Anyone who was lucky enough to witness Grant Lee Buffalo tear into their searing rendition of Neil Young's "For the Turnstiles" knows about singer Grant-Lee Phillips's ability to add his own mojo to someone else's material. Take into account Phillips's work in late-'80s goth-country cult faves Shiva Burlesque, and the idea of him releasing an album's worth of Joy Division, Cure, and Nick Cave covers doesn't seem farfetched (or half-baked) at all.
And yet the question remains: Why?
"If I hung a placard up with that question on it, I probably wouldn't get out of bed every morning," quips the affable Phillips. "Why not?"
Fans of Phillips's gorgeous, sepia-tone twangst have no reason to fret that Nineteeneighties is the result of a creative dry spell or a dispute with his label. There's a new album in the works, and he has nothing but praise for Zoë Records.
Phillips calls Nineteeneighties his "personal mix tape," a collection of songs that "I'd worn around in my bloodstream, and they weren't coming out [of it] any time soon." But the record isn't a self-indulgent project by someone obsessing over his influences. When Phillips says that he wanted to share these songs, he's really talking about communicating their power, which—given the prevailing aesthetics of the '80s—was occasionally obscured.
"A lot of tunes were produced and recorded at a time that might've removed them—where they relegated the vocals and drums to Avalon, to a mystic place," he laughs. "I thought, 'There's a song in there you can play at the campfire.'"
While it's unlikely that anyone but Phillips would've imagined Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon," Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation," or New Order's "Age of Consent" as campfire songs, their transformation is transcendent. Phillips's rich, soulful voice finds the wounded heart in each of his selections, and the sparse, high-desert arrangements expose the longing, terror, and alienation that was such an integral part of that era's music.
Nineteeneighties has actually been in the works for a decade; it was initiated by an aborted attempt at covering Bauhaus's "Bela Lugosi's Dead" at a Grant Lee Buffalo performance in New York City. "I realized I knew the chords, but not which verse went where," Phillips chuckles. "The album really came about by being a fan and now and then sitting in a hotel room picking chords and finally getting around to learning the words [to these songs]."
Being a fan is one thing, but Phillips chose to cover tracks by Robyn Hitchcock ("I Often Dream of Trains") and REM ("So. Central Rain [I'm Sorry]"), both of whom have become close friends.
"Probably on any given day, those were the most daunting," he admits. "It's hard not second-guessing the reaction. At a certain point I got past that out of sheer love. 'I love playing this, it doesn't equal the worth of the original, but it's my way of sharing it.' I'd just play along and bastardize the chord changes and make it my own.
"Robyn's was one of the toughest, because it was so stark to begin with," he continues. "By making it a bit more sprightly and with a mistaken chord here and there, it became a new arrangement."
And Robyn's reaction? "I think it was [imitating Robyn's accent], 'It sounds like you were on a much nicer train than I was.'" He pauses and laughs. "I think he was on a death-bound locomotive, and I was on a choo-choo."
Phillips and Hitchcock played musical volleyball on tour together in 2000, swapping songs, stories, and wowing audiences with a chemistry that was musically electrifying and often brilliantly comical. Seattle resident Kris Kristensen documented the tour; the results are available on the DVD Elixirs & Remedies (Scotopia Pictures).
This time through Seattle, Phillips has invited good friend, former tour mate, and recent Portland transplant Kristin Hersh to join him in "An Evening with Grant-Lee Phillips." While he's sure to pull from the covers album, Phillips has a fertile catalog of originals to be mined, and anyone who's seen him live knows his quick wit and off-kilter imagination tend to take the evening into hilariously uncharted territory.
As for the future, look for a new album of Phillips originals early next year. "I'm really excited about where that's going," Phillips says, and then deadpans, "It's more fuzzbox than soapbox."email@example.com