During my lost decade in Austin (2000-09), no band encapsulated my love for the city’s music scene like Grand Champeen. The first time I saw them was opening for Slobberbone at Lucy’s Retired Surfer’s Bar on 6th Street. It was the spring of 2002 and they were no more than 3 songs into their set that the thought balloon over my head shouted, “HOLY SHIT! Where has this band been all my life???” They married so many of my favorite sounds, it was like they crawled directly out of my record collection. I heard Replacements, Superchunk, mid-period Soul Asylum, Budokan-era Cheap Trick, and hometown heroes, Prescott Curlywolf.
However, these killer influences wouldn’t mean as much were there not an original Champeen aesthetic. And make no mistake, there was an aesthetic. If you were lucky enough to catch them on the right night back in those days — and most nights were the right night — you saw a four-man rock ‘n’ roll tornado roar to life on stage. Channing Lewis up front and center, low-slung guitar straight outta the Rob Bernard (P-Wolf/Damnations) playbook, but with a young Dave Pirner‘s sense of hyperkinetic activity. Michael Crow stage right, the self-deprecating guitar genius, offering vocal harmonies and occasional lead vocal to go along with that sweet guitar tone. Alex Livingstone stage left, the root down bassist, lead/harmony singer, and second songwriter after Channing. And his partner in rhythm section tomfoolery, Ned Stewart, the most underrated drummer in Austin and Grand Champeen glue guy.
Turns out I was catching Champeen at a critical juncture in their career. Back in 2002, music journalists considered them an alt.country act, despite the fact that the band I saw was clearly no frills, raise your beers, pump your fist rock ‘n’ roll. To be fair, their 2001/02 album, Battle Cry For Help*, featured a song with a country-ish backbeat (“One Foot On The Stage”), a song with a train beat (“$2 In Silver”), and a couple songs with steel guitar that maybe could’ve fit in on Wilco‘s Being There (“Four Years” and “Sparks”). That these kinda sorta twangy moments were islands in a sea of rock was beside the point. As Crow later admitted, the notion that Grand Champeen might be considered alt.country motivated them to approach their next album “with an insatiable hunger for distortion and fast tempos.”
* Battle Cry was released on Expansion Team in 2001 and then re-released by Glurp in 2002.
The One That Brought You was released in October 2003 on Glurp Records. As promised, all traces of alt.country were swept away in a tide of distortion, phase-shifting, and big guitars. Regrettably, Champeen’s embrace of blood-and-guts rock music wasn’t met with a larger audience in Austin, and outside of specific places like Buffalo, St. Paul (MN), San Francisco, and Lawrence (KS), Champeen’s national footprint was virtually non-existent. Of course, the band didn’t do themselves any favors by ignoring 2003 fashions. They didn’t make wafer-thin lite rock for Pitchfork beardos hung up on The Shins, Broken Social Scene, and The Strokes. They didn’t embrace the neo-southern rock that was all the rage back then, be it My Morning Jacket (who were actually legit), Drive-By Truckers (a Skynyrd knockoff without the swing or nuance), and Kings Of Leon (please). And while they sure as hell didn’t sound like fellow Austinites, Spoon, it seemed like maybe they could’ve surfed on that Moonlighty wake and into a Merge deal, for example. Twas not to be.
In Austin’s defense, Grand Champeen — somewhat shockingly — led the way in a pair of Austin Chronicle year-end 2003 polls. The One That Brought You was voted #1 in the Texas Top 10 and also named Album Of The Year. As encouraging as those polls were, the fact is Champeen’s financial fortunes changed not a bit, as they continued to play the same circuit of bars: Room 710 and Beerland on Red River, The Parish on 6th St, and Hole In The Wall near UT. It was in these dives that they honed their rock ‘n’ roll chops and perfected the songs that would appear on what was arguably their finest release. If you saw Grand Champeen in this era, you knew that we were witnessing firsthand one of the greatest bands you’d ever see.
Fast forward to 2013: Longtime friend of Champeen, Joe Carver, starts a boutique label called Re-Vinyl Records that specializes in vinyl releases of his favorite albums. As it happens, one of the albums that inspired him to start the label was The One That Brought You. After discussions with the band, both parties agreed to release an LP version of TOTBY. Unfortunately, there were significant issues in the remastering process that delayed the release by several months, but in late August The One That Brought You was finally midwifed onto glorious colored vinyl (see photo at top of page).
