JJ Grey and Mofro recently undertook a whistle-stop tour of the UK in support of their latest offering Ol’ Glory, which was released last year.
National Rock Review caught up with JJ Grey at the Union Chapel in London to talk about their latest offering, his love of surfing and the connection between his home state of Florida and his music.
NRR: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us here at National Rock Review, we really appreciate it.
JJ Grey: Yeah, no worries, thanks for doing it.
NRR: You’ve been out on the road across the U.S. recently and I saw that you had performed at Red Rocks, I was just wondering what was that experience like?
JJ Grey: Oh, it’s great. You know it’s the first time that we have headlined it. So I mean we’ve played it before, but that was the best show we’ve ever had there and the place is a whole thing by itself. I mean it’s the best venue in the world that I’ve played in. I’ve played a lot of places, me saying that doesn’t make it a bigger deal, but I’m not the only one that says that you know.
I think it’s great for the bands, but it’s really, really great for the audience. For most bands it’s the opposite of what you are used to, you are looking up at the audience the whole time instead of kind of looking out at the audience or down, I’ve been both. We played there in the past, when somebody else is playing I might slip up to the back and if you go all the way to the top it sounds just as good as it does anywhere, they’ve got that place dialled in, it’s the best place.
The last time I was there, not this last time, but the time before last when we played, after we played Michael Franti played and I went up and checked some of his set out. He’s a good friend, he’s great and all the way out there towards the east over the plains, there was this big lightning storm going on behind the stage, it was pretty intense, the place is intense.
NRR: I believe you are also an avid surfer. I was just wondering with being on the road so much do you get the chance to catch many waves?
JJ Grey: Not too much you know. They have all these websites, in fact, they’ve got a big one here in the UK called Magic Seaweed. That’s what I use at home in Florida, to tell me what the waves are going to be like, it’s kind of a global thing. There’s bunches of sites, but I like Magic Seaweed. Surfing is really taking off in the UK, especially Cornwall, Devon, and like Thurso Scotland has got one of the best right-hand waves in the world, it’s a world class wave.
At any rate, I was telling my friends, you don’t even need to go to their site anymore, all you’ve got to do is go to our tour schedule. If you want to find out when there’s waves look and see when I’m leaving. I was home for nine days and it was dead flat, and as soon as I left, it came up and I’ve checked the swell and by the time I get back home it’s gone, all of its gone again. So my friends laugh about it, they are like hey man when are you leaving town, next Friday, alright I will get ready for surfing on Saturday.
But you know I was wanting to eventually play like out in Cornwall out that way, and Newquay you know maybe catch some waves here in the Summer when the waves aren’t the greatest but the water is … I mean the water in Flordia, believe it or not where I live in Flordia, the water doesn’t get a lot colder in Cornwall than it does in Florida because we get this backdoor cold current that comes down in North Florida, South Florida the water is warm. Eventually, I will get to surf here, I can deal with cold water if I have to.
NRR: Where is your favourite surfing spot?
JJ Grey: My favourite surfing spot’s at home is always you know, I think every surfer feels that way, it’s not a world class wave but it’s great, it’s called Little Talbot Island and its two minutes from my house. I’ve got two of the best breaks right by my house where I live, so I can go either way. I love surfing in Puerto Rico, I love Wildnerness, it’s a break in Puerto Rico, it’s one of my favourite breaks and Nicaragua, Costa Rica. I love all those places too (laughing).
NRR: When you are not on tour you’ve got a farm back home, is that right? I was just wondering obviously it’s a different change of pace from performing live. When you return from a tour how do you go about adjusting back to life on the farm?
JJ Grey: The easiest way is I never adjust to life out here, I never take any of this serious, I don’t take anything serious anyway (laughing). But I mean it’s all a movie you are kind of making up, staring, acting and writing it, staring in it, producing it, you are doing everything yourself, everybody is so I don’t take none of it too serious.
I’ve always for whatever reason, through nothing I’ve developed or worked for, I’ve just kind of was always wherever I am there I am, I just let it be like that you know, I don’t really think about it too much. When I go home it’s easy because I get to go and do the things that I like to do. Don’t get me wrong, I love to play, I love to do this too, but I also love to work on things and fix things and I’ve got to rebuild a chicken coop, I just love to do things that I did growing up as a kid.
NRR: You’ve obviously got a very strong connection with Florida and it really shows in your songs. There’s one song I would really like to talk to you about which is “Lochloosa”, which is my favourite song of yours.
