grandson is an artist from Toronto who has released a number of singles in the past two years that combine various different genres like hip-hop, blues, and rock.
Milo Davidson: So, I thought we could start off with some timely, relevant material. Did you by any chance watch the VMAs a couple days ago?
grandson: I did not, man. I’ve been trying to keep my peripheral vision to a minimum, I’ve been trying to just stay focused and I find a lot of this stuff that’s being portrayed in a place like that—with all due respect to it—can be just a distraction, just a mirage of sorts.
Milo Davidson: Exactly. If you didn’t watch it, it was basically a spectacle demonstrating exactly how politically irrelevant popular music has become. All of the political references fell completely flat and it was just this total navel gazing spectacle for the benefit of nobody, so what I wanted to ask you is: do you think there’s a way to make that kind of music—pop and pop rock and popular hip hop—is there a way to make it politically relevant again? Is there a way to make it substantive?
grandson: It’s a really interesting question and an interesting place to start because I feel that … in some ways, that’s by design and that’s almost the function of a pageant show like that. But I do think that obviously throughout history there have been times where those sorts of platforms have been a more direct representation of the public sentiment. And I do think that right now, there is a pretty historically unprecedented dissonance between the sentiments on the street and what’s being portrayed.
I think that I’ve taken it upon myself to engage in this sort of philosophical discussion of, “Okay, how much substance and how much can I pack into a melody or a song that can still get stuck in your head?” You know, “How can I satiate everyone’s desire and my own desire as a music fan for the rules of symmetry and the rules of simple melodies that dictate pop music? How can we do that while simultaneously acknowledging and providing a platform for that resistance or that anger that so many people, especially young people like myself, feel?” But all I can do is make a song.
When the questions becomes, “Okay, well how do I turn the VMAs into a place where people can become more politically conscious and aware of the oligarchic structures of the United States?” I think that that is a little bit of a slower process, but I do think it is one that is inevitable. I think if we as artists continue to engage in these conversations that are difficult to have, and we as consumers raise the bar and demand a product that acknowledges everything that’s going on.
I understand all I can do is keep making music and to spend too much time in that world I can get lost in what’s really important as a creator, so that’s a long winded answer to your question.
Milo Davidson: No, that’s really interesting. I’m especially interested in what you were saying about trying to find the balance of the catchiness of the melody and the substance of the statement it’s making… For the project of grandson, how would you define success for it? What would make it a successful project as possible? Would it be just like becoming … for lack of a better phrasing, the voice of a generation, or would it be to sell a lot of records? What’s the end goal?
grandson: I think that for me this has been and will continue to be a platform to galvanize other people. It’s the way in which I feel you make the more tangible difference by inspiring other people, by mobilizing people, by directing people to resources that they can then use to become part of the solutions to some of these problems.
Ultimately, I would gauge that as success. When I can get people engaging in difficult conversations with their parents or their neighbors or their friends about topics that they got put onto by paying attention to my music. I want to try and do whatever I can to provide an opposition to the apathy that is so easy to latch onto.
Milo Davidson: Right. And that’s very punk.
grandson: And look, I’m 23, I feel these things too. It’s easy for me to get apathetic, but I also feel that the first thing we have to do is get angry. Sometimes, we tap into this hope and this unity and it’s amazing, that is a place we need to get it to, but first we have to be mad.
First we have to get pissed off, and sometimes you gotta start a fire for anybody to pay attention. What I’m really trying to do is provide the backing track for that fire, I really want to make the theme song that can be played while people are waking up and pushing back.
Milo Davidson: That’s great. That’s really well said. I want to touch on … This is a great segue into the cover art for the new single, “War,” [the cover art for which is Donald Trump with cartoon Xs over his eyes] which as I said is fantastic. I want to ask about what for some people may be very provocative cover art on top of it; what impact are you trying to have with that?
grandson: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that’s really interesting about the new release, “War” is that it’s … The lyrics are directly transcribed from a speech that was given in the United Nations in 1963.
