Hard work paying off for rising JJ Grey and Mofro
JJ Grey’s mind never stops and his work never ends.
The frontman for one of the nation’s fastest-rising bands, JJ Grey and Mofro, had more spare time when he was repairing refrigerators or working at a lumberyard. Now he plays 140 shows a year, and when he is at home outside Jacksonville, Fla., Grey does preproduction work for his fourth album in his home studio.
However, now that he has a well-known record label, Alligator, and his group has established a fan base throughout the nation, Grey has learned to delegate some of his duties. He used to be band manager, booking agent, driver, and mechanic as well as songwriter, lead singer, keyboard player, and guitarist.
“During the first three years of touring, I was living on three hours of sleep,” he said. “That’s what you’ve got to do when you are starting your own business. I don’t care if it’s making music or putting shingles on a roof. You are going to have to get out there and work, and I ain’t afraid of that, no way.”
Grey’s third album, “Country Ghetto,” has been so successful, Alligator last week re-released his first two CDs, “Lochloosa” (previously on Swampland) and “Blackwater” (Fog City). All three albums were produced by Dan Prothero.
During a week off from touring, Grey set up his studio in the front room of his house, where his family had to maneuver around the equipment. He starts each of his songs with drums before proceeding to the other instruments. He said layering the songs is an efficient way to prepare to enter the studio with the rest of the band. That way he can deal with one band member at a time instead of getting everybody together, which is costly. He said he has more than a dozen songs nearly finished.
“The last batch of tracks I sent to Dan (Prothero), he said, ‘Dude, that’s ready to go right now straight out of your house,’ ” said Grey, who was pleased with the evaluation because, “To me, his (Prothero’s) ear is the harshest of all. He’s very critical.”
After the recordings are made they are sent to Bruce Iglauer, the president of Alligator, Grey said.
“Bruce said, ‘You don’t do the records the way I do them, but I like the way it sounds. I like that contrast to what I do. You bring me the masters and we’ll sell the records.'”
The 40-year-old Grey speaks in a folksy Southern drawl with a cerebral bent.
A conversation that starts with “What up, Mofro,” can continue into theoretical analysis of today’s societal conditions. Which is precisely the formula for his music, a combination of atmospheric, string-bending electric guitar and the holiness of church organ gospels. It is soul music, but Mofro’s sound seems to have found a niche in the blues section of record stores and satellite radio. The music is mood-setting, the storytelling lyrics captivating.
“It didn’t start sounding like it meant something until I started writing the tunes and lyrics around the personal things, my family and stuff that really hit me hard,” Grey said.
Grey has no qualms that he is preaching in his verse. But he says he’s addressing himself, not his listeners.
“(It feels) good to write something to let me preach to myself to make me remember,” he said. “Some people put together photo albums. I don’t care nothin’ about pictures. I just bought a camera and it’s sitting there with the same battery as when I bought it. I almost never take pictures. Some people do photo albums; I write songs to make myself remember because I was on the verge of forgetting a lot of things I shouldn’t.”
“War” is the most played single on the radio from “Country Ghetto.” It’s meaning is not as obvious as it first appears.
“When I first told Bruce what it’s about, he said, ‘Man, that’s out there. You sure think a lot,’ ” Grey said. “The song isn’t about, per se, Iraq or Afghanistan because we’ve always been at war. … This has more to do with my own way of how I view the world and at the same time, it’s kind of like watching the Nature Channel;you absolve yourself from the whole picture. … It’s the same thing watching the news. And watching war, it’s like we’re the casual observer and we don’t have anything to do with it. I’m not even going to the point where we’re all part of the American society and we all contribute to the war. That’s obvious.
“To me there’s so many levels that go down to where you can’t even make sense of what you think. If you have the opportunity to smack the asshole who just cut you off in traffic and almost made you crash, you have to fight that urge. You have to fight this violent thing that starts welling up inside of you and try to balance that with the idea of peace of being nonviolent and you’re already violent. I don’t care if your Gandhi, you feel it. You might fight it down but you feel it. And that’s the war I’m talking about. That war is what leads to, at least in my mind, all wars.”
