An exclusive chat with frontman Casey Shea about the present and future of the working musician
If you are a fan of the latest works of Miley Cyrus, HAIM, Vampire Weekend and Jenny Lewis, you are aware of how much the breezy sounds of the country rock and soft rock scenes in Los Angeles in the mid-to-late 70s has been deliciously recalibrated for the ears of Gen Z.
And while they might seem like they emerged from a time capsule in California’s Laurel Canyon, there’s a supergroup of sorts who took their name from that mammoth hole in the ground deep in the heart of neighboring Arizona.
“We took a look at the musical landscape and saw that there was a huge hole where good music used to be,” frontman Casey Shea tells RNRG. “When we thought of giant holes, the Grand Canyon is the only thing that could really compare.”
Shea, along with his songwriting partner and guitarist Joe Guese, singer Amy Wilcox and a killer rhythm section comprised of Jon Cornell (bass), Darice Bailey (keys/vocals), and Matt Bogdanow (drums), are all working musicians with impressive resumes. As a collective, they’ve appeared on countless daytime and late night shows including SNL, and have worked on albums from an impressive range of prolific acts including Celine Dion, Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs, Linda Perry and, in Casey’s part, the mighty Rod Stewart.
On August 2, Grand Canyon will release their new EP, entitled Yesterday’s News. And with this new title comes a graceful shift into a feel that’s more in line with the albums made by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp during the second four years of Ronald Reagan in office.
The video for their EP’s title track brings Shea through the streets of Brixton, England in a short that wouldn’t sound out of place being backsold by Martha Quinn in the early days of MTV.
VIDEO: Grand Canyon “Yesterday’s News”
We had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Shea with the release of Yesterday’s News being less than a month away to speak on a host of topics pertaining to this talented and promising band of pros and the power of their united pedigree.
What’s it like being a session man or touring musician in 2019? Is there a way in the modern age to build up the acclaim of a Hal Blaine? Why or why not?
If you’re as good as Hal Blaine, you’ll make a name for yourself one way or another. Whether or not popular music returns to real humans playing on records could make it hard to be, say….a drummer.
Is there a particular session that stands out most in your memory? Which one and why?
The most memorable session I’ve had was recording some background vocals for Rod Stewart’s latest album [last year’s hugely underrated Blood Red Roses]. We did the session in a makeshift studio at his house, and I got to meet the legend himself. He looked and sounded exactly as you’d imagine, and he couldn’t have been more of a gentleman. He sat there next to the producer watching, listening, and encouraging while we were tracking, which was surreal. It was a bit nerve wracking, but it was one of those sessions where you think to yourself – this is why I’ve put all this time and effort in, to get to a place where I could step up to a mic in front of one of my heroes and deliver. I’m very lucky I had such an opportunity, and I’ll never forget it. On top of it all, my parts made the final mixes, so that was the icing on the cake.
Would you ever consider Grand Canyon recording with Rod if he wanted to do an Americana style album? What do you think of those instances where a relatively younger group of musicians begin working with one of the old rock greats like Neil Young and Promise of the Real or David Crosby and the Snarky Puppy collective?
Rod’s a legend – a one in a billion voice – and one of the truly great rock and roll frontmen. I actually got to sing on a couple of tracks on his latest album. It was a pretty surreal experience to be singing with him sitting there in the room. He was a true gentleman. I’d jump at the chance to back him up as a band on record.
I fully support the legends keeping it fresh by playing with younger collectives. The two people you mention are true artists in every sense of the word. It doesn’t surprise me that they’d push their own limits and continue to take chances. Crosby’s quietly been putting out an album a year recently, super musical stuff, I love it.
Were there any particular sessions or experiences from your working life that informed your approach to recording the album?
I had a child in the middle of recording our last record. That had a twofold effect. On the one hand it made me think…it’s only music, have fun. On the other hand, it made me extra focused on making the best record possible, so I could hopefully put food on the table with it someday.
One of the coolest revivals in rock these last 10 years has been the return of that big Sky midwestern rock sound of John Hiatt and mid 80s Mellencamp. I’d even throw in the first Melissa Etheridge in there. And it’s great to see how it has been modified by the likes of yourselves, the War on Drugs and, though he’s been canceled by his own moral decay, Ryan Adams. Especially his last two records. To what do you attribute the renewed sense of appeal in this sound?
I attribute it to producers sitting in studios making beats where everything’s so safe and clinical and perfect to a grid. There’s certainly a place for all that, but I think there’s a longing for the feeling you can only get by hearing real people playing together with feeling on record….preferably with big electric guitars.
Do all these little School of Rock style music schools popping up in American strip malls give you hope the gene pool for young musicians will expand? Why or why not?
Definitely. Anything that encourages the youth to pick up an instrument and express themselves is a big positive in my book. One of the best parts about music is making it with other people. I imagine these kids become friends pretty quickly in their classes. Or maybe they take what they’ve learned back to their neighborhood and encourage other friends to start a band. It doesn’t take long to realize it’s not about how good you are or how many notes you can play, but how you express yourself and express yourselves as a unit that matters. The nuances and personality that certain people bring are the things that make the difference between being a great band and being a truly special band, it’s all about chemistry.
Beyond your own, are there any big albums out there now that you think provide a good template for the concept of being able to write hit-worthy songs in the organic style of Tom Petty and John Mellencamp in the 80s?
I think you’re right about The War on Drugs, I like them, but they don’t seem to be after making big hook-laden singalong hits. I’m not sure about any really recent albums that are going for it in modern rock music, but I’d say the best example of it in general is The Killers. They’re not as rootsy as Mellencamp or as organic as Petty, but if you strip away some of the synths, you’re usually left with massive guitars, guitar solos, big drums, memorable bass lines, and great, simple American songwriting with huge memorable choruses. And Brandon Flowers is an incredible singer and frontman on top of it. So they’re pretty much the full package in my mind. The cool police don’t give them their due, but I think they’ll be one of the very few from the last 10-15 years that’ll stand the test of time.