This was one of my favourite interviews to date – Griffith James has lived a uniquely exuberant and wild life so far. His life story begins with a childhood full of travel and uncertainty as the son of two religious missionaries and winds its way to the point where he stands today, on the cusp of releasing his debut album in his thirties. This is no ordinary journey, this is no ordinary music either – his sound is high grade and infectious.
He is a name worth keeping an eye on, his story, one well worth reading. Following on from his debut single Market and Black’s release a fortnight ago, I caught up with him for a hellishly entertaining interview over the magical technology that is, Zoom. Here is the transcription of our chat. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Hey Griffith, thanks for taking the time to chat to me, first off, Congratulations with your debut single Market and Black – I’ve been addicted. Before we delve into your music in detail – I think we better start this interview right at the beginning. You’ve lived a unique life thus far – take us back and talk us through it.
On your bio it states you grew up in a religious community and moved city seventeen times before the age of eighteen. This must have been an incredibly tough beginning as a boy. Can you tell us about your upbringing?
Yes, of course. It was a really intense Christian community (my parents were part of)- I often times refer to it as a cult – a Christian sect that started in the 70s and came to prominence in the nineties before totally imploding in the early 2000’s. My parents are amazing people and it was always very authentic and it still is for them, but we got very caught up in the dogma of it all as a family. We moved a lot. I lived in South Korea and all up and down the West Coast of the US – Seventeen moves in the first eighteen years of my life. Looking back, I’m very happy I had this experience as you have to learn to adapt but I think it’s very challenging moving around so much as your trying to form your identity as a kid.
I was raised like this but there was always some kind of poetic significance to it. It was very impractical for my parents to be missionaries; their respective families were terrified at the prospect of them joining. My dad was going to be a civil engineer and decided to drop everything and become a missionary, making less than a teacher’s salary for thirty years. I think that my early immersion into this religious world gave me the path to music. When I left religion, the energy I expended as a kid for it had to transfer into something else, music was that thing for me. Music later became my spirituality and art – this was my way of trying to connect to whatever it was I was yearning to find. The music being played at church was the only thing I liked about it and to this day I still like some of the songs.
That was a crazy way to grow up and I guess I always felt like an outsider because of it and… I really was. My whole goal within our family was to convert everyone we met, anywhere we went. Every relationship I had, had to be laced with church talk and convincing them to join. I always felt weird as it was a very alienating thing to have to go through as a kid. This feeling of being an outsider was always challenging to me, although it was a long time ago it happened, it gives you a different perspective on life.
I appreciate my parents were thinking out of the box, although it was a very Dogmatic box. It was a very ‘out there’ way to grow up.
You learn how to connect to people. My dad being a pastor, he was almost like a politician, very charismatic. I picked that trait up and having to be out of your comfort zone all of the time, as challenging as it is, gave me a great ability to relate to others. I didn’t have the luxury of growing up with a group of friends and had to make new friends every year, always finding ways to connect with people all the time. I think that shaped the expansive way in which I still write and produce music to this day. I’m good at adapting.
Going back again for a moment; how did your parents get into this community in the first place? Did a dramatic life event trigger their interest or?
They had been in it around ten years before I was born, when they were in college in the late 70s. They got converted as I think there was a huge emergence of religious movements forming following the renaissance of the 60s, whereby droves of people were determined to find meaning. There were so many sects that formed and our one was an off-shoot of a traditional church which then became its own thing before becoming very wild eyed. It was a movement – you were either in or out and everyone, once in, isolated within that bubble. It was at one point out-pacing the Mormon Church – very mission focused.
As you moved towards adulthood, you decided to run away from that life, spending time living on the rougher side of things. What happened and what spurred you on to leave?
When I left my parents church, I had no idea about the world. I had five hundred dollars to my name and had just read a Jack Kerouac book and decided to hitchhike and live wherever I could – which ended up in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for a summer, dropping acid. It was crazy living with all the other transients in the park and my parents were absolutely wrecked by it. They were terrified for my life and in hindsight, it was pretty crazy but I had no idea where I was trying to land in the world coming from such an extreme lifestyle. I floated for a long time, one of those kids with a backpack on, trying to sell some weed and usually smoking most of it.. living off a dollar Sundae’s from McDonald’s – weird.
