It’s been said before in these virtual pages, but we are living in an age where everything old is new again. Indeed, it’s telling that in 2015, reissues and downloads of old music outsold new music for the first time since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. I haven’t seen any stats, but I wouldn’t be surprised if reunited acts have bested new acts in the live market as well.
But I’m not complaining, especially when it means finally filling in past voids. Such is the case with the Grifters, a band whose 1996 masterpiece, Ain’t My Lookout, remains an all-time favorite, but who I never saw play live. The Memphis band began life in the late ’80s as A Band Called Bud before changing names and putting out five full-length albums and a slew of EPs, 7-inches, and split-singles with like-minded peers like Guided By Voices. The group—guitarists and vocalists Dave Shouse and Scott Taylor, bassist and guitarist Tripp Lamkins, and drummer Stan Gallimore— splintered after a final record for Sub Pop, Full Blown Possession, in 1997. However, in 2013, the band reunited partially, as discussed below, as a result of being asked to play the release party for the documentary Meanwhile in Memphis: The Sound of a Revolution. Several short tours followed, and I finally saw the band in the flesh at the Mercury Lounge in New York in 2014.
With interest in the band once again piqued, Fat Possum recently reissued 1993’s One Sock Missing and 1994’s Crappin’ You Negative, which were both originally released by Memphis’ Shangri-La Records and which are (rightfully) held in as high regard as I hold Ain’t My Lookout by many fans. I caught up with Lamkins recently to discuss the Grifters’ past, present, and future.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard why the Grifters broke up in the first place.
Tripp Lamkins: It was obvious that Dave wanted to carry on with Those Bastard Souls, and it felt like it had kind of run its course. We got signed to Sub Pop, did two albums… We didn’t really break up. No one quit. Dave started another band and was ready to work with more professional musicians. Dave’s 10 years older than the rest of us. The Grifters are good at what we do, we’re good at being the Grifters.
With Dave doing that was there any thought that the three of you would continue on and do something else?
TL: In some ways, we did. The last year we were together, Scott was doing Hot Monkey, which is a band he started in high school. The Hot Monkey tapes are what made Dave want to work with Scott. Those tapes are just Scott sitting in his bathroom with a four-track and a drum machine and writing songs. Towards the end of the Grifters in 1997, we had started doing a live version of Hot Monkey. It was all Scott’s songs. I played guitar. At the same time, Stan and I started a band called Total Strangers, which is essentially a continuation of our high school band. Stan and I started playing together in 9th grade. We had a band called Bob throughout high school that was Stan, me, and John Stivers, who’s now in a great surf rock band called Impala and a country band called Papa Top’s West Coast Turnaround. So Total Strangers was basically our high school band with the addition Jared McStay, who was in a band called the Simpletones. Jared now runs Shrangri-La Records.
And what instigated getting back together was doing a show for the documentary?
TL: Yeah, there had always been talk of getting together and doing something, but it would always fall apart for some reason, which is kind of par for the course with the Grifters. But things finally into place about three years ago. What happened was that it was the 25th anniversary of Shangri-La Records opening. Jared had contacted me and said, “We’re going to have a 25th anniversary party, and it would be great if the Grifters did it.” I had kind of been the holdout before, honestly, but that felt right. I could see doing that, and I had mellowed out over the last few years. So that was already in the back of my mind when the documentary came out and they asked us to play the release party. That was a month before the Shangri-La party, so I said, “Sure, let’s do it!”
The first reunion show was a little shaky—you can watch it online—but it had its moments. But the second show was pretty good. It wasn’t like we jumped back in the van, though. We waited about six months to think about what we were going to do. We tried to write some new songs and actually played some new songs at a show in Memphis, but that felt like we were forcing it.
Did you feel like you wanted to do more than just those two shows pretty immediately or was there something else that instigated taking it further?
TL: I think we knew that once word got out that we were playing again, people would be like, “Come to Philadlephia! Come to Chicago! Come to Los Angeles!” or wherever. We knew that would happen, and it did happen. We had to see what we could do because we’re old now and have jobs. We can’t just leave our jobs to drive to Portland and back, as much as we’d like to. What we did instead was long weekend tours. We’d go to Austin and back, or Columbus and back, or Orlando and back. And really, that was as much as we wanted to do. I couldn’t see getting back in the van for a month-long tour. It’s fun, and I miss Portland and San Francisco, but it’s just not doable.
You said you were kind of the holdout, were there things you needed to get past?
TL: Stan and I got a band going in 2005 called Dragoon with our good friend Bobby Matthews, who used to play in a punk rock band called Trusty. We had just gotten going, and Dave called wanting to do a Grifters reunion. I was having fun and getting to do what I wanted to do, and that would have derailed us. It didn’t really sync up. But I was constantly being asked when the Grifters were going to play again—and I’m sure Dave and Scott and Stan were too—and that wore me down to the point where I was thinking we should do it just so people would stop asking. And it finally synced up.
People say a band is like a marriage. We got divorced, but every once and while you hook up, and it’s great, but then you remember why you broke up. The reunion has been fun, though, and we’ve gotten past a lot of old bullshit.
Is there an instantaneous chemistry with those guys still?
TL: Yeah, totally. Because it’s the songs. If a band is a marriage, then the songs are your children. And we missed our kids! I had stayed in touch with the songs a bit over the years because Dragoon got roped into playing some Grifters covers. Scott and Dave’s band, The New Mary Jane, did some Grfiters songs, but I think it just made people want the Grifters back more.
Do you fee like interest has grown since the band has been gone?
TL: Not a lot, maybe a little bit. I mean, you’re interviewing me.
Yeah, but I would have interviewed you in 1997 if I had the opportunity.