Given the re-emergence of one of my favorite records, I thought it would be fun to do an oral history of The One That Brought You. I conducted interviews with all 4 members and we discussed the album’s origin story, technical issues that stymied its re-release, alt.country vs. rock, the artistic growth of the band, there’s some guitar and pedal porn if you’re into that, and we even get anecdotal on each song. I’ve included a few tracks from the album, as well as live cuts from this period, and apologies in advance if the volume levels fluctuate a bit. I ain’t no fancy sound engineer. But, my main motivation is to get you to investigate this great record. If you have a turntable you have no reason not to buy the vinyl, either for yourself or for others as a swanky Christmas gift. If you’re sans turntable, you can easily buy it on Amazon for like $5. In a year that saw the resurrection of The Replacements, how about giving some love to a band that carried on their sound and spirit when it was neither fashionable nor profitable? Ladies and gents, let us meet the ones that brought you …
CONVERSATIN’: LANCE DAVIS & GRAND CHAMPEEN
LD: Were you guys approached by Joe (Carver of Re-Vinyl Records)? And if so, did he specifically request The One That Brought You or did he give y’all carte blanche on the album you wanted to press to vinyl?
Channing Lewis: Yes, we were approached by Joe. He was just starting up the label and he said that working with us was one of the main reasons that he started it and that he wanted to put out a record on vinyl. He did not dictate that it be The One That Brought You, however I think it was mutually the first choice of everyone involved. My only reservation going into it was that he was going to lose a lot of money and he assured me that he didn’t care. So, once I was sort of comfortable with that we got really excited about it.
Michael Crow: I agree with the choice because for all its idiosyncrasies, I like every song on it. The performances have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, especially compared to the other contender, Battle Cry For Help, which has its highlights, but we hadn’t quite figured out who we were or what we were doing (to paraphrase Nigel Tufnel).
Alex Livingstone: When we recorded Battle Cry, the current lineup had only existed for a year or so. Battle Cry songs were written before or within a year of me joining the band and we had only toured once, maybe twice in that time. By the time TOTBY was recorded, we had toured a bunch and were becoming a tighter band. We were also learning better how to record ourselves but it was still rough around the edges. This worked to our advantage because it helped convey our rough-hewn style. When it came to reissuing an album, I think we jumped at the chance to address some of its sonic deficiencies and give it a polishing we didn’t have the wherewithal to give it the first time around.
Crow: Re-Vinyl’s offer excited us because of the opportunity to improve on the original master. Frankly, it could’ve [used a] remix, but that would have been a lame George Lucas move.
LD: There was a bit of a delay in the reissue. What happened?
Crow: I attempted to do the remaster myself, partially because I was going to be transferring the original tapes myself anyway, so why not take a stab at it? And partially because we thought that I — being intimately familiar with the problems of all the mixes — could put a lot of time and attention into each song, take the time to get the guys’ feedback, and make sure we got it right, rather than give it to an outside engineer and not get as many chances for revision. I was pleasantly surprised that there was plenty of low-end to be had in the raw mixes and we were feeling pretty good about the master. But, when it came time to do partial test pressings, it wasn’t translating to vinyl like we had hoped.
Channing: There ended up being a side effect of adding the low end that was specific to the bass drum that was almost a physical thing more than it was an aural thing. Especially on the first couple of songs, the kick drum had this punchiness to it that really didn’t work at all. But, in typical Champeen fashion I don’t think any of us really noticed it until after the first test pressings arrived. We had all given the remaster a cursory listen and signed off on it, but in retrospect, it’s absolutely our fault that we didn’t, you know, listen to it on a couple different stereos, at different volumes, and really give it a legitimate analysis before deciding to send it off.
Crow: After some frustrating back-and-forth, we decided to get Re-Vinyl’s usual mastering engineer, Jason Hamric, to do it. He did a great job in no time at all. Apparently, by that point the sleeves had already been pressed, [so] they incorrectly credit me with Jason’s excellent mastering job.
LD: Refresh my memory, was The One That Brought You the first Champeen album recorded at Crow’s house?
Channing: No, this was actually recorded at the old studio which was off of Pond Springs Road up off of 183 not far from where I live now. It was just an old sort of warehouse space that Crow had a studio in for a few years. We also recorded Battle Cry there. I would blame the room for the fidelity of [TOTBY], but the fact is Li’l Cap’n Travis recorded In All Their Splendor there and that album sounds great. So, I think it’s just that we’re idiots.
Grand Champeen – More Than Just A Friday
Turf Club, St. Paul, MN
November 21, 2003
Crow: As always, the band suffered through being my studio guinea pigs. Battle Cry had been the first project in the warehouse studio, and The One That Brought You was the first project after I upgraded to a 2″ 24-track tape machine. We mixed it democratically, which was a two-step process: Ned would set up a song’s drum mix and then I would obscure it with a wall of guitars. We distorted everything in sight. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams at not making an alt-country record. Our aggressive sonic approach bit us in the ass when the record was mastered, because the mastering engineer thought, “These kids love distortion, so they’ll love it if I distort it too!” Alex and I were there when he did it, so it must have sounded good to us at the time. We were distortion-crazy. Still are, more or less. The original CD master also had a lot of low frequencies removed in an effort to tighten up the bass and kick sounds. The result was a CD whose performances invite listeners to turn up the volume, but whose abrasive sound invites them to turn it back down immediately.
