Mark Griffin is the kind of guy who spent a good amount of time in high school thinking, "Wow, I want to be a high school band director, because that's the coolest thing in the world to do." (He got over it). He's the sort who, after graduating college with a degree in trumpet and playing a year's worth of sight reading, brain-numbing union gigs, decided to call his "band" MC 900 Ft Jesus because the Mark Griffin Group sounded too stuffy. Never mind that the "band" was just Griffin, a beat box and a sampler making tapes in a bedroom. And even though the name is dated by Oral Roberts' long-past extortion visit from said Jesus, Griffin still digs it in his perverse way.
"I like the fact that it's impossible to remember," he says. "If I'm on an airplane with someone sitting next to me, it invariably happens that they get around to asking me what the name of my band is, and I have to tell them ten times. I just always thought that was funny. To me that's a joke on the whole idea of marketing. It's something that I just don't give a shit about."
Not giving a shit, of course, has its consequences, and there are still people out there who think, because of the MC of the name, that Griffin's a rapper, and being perceived as the second white rapper to break out of Dallas -- Vanilla Ice being the first; remember him? -- is about as funny as the kiss of death. Maybe that's part of the reason that Griffin, who doesn't give a shit about marketing, is on the other end of the line in the American Recordings offices in Burbank, doing this phone interview to promote the present tour for his latest album, One Step Ahead of the Spider.
The rap tag stems not just from the MC of the name, but also from the fact that Griffin's early recordings -- a self-produced eponymous debut EP and the follow-up Welcome to My Dream on the Nettwerk label -- relied so heavily on the beatbox and samplers approach, even though Griffin's vocals have always sounded more like a dark-side cousin to Jon S. Hall's spoken word monologues than anything on Rap-a-Lot. Tours for those albums, with only Griffin and DJ Zero on stage fronting a bank of sequencers and DAT machines, only furthered the rap connection. But what's becoming ever more clear with the recent release of One Step Ahead of the Spider on American is that Griffin ain't no rapper at all, and never really was.
"I never really considered myself as a rap artist," he says. "I don't have that type of voice really. If I was trying to do straight-ahead rap music I don't think I would ever be very good at it, but I like to take rhythmic ideas or textural ideas from rap and from a lot of other things too, like jazz, and put them together in some sort of soup.
"There are a lot of white guys running around
nd really embarrassing themselves trying to pass themselves off as rappers. It's embarrassing to me. It goes back to reading reviews of the records where people look at me in terms of rap music and say I'm weak. Yeah, if I was trying to be a rapper I would be a weak one. Whoever writes things like that is just missing the point. It's not what I'm doing here. I think if you listen to my lyrics you'll find that I totally avoid any trendy rap jargon just because I don't want that mistake to be made. I find it embarrassing. I just wouldn't be able to stand up there and try to pass myself off as black, because I'm not."
True enough, on the counts of color and content. Griffin may be race conscious enough to update Curtis Mayfield's "Stare and Stare" on the new disc, but like that tune's purely observational stance, most of what Griffin writes about is geared to conjure dreamy, queasy ambiguity, not stridency. When Welcome to My Dream came out in '92 carrying tunes such as the self-explanatory "Killer Inside Me" and the arson fantasy of "The City Sleeps," it was easy to see Griffin's Jim Thompson fixation at work. Griffin likes to write about wackos and losers, but in his world, the wackos and losers might just as soon kill you when you turn your back. He also has a thing for writing about car crashes, as he did on "Falling Elevators," the opening cut of Welcome, and "New Moon," the lead track of One Step.
Not that he particularly likes writing at all. "It's kind of a nebulous process," Griffin says. "But I always have the music done first. That's the easiest part for me, because I am a musician anyway, and I tend to put off lyric writing because it's sort of like having to write a term paper. I view it as homework.
"I'm not that great of a writer. I'm not really any kind of a writer. But I always wanted to do something that just wasn't stupid, you know. Not a pop cliche. I try to come up with things that'll be at least marginally entertaining to somebody who really knows good writing. I would be really embarrassing myself if I were doing songs about shake your booty or something like that. I couldn't see myself up on stage doing that, so I have to come up with something else, and these songs are what I come up with. "
"That 'New Moon' bit," Griffin adds, "is this idea that mutated out of reading Death of a Salesman. It's a long way from that. But this person commits suicide out on the remote highway somewhere and nobody knows for sure what really happened. I mutated it all around to where you're actually inside this woman's head, just looking out her eyes at everything that happens, and you don't know any more about what's going on than you did in the play. In the play, you get an earful of why this guy is depressed and why he might be suicidal, but you don't know for sure that he actually killed himself, and so in "New Moon" you get an eyeful of everything as it happens, and you know exactly what's going on, but you haven't got a clue as to why. It's sort of a mirror image of that situation."
Killer fantasies and car crashes could be bleak (or pretentious), but Griffin's got a third songwriting mode at work: the self-deprecating anecdote. "Adventures in Failure" off Welcome turned into a minor hit with a quirky riff and a narrative straight out of The Simpsons. The new album's first single, "If I Only Had a Brain," plays the same game.
What's changed between albums is the way Griffin puts his goofy compositions across. In the two-year interim between albums he inked a deal with Rick Rubin's American label, and the influx of money allowed him to expand his original vision.
"Things mutate," hes says. "When I started out, I was basically producing an album from my bedroom in my apartment, and it was a cool way to make an album and have it all totally under your control and be able to work on it when and where you want, but I just kinda got tired of doing things that way. Originally when I started out, I was into sequencers and sampling and beat box and all that stuff a lot more than I am now, but after a while you get really tired of doing that type of thing. It became so repetitive that it was kinda like, it reminded me of the whole reason why I got out of the academic music world in the first place. You just kinda go through phases where you want to hear one type of a sound over another."
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The sound Griffin wanted to hear this time around was live, and more ambient jazz-based than the hip-hop knockoffs of earlier work. Griffin recruited an eight-piece band for the record and tour, including a multipurpose horn player, a pianist and several percussionists to back Griffin's own guitar/keyboard/trumpet work, and the new label's deep pockets let him dig in.
"I spent a year on this record, and the longest I had spent on an album before that was something like three months. I was doing a lot of new things. It was the first time I'd had to be in charge of these huge sessions with eight-piece bands," says Griffin. "I had also bought a Mac, and I was doing a lot of work on the computer. I had never owned a computer before, so I was learning my way around the Mac itself plus all this high-end software. It just took a long time to get it all together. That's one good thing about being on a much bigger label -- the resources are there to do that type of thing.
"I'll always be one of those guys that enjoys being in the studio more than I do being on stage, but this is actually the first time that I've been on the road that I actually enjoy doing our live shows. It's gotten to the point where the pleasure of doing the live show sort of compensates for the hassle of being on the road, for the first time."
MC 900 Ft Jesus opens for the Cranberries at 8 p.m., Friday, December 9 at the AstroArena. Tickets cost $17.50. Call 629-3700 for info.