Grant-Lee Phillips on Not Bothering With Set Lists and the Value of Making Your Own Mistakes

December 1, 2015

Tell us about your tour vehicle. Any notable breakdown stories?

I don’t own a touring vehicle. It doesn’t make much sense for me. I’m in the midst of my sixth Euopean tour this year alone. In the states I travel by air, by train and when I need a car, I rent, unless it’s within five or so hours and then I’ll take my own car. As for break-downs, Amtrak seems to have a lot of them but I’d rather they do the driving on the East Coast. I’ll take the wheel through the redwoods, the mesas and the cornfields.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

If you can book a hotel that has breakfast included, that’s one meal out of the way. If there’s a platter of some kind, you can even build a sandwich for later. Traveling can be monotonous. A good meal goes along way to break the routine, connect with those you are traveling with ( or to be alone ) and it doesn’t have to be costly. Eating is one of the better parts of touring. I can’t tell you what songs I played but I’ll remember where I had a good slice of pizza after the show. Food is also fuel and this is a job where you have to maintain your energy for about 16 hours a day or more on average. Sometimes you miss lunch when your’e running to get to the next place and that’s when the pocket sandwich from breakfast comes in handy. Hopefully when you arrive at the club, there will be a few things to nibble on, a meal provided or a “Buy out” which provides you with 10 or 15 bucks to grab a bite before the show. I tried to go vegan on my first tour ever. The trouble was that at that time the only vegetables I ate were potatoes. So I only ate french fries, potato chips, mashed potatoes and I started looking a little sick – a bit like a potato. So don’t be like that.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

I don’t break strings very often. Maybe one every 5 years. I used to change strings on my 12 string for every show. I’d sweat all over them and they would corrode very quickly. It was also taking up time to change them out. I can change my six string out in about 15 minutes. I swear the price of strings just shot up. Regular Martin strings are about 7 bucks but if you want the longer lasting coated strings, it’s about 12 I think. I like Martins. I can get though several shows now on one set, before they start to get dull.

Where do you rehearse?

Grant Lee Buffalo used to rehearse at a space called The Alley back in North Hollywood. It had a real down-home vibe. A family ran it. They were always working on motorcycles – very Southern California. It was built like a wooden fort. The office was literally in a tree house. The practice space was sound-proofed with old tour shirts and blue jean remnants. A lot of wood, stained glass and pillows. We spent a good deal of time there and would run into other bands who did as well. I found a place a little like that in Nashville but if I’m going out on my own, I don’t need a special place to prepare. Rehearse?

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

The first thing I wrote was when I was about 13. It was a parody lyric to Mr. Bojangles. My version was about an eighty year old streaker named Mr. Baldankles. This was the seventies. Streaking was all the rage. John-Boy Walton even did it! Don’t recall one line but in two years time I had written a big folder full of songs, all pretty dark heady stuff, inspired by whatever I was listeing to like Neil Young, Michael Murphy, Elton John, Bowie.

Describe your first gig.

I had a regular part in a Vaudeville dinner theater when I was 13. I’d been booking myself around Stockton CA as a magician from about the age of 11 so performing wasn’t altogether new when I first played music on stage. What I do recall was that when I walked out through the curtain with my guitar, the strap broke and the guitar ( a Les Paul ) crashed to the floor. Not a defiant Pete Townshend moment but a somewhat scarring incident. I double-check my strap to this day.

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

My last day job was roofing. I did it when I moved to LA and stayed at it for nine years. Shingles, hot tar, tile, you name it. When I signed a record deal I had to start going out on the road but there was a time, right after we first recorded, that I went back on the roof. Then a fella dropped a monkey-wrench out his hand from up on the ladder. I was at the bottom. The wrench hit me square in the face. I looked like Carrie – a bloody mess. I walked away from roofing that day. There were times when roofing was a great job though, working with my shirt off, out in the sun. I was always coming up with songs and my brain was free to wander as long as I kept on hammering.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

My goals were always to try my hand at a lot of things. Making records, touring, songwriting, producing, some acting, film composing. There have been times when any one of these pursuits have demanded my focus. Although songwriting and performing are the main things I do, it’s helpful to develop other areas. It’s helped me to get by. That said, when I moved to Nashville, I chose to focus on songwriting and touring.

Income-wise, I couldn’t tell you where I’ll be or hope to be in the years to come. Like most everyone, musicians are putting in more time and effort and getting paid less. We’re the coal and the train but these corporations own the tracks. They turn a blind eye to the banditry that the internet has cultivated. That’s actually too generous. A majority of piracy is in fact on the corporate level. Clearly some things have to change in Washington. Music is not just a loss-leader to sell ad space, not just the means to sell some new technology. Music is culture. It gives voice to ideas and feelings and it connects us. To devalue it, as I believe we are guilty of as a society, is a forfeiture of our collective bargaining as citizens.

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

What I know now is that for all the tips of the trade, for all the cheap advise you’re apt to get, ( and I’m now guilty of giving ) the one thing that seems true is that you have to seek your own answers, make your own mistakes and what works for one guy make may not work for you. We each have our own journey and no one person or institution has all the answers. Some are good at pretending they do. They may even beleive they do. Trust your muse, trust your gut. And don’t bother with set-lists. You’ll know what song to play when the time comes.

Since first emerging in the early ‘90s as the front-man and songwriter of the internationally acclaimed trio Grant Lee Buffalo, Grant-Lee Phillips has been drawn to the conflicts at the heart of the American experience. The resulting body of work, which consists of four GLB albums and seven uniquely divergent solo albums, has placed Phillips among the most revered and admired songwriters of his generation. His post-GLB career in particular has found him exploring a wide range of palettes and textures, from the roiling synthscapes of Mobilize to the rootsy clarity of the pedal steel-laced Virginia Creeper.

Phillips most recent release is 2012’s Walking in the Green Corn.  He recently completed a new album entitled The Narrows which is planned for a March 2016 release.

You can connect with Phllips online and on the road.