FOREWORD: Rousing Memphis-based ‘90s band, the Grifters, loved using subpar equipment to put across coarsely skewed, roughly hewn, Stones-copped slop-rock. I got to interview co-composing bassist Tripp Lampkins in ’98 when their final album, the corruptive Full Blown Possession, hit the streets. Utmost mofo bohos to the end, the Grifters didn’t last a decade but those who saw ‘em will never forget ‘em. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Borrowing their latest three-word title from The Exorcist, the Memphis-based Grifters achieve a singular sound by diversifying R & B, rock, swamp Blues, and Jazz elements on Full Blown Possession. Their malformed, depression-bound songs deal with regret, fugitives, loveless vagabonds, and life’s underside.
Beneath the unsettling guitars of Scott Taylor and Dave Shouse lies the great rhythmic thrust of propulsive bassist Tripp Lampkins and determined drummer, Stan Gallimore. As with the Grifters third album, ‘94’s Crappin’ You Negative, and its superb ’96 follow-up Ain’t My Lookout, the hauntingly demonic Full Blown Possession benefits from the increasing role of the rhythm section.
The muscular engine-driven “Re-Entry Blues” neatly matches a compelling melody with Pavement-happy choruses; the implosive “Blood Thirsty Lovers” features blistering ‘70s arena rock power chords; snake-bitten mantra “Cigarette” retrieves the heavy, loping guitar and pungent bass sound emanating from John Lennon’s “She’s So Heavy” and “Cold Turkey”; and the cosmically cryptic “Contact Me Now” flirts with LSD-era Beatles. But this is oversimplifying the Grifters evil-possessed half-inebriated psychedelically blustery sound.
Never afraid of a little debauchery or good clean fun, the Grifters began in ’89 as A Band Named Bud. Changing their moniker in time for ‘92s halfway decent debut, So Happy Together, they arrived at a truly original sound with ‘93s One Sock Missing. Along the way, constant touring, a cameo in the underground movie Half Cocked, and a few 45 RPM releases kept the Grifters busy.
I spoke to Tripp Lampkins by phone from his Memphis home.
Could you summarize the Grifters career and put it into perspective?
TRIPP: In the beginning, there wasn’t any order to our sound. We reveled in the collision of our styles, which gave our songs meaning, but now we’ve learned to write to each others strengths as well, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. I like to think Grifters music is more exciting when everyone is challenged to do something they might not otherwise do.
The sturdily pervasive “Re-Entry Blues” seems symbolically open-ended. It could be about the Grifters struggle to follow-up Ain’t No Lookout, the need for Sub Pop to revitalize its once-mighty stature, or the mission to conquer new ground while fighting back the current trendy electronica phase.
TRIPP: (laughter) That’s a Dave song. Sometimes he has imagery he wants to use in song. Then he’ll come up with ways of skewing that imagery with some other kind of imagery and he makes up the meaning afterward. “Re-Entry Blues” could have something to do with the bands’ status at Sub Pop. It could mean one last chance.
Do the Grifters feel attached to Memphis’ deep-rooted musical past?
TRIPP: I like to think we have a little Booker T & the MG’s in us. Our drummer, Stan, has been compared to veteran Stax musician, Al Jackson, because of the way he meters out a song. He’s heavy-handed and beats the shit out of the drums. So it doesn’t help to write a song that’s laid back with a wispy beat. He unforgivingly holds down an unchanging tempo without showing off. I’d definitely say there’s some huge Big Star pop hooks in our music. Some tragically beautiful guitar riffs inundate “Contact Me Now.” But a lot of people say that song sounds like AC/DC. I think most bands feel connected to Memphis sounds from Stax and Sun Records. It’s cool to be from Memphis, but it doesn’t give us any divine right to the blues.
What blues artists do you enjoy?
TRIPP: I like Little Milton, who’s closer to soul than blues. 1930’s Big Band bluesman Jimmy Lunceford is really great, but his records are hard to find.
Do the Grifters find it difficult to arrange their somewhat complex compositions?
