TUNED UP and Sitting Down With grandson – Band Interview

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to sit down with Jordan Benjamin, the man behind alternative outfit grandson, before he served as the main support for Nothing But Thieves at Columbus’ Newport Music Hall. We discussed the methodology behind grandson’s music, his thoughts on today’s sociopolitical climate and how it affects music in general, and his musical roots, among other things.

TUNED UP: Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with me. Let’s dive right in: so back in June you released a modern tragedy volume 1, and I couldn’t help but notice the “volume 1” at the end. Does this mean that we’re going to hear more volumes of a modern tragedy soon?

grandson: I always intended this debut EP to be an introductory thing where I introduce myself, the stakes, the environment, and where we’re at as I’m finding this voice. I want that to touch on the environment through some sort of commentary or narrative within the political landscape and within my relation to the world. I also want to dive into the psyche and the heart and how we respond to these stimuli, [in addition to] how we navigate our relationships with power, self-loathing, etc., so there will be at least one more volume before we take on a longer body of work like a full-length. The modern tragedy series almost represents a state of the union, or the “prologue,” as it’s setting the stage in many ways.

You’d released several singles beforehand that didn’t even end up on the EP. What of those?

I don’t think I’d begun to tackle at that point what I was trying to accomplish creatively. I think with all of those [songs] I was working through finding my sound, but we [myself and my collaborator] also wanted to put some music out and introduce people to it. When I look back, I can see where the message started getting more clear and political and where I began to experiment with different subgenres of rock and roll that I was synthesizing with, like electronic and pop music. Starting off it was more blues-influenced, almost Ray Charles-esque with songs like “Bills.” Then it all just took on a darker tone as my experimenting with this identity that is grandson progressed.

So in a way those earlier tracks were before you’d found a voice or pinned down a direction. Now, though, it’s evident that you are not afraid to be vocal about politics, your views, and how you see the world. I really appreciate that about your music, and with that I wanted to ask you how you felt about the political landscape with respect to music: do more artists need to incorporate political issues into their music, or do you think that music should be used more as a way of people escaping from or coping with the current political climate? How does that influence what you listen to?

First off, I think people feel that their relationship to art necessitates having a really strong opinion. The voice of this anonymous person is really important, and sometimes I laugh when I imagine going into my friends’ jobs and offering my feedback on computer engineering or whatever. That’s just a funny part of making music and a necessary part of it though. I always set out with the intention that I’d rather do things that are polarizing and that people have opinions on than catering to everybody while standing for nothing. That said, I don’t think there’s a right answer or an objective place that politics and music should necessarily find equilibrium. To me it exists on a spectrum that is constantly shifting relative to the popular opinion of people and politicians at the time and that people can use music for an escape and people like doing so. I think that’s how so much of popular music became dominated by optimism and materialism: as the political climate has gotten more intense and divisive, people have been stripped of their hope for upward mobility. [They are left] holding onto the dreams that their parents were easily able to get from college to a well-paying job or whatever that is what they’re shooting for. A lot of people lean on music to tell them stories of the lives that they want to live.

As a writer and an artist, I personally feel a sense of responsibility to initiate these conversations, not only because they give me more perspective on that which I don’t understand, but also because they fuel really inspiring conversations around the country. I have derived my sense of worth and accomplishment in music with how directly I can influence change with respect to how my perspective is oriented, and that’s why I put politics in music. I think that when you look at what’s going on in the world today and you look at how increasingly urgent topics like climate change, social justice, and economic responsibility and accountability [are becoming], it seems only natural that more artists would be pointing fingers, for better or worse. Part of that means that even when Kanye walks around with a MAGA hat, it would be very hypocritical for me to have a huge problem with that. I can still think it’s misguided and disagree with him though. I just think it’s important for artists to use their music to be a reflection of the times in which they’re making that music.

I definitely [enjoy] and am inspired by both music that is political in nature and music that is not, but I think that more political music is also more culturally impactful and significant.

Well said. So, in terms of the music industry, if there was one thing that you could just get rid of completely what would that be for you in 2018?

I would get away from the perception that record labels will make you anything. I had a very misguided idea of what the label’s function was. To quote the analogy someone once told me, I think I expected the label to start the fire when all they can really do is pour gasoline on it through the expansion of resources available and the experience a lot of those people in the record label industry have. Now has never been easier to put music out and navigate your relationship to your fans with as few filters between you and the consumer as possible. I’ve been both signed and independent, and ultimately what I think is important is that artists maintain that active relationship to the fans. Ask yourself [as an artist] why you do what you do, and for artists that have an answer for that, all of the distractions around them will just become noise.

Right on! Lastly, because TUNED UP is really involved with our local scene, though not from Columbus myself but very involved in my own scene in Indianapolis, I am always curious to hear about other artists’ local scenes around them. I know Los Angeles is where you live now, but originally hailing from Toronto I’m sure you still have some ties there. I would first like to know how that influenced you, and then I want one up and coming artist that you know of from the Toronto area that you would vouch for.

Well I haven’t lived in Toronto since I was 17, and I didn’t really start making music (beyond getting stoned and rapping at the back of parties) until I was 20, so I didn’t spend very much time in it. That said, I was really influenced by the way the different cultures and genres of music interact with one another in Toronto. There’s obviously a huge R&B and dancehall influence—Caribbean, Jamaican and Dominican—especially with Caribana there. Though I was first influenced by rock and roll, this path I took through Toronto had me listening to acoustic, ballad-y type artists like Justin Nozuka who’s a local player, but also artists like Eminem and Drake, who made me a big hip-hop fan, especially of East Coast hip-hop. I would then move to Montreal for two years; Montreal is as vibrant a music scene as anywhere I’ve ever been, and there I was really influenced by the electronic music scene, around 2011 or 2012 when Avicii blew up with Levels and turned electronic music into pop, along with artists like Skrillex, Baauer, and Dillon Francis. I don’t think rock artists or people that criticize DJ’s or electronic music have spent much time in the live space because the live electronics music community is different than any other genre of music in the creativity in people’s costumes, their design, how maximal the production is and how epic everything sounds. If it wasn’t for my experiences in those two cities, when it came time for me to do rock and roll in the particular way that I do it, I don’t think I would have wanted to make music with synthetic 808’s, big EDM snares, hip-hop hi-hats and all that, so I definitely think they influenced me.

As far as [a name you should know], I’ll give you two from L.A. and one from Toronto. One of the artists from L.A. is Alexander Vincent: he’s an electronic artist who grew up in Toronto but now lives in Los Angeles—he’s actually my roommate, but he’s a really talented dude. He’s making a kind of industrial electronic music that is super cool. Another name that I think will really turn some heads in the next year goes by the name of Moby Rich—a duo I met through some open mic nights in Hollywood, and they’re making some really dope music that’s kind of like alt- or psych-pop. As far as the Toronto scene goes, there’s a duo named cleopatrick that is based in Cobourg, Ontario. I first linked up with those kids a year or two ago through my friend Ali Hagendorf—she works at Spotify, and she took an interest in Canadian bands like myself, The Glorious Sons, cleopatrick, and a few other artists. With cleopatrick though it’s just two dudes in the vein of Royal Blood, Highly Suspect, that kind of thing. They’re just two young kids, but that’s exactly what rock and roll needs to be: a couple of dudes in a basement, nothing else.

I wanted to thank grandson once again for taking the time to sit down with us, and make sure you go check out a modern tragedy volume 1 if you have not done so already.

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