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Interview: Grayson Capps

I first heard of Grayson Capps by accident when a distributor sent me a catch all of CDs to review. Buried in amongst them was this disc called Songbones, which turned out to be a collection of songs that Grayson had recorded along with a friend at somebody's studio one night after hours back in 2002. Some of these songs have shown up again on his releases since that time, If You Knew My Mind and Wail & Ride, but I had never heard any of his music before and I was blown away.

I contacted Grayson's label, Hyena Records and asked them if they could send me out any of his more recent releases, I had been thinking of Wail & Ride, and instead they sent me out a promotional copy for his soon to be released disc - Rott 'N' Roll - September 9th/08. This was the first I heard of Grayson playing with his band the Stumpknockers and as a unit they were even more powerful than he had been solo. Sometimes when a guy's music sounds so potent solo it loses some of the edge that it might have had when a band is brought in, almost as if it gets watered down to accommodate the other musicians.

That wasn't the case here as Grayson seemed able to hold on to his intent whether he was playing solo or with a full band. I was captivated by his ability as a story teller and his uncanny ability to bring things to life through song. You really felt like you were being plunked down in the middle of something when you listened to what he was offering, and that if you closed your eyes you'd find yourself wandering through the lives of the people and places he was singing about.

When the people from Hyena offered me the opportunity to chat with Grayson about his music, I took them up on it and connected up with Grayson in mid August. He was visiting family in Kansas when I caught up with him and we ended up talking about stuff for about an hour. I think the people from Hyena might have expected me to talk about his new release, Rott 'N' Roll, and we might have a bit, but we mainly ended up talking about his music in general.
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We ended up jumping around all over the place - I'd ask a question and one of us would get distracted and change the subject to something else - so I've tried to round up all the stray bits of conversation we had and plunk them in as answers to the questions they seem to fit the best. So Grayson, if you end up reading this and it doesn't quite sound the way you remember it sounding that's why.

Grayson had just returned from a two or so week tour of Norway, and I had wondered about that so I figured I'd start us off with that, and we went from there. I'd just like to thank Grayson for taking a hour out of his time with his family to talk with me, and Kevin over at Hyena for setting this up.

You've just come back from a rather extensive tour of Norway - while I know quite a few musicians have followings over in Europe - Norway is a bit off the beaten path - how did you get hooked up there?

It was two or three yeas ago, some guy, and I can't exactly remember his name now, really liked my music over there and invited us over to play, and they really liked us so we've been going back ever since. We've already played two weeks over there this year, and probably will go back again. You know it works out pretty good for me money wise too, 'cause the way the economy is over there, they pay two to three times what they pay back home in the States. As long as I can get out of there without buying anything I come out ahead. Everything is about two or three times more expensive there as well.

It's really cool over there though - it's so beautiful the fjords and all, and the people are friendly - so we like playing there. It's weird though too 'cause they have a different way of looking at the world than I'm used to - I think it comes from them being pretty much self sufficient - they've got their own supply of Oil from the North Sea oil so they don't have to rely on anyone for anything it seems.

I've read the biography that you've published on your web site, and your early years sound like they could be the subject of one of your songs. What do you think you took from those years that continues to influence you today - creatively and otherwise?

They really made me who I am today - formed me I guess you could say. There were always all these people around, friends of my father, and friends of friends, who were full of ideas and creativity. It was like a community who would be always involved, and they'd all feed off of each other - sparking ideas and inspiring each other. You'd get late night sessions of people sitting around drinking, but reading poetry to each other and singing songs instead of just partying right. I'd like to emulate that sort of environment now, if I could - minus the chaos and the staying up all night drinking, I've got a family and the two just wouldn't mix - but the community of like minded people who can inspire each other ...

