Grant Lee Phillips mines the soul of America with a passion and candor few modern songwriters can match.
With his band Grant Lee Buffalo, he has examined the psychic toll of Ruby Ridge and conjured a legendary voodoo queen with equally illuminating imagery. Like a sonic thunderstorm, the music builds and then explodes, invoking the spirits of Neil Young, the Velvet Underground, R.E.M. and the Byrds without ever resorting to copycat cliches.
But America hasn't paid much attention to the Los Angeles-based group, which has been much more popular in Europe, Japan and Australia throughout its six-year history. After releasing three lush albums of intricate pop that have won a cult following in the U.S., the band is hoping that its relatively streamlined current collection, "Jubilee," will attract a broader audience in the States.
"We wanted to make a record that was more immediate than some of our other records," says Phillips during an interview at a Burbank restaurant. Adds drummer Joey Peters: "We were ready to make something that was more physical, more like the way we sound live."
Bouncing questions and answers between each other with the ease of close colleagues, Phillips and Peters don't display much of the exhaustion they say they feel as they take a two-day break from their most extensive U.S. tour to date, which will send them to Texas before bringing them back to play the Palace on Wednesday and the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana on Thursday.
By turns playful and reflective, they explain that they wanted "Jubilee" to be just as emotionally involving, but musically simpler, partly because their previous release, 1996's "Copperopolis," was more introverted than ever. Also, they had parted ways with longtime bassist Paul Kimble, who produced the other albums.
With a theme that draws parallels between the close of this century and the end of the last one, "Jubilee" may be no less lofty in concept than its predecessors. But this album was a deliberately casual affair, as Phillips and Peters invited producer Paul Fox (Robyn Hitchcock, XTC) into the studio, along with former Tonic bassist Dan Rothchild, L.A. multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion and guests including Michael Stipe, E from the Eels and Robyn Hitchcock.
One result has been modest but encouraging radio play for the reverb-drenched single "Truly, Truly." By focusing not on a public dilemma like militias (as did the "Copperopolis" single "Homespun"), but on the more intimate topic of desire, the group has struck a stronger chord.
In turn, the "Jubilee" tour has extended to cities in which Grant Lee Buffalo had never before headlined a concert. Now folks in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Ala., have experienced the full-fledged Grant Lee Buffalo show, where the band's true power and grace emerge.
"Music is a mystical thing," Phillips muses. "It's like a kind of divination, the act of writing a song or playing it live. I really thrive on the ecstasy of performance, more than anything else. It's a chance for you to lose yourself."
Unlike a lot of cult heroes, Phillips doesn't have a problem with the idea of making his music more appealing to a general audience. "I'm a big fan of great pop songs," he says. "I grew up with AM radio. For me, there's no deep conflict. It's more of a challenge. The economy that's required can even build muscles as a songwriter."
Even so, Phillips maintains, there are iconoclastic works--he cites Brian Eno's "Music for Airports," a classic ambient album--that will always have a place on the rock spectrum, even if radio never touches them.
"It is sort of a horrible thing," Peters concurs, "that songs can only be 3 1/2 to four minutes long if you want to get them on popular radio. But it's either going to eat away at you, or you're going to find a way to work with it."
Still, even if Grant Lee Buffalo has stumbled upon the key to mainstream success, don't think the players will always choose the straightforward and narrow. The drummer's eyes twinkle. "Next record: all 11-minute songs!"
* Grant Lee Buffalo plays Wednesday at the Palace, 1735 N. Vine St., 8 p.m. $13.50. (213) 462-3000. Also Thursday at the Galaxy Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, 8 p.m. $15. (714) 957-0600.