went out and did a thing that my manager and I put together called ‘Southern Soul Assembly’. I got Anders Osborne, Bruce Sard and Luther Dickinson and the four of us went out and we just passed songs around. For me, the solo shows are as much to about telling stories, talking, bull*****ing the audience, and drinking beer. I try and make it like we’re just sitting on the porch.

(Laughs) Your Jimmy Buffet side!

There you go! Sat on the porch just having fun. Funnily enough, we just did a show with him recently and we opened up for him and Alan Jackson in Pennsylvania. I’ve never seen him live and I was just not prepared for how much fun he is in real life and how much fun he is onstage. When he was there, everybody’s attitude was relaxed. He’s so relaxed that even security was relaxed and I learnt a lot from him in two seconds. The good thing was, he watched our whole set and he told me afterwards ‘ I’ve been a huge fan for years and I’m just glad I finally got to see ya!’ I was blown away

You’re gonna have some fun playing these tunes live

I’m gonna enjoy it. I’ve gotta get on with those guys when I get home because they all live in different cities and we don’t ever rehearse and we never have. I just send them CDs and they learn it. We play the first night because they are that good. I’m not but they are. I hope to see you at the show in March….

Pete Sargeant

JJ Grey and the Mofro’s new album ‘Ol’ Glory’ is out on Mascot Label Group/Provogue For more information visit: www.jjgrey.com

Thanks Lee, Steve and J J

FOOTNOTE : We went to the show in London in March, see elsewhere for a review of that show. Images are by our Kieran White