We asked Ola’s Kool Kitchen, who presents a show across several independent radio stations, to interview Kenneth Griffin from Rollerskate Skinny, Kid Silver, Favourite Sons and August Wells. As a radio broadcaster of six years standing, Ola’s Kool Kitchen on Radio 23, Rock XS Radio, Magic Monster, and KCLA 99.3 FM in Los Angeles was created to combat the myopic mediocrity present in mainstream media. It features an eclectic mix of genres, while Ola travels the world both playing and recording lesser known new talent as well as established musicians. Put simply, good music has no boundaries.
One of the most underrated Irish musicians and, a talent forged in the 90’s shoe-gaze/alternative scene, Kenneth Griffin’s first band Rollerskate Skinny achieved the greatest commercial success of all his music projects. Named in NME's "Top Ten New Bands of the Year" in 1992, Rollerskate Skinny's auspicious beginnings held much promise. The band included Jimi Shields (brother of Kevin Shields) as a former member and toured with acts such as Mercury Rev, Smashing Pumpkins, Mazzy Star, Hole and Pavement. In 1996, the band signed a major-label deal with WEA only to disband in 1997 with two albums and a few EPs released.
Ken then released a self recorded solo work in 1999, Dead City Sunbeams under the moniker Kid Silver. This one-off effort is considered critically in certain circles as a hidden musical gem of the 1990’s, Trouser Press declaring “...that [it] should have vaulted Griffin to the same level of adulation as [Julian] Cope and Wayne Coyne”. In 2005, Ken joined with indie-psych, Philadelphia band Aspera to form Favourite Sons. They were originally signed to Vice Records. Two albums and modest recognition followed, even though the live performances were considered stunning neo-religious experiences. Currently Ken is involved in a new venture called August Wells.
Despite critical recognition and his quality musical output spanning over twenty years, Ken has never achieved the success of his peers. I had a pleasurable conversation with him, filled with laughter over his career, musical shadows and how not to make it in the music industry.
It’s been suggested of the track “Complacency” the first RS single released, that the band might of have been listening to My Bloody Valentine and Mercury Rev. Obviously Jimi Shields who was in RS with you, is Kevin Shield’s brother. Would you say that was true?
Kenneth Griffin: It’s not possible we were listening to Mercury Rev because I think we recorded that before they even released a record. We subsequently became friends with Mercury Rev. I think some of their reviews said they had been listening to us and some of our reviews said we had been listening to them. The truth is we hadn’t heard of each other. As far as My Bloody Valentine, I’d never heard of MBV until after that EP. From my background, you didn’t become a painter or a writer. I was never really a student of music. Especially at the start, I never studied the form, I just simply wanted to express myself. Music seemed like the most available thing I could do. When I was fourteen, I heard The Velvet Underground and that was it. It kind of ruined my life from that moment forward...in a nice way. I have chased that feeling for thirty years since then. To say My Bloody Valentine is an influence, that whole thing is very complicated. Jimi, this is no disrespect to him, only played on the first album. After our second album Horse Drawn Wishes came out, they kept mentioning Kevin Shields. I thought to myself, it will probably be ten or fifteen years before anyone listens to this album without making that reference, even though Jimi didn’t play on it. I kind of knew we were doomed in any commercial sense. That’s why, I never really spoken about it. I wanted the album to find its own audience and twenty years later, more people listen to it now than did then. They’re beginning to separate the two things. I was really influenced by a combination of Fear Of A Black Planet, by Public Enemy- the way that album was constructed, it was so thick and multilayered-and Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western movie music. I was searching for this way to communicate with reality. I didn’t think in terms of songs or of anybody else or the industry. I just wanted to express myself and get out of Ireland at the time.
Horse Drawn Wishes is number fourteen of the hundred greatest Irish albums in Hot Press and the Irish Times named it number seven with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless topping the list. I think Rollerskate Skinny doesn’t have the recognition it deserves?
KG: I think it’s getting rereleased next year on Capture Tracks. There are also 5 songs that we recorded as RS and never released. Also there is another six that I did on my own at that time. It will be twenty years since it was recorded. A bunch of it is to be put together in one place; The Favourite Sons, Kid Silver, Rollerskate Skinny and August Wells. Also ‘Speed For My Side’ from RS will be in a movie next year called Wild.
