L4LM: The new album, Old Glory, shows an impressive overall progression for the band. How much time did you spend working on that material before you released it?
JJ Grey: Not so much a bunch of time writing it, but when it came to stuff like arrangements and stuff, we took a little extra time playing around with them at sound checks and whatnot on tour. Kinda wanted to have it a little more down this time when we hit the studio.
L4LM: You mentioned working on these songs during sound checks. How much time does Mofro get to spend getting together and actually rehearsing?
JJG: Used to be never. (Chuckles) Everybody lived in a different part of the world, y’know? The band is mostly comprised of people I’ve either slept on their floor, opened up for a band they were in, or they opened up for my band at some point. Everybody lived in different places, so we’d only see each other when we toured, for the most part.
L4LM: You hear about that situation in a lot of bands.
JJG: It’s kinda the situation I’ve always been in…from the beginning. I had maybe a couple guys local, but some of the guys were from different areas, different parts of the world…even Australia, France…just all over. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some really cool people and great musicians but, for whatever reason, they’ve had to come from all four corners of the world to do it. But now I’ve got a few more cats who are local so I’m lookin’ forward to gettin’ back to rehearsals here down home.
L4LM: You seem to be broadening and deepening your lyrical topics as you get older. Is that the wisdom kicking in?
JJG: I hope so. I hope I’m gettin wiser. I guess I am…I don’t know. It’s really hard to gauge, y’know. Sometimes I feel like we’re all just floatin’ around on this blue green ball in the middle of infinite space. When you realize that…well…there’s not a yard stick to measure it by. And the fact of the matter is…that’s real, that’s kinda the truth. At the end of the day, I just roll with it man, and just keep trying to preach what feels like it’s important.
L4LM: Sounds like wisdom to me.
JJG: Yeah, I hope so. (Chuckles)
L4LM: Any subjects that you didn’t feel like tackling in your younger days that you feel up to taking a crack at now?
JJG: Not really. I’ve never shied away from anything. The most I’ve been guilty of is trying to say too much, y’know? When I was younger I tried to say too much. I look back at some of the original versions of songs, like “Santa Claus True Love & Freedom,” before I rerecorded it, when it was on “Blackwater.” It told WAY too much of the story. The tide was high, the moon was full, it was 3:33 in the afternoon…every little detail of the story was told. I found it was too much.
For me, it’s better to leave things open. Open to interpretation, even open to interpretation for myself. Over the years sometimes I reinterpret things myself…kinda like life is change. I don’t purposefully go out of my way to make that happen either…it just kinda happens all by itself.
L4LM: A lot of your songs feature a strong narrative voice…seems like those two concepts are at odds.
JJG: Yeah you can find yourself tellin’ too much, sayin’ too much. The point can get lost in the details. To me, it’s a fine line between tellin’ just enough so that people’s imaginations will grab hold of what’s being sung or being spoken or whatever and not lettin’ the story get lost in the details.
Luckily, it’s not up to me, I don’t have to walk that line, so to speak. I feel like the songs write themselves, and when they do, they always come out bein’ right for me. If I try to get involved too much…(Chuckles) It turns into an after school special pretty quick if I ain’t careful.
L4LM: One thing that hasn’t changed is the musical twang you and Mofro have. Do you ever feel the urge to go in a completely different direction, or is the southern rock just who you are?
JJG: It’s just what I’m doing right now. I do other things as well. I don’t really think of music in terms of genre. It’s just music. I mean, people do that, we all do that to a degree. We can say this is THIS kind of music or this is THAT kind of music.
A lot of times it’s dictated by the instrument. Or maybe the key…the mood. The musical mood it’s in. But I don’t really think about that kinda stuff. It’s just music. A lot of times it sounds like that because that’s just what I’m doing. Somewhere between that and some of the more sombre classical sounding stuff…like on the new record, the song “Tic Tac Toe” is somewhere in between I guess. But I don’t really think about genre.
L4LM: So there’s a chance we might see you alone onstage with a Macbook Pro someday?
JJG: (Laughs) That ain’t never gonna happen. I’ll use a Macbook to do things, but as far as me hitting a space bar and music being played by a machine…nah. (Chuckles) Next thing you know I’d need one to spend time with my daughter for me. That ain’t happenin’…I ain’t replacing human beings with a machine.
I got no beef with people who work digitally. All the stuff I do is recorded on tape. What tape does, tape kinda forces you to be in a place and a time. It requires a performance to take place. It catches a snippet of time. Whereas if you get too digital with it…it has no time, it has no space, it has no place, y’know. Fortunately there are some acts that manage to do both, and I love some of those bands.