Milo Davidson: Oh, wow.
grandson: Yeah, so it was originally a speech given by [Haile Selassie,] the emperor of Ethiopia in 1963, and you wouldn’t even know because it’s so relevant today.
Milo Davidson: Right, I thought I did my research, but I had no idea.
grandson: The reason that I picked that song to kind of do this cover of is it really … I wanted to touch on and provide a commentary for the recursive, cyclical nature of these sorts of movements, of this sort of nationalistic pride, of this sort of divisiveness, and I think when you look for the mascot for that divisiveness, for that hateful rhetoric, for that populism, I think that the current administration and the person at the top of it really does exemplify all of those traits.
We debated doing a different cover, we were worried, and we’ve had many publications that I can’t particularly name tell us they wouldn’t write about the song or post it because it was too controversial, because it was too direct, and I felt a great sense of pride in knowing that what we are doing is pushing the boundaries, is making people uncomfortable. What I’m going to do with grandson is go as far as I can and really not give a fuck about the repercussions of standing up for what I believe in.
Milo Davidson: Yeah. And the choice of the Bob Marley cover I think is really appropriate for that.
grandson: Well, what’s interesting is I’ve always been fascinated by Bob Marley, I’ve always been fascinated by artists who were providing a commentary on what was going on around them at the time. I think for great musicians and great public figures it can’t just be a who or a why, there needs to be a when, if that makes sense.
Milo Davidson: For sure.
grandson: They need to be—and we need to be—a direct reflection of what’s going on around us, and I really admire Bob Marley for having done that in a lot of ways. A lot of his music touches on racial relations and economic relations, but people don’t do a very good job of sifting through the sound scape to listen to the message. I think a lot of people listen to reggae, and they sort of ignore the very real sentiments that lie at the heart of what’s being said. When I’m reading the lyrics, I realize, “Wow, these are from a UN speech from 14 years before even he put the song out.” When I’m looking at that and then I’m listening to the song, I’m like, “This is a pissed off song. This is angry, this is threatening resistance, this is violence, this is: until these conditions are met everywhere is war.”
I really wanted to pay homage and pay it forward, but then it also became time to address who and what I’m talking about and not hold back.
Milo Davidson: Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense. To segue a little bit, how do you think the two … Well, I say two, but it’s really more than two genres that you’ve chosen to blend in your music. The type of beats that your songs are using are very much a product of their time, and very much modern, and never would have existed even five years ago let alone 10 or 30 years ago. Do you view the genre bending as related to the political project of it or is the music more separated?
grandson: No, I think absolutely those are deliberate decisions I made where I really … I wanted to ground it in a place in time, and I’m a huge fan of rock music of course, but I spent a lot of time in high school listening to hip hop and to R&B and to dance hall.
But as a writer I come from blues, I come from rock, and I really had no interest in … I don’t want to sound like a cover band. Sometimes it can be very challenging, looking for where and how our synthesis can feel organic, I have no interest in feeling kitsch. I’m not doing this for a gimmick, I’m doing this because it’s what I want to hear and I can’t find anywhere.
When I do get frustrated or discouraged and when songs take some time, as many as six or seven iterations before it’s ready to be put out, I remind myself the reason it’s so hard is because we have no reference point. I’ve made hundreds of songs to get to the point where I can really confidently say what I’m doing is one of one. I take that role very seriously, I’ve very proud of it.
Milo Davidson: Yeah, no, it’s very revolutionary. It’s also true that it’s not the first time that rap and rock have been married at all, it’s never been done like this before. But I’m curious, especially with the national and the international collective rediscovery of the music of Linkin Park since Chester Bennington tragically died, I was wondering what you think of them—
grandson: Absolutely, they were a huge huge influence on me as a kid. “In The End” was one of the first songs I ever knew every single word to and I was obsessed with Linkin Park and I think that they do a really good job of doing that thing that I was talking about, in cutting through and being such a direct reflection of their environment. A lot of what they were talking about had to do with mental illness, it had to do with isolation—feeling like an outcast, and I feel like so many people latched onto them.
