Power Pop Love Letters: An Interview With The Grubbies
The Grubbies’ jam-space is a basement deep in Halifax’s residential north end. The stuffy room is decorated with mattresses propped up against windows, pillows and egg cartons strapped to vents, old coffee cups, tall cans of beer, and coke bottles. Wires hang from the ceiling and cover the floor. It’s not messy, but it’s lived in. And it’s the jam-spot of more than a few local bands; artists like the Saffrons, Walrus, Shadow Folk, Robert Loveless and Scott Nicks practice in the space.
I visited the Grubbies in August, the day before they headed to the Echo Chamber to record a new single with Charles Austin and Mike O’Neill – Canadian rock royalty with his band the Inbreds, now going it alone with a distinguished solo career.
A few weeks before we spoke to them, the Grubs were considered by some as stand-outs at a couple New Brunswick festivals, Sackville’s SappyFest and the Shifty Bits Circus in Fredericton. The night after we spoke with them they did a supporting set at Gus’ Pub and the audience demanded an encore (which organizers nixed because the show was under time constraints).
As the Grubbies set up to rehearse, they discussed their favorite Sloan song. This would be a theme for the rest of the evening. Any breaks between conversation, rehearsal and interviewing was filled by music nerdery, from obscure 60’s pop bands to acceptable songs written by their, um… “less appreciated” Sloan members.
Fronted by Andy Mazzerolle and Adam Mowery, and backed by Murphy’s heavy percussion, the Grubbies recently downsized from a quartet to a three-piece. And while their approach has shifted to accommodate only having one guitar, their sound is still very reminiscent of songwriter-heavy pop foursomes like Sloan and the Beatles.
At one point during the rehearsal, Mazzerolle played a new song for the band, before calling it an homage to Sloan’s “Penpals”. The band then decided on doing an “Eight Days A Week” homage for the intro.
They’re serious pop practitioners, and they clearly enjoy making music that sounds decidedly older than some of their Haligonian contemporaries.
In fact, the Grubbies’ unbridled enthusiasm seems at odds with the attitude of most Halifax bands. And we spoke to them about their connection to the local scene, and the maritimes at large.
Ben: You guys talk a lot about older bands and I’m curious to know, any press I’ve read compares you to the Beatles, but it seems in general like you’re a love-letter to all pop bands of the last 50 years, is that fair to say?
Adam: We get a lot of comparisons to the 60’s, people don’t even recognize what decade it is, but it’s more 70’s to me. Power pop.
Andy: But power pop is a love letter to 60’s pop, and it sounds more to me like 90’s pop.
Adam: Yeah, Jordan always says it sounds more like that.
Andy: Yeah cause there was that power pop revival I feel like, Teenage Fanclub, Posies, Sloan…
Adam: Those are all pretty nervey. I think (60’s pop) is an easy comparison to make but we’re really in to 70’s music. We talk a lot about 70’s music. We talk a lot about 60’s music too. That said, I think our thing is more about song writing than anything. That’s what we’re in to. You don’t go to one of our shows to hear some crazy tone, or have your mind blown by a whole bunch of stuff. You’re going to see rock n roll songs, and really concise songwriting. And that just happens to be the kind of stuff done in the first pop eras. Those type of songs resonate with us.
Ben: I was curious about that Halifax connection too, there’s so many bands here, do you feel like you fit in to a particular scene here?
Jordan: We all play in others bands…
Andy: I say there’s a scene, but not a sound. What is a scene? There are a bunch of people I’m friends with, who also play in bands.
Adam: Yeah, like all our friends are musicians in all kinds of circles.
Ben: It’s a lot different with the internet too, there’s less of a regional “sound”. Halifax, traditionally, to me, has this sound you can identify with bands from the past.
Jordan: And we probably sound closer to that.
Andy: I feel like there’s a few phases to Halifax. North of America, to the Grundy’s, or someone like that, that’s their touchstone.
Adam: We grew up (elsewhere). Listening to records that came out of here. Really digging it. we were kids buying Sloan records. So we have that idea of older Halifax bands.
Andy: When I see a lot of bands from other places they’ll use the word “pop” in their bio. But like I find, especially bands from Ontario it tends to mean “nice” or “non-threatening”. Whereas here, it has more to do with melody, bands that are not necessarily as focused as we are on being straight ahead pop that’s about the songwriting, there’s still a stronger sense of melody for a lot of bands from around here.
Adam: Yeah I feel like pop has more connotations here because of the past, because of the music that’s been here before. At the heart of what we do is “pop” but that can mean a lot of things. But we’re about catchy, rock parties. Sock hops. *laugh*
Ben: Since this is an east coast blog, I gotta point out I don’t feel like there are a lot of Halifax bands as upfront about their Sloan adoration as your band.
Andy: Yeah, maybe that’s because we’re not from here.
Adam: It’s not like we’re crazy about every Sloan album and play them all the time, but those albums from the 90’s are formative albums.