It’s been observed that ‘Bow Hitchiker’ appears as a move towards a more restrained style akin to Pavement. I know you toured with them too. Is that true?
KG: If that’s restrained, I don’t know what unrestrained would be (laughter)? It’s completely unhinged that song. Again it’s been the story of my life, where people say, oh that’s influenced by Pavement and I’m like, whose Pavement? Then I’ll go listen to Pavement. People used to tell us we were influenced by the Beach Boys and I would then go listen to them.It’s very hard to describe sounds or music without comparing it to someone else. At that time, I think we were hard to pin down. We weren’t really shoe-gazey because we would have thirteen sections in a song, it was very lyrical and we didn’t use bombastic open chord guitars. We wanted to respect the ideas of melody and rhythm- that immediacy that you need to get from anything -while also trying to push that as far as we could. We really felt isolated. I was never conscious of any influences other than the blank tape feeling like okay, I better put something on there. We were very motivated by the idea that we were given a major label contract. Our obligation was to try and do something commercial, so we decided not to do that and see how far we could push it. The record company was not very happy with this. That was the thing back then; you definitely didn’t try and please anybody.
I had Jimi on my radio show. He clearly admitted Kevin was a big musical influence on him. You don’t see Jimi having a connection with MBV influencing your sound at all?
KG: In fact, we were very conscious of it. If anything, we felt we had an obligation to not sound like them. MBV are very structured, it’s like two or three pieces are repeated, and it’s hypnotic. Our music is not hypnotic at all. Stop starts...and sections don’t repeat themselves. We use strings, xylophones, and pianos. I think the only thing we have in common with them is Jimi, his brother. I don’t really like talking about it, because I know people will just say we do sound like them and it’s like saying all jazz music sounds the same. If you listen to 'Bell Jar Away', the last song on Horse Drawn Wishes, it’s got no guitars on it. We didn’t see ourselves as a guitar band. It was just art to me. I could have decided to try and write a book. I had no interest in what was happening in the music scene. I didn’t befriend any musicians or hang out with music business people. All I did was disappear into studios by myself and create this stuff. I knew as soon as we did our first record, I would be associated with Kevin until the day I die. People still mention him when I do records twenty years later because his brother was in a band with me.
Personally I think you have a particular genius that is just as good as his.
KG: Aw thanks.
It’s just different.
KG: I always really got along with Kevin. I really respect him. I don’t want to sound like I have an ounce of bitterness or anything. It’s just the way that journalist world works..... I was always very concerned with lyrics. In fact, I have moved towards where I find lyrics can satisfy me in a way music has in the past. I’m much more interested in exploring words.
I think that’s true. When you look at the journey of RS to August Wells, AW is less about the music and very much drenched in the lyrical.
KG: I also think AW has been getting a lot of response from RS fans because it’s still got that experimental nature. For instance, there are no drums or bass on the album. There is one percussion piece at the end of one song. The piano player is like playing with Thelonious Monk. He is a kind of wild genius guy.
You went onto to do something I found very interesting with Kid Silver. KS album Dead City Sunbeams was said by some critics to be more stellar than Horse Drawn Wishes and possibly one of the most unfairly overlooked albums of the 1990’s?
KG: I think overlooked will probably be on my gravestone (laughter).... I like to imagine all the sounds in my head before I record them. I usually have it worked out before I touch an instrument or go into the studio. That one I just did with an engineer, who actually worked on Horse Drawn Wishes too. So we locked ourselves in a studio. We didn’t have a deal. We did it by ourselves. I don’t know where we got the money. I don’t think of people listening to it. I view my work as some kind of offering to reality, an acknowledgment of a relationship between me and this strange thing we call reality. I seem to work outside the industry.
I listen to your music and I hear great commercial pop sensibilities, it’s not that weird.
KG: I love melody. Melody is what drives me.
If one of your songs was on a film or a commercial or got airplay on a big FM station, I think you would have a hit.