L4LM: I know you’ve played the Freebird Live club in Jacksonville many times. Are you gonna try and make it there one more time before it closes for good?
JJG: I’d love to. I think I’ve got some friends comin’ in January and playin’ some shows there and I might run down there and hang out some, play some, sing some. Get it while you can, y’know?
L4LM: You own a sizable farm in the Northern Florida area. Ever thought about hosting a “Mofro Fest” on your land?
JJG: Uhhh….NO! (Laughs) I did a festival. Me and my manager got together and did this “Blackwater Soul Review” at the St. Augustine Amphitheater…I think it was the first show there after they revamped it. It was cool. We had Toots & The Maytals there, we had Los Lobos and Tony Joe White. A bunch of people that I’ve loved.
We did it two years and I figured out real quick that I’m not in the festival business. Nah, I like to perform…this was bitin’ off a lot more than I could chew. It sounds easy. “Let’s just get the bands there, and we’ll sell tickets and the people will come and it will be great! It’s easy!” Even with a BUNCH of people workin’, hiring skilled people to work it was still a pain and I was like, “This is too much.”
Yeah, it was crazy. It was fun, and an experience, but I learned they’re grass ain’t always greener on the other side. Promoters do a LOT of work.
L4LM: I understand this isn’t a hobby farm. How important is your connection to your land to you?
JJG: It’s very important…y’know but the good news is I don’t got to think about it. All I gotta do is be there. And even if I’m not there there’s still a connection. It’s a part of my memories and upbringing. For me it’s like a gateway to the whole world.
You realize everybody has those kinda feelings about somewhere. It might not even be where they’re from. It might be the place they’re at. I have other places around the world kinda like that. Like standing in Byron Bay, in Australia, this little surf spot and watching the moon come up. It’s just like, “Wow! This is really here? This is really happening?”
And all those little places helped push me into me…and out of the world’s thoughts for a little while. And into the real world, the world that’s actually happening. Luckily, I made a connection with the place that I grew up, and that helps usher me through that door. I’ll always have a place in my heart for it.
L4LM: I see you will be pouring some of your own co-brewed Nare Brown Sugar Beer at some shows around New Years. How much tasting was involved in getting that recipe right?
JJG: It was just, honestly, once or twice, and it’s because these guys at Rock Brothers and Cigar City, they got together and brainstormed. At first I thought they just maybe wanted to produce like a lager, a regular beer. Then I mentioned a beer that I had drank in Germany, a Belgian that I thought tasted like ice cream.
They got really excited over that. I described the taste and they said they were workin’ on somethin’ like that already anyway. So they combined the two tastes and they ran a small batch and they were like “Huh. Needs to be sweeter.” And they did it again and were like “Needs to be a lil more bitter.” It only took once or twice and it was done.
L4LM: Are you a home brewer?
JJG: Nah. My dad made a lil brandy-wine, but I never brewed anything.
L4LM: Are you packed for Jam Cruise yet?
JJG: I am not, but will be shortly. (Laughs) I believe it’s been a couple years since we’ve done it, so it’s gonna be fun, like always. It reminds me a lot of Jazz Fest, the two weeks of Jazz Fest. You can’t wait to get there…you have the time of your life while you’re there, but at the end you just can’t wait to get home.
After all that I’m like “I gotta eat more Wheaties and get my act back together.”
L4LM: You’re on the boat with your “Southern Soul Assembly” collaboration with Anders Osborne, Marc Broussard and Luther Dickinson. How did that evolve?
JJG: My manager had this idea. He thought it would be great to get a “Singer-Songwriter round table” together and I said “Cool! Who ya talkin’ about?” And he said Luther Dickinson. I’ve known Luther for years and I said “Aww yeah.” And then he said “Marc Broussard” and I said “Oh yeah” and then he said “Anders” and I said “Done.”
L4LM: With that many great songwriters in one project, do you feel a little extra pressure to bring your “A” game?
JJG: Oh yeah. I mean, I don’t feel like there’s pressure to, I WANT to. They’re inspiring. But to be honest with you I feel that way about the guys I play with every night. I get inspired by what they do. I get inspired by each and every one of those guys. Everyone of them has a different thing that they have.
We’re all children of the same musical parents if you will, in a way. But we all kinda sound completely different and bring something completely different to the mix. Every one of the guys has a thing that blows me away that they’re not known for. Everybody knows that Luther can play a guitar and sing, he’s been doin’ that forever. He’s one of the best guitarists out there on the face of this Earth, but man, he’s a great song writer too. He’s wrote lots of great songs too.