LD: Who mastered TOTBY originally?
Channing: The original mastering was done by a guy named Billy Stull. He also mastered Battle Cry and he was somebody that Eric Zappa from Glurp Records had used for Deathray Davies and some other things. It’s not that he’s not a good mastering engineer, but he is an older guy and I don’t think he fully understood what we were going for. I think he was just like, “I’m going to make this as punchy and compressed as possible because that’s what the kids like these days.”
LD: Wasn’t mastering a similar problem on Battle Cry? I seem to recall you guys saying the original recordings were pretty good, but then you got the CD back and were sorta meh about it.
Channing: I think the issue with Battle Cry is more the mix then the mastering job. It was mixed by a guy named Mark Hallmann who was Ned’s boss at Congress House Studio for years. He just kind of took some of the balls out of that record, I think, and there’s always been sort of a thought that if we remixed it a little drier, a little rawer, that it could have a little bit more of the sound that we intended for it.
LD: Ahh, that’s right. But philosophically, there was that similar problem of Hallman, like Stull, doing things a certain way because they thought that’s how the record was supposed to sound, rather than, you know, figuring out what was best for the band.
Channing: No doubt about it. Both are pretty old-school guys. Mark is most known for his work with Carole King, so you can guess how little he really understood the Champeen aesthetic.
LD: “You guys really need a Tapestry type feel on this song. Here … let me play a track for you.”
Channing: There is some footage somewhere of him playing guitar and singing harmonies with her on “Chains,” which is a great song and I have always loved The Beatles version.
LD: Fair enough. “Chains” is a great tune. By the way, this may be something you can’t remember, but there was a great story that either you or Crow told me about sending the original TOTBY CD to KGSR and either the program director or music director played it and … well, let’s just say he wasn’t a fan. Do you recall that?
Channing: Yeah. Eric Zappa sent promos to whatever media outlets he could, including all the radio stations in Austin. At the time, KGSR was a little more prominent in the local scene that it is now. Certainly, KUTX usurped whatever cache KGSR maybe had at one point. (I’m a KOOP guy.) But yeah … so he sent it to them and followed up with the guy, and he was like, “I don’t know Eric. All I hear is RRORIERIRIRRRRRRRRR RRORIERIRIRRRRRRRRR” (like a motorcycle engine).
I also remember that Jim Caligiuri (Austin Chronicle) claimed the record to review before it was even released. He told the Chronicle that he wanted to be the one to review it, and then he heard it and opted out because he didn’t understand it. Which, ultimately, I appreciate because the alternative was him writing another shitty review like he did for (Mike Nicolai‘s) Woody Allen Stunt Footage.
LD: Haha. Actually, Jim’s shitty review was for Rooster Nudes, but same diff. So, from a performance perspective, it seems like you guys made a big leap from the band that did Battle Cry to the band that did TOTBY. Kinda tighter all around, probably figured out who you were by that point. Would you agree with that? And I love Battle Cry, but objectively speaking I can hear the difference.
Channing: Yeah, I think we were certainly better. We’d spent a lot more time on the road, but the bigger leap was in figuring out who we were, for sure. On Battle Cry you still have songs that aren’t fully our own point of view, like “Four Years,” which is sort of a heavily Uncle Tupelo-influenced kind of thing. Or “Nothin’ On Me,” which is kind of a novelty song. And lyrically, there’s some questionable stuff on Battle Cry that is just a little amateurish, whereas on The One That Brought You — not that the record doesn’t have its flaws, it definitely does — but I think what you have is the first album that is truly representative of a unique Grand Champeen vision.
Crow: Between finishing Battle Cry and beginning The One That Brought You, we became somewhat obsessed with not being — and not being perceived as — an alt.country band. This caused us to approach TOTBY with an insatiable hunger for distortion and fast tempos.
Channing: In some ways I think we kind of overcompensated. Because we had gotten so much press with Battle Cry that kind of locked us in to an alt.country kind of thing, we were hell-bent with this one to just completely erase anyone’s notion that we might be some kind of alt.country band. We probably went too far with it, but I wouldn’t change anything.
LD: That’s hilarious to think about you guys being alt.country. I never thought that and I probably saw you guys 50-60 times. Then again, the fact that you were perceived to be an alt.country band circa Battle Cry For Help, but were obviously a rock band on The One That Brought You is probably what Caligiuri didn’t understand.
Channing: Yeah, but Battle Cry came out at a time where if you had any sort of twang or if there was a pedal steel on one song you were automatically considered alt.country. It was kind of crazy. I think our friends The Bigger Lovers had sort of gotten that tag because they had like one song with pedal steel, while the rest of their material was pure pop.
