You probably shouldn’t date your friend’s sister.
So there I was dating my friend’s sister and, um…..I didn’t know that rule until it was a little late. It all started at a Halloween Jellyfish show, actually. Jessica was so darn cute spraying people in the face saying “I’m the rain forest!” when they’d ask what she was. The next thing I knew, we were an item of sorts. After a couple of months in LA, I moved to the Bay Area and she went back to school in San Luis Obispo. When we heard about the lineup for UC Santa Barbara’s annual Extravaganza spring concert, we decided to make a roadtrip out of it. I drove down to Cal Poly and spent the night on Friday and we co-hosted her weekly radio show on KCPR the next morning.
Me and Isla Vista, the Santa Barbara suburb where the college is located, we go way back. When I was young, my whole family went to a summer family camp there for years and stayed in the dorms. A huge group of my high school friends went to school there so I came up often for parties, shows or no reason at all. Sometimes it felt like I went there to get away from my own school as much as I went home to San Diego. My friends Jim and Sonya were going, Lincoln and Nikki were driving up from LA and now my friend Andy, Jessica’s brother, was going to school there too.
Since the Grays album, Ro Sham Bo, had been out for a couple of months, I had given it quite a few spins. I knew the songs better and, like many bands, I thought that while there was lots of great production bits that their live energy just didn’t make it onto the album as much as I wanted it to. Many of the songs drag on the record (but sounded fine a little faster live). In a 1994 interview Jason said “My thing is to try to reproduce the record, but not duplicate it,” Falkner said. “I’m almost into playing things twice as fast live.”
What’d Dan have to say about how the drums sounded? From the interesting Grays’ bio (read the whole thing on an unofficial Grays myspace page) “I was involved with (producer) Jack (Puig), especially with him showing me how to get the drum sounds. I went out and collected all this percussion before the sessions, including a 1939 Radio King set that belonged to Buddy Rich. A song like ‘Nothing’ was nothing like it sounds now, the drum part especially. Jon Brion also plays drums, and Jason’s a good drummer, so there’s a lot of information and ideas being fed to me.”
It was Jason that brought in Jack Joseph Puig, who’d worked on Jellyfish’s Bellybutton album, to produce the album at Hollywood’s Grandmaster Recorders, which has a long history of great records, though Jason called it “rat infested”. Check their site for a roster. From all accounts, it was an unhappy situation right away. While the Bostonians had known each other for years, Jason was the new guy and the new guy had just left a successful band in the hopes of doing everything himself. Plus they were all capable of leading a band. Ruh roh, Raggy. Photos taken by friend Phil Sullivan on the first day of recording look fun despite what I’ve heard from all involved. The huge Beatle cutouts that apparently ended up at the studio parking lot were atop Capitol Records in 1992 for the 30th anniversary of their first single. I don’t see any photos of them online but a friend I worked with at BMG played with a Beatles coverband for the occasion and I took the above photo.
So, out popped Ro Sham Bo, the Grays’ only album, released February 22, 1994 on Epic Records. Here’s a quick rundown of the songs with guilt-free Youtube links (plus some other video goodies) since it’s out of print…..
1. “Very Best Years” (Jason Falkner) – 3:26. Yes, Jason could’ve written something that would’ve fit fine on a Jellyfish record. Grays Denver ’94, Jason solo electric at International Pop Overthrow 2012
2. “Everybody’s World” (Buddy Judge) – 5:42. Chugging 60’s pop in the vein of Matt Sweet’s “Divine Intervention”. Nice hand off to Jason to sing the bridge. Live at Cal Berkeley ’94 (audio)
3. “Same Thing” (Jon Brion) – 4:01. Another nice hand off to running back Falkner up the middle 8. Live, it’d always be followed to a fun improv right after “So here goes nothing…” Jon solo electric Chicago 2008
4. “Friend Of Mine” (Falkner) – 5:16. Rarely (never?) done with full band but an occasional acoustic show number. Jason solo acoustic 1999 at Rough Trade UK
5. “Is It Now Yet” (Buddy Judge/Dan McCarroll) – 4:03. Sun King shines bright on this eerie lil’ gem. The only co-writing credit on the record. Denver Grays ’94
6. “Oh Well Maybe” (Falkner) – 3:43. Jason once made an onstage “Wildflower” joke so I can mention the riff.
