Greg Griffin Keeps It Rock n’ Roll All The Time
There aren’t too many people around that can sit down, sing a song and break your heart. That mystic convergence of vulnerability and ability is the foundation of all important art, and if you’re former Proud Mary frontman Greg Griffin, it is the only thing keeping rock n’ roll interesting.
It’s been a long four years since Griffin departed from his Mancunian bandmates but you’d be remiss to think California life has subdued him. Midnight Clergy One, (Relic Records) finds the singer that Liam Gallagher called, “The Voice” as frenetic and opinionated as ever. On record, as in life, his trademark raw-throated howl is tempered only by his badinage. Even if forsaking the proto-mod attire of Proud Mary for flip-flops and a beard is a reflection of his new home, Griffin is hardly slowing down. Midnight Clergy One marks Griffin’s first post-Proud Mary release, but as Griffin explains, it is only the beginning of a newfound understanding and excitement for songwriting and collaboration.
Together over a couple Coronas and an Epiphone Casino, Greg and I discussed Midnight Clergy, Proud Mary, being produced by Noel Gallagher and Marc Ford, and what it really means to rock n’ roll it.
NL: What was the recording process like for Midnight Clergy One?
GG: It was great, ya know, recording. We started the record in Joshua Tree. It was nice but it was kind of challenging. We were lucky enough to have Marc Ford work with us on the record, but only for a short time. He was like, “How many songs do you got to do the record?” And I was like, “Ten.” He said, “Well you need twelve” and I only really had five so I was like, “Oh shit!” (Laughing) It was challenging in a way, having to apply yourself, but working with Marc was great.
NL: Was heading up your own project a big adjustment from Proud Mary?
GG: It’s nice to think that you know something. Ya know, people think that they know stuff in music but really they know nothing. I was in Proud Mary for fifteen years, it was the best time for me, but I never took a point position like you’re saying. I used to just front the band, so I was frightened in a way of taking the lead. But writing is completely different. Writing and organizing a song is completely different from learning someone else’s lyrics. It’s a difficult process. Just even to find out if you’re good enough to do it. There is always that nagging doubt that I believe that musicians always have that, well I don’t believe Jerry Garcia did.
NL: He probably did for a while.
GG: For like two minutes…
NL: Just until he started flying.
GG: There is always a nagging doubt when you come after these people. Is this really going to be as good as that? Because I want it to be. I mean Liam Gallagher is a mate, but he isn’t better than me. And I wasn’t ever aspiring to be Liam out of Oasis, or even Noel. I mean genius! Genius frontman, genius songwriter, ya know, but I was always looking back.
There is a similarity with Marc Ford and Noel Gallagher as producers.
NL: Is the pressure as a songwriter and a frontman different?
GG: It’s a completely different role. It was challenging to do a new album when I’ve never done my own album before. You are always looking to people to help you out, and I’m not scared of doing that neither. You know, just saying, “Is this D7 or Am?” That’s what I love about music, it’s beautiful and it’s ever-changing. You can be at this point in your life and think that you’re all washed up and da-da-da, and this isn’t happening, and I played this show in front of 60,000 people, and oh what are we gonna do? And next thing, you write for yourself.
NL: How did working with Marc Ford differ from working with Proud Mary and Noel (Gallagher)?
GG: It was more similar than I thought it would be. It’s just about respecting who you’re working with. When we did the Proud Mary album, I only worked with Noel once and it was just a fun time. I hate that word fun, but it was great. It was just great. If you’re a fan of someone and then suddenly you get the opportunity to be in the room with that person and they’re saying, “You know what, I think you’re top most,” then that makes you feel great. So working with Noel and Proud Mary was great, but working with Marc, I was a little bit nervous. He’s your friend, family friend, but I was a little bit nervous to work with him.
NL: He can be intimidating, family friend or not.
GG: There is a difference, but there is a similarity with Marc and Noel as producers. I don’t know exactly why Marc came along and produced Midnight Clergy. There was no agenda with Marc. Whereas with Noel, we signed to his label so there was a financial thing going on. With Marc it was just such an education. But with Noel, speak to his brother, or anyone who has worked with him, he is quite a dominant character in the studio. There is no debating with Noel. Marc would be like, “Why are you singing into the microphone like this?” just a gentle nudge. It was quite an education to hear Marc say, “You don’t have to sing like that.” Because I always belt it and if it don’t go down in one take then I think there is something wrong with my ability.