KG: It seems nobody hears it, or somebody writes to me and says it’s their favourite album of all time. Okay that’s great! The industry just seems to be suspicious of me. Maybe I have a bad reputation. I’m doing these gigs now with August Wells. Every time we play, people come up and go, who the hell are you guys? Why haven’t I heard you? I can’t sincerely answer that question. It’s distasteful to regard yourself as unlucky because you’re not successful. It’s like that Charles Bukowski thing where he says, “The gods have been good to me protecting me from that bullshit.” I get to function and create. I know I’m not creating anything for commercial success, because it’s not working if I am.
I think your time is yet to come.
KG: We’ll see. It would be nice to not have to work and to make a living out of it. At the same, the joy I get from it...this album I just did is getting so much support from people. It’s like people want to fight for me, it’s so sweet. I don’t want to paint this picture I’m some pathetic person. I’m really not.
You might be overlooked, but you’re loved.
KG: By dozens of people! (Laughter)
Yeah, but they love you a lot!
KG: It’s very sweet and they really do. I had this couple walk down the aisle to one of my songs. Someone else got an anniversary present, one of my lyrics engraved on some piece of jewellery. It’s nice when you hear things like that. I think that’s what’s exciting about right now. You can get to people one by one without all this crap you used to have to do, like call your record company and buy ten copies of your own record to give to people. Now you can just email your whole album out. They have it and it’s great. My ambition is to have as many people as possible hear it so I can play some shows.
What are your feelings about the Dead City Sunbeams album?
KG: It never got released in Europe. I’ve often thought of trying to get someone to release it. I own the rights to it. To me it sounds kind of strangely contemporary. What I was trying to do was something that people are succeeding at now. I wanted to make an electronic album that was song based with emotion to it. I sampled a lot of old 1940’s crescendos at the end of songs, then I would slow it down and play it underneath the tracks to give you this feeling of a horizontal and vertical dynamic going on. It’s linear but it’s also moving up and down at the same. I usually think of songs visually first.
To me it’s like a warped orchestration. It’s beautiful, but it’s slightly askew.
KG: That’s what you get with an untrained musician. It’s always going to be a little off, because I can’t read music. You’re trying to find the spirit of the song, then not mess it up. That’s what’s interesting about it for me. It’s like how you do a painting, the first brush stroke is really exciting, but everything after that is kind of an anti-climax. ‘67 Cities Of Light,’ I wanted that to be a kind of street song. It’s supposed to be someone struggling out of the darkness or madness to communicate to the world that on some level they’re okay.
One of my favourite lyrics is from ‘Hey Trespasser,’ “We are the ugly angels and we’re never gonna die”. What’s that line about?
KG: Always feeling apart from things. It’s like you’re viewing the world through glass or you’re not invited to the human race. It’s also about embracing your idea of beauty as opposed to what you’re told is beautiful or your idea of what joy or happiness is. I like extremes and passion is an extreme. It’s a hard thing for people to express artistically in a controlled way. The only control I would put on it is it has to start and end. So what happens in between is kind of open for anything. Like life. I don’t want to say the word outsider, because that’s not how I feel at all. A lot of the strangest people are very much inside of things.
I would use the word freak, rather than outsider.
KG: Yeah...I’ve always been treated like this ever since I was a kid... with this kind of sense that there is something amiss (much laughter). I’ve always felt this desperation to say, no I’m fine.
Let’s move onto Favourite Sons. There was a psych Philadelphia based band called Aspera and they tracked you down to be the singer? KG: Yeah they had tracked me down at this bar I was working in and we started talking about doing music together. I turned up at their practice space and we just started playing. That first album was a bit weird. I was going through a divorce and I just had a kid. That album was not necessarily artistic, it was an emotional outburst. I didn’t really concentrate too much on the music. I needed to express something. A lot of people connected to that lyrically.
For me ‘Tear The Room Apart' off of Down Beside Your Beauty by Favourite Sons is a male equivalent to Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’. It is in my top ten favourite love songs of all time.
KG: Aw, thanks. It’s weird that song really gets to people. It was the last song we did on that album. It was the one I put most effort into musically. We did a video with Hank Shocklee from Public Enemy. He is from the Bomb Squad, he did a lot of the music for Fear Of A Black Planet that Rollerskate Skinny were into. He said that song just blew him away. He was really moved by the emotion of it; especially for a man to be singing it. I wasn’t even aware that it was unusual, I just felt honest about it.