LD: Yeah, I suppose that’s true. It’s been so long, I forgot that so many records got pulled into the alt.country riptide.
Alex: Opening for Slobberbone on a 2 1/2 week tour in 2001 put us in that category a little. But, they’re a rock band with folk tendencies, so it’s slightly unfair for them to be categorized as such, as well. I think at the time, any bands who grew up on Midwest rock (Hüskers/Replacements/Soul Asylum/Jayhawks/Uncle Tupelo/Wilco) and conveyed any similar characteristics were embraced by fans of that music, the torch for which was being carried by Slobberbone, DBT, Damnations, Richmond Fontaine, etc.
Also, due to our location, a lot of the fans we first reached were in the midwest. I think that humans are obsessed with categorizing and labeling and with respect to that, I suppose alt.country was easier to place us in than indie rock, post-rock, nü classic rock, post-punk or any of the other silly categories people have come up with. We are a rock band and always have been. Are The Beatles or Stones alt.country because of songs like “What Goes On” or “Sweet Virginia?”
Crow: Our first record, Out Front By The Van (2000) is by far our most country-influenced record, and and you can hear some Tupelo/Wilco/Jayhawks influence in several of the songs. There’s a bit of fiddle, banjo, pedal steel, etc. in addition to the straight-ahead rock stuff. Battle Cry had some country-ish elements too. We also played a bunch of our early shows with The Damnations and Slobberbone was kind enough to take us out for our first several tours. We also toured a bunch with Richmond Fontaine and Two Cow Garage, so it’s not surprising that we were perceived by some as an alt.country band. And we didn’t mind that particularly at first. But, even though all of the aforementioned bands are great, the cultural phenomenon of alt.country got old pretty fast. It began to stratify into mostly third-rate, half-ironic Skynyrd wannabes on one hand and ultra-slick adult contemporary americana on the other. We were neither, and were drifting away from country influences anyway, so we began to cringe when local rags would say things like, “Strap on your barbecue shoes, ‘cuz Texas shitkickers Grand Champeen are bringin’ their 100-proof thrashgrass to town!” We knew that no one cool who hadn’t heard us before would read that and want to hear us. Oddly enough, the Nashville paper once blurbed that we were awesome and that we sounded like Blink-182. Ugh. Thanks, dude.
Grand Champeen – Slack Motherfucker [Superchunk]
Sunset Tavern, Seattle, WA
August 15, 2004
LD: Genre aside, I think one of the biggest differences between Battle Cry and The One That Brought You is that Alex and Ned really tuned into one another and evolved into a powerhouse rhythm section. Would you agree with that?
Crow: I agree with that, especially because the TOTBY songs were so high-energy, and not as rooted in open chords. No “eat shit” basslines (A – E – A – E – Oom – Pa – Loom – Pa, e.g.). We were pushing Ned really hard with all of the fast tempos, and they cohered into an awesomely athletic rhythm section.
Channing: Absolutely. He and Alex got far better as a unit between those two albums. We basically recorded Battle Cry very soon after Alex moved to Austin and we worked up most of the songs — or, a lot of them at least — with Rob Hargrove on bass. I think Alex didn’t feel totally comfortable with some of the ways we were playing the songs. I distinctly remember with “Broken Records” there was kind of a different drum beat, like a four-on-the-floor type thing, and Alex basically was like, “We can’t do this, this doesn’t work.”
Crow: Alex was really getting good at coming up with interesting basslines that locked in with Ned really well while adding melodic and harmonic interest to the songs. Which is a way of playing bass that he’s basically perfected, in my opinion. Coming to bass from guitar likely helped with his ability to visualize chords and scales more than many who begin on bass, and that background knowledge then aids in choosing interesting notes that still work with the guitars. Unlike many who switch from guitar to bass, though, he plays it like a bass instead of a guitar that’s missing two strings. He’s great at setting up the rhythmic and harmonic feel of a song and then choosing the perfect times to stretch out with a fill or flourish.
Channing: That was the first time we had somebody like Alex, who’s really strong in that regard, kind of directing the rhythm section. I think he has a lot of influence on what Ned ultimately decides to do on a particular song and they spend a lot of time talking about what each other are playing just to make sure that it all kind of works together. That’s something we definitely hadn’t done prior to that. But yeah, Alex is able to stretch out and do his thing on The One That Brought You, like on “The Good Slot” and “One And Only,” stuff where he’s kind of all over the place, but in an awesome way. I honestly don’t know of anyone who is as good as [Alex] is. And that’s not just because a he has a unique style like Ned, it’s just that he’s actually the best at what he does of anybody I know. And I think Ned really fed off having a bass player that was pushing him because Ned plays his best when he’s really digging in.