NL: Especially with Marc, who has been in the studio with the most iconic voices in modern music and some of my favorite singers like Ryan Bingham and Chris Robinson. That’s one of the things working with someone like that, it’s his ability and all of that experience. You get grandfathered into the deep end. I’ve never worked with Noel, but Marc has always been so willing to share his experiences and pass on advice.
GG: And there is a gentle persuasion with him. It’s the biggest compliment I could ever pay this dude, he sings like he is. Right? He sings like relaxed (Drops shoulders and takes a mellow posture) and that rubs off. We just come off a tour in the UK. I’ve never had more compliments from people going, “Oh this bit here.” It ran the way it ran because coming from that guy, he was just a very relaxed dude and I’m very proud that his name is on our record. I didn’t ask him, just put it on there. (Laughing)
NL: I’m sure he is happy to see it on there.
GG: Well he’s great, he is really a personal favorite of mine.
The core of Proud Mary will always be me and Paul. We’re brilliant friends, like brothers and I love that dude.
NL: About four years ago you got married and moved to California, ending your involvement in Proud Mary.
GG: Yeah four years, maybe five. I am very proud of Proud Mary. It is quite sad when you’ve been in a group of people for such a long time and all of a sudden something happens. It usually has to do with distance. It’s usually to do with “I don’t see you all the time,” or there is usually some asshole who throws a spanner in the works, you know what I mean, and messes everything up.
NL: (Laughing) Yeah, I’ve been through a few of those.
GG: But the core of Proud Mary will always be me and Paul. We’re brilliant friends, like brothers and I love that dude. It was very sad to leave the band, but its not very practical to be in Proud Mary. But after four years you can be like, “Let’s get back together and sell a few tickets.” (Laughing) Maybe people have missed you a little bit, à la Liam, four years off and then, “Sweet!”
NL: (Laughing) Yeah man, he’s back with a solo project, but I saw in a recent interview that he says he’s still open to the reunion.
GG: Yeah he’s always open to it, inhe?
NL: But Noel isn’t.
GG: Well yeah, Liam is Liam. If you haven’t met him, he is a complete individual human being. That’s all I can say about him. He is a very very clever, innocent guy. Very bright, very spiritual person. I don’t mean that he gets his prayer mat out and builds a wigwam or sends smoke signals, I mean he is tuned in and people love him for it. Noel’s the same but different. I always found it funny that Liam thinks Noel doesn’t like him because he came home drunk, they used to share a bedroom together, and Liam came in one night and pissed all over Noel’s stereo and he never forgiven him for it. Liam thinks he’s hated him ever since. (Laughing) And maybe that’s the truth.
NL: (Laughing) Maybe that’s the whole thing.
GG: Imagine if your little brother, who you used to beat up, comes in drunk while you’re asleep listening to Neil Young and he comes in listening to Sex Pistol, fuck off! (Laughing – Greg starts singing) “I am an antichrist” and pisses all over your stereo, you’d bang him wouldn’t ya? That’s them two in a nutshell.
NL: (Laughing) Well, you’ve burned through a few band members since starting Midnight Clergy, has that made you more understanding towards Paul and Proud Mary?
GG: No, I just had to get rid of people. (Laughing) I mean I understand Paul. Those were his songs. It doesn’t matter if I was the frontman of Proud Mary for fifteen years or not. When people are involved in the creation of music the blurred lines can come in. People think that they’ve done something that they need to get paid for, or need to be recognized for when the fact is, I was sat around a coffee table with a beer, with a pen, with a piece of paper, I’m writing this. That’s what I have more of an appreciation for. People who actually write is not the same as somebody turning around and saying, “I sang on that” or “I hit the ride cymbal on that” or “I played the coconut.” It’s not the same. I never understood that with Proud Mary. I was like, “I’m the frontman, I’m the singer.” But that song came out of that dude’s heart and out of his head and I can’t claim to own that.
I have some good ideas for some good new music and I want to rock n’ roll it.
NL: Being the writer and being part of the performance aren’t the same at all, even if they overlap sometimes.
GG: That’s not to negate any musician’s part in our record. The people who played on Midnight Clergy One, Dan Cervantes, Ryan Kimbal, Chad Lee, Brandon Puda, but the thing that leaves me a little uncomfortable is when people start to claim something and I was one of them in Proud Mary.
NL: Yeah, creative property is a complicated thing that has ruined many relationships. It’s easy to feel slighted and there is so much that you can’t prove. You can have a line or a chord change or whatever else and if it’s not distinct enough, it could’ve came from anywhere.