It was cool living like this, in a sense, you kind of have to break the rules a little to write compelling music I think. Running away was essentially me breaking every rule I’ve ever known. I was thinking to myself for the first time and moving towards what my heart was telling me. When you are seventeen/eighteen, this is a world of total freedom and I had no real material possessions. I did, however, have a guitar that was stolen from me whilst sleeping but there remains to be something very liberating about that time.
I was very fortunate that I could go back to my family at any time so I wasn’t stuck out there: there’s a privilege to that I’m very aware of . However loose and wild the lifestyle was, I respect that version of myself.
I didn’t know where to go, but I just went.
After Golden Gate Park, I ended up living in a tree sit in Humboldt County trying to save trees from being cut down, Then I was in a band playing punk houses and train hopping. I even tried to sail across the ocean at one point with my friend. It was crazy stuff at times. I’m surprised to still be alive to tell the tales actually.
How did you snap out of that period of your life? Did you encounter any individuals who influenced you during that time? Did someone straighten out your path or give you a nudge in the right direction?
What kind of brought me out of that whole phase was, one night at a party, I stumbled into a basement which had multiple units of tenants. We walked into this older man’s room, there was a Buddha statue in the corner – he had a shaved head so we immediately presumed he was a monk (he later announced he was a janitor). In fact, he was an old monk who had left the monastic life and moved to Seattle but was always going to live out his monastic lifestyle no matter what. He ended up taking us in for a chunk of time where he taught us meditation and helped me out.
I was in a very chaotic place so his guidance helped me get on my feet. I was getting in a bad way in terms of mental health – he taught me meditation and aided me in finding a more structured path. Meditation is such a sane practice and I’ve loved it ever since. His name was Ben. He is still in Seattle.
When we stayed with Ben we had to follow his lifestyle to the smallest detail: we’d wake up at a certain time, wash our faces, make tea and toast, rinse our mouths out, do our morning meditation, clean our spaces. It was regimented and brilliant – much welcomed being a disheveled nineteen year old. It changed everything for me.
Do you think this roaming upbringing gave you an advantage with your music career – in terms of religiously working hard (pardon the pun) and building connections etc?
Yeah, I mean I still want to make fun music all the time but there is a side of me where I was immersed in a very philosophical upbringing. Our house was a very philosophical household, we were always reflecting. For us, it was the bible but I was taught to dive into text or even now, an album or work of art, and just reflect.
I feel very fortunate to have been shown that way of thinking/living. My family is very deep; we can go into deep conversations whereby nobody shy’s away from speaking about awkward topics. My parents are very curious and always trying to understand these existential things. Their beliefs are very existentialist to the core. Yes, it was cult-y and religious but, in the main, steeped in philosophical thinking.
In life, if we are lucky to find the thing we love even if it takes a winding path to get there – to get to that place is amazing. I feel very fortunate to find this life of being an artist; it took a long time to find the communities and the scenes. There’s no time frame to when you get there and it’s key to stick with it when you are there.
An incredible story. Let’s get delve into your music now shall we. Market and Black was released a few weeks ago – I’d love to hear about the song and where it’s comes from? Have you been sitting on it for a while?
There’s quite a journey for this song, I actually wrote it ten years ago. It was one of my favourite songs back then but it just didn’t quite have a home until now. When I started working with Tennis (Pat Riley + Alaina Moore), I had twenty demos and ‘Market and Black’ was one I put on there. I wasn’t sure it would be the right fit or if they’d pick it – it ended up being one of their favourites.
It was a magical process writing the song, there was a whole other half of it that we totally scratched and rewrote again by bringing in another unreleased song I’d made to see if it would fit. This gave the song the chord progressions for the second section. Alaina and I started riffing for a few hours and we came up with the vocal melodies and those ethereal ‘do-do-do’s’ – we mixed it all together and she pulled some ideas from her own demos for the final big moment of the song. It was a great process – you kind of live for these types of moments when it all comes together in a profound way, there’s nothing better.
It’s always been a song close to my heart. I wrote the lyrics after reading a book called ‘Black Elk Speaks’ – where this old medicine man, one of the last living of the Souix nation, is interviewed back in the 1930’s. It was amazing and I don’t really know what it was about it but it was so full of truth and it brought me into this place of realizing my deeper sense of self. So often you can get pulled away, either through pressure or feeling like you need to be someone else to be recognized. Market and Black, for me, was always a call for me to come back to myself. I feel like I got a bit lost at many points in my life and the words here were written to remind me to come back and be myself.