A pair of songs, “Footsteps” and “Turpentine,” were recorded together in the studio. They feature Grey’s guitar tuned in the open G chord. He said he learned if from Galactic’s Jeff Raines who learned it from Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi All Stars.
“That’s my personal nod to North Hill country blues from the North Mississippi All Stars to R.L. Burnside to Junior Kimbrough to Mississippi Fred McDowell,” he said. “R.L. Burnside was the biggest influence in how I played that. I added in the reverbs to make it sound atmospheric.”
Grey plays keyboard on many of his songs, as did perhaps his all-time favorite artist Donny Hathaway.
“He is my biggest Wurlitzer piano influence and one of my biggest singing influences, although I don’t sound anything like Donny Hathaway,” Grey said. “But him and Otis Redding and Toots Hibbard are three of my biggest vocal interests. Them and Stevie Ray Vaughan and George Jones, and I could keep going.”
Q&A with JJ Grey
JJ Grey and Mofro plays Monday along with New Monsoon in the Crown Room at the Crystal Bay Casino.
Q: Your band tours a lot on the jam-band circuit, like this Monday in Tahoe with New Monsoon. Your music can’t be called jam. How do the fans react?
A: Some jam fans like us. Not enough to but bread on the table in the jam- band world. But a lot of jam fans do like us enough to keep us on the road. They go to a lot of different shows. In some ways jam band is a bad term now. All the music that I liked growing up would all be considered jam bands today, whether it was Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix. Those guys don’t play 15 three and a half-minute songs and stare at their tennis shoes. They can play and open up and have fun with it. Buddy Guy is a jam band artist because he can actually play and he’ll turn his band loose. He’s got a show, but inside that show something might go longer or shorter. They don’t know what they’ll actually do until they do it. That’s the musical world I come from, what I like. I’m not into the full-blown exploration say like the Grateful Dead. That’s just not what I do. But my hat’s off to guys who do that because it’s kind of like jazz. It’s something that could just fall flat if it doesn’t work, but at the same time the payoff is huge if it does. I’m more from a traditional doing a show and you have moments where you just let go.
Q: How did the British Invasion affect music?
A: Music changed in the mid- to late 60s. Every musician wants to be a star and we all want recognition. I could hear a definite switch from the old watch to the new one. Adding as many drum fills as you can. Make sure the whole world knows what a great drummer you are. Make sure the world knows how great a singer you are. Show that you can do this and do that. And when you do all that (stuff), eventually it isn’t even a song anymore. I don’t even know what the hell I’m listening to or why. It’s just so frantic I don’t even want to listen to it anymore. Fortunately all these cats who are with me now, they (feel the same way). They hear it and say, “Dude, I understand totally.” They can snap it up and make it come to life.
Q: After the Angora fire there was a major amount of criticism of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. … Many of your songs deal with the environment, such as “Lochloosa” and “Florida.” Do you ever get criticized for being an advocate for the environment? Not that you’d care.
A: No, I wouldn’t give a (damn). I don’t know anything about environmentalism. I love where I live. I love the land and I love all the animals and I don’t want to see them destroyed and if that makes me an environmentalists then so be it. If everybody loved where they lived they wouldn’t (dump) all over it the first chance they got to make a few damn dollars. I care about what goes on everywhere but hell, I’m going to fight for what I know right here ’cause I don’t know the situation in everybody else’s back yard. I figure if everybody did that it would make a huge difference.”
Q: You said you preach to yourself in your songs to help you remember. That must have been the case with “Lochloosa” and “Florida.”
A: Here again, I was getting ready to forget about all this stuff too. Hell, I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I looked up at the stars and paid attention. You get so busy in life you don’t know what’s going on around you. When you don’t look up it’s easy to forget there’s a whole universe right over your head. And it’s really easy to do with television and other things to occupy your mind and be entertained with. There’s good and there’s bad in everything, I reckon.
— Tim Parsons