JJ Grey: Oh cool.
NRR: After hearing that song I actually thought the Florida Tourist Board should give you a job.
JJ Grey: (Laughing).
NRR: Because I heard that song and I really wanted to go and visit, it makes you want to go there.
JJ Grey: It’s just north of Orlando. It’s not too far, it’s about an hour and a half north of Orlando.
NRR: I was just wondering what’s so special about that place?
JJ Grey: It’s just a place that I connected with when I was a kid. For me, I didn’t think about it, but a lot of the people I love musically all have written songs about that because they are just telling the story. Whether it’s a cat you know 15,000 years ago drawing something on a cave wall, or somebody writing, you are just telling a story.
For me I try to tell the story of I’m writing songs. My story was, I’m writing songs that I think they sound cool so hopefully people will like it and I can become popular and be a rock star (laughing). You did that when you were a kid and then that sucks and you get over it and that gets old real fast. So I just kept digging around and then I quit digging around, I quit kind of doing a lot of things and then the music just started to happen. When I got out of the way then it all happened, so songs like that just happened.
You know “Waterloo Sunset” you know The Kinks man, I hear that and I lived in London for two years, I can just see in my own mind what Ray Davies is singing about. It doesn’t have to be any specific place it could be anywhere for anybody. My favourite music always has a strong connection to a place, even if they don’t sing about it. I mean I feel like if aliens came here tomorrow and you played them a Reggae piece and then you showed them pictures of a tropical setting and this setting and they would match the music with the land. Something would tell you that that is that or some kind of like Red Clay funk, gutbucket funk tune is just going to look like a picture of where I live.
You know just tonnes of different things, they could match The Beatles to England, you know what I’m saying, parts of their music anyway. All my favourite music does that all by itself, you don’t have to think about it, because if you try to do that then it becomes real cheesy, real fast, real caricature-ish. I was lucky enough to fail miserably so many times trying to be cool quickly enough and badly enough to where I gave up trying to be. I just realised it wasn’t on the cards for me to be that guy, I can’t be that cool dude, so you just be you, you know.
Some people can pull it off brilliantly and it’s kind of them anyway. George Thorogood, he’s a larger than life rock dude, and he’s that guy whether he’s on stage or whether he’s shopping at Safeway or Tesco’s or whatever it is. If he was over here and he was in Marks and Spencers, he’s still that guy, he’s never not that guy and I admire that and they know he’s just being him man, he’s that dude. So that’s all I try to do, the best way to try to do it is to don’t try at all, just show up and see what happens (laughing).
NRR: Obviously, like I was saying because of your strong connection with Florida, do you get homesick when you are on the road and if so have you ever found anywhere quite like Lochloosa on your travels?
JJ Grey: Well I’ve found lots of places like Lochloosa, different completely, different geographically and the land is completely different, but I found lots of places like that. I’ve got a lot of new, this is one of my favourite places on earth, I’ve got a bunch of them on my list, but that’s one I grew up by. I didn’t grow up in Lochloosa, I mean hell there ain’t nothing to grow .. it’s just a boat ramp, a post office and a couple of houses, and it’s still the same. But it’s only forty-five minutes from our house so we would drive down there when I was a kid.
I don’t get homesick you know, I get homesick …I don’t get homesick actually, even then I was going to say the last thirty minutes before I get to the house, but you know so I often I fly home and once they cross over the Okefenokee Swamp, I look down and I see it, I just start getting excited because I know I’m almost home.
I call home and talk to the family every day, throughout the day, check in and see what’s going on. I miss my daughter, and my son’s grown, but wherever I am, there I am I don’t really think about it till I think about it and when I do it’s like anything. You know you could think about somebody, a loved one that’s dead and gone and if you thought about it long enough you could make yourself cry again like you did you know twenty years ago when they died. So what’s the difference between now and twenty years ago? The time, but the idea is you are just not fixated on it and if you get fixated on it, it does nobody any good. So I just be wherever I am, there I am and I know I will be home.
I don’t be gone more than two and a half weeks at the most. That’s a long tour for me two and a half weeks because I’ve got to go home. My voice would probably rather just stay out and keep going and do it all at once, my voice would, but me I’m going home, I’m going home. If I’m in the States, I fly home on a musician weekend, like Monday/Sunday, and Monday/Tuesday, we used to have two days off a week and I just fly back home and then fly back to the next city and meet the bus in the next city.