Are there any particular lyrics within the song that stand out for you over others? If so, choose and describe.
‘Seek all the winters deep in your thorns’
We always want that springtime energy in our life. It always feels good when things are abundant, productive and fruitful. We like the festive fruitful part of life but those stark winter moments can be harder to appreciate. Having been through some challenges in my own life, Market and Black is about recognizing those times. Sometimes I feel very connected to myself and something traumatic arrives and makes everything seem fractured where you have to piece it all back together. I think this song feels more poignant to me now then it did when I wrote it as I’ve just come out of a divorce – it’s like I wrote the song for myself ten years in the future. I used to take myself very seriously and I think that at a certain point, its exhausting.
You’ve got to be able to laugh about things – it’s important to make art that is poignant but at the same time find a little space for humour too (the music video). Humour lubricates those deeper feelings – if you learn to laugh at yourself you can address the deeper issues/things in your life better.
You will be releasing your debut album soon. Can you talk us through the album and what we are to expect from in terms of style. Will it be a varied array of sounds or very much like Market and Black?
It feels very cohesive as it was produced by Tennis. They are really great editors and the problem I had as a producer and even producing my own stuff, was everything I did could have been for a different band. I like to experiment – I want to try every ice-cream flavour, climb up every hill and take in every view. Pat and Alaina are curators and editors and they know exactly where to direct the sound – I felt like my expansiveness and their focus and curation was a match made in heaven. I never had an experience that came close to working with them.
I realised in my own production for others (Ocean Pleasant, Stelth Ulvang, Grayson), I never liked being an editor but what I did enjoy was bringing my expansive ideas to their music. Pat and Alaina’s way of producing was laser focused and I loved working with them.
The album will remain quite varied; there are no songs on the record that sound the same. I picked all my favourite songs I’d written in various projects – over four different projects spanning over a decade. Myself and David (my manager) sat down and compiled what we viewed as ‘my greatest hits’ and put it all into a record. It’s hard for me to pick a favourite.
Was there ever a time you thought you wouldn’t get your music out to the world at all?
There were so many times where I thought it was all going to align and for one reason or another, it wouldn’t. I got into music thinking that things would happen faster than they have and I’ve learned that you can’t rush the process. Everyone has to come to their own artistic maturity on their own. Some people hit it when they are eighteen and others may have to wait until they are forty or fifty even (maybe even later). For me, I definitely had many times where I questioned when this time would come but never gave up on music. It’s my absolute passion since my earliest memories. When this came together it felt right, it felt like me.
I did think my ship had sailed in music. I had friends that came up with me in different scenes who had gone on and become very successful – buying houses, and selling out stadiums and shit. I was always like ‘man, am I ever going to get a shot at that?’ You have to let go of comparison though- its toxic. I’m so happy it’s beginning to happen for me and I’ve been able to take the best bits from every project I’ve ever done and get them out to the world now.
David who did drums on record, and is my manager, has played a huge part in everything and I’m grateful.
A question I’m always curious to ask everyone I interview is what their opinion of the modern music scene is. I’d be very to hear your views seen as you’ve been in and around the industry for over a decade now.
It’s a very hard industry. I’ve heard there are around fifty thousand songs uploaded onto Spotify everyday – so naturally, heaps of things get buried. Some of the best songs I’ve been listening to might get a couple of thousand listens and peak at that – it’s very hard to keep the growth. I feel fortunate to have a team working with me now – as an artist you’ve got to be six steps ahead at all times.
It can be demoralising watching the numbers – you’ve got to approach it with a Zen attitude whilst at the same time remaining all in. I don’t even know how you do that. So often you hear stories, where people go through their twenties in bands and then decide to go it alone casually and that’s when it seems to work I think. Unknown Mortal Orchestra was an example of this. That first record was just for fun and it went boom. He was in his thirties I think. I take inspiration from this kind of story.
I have seen some bands get incredible Spotify numbers but can’t fill a fifty person room so I can’t pretend to know how to crack the code – but my advice is to do everything you can ‘all in’ in every direction you can think of. Cover every base. I’m so impressed with people that can do it all themselves.
