Devastation At Last, Finally We Meet: Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon at 25
The RNR Globe chats exclusively with bassist Paul Kimble on the legacy of the band’s sophomore masterpiece
Some albums are born out of time. Released on September 20th, 1994 – months after St. Kurt’s suicide begat the waning of grunge and punk became the alterna-rock du jour – Grant Lee Buffalo’s sophomore masterpiece, Mighty Joe Moon, could not have been less in step with popular music.
Arcane lyrical references to Tecumseh and John Wayne (Gacy…Gacy…) rub up against leader Grant Lee Phillips’ 12-string guitar, alternately chiming and roaring in overdriven fury and matched in swooping intensity by his baritone croon. Producer/bassist Paul Kimble’s bowed bass, melancholy keys and atmospheric production touches couldn’t be further from the bright, clean tones of Green Day and The Offspring, bands who littered the radio that fall. And Joey Peters’ drums, always heavy on the toms and bass drum, sounded like the stampede of the band’s titular namesake. This was an album of sinew and grit and storytelling – but also one that could break your heart.
Coming off the success of 1993’s debut, Fuzzy (an album dubbed by none other than R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe as “the best album of the year hands down”) and an unending series of tour dates criss-crossing the US and Europe, Grant Lee Buffalo were poised to be The Next Big Thing®. Rather than returning as conquering heroes, their were exhausted and came back to find their homes destroyed in one of the many earthquakes that rattled California that year with a batch of songs reflecting the loneliness of the road and largely more personal in nature.
The haunting “Happiness”, the lovestruck “Honey Don’t Think” and the elegiac title track were miles away from the debut’s focus on external storytelling and world events. The last-minute addition of the waltzing “Mockingbirds” would also give them a flirtation with MTV. But even a stint opening R.E.M.’s massive tour in 1995 couldn’t convince the punters to drop their copy of Dookie and embrace the more challenging environs of pump organs and banjos. So, one of alt-rock’s unheralded masterpieces would find itself (like so many before it), resigned to the dustbin of history. GLB would release the smoother, more cinematic Copperopolis in 1996 and Kimble would leave the band shortly thereafter. One last stab in the form of 1998’s mixed-bag Jubilee would be released by Phillips and Peters and a cadre of side players before the band quietly called it quits the following year.
In an exclusive online chat, Paul Kimble revisits the album and talks about what could have been.
Coming off a debut (Fuzzy) that was highly acclaimed and very well received (hell, you were Michael Stipe’s favorite band at the time!), was there a pressure to follow that up with something more mainstream? Mighty Joe Moon is by no means a “pop” record, but it is bigger, and for lack of a better word “grander” than Fuzzy.
When we were signed, one of the things I said was, “These are going to be our records, I don’t care what you think, and I don’t even really want to hear what you think, we do this our way, or we don’t sign”. We had very little interference from the record companies, and did pretty much exactly what we wanted to do. Other people’s opinions about what we did or should do held zero sway.
Both Fuzzy and Mighty Joe Moon deal with themes of American and personal identity, and the latter seems to shift away from explicitly political screeds like “Stars N Stripes” and “America Snoring” to deal with more personal reflections (“Happiness”, “Honey Don’t Think”). Where were your heads at as a band while writing the record?
The time period before MJM, we were constantly on the road, which is a very different head space than sitting around at home etc. I think that record reflects that – it’s more personal, because there was such a lack of private space at that time. Grant and I were actually sleeping in a two-man tent in Joey’s back yard, because both Grant and I had our living spaces destroyed in the earthquake at the time. Nowhere else to live, both of our houses were destroyed. Grant’s trailer was knocked off the foundation, and my place was half caved in and no power.
Your production on the first three albums acts as almost a de-facto “fourth member” of Grant Lee Buffalo – there is a dusky but feral vibe you get that is somewhat inimitable. You also used an arsenal of arcane and cool instrumentation on the record. What was the set-up like for that? Are there any good stories around the recording that you can share?
We always had a fondness for combining the old and the new, the instrumentation is a branch of that. We really didn’t use too many strange instruments: Grant’s 12-string, piano, bass, drums. There were some interesting approaches taken with those instruments though.. slide bass, 12-string acoustic through an amp etc. We used pump organ on a few things, “Mighty Joe Moon” for example, but mostly the instrumentation was pretty stock – it was more the approach that was experimental.
What about the approach was unorthodox?
Grant and I living in a tent while making it, Grant wanting to record a blowtorch on “Eldorado Motorhome”. That’s another record that was all done in first takes. As a matter of fact, that recording of “Mockingbirds” is literally the first time that Joey and I ever played the song. The record was done, and I told Grant we needed one more song, something like “Fuzzy”, with falsetto vocals, and he went and wrote “Mockingbirds.”