Ned Stewart: Alex really stepped out more on this record and he’s a musical powerhouse, so that was a lot of fun. We knew we would feature a pretty gnarly bass sound and I tuned more to his melodies and riffs as a result. That was just me worrying less about the song and its parts and having fun playing with those guys. I prefer to play snugged up to Alex’s 8×10.
Alex: We were rehearsing and playing a lot of gigs and I think it showed. When it came to working out arrangements of songs, the band was communicating on a more detailed level. Ned and I were becoming the Giant Panther you now see and hear.
Ned: The funnier contributor to that relationship was my graduating from a 20″ jazz kick drum to a proper 26″ kick. Then at practice everyone looked over and said, “Oh shit! That’s the beat you’re playing in that song?” So, I think everyone has since been more conscious of each other and we now hear all the “simple lines intertwining” (Nigel T).
LD: The One That Brought You was also the first album where Alex was part of the songwriting process from the very beginning. Don’t get me wrong, Battle Cry wouldn’t be the same without “Paper, Rock, Scissors” and “The Angels’ Share,” but his songs on TOTBY seem more fully realized. Would you agree with that?
Alex: Thank you and yes, I agree. I had a new outlet for songwriting, so I was working on it more. I had written “Sister” [from Battle Cry] before I was even in the band, so that and the two you mentioned were the beginning of a new songwriting phase for me. The seed of “More Than Just A Friday” was written around the same time as “Sister,” actually. My previous bands were more angular, dissonant, and lacked productivity, so I hadn’t really had a project for which I could provide hook/melody-conscious material and have it see the light of day. So, I began concentrating on a more classic pop song style and structure. Sometimes it had punk overtones, sometimes americana, always rock.
LD: Having discussed Alex’s growing role in the band, both as bassist and songwriter, how great and underrated is Ned on drums?
Channing: Absolutely underrated. He’s just really, really good and I don’t know any other drummer that plays like him. To the extent that I don’t think anyone else could really even be the drummer in Grand Champeen because even “better drummers” just wouldn’t be right.
I tell this anecdote a lot, but I think it speaks to Ned’s talent and importance to the band. In the handful of times that we’ve had guys sit in with us — and we’re talking some really good drummers — I promise you it was not as good as when we [do songs] with Ned. Jon Wurster from Superchunk played “Slack Motherfucker” with us one time in Seattle and our buddy Tim Baumgart [Kruddler] up in Minneapolis sat in with us on [Soul Asylum’s] “Cartoon.” Just a handful of times like that where we had another drummer play with us for the fun of it and it always is just weird and not quite as … there’s just a magic that’s missing that really only Ned has.
Crow: He’s incredible. I don’t know any drummer who can play as fast and hard as he can while retaining such a comfortable and fluid feel. His fills flow in and out of the beat really naturally. He’s also one of the funniest people of all-time. My favorite Ned quote is, “Hey Channing. Did you know that if you married Stockard Channing, then her name would be … Stockard Lewis?”
LD: Heh heh. I remember when I visited y’all in Louisiana in early 2006 and you guys were working up the Dial T songs. I noticed that Ned had a notebook where he took a bunch of notes, mostly in collaboration with Alex. So, how would you describe your process for coming up with drum parts? And is it something where you mostly work with Alex?
Ned: That notebook looked important but it is just like Jackie Treehorn’s sketch pad by the phone! Ultimately, I always look to the songwriter to make sure my “drummer’s agenda” or perception of the song is not distorting their song. With GC I usually find that the song tells you what it needs. I’m more of an Igor than a Dr. Frankenstein! Drums are fun and I listen to a ton of music so there are lots of strands in Old Duder’s head. We are typically all introduced to the song at the same time so it is collaborative from the beginning. I usually introduce the more abstract ideas first (throw it on the wall and see what sticks), but, if DooDooCak! DooDooCak! DooDooCak! DooDooCak! is what best serves the song, I’m down with that as my framework. From there I just listen for ways to augment the format, energy, dynamics, and transitions as I grow more familiar with the song. In doing so, I usually end up with lots of “parts” for an otherwise straightforward rock song. Alex and I fine-tune our half a little later in the process when we’ve had some time to digest the song.
LD: How do you think the evolution from kinda sorta alt.country to distortion-laden rock changed the role of the drums?
Ned: I think I was probably affected the least by the return to our rock roots. Most of the flavor changes came from the songs, attitudes, lyrics, guitars and bass. I kicked ass on Battle Cry too, so it was just another day at the office! (But seriously, folks …) The tempos were faster overall and we cut the tracks when the songs were fresh from the songwriters, so there was a challenge to get them right with long days of tracking. I recall it being physically demanding. As a result they have a genuine “seat of your pants” feel — which I enjoy — but sacrificed the hunkered, grounded solidity I still find myself working for. Subsequent recordings have held me to a higher standard but I really think this album captures GC at that time. I do think my approach to drumming changed over the years and this album is the genesis of that – but not evidence of that.
