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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Interview: Larkin Grimm

LarkinGrimm_JimGavenus

You’re from Dahlonega, correct?

Yeah, I’m home and I’m sitting here with this huge view of the Appalachian mountains and it’s great and there are church bells singing some Southern hymn. I was born in Memphis and then I lived in Atlanta for 5 or 6 years -- Grant Park. My dad was an Appalachian fiddler and he wanted to learn from a teacher who lives up here, named Bruce Molsky. We moved here so he could be closer to the fiddle and banjo people.

Does he still play?

Yeah, his name is John Grimm and he’s in a band called the Georgia Potlickers, and he has a music store up here called Vintage Music on the Dahlonega square.

Did your interest in music stem from growing up watching your father play?

Definitely, it’s kind of all he does. He’s always worked like 16 hours a day teaching lessons, doing repairs and selling instruments. In the evenings he’s either playing a show himself or working with a recording engineer or sound engineer somewhere. If I was hanging out with my dad it was always at a concert or at his shop. I used to walk home from school and he would give me a nickel to tune all of the guitars in the shop.

He’s really into Eastern music as well – he was a hippie – so he was trying to give me a classical Indian kind of training where you have to spend years tuning an instrument before you can actually play it.

"Ride That Cyclone" mp3

Larkin Grimm plays Variety Playhouse Sat., Nov. 21 with the Mountain Goats and Final Fantasy. $17.50. 9 p.m. 1099 Euclid Ave. 404-524-7354.

Your upbringing probably has a lot to do with how distinctive your sound and identity have become.

Yeah well my two loves have always been music and art. I went to art school at Yale. When I was there I was always listening to the weirdest music I could fine in the painting studio. The Velvet Underground, Laurie Anderson, Diamanda Galas, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass. Art music.

Not easy listening…

No, and it’s definitely not pop music.

I saw Diamanda Galas once and it was one of the most disturbing shows I have ever seen. It was also very hard to categorize, and I’ve had a hard time easily categorizing your sound as well, in sort of the same way.

A lot of people like to be disturbed. I’m really into the ritualistic aspect of music and the healing ability of music, and its ability to build communities. My life has always been centered around music. I love pop and I got really bummed out that I couldn’t go see Kylie Minogue when she came through on her last tour… And I’m totally interested in playing pop songs, but the issue is that you’re better if you write what you know and I know a lot of bizarre and wonderful stuff. I’ve always been really curious about music and I’ve always been hungry to see new people doing new things.

When I lived in Atlanta I lived in a commune in Grant Park. It was called the Holy Order of Mans. It was a crazy place that started in San Francisco and spread out all over the place in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and actually died out when the Christian right really started to take over America. The moral majority scared all of the hippies into hiding.

So anyway, growing up in that and growing up in a guitar store, every afternoon there were shredders and flat pickers and whatever playing rock and roll and country and bluegrass songs over and over and over again. I heard it so much that it became not exciting to me. I love it, but I want to hear something new. I want to hear bands that are pushing boundaries. So if my music is difficult to categorize it’s because I’m consciously trying to challenge what music means to people and what it can do.

I got in with that whole freak folk scene a few years back. They tried to embrace me but my music was too dark for them. They wanted somebody more like Alela Diane or Joanna Newsom. Someone who’s a little bit weird but mostly cute and pretty. And here I am, a person with a pretty voice and the ability to write a pretty melody, but I’m singing about people being dismembered, or whatever. It’s always something a little bit gross, weird or taboo. So the people who like me end up being like Michael Gira from Swans, or all of those guys from the no wave scene who have really embraced me since I moved to New York City. Martin Bisi loves my music and is very supportive. ... Genesis P-Orridge. All of those people are pretty far out and they’ve kind of accepted me as someone who’s pretty far out. It’s really helped.

I would like to write pop, but I have to be me.

Even Psychic TV did some psychedelic pop records at one point so who’s to say that the urge won’t hit you one day.

I’ve been hanging out with some Swedish girls lately and they’re into some seriously Swedish pop, and they’ve been getting me to sing some backup for them, and I get such a kick out of it, because Swedish pop is the poppiest pop of all. But it’s something that I’m doing because it’s fun. I can’t play simple dumb music again and again, night after night or I’ll loose my mind. My music is interesting to me and I get a kick out it. I don’t think that anyone is ever board by it.

How did you get hooked up with Michael Gira and Young God Records?

He heard my record somewhere. I think it happened through Devendra Banhart. He was introduced to me through a mutual friend and his drummer Otto Hauser drums with me occasionally.

