Thursday, January 17, 2013

Interview with Andrew Griffin of Felsen

If you like Wilco, Prefab Sprout, and Matthew Sweet, you will love Felsen. For the past few weeks, I've been listening to their latest album over and over again on my ride to work. Every song is catchy and thought provoking at the same time.

Felsen. Breaking Up With Loneliness. 2011. Sound recording. 

I was so intrigued by the album, that I emailed a bunch of questions to Andrew Griffin who founded the band, fronts it, and writes the songs. Here are his answers:

Q: Great band name. Did you choose Felsen because it's the German word for rocks?  

A: A long time ago, when i was living in Boston, I was playing drums in a cover band and we got this great gig that took us to Switzerland. Long-term contract. It was kinda like being a band on a cruise ship, except it was a hotel ski resort in the Alps. Fun gig. Lots of band shenanigans.

Anyhoo, we started to also do gigs outside of the hotel to make some extra money and we played at a place called Felsen bar in Chur, Switzerland. The word just kinda stuck in my head and my wife Norene’s head too. (She later used Felsen as a pseudonym.) When I made the first record, Accidental Drowning,I just put a name on it and called it Felsen. I never really thought it was going to be a band. I had no specific intention of it morphing into a live band.  I just wanted to make a record to give to my friends and family. We’ll here I am three years later and the name, for better or worse, has stuck around. It’s not an easy one to remember or spell. I always choose the path of greatest resistance. And no, I didn’t know what the word actually meant. About a year into the band’s history we were playing a gig and there were some Austrians in the audience and they told us that it meant “Rocks”. A happy coincidence, I guess. 

Q: I'm intrigued by the song "The Secret Life of Guns." What does the title mean? 

 A: This was inspired by an interview I heard with a Washington Post and his piece “The Hidden Life of Guns” about concealed weapons laws in the US. This was right after yet another mass shooting (Tucson, January 2011--Gabrielle Giffords) and I was reminded of Sara Palin’s slogan “Don’t Retreat, Reload” and the insane map of the US with bulls eyes on the politicians who some felt needed to be voted out--or eliminated one way or another. I did what I do to cope: I went to the guitar. I knew what the first lyric was going to be (the secret life of guns) and what chord it would start on (C#-) and the song pretty much wrote itself.  I was pissed--it took about 10 minutes.  

Gabrielle Giffords

Q: The line "I'm starting a blog cuz I'm sick of tv" caught my attention because there aren't many songs about blogging. Do you  blog?

A: I have two blogs that I write. And both of them need lots of tending to. I really enjoy writing them, but as you well know, it’s time consuming and you’ve got to be really committed to it.

Q: Who is the bunny on the cover? Do your earlier records have any songs about rabbits?

A: We did a benefit concert a while back called “Bands for Bunnies." Proceeds went to an organization in Martinez, CA that rescues abandoned domesticated rabbits. Apparently lots of people get rabbits as pets and then decide they don’t like living with them and they release them into the wild, which is pretty much a bunny death sentence. There was a guy in a bunny suit at that show and then they got me to put on a bunny suit too. I was a pretty sardonic, slacker of a bunny but it was fun and the light bulb went off over my head. Felsen bought our own bunny suit that we bring to the shows and we get audience members to put it on and dance around a bit. Sounds kinda goofy, but it really helps take the show from 4th to 5th gear. I can’t reveal who was in the bunny suit in the front cover shot of the Breaking up With Loneliness CD--company secret.  However, on the inside is a close up of Jaspar, one of the rescued bunnies. And yes, in one of the songs on our first record--Lay Kenneth Lay--there’s a line in there about ‘burrowing deep, into the rabbit hole”. Kind of a reference to Alice in Wonderland. 


Q: You have a great voice. Who are your favorite singers? Do you have any favorite songs that you like to sing along to in the car?

A: I love to sing along in the car to my fav singers: Jeff Tweedy, Gary Louris, Thom Yorke, David Lowery, Bono
. . . Richard from Pink Floyd. John, Paul, George and Ringo . . . Mick and Keith. I love the guy from Spoon and that dude from Eels. Robert Plant--too many high notes for me.  