And Marc Broussard, everybody knows, he’s one of my favorite singers alive. The man is just unbelievable. But his command on the guitar, especially on chords. He knows more chords than any one I know. I’ve never seen nothing like it. He can play like a trillion different chords on the guitar…it’s crazy. And Anders…well, Anders is just great at everything. Everybody loves him.
But Anders is so focused, he’s like a laser. His poise, his intent, the way he plays guitar…it’s a power all it’s own. I’m blown away by everyone of those guys.
L4LM: Though there’s some melancholy mixed in, most of your music has a pretty upbeat feel to it lately. So you feel like your music has an overall theme beyond the love of your heritage and hope?
JJG: I think it’s also just turning a corner in life in general. The further back I go, the darker I was as a person and in music. That didn’t always show up so well on our records, ’cause I wanted our records to be more balanced, but it was always so easy to write darker more down tunes and so much harder for me to find some thing more up beat and life.
As time goes on…that just gets hard to sustain. I got tired of the dark. I got tired of the anger. Got tired of it. I just wore myself out with all of that. I was just like “What a waste.” It’s too much. To me, there’s another line.
There’s a line between the upliftingness of a heavy tune like “Sad Days and Lonely Nights” by Junior Kimbro. It’s one of my favorites. It’s one of the heaviest tunes I’ve ever heard in my life, and it’s uplifting at the same time.
What you say about a hardship…if it’s real…there’s something uplifting about that. Versus, the other side of that line is you don’t wanna be a cry baby. And I felt like I was bein’ a cry baby sometimes. Not even songs that necessarily made it to the public, but when I listened to them I said to myself…”Man, stop crying.” Just enjoy life.
Some of my heroes, Toots & The Maytals, Toots Hibbert, all those reggae dudes they had songs that were serious sometimes and some that were just light and fun. But all of them had that real energy. Same with those old blues guys. Buddy Guy would do a show, and some of it was funny, but some of it was hittin’ hard times. And that’s tellin’ the human story. It ain’t always up and it ain’t always down.
The idea is to not to keep it up, but to be up. You can’t think your way to joy. You gotta KNOW your way to joy. When shit happens you just roll with it. Sing about it, do something to get it off your chest and move on and be happy.
L4LM: Speaking of working with musicians, I hear you’ve recorded some stuff for the new Galactic album. Any details you can share about that?
JJG: That was fun. I gotta tell ya, I wouldn’t be doin’ what I was doin,’ I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for those guys, and a lot of bands could say that about them. Their tenacity, their where-with-all, way back in the day. Where there wasn’t a trail, they blazed one. They made it possible for me, and I’m just happy to be part of anything they do.
They’re like family to me, and have been for many, many years. they asked me if I wanted to write a tune with them, and I said “Yeah yeah yeaah!” So they sent me a couple of riffs, I blocked them together and put some lyrics to it…I’m sure I’ll probably end up singin it with them at the Freebird Live comin’ up…
L4LM: Time for a few fan questions. Ready?
JJG: Uh Huh!
L4LM: “What was the last song you listened to before this interview?”
JJG: The new James Bond theme, with Sam Smith singin’ it.
L4LM: Your band has always allowed the music tapers to come in and record and share your shows. One of them wanted to thank you for that, and to ask what lead you to decide to allow that back in the beginning.
JJG: I’ve never had a problem with it. Honestly, I think it helps. I’ve caught myself listening to other bands through tapes of their shows. I think it helps.
L4LM: As your hair gets lighter, any thoughts of pulling a “Gandalf” and changing your name to “JJ White?”
JJW: (Laughs) I’ll probably need to. My dad’s hair was all fully grey by the time he was 18 or 19 years old, so I’m lucky mine waited a little bit longer. It’s definitely salt and peppery, and getting a little saltier every day.
L4LM: Wait a minute. You’re dad’s last name was Grey, and his hair turned gray at age 18?
L4LM: I bet he wishes his last name was Rich instead!
JJG: (Laughs) Really!
L4LM: Last one. “Did you ever get your organ fixed after spilling whiskey in it in Indianapolis a few years ago?”
JJG: Oh yeah, I fixed it the next day. I just took it apart, cleaned it out, and fired it back up and it worked fine. I got so good at cleaning that thing out. Hell, probably happened four or five times. I got so I knew which two screws I needed to pull out…practice.
L4LM: Well sir, thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, we’ll be seeing you out there on the road!
JJG: Thank you.