Then someone else suggested that I send him a CD, so I did. It was an album that I recorded when I basically lost my mind at Yale. I was just trying to make sense of this weird, academic place and was making the most primal music that I could make. I was stuck in this academic white wash and it was really bad.

So I sent it to Michael and he wrote back. He liked it but he said that I should write more structured songs. So I took his advice but I never sent him anything else. Then someone else gave him my first record called Harpoon that I did for a label called Sacred Eye. It was run by a guy who was an acid dealer and he followed the Grateful Dead. He liked the most obscure psychedelic pop. His girlfriend basically funded the operation by stripping in a club in Portland. I can’t remember what it was called but it was pretty much the Clermont Lounge of Portland. She loved my music so they put my record out. Even though it was an obscure record, but because it was funded by LSD and sex it ended up getting international press.

So Michael heard it and said ‘hey, why are you hanging out with these criminals instead of with me?’

It’s hard for labels to do what they once did. I’m a little worried about Young God because people don’t buy records the way they once did. They download now, so I’m hoping that Young God will survive.

When I first started playing shows I got approached by a couple of labels, but they all wanted me to be cuter and sweeter and nicer. And that’s just not who I am. I’m trying to speak the truth and we live in our world... I’m kind of speaking for the broken and twisted people of the world. I’m not the kind of person that can just put my head in the sand, and I think that’s because I grew up in a commune until I was 6. It was such a different culture that was really endowed with Eastern spirituality and peace and love and meditation, and it was a very calm, sweet and intentional community. Leaving that and seeing the way that people treat each other in the modern world was such a shock to me that the dark things stuck out so much more, because I hadn’t been exposed to them as a child.

Going from a commune to Dahlonega to Yale... That's three pretty harsh culture clashes…

Yeah, I was an outsider in Dahlonega and I was somehow hoping for Yale to be a place where I could be myself and it certainly wasn’t. I knew nothing about the puritanical values of the Northeast. Up there they think they are liberal, but socially they are so much more conservative than people are in the South. So what do you do when you’re an outsider… Why does any artist make art. I had something that I wanted to express but was having trouble trying to communicate.

When I was a little girl we didn’t get any radio in Dahlonega. I used to ride my bike to the top of a mountain with a little radio on the handlebars of my bicycle so that I could get 88.5. The college radio station. I was a 10 year old girl and I would sit up there for as long as I could, or until it got too cold or two dark, just to hear music that was talking about other things.

So what’s the line-up going to be when you play at Variety Playhouse?

I have a guitar player and a viola player and they both sing harmonies, so we’ll have three-part harmonies. John Houx is the guitar player. He’s from Humboldt Co. California and his father is a cattle rancher. He’s a wild kid who’s been traveling around doing a tour by Greyhound bus. He’s very DIY and a beautiful blond baby faced kid. He’s an amazing musician.

The viola player is a woman named Amiri Navari and she is Iranian. She has influenced me a lot because she plays these amazing Middle Eastern melodies and her father is a Sufi. They’re like the Unitarians of the Muslim world. They started in Iran like 2,000 years ago or something, and there were a lot of famous Iranian poets who were Sufis. They wrote about sex and wine and dancing and music that people loved. Recently I’ve been working on some translations of Sufi poems. I have a few new songs that are translations of these ancient Islamic poems that I picked because they’re really wonderful and not what you would expect if you are watching FOX News and thinking about who is the Muslim world.

This all sounds a lot different from the stuff from your last record.

Yes, and we’re playing a lot of new songs. I wrote the last record almost two years ago now. I’m living in a different place and playing with a lot of different musicians, mostly people that I’ve met in New York.

Is there a new record in the works?

Yeah I’ve been working on a new record in upstate New York. Every month I record for one day and I pick a different group of musicians to take with me. A lot of the songs on the last album happened all in one week and were recorded mostly live. This album is a much slower process. It’s more of a studio album and I’ve got about 5 songs recorded so far.

Are these new songs the ones that you mentioned a minute ago? Songs set to Sufi poems?

A few of them are from the Islamic poetry and a few of them are songs that I wrote. I would say that this one is a little more beautiful and romantic than what’s on the last record. They’re more composed, too. And I’m playing with a drummer which gives a different structure to your songs.

You haven’t played in Atlanta a whole lot, have you?

Not so much. I’ve played at The Earl a few times and at Eyedrum. Dahlonega is a pretty conservative society and I didn’t want to implicate my parents as extremists which would happen if I played too many local shows. I definitely use swear words and sing about sex and drugs and things that good Southern girls don’t do, so I’ve tried to keep it out of my hometown a bit. But I’m at the age now where I don’t care so much any more, and I live in New York now, so anything goes. I don’t worry about it anymore.

(Photo by Jim Gavenus)

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