So, wait – there is an actual song called “Eldorado Motorhome”? Or are you talking about the home video of that name?
Yeah, it’s a little musical interlude (the here-to-fore untitled instrumental ending of the song “Side By Side”). That electronic press kit thing was done after. They gave us a budget and wanted us to make one of these EPK things. They showed us examples of guys sitting around their house in shorts in North Hollywood, talking about their band. We said “fuck this, let’s take their money and make a movie with it”(laughs).
We were always good about taking any money they gave us and doing a lot with it. Fuzzy actually had another 10 songs or so we recorded that never saw the light of day. “Here Comes The Rat Man” is a GLB song no one has ever heard.
VIDEO: Grant Lee Buffalo El Dorado Motorhome
You all were pretty prolific – how did you determine what made the record? (B-sides from this era are collected on the posthumous Storm Hymnal collection). The choices you made are not only uniformly excellent, but it’s damn near perfectly sequenced.
I’ve always had a knack for sequencing I think, it comes really easy to me. Grant and I never really had any trouble figuring out what we wanted to use. Grant and Joey really left me alone once I started mixing. The entire record was recorded in a week – both Mighty Joe Moon and Fuzzy were.
The immediacy of the performances definitely speaks to that. Something like “Sing Along” is just a sonic tempest until it breaks for the pretty parts.
Yeah, we were playing about 300 shows a year at that point, there was no fooling around. And that approach on “Sing Along” is very GLB. I always hated songs that had no dynamics, so I always tried to build that into things. “Lady Godiva and Me” is another one of those – really pretty, then really ugly. I like that.
Did Mighty Joe Moon push open any doors for the band? If I remember correctly, you opened some of the shows on R.E.M.’s Monster tour (something I only remember because I was disappointed that you weren’t at the stop I was seeing and instead had to deal with something called “Radiohead” as the opener).
(Laughs) Eh…hard to say. We were always well liked by other bands and critics, and ignored by everyone else I think. It’s a shame the world didn’t get to hear our electric guitar band. We had an entire other batch of songs that Grant played Les Paul on, that was a really great band. Songs like ‘Napoleon Blownapart’. That band was awesome.
VIDEO: Grant Lee Buffalo on The Beat 1994
Were those ever recorded?
A lot were, yeah. I recorded everything on a 4-track.
You should get those out there!
Joey probably has that stuff. I had everything I owned stolen about five years ago, so I’ve got nothing.
Looking back with 25 years of experience, which songs/recordings from that album resonate most with you now?
It’s always been the same songs for me. “Stars and Stripes”, “Happiness”…I really love that slow, hypnotic, ponderous vibe. Those songs were the most “me”, in terms of the sound and mood. Funny thing with music, everyone plays the same in general: slow songs are sad, fast songs are either happy or angry. I think we were the first band ever to play slow angry songs.
You’ve recently reignited your music career under the Pistol Star moniker, and last year’s fantastic Netherworld Orange is the most GLB-ish music you’ve been involved with since leaving the band. Was that a conscious decision?
There was nothing conscious about that album, that’s just me. I went into that recording session with only about 1/3rd of the songs written, and almost none of the lyrics. Almost everything on that record is first take, and me not having any idea what I was going to play when the tape started rolling. Easily the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done creatively, and something that I’ve been trying to get to all of my life, i.e., getting my intellect out of the way, and just playing. It’s hard to accurately convey how satisfying that record was to make.
AUDIO: Grant Lee Buffalo Mighty Joe Moon (full album)
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4 thoughts on “Devastation At Last, Finally We Meet: Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon at 25”
Look up “Tecumseh”.
Thank you for catching that!
desert island album for sure
easily one of the greatest albums of all time…actually ALL THREE of the early grant lee buffalo albums are, but if they held a gun to your head, and you had to pick ONLY ONE album of the three to take on a desert island with you..hands down..no question, it would be MIGHTY JOE MOON !! I was not / and STILL am not a fan of pearl jam..nirvanna…ect. any of those 90’s GRUNGE bands, but when i literally STUMBLED upon grant lee buffalo because of a friend of mine at the time, it was, unquestionably, a LIFE CHANGING experience. i am not just a fan, but a hyper SUPER over the top fan of solo grant AND grant lee buffalo….my band PUBLIC LIBRARY could NOT have been any more OUT OF STEP with the music that was happening at that time in the early 90,s either…so i TOTALLY relate to what paul kimble is saying in this article !!