NRR: Your sound is quite genre-defying I mean you’ve got the soul, blues rock, folk, funk, gospel, R’n’B and I was just wondering who would you describe as your musical influences?
JJ Grey: Oh god, it’s everything you know and I’ve never really been good with genres. People will say something like that’s like, for instance, you could say blues or rock you know. Well the definition of that changes all of the time and at one point it sounded like Led Zeppelin, at one point it sounded like Chuck Berry and god knows what it sounds like now, who knows.
To me you know music is just music, I don’t really hear genres. So many of my favourite records I grew up with and stuff from the Seventies, whether it was George Jones, my dad had a bunch of George Jones records. My dad had Creedence Clearwater Revival records, which was wild because they were from California, I don’t even know how he knew about them.
You know back then people were very regional, not on purpose, because the world was a lot smaller, divided, parcelled out place, obviously there was no internet. I will give you a classic example, we were watching The Superbowl and Paul McCartney did the halftime performance, it was great. My grandmother was like when he got done, she was watching she said, “Who the hell was that?” I said “That’s Paul McCartney,” she said “Who’s Paul McCartney?” and I was like “The Beatles” and she said, “Who the hell are The Beatles?” So the point being she didn’t know who none of that was, and so for my dad to have a record from …
My dad had all the typical records that southerners had. you know Jerry Clower the comedian, Brother Dave Gardner who those two guys influenced me heavily. Brother Dave was a jazz drummer too, but he was more of a comedian, a beat comedian back in the day. Anyhow, so my dad had that and my dad had the whole Grand Ole Opry giant volume set on eight track box set. I used to love listening to Hawkshaw Hawkins.
George Jones, Willie Nelson to my dad that was all new country to him. He listened to older stuff Hank Williams Senior, he did like Johnny Paycheck and in the end, he wound up loving Willie Nelson and that whole gang too. They hit their stride in the Seventies, my dad liked stuff more from the Sixties.
Jim Reeves, he was kind of a country crooner, kind of like the male counterpart of Patsy Cline and all them kind of people was on my dad’s records. The soul records, my sister had a bunch of disco records 45’s, like KC and The Sunshine Band a lot of that stuff was coming out of Miami.
So I just heard all of that kind of stuff and then there was a local juke joint behind my grandfather’s house called KD’s Night Limit and they played soul music, they would play Morris Day or they were called just The Time before that Prince movie, I remember when that record came out. The Isley Brothers you know (sings Summer Breeze) all that kind of shit.
I guess I was subjected to all of it and to me George Jones has got soul man. I hear soul in some heavy metal tunes man, you know it doesn’t matter, Led Zeppelin has got soul, Black Sabbath has got soul and blues. I don’t mean blues as well you do this, and do that and do that and its blues and I’m just talking about blues. Blues is just like this shit sucks and I’m gonna fucking say something about it, excuse my language, that’s it you know. It could be a lot of things, it’s here I am to the world or here I am stuck in this shit hole or here I am loving this.
To me, I always felt like if aliens came down here, you could play them a Son House record and they would think he was at the pinnacle of the pyramid, he was at the top. It’s like man he finally figured out how to do all this shit that took fifteen piece bands to do and everything else, jazz and all this finally coalesced into this one sound from this one dude and it’s like actually it’s the other way around this one cat gave birth, not him one guy but this whole thing gave birth to all that.
Anyway, they were all cross-pollinated long before I ever listened to any of it. A lot of my favourite records, Tony Joe White and Jerry Reid, he’s a country guy, one of the baddest guitar players to ever come out of Nashville and he’s from Alabama but you know you do it in Nashville. Chet Atkins is like the dude who revolutionized Nashville. I love his singing, storytelling, I love his acting, he was one of my biggest heroes Jerry Reid and he was a country funk dude you know, everything he did was funky as well country.
So that’s why I don’t know a whole lot about genres because all of it was all mixed up and I didn’t take it and craft it like that, I was just subjected to people that were already that’s what they did, so that’s just the way you did it, you just played like that.
NRR: You just mentioned Prince there, I read a quote somewhere recently which referred to you guys as “What Prince might sound like if he decided to form a blues band.” I just wondered with his recent passing, how does that make you feel?
JJ Grey: Man hey, that guy was a freak man, just a freak. His ability and everything, especially at putting on a show you know. That’s what I wanna see, I wanna see him putting on a show and he always had some crazy tunes man the guy he was great. But anybody to put anybody in that boat it’s a great compliment, it might not be close to reality because Prince’s show was insanely huge and bad ass, but you know hey man I ain’t got nothing bad to say about Prince that’s for sure. Nothing but good stuff.