There's so much from those days that's till sort of boiling around inside of me, adventures in the past, that are waiting to come out if I could just find the time to write it all down. Finding the time to write is hard when you're on the road, it really gets in the way, and we must have spent over two hundred days touring last year. You're the first person in the bar and the last out every night and you're doing five shows a week in different towns... it really starts to wear on you. Where are you going to find time in there to let your mind relax enough to bring up the stuff from the past you want to write down?
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My father was a big fan of writers like T.S. Elliot and others like that, poets who didn't forget about the journey that people took to get the place they are when you see them. So when I look at people now I wonder who are these people - especially the folk that most of us would rather not look at. The guy in the park sleeping on the park bench with the bottle in his pocket wasn't always there - what was his story - what brought him there? I really believe their problems are an extension of what is wrong with society, and so I try to look at them in those terms too - what is this and what's it mean?

You were a theatre major at Tulane University, but music seems to have had other plans for you - What happened?

Yeah I went to New Orleans as a theatre major but a university education really opened my eyes as it exposed me to so much more of the world than what I had seen to that point growing up in Lennox Alabama - there's far more to the world than you realize when you're from a small town and starting to see it through the eyes of other people like you do at a university is an eye opener. Of course so is New Orleans itself...(laughs) bars and brothels...

It was a teacher of mine in the theatre department who probably planted the idea of music, as he said something along the lines of rock and roll being the new theatre. A couple of friends of mine and me started to do open mich shows, and I guess we were quite a bit different from everyone else that did these things. Instead of just learning some songs, we would put together a whole show. Being theatre majors we would rehearse the shit out of anything before we got up on stage. You can do anything you want on stage and in a bar, so we had a great time.

But it wasn't until I moved into the house on South Front Street that I started to get serious about music and began focusing on song writing full time. That's when we did Stavin' Chain and I got my first real taste of the music business. But that was too much music and not enough show, and I need to find that balance between the two.

"A Love Song For Bobby Long" is not just a song, it's also the name of a movie that was based on a book your dad wrote about two of the people from the time of your childhood. You said you wrote the song in defence of Bobby Long - what did you mean by that?

Bobby was handsome like Al Pacino, and he was like that guy Anthony Quinn played in that movie...damn I can't get it to come, you know he's full of the zest for living and...(Me: Zorba? in Zorba The Greek) Yeah, that's it - he was like a real to life Zorba the Greek - he showed you the potential for what life could be by living it to it's fullest. Of course he also was a great example of how not to live your life too as he ended up burning all his bridges and pissing everybody in his life off.

You know a lot of people thought Bobby was a fool, but he played the fool, and that was an important lesson, cause by playing the fool you can rid yourself of ego. You've gotta get past your ego to be a good performer otherwise you're not going to be honest in what your doing. (laughs) I remember when I first told my dad about wanting to go to Tulane to study acting he said well let's see what you can do. Get down on the floor and lay there kicking your arms and legs screaming I'm a dying cockroach and see if you can make me believe it.

He wanted to make the point that you had to be willing to get beyond thinking of yourself at all if you were going to be a performer. You have to be able to look completely ridiculous, and not be afraid of it, that way you stop thinking about being yourself, get rid of your ego, and just be what you are performing - an archetype instead of a cliche.

So you know, although Bobby ended up alone and drunk in a V.A. hospital, and I guess in most people's eyes he was a failure, he was a good teacher and there was far more to him then what most saw.

You were living in New Orleans until Katrina, and have since moved to Tennessee. Others who I've talked to who have lived and worked in New Orleans at any time in their career talk about the indelible effect both the city and the hurricane had on them. What type of effect do you see the city having had upon you

I lived in New Orleans for twenty years before I moved out to Tennessee. I don't know how much I was influenced by the music of New Orleans to be honest, it's funny how so many people out here who aren't from here, act like there from New Orleans, and I was never really part of or embraced by that scene. If anything New Orleans influenced the way I see characters and my way of looking at life.

For the first time in my life I was a minority when I lived there, and I liked that. It created a tolerance for people that you don't find anywhere else, it's like you get used to seeing people naked. It has to be the least judgemental place I've ever been.