LD: I wanted to follow-up on the comment about “an insatiable hunger for distortion.” One thing I love about the Champeen sound is the contrast in guitar tones. As I recall, Channing was playing almost exclusively Teles at this point in the band. I’m almost positive this was a few years pre-Creston. And you were the Gibson guy, usually playing a Les Paul and a 335, if I’m not mistaken. Did you guys consciously want that Fender/Gibson separation?
Crow: Our Fender/Gibson roles kind of evolved over time, and here’s way too much information on the subject: I was lucky enough to acquire my ’68 [Les Paul] Goldtop for a steal as a 14 year old in Shreveport, LA, so I already had that when Ned, Channing and I started playing together later that year (as high school freshmen in 1989). As I became indoctrinated into Soul Asylum worship, I was thrilled to discover that I was playing the same model as Dan Murphy. Later in high school, I acquired my (’73, I think) Tele Custom, which was exciting to us young Soul Asylum fanatics because it was similar to Dave Pirner‘s. Chan played that one in the early Champeen days before acquiring the Tele Deluxes. Maybe because Lee Ranaldo uses them. Maybe just because they’re great. I settled into being a Gibson guy due to my love for the Goldtop, and because my brother Tyler kept loaning and/or giving me such awesome guitars as an SG Jr and my/his ES-335. I also became addicted to Bigsby tailpieces, which kept me reaching for the Gibsons. Given that GC has never been good at including much space in our arrangements, the timbral difference between Chan’s Teles and my Gibsons has helped to distinguish our parts from each other somewhat.
Grand Champeen – Rest Of The Night
Thee Parkside, San Francisco, CA
January 25, 2004
LD: Also, as you guys were writing the TOTBY songs, what kind of guitars, pedals, and amps were you incorporating into the arrangements and how was this a change from Battle Cry?
Crow: There was a big amplifier upgrade between the two records. Our friend/amp repair guru Alan Durham had built me a new, Vox-ish/Marshall-ish amp inside the chassis of a dead Fender Bandmaster head. Chan had acquired an awesome 70’s Marshall head that had previously belonged to Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers. We discovered this when it blew a transformer, and Alan placed it on his shelf of dead transformers right next to the identical one that had blown when it had been Leary’s amp. Both amps were pretty edgy sounding, without tons of low end. My rig was definitely very midrangey, at times almost like a tuck wah-wah pedal. And Chan’s was more raspy and trebly. After TOTBY, I eventually ended up with one of Rob Bernard’s old Carvin heads, and we fell in love with those underrated beasts. I think we ended up with five of them.
Pedal-wise, I think Channing was going straight into the Marshall, maybe with a boost pedal. As always, I was relying on my Sam Ash Fuzzz Boxx, an awesome 60’s distortion pedal that approaches the sound of more famous fuzzes like the Fuzz Face and Big Muff, but can handle more than one note at a time, whereas most vintage fuzz boxes only sound good with single notes. Chan and I were still using volume pedals, but where before I was using it a lot for Gary Louris-inspired faux-steel swells, I was using it more for feedback control. It allowed me to have the guitar and amp feeding back and out of control whenever I wanted, while retaining the ability to drop or kill the sound quickly for rhythmic pauses or tight song endings without having to scramble to control all the less-musical squeal and buzz that accompanies tons of distortion. On the other hand, chan was using his to control the cleanliness of his tone, by cranking the amp and using the volume pedal to dial his input level back a bit whenever he needed to be a bit cleaner.
Guitar-wise, Chan had acquired his first Tele Deluxe, whose treble pickup was a bit fuller than the one on my Tele. I think I only used Tyler’s red 335 on the whole record, and the pickups that were in it at the time were a bit nasal and midrangey, and though I have since replaced them, it went well with the Durham amp. The Bigsby tailpiece on the 335 leaves a lot of extra string stretching between the bridge and the tailpiece, which was a lot of fun to strum for a Sonic Youth-y atonal jangly texture, which accounts for the demon cat ambulance sound in the instrumental break of “Fakin’ It.”
LD: Speaking of guitars, I just listened to Crow’s guitar solo on “Rest Of The Night.” The tone, the decisions on where to go. It all makes sense, but I feel like other guitarists wouldn’t hit those notes and he makes it sound so easy. There are very few people I’ve met who I’d consider honest to God geniuses, but I’m pretty sure Crow is one of them.
