Monday, April 11, 2011

Jeff Buckley oral history

Jeff Buckley: I’ve always played in bands – always. I only go out and play solo to make money to pay the phone bill and the rent.

After releasing the Live at Sin-e EP, Jeff played a series of solo acoustic shows around New York City in early 1993, looking to attract musicians to form a band with through his live performances.

Mick Grondahl (bassist): …I was backstage hanging out and I noticed Jeff, and he was definitely someone who made me curious. Backstage, he was very focused on tuning his guitar and cleaning it, and preparing his set. During the show I noticed the interesting choice of cover songs he was playing and he played a lot of complex chords, and of course he had that great voice. I was quite impressed and we got to talk later at a party, and we talked about music. He left an impression.

Later that year, he was playing the New Music Seminar at the Fez, and I went and stood in line – I didn’t even have any money to get in. Luckily I saw Jeff coming out from behind the curtain while we were waiting to pay, and he was singing “L.A. Woman” by the Doors and I sang the next part, and he remembered me. We exchanged numbers and I went in to see the show and he had evolved even more. He came out and did Nina Simone “Be Your Husband.” We got together at Nightingale’s, played pool, and then jammed back at his apartment.

Jeff Buckley: Micky and I sat down at my place. It was late in the evening so we had to play quietly …

Mick Grondahl: About two weeks after he and I started playing together we auditioned Matt [Johnson - drummer]. He was the first guy we auditioned and we hit it off really well. Matt remembers Jeff looking at him and smiling and just feeling a connection between us. And that first night we played together, within an hour, we wrote” Dream Brother.”

Jeff Buckley: Every guitar idea I put out they would close in on as the music happened.

Gene Bowen (road manager): He toured overseas for a couple weeks to support Live at Sin-e and he was describing how it was great and he loved it, but the absence of a band was really apparent to him. He always wanted to have a band and then he finally got the band, but then he had to tour solo to support the Sin-e EP. He missed the band and couldn’t wait to get back. He was really about the band and the personal connection that he had with each of them.

Mick Grondahl: Michael [Tighe] joined when Grace was pretty much wrapped up. He had never played in a group. He knew some blues stuff and few riffs here and there. We auditioned people who played a lot longer in New York, people who had played very complex music, but it was more about enthusiasm and potential. We wanted to recruit people who were almost disciples to Jeff’s music. If people were too set in what they were doing then there wasn’t this chance to instill the new music that could come from the way that Jeff worked.

Michael Tighe (guitarist): He knew that I played guitar but we never got around to playing together until he asked me to audition for his band. It clicked. I felt honored, excited and a little afraid to be playing with these older musicians who had been living in a world of gigs, touring, jamming, writing, recording. A world I wanted to live in.

Gene Bowen: Jeff used to call Michael “Chico” and I used to envision Jeff as an old man at the end of his life, just sitting on his back porch with Michael, because they were just so close. There was just such a connection there.

Michael Tighe: First impression? A cartoon wolf. Playful and silly with eyes of pain and wildness.

Mick Grondahl: We were in many ways four parts of the group, and it felt like a band and Jeff accepted us as having equal say. It was very much a democracy – he was the leader but he also listened to us and thought about what we had to say. The relationships that band members have between each other are more important than ability.

Jeff Buckley: They’ve become my family.

Gene Bowen: I remember he talked about trying to come up with a name for the band, so that it wouldn’t just be “Jeff Buckley.”

Mick Grondahl: I proposed the name “Two Ninas” and Jeff liked it a lot, and we all liked it. But the record company was against using another name because the “Jeff Buckley” name was so well known.

June 1st, 1994, the band plus Gene Bowen and a soundman set out in a 15-passenger Econoline Van on their first extended tour.

Michael Tighe: When I first came up to the Econoline van I felt like I was joining the circus. Because of our childhood and our upbringing, both Jeff and I really liked the nomadic lifestyle of touring. In a lot ways, I think Jeff was most comfortable when he was on tour.

Gene Bowen: It was all of us and the equipment in the van and about halfway through the tour, they figured out a way to suspend hammocks from the ceiling of the van over the bench seats. So one person could lay on the bench seat and another person could lay in the hammock, because there was no room in the van at all.

Mick Grondahl: We loved the van! We liked being on the road and partying - we didn’t have a lot of groupies or anything like that. We really enjoyed just hanging out with each other and playing music. We were all learning a lot about what music each person liked and we would play it all on the CD player.

Michael Tighe: Mostly Mick played music – he kind of hogged the stereo. He was the coolest one in the band and had the “coolest” music. We were all interested in what Mick was listening to, so he was the DJ of the van. Jeff played James Brown Live at the Olympia a lot on all the tours. People who had been around on different tours would be like, “Oh my God, you’re still listening to this?”

Mick Grondahl: Jeff could listen to a song a couple times and then he would be playing it onstage the next night. He could remember the lyrics, the chord changes, the arrangement and then sometimes come up with a new arrangement.

