The Coal Porters – London calling
As a member of the Long Ryders, Sid Griffin was one of the leaders and founders of the Los Angeles country-rock underground of the 1980s. And while it’s been 10 years and then some since the Long Ryders kicked that movement into high gear with their 1984 album Native Sons, the crackling country guitar that leads the punk two-step attack of the opening cut “Final Wild Son” still delivers a charge.
At the time, it sounded like the first shot fired at the glossy ranks of the British synth-pop invasion, a mighty “whoa there” to the glam-metal boys of L.A. who populated the ’80s pop landscape. “Hellfire is a-bawlin’ like a leper come a-crawlin’/Kicking down the doors of your life,” Griffin sang in “Final Wild Son”, announcing to anyone who would listen the arrival of the Long Ryders. And if the public at large listened with an indifferent ear, well, there was a whole new generation of country-rockers-to-be who were inspired by Griffin’s call to arms, a generation that’s now kickin’ down doors of their own.
After three albums and one EP, the Long Ryders called it quits in 1988. Griffin lay low until forming the Coal Porters two years later. Relocating across the pond to London, Griffin and the Coal Porters released the EP Rebels Without Applause in 1992, followed by the 1994 album Land Of Hope And Crosby. While the band’s distinctive sound of American roots-rock and country blended with ’60s pop and English pub rock has received enthusiastic reviews from the British music press, the word on the Coal Porters has largely remained mum in the States. So Griffin took the time recently to get folks back home caught up via a transatlantic fax “interview” with No Depression.
ND: How are the Coal Porters a musical continuation of what you were doing with the Long Ryders? Were you headed in this direction, or has your style changed with the Coal Porters?
SG: My main trip in the Long Ryders were the balls-out rockers and the offbeat countryesque or Byrdsy ballads. In the Coal Porters, I am trying to do other things, not just play those two cards over and over. I think we were headed in this direction anyway toward the end of the Long Ryders. The Coal Porters even do a couple of tunes the Long Ryders were messing around with for our final album, though the Ryders broke up before we made that album. Also, I like being more of an all-around entertainer in the Coal Porters. Although many musicians would deny it is important, I like being witty and informative between numbers onstage and in interviews. It’s all part of the job if you ask me. But basically, I am headed in the same direction I was in the Long Ryders. I’m merely doing more of it.
ND: If you want to get into it, why did the Long Ryders break up? Was it hard to begin again following that? As you started the Coal Porters, did you ever think, “I wish Steve and Tom were here…”?
SG: The Long Ryders broke up because the record company was jacking us around more than anything else. Two sidebars to that are our manager had some other things on his mind and the egos in the band were growing too. I include myself in the latter. I’m not guiltless. But as I said then to the others and as I say to you now, it was a mistake to break up. Island wanted another album and we should’ve given it to them. The only Long Ryder I really miss musically and personally is drummer Greg Sowders. He’s a great drummer, never plays too much, and is an even better human being.
ND: After the Long Ryders’ demise, you waited two years before starting the Coal Porters. Did you at one time think about going solo?
SG: I never wanted to be a solo act, though I’m working on an acoustic folky solo album now. The Long Ryders breakup was such a blow to me that I didn’t make music at all for almost two years. Didn’t touch the guitar, didn’t write songs, didn’t perform any gigs. I should have come out fighting straight-away, but I got depressed and wanted to lick my wounds, so I just played basketball and lived off my royalties till I had to get a job and really wake up to what was going on around me. I became a much better basketball player though!
ND: Before you moved to England, you expressed some frustration at American record labels. Was this a factor in moving?
SG: The Coal Porters almost got a deal with MCA and later with A&M in the States. This is before I moved to London, of course. I was an absolute fool to turn them down, but I thought once those two labels made a move, others would follow, and of course, they didn’t. So it was that much easier to get Ian Thompson (who has since left the band) to move back to England with me to start the Coal Porters there. Ian is English, the other three Coal Porters at the time were American and never made the move to London. And of course UK audiences have always liked me personally and musically, so I had that going for me. The USA Coal Porters simply played to the same Long Ryders fans over and over. It was time for a big change, for a real shock to the system. Moving to London was it, and boy, I’ve been shocked ever since!
ND: So what’s the current lineup of the Coal Porters?
SG: The current lineup is me, Pat McGarvey on bass, Dave Roberts on drums and Bob Stone on keyboards. We’ve been together about two years, and we’ve had several lead guitarists during that time. Don’t ask me why!
ND: Do you have more of a frontman role with the Coal Porters? It sounds like with all the lineup changes, the Coal Porters aren’t a band in the same way as The Long Ryders.
SG: The Long Ryders were a democratic four-way collaboration between equal members. We had no leader as such. I spoke to the audience between songs onstage, but I wasn’t really the frontman. No one was. The Coal Porters, musically and in terms of business, are less democratic and more my show.