In the late 1990s, The Grassy Knoll was on the leading edge of a new kind of music, a darkly artful mix of the electric and the organic, of digital sampling and analog virtuosity. It was the sound of rock, jazz and electronica melded into a sometimes sly, sometimes seething and always forward-minded infusion. Salon dubbed The Grassy Knoll’s music “groundbreaking and futuristic,” while CMJ deemed it “radical.” Billboard magazine went further, describing those early albums on Nettwerk and Antilles/Verve thusly: “A soundtrack for the conspiracy theory in your mind, The Grassy Knoll fuses the technical terrorism of the Bomb Squad with the organic impact of Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson – industrial-strength beats vying with serpentine sax solos, ambient-noir atmospheres cloaking coiled aggression... Cut-and-paste style, it effectively blurs the line between Birdland and clubland.” The albums featured such edgy instrumental stars as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, avant-jazz saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and genre-blind violinist Carla Kihlstedt. And tastemakers from Shirley Manson of Garbage to guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour were among the faithful, singing the praises of albums The Grassy Knoll (1994), Positive (1996) and III (1998), as well as new-century addendum Short Stories (2003). Aside from an occasional remix and soundtrack inclusion, The Grassy Knoll went dormant for the decade after that, as life challenges took precedence. But now The Grassy Knoll – a/k/a multi-instrumentalist and producer Nolan “Bob” Green – returns with a new album brimming with a sense of fresh possibilities: Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1.
About the return of The Grassy Knoll, Green can barely tamp down his excitement: “I have to say, I’m ecstatic at having made this new record. I can’t wait for people to hear it.” Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1 – crafted in Green’s Electric Verde studio in Austin, Texas – features the same combustible sonic mix that so beguiled the cognoscenti near the turn of the millennium: the vintage hard-rock samples, the flesh-and-blood solos, the dark-hued rhythmic atmosphere, the ever-grooving pulse. Along with Green on bass guitar and various other tools, the album’s instrumentalists come from far-flung genres and geography, including guitarist Vernon Reid, trumpeter Chris Grady and keyboardist Dave Depper, as well as such Austin luminaries as Brad Houser on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, Jesse Dayton on guitar, Chris Forshage on trumpet, Brian Batch on violin and Jeff Johnston on musical saw. Also, for the first time on a record by The Grassy Knoll, there are featured vocalists: Jon Dee Graham (the only three-time inductee to the Austin Music Hall of Fame), Adam Sultan of Poi Dog Pondering, Ann Courtney of Mother Feather, Francine Thirteen, Laura Scarborough and James Rotondi of Roto’s Magic Act. Along with Graham, several of these singers are also Green’s fellow Austin residents: Sultan, Thirteen and Scarborough.
The starry guest array attests to the resonance of The Grassy Knoll’s music over the years. Vernon Reid – ranked No. 66 on the Rolling Stone list of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time – contributes very electric six-string to three tracks on Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1: “The Kids Want a Little Action,” “Car in Reverse” and “Art of Fear.” Reid says: “The Grassy Knoll was in a group of artists that helped define the ’90s music scene outside of hard rock, metal and grunge. The Grassy Knoll, with its quirky, off-kilter, breakbeat funk, was of a piece with the roots of the trip-hop movement, like Portishead, MC 900-Foot Jesus, The Goats, My Bloody Valentine. To me, Bob Green is a genre-twisting, outside-the-corral genius. So it was a pleasure to contribute to Electric Verdeland and The Grassy Knoll’s triumphant return. More than that, it has been great just to reconnect with Bob. He’s not only a visionary artist – he’s an inspiring person.”
Reid’s enthusiasm led directly to the kick-starting of Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1, as Green explains. “One of the spurs to reanimating The Grassy Knoll was getting an e-mail from Vernon, who told me that he had gone back to the ’90s albums and was inspired by them – and open to collaborating anytime I felt into it,” he says. “I thought back to when I was offered an opening slot on The Jesus Lizard reunion tour and I turned it down, being more or less out of music at the time and not having a live band together. I thought, ‘Do I want to say “no” again? Don’t I want to say “yes” to opportunities and encouragement – isn’t that what living life is all about?’ So, thrilled and honored at having a musician like Vernon interested in my music – as well as support from longtime collaborators, like James Rotondi, and good friends on Pledge Music – I started writing again. The first thing I came up with became the track ‘Voluptuous Misery,’ and the sound of that felt so exciting that it let the genie out of the bottle for me again.”