With this said, can you give me one line of advice you swear by for musicians starting out.
Record raw and soulful demos and send them to the best producers you can. And don’t be afraid to shoot for the moon! Better to do one or two songs with an excellent producer then to record 10 mediocre tracks.
As you’ve mentioned, the forthcoming record is produced by the wonderful Tennis, a coveted and experienced duo. Was meeting them a turnaround point in your musical journey and how did you meet them?
I played a show with Pat and Alaina around six years ago so that’s where we met initially – it wasn’t until I sent me demos to David (my manager) looking for him to play some drums for me that I came back into contact with the pair of them again. David listened to the demos and sent them to Pat and Alaina asking them to record them – I have the utmost respect for them and what they’ve achieved so this was a welcome opportunity. They’ve had many many incredible records, world tours and have outrun many of the artists that came up with them over a decade ago. I’ve never met anyone with their work ethic and laser focus. I was stoked!
It all happened around two months into quarantine last year. We started on two tracks initially and since everything had closed down for them and we’d had lots of fun, we decided to continue and get the record made. It was sad for them that their tours had been cancelled but for me, I was incredibly lucky to have been able to spend that much time working with them. I don’t think it would have happened without quarantine. It was hell for them but I was happy, it was a dream recording in their studio.
They produced the record but I felt like I was able to bring a lot of my own production skills from my decade of producing for others to the table too at the very end.
In essence, what’s the importance of finding a good producer and what has this done for you?
The really good producers are the most coveted artists in the industry. They always have been. I’ve been reading the book ‘Please, Kill me’ about the New York Punk scene – I’d recommend it. It’s all quotes : inside somewhere, there is a manager speaking and he says that ‘you don’t even have to have good songs, you’ve just got to find a good producer.’ There are definitely a lot of commercially successful,”polished turds” as far as songs go out there. Im trying to make diamonds, and Pat and Alaina were critical in helping me refine my songwriting.
The music video for Market and Black was great – who filmed it and what the idea behind it?
Luca Venter was responsible for the music video; I’ve worked with him for years. He is at the top of the game. I respect him infinitely. He shot it on film and every small movement was deliberate as Lucas style is very curated. He almost didn’t let me do the dance; it was only at the very end of the shoot where I pleaded with him to let me. ‘Griffith, I’ve got one more reel left, you’ve got one minute and a half’ so I just went for it. It was worth it as it added a nice fun element to the video. Everything Luca does is very tongue in cheek. I love his eye and humor.
The set was incredible too – the whole nineties cartoon look.
Before a video shoot normally, I like to go dance the night before to let it all out. Dancing is everything to me and being able to go out dancing again is one of the biggest things I’m excited about coming out of pandemic year. There’s nothing better once you find your moves.
What was the story with the black eye?
The black eye was real – I actually had stitches in my head from a surfing accident. It kind of fit the role of being a songwriter as we are viewed as ‘damaged goods’ in a way. I think I’ll keep that injury theme up.
I’ve seen that you’ve busied yourself in times gone by producing music for other artists. Your list of collaborations with your www.newkid.co business is mighty impressive. Funny enough, I’ve featured a few songs produced by you already on this site, most recently, ‘Party Trick‘ by Ocean Pleasant. Are you going to continue producing or focus on solo work?
I’m going to just focus on songwriting now – I don’t really care that much for producing anymore. It’s fun but my favourite kind of thing to do now, which we’ve done on my forthcoming record, is doing over-dubs after the song comes back from the studio (when it’s 90% complete). Of course, I want to continue with some form of producing when it comes to my own music. I still like working on other people’s tunes – doing over-dubs and that but I don’t want to take on a whole song and produce it from the ground up. It’s a lot of work and I like to take my time with things.
Once 90% of the track is done and it’s over-dub time, that’s when I come alive. I prefer songwriting now and will be sticking to it.
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About ‘The Sound Sniffer’
The Sound Sniffer is a music blog that’s still only a baby – Founded in early 2019 by Kevin Coakley, a music writer and ghostwriter. ‘The Sound Sniffer’ also runs gigs and showcases in London since Oct 2019. The showcases are picked from artists found in the blog’s submission inbox.
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