In the late 1990s, The Grassy Knoll was on the leading edge of a new kind of music, a darkly artful mix of the electric and the organic, of digital sampling and analog virtuosity. It was the sound of rock, jazz and electronica melded into a sometimes sly, sometimes seething and always forward-minded infusion.
A soundtrack for the conspiracy theory in your mind, The Grassy Knoll fuses the technical terrorism of the Bomb Squad with the organic impact of Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson – industrial-strength beats vying with serpentine sax solos, ambient-noir atmospheres cloaking coiled aggression… Cut-and-paste style, it effectively blurs the line between Birdland and clubland.” The albums featured such edgy instrumental stars as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, avant-jazz saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and genre-blind violinist Carla Kihlstedt. And tastemakers from Shirley Manson of Garbage to guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour were among the faithful, singing the praises of albums The Grassy Knoll (1994), Positive (1996) and III (1998), as well as new-century addendum Short Stories (2003).
Aside from an occasional remix and soundtrack inclusion, The Grassy Knoll went dormant for the decade after that, as life challenges took precedence. But now The Grassy Knoll – a/k/a multi-instrumentalist and producer Nolan “Bob” Green – returns with a new album brimming with a sense of fresh possibilities: Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1.
Along with Green on bass guitar and various other tools, the album’s instrumentalists come from far-flung genres and geography, including guitarist Vernon Reid, trumpeter Chris Grady and keyboardist Dave Depper, as well as such Austin luminaries as Brad Houser on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, Jesse Dayton on guitar, Chris Forshage on trumpet, Brian Batch on violin and Jeff Johnston on musical saw. Also, for the first time on a record by The Grassy Knoll, there are featured vocalists: Jon Dee Graham (the only three-time inductee to the Austin Music Hall of Fame), Adam Sultan of Poi Dog Pondering, Ann Courtney of Mother Feather, Francine Thirteen, Laura Scarborough and James Rotondi of Roto’s Magic Act. Along with Graham, several of these singers are also Green’s fellow Austin residents: Sultan, Thirteen and Scarborough.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with Green to discuss the hiatus, surviving cancer, breaking ground, the triumphant return, and star-studded guest list. This is what he told us.
The Grassy Knoll is back after nearly a decade long hiatus. Why the break in the first place?
The gap between records happened for a variety of reasons. Losing my deal with Polygram soured me a bit to the industry so I stepped aside to pursue other interests. I became Photo Editor of CMJ Music Monthly Magazine, then Production Manager for the classical music label Andante and then an editor for a TV show. Those kinds of jobs leave little time for anything else. The main driving force that got me creating again was surviving prostate cancer. That shit will make you reevaluate every aspect of your life. You realize what you love and what’s important.
Are you the only original member of the band still participating? Was this endeavor always a collective type atmosphere?
The grassy knoll is a studio-based project and the act of a lone gunman. I’ve been very fortunate to have had some incredibly talented musicians give a lot to this project. The records released on Nettwerk and Polygram were written and conceived before studio time was booked. Once the sequenced and sample parts were laid down to 2” tape, instrumentalists would come in and improvise on the tracks. Electric Verdeland Vol.1 is the first release where collaboration was part of the process
Do you believe your fans will recognize the band? What characteristics of your sound have held steadfast?
Absolutely. All of the characteristics that shaped the grassy knoll sound are still the driving force behind this new effort: darkness, beauty, chaos, down-tempo grooves, sonic manipulation, and great performances. Although, I do think that Electric Verdeland Vol.1 feels more alive, more human than the previous releases.
TGK has long been recognized as ground breakers. Do you take pride in that tag?
I do, but it’s odd to me when I hear that. Being considered a ground breaker wasn’t a motivating factor and still isn’t. I love making this music and if it strikes a chord with somebody that’s fantastic. The music seems to resonate the most with people who enjoy sitting in front of speakers and truly listening. This isn’t good background music. It’s layers and layers of sound that hopefully reveals more and more each listen.
You got some help on this record from some pretty spectacular guests, who not only played the songs, but helped you write them. Can you tell us about those collaborations?
I have a very trusting relationship with the guest artists. I give them plenty of room to do their thing and in return they allow me carte blanche to do with those takes what I please.
For example, as primer for the Pledge Music campaign I recorded a cover version of PiL’s “Poptones” with Vernon Reid, Jesse Dayton, Brad Houser and Jon Dee Graham. There were so many great takes from that session that I didn’t want hitting the cutting room floor that I created a new song by cutting and rearranging those takes.
This became the opening track on Electric Verdeland Vol.1—“The Kids Want a Little Action.” Laura Scarborough was really involved in “Rain Rain Down.” She had brilliant arrangement ideas and her vocals and lyrics were fantastic. That is by far the most lyrical song on the album.
The three tracks featuring James Rotondi were, as far as process, the most rewarding. His studio is in Williamsburg, and he consistently sent back tracks that inspired new directions. I would rewrite bass lines or rearrange the songs and then send them back for his reactions and additions. This back and forth led to some beautifully rich moments.
Do you have a running wishlist of future collaborators?
Chuck D, Erika Wennerstrom, Ornette Coleman, Richard Butler, Britt Daniel, Yoon Kwon, PJ Harvey, Bill Callahan, Paul Banks, Kim Gordon, Robert Plant… You said wishlist, right!?
During the ’90s you had some pretty famous supporters, including Shirley Manson. Did you ever happen to meet her? What was it like having that kind of support?
I met her backstage at a Smashing Pumpkins / Garbage show at the Cow Place just outside of San Francisco. She was extremely nice and very beautiful. It’s really special when an artist I admire says something positive about the grassy knoll.
Is Electric Verde records your own label? If so, is it empowering to have control of your own art in this way?
I was fortunate that both Nettwerk and Antilles allowed me to make records without any intervention. That being said, it is an empowering feeling doing it completely DIY. I own the masters and the publishing. What I lose on one hand, say in recoupable promotion and distribution, I gain in the other, complete ownership.
Do you have plans to tour on the record?
The live setting has always been a tricky one. The grassy knoll has toured as a six piece, four piece, a duo, and solo. Each version was enjoyable but none of them truly reflected the creative spirit of the music. I’m in the process of putting something together that is really exciting, and I hope that it will be practical enough to achieve on the road.
(Visit The Grassy Knoll here: www.TheGrassyKnollmusic.com.)