Reflecting on the sound and sensibility of Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1, Green points out that the process of making it was very different than with his ’90s albums. “Back then, I went into a full-fledged recording studio with all my samples locked on two-inch tape, leaving 16 bars or whatever for a soloist like Ellery Eskelin to add some magical energy to that space,” he explains. “It was more or less an old-school way of multi-tracking a record, at least as close as The Grassy Knoll would get to old-school. But with this new record, every contribution was on the same level as a sample – just another color in the palette. I took what the contributing players and singers added to my nucleus of a track and then edited and manipulated it. Even the lyrics are used as poetic elements of sound rather than narrative storytelling. I felt as if I were making a painting or a sculpture.”
A lot of sonic care went into giving Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1 its 3D qualities – full-frequency but with a meaty midrange, dramatically claustrophobic yet threaded with clarity. As always with The Grassy Knoll, the music is hewn from the bedrock of samples (manipulated to be virtually unrecognizable from the source), with Green’s approach to sampling approaching the orchestral. The bulk of these samples come from his favored sound source: live rock albums circa 1968-’72. “I just love that era of live albums,” he says. “The sounds were magical, even in the spaces before and after the songs – maybe especially in between the songs, with just the crowd and ambient noise.”
Writer-critic Marc Weidenbaum – of Disquiet.com and author of the 331/3 book on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II – discusses the postmodern jazz element, or the enduring sound of surprise, in The Grassy Knoll: “There’s a difference between someone having the same records as you and liking them for the same reasons. Back when those records by The Grassy Knoll first came out, it was like someone was hitting pause in the middle of some of the greatest moments in electric-era jazz and just reveling in them for the sheer sonic joy of it. So many musicians and listeners got hooked on the ego inherent in jazz fusion, but Bob Green has always been more focused on its meditative, introspective potential. He has little interest in bravado and showiness; he is more drawn to concentrated, mantra-like electronic explorations, sometimes venturing into ambient territory. At other times, he has formulated proto-mashups, combining familiar elements – he called them ‘adverse ideas’ when I interviewed him – into unexpected, ecstatic congruences.”
Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1 kicks off with “The Kids Want a Little Action,” which has its roots in outtakes from The Grassy Knoll’s cover of Public Image Ltd’s “Poptones,” which Green released as a teaser for the new album. The instrumental rocks with a characteristic Grassy Knoll groove, as the sweet-toned Telecaster of Jesse Dayton – guitar slinger for the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash – lights up the ambient noise; a monster Vernon Reid solo cuts through the clouds of sound, and then there’s squalling sax by Brad Houser, co-founder of the New Bohemians and Critters Buggin’. “It’s a punchy opener for the album – great musicians, dark groove, atmospheric samples, a swelling sound to the outro,” Green says. “It’s all about setting a tone.” For “Car in Reverse,” it was the voice of Ann Courtney of New York rock band Mother Feather “that really makes the song, I think,” Green says. “She was working with Roto – James Rotondi – on something else and just cut her vocals at his place, with all the groaning and ooh’s and ahh’s saying more than a lot of lyrics could…” With the instrumental “Headlong into the Sun,” it’s Green sans guests, just groove and atmosphere – electric and alluring, whether like the sun or like bright neon reflecting off a wet city sidewalk on a Saturday night.
“Voluptuous Misery” – one of the album’s hook-filled highlights – features Rotondi on vocals and guitar, along with jazzer Chris Grady’s Milesian trumpet like a beacon through the grinding swirl. The singer responded evocatively to a lyrical brief, as Green explains: “The initial idea I tossed out to Roto was for words about keeping hopeful in a dire situation – what it’s like to be diagnosed with a disease, how you have to rewire your brain to get through it. He came up with the idea of being held hostage, blindfolded and riding in a van, not knowing if at the end of the ride you’d be executed or released – the mind racing and hoping but knowing it could all vanish in an instant.” The track “Into Your Mind” is another Roto-centric creation, an almost gothic slice of obsidian minimalism atop a rolling synth-bass foundation.