Q: Please tell me about your musical background. Is it true that you are a Berklee grad? I know a few people who went there, but only one who actually graduated. What makes it
such a challenging school?

A: It’s a tough place to be. Way too competitive for me, all though I learned a hell of a lot. I went to a regular college too before I went to Berklee and I honestly can say, I don’t remember a single thing from those 4 years (History Major).  Basically i was playing drums in local bands, booking the gigs, making the flyers, hustling, starting to tour around the midwest (where i grew up and was going to school). I started on drumset around age 13 and was playing in cover bands right away.  By age 15 I was playing gigs wherever we could hustle them. No formal training, just self-taught by practicing along with records by the Beatles, Stones, the Who, Zeppelin, U2, REM, INXS, Jimi Hendrix, Dead Kennedys . . . the Cure, New Order, the Police...anything really. And that took me all the way up into my early 20’s and I decided to take lessons. 

 I was living in Chicago and got lucky with a really great teacher who put me on a path that lead me eventually to Berklee and I got really getting disciplined about learning the drums. I learned to read, learned the rudiments, studied jazz, listened a lot and expanded my musical interests. Along the way i started to learn some guitar and began to write pop tunes. I had bands where I played drums and would work with a singer to sing my tunes.  A couple of really interesting bands that no one’s ever heard of. After Berklee, my wife and I moved the Bay Area and I began a career as a freelance drummer, drum teacher, session musician and producer. The producing thing allowed me to use my songwriting skills to help other people out with their material etc ... And i was in a few bands where I was co-writing with the main writers.  Most notably, I worked real closely with Rich McCulley 2003-04.  I was Rich’s drummer and we wrote a bunch of tunes together, played about 180 gigs from coast to coast putting 70000 miles on his van (seriously).

Cover art by Michael Wertz

Q: I know you have played with Camper Van Beethoven (my favorite band!) and Cake. How did you get the opportunity to play with these legendary bands?

I have kind of a specialized-niche in the Bay Area.  I’m the guy you call at the absolute last minute to fill in for your drummer who’s M.I.A (for whatever reason) and you need your material learned really well and really quickly. Translation: I do my homework. In the case of Camper, Frank got snowed in a few years ago in NYC and couldn’t get a flight out to SF for a few California Camper shows and Victor Krummenacher called me with about 20 hours lead time to learn a whole set of CVB tunes. BTW no rehearsal. Just go do the gig. The first night was a bit dodgy, but the 2nd night was pretty great. Had there been a 3rd night ...

Q: You also play with the super high energy kindie band, The Sippy Cups. How did you get involved in children's music? Do you have any favorite children's albums from when you were a kid?

A: The Sippy
Cups thing I got through Allison Levy whom I know through my Camper Van Beethoven association. Some of the guys in Camper live in the Bay Area and I’ve done some of their side projects, including Victor’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller album--Allison being Mrs. Miller.  She and I became friends and she calls me for her kids music gigs. Which is a hoot. In my humble opinion, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the greatest kids music album of all time.  Perfect for 5 year old kids to listen to. That one changed my life and ultimately set me on the path that I’m still on.

 Q: One of my friends recently moved to Oakland. She loves it. You obviously do, too. What is so special about the city. Is it really the Brooklyn of the West?

A: I do love Oakland and the East Bay in general.  I got lots of East Bay Pride. The weather, the people, the vibe.  I really prefer it to SF--which I love a lot too, but its just too expensive there. The artists have all fled, many to Oakland. Yeah, It’s probably real similar to Manhattan and Brooklyn in that sense too. I think Oakland is a lot less hipster than Brooklyn (thank god).  Oakland’s got problems, but it’s pretty special.  Please come for a visit. Plenty to do. Lots of great art and music popping up.  Lots of new cool little music venues.  And killer restaurants.  

Q: Where can readers buy Breaking Up With Loneliness and other
Felsen CD's?

A:  Itunes. Or better yet, come to one of our shows and I’ll sell you one.  I've been told that I'm quite the natural salesman.