The wild winds had been whispering about Grain. I couldn’t quite catch the words. But every time I saw a freshly Grained face, the eyes said it all. “You haven’t seen; where do we begin?” It’s a hard stare to hold. So the only way to get a grasp on Grain was to go and see them. Five pleasant looking young men took to the stage. Pleasant because they smiled, didn’t say too much and seemed pleased to see us. Where was the wild wind? It came creeping at first. With a syncopated swagger, drums and the percussive wizard whipped Sly-slick rhythms. Two-stepping bass danced around the intertwined licks of twinned acoustic guitars, as the stage swirled and the singer howled. I acquired the stare whilst whistling up the delta, to the open-country plains where the old ho-down with the new.
The next day a friend asked me what Grain had sounded like. The whispering winds turned my words inside out. “Bluegrass?” was all that escaped. Whilst enjoying a pleasant cup of tea with Richard – Grain’s chief of six-string duelling – the same word slipped through. Richard laughs: “A lot of people have said that it sounds like Bluegrass. But the first time someone said it, I hadn’t really thought about it. It’s quite hillbilly, so we came up with the kung fu, hillbilly funk slogan for the music, pigeon-holing ourselves in that category.” And what a pigeon-hole! Listening to Grain’s recent three-track offering, kung fu, hillbilly funk seems to make sense. There is a p-funk sharpness to Easy. And on Gone Fishin’, Grain hop, skip and jump to the wilds where the piggies don’t squeal and deliverance comes in the form of a banjo’d knees up. But there’s something else, an almost unadulterated joy for making music. Listening to the final track available to download at http://www.myspace.com/grain, it’s hard to say no, as Ben sings: “Join our membership, our freaky little membership, available in various different colours of red, green and blue. Yipee!” It sounds like a good offer to me. But what does it all mean?
Probably best to start at the beginning. Ben and Richard met at college seven years ago. At some point Ben met Neil, through a job. The three began to jam a bit: Neil on drums, Richard playing guitar and Ben singing and strumming. They played open-mike nights. Got a bass player. He left and Dan arrived. Then Neil left and James has recently joined as the new skin-beater. “I think this is the definitive line up,” says Richard. “I feel very happy with the way things are now.” It all seems very calm on the surface. It’s time to pry. How do you arrive at the kung fu, hillbilly sound? “There’s a few ways I guess,” Richard replies. “Well have a jam or, I don’t know, me and Ben will have a riff we’re playing with and we’ll try it out.” An open process? “Yeah, very much so, “ he continues. “We were toying around with the idea of doing a cover for the unplugged gig at the Malt Cross. We never got round to it. But I think it would have been Club Tropicana. Either that or Hold The Line.” Richard proceeds to sing with 80s-strained face.
Despite the social confines of a cosy teashop, Richard’s voice shows some potential. “I do want to start doing backing vocals,” he comments. “But I find it hard sometimes to harmonise with Ben’s voice. It can be quite scratchy and erratic, which is a great thing but when you’re trying to back that up, it’s tricky.” Live, on a chicken-stretched neck, Ben’s face twists and turns to the rhythm of every word. He may be mild mannered off-stage but behind a microphone, Ben howls, hollers, growls, yips and yelps; in glorious harmony with the crossroad keeper. “Ben’s got a very distinctive voice,” states Richard. “At first he tried to sing more melodic stuff. But I think his voice suits more scatty stuff. His voice is his own. He’s very soft-spoken and I think it’s like his alter ego; stuff comes out in his singing style that’s in his character. He’s a funny guy.” Rolling, rapping, stretching and snapping, Ben’s words are not always easy to follow. Where are they going? “Oh, I don’t know, we’d have to ask him that,” replies Richard. “I can’t really speak for him. But I love his lyrics; I think they’re great. There’s humour involved, definitely. And there’s a bit of nit-picking at things. A lot of times the words just come out. We’ve taped jams before and he’ll scat. We listen back to the tape and go, ‘what did you say there?’ And he’ll say, ‘I don’t know but it sounds good.’ And then he’ll write down what he thinks he’s said.”
The rest of the band are equally dexterous, slip-sliding through off-beats and cross-beats with style-changing ease. Grain like to experiment. “We’ve added a grey, plastic tube to our arsenal,” says Richard. “You know – bong bong bong – it’s perfectly in tune, it’s in D or something. It works brilliantly; Loz beat boxes into it. He joined the band originally…he’s into his beat-boxing, so he asked if he could come down, have a jam with us and maybe do some beat-box stuff over the songs. We tried it out. There were some good ideas but it didn’t really work. But then he started playing bongos, really well. He didn’t tell us he played bongos! So that was it.” Richard’s talents were honed in the deep south of Suffolk. Picking up a guitar to axe-grind with Slash, he has journeyed through the realms of Pantera, The Meat Puppets, Primus and Nick Drake on the way to helping develop kung fu, hillbilly funk. “First it was moshing,” says Richard. “Now it’s more of a ho-down. We could have a ho-down pit. It’s time to quit when they start line dancing though!”
With Grain planning to play as much as possible in the summer, including local festivals, it surely won’t be long until the ho-down pit appears. Grain appear to be turning on more and more people to their fried-hillbilly sound, including Rob Da Bank. “It’s always one of those bouncy, jolly sounding things,” comments Richard. “Whenever you hear that type of music you can’t help but tap your foot. It has a lively pace.” It’s a pace that seems to be well fuelled: “What keeps us going? Humour I guess,” replies Richard. “A few drinks and a smoke. And going to the pub. Just doing what we’re doing I guess. Feeling what we do between us. There’s no friction. We’re old enough to be able to say, come on, give me a break. I’d wake up with any of these guys!” If you want to join the freaky membership, you’d better go and see Grain about it. But be warned, you’ll end up with the stare.
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- June 12, 2006 / 10:20 pm