Stillwater – Running wild
Upon closer inspection, it’s clear Chris Grabau isn’t kidding. Sure enough, those are faint blood stains on his yellow Fender Telecaster. “We were playing a show in Columbia, Missouri,” explains the soft-spoken singer-guitarist for Stillwater, “and it was a couple of songs before I realized I’d cut my hand on the bridge.” Grabau pauses, then says with a demonic grin, “The guy who fixes my guitars is still trying to get it out of the pickups.”
Mind you, Grabau is too self-conscious to have pulled this Pete Townshend routine on purpose. He’s an unassuming, genuine guy who doesn’t seem capable of premeditated publicity stunts. In fact, given the intensity of Stillwater’s live show, a little bloodletting comes as no surprise. Onstage, Grabau, bassist John ‘Obie’ O’Brien and drummer Michael Rose look possessed by their instruments, as if the only way to produce their passionate, heartfelt music is to exorcise it. Within the growing country-rock community in St. Louis, this stripped-down, furious approach sets them refreshingly apart. But it also raises the stakes.
“We first started playing together right around the first Grain Belt release (a CD compilation of alternative country bands from St. Louis),” says O’Brien, “and we did get lumped into that. But we always just wanted to be a really good rock band, so we deliberately shook it a little bit. If anything, it pushed us to reach further and carve out our own identity.”
What also defines the band is a fierce, emotional ardor in their songwriting, a strength that has already helped land Stillwater on five compilation CDs, including Deep South/EMI’s Deep, Volume 1. “Chris had a wealth of music stored up from years of writing on his own,” O’Brien said. “Basically, he brings a song in, then Mike and I get a hold of it and make a wreck of it.” Rose, who centers the band both musically and in conversation, furthers that idea. “Chris’ ideas definitely get put through the Cuisinart. Obie will usually rearrange them, and I turn them upside down dynamically until it feels right to all of us.”
With Rose and O’Brien’s influences leaning toward the heavier side — from Creedence to Helmet to the legions of hardcore bands heard on 10-watt stations everywhere — the resulting songs have a natural urgency and grit to them. But all agree it’s Grabau’s roots and lyrical gifts that infuse songs such as “Stutter Step” with an intimate drawl. Imagine Husker Du with a rich, Midwestern accent.
“The rural texture to our music came organically,” Grabau says. “Before I moved here from Joplin (Missouri), there wasn’t anything to do but pick up a guitar and write. I played mandolin and harmonica because everyone else played acoustic guitar. That’s how most of the stuff was written. But putting it through the ear of two other people really made them come alive. Now I know how these guys think, so it’s more cohesive.”
And as Grabau’s guitar will testify, he also knows how they play — hard and fast. Later in the evening, after our conversation, Stillwater delivered a blistering set at Cicero’s Basement Bar, stirring the crowd with favorites from their self-released CD. Halfway through the set, Grabau blew three tubes in his amp. Naturally, it’s a break in the momentum, and the band has to regroup. But for a fleeting moment, I’m sure I catch the same grin I saw on Grabau earlier, privately pleased with what he’s wrought.