And he would do that with is own songs, just do a new arrangement and I would walk the wire with him and follow along, not knowing exactly how we were going to play chorus now that we just did the verse in a whole different way. It was exciting and most of the time we would land on our feet. It built great confidence between us. We never played the songs the same way. Each night was different.

Gene Bowen: The band had been rehearsing for the tour, but they weren’t rehearsing the songs from the record. The guy from the studio told me that he hadn’t heard them play a single note off of Grace. They were in there just jamming, playing the same riff for hours. Management had them play the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. They rented out the club so they could get the feeling of playing on stage – but the club was empty. Since they weren’t rehearsing the album, the thought was that getting them on a stage and rehearsing would help them get ready for the tour.

Michael Tighe: At the dress rehearsal at the Stone Pony, that was day we realized that we had spent too much time just jamming and we needed to get the set a little tighter. We were very ill-prepared, actually.

Gene Bowen: After the Stone Pony, we played the Red Creek Inn in Rochester and the tickets were $5 each and 32 tickets were sold. That’s the first show the band ever played together. So we went from playing an empty club to a 32-paid club.

Michael Tighe: I was so nervous and made some mistakes. I felt like I was giving birth or being born or something like that.

Mick Grondahl: I remember thinking that for people seeing us for the first time, it might be a bit off-putting. It was so different; Jeff’s voice, the style, the way the shows were organized… because we didn’t have a set list, we worked on the spot. We were asking something of the audience, which was patience because we wanted to make each show unique. They were intrigued of course by Jeff’s humor and the mystique that he could project, but mainly his voice and guitar were so stunning.

It took time for the set to get up to speed, but we wanted it start slow and build from nothing. Not just bowl people over and play the catchiest song at the very beginning.

We felt excited about the music, so if no one really showed up to the shows, we were at least doing something that appealed to us.

Michael Tighe: The first time I really remember the band coming together and gelling was a show in Woodstock, which was fitting since Grace was recorded there.

Gene Bowen: There was a real momentum after that U.S. tour. When we got to Europe we were in an actual tour bus. And we figured out that we could do a tour bus for the US when we got back. From that point on, it was a bus and it made the grind that much easier.

Mick Grondahl: It was trade off – when we had the van we could stay in hotels, but when got the bus we just stayed on that the whole time. It was the moving hotel. And we didn’t have the same intimacy we did before.

Michael Tighe: That was when famous musicians started to come see us and it was almost too much to handle – I couldn’t believe that it was happening. Maybe it was because I was very naïve – but I thought that superstars only mingled with other superstars. To me, we were this alternative band that was really popular in Europe and Australia but we hadn’t really broken in the U.S., but here we had Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page coming to see us.

Jack Bookbinder: There were far more promotional opportunities in Europe for Jeff, just because of the way that Live at Sin-e was promoted from the beginning. In France, Jeff was one of the top pop artists in the country and you couldn’t say that in America. He just had something that people there connected to.

Michael Tighe: I don't remember anything about the television tapings except that I would always think about Hendrix on the BBC to get me fired up.

Mick Grondahl: Traditionally, I think European audiences are more forgiving and more open. It doesn’t need to be the buzz of the week to give it a chance. I personally felt like there was more acceptance and more of a feeling of security. By that point, we had started to come together more as a band so we had more to offer the audience. They were much more keen on us being on TV in Europe than in America. They wanted to capture it even through there wasn’t a lot of hype behind it – the recognized it as something important.

Michael Tighe: I really loved Japan because I have a really romantic relationship with Asia – but I remember that Jeff didn’t like it. The audiences were so, so well behaved it was almost frightening. There was dead silence before every song, and after a song there was a swell of loud applause. Then as soon as he touched his guitar or cleared his throat, it would go dead silent again. Playing in Japan was like going to another planet.

The band would continue to tour the U.S., Europe, Japan and Australia until September 1995. Afterwards they took time off to try and write collaboratively.
They played its last show with drummer Matt Johnson on March 15th 1995 in Sydney, Australia.

Jeff Buckley died in Memphis on the evening of May 29, 1997 of an accidental drowning.

Jeff Buckley: Artists just need to shut the fuck up and listen to what exactly is coming from inside. You just have to find exactly what you should be doing, and if you didn’t have that thing, you would die. Perish, slowly or quickly, violently or like a chump. And every choice is made from that. I have to do this, I’m made to do this. I can’t do anything else. I tried. I don’t really feel fulfilled any other way. Maybe when I get older, it will change. I’m sure it will.

Gene Bowen: Founded Road Recovery, dedicated to helping young people battle addiction by harnessing the influence of entertainment industry professionals who have confronted similar crises and now wish to share their experience and knowledge.

Mick Grondahl: Lives in Copenhagen, Sweden with his wife and daughter and continues to play music.

Matt Johnson: Plays music both as a solo artist and with other artists such as Rufus Wainwright.

Parker Kindred: Continues to play music working with numerous artists, including Antony and the Johnsons.

Michael Tieghe: Lives in New York City and is currently working with a New York band, "The Tiggers."

interviews conducted by Amy Wuelfing, editted by Amy and Howard Wuelfing

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