Channing: I guess I’ve shied away from talking about Crow up until now because he gets talked about so much, but the fact of the matter is he deserves every accolade he gets because he is as good as anyone ever. Didn’t I say that about Alex and Ned also? Crow is a special case, though, because I don’t even have to show him the songs. I mean, there are a lot of songs [where] I really don’t think he knows the actual chord changes, but he just starts playing and he knows exactly what he wants to do without having to be tied to what the chord structure is. Crow just hears music and his parts kind of flow from him effortlessly the way you describe it. It can’t be described as rhythm guitar or lead guitar most of the time, you know, aside from his actual guitar solos. Even his parts during the rest of the song are some sort of weird hybrid between lead guitar and rhythm guitar and they just kind of magically appear.
Channing: Yeah, I think if I had to do it all over again, I would probably shy away from a pop culture reference that overt. There’s a lot of that on those early Champeen albums. “Broken Records” [from Battle Cry] mentioning Heaven Tonight, Let It Bleed, or what have you, that’s the kind of thing I probably wouldn’t do today. And even at the time I felt a little weird referencing Alex Chilton specifically given that The Replacements already had a song about him. It seemed a little copycat-ish, but I also felt the way that it brings Chris Bell into it was unique and kind of had a nice zing, so I went with it. And I’m glad I did because, you know, it’s still one of my favorite songs that I’ve written and it’s one that, like I said, I probably wouldn’t be able to write anymore.
LD: And as I recall, y’all met Chilton a few months later at SXSW, right?
Channing: “Met” is a stretch. Shook his hand, said, “Great show,” and got a quick photo with him.
LD: As far as your songwriting is concerned, there seems to be a consistent character or running theme in several of your songs from this era. It starts with “Broken Records” and “Miss Out” on Battle Cry and continues on “The Good Slot” and “That’s Never Why” on TOTBY. Those two for sure and maybe “No Hope” and “One And Only.” I go back and forth on those. In fact, I think the theme rears its head again on “Records And Tapes” [an unreleased song you can hear here]. All of these songs seem like they’re about a guy in a band and maybe things didn’t work out the way he wanted and he bailed on the band or the scene. Granted, they could be metaphors for the end of any relationship, but they seem musician-specific. Is this something I’m hallucinating or might there be something to this idea?
Channing: You’re definitely not hallucinating. There are even more examples. A song from the “new” one referred to only as “Woo” is definitely in that vein. “Take Me Home” from Dial T. “The Songs You Want To Hear” on Dial T is maybe the most overt one of all. I can’t really explain why those ideas and same themes keep coming out in my writing. They are certainly only barely autobiographical, if at all. I’ve always felt really lucky to be in a band that was essentially unbreakable. The bond between us goes way beyond the music. So, maybe I’ve romanticized this notion of a band that’s struggling to stay together and I’m attached in a sort of classical “tragedy” way to the guy whose hubris gets the best of him, and the others turn on him (“To The Ides” from Dial T). Or the guy who feels trapped, or the guy who desperately wants things to work out, but fears the worst. Either way, it’s something that just happens. I don’t set out to do it.
Grand Champeen – No Hope
Thee Parkside, San Francisco, CA
January 25, 2004
Channing: Yeah, I love that Mott The Hoople lyrical aesthetic. Stuff like “Saturday Gigs.” Or Cheap Trick’s song, “Fan Club,” stuff like that. Songs about being in a band. [The Replacements’] “Left Of The Dial,” “Treatment Bound,” etc.
SONG-BY-SONG WITH THE BAND
“The Good Slot” (Channing)
Crow: It was and still is awesome to hear Alex going to town with that distorted bass tone. I also remember screaming the backing vocals so loud that I threw up.
“Rest Of The Night” (Channing)
Crow: We added a bunch of extra instruments to it. If I recall correctly, [we did] a lot of one-take-and-see-what-happens passes with organ, Rhodes, trumpet etc. You can hear the occasional organ note at the ends of the choruses and Alex’s distorted Rhodes sounding kind of like a guitar. The only keepable note of my trumpet pass occurred after the song ends.
Ned: To this day, the “Rest Of The Night” bass drum shuffle is a challenge. Some days I have it, others, not so much. But I love trying to be Alex Van Halen for two and a half minutes.
“Paid Vacation” (Alex)
Crow: At one of the first TOTBY sessions, a damaged VU meter circuit sent stray voltages into the machine’s control system, causing it to erase the first keeper take of “Paid Vacation” while we were trying to listen back to it. “Why aren’t we hearing anything? Hmm … lemme see … oh, it seems to be erasing all the armed tracks in playback mode.” Alex thought it was hilarious.
Ned: A nice departure for me because the verses have a lot of space in the drum beat.
“That’s Never Why” (Channing)
Liner Notes: Channing plays piano.
“One And Only” (Channing)
Crow: Evidence of our insatiable hunger for distortion. I think Channing and I tried every distortion pedal we had for the vocals. One rendered his voice so unintelligibly saturated that we started trying to do the guitar solo with Chan’s voice and see if we could pass it off as a guitar. Then Alex and Ned showed up: “What are you guys doing?” “Uh, nothing…”.