NRR: What’s your favourite track to perform live?
JJ Grey: Oh man, that changes constantly. So I don’t even know. I’ve got a love/hate relationship with “Sun Is Shining Down” I love playing that song you know. Songs that I haven’t played in a long time because I just wasn’t feeling it you know, so we pull them back out and dust it off and playing it like god this is killer, what was I thinking. It flips around a lot, I don’t know, I enjoy them all pretty much the same, I don’t think of one too much more than another you know, everyone to me is about a different spot in the show, it’s a different part of the story.
NRR: If you could choose any artist to cover one of your songs, which song and artist would you choose?
JJ Grey: Wow … (laughs) that would be easy. I would love to get Otis Redding’s not alive, so I would either get Otis if he was alive, or Toots Hibbert, who is a hero of mine, I’d get them to cover just about any tune, but especially anything that I really wanted to you know have that grit, just because then after they sang it then I would have a blueprint of how to really sing that song, so instead of listening to my bull shit I could listen to them do it.
That happened to me with “Sweetest Thing”, like I sang kind of tentative. I felt like in the studio I had listened to it, I was like damn I should have opened up. I’m just like man I can’t open up, this is Toots, this is my hero, I kind of got star struck. But then after he got through singing I was taking notes, and then (emulates Toot’s singing) and learning how to sing it like him.
NRR: I just wanted to speak to you about the track “Brave Little Fighter”. I know you released a new video for that quite recently, I was just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that song and the concept behind the video?
JJ Grey: Well you know my buddy Spook he just did that, he’s done all the videos and he said man I’m gonna get this ballet lady out and I’m gonna get her to dance to the song. I’m like cool, I was busy at the time, not that specific moment, but I was just like he’s never done nothing that didn’t look good to me so and he crushed it and it was great.
The song is about, you know I didn’t know what it was about like a lot of the songs, I kind of finally figured it out later on, but it’s really, to me it’s about a good friend of mine who killed themselves. It’s not about him and the specific thing of him, it’s about how your own mind can trick you into killing yourself.
I had a friend of mine that shot themselves with a 44 and they weren’t bullshitting. As soon as they pulled the trigger, the bullet hit their jaw and turned and went straight up their face and took their eye out and didn’t die. That just like, them and other people I’ve heard, I have no idea how I’d get that far gone to want to do that. It’s like you tricked yourself man, you believed your own bullshit. That’s what the song is about, believing your own bullshit.
You know who are you going to believe, the guy that comes with bells and whistles and yells and bright lights and is always trying to drag you everywhere in life, or are you going to listen to that little voice and it’s way back in the background and always steers you in the right direction. It’s easy to get bamboozled man, but we all do it, we all get hoodwinked, not into killing ourselves, but sometimes doing it slower we do other things.
What I should say is, we do things that hurt us, sort of self-destructive type things, whether it’s smoking cigarettes continuously (laughing), I don’t smoke or I have been known back in the day to drink continuously and that started on the road, but that ended too I quit that a long time ago.
NRR: What else do you have in store for the rest of this year?
JJ Grey: Well we are coming back to Europe, but I don’t think we are coming to the UK, well we might be. I know we are playing Paris, so we might drop over. In fact, I might just come over and visit the in-laws, I won’t even get a chance to on this trip.
Yeah, we are just going to be touring, just playing and I’m still working on songs for our record you know, I’ve got about twelve things and I would like to have a few more, and I would like to flesh them out a little bit more and start hitting the studio.
You know the guys I’ve got now, the whole band except for the bass player, they all live in Jacksonville and I’ve never had that before. I was picking up guys from all over the place you know, one guy would leave and I would call a cat that I heard his band broke up and we had played with him a bunch of times and he was good. You know I’ve picked up people like that over the years sleeping on their floors back in the day, you know vice versa.
So now everybody is at home man, it’s easy, you just go and rehearse, I never got to rehearse before, we would just go and play (laughing). Like I’ve always been, it will be fine let’s just go and jam, but now we kind of work out a few things, but I still like to keep part of it loose. So we will just keep doing it man, just chipping away, see what happens, swinging the hammer see what happens (laughing).
NRR: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us.
JJ Grey: Yeah, no worries brother.
JJ Grey & Mofro
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