GG: Or you can just claim it. I heard John Lennon had to go on a TV show with Chuck Berry because on Come Together he said, (Singing) “Here come ol’ flat top, he come grooving up slowly, he come…” and Chuck Berry just went, (Smacks hands) “Nah man, we’re not having that, I’m ol’ flat top. And you nicked that first part.” John Lennon went, “Well I never really, but just to keep you quiet I’ll go on this TV show with ya.” And Yoko’s banging a bongo and John is singing Johnny B Goode and it is all because people are so sensitive.
NL: Yeah, I remember seeing an interview one time, not sure who it was, but they called it the success tax. Like, alright give me the bill because it is just the cost of doing business.
GG: Unless you are the Beatles. You can’t rip the Beatles off. They are just unique. There are things that ping in and out of their recordings that you just can’t copy.
NL: There is a great interview with Muddy Waters where this guy asks him if he is worried about all these young English kids learning to sound like him, and Muddy says something like, “No, they may play guitar like me, but they’ll never sing like me ’cause they ain’t been through what I’ve been through.”
GG: That’s a beautiful thing right?
NL: It is beautiful, and all the greats had that. John Lennon didn’t have to worry about people sounding like him.
GG: He is probably the best, vocally. Jim Morrison is the best frontman. John Lennon for me is the greatest voice, but as a frontman, for what rock n’ roll represents, there is Jerry Lee Lewis and obviously the King, but he was all glitz and at the end he wasn’t really moving across the mic.
NL: Maybe if Elvis died younger he’d be the best?
GG: Jim Morrison was the fucking man. I just remember being at my friends place back in Manchester, they were all smoking weed and I wasn’t, I didn’t smoke weed, still don’t, but they were watching the Doors at the Hollywood Bowl. I just couldn’t believe that this is actually happening. There really isn’t a lot of footage of him, there is the Hollywood Bowl and a few TV shows like the famous one on Ed Sullivan where he looks like Alexander The Great and knickers were exploding all across America ya know. But what you don’t really see is that this guy was very well read, just an intellect. People now go on about, “Well Jim ya know, he was an alcoholic.” Well so what, he was fucking brilliant. Watch him at the Doors Live At The Hollywood Bowl and then listen to the last album L.A. Woman, it’s a masterpiece.
NL: Yeah, that is my favorite record. People rag on it, that his voice isn’t there, but it’s always been my favorite Doors album.
You can get fed to the wolves on stage sometimes, but there is nothing else I’d do.
GG: (Laughing) It’s my favorite phase of that whole band clearly, (grabs his beard and rubs his stomach) fat and a beard. You listen to that dude, he is not 27 years old. He is an old blues guy spinning like a top. God bless him wherever he is because he is the best. He is the best frontman. He could’ve just smoked a big cigar or something. Big belly, like, “Me leather pants don’t fit anymore.” Pffff. Then he goes on stage and everyone looses their shit. There is a note that he tries to hit in LA Woman but doesn’t and his voice warbles and they keep it in the record. I love stuff like that. Steven Stills does it, (Singing) “And I embrace the many colored leaves.” His voice clicks and they keep it in. I love stuff like that. When the artist has the balls to go, that stays because that is real.
NL: Were there any moments like that on the new record?
GG: No, I’ve never been lucky enough to capture anything like that. There are not many people that can improvise on tape. But I think that’s the best thing about being a musician, a singer, guitarist, whatever. There are little elevations where you go, man, I didn’t think that would work. It can go this way or that way. You can get fed to the wolves on stage sometimes, but there is nothing else I’d do.
NL: You got to risk a lot to find those elevation moments. It’s the spontaneity and there really isn’t any other way to do it right? What are you working on next?
GG: Probably a solo thing. I like working with Midnight Clergy but there is a lot of organization that goes along with being in a band. I like just being on me own sometimes. I love me wife. I like to put some pen and ink down sometimes. For the next part I think I’m just writing. I like writing. You’re a writer as well, you know the score. When people are like, ‘What are you doing?” and you’re like, “Writing,” but you’re really just watching Netflix.
NL: Well, (Laughing) procrastinating is an essential part of my process. But part of writing is having the space to write. Think you’ll tour the UK again soon?
GG: I was fortunate enough to reconnect with my best mate Paul (Newsome) and we discussed a few things. It was nice to be around some people that I’ve been around all my life. It was interesting to hear their perspective on songs that I’ve written. We had a good tour. Released a good record. I think I’m probably just going to do some stuff on my own. I have some good ideas for some good new music and I want to rock n’ roll it. So we’ll see what happens from here.
**All Photography by Elizabeth Lekas
(Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length.)