Great to be back with a second blog here at Modern Drummer! For those who’ve never heard of us, the Grip Weeds are a power pop/psychedelic rock foursome from New Jersey. We’re a true DIY band in that we perform, engineer, and produce all of our recordings. Our new album, Strange Change Machine, is a twenty-four-song double CD that’s also available on two slabs of vinyl. We played every note on this album, and there was no outside producer or engineer in the room with us.
I have a unique role in the Grip Weeds: I sing and play drums, write half the songs, and engineer and co-produce the records. It gives me a lot of room to express my creativity, in many different ways. It’s also a lot of hard work and responsibility to wear that many hats, and I feel a real sense of accomplishment when we release a record. Though each thing that I do is a world unto itself, it all has to work together. Most of the time I’m doing at least two things at once: When we play live, for instance, I’m singing and playing drums. I’ve done this for so long now that when I just play drums I feel a little underutilized! When we record, I’ll be setting up the mics for the drums, guitars, and bass, working with the band to get the sounds for each, then hitting the record button and running back to the drums to track the song with the band. It takes a lot of focus to be able to handle the technical side of the recording process while simultaneously getting into the zone musically.
Strange Change Machine covers a lot of musical ground, and I got to do a lot of different things on each song with respect to my playing and even the tuning of the drums—shaping the sounds to the needs of each song, which on this album run the gamut from hard rock to Gregorian chants! For the song “Close To The Sun” I used a metal garbage can for percussion, along with the drumset. We put a sheet on the snare drum to get a very tight late-Beatles sound on “Nothing’s Ever Gonna Be The Same.” Other songs, like “Thing Of Beauty” and “Don’t You Believe It,” are more straight-ahead rock. “Sun Ra Ga” was a live-in-the-studio jam that we edited down and used in two places on the album. I was just playing in the moment, reacting to where the others were heading, or leading the way into uncharted territory. It was very fun, and we got it down in one long fourteen-minute take!
The first cut on Strange Change Machine is a song I wrote called “Speed Of Life.” This is how it all came together: I usually write songs on guitar, but I’m always thinking about what I would do with the drum part. I had heard the song “Panda” by a Swedish band called Dungen, and that inspired me to do something more on the edge with the drums. I usually play drums in support of the song, and sometimes that means underplaying. After hearing “Panda” I wanted to do something where the drums took the lead—not just playing a simple beat, but doing fills as part of the beat.
I was talking to Pat Dinizio from the Smithereens about songwriting one day, and I asked him why it was that the songs he wrote early in his career were so much faster in tempo than the later songs. He said, “I think it’s the speed of life,” and that got me thinking about what a great song title that would be, and what a song with that title could sound like. “Speed Of Life” to me evoked images of hurtling through time both lyrically and musically—a perfect vehicle for my “lead” drums! It took some time to get it right, but eventually I settled in on the chord structure, melody, and groove, and I came up with a chorus that went into 3/4 time for a bar or two, which really pushes the song into overdrive. Fast, frenetic drum fills start the song off, and the energy level never drops.
Now I just had to record it. I usually make a demo of a song and play all the instruments—it’s a good way to finish a song and get all your ideas out as to how it should sound. Then the band uses the demo as a basis and we develop it further, usually in live practice, before we re-cut the track as a band. For the finished recording of “Speed Of Life” with the Grip Weeds, we used the demo as a launching pad and it took off from there, with trippy guitar parts, sound effects, organ, and harmony vocals, but at the core is my “lead” drums, virtually unchanged from my original vision. It’s great when that happens! Give it a listen. You can download eight songs from Strange Change Machine for free on our website. Every song has a story—this is just one of many—but thanks for reading, and thanks to Modern Drummer for giving me the space.
For more on Kurt Reil and the Grip Weeds, go to www.gripweeds.com.