“Rain Rain Down” revolves around the singing and vocal effects of Laura Scarborough, who leads her own Musiklandia project in Austin along with serving as Queen Toy Master for The Golden Dawn Arkestra and touring with Kat Edmonson’s band as keyboardist-vocalist. “I can’t say enough about Laura, who is an amazing artist and really drove this track with her incredible vocal effects and arrangement ideas. She took the song to a new level.” And “Art of Fear” is a tip of the hat to the ’80s trash-goth of Love and Rockets, with Adam Sultan – a former member of Poi Dog Pondering and co-leader of the sado-vaudevillian act Mistress Stephanie & Her Melodic Cat – stacking his vocals à la Love and Rockets’ Daniel Ash. The fantastical rhythm guitar is by Reid, “along with all the strange, warbly guitar sounds – which are him messing around in Ableton Live,” Green explains. “He told me that he stumbled across this series of effects and wanted to try them out for the first time on this track. And Brad Houser’s sax just ups the ante, those simple notes cutting through everything.” There’s more keening sax in instrumental “The Definitive Manifesto for Handling Haters,” with Houser laying down three takes back-to-back – which Green used unedited. “Incredible,” he says, “and I love the synth breakdown in this track, too…”
“The Camera Is on You” is another feature for singer-guitarist James Rotondi, who injects a vintage Peter Murphy/Bauhaus vibe into the track. Houser adds bass clarinet, with Green including hand claps and sparse crowd noise as a tip of the hat to the ending solo section of Robin Trower’s “Too Rolling Stoned.” He says: “I always loved how it sounded like a group of buddies hanging out in the studio and grooving on the solo.” Loping instrumental “The Sympathetic Seducer” includes trumpet improv by Chris Forshage (whose main instrument is actually guitar) and violin by Brian Batch, both Austin musicians. About virtuosity vs. expression from his contributors, Green says: “Sometimes players don’t like a certain part because it’s not technically perfect. But I don’t care so much about that. With Chris’ trumpet solo in this track, it feels at one point as if he doesn’t know where he’s going to go – but he’s like a cat landing on its feet. I’m after happy accidents like that.”
The album closes with “Something Together,” which sounds like a hymn from an alternate universe. Jon Dee Graham – an Austin legend as ex-member of The Skunks and True Believers, as well as a solo artist – added five words and a melody line to Green’s haunting chords, imbuing the song with real depth of emotion by just singing, with gravelly tremulousness: “We are building something together.” With Francine Thirteen’s vocal harmonies, “it sounds like an angel and a homeless guy, a friend told me – and I like that,” Green says. “Dave Depper added the choir parts, which I wasn’t expecting – it’s one of those contributions that helps take the song somewhere beyond. And those eerie, slightly distorted sounds in the second choir section – that’s Jeff Johnston’s musical saw.”
The idea of building something together with others is a theme that James Rotondi hears in Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1, even if Green has always been something of a lone wolf by nature. The result has been new colors in the sound of The Grassy Knoll. Rotondi – who, along with playing with everyone from Air to Mr. Bungle, contributed to the ’90s incarnation of The Grassy Knoll both live and on record – says: “The Grassy Knoll was a project that always suggested limitless possibilities, not being confined to a particular genre, but, in a sense, creating its own. While the mixture of loud jazz, heavy beats and ’70s guitar gestures are certainly still in effect, all those sly intimations of goth-pop and psychedelic rock, which were always in the mix, have become more pronounced. Bob is trusting his instincts as an artist, even as he embraces the like-minded and similarly iconoclastic ideas from the cast of musicians he now has surrounding and supporting him. It is as if strange, exotic flowers suddenly started popping up on the actual Grassy Knoll.”
For his part, Green says: “Surviving a difficult period in my life over the past few years changed my sensibilities as a person – and, as I have discovered, my process as an artist. When you opened up that first Grassy Knoll CD, you saw the cautionary motto ‘Trust No One.’ Well, Electric Verdeland, Vol. 1 was created with a new spirit. I survived because of others, and I create because of others. Collaboration – building something together, as Jon Dee Graham put it – is a richer, more rewarding approach, I’ve come to feel. I trusted each artist on this album to do what they do best and, in return, they trusted me to make something unique with their contributions. There’s still darkness in the music of The Grassy Knoll. But the more inclusive, open, interactive method of making this record means that there’s more light in there than before, at least some hope in the face of a difficult world. As always, The Grassy Knoll is a vehicle for me to be relentless – relentless in pursuit of something beautiful and true and, above all, alive.”
— Bradley Bambarger