You released two albums with Favourite Sons, Down Beside Your Beauty and The Great Deal Of Love, the first on Vice Records and the second on Low Rent. What has happened to that band?
KG: We came to an end. The drummer moved away and it was very much about the four people. We all moved on to different things. We’re all really good friends.
The live experience of FS has been described by Spin as “ ... largely marked by Griffin’s distinctive baritone and emphatic performance which has turned their shows into religious experiences.”
KG: Someone described it as singing along to gospel songs that you never heard before. We didn’t get the kind of break you need to keep a momentum up with the band, which is the story of my career. That’s why I tend to move from groups of people, because you need that momentum. The Great Deal Of Love was a tough one because I really think there is a lot of great stuff on that album. We would play live and sell so many records. You’re told by the industry you’re not commercial, but then you go play a show and half the audience buys your record. That’s why we are trying to connect it all together, so people can go find all the stuff. It shows how completely removed I was, I didn’t know Vice had a magazine. They signed us and I was like who are these guys? Then someone showed me the magazine and I was like oh man, I don’t want to be involved in this (laughter). They would keep getting us to play parties, I was like, I wouldn’t like to hear me sing at a fucking party. I’m not a party guy at all. Who wants to hear “Tear The Room Apart” when they’re on ecstasy?
After FS, you are currently in August Wells?
KG: It’s basically me and a piano player, John Rauchenberger. I wanted to challenge myself, to see if I could write something effective with just two people. I never have to say anything to him, he just intrinsically gets it and embellishes and adds to it. When we play the song will end, we’ll both feel like we’ve gone through something. It seemed like a musical relationship that was working from the start. Then we tried to get drummers involved and it didn’t seem to work. We used some horn players and a violin and that worked. To me it felt like the inverse of Horse Drawn Wishes. At this stage, I find through my own experience-volume and that sort of bombastic approach-it’s almost become hokey. I find it conservative now. It’s so ever present. I’m amused that every band that claims to be experimental is always really loud. Well, why not be really quiet? When we play, it’s at a pretty low volume. It’s interesting the discomfort it causes in the room. If you talk, we will hear you talking. If you let yourself go with it, it becomes this communal, heavy emotional experience. It’s been opening, feeling that connection to people through the music.
With Favourite Sons your vocals have been compared to Nick Cave, The Strokes and Leonard Cohen.
KG: I love Leonard Cohen. With Favourite Sons, I decided to write pure songs to see how that goes. To my horror, I discovered it’s not that easy. I started it and realized, shit I’m not very good at this. So I pushed myself really hard. Nick Cave.....I enjoy his stuff, but he is more of a performer/character. Leonard Cohen is a pure song writer and being compared to him is flattering. I don’t get The Strokes, that’s just truly lazy. We just don’t sound like The Strokes (laughter). Does The Strokes sound anything like Leonard Cohen? When you sing in a baritone people immediately go Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, no matter what you do. It’s just amusing after a while. Eventually your stuff finds its audience, people realize, oh it doesn’t actually sound like Nick Cave.
On August Wells, people have a very emotional reaction to it. It’s like they have a hunger for that sort of thing. When we play as a two piece, you have nowhere to hide. If people don’t like it, they really don’t like you. A lot of people will hold back twenty percent or ten percent doing something, because it gives them an excuse to be able to absorb criticism. I feel with Horse Drawn Wishes and with AW’s album, I was in a position to completely do exactly what I wanted to do. With August Wells if people don’t like it, then I can take it. Horse Drawn Wishes was probably youthful arrogance. It’s got to the stage where I can do whatever I want because I’m old enough to realize it just doesn’t matter. So I might as well try and make it as good as I can. I think there are subtleties to the AW album that requires a few listens. I worked very hard on it lyrically. It’s a combination of everything I’ve done over the last twenty two years. I’m trying to invent with John. It might sound familiar on some level, but if you really listen, it’s got a lot of stuff that’s not like anything else.
It’s very reflective, yet melancholic.
KG: There is a lot of humour in there if you really search for it (laughter.) I think the song that repeats the line “oh happy day” after lines describing horrible situations is supposed to be kind of funny. Maybe my sense of humour is black.