Though spring has sprung, Seattle MC Grieves' new album, co-produced entirely by San Jose's B. Lewis, is called The Winter and The Wolves.
Something of a DIY hip-hop star, Grieves booked his first national tour in the mid-2000s by begging favors on MySpace. His harmonious flow, soul-bearing lyrics, affable sarcasm, and multi-instrumentalist talents have earned him kudos; he's in-your-face but also has heart. He really puts all his feelings out there, so much so that his earnestness can be as polarizing as his lip ring.
We spoke to Grieves, who is signed to Minneapolis label Rhymesayers, ahead of his performance at The Roxy on Saturday.
You're just returning from the U.S. after your first time playing in Europe. How did things go overseas?
It was positive for us. Europe caters to smaller rooms. They have smaller venues, 150-200 cap rooms. And they're all really nice with full lighting and production. It's possible to play good shows in small rooms. We're playing smaller rooms in the U.S. and can't set up our lighting rig in some of those smaller venues.
How about the fan reception over there?
There's a slightly different outlook on art and the people that make it over there. They thank you differently. This "thank you for making this art" kind of thing. We do that here, but there it just hits you differently. The experience of playing live, they cater to you just a little bit more. Here's it's "get your ass on stage and rap, do whatever you got to do."
The title of your new album Winter and the Wolves comes from a line in first single "Shreds."
Yeah, it tied it all together. I'd been watching a shitload of Game of Thrones, and I kind of wanted to get a sort of North of the Wall-esqe saying to describe the record.
Given Winter in the title, do you find the seasons affect the way you make music?
Eh, no. I mean, maybe. I've never written a summer record where it's me cruising around the beach in a LeBaron packed full of bikini-wearing babes. It tends to be a down time for me, the winter. That's usually a sketchy time to tour, so that tends to be the time I do the most writing. That may affect me a little bit, but Seattle's pretty much the same until summer hits, so from July-to-August, that's our summer. After that, it's pretty much the same. We have seasons, but they aren't full-on seasons.
The production on this new album was handled by B. Lewis. Were there ever challenges creating your distinctly Seattle sound with his being from San Jose?
The cool part about Brad is that he's kind of a chameleon. You put something in front of him and he will adapt to it. I met him through The Bad Rabbits from Boston, a new jack swing/soul funk group. Brad produced their entire record, so he can pretty much do anything. He does a lot of Flying Lotus-type beat tape stuff, and that's what he was sending me for a while, but that stuff is so busy, I didn't know what to rap over it as. I sat with him in San Jose and said "What about this?" and he was able to run with it. It was a really cool feeling to be able to do that.
Notable absent is your longtime collaborator Budo. Was your decision to not work with him on this project amicable?
Yeah, totally. He and I sat down to make the song "Gwenevieve" off of [2008's] 88 Keys and Counting when I had already started to make the record. That turned into the rest of the songs. That turned into touring that record, and that turned into making another record when Rhymesayers picked me up, and that turned into touring that record. This wasn't necessarily what we wanted to do right off the bat, and Josh didn't get to explore other aspects of his musicality. When we sat down to write this new record, we kept hitting walls because he wanted to do more glitchy electronic stuff and I wanted to do more organic stuff. We just decided to do other stuff.
No bad blood then?
No. At first, I was a little weird about it because change is always weird and hip-hop fans are so weird about that shit. All the interviews overseas are all "Do you and Budo have beef?" "No, I don't have beef with him. I had tacos with him the other day, so I guess we had beef together." I don't know, man. It's like, as soon as you make a change, hip-hop people think something bad happened. We could have put that record out, neither one of us would have liked it, and then what?
People put a crazy spin on it too. "He's never rapped over a beat that wasn't a Budo beat and now all that's about to change!" Are you shitting me right now? I produced half of Together/Apart, I produced half of 88 Keys, I produced all of Irreversible. That's just not something that I talk about. It's not "GRIEVES: Half-produced by Grieves, Half-produced by Budo." If you start putting labels on everything, people already think you're mad at each other because you're drawing a line in the sand.
So, just to end the speculation, nothing on the new record is about Budo?
[Laughs] No. There's no song about Budo on the record, except "Kidding Me" because I caught him fucking another dude and that did hurt me for a while, but we've settled our differences. I don't take shots like that. If I have a problem with somebody, I'm going to call them and talk about it. I'm not going to put some passive aggressive bullshit song on my record.
You do show a level of vulnerability in your lyrics. How much of this record is autobiographical?
Pretty much all of it. The thing with my writing process is that it has to be true, or I can't hone in on it. It has to come from a feeling. Some of the stories on this record aren't actually my stories, they're the stories of people around me. It makes you think about your own position when those things happen. It's all true to my life, or I can't really write about it.
That in mind, is there anything you hesitate to put into a song?
Yes there is, and I've definitely cut some. There's some songs that don't make the record for several reasons. I try not to go deep into my family that much. I did on my first record [on "Rebecca"] and I kind of wish that I wouldn't have. But, at the same time, I needed to talk about that stuff. That song does mean a lot to people that are going through similar situations. It's a little shocking, it's not a song you roll the windows down and listen to. Music is therapeutic, and if it can help people, that's cool. Sometimes it's a little weird when people walk up to me and talk about it, that's the one part that kind of gets me when writing about songs that are too close to home, literally. But, there are ways to dance around that with poetry and wordplay.
Slug from Atmosphere joins your on "Astronauts." Along with being on Rhymesayers, you've mentioned being inspired by the work of Atmosphere and your now-labelmates as well. Do you have any favorites in the Rhymesayers catalog?
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Yeah, I do. I am a God Loves Ugly fan. I am a Shadows on the Sun fan, for sure. And I fucking love Evidence. The Cats and Dogs record that came out was great. His production is so sick to me because of the gully East coast vibe, but because he's West coast, it's slowed down.
One recurring theme in your work is the allusions to fairy tales. It's on your new record on "Kidding Me" and goes back to your 2005 track "Fairytale Bullshit." Were you a fan of fairy tales growing up and what about them makes for effective storytelling?
I wasn't the biggest fairytale fan, but I am kind of a fantasy fan. I'm a huge fan of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, knights of the round table and dragon slayers. I love that shit. Call it nerdy, call it whatever, it's just cool to me. This whole Europe tour, any time we had to stop, I had the tour manager take us to castles, so I could run around and feel like a badass. It's something I just have always enjoyed and it's a cool way to teach a lesson. Just, being a writer myself and trying to explain something without really explaining it, that sort of fantasy folklore stuff is pretty badass. And since it's a personal interest of mine, it really comes out in my writing.