the Gris Gris at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina), Tuesday (September 7). $7. 416-763-9139. Rating: NNNNN
When the term "psychedelic" appears in the description of a contemporary artist, it's usually a warning sign of excessive guitar wankery ahead.
So what a pleasant surprise it was to discover that the Gris Gris have avoided many of the tiresome psych-rock clichés on their entrancing self-titled debut for the eclectic Birdman label. Yet their engaging, creepy songs actually wouldn't seem out of place on an International Artists comp from 68 alongside the peyote-enhanced flailing of the 13th Floor Elevators, Golden Dawn, Endle St. Cloud and Bubble Puppy.
Sure, the Gris Gris crew are based in the Bay Area, but there's something in the casually trippy delivery of frontman Greg Ashley and the group's forthright use of oddball percussion effects that gives them that unmistakable Texas twizzle. It helps that Ashley grew up listening to the records of Roky Erickson and Lightning Hopkins at the Helen Hall Library in League City, Texas.
"Yeah, I know what you mean about those Texas psych groups," says Ashley from a gas station outside Bellingham, Washington. "The 13th Floor Elevators and Red Krayola always had some weird noises going on. But I really like the spooky feel of that Dr. John album Gris Gris, and that's what made me want to try different things with percussion on our own record.
"There are too many bands with just the straight guitar-bass-drums lineup and all the same beats. I wanted to change things up a bit. Our drummer, Emily (Grayson), has been using just a floor tom with a snare at shows, but sometimes she'll do some tympani-type stuff or use a tambourine on the drum."
According to Ashley, there was no great plan to create a psych masterwork. In fact, the whole Gris Gris concept came together unexpectedly, long after he'd resigned himself to a peaceful, easy Californian singer/songwriter career following the breakup of his Houston band, the Mirrors.
"Everything really just fell together. When the Mirrors ended, I moved to Oakland with the idea of never playing in a band again, but my friend Oscar (bassist Oscar Michel) suggested playing some of the slower songs from my solo album, Medicine Fuck Dream. Eventually, I started writing some new stuff we could do together, we got a drummer to sit in and then a keyboard player, and suddenly we had a band - however unintentional.
"A friend of mine showed me how to glue this stethoscope pickup onto my nylon-string acoustic guitar and wire it up with a jack. So I'd plug in some different pedals and we'd just fuck around. That's really how it all came about."
Ashley and company are bringing a similar sense of spontaneity to their new album, which they're currently halfway through recording. Count on some changes.
"I've been listening to a lot of free jazz lately - especially Sun Ra's Heliocentric Worlds Volume 1 and 2 - so I'd kinda like to move in that direction, away from a strictly blues-based concept. I also really like Ornette Coleman's Town Hall Concert 1962, with all those weird string things happening along with the usual fucked-up sax stuff. That's some cool shit."