7. “Nothing Between Us” (Brion) – 3:55. Helluva heartbreaker and the closest Jon gets to a classic Porter/Gershwin type lyric/melody like some of his later solo stuff. Grays Denver ’94, sheet music
8. “Both Belong” (Falkner) – 4:25. Sparkling lightning-fast acoustic intro. Things might’ve been a lot different if this had been the first single. Rarely done with the full band (I don’t think I ever saw them do it). Grays Denver ’94, Jason solo acoustic 1999 in Birmingham UK, Jason solo electric 2012 at International Pop Overthrow LA
9. “Nothing” (Judge) – 3:30. Clever take on the lack thereof a la Sylvia’s “Nobody”. Grays Denver ’94, Grays acoustic Mod Lang Records Berkeley ’94
10. “Not Long For This World” (Brion) – 4:52. Definitely not lacking in energy and not because it’s the fastest song on the album. Grays Denver ’94
11. “Spooky” (Falkner) – 5:07 Falkner SCREAMS! Great moodiness, possibly my LP fave. Grays Denver ’94
12. “All You Wanted” (Judge) – 4:30. Buddy’s lament with some great swirly vocals.
13. “No One Can Hurt Me” (Brion) – 6:28. The last of three downers to close out the album.
So, where was I? Oh yeah, Santa Barbara, May 21, 1994. If you look at Wikipedia’s list of Extravaganza lineups, you can see it’s always been big on the SoCal reggae, pop-punk & ska type stuff. In 1994 there was pretty much none of that. I remembered most of the lineup without looking though I don’t recall seeing Casual from Hieroglyphics or some guy named Ben Harper. My friend Matt who I knew from being in a band with my highschool friend Jim was part of the show staff and asked me if I wanted to introduce the Grays. What? Shy little ole me? I thought I’d just list places they were supposedly #1 in and took requests from everyone in the band. All I can remember is that Jason wanted Luxembourg and I somehow managed to redundantly list some European city AND its country. Geography was not my strong suit. Halfway through, they started up “Everybody’s World” so I just kept listing places over the build-up until right before it all kicked in and said “Ladies and gentlemen, Epic Records recording artists, THE GRAYS!” to great dramatic effect. Years later, I heard some guy named Jon Spencer stole my schtick so I stole it back about two minutes into this video:
I don’t remember too much about the band’s set, other than that it was cool to see so many folks digging them. It was one of those rare moments of pure enjoyment of being young, out with some of my best friends, seeing great bands on a beautiful California sunshine day. At some point, Roy from the Muffs came up to me, thinking I was with the band to ask if he could borrow a drumstool. I pointed him towards Dan, assured him he was very nice and they worked it out. I knew the Muffs were friends with Redd Kross, who I loved, but didn’t know my history well enough to realize Roy had been in the band. When they started, all I could hear was Kim’s unreal scream and went back to talking to friends. Years later, Blonder and Blonder became one of my favorite records ever. It took major surgery to get “Oh Nina” out of my head and insurance didn’t cover much of it.
It was either this or the next show that I talked to Jason about starting and running the band’s fanclub. I’d moved to the Bay Area to help start a business handling fanclubs for bands with the girls who were already running Jellyfish and Redd Kross’ armies. By the time I moved there, Jellyfish had broken up and the girls weren’t handling the Kross. Oops. I still thought it could be a good idea and figured if I started with someone smaller I could see how it went. Jason was all about it, gave me their management’s info, told me twice to not forget to call them and gave me a band t-shirt in front of other people he was selling them to. I can’t stop wondering when my next Grays show was (possibly before this UCSB show) so I opened up a box of random junk tonight to see if I had an old planner that would know. Lots of old planners but not for 1994. But guess what was at the bottom of the box?
frente!, who were on tour with They Might Be Giants, played next on a tiny stage on the other side of the big, open field. Talk about the opposite of the Muffs. No one knew what to expect, having only heard their cover of New Order’s sandwich anthem “B.L.T.”. They suffered from Hootie disease, where a lot of people thought Frente was a single-named solo female singer. Nope. Four member Aussie BAND but jazzy and fun with a lot of cool, hooky tunes. If you scroll back far enough of Yer Doin Great’s Facebook page, you can read other tales of me seeing them (coming soon to a WordPress blog near you). One of the most underrated bands of the 90’s. Both records are great. Get ’em.
In the Small World Department, they opened for Alanis Morrissette a couple of years later, where Miss Irony’s guitarist, Jessie Tobias, fell for singer Angie Hart and the two married a year later. Tobias was Jason’s guitarist for a short period so I’d see him and Angie at Falkner shows. Check the video below of them rocking at San Francisco’s Bottom Of The Hill in 1996 (shot by the aforementioned Patrick Goodwin, who filmed the Grays in Denver). The couple started a group called Splendid that played one of their first ever shows at a charity concert series I put together in San Diego that Jason also played in 1998.
My sister had schooled me on “Mistadobalina” but Del The Funky Homosapien, who was up next, got old quick. Like most live rap, even a great single MC with a DJ is hard to keep interesting. They Might Be Giants started at sunset and I’m sure they were swell but, at the end of a long day and having seen them three times before, I was ready for the show to end. An olde man at the age of 23. We all went and got Freebirds and sat amongst the grunge posters and powerpop stickers. After all, it was 1994.