Chan’s headphones were cranked so loud that the leakage from his headphones into the vocal mic caused a phase-shift effect that swooshed as the distance between his head and the vocal mic drifted. It’s mostly audible in the instrumental sections after the verses, leading into the choruses.
Liner Notes: Drum outro is early take of “Throwing Rice.”
“Matilda’s Lament” (Alex)
Crow: We decided to hang loose and not do everything as uptightly as the rest of the record. Winky emoticon. Everything was live except for the vocals. Jesus Christ, listen to Ned’s first snare drum fill. What a drummer!
Ned: This one and “Fakin’ It” are just fun arm burners!
“Step Into My Heart” (Channing)
Crow: The first time we ran through this at band practice, I remember thinking that it was a cover, maybe a Faces song I’d never heard before. During the first run-through, I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had an original that sounded like this?” I guess I should have wished for world peace.
Liner Notes: Tracked live in the studio, except piano overdub by Channing.
“More Than Just A Friday” (Alex)
Crow: “Lo mismo tu siempre?” Alex took The Clash‘s Spanish course. The Sandinista Stone?
Crow: Chan vowed that we wouldn’t put the record out until I had a song on it, so I wrote “Bottle Glass.” 10% inspiration, 90% procrastination. I’d had the melody in my head for a long time, but it wasn’t until the 11th hour that I realized Chan was serious and I found a super-convoluted set of chords to go under it. We recorded the instruments, then I spent maybe two days failing to write the lyrics, and crammed the least lame of what I came up with onto a couple of tracks. All that being said, it’s the only song of mine that I like and enjoy playing live, so I wish I hadn’t half-assed it on some of the lyrics. Our unofficial rule is that Chan solos on my songs and I love his solo on this one.
Ned: A fun attempt at a really simple, straight, even beat.
“Memory Loss/Throwing Rice” (Channing)
Ned: “Memory Loss” was a bit of a stretch for me to get the right galloping feel to that song. I became comfortable with that beat well after the recording. And “Throwing Rice” was perhaps the most solid big-beat song on the record. Feels good to play that one.
Channing: Ned’s awesome on that one. That shit isn’t easy to play.
Liner Notes: First half in mono. Ned’s drums recorded with one mic from across the parking lot.
“No Hope” (Channing)
Liner Notes: Guitar solo recorded directly into the board and cranked.
“Leave It All Day” (Alex)
Alex: I wish we had played “Leave It All Day” more, but there often wasn’t room in the set for mellow tunes.
Liner Notes: 1st solo Channing, 2nd solo Crow.
Crow: We only performed it one time [record release show at The Parish in Austin], I think partially because it’s really hard to get Ned to sing. The only other time I remember him singing at a Champeen show was when we sang Van Halen‘s version of “Happy Trails” to Slobberbone at the end of one of our tours together. Those are definitely the only times we’ve ever sung a cappella in public.
Ffor me it captures the spirit of the band pretty well. It’s kind of goofy, but at the same time sincere. We’ve been playing music together since we were teenagers and the band-wide friendship has always been a big part of what makes us us.
Ned: My greatest achievement on TOTBY for sure.
Liner Notes: Pitch-shifted to give it that wow and flutter.
“Fakin’ It” (Channing)
Ned: Go Dog Go!
Liner Notes: Alex speaks the final verse in the right channel. Crow manipulates tape.
LD: OK, last question. I know you have a new record percolating, but you’ve talked about maybe going back and remastering/reissuing Dial T For This and Battle Cry For Help. What do you think’s next for the Grand Champeens?
Channing: I think a vinyl release for Dial T is likely. Joe would like to do it and I think it would be worth doing because it’s our only record that could be considered hi-fi. So, it’ll likely sound awesome. I’m working on a bunch of new material, which is great, but unfortunately that makes me less likely to finish the old “new” album. If we could somehow record 6 or 7 new tunes, we might couple those with the 5 or 6 best of the old new ones to make a record out of them. It’s not something we’ve ever talked about specifically, but I could definitely see that happening. Then we’d have a bunch of outtakes we could do fun stuff with.
UNLESS THEY GIVE IT TO YOU
BuyThe One That Brought You CD/MP3s on Amazon (pretty cheap, no excuses)
Read “Grand Champeen: An Austin-American Band” (Adios Lounge, July 2, 2011)
Read “Six Degrees: The Alex Chilton to Chris Bell Edition” (Adios Lounge, May 23, 2008)
BIGTIME thanks to Channing Lewis, Michael Crow, Alex Livingstone, and Ned Stewart for spending a little time with me to ruminate on their great album. And please support vinyl impresario Joe Carver and his righteous beacon of independent music, Re-Vinyl Records.
“Grand Champeen, Grand Champeen
Courageous, fighting, and brave”