JJ Grey & Mofro: True Warhorses

By: Dennis Cook

JJ Grey by Darren Jackinsky
Maybe it's the pounding soul of "All," the slinky strut of "Diyo Dayo," the synth-dappled, switchback funk of "Hide & Seek" or perhaps the crack-your-heart-open tenderness of "King Hummingbird" but something gonna get you on JJ Grey & Mofro's new slab, Georgia Warhorse (released August 24 on Alligator Records). Grey and his shifting ensemble specialize in 'getcha music,' the sort that runs its fingers through your hair, leaves lipstick on your collar and sometimes lifts your wallet and cell phone to run up a crazy bar tab and make calls to the other side of the world. Grey's songs are earthy in all respects - lusty and impetuous yet rooted in soil tilled with the blood & sweat of generations. And he when he steps to the mic you'll swear Otis Redding has an illegitimate white son. There are also echoes of the young Paul Rodgers who ignited Free and Bad Company – Grey shares his knack for slow burners and ability to make rock sound magisterial – not to mention a dash or two of Grey's personal idols like Tony Joe White and Toots Hibbert. Put it all together and one's body and soul warms when Mofro plays.

Hibbert along with Derek Trucks guests on Georgia Warhorse, helping make it the single strongest release in a catalog without a single dud. Without reinventing the wheel – as we'll discuss in this chat – Grey and his collaborators, particularly producer-sidekick Dan Prothero, have crafted an album that sits up straight 'n' proud next to anything that came out of Muscle Shoals in its heyday. More impressive than Mofro's gift for capturing the feel of Wilson Pickett, Otis, et al. is how they make it seem like that music never went away and has been growing up right along with Grey and his boys.

Grey is man enough to declare, "Hell no, I ain't going down on my knees," yet enough of a dreamer to ache out loud on simmering killers like "Gotta Know," grind passionately like a Grade-A lover man on "Slow, Hot & Sweaty" or throw his whole being open on Georgia Warhorse's shattering closer "Lullaby." In short, Grey is a grand revival shaman reuniting rock 'n' soul in a holy orgy for common folk.

JamBase: One of the things you've done from the beginning – and the new record certainly does it – is remember that rock 'n' roll has hips, which has been forgotten by a lot of your contemporaries. Soul music used to be a real close relative.

JJ Grey by Melanie Martinez
JJ Grey: Right, right, right. I want it to have the energy to rock and I want it to groove so you can dance to it. And I can't dance worth a shit so I better find the funkiest players I can so I can get my groove on! These are all cats I've looked up to and I'm just lucky to get to play with them. They all understand my arrangements and the essence of what I'm trying to get musically. And with these kinds of guys playing, it's easy. All I gotta do is show up.

JamBase: There's been a lot of lineup changes in Mofro, and even your longest running partner, Daryl Hance, is no longer with you. How has that affected the music?

JJ Grey: Honestly, it's always been my ship. Not to sound like an ego thing or nothing, that's just the truth. Daryl has always supported me and now I can't wait to help him in any way I can to help him with what he's doing. He's got his own tunes, like a lot of the other cats, and we will play together again. It's hard to explain [the dynamics of Mofro] to people because it doesn't really have an identity outside of who's playing in it right at that moment. It's like life – full of change.

You've always struck me as a road warrior. I've seen you a lot of times and even when you seem to be draggin' before the show, the moment the music kicks in you spring back. Something seems to hit your bloodstream when you're in front of a crowd.

Definitely! I tell people all the time, I never got paid a dime to play a show – all the money is just so we can get there, unload the equipment, etc. Playing the show itself is just therapy; that part's free. Everything else is what costs us money.

Not everyone appreciates what a privilege it is to get to do what you love for living.

That's what it's all about, and the best way to do it is to not try to do it. Just let it happen. If you've got a cut it'll heal itself if you give it time and space and let the body do what it does. It's the same way with music. I don't write tunes, they write themselves. I honestly can't take credit for that. They just pop out of thin air like conversations.

I wanted to get into your longtime working relationship with Dan Prothero, who's helmed every Mofro album with you since the start. I don't think he gets near enough credit. Every time he works with a musician, including you, he seems to draw out the best in them.

Well, if somebody wanted to get technical about the original members of Mofro, it'd obviously be myself, Daryl and Dan Prothero. As far I'm considered, Dan is probably a bigger part of Mofro than any one individual cat that's played with me. Luckily, Dan only wants to work with people who are 95-percent there so he only has to add about 5- percent. He wants to help you get the right sound, the right tone, and that's what Dan's done. It's been great.

You've had this partnership over five albums. How do you think the sound has evolved? I can't quite nail the exact differences but there's something quite refined about the sound on Georgia Warhorse.