When you grow up in a small town and everybody knows you, they want you to stay like you are, and you can't grow because of that. New Orleans on the other hand embraces growth and that was incredibly liberating. It's like this great boiling broth where everybody is in the same soup but it keeps mixing and creating something different each time you taste it.

I remember after the hurricane and everybody saying it's going to be the death of New Orleans, well you know the day after the winds and everything died down some gay guys were out parading in their panties, (laughs) and I knew no matter what happened the spirit of that city couldn't be killed.

Ever since Katrina you've been living down in Tennessee. Has this changed your music?

To be honest I've not spent all that much time here in the past two years. Last year, like I said I was pretty much on the road all the time, 240 shows or something like that. I'm changing that now, so I'll just be playing on weekends and spending more time here. I'll have a couple of weeks in September and October where I'll be overseas - the UK and Holland but that will only be for a week or two week at a time.

Moving from New Orleans to Tennessee has made me write more about the country. When I write it's a journey of self discovery, a song will usually come about from me trying to figure out a problem I have - if it offers a way out - growth - then I'll keep it. Having children and living here in Tennessee have made a difference in that it's got me out of wallowing in my own stuff. I don't know, but before it feels like I was in a damaged state of mind, and coming here has renewed my focus on what's important. It's like I said earlier about finding a way to have the community of like minded people without the chaos - well it feels like that's what we have here.
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We recorded the latest (Rott 'N' Roll) almost all live, and it was great because we could feed off each other's energy, and what's around us. This was the first album where it was just me and the band, Stumpknockers, and it was great. The first two were me and some studio musicians, so with me and the band it was a different thing as we all had our own stakes in it. There was the sense that we were doing something together that made it a lot more fun.

What, if anything do you wish to accomplish with your music. Is there anything you'd like your listeners to walk away with after listening to one of your records?

I wanna change the world (laughs) They say that poets say in words what people can't express and I look on that as something to work towards. You can express a lot in a song or a poem - all the dreams you want, all the magical possibilities in the world, yet what it comes down to for me is trying to achieve honesty - it's the hardest damn thing to do. There's parts of me at times that can say fuck it, but I've got to remember what it is that's important. You can feel it in waves, it's like little magical moments, and every so often you get it - your truth. If you tell your own truth, people might not get it in quite the same way, but they'll get it on their own terms. It's all about finding common ground where you can meet them.

The world today teaches people that they need shit; material stuff like clothes and cars and other sorts of shit. Truths remind people of what they know and have forgotten because of the distraction of struggling to get all the shit that they've been told is important.

I was really struck by how vivid your songs are - I find that I can imagine just what the place looks like if I close my eyes while listening. Is that a conscious effort on your part to do that - or does it just happen in the process of creating the song?

That goes back to my theatre school days and the stuff we used to do in class. Who, what, where, why, and when - all the questions you ask yourself to make a place real. So when I start to write something I do that and put myself in a place. If you're keeping all that mind you're just going to be able to convey it. I remember one of the exercises we used to in class was one person had to get up in front of the rest of us and imagine what room of the house they were in. They couldn't do anything but sit and think about that room and the rest of us had to figure it out simply by looking at them. It was amazing how many times we were able to figure that out from just looking at the other person.

It was around this time that I started hearing the sounds of family in the background, and we'd been talking for a good hour already so I figured we should wrap it up and I'd let him get back to his visit. We talked a little about the possibility of him coming to play in Canada, and then we said our good byes. Looking back at what I've written out it sorta seems inadequate, but maybe that's because words on a page just don't do justice to either the man or his music.

Even over the phone Grayson Capps is a three dimensional figure, filled with a vitality that just doesn't show up here. I hope this interview offers you a little peek inside his head, and if you've not listened to his music before piques your curiosity enough to go out and pick up his new CD Rott 'N' Roll that's being released on September 9th/08. For those of you who already know Grayson's work, well maybe you've just got to know him a little better than you did before. Thanks again to Grayson Capps, and his family, for sparing me time from his vacation to chat and I hope you can make it up to this part of the world sometime.

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