Andy: I feel like my tastes were informed by it. And also in reverse, the first thing I got into was the 60’s, well I liked really bad 70’s music first. And I had heard Sloan on the radio when I was younger, but then I heard them again and I thought “oh they like 60’s music too, I can tell”.
Adam: Yeah, and they were presented that way. The first video I remember seeing in my life was “Coax Me” and it looks like the Ed Sullivan show, they’re on these different pedestals, very 60’s vibe.
Jordan: I remember something about them felt local. You knew they were from Halifax. You watched them on the Rita Mcneil show. Thinking that was cool.
Adam: And you felt like maybe they’re dudes like I am. Maybe we’re from the same kind of place. You could go buy their records and see them on TV. It really is different now. When you would get on TV in the 90’s that was reaching so many people. You would reach more people than you do online I would think.
Andy: It’s not such a specific crowd watching.
Adam: I remember the Super Friendz being on MuchMusic, that appearance where they all run in. A few of my buddies saw it, and we all talked about it, we all cared about it.
Ben: So tell us about the single you’re recording.
Adam: Yeah, we’re recording the single with Mike O’Neill which is a really big deal to us. I loved the Inbreds growing up. So we’re doing “Ride” and one of mine called “She Blooms Anyway”.
Andy: “Ride” is on the record, as an acoustic song. And “She Blooms Anyway” is recorded as another acoustic song. The idea is these are alternate takes.
Adam: Yeah, these are the full takes. We have another EP coming out sometime in the future.
Andy: It’s from the same sessions as the last EP. And Jordan’s brother is going to put out a 7-inch, we hope. He asked us to do it, anyway.
Jordan: He runs Poncho Records. I keep asking him like “yeah, you gonna put out that 7-inch?”
Andy: He says he has a student loan coming, so… that’s terrifying, but that’s what he wants to do. Put out some records.
Ben: So has your approach to writing changed with the change in members?
Adam: A little bit. It used to be double-guitar singer-dudes. It took me a while to settle in to playing the bass.
Andy: I think we got a little bit less soft to make up for being a three-piece. We try to have more power now.
Adam: And I like that more. I wanna be a good party band. I want to put on a good rock show. I don’t want to be boring, and I don’t want to be challenging. *laughs* I want people to want to see the band play. Jordan’s a different type of drummer too. (Before) we were really trying to be a 70’s power pop band. Trying to really figure that out. But Jordan’s a really good straight-ahead rock drummer. His style is really figured out, no matter what band he’s in I can tell he’s playing drums. He’s got a style of rolls and fills. I think Jordan has added an element.
Andy: He adds a lot of power, he hits really hard.
Adam: Even earlier tonight, we were trying to figure out this thing. Andy was fucking around on a thing, I was trying to find a note, then Jordan started playing and I was like “oh! That sounds pretty good!”
Ben: You guys are from Saint John and Truro. Do you find it easier to be musicians in Halifax, or do you notice a difference?
Andy: It’s easier to find a place to play a show here. Although there’s always a place to play in Saint John. But there’s way more going on. I like that the likelihood of at least 20 people being at a show is much higher. I’ve played to an empty room only a couple of times here, whereas in Saint John I’ve played to many empty rooms. I like that.
Adam: What I find is: you put in the same amount of work, and it goes further because more people are at your shows. I love the Saint John music scene, because so many good people do work out there. And I love bringing people from there here for a show. It’s awesome to get people out of that town, because it’s kind of an insular scene there. There are more bands that play around now.
Andy: Being here has benefitted me hugely – I get to go on this huge tour with Monomyth, that would not have happened if I had stayed in Saint John. It’s not that often that bands will even leave Saint John. Even to play in Fredericton or something, that’s like a big thing. I remember that feeling scary to me.
Adam: I think that’s a tell though. We can just keep busy. We can do the Grubbies thing for a while, then do our own things. You can tour with Monomyth, I play with Trask. Jordan’s in a ton of bands. We can play summer dates at other festivals. There’s more work for musicians.
Andy: The thing about Saint John… Everywhere that’s kind of small, and I’ve seen it in Halifax too, it goes in waves. And in Saint John, when they’re at the bottom of the wave, it’s really rough. And the Wooden Wives are the only band. *laughs* But it seems like Saint John is really on an up right now. There seems to be a lot of kids that have a lot of gumption.
Ben: Yeah, there are some really good high school bands in Saint John right now.
Jordan: I feel like the Halifax scene is really good, but it does seem a lot older. I don’t know any high school bands in Halifax.
Andy: I don’t know if there’s an all ages scene here, and maybe there is. Because I used to play things in high school, we’d play at the community centre by my house called the KBM, and 200 kids would come out and get wasted in the woods.
Jordan: In Truro it seemed like the same thing, but there were no older bands when we were in high school. There was no “old guard” in Truro. If anything’s old guard it’s Scott Nicks. It was just cover bands in Truro.
Adam: It’s weird because when I first played in Saint John, there was totally an old guard. The old guard in Saint John, those guys are mostly still around, still making music.