TL: On the past couple years of touring, our old fans, who are now middle-aged, would come up to us and say, “Hey, next time you come through town, play at like 9 o’clock!” But there’s some young people. I think some people found out about us because they are Jeff Buckley fans and are curious to see why Jeff liked us. There are also people whose older siblings were into us.
On the first time around, do you feel like the Grifters accomplished everything you wanted to accomplish?
TL: Yep, it was just about the songs…. I don’t know. That’s too heady a question, Steve.
You never know, you could have had all these goals that never came to fruition.
TL: Nope, the goals were get on the road, meet a bunch of people, get a bunch of free drinks, have fun, and get a record deal. And we did that.
When you played the Mercury Lounge, it seemed like you were favoring Crappin’ You Negative, and you didn’t play anything from Full Blown Possession. Is that indicative of how you feel about those records?
TL: A little bit. We were mainly doing a greatest hits set, and most of the “hits” are off that record and One Sock Missing. We played stuff from So Happy Together too, and we played some stuff off of Ain’t My Lookout—we played “Parting Shot” every night. And we did play some stuff of Full Blown Possession. We did “Hours” and “Re-Entry Blues” and something else…
Not at the Mercury Lounge.
TL: Probably not, no. We wore out One Sock and Crappin’ so we eventually started playing more of the Sub Pop years.
Do you have a favorite record?
TL: The band’s favorite is Ain’t My Lookout. We all know that the fans’ favorite is Crappin’ You Negative. We like Ain’t My Lookout better because we had a lot of fun making it and everything just kind of gelled and we were in a good collaborative place. Whenever I hear something from that record, it reminds me of good times.
Ain’t My Lookout is actually my favorite, and I was disappointed that you didn’t play more from it at the Mercury Lounge show. In preparing for this interview, I listened to all your records a bunch, and that one still stick out from the rest. Would you agree and is there a reason for that?
TL: There is. One reason is that we actually do like good sounding records. Even though we were lo-fi, we wanted to make it sound as good as we could while still capturing the energy of band practice. One thing we always did was we didn’t over-prepare before recording so the songs wouldn’t be worn out by the time we got into the studio. We’d write the songs right before we went into the studio, and we were still kind of writing them as we were recording. That way, you don’t hear a band going through the motions. Instead, you hear actual creativity happening during the recording. We’d map songs out a month ahead of recording and have a good framework. Not that we always followed a formula. Dave and Scott would often spend a long time working on the lyrics. But once we got into recording, there was the improvisational aspect of band practice. We’d leave problems to be solved or holes to be filled. We used to always say we’d fix it in the mix. We’d record and there would be some problem, and we’d wait and find some creative way to get around it during mixing. So sometimes you can hear something fading out at the wrong time because we were essentially mixing ourselves. We messed with the EQ too much.
When we got to Ain’t My Lookout, we recorded everything and before we started mixing, Doug (Easley) and Davis (McCain) sat us down and said, “We want you guys to go take a long lunch and we’re going to set the EQs. When you get back, we’ll start mixing, but don’t mess with EQs!” So that’s why it sounds a bit better than our other records. I love dirty, horrible-sounding shit, but if you’re writing pretty songs, it’s nice for someone to be able to listen to them on headphones without damaging their hearing.
You mentioned Easley Studio, and listening to the reissues, I was struck by how much “Skin Man Palace” reminds me of the Blues Explosion. I was wondering if you came into contact with those guys when they recorded at Easley.
TL: I did. We brought several bands to town to record with Easley. The Blues Explosion came to town because of their association with Monsieur Jeffrey Evans of ‘68 Comeback…
And the great Gibson Bros…
TL: Yep! While they were in town I ran into the rhythm section and played pool with them.
So there was no musical rubbing of shoulders?
TL: No, but I’ll tell you a story. We were on tour in Europe, and Dave and I were doing a radio show in Belgium. The interviewer asked me basically what you just asked me, if we were influenced by the Blues Explosion. I said, “No, not really. We like them, but we’re not trying to sound like them.” Then he played “Skin Man Palace” back-to-back with something by the Blues Explosion, and it was like, “Holy shit! Those songs sound exactly alike!” This guy just pegged us. That was pretty embarrassing. But we actually had a policy that if something sounded too much like something else, we had to change it. It kills me to see reviews comparing us to the Blue Explosion or Guided By Voices or Pavement because they’re kind of suggesting that we were trying to sound like that, which wasn’t the case at all. There probably were some things that we did that sounded too much like Pavement, but then one of us would say that it sounded too much like Pavement and we would change it.
You were talking about what people write about the Grifters. Another thing is that they try to draw a connection between you and Memphis’ musical lineage. Do you feel like there’s a direct correlation?
TL: In some ways. Obviously, like most cool people, we listen to a lot of Big Star. It’s a point of pride in Memphis. Big Star was one of the greatest bands of all-time and yet there are people who aren’t aware of them. We felt a kinship to Big Star because we were a really good band, but not too many people heard of us. Personally, I was influenced by Duck Dunn. If you want to learn bass, go get The Best of Sam and Dave and learn the bass to every song on that record, and you’ll have it down. There’s a little Duck Dunn in my playing, but there’s also a little Lou Barlow (of Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr.), a little Peter Prescott (of Mission of Burma), and a little bit of Chris Squire (of Yes).
What are the plans for the future? Are you going to reissue more records or do a new record?
TL: There’s talk of someone reissuing So Happy Together, but there’s been talk of that happening for awhile. We did find the master tapes, though, so that’s good. As far as touring goes, I just got a new job, and it’s a pretty good job. There was talk of doing some touring behind the Fat Possum releases, but I don’t think I can. Maybe we’ll tour some more in the summer.