They were a huge huge influence on me. The role of rap in rock is one that I think gets met with some stigma, but there are examples of really incredible projects with that synthesis. You look at Linkin Park, you look at Rage Against the Machine … And Rage also tapped into the political components that I’m very much interested in, and so I do have role models and heroes. I would be doing a disservice to everyone else that’s creating music if I were to try and force a narrative that I did this somehow isolated in a tiny little room without any influence.
Milo Davidson: Mm-hmm.
grandson: I think that everything is to some capacity derivative and all we are is a confluence of our inspirations and our influences that came before us, so I try to pay homage in some ways and I try to continue on a lineage of these sorts of fusions and of simulating these kinds of conversations while simultaneously doing it in a way that taps into things, particularly within the production and the creation of the song by tapping into things that were not available back when they were making music.
I find it really does give me that feeling that I got simultaneously at a rock concert and at a trap D.J.’s concert. I do have definitely influences and inspirations, but I stand by feeling like I still am simultaneously doing something that hasn’t been done.
Milo Davidson: It’s interesting that you mentioned the stigma about rap being mixed with rock, and as someone who myself spends a lot of time on the internet reading what fans of rock music have to say about more contemporary music … I don’t know as much about the rap community, but I know there’s a huge amount of prejudice as far as people thinking that the quality of the musicianship is much lower and that the synthetic nature of it makes it less musical in general. Have you found it difficult within the musical community, meeting challenges among people who just don’t think the two should go together?
grandson: I think when I started coming up with what would become grandson I definitely confronted and acknowledged the truth that I could have picked doing something that would have been a lot more simple, but I think that anything that is worth anything is going to be met with polarized opinions. I really want to be adding something new to the conversation.
That being said, I really do think that rap and rock have a lot more in common than I think people acknowledge and I really do think that, in terms of the artists having shit to say and being really unafraid to say it, I really do think that that torch has been passed for a long time from rock to rap… a lot of the things that I’m trying to get across have been done in hip hop music over the last 30 years.
For a lot of activism, particularly with the youth culture, people are turning to rap now as opposed to rock. But the reality is that’s where rock … That’s where they both emerged from. They both emerged from people being stripped of voices and only having what’s available around them.
And again, it just comes back to what I want to do is provide a sort of bridge between these communities, provide a sort of … We’ve opened for hip hop acts, I’ve opened for rock bands, it sort of does blend really seamlessly. I think that grandson could go on tour opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers as easily as we could go opening for Odd Future or Run the Jewels, you know?
Milo Davidson: Yeah. Okay. Moving on, I wanted to ask a few questions about just your production process. I know … I read somewhere that you play multiple instruments yourself, are you the one playing any of them on the recording?
grandson: No, not for the most part. There’s a couple songs where I do a little bit of guitar, but for the most part I work alongside Kevin Hissink, who’s a really really close friend of mine and he’s incredible. I met Kevin at the beginning of 2016 and we started obsessively going back and forth.
In the introduction of “War,” we took the sample of a lion roaring and we kind of flipped it and tucked it and we just add all sorts of textures, and he understands that having come from TV and… I always want to find ways to make it just bigger than just a four piece rock band, I’m always looking for ways to do that. I don’t have the purist mentality, the “Oh, nothing synthetic.” No, the whole point to me is very synthetic components.
Milo Davidson: Yeah, and I think that synthetic aspect is what appeals to a lot of people on Sound Cloud and Spotify.
grandson: Right. I think so too, and I think that that’s what puts … I feel a lot of people are embarrassed to embrace it, but really I think that that’s what’s setting this project apart is that I’m being like, “Fuck yeah, let’s do all sorts of shit that’s gonna be difficult to recreate live. We’ll find a way to do that, the important thing is that you really feel an emotion when you’re listening to it. It feels real.”