The Buffalos Extinct

Long live Grant Lee Phillips

It's common to hear artists go on and on (and on) about their integrity and about how they'll never sell out and how they're doing it for the right reasons and giving the finger to the suits and staying true to who they are.

It's self-righteous puffery. Feel-good hot air. You've heard it before, and it means very little.

Then there's Grant Lee Phillips, voted best male vocalist in 1995 by Rolling Stone magazine, who actually is the real deal, the genuine article, the artist who battled to stay true to his intentions, and yet he never once reminds you of this fact, never rubs your nose in it or dips into self-congratulation.

Phillips probably doesn't see himself as a crusader for the cause or a fighter or a trailblazer. It's not like that, you see. Not that black-and-white. Not that easy. The truth is that when one goes toe to toe with a major label in a fight for one's soul, there's very little about it that's grand and sweeping and overarching and a whole lot to it that's confusing, sobering and quietly tragic.

"It's good; it's very freeing," says Phillips, who early last year witnessed the dissolution of his band (Grant Lee Buffalo), asked to be released from a major-label contract (with Warner Bros.), and walked away from a longtime manager.

"Well, it's a little daunting at times," he then admits.

And how could it not be? Instead of opening for R.E.M. and Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins, as he did with Grant Lee Buffalo (whose hit "Mockingbirds" you may have heard on the radio years ago), and instead of having the budget to record a huge-sounding album, he's about to embark on a small solo tour and is selling his latest solo album—which he released himself, only pressing what he could afford, which was 5,000 copies—online and at shows (it will soon be sold at Virgin Megastore as well). Of course, he's quick to remind you that it's not as if he's returning to clubs—he never stopped playing them.

"You get to open for a band like R.E.M. one day, and that takes place in an arena or a bullfighting ring in Spain, and a week later, you're in a bar in Minneapolis," he says.

Ladies' Love Oracle, which Phillips refers to as a "homemade album," was recorded in three days in October 1999 in the home studio of Phillips' friend, producer Jon Brion. It's a beautiful album, haunting and softer than Grant Lee Buffalo albums, filled with nine songs that insinuate their way into your consciousness, showcasing Phillips' accomplished guitar playing as well as his ethereal voice. And the music doesn't suffer for its simplicity; it's lush and full even though it was recorded using less than eight tracks.

Phillips thinks the lack of a long, labored, plotted-in-advance studio experience served the songs well. "I've always been taken with that first intention," he says. "I saw a Kandinsky show years ago that contained the early sketches, which were napkin-size, and as great as he is, I was blown away by the napkins. For me, that's where the essence is contained, and if the song is really about the melody and the words, then you really don't need much to get it across if you're saying what you need to say."

Phillips was born and raised in Stockton, lives in LA, and has dabbled in an array of art forms:magic, drawing, vaudeville-type theater, film school, and the ever-glamorous roofing houses ("LA is full of people like me who actually find some sort of sanctuary onstage," he says). He's perhaps better-known for filling his Americana-tinged songs with obscure historical references and an "American Gothic" aesthetic. Ladies Love Oracle, though laden with imagery, seems a bit more personal. On "Squint," Phillips sings, "Saw my fate waiting like a chauffeur down at the airport that holds my name upward. I keep squinting for something I might have overlooked. . . . I keep squinting for something I might have done a hair different; it's all up for grabs. . . . I keep squinting as though through a keyhole just like Clint Eastwood for three dollars more."

"It's really just asking myself, 'Have I inspected this life of mine enough? Could there have possibly been an easier, less painful way to bring myself to this point? And is this the point that I should be at?'" he explains.

Has there been a lot of pain? He's quiet for a moment, and when he begins talking, you realize just how deeply all the label shit affected him. "This last year has been one where on a given day, I might ask myself, 'What in the world am I thinking?' because there isn't necessarily that light at the end of the tunnel every day of your life. Some weeks, these clouds linger, you know, forever, and you just have to hope and have faith that you're heading in the right direction."

On "Folding," Phillips, who married wife Denise in 1988, sings "Darlin', I'm folding, I'm tired of holding on to a love untrue. . . . I'll lay down my hand and walk away from you"—which isn't about a love relationship per se but the souring of business ones. "Even though it doesn't tap so much into the politics of business, that song's probably inspired more by my feelings toward those relationships, and that extends to relationships that sort of blur the lines between friendship and business with the people you deal with on an everyday basis," says Phillips.

And this is why all that hot air puffed by adolescent-minded bands is so off-the-mark. It's never an artist against some faceless, monolithic, evil, corporate machine. If that were the case, the choices would be easy. Instead, it's the termination of relationships with people you've worked with and come to trust. It's the people and all the complicated issues that go with them that fuck up everything and make it so that Phillips sounds as if he went through a bitter divorce.

"It's difficult. In the beginning, with naive eyes, you would suspect that a record company would be the answer to all your hopes and dreams, and perhaps it's the thing that might help you realize some of those things, but it's not all of that," he says. "Compared to slopping hot tar on roofs for 10 years, it was a much better deal—let's just put it that way—but when it's your creativity itself that seems threatened, you have to ask yourself, 'Is this such a fair shake?'"

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