JJ Grey by Adam McCullough
With Blackwater [Mofro's 2001 debut] there was a lot of shoulder shruggin' on my part and nervousness. I didn't know what he wanted; he didn't know what I wanted. I don't even know how a record came out of those sessions, and that's not because of the musicians involved. That was my fault. I wasn't stepping up to the plate, not so much in my takes but with the whole process. And Dan was instrumental in pushing me towards my strengths and away from my weaknesses. And when I say weaknesses, I guess what I should say is pushing me towards honesty, the things that felt genuine and honest, and away from things that felt contrived or phony. He also convinced me to learn how to play instruments. I played an instrument enough to write a tune, but going on the road I couldn't afford to bring along the kind of band I wanted to. I wanted horns and everything on the first record and tour behind it, but I just couldn't afford it. And I'd never played and sang at the same time before and Dan said, "You just gotta do it." He pushed me, pushed me, pushed me.

So, to go back and answer your question, I send him demos now that I've cut at home and it's pretty close to how it sounds on the record, except we go into the studio and get someone who plays drums better than me [laughs]. We don't go in as a band. I put the songs together and think of who I'd like to be on a cut, like Derek Trucks or whatever. I'm at a point where I can make that call. Derek was easy because he lives in Jacksonville, and Toots was easy, too. We just sent him the stuff down to Jamaica and he jammed on it and sent it back [laughs]. The point is that now with Dan we don't have to go through a song critique period or nothing. We're just ready to go in and do it and make it interesting with cool 70s synth sounds and such.

One picks up on the shared curiosity with cool sounds that you and Dan have. For all the production that's layered on rock music these days, that inquisitive, distinctly human touch is often missing.

JJ Grey by Darren Jackinsky
Chasing rabbits down holes is always fun. I'll tell you something else that's cool, and don't get me wrong, I love Pro Tools and Logic - I use those things to write with and in the process of making this record these things get used - but Dan taught me not to rely on them. When things are done in the box – the controlled, computer-based box world – it has a flatness to it. There's no spikes, no pits. No matter how great the recording or the players, it will lose something if it's not mixed through a console. All the [Mofro] records have been done on two-inch tape. Dan mixes down off two-inch tape as much as he can, and then dumps all that into Pro Tools and does last minute editing.

Jimmy DeVito's Retrophonics studio, where we always record, is a museum of the best gear ever made. You move something aside and there's something else that makes you go, "Holy shit!" So you start messing around and thinking, "This vintage '72 keyboard would be perfect on this take!" Jimmy provides that space, and I think that's a huge part of the sound, too – Jimmy's two-inch tape machine, his vintage amplifier collection, his guitars, his basses.

A place like that allows instinct and inspiration to take hold in the moment. Things are too neat today. You'd never get those wonderful pushing-the-meter-into-the-red moments on the classic Aretha Franklin recordings now. But that bold, ragged rush is what those songs are all about.

That's what I push for on every record. On all my favorite records like Tony Joe White and all that Muscle Shoals stuff, when the singer gets going the tubes start to smoke and the pre-amps sizzle and it all starts to fly apart on the heavy, high, loudest notes. I love that! That's also when guitars changed and became distorted, when the guitar player is just playing it so hard and so loud things start to bust apart. What people like Dan and I are doing is pursuing that distortion. We're looking for the distortion that sounds like butter, not the newer circuit board distortion, which kinda shits out and sounds awful.

It's great to see this kind of music being made today instead of it being simply something from yesteryear. These records and this sound endures because it sounds so, so, so good.

One of the things I explain to people is volume does not translate well to tape. So, when you play live you just play louder and people can feel those huge, dynamic shifts. With studio recordings what happens is people have to turn up their stereos when you're quiet and then turn 'em back down when it's too loud, which led to compression. But all those old compressors gave you a form and a feeling, whereas now a Celine Dion recording might be smashed into oblivion to the point where you look at it as a line on a computer and the block volume is massive compared to say AC/DC's Back In Black, which has these peaks and valleys that look small, not one continuous fat block of volume. Well, we know what happens when you put both on a stereo, you'll say the AC/DC record is louder. It just seems louder because there's not an Amex on it. These are the things Dan has taught me. Some people will say, "That's retro," but I say, "No, it's just good." The wheel is retro. It was invented a LONG time ago but it works [laughs].

JJ Grey & Mofro are currently on tour. They play The Compound in Phoenix, AZ (9/22), Belly Up Tavern in Solano Beach, CA (9/23), The Fillmore in San Francisco, CA (9/24) and the West Beach Music & Arts Festival in Santa Barbara, CA (9/25). Find full tour dates here.

JJ Grey & Mofro Tour Dates :: JJ Grey & Mofro News :: JJ Grey & Mofro Concert Reviews

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[Published on: 9/22/10]

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