TRIPP: We don’t make the arrangements too involved because they’d be hard to remember. We keep it verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge. If a song sounds formulaic or if we’re aware it sounds like something else, we change it up so it holds its own ground. Scott has written the same Irish drinking song four times. We find ways to make them sound different. It’s a fun challenge to take “Centuries,” which is basically the same song as “Banjo,” and rebuild it.
TRIPP: We play “Bummer” all the time live. It starts with a great driving Scott riff. Dave add one of his classic mournful, tragic laments about a girl possibly, and it becomes a typical Grifters tune that doesn’t mean anything. Except for Ain’t My Lookout, Scott tends to write about his screwed up marriage. Quite a few colorful characters came out of that situation. We thought he’d be too happy to write fucked up songs after the divorce, but luckily that’s not the case.
What bands did you listen to as a kid?
TRIPP: My aunts and uncles were into the Beatles and Deep Purple.When I was four that’s what I listened to – along with Black Oak Arkansas. My first live show was Kansas when I was in fifth grade. It’s also the first time I ever smoked weed. You couldn’t help but get stoned at a Kansas show. I still get high, but I gave up on the psychedelic stuff. It just stopped working for me. I still enjoy mushrooms, but not LSD.
Give me one great fucked-up tour story.
TRIPP: Our road crew dealt out a little karma in Portland. This guy apparently rubbed everyone the wrong way. He was drinking on our tab and hitting on this girl all night and freaked her out. She came to our merch table seeking shelter while our road manager kept the guy at bay. Then the guy came over upset and yelled in her face, ‘you stop paying attention to them and start paying attention to me.’ After the show, our road manager took her to catch a cab and the guy walked up and told him, ‘we’re friends.’ Now tell your merch guy to lay off the chick.’ He caused a scene. It got physical and our sound guy who loves to fight proceeded to beat the shit out of him. He had it coming.
Did the Grifters ever get stiffed by a club owner?
TRIPP: Once in West Virginia, this owner was a real asshole. He didn’t buy us dinner or pay us like it said in the contract. We threatened a lawsuit and he was like, ‘I put on a GG Allin show, so I won’t put up with this shit from you guys.’ Finally, he paid us.
What are the Grifters favorite beverages on tour?
TRIPP: the booze of choice is Scotch. Johnny Walker Red. I’ve been broke lately so I’m drinking cheap Crawfords Scotch.
Could the Grifters outdrink Guided By Voices?
TRIPP: We toured with GBV and those guys would buy six cases of beer and the last one would go onstage with them. On the last tour I figured out how to control my liquor intake so I don’t get fat. I don’t drink until the first band starts. Then I have a few beers, switch to Scotch, and that gets me plenty drunk. But you could stay in control, make sense when you talk to chicks afterward, and not get too hungover.
Unlike decades past, many rock musicians tend to hit stride when they are thirty years old. Why?
TRIPP: Bands that form in their teens tend to write immature fast hardcore shit about hatred. Then they have trouble sustaining that fiery thrust. Lots of kids are into electronica now, which is cool, but I haven’t heard a song yet I could relate to. It’s a copout, but I like Prodigy because they write songs that affect me. Growing up, I listened to the Replacements and angst-rock, but I can’t go back to that because those feelings don’t affect me now.
What local Memphis bands do you enjoy?
TRIPP: The Oblivians are good friends of ours and are terrific. Erik Oblivian was responsible for us hooking up with Sonic Noise and Shangri-La Records. Then, there’s 68 Comeback, Lorete Velvette of the Hellcats, the Clears, and the Satyrs – who write soulful music. But Memphis can’t support anything because it’s filled with drunks who can’t get out of their chair. Bands come to Memphis thinking they’re in the home of rock and roll, but they get really low attendance. It’s an ugly scene. But it’s slowly getting better. There’s really only one cool club. The other is run by the mob. Then we have the huge venue called New Daisy where you have to make enough money to pay the lighting guy, the soundman, the security guards, and the doorman. And there’s no Country music worth a shit coming out of Memphis currently. As for Blues, the last thing I want to go see is white dudes with day jobs approximating the Blues. It’s supposed to be about suffering or exorcising demons through music.