Don’t call them Tweedy pop
Talented singer/songwriter Jeff Gramm brings his acclaimed music to the Blue Room
Aden could just be the best pop group you’ve never heard.
Hailing from the heavily 20-something community of Arlington, Va. (home of Dischord Records, among other small labels), the group and its chief songwriter, singer/guitarist Jeff Gramm, are visiting Chico for the first time this month when they perform with locals Cowboy and San Fran’s Trackstar at the Blue Room on March 22.
The quartet is touring in support of its latest release, the widely acclaimed Hey 19 (Teenbeat Records), an album that delivers an ephemeral spring of pleasant pop melodies, and catchy songs buoyed by understated guitar interplay, upbeat rhythms and the even-toned falsetto and forlorn lyrics of Gramm, a front man over whom the critics drool as if he were the next Morrissey. After signing with respected indie label Teenbeat and releasing Black Cow in 1999—ranked No. 3 album of the year by The Onion magazine, which echoed the praise of the country’s top newsweeklies, calling Aden “one of the nation’s finest purveyors of sweet, fluid pop"—Gramm and guitarist Kevin Barker moved to D.C., while bassist Fred Kovey ended up in Brooklyn. Eventually, Gramm settled in the bedroom community of Arlington, where he still works part time as an office temp when not writing beautiful songs about relationships and the tender pleasantries of introspection.
In person, Gramm speaks with a controlled stutter, not evident when he sings with earnest and subtle phrasing that some say recalls a more articulate, early-era Michael Stipe (though he seems more reminiscent of Sam Prekop and other Chi-town post-rockers). I should also mention that he’s the son of U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, the conservative Texan who made a presidential bid in ‘96.
I spoke with Gramm via phone during an Aden roadside stop near New Orleans, where he was trying to combat recent cat allergies by hiking around and getting exercise.
How’s the tour going so far?
Pretty great [sniff]. So far no big blow-ups or fights or anything. We’ve been playing with a bunch of good bands. The best so far have been the shows opening for Luna and this band from Athens, Masters of the Hemisphere.
The new album is great—with a lot of well-crafted songs—but I’m curious, why all the critical comparisons to the Smiths?
Thanks. Yeah, I don’t get that at all. In general, I think it’s because of press kits. I saw this band open for Death Cab for Cutie, and all the press talked about was how they were like Television, so I was like, “Oh boy! That’ll be great, I’ll get there early.” But they were nothing like them [laughs]. … The Smiths thing baffles me. I have no idea how that happened. But I guess it could be worse.
You’ve never been to Chico?
We haven’t. … I’m psyched about it, though, because we always have to blow through the West Coast extremely quickly, and this time it’ll be cool to hang out a bit, catch our breath before Portland and Seattle.
What’s the deal with the two albums named after Steely Dan songs?
Well, we’re all fans of that band, but I’m not sure how we got started on the Black Cow thing, it just sort of happened. Actually, we’re playing “Hey Nineteen” on this tour.
I looked for comparisons between Steely and Aden. You both seem very adept in the studio. Is your studio sound hard to capture live?
Thanks. Yeah, I guess like all quieter bands we tend to be a bit louder and rock more live. But in general, on [Hey 19] there’s only two guitars, bass and drums, so it’s not hard to do that live. We kinda have a new drummer, Matt Datesman from the band Flin Flon. Kevin, Fred and I are basically the core members, I guess. Fred had to skip the tour this time, so we got a replacement. It’s been pretty good. … All of us are self-trained musically. Our studio guitar player [Kevin Barker] is pretty darned good … but he’s at home too. He doesn’t tour. We’ve always had guitar fill-ins [Andy Creighton].
Who or what influenced your songwriting?
I guess a lot of bands. I started off into Bedhead or the indie pop of the day, but at this point all of us are just into music, you know? … In the car we’re listening to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, some Big Star and Television, the Outkast record, stuff. … The lyrics on our first album touched on relationship stuff. I think the Hey 19 lyrics are pretty straightforward and literal. I generally write the guitar parts before vocal melodies, then lyrics come last … and when I listen to music, I tend to focus on the vocal melody. I think that’s what most people do.
What does your dad think of your music? How do you keep entertained on the road?
We do a lot of sports. It also helps to have other bands, because it disperses any tension to have an extra group of kids to hang out with. This is an intense tour; I’ve been driving a lot, trying to get a big game of hearts going. We have a Connect Four thing that’s pretty cool. … I don’t write on tour, it’s impossible, no free time plus my brain is smushed right now.
How about the future? Anyone you want to work with?
I’m intrigued by Brad Wood and Steve Albini, but they’re expensive to work with. We’ll have to see how the finances are. Someday, I’d also like to maybe tour with Aisler’s Set or Versus. We’d perform with anyone if they give us free food.
Has this latest album sold well?
I think it has, but I’m not sure. Ever since Evelyn [Hurley, from Teenbeat] and Mark [Robinson, of Unrest fame] had the baby, I haven’t been in touch about that kind of thing. The tour has been good, and that’s always an indication of how the band is doing.
Do you have a favorite description of your music?
I always enjoyed those ‘complicated, intertwining guitar’ descriptions as opposed to the ‘folk-pop’ or [Jeff] ‘Tweedy pop’ [laughs]. But those types of things don’t bother me much. I’m a fan of many of the Chicago bands, and we obviously have that Seam connection—they released our first album on their label—but I think we’re definitely more pop than post rock.