For this interview, we jumped on Zoom with Grimson! Grimson is a project based out of Berlin, though the man behind the music is originally from New York. His sound has been described as a mix between Sparklehorse and Andy Shauf. In this interview, we discussed the differences he’s experienced between New York and Berlin, as well as his passion for animation. Additionally, we explore how he’s navigating his current project of putting out music he wrote as a teenager so that other teenagers can enjoy it, and the struggle of going back over and being authentic when it comes to art you made many years ago that doesn’t necessarily reflect you now.
What’s your go-to gas station order?
It used to be beef jerky. I used to love, love, love beef jerky. Then I became a vegetarian and realized its all just processed crap. But then I switched to a different processed crap, which is now Cracker Jacks. I really love Cracker Jacks. Like the old school ones. I also eat fish, but I don’t think I should be buying fish at the gas station.
You’re based out of Berlin, but your Spotify bio mentions your old records sitting in a “litter box” in New York. Tell us about this transition, and the biggest difference between New York and Berlin when it comes to the world of music.
Whoa, that’s a lot of big questions. I wrote that little bio because I didn’t know if I wanted to represent myself as an artist or represent what I’m trying to do, which is distance myself from my music. Because the reality is that a lot of stuff that I’m putting out now, I wrote when I was in like, high school in New York. I put it out when I got to college, I did videos and stuff, but at the end of the day it was just demo quality. So when I finally moved to Berlin, I was like, “Okay, these songs deserve a little life of their own, separate from me.” So I decided to rerecord them, which is why I’m dusting them off.
The unfortunate thing is that they don’t really represent who I am today, but it’s also kind of cool. Like I get to look back in my journals and see who I was at 17, 18. Which is sometimes terrifying. But I think it’s a good process, for anybody to go through, to actually confront their teenage selves and pat them on the back and be like, “Let’s try this again.”
Berlin, they love techno here. The beer is good here, but that’s another conversation. When I first moved here when I was twenty, because I was studying abroad, I went to clubs and did that whole thing. Which I think probably influenced me a bit. But the biggest difference is that there’s not much of an indie music scene here, it’s mostly techno. But in New York, it’s like if you throw a shoe down the street you’ll bump into a guy with a guitar or a riot grrrl punk band. It’s everywhere.
Your Spotify bio also describes your current records being “given to somnambulant teenagers,” which means “characteristic of a sleepwalker.” What about this word speaks to you when it comes to your music? What are some of your other favorite unique words?
I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone read back a bio before that I’ve written. I actually have to think about it. Somnambulant. I got that word, probably like most people that know this word, from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It’s like an expressionistic German film from like the 1930s or 1923. One of those two. It’s a black and white film, completely silent, and about this guy in a circus who shows off this somnambulant guy, super attractive tall guy, who’s asleep all the time but he wakes up to kill people. That film, great film. I encountered it in university, and funnily enough, I think it’s the touchstone for a lot of Tim Burton-y, Nightmare-Before-Christmas-y, like it was that, before that was a thing.
So I think that was kind of popping around my head, and I think with the tracks I’ve released so far, especially “I Hate Myself Now” and “Chimney Sweeper,” because I wrote them when I was 16/17, there’s an awareness that I’m putting out music for myself at that age and for other people that were into that stuff at that age, because I’m no longer a teenager. Thank God. I just feel like I’m giving it back to myself as a teenager to other people that might get it, because there’s other music that’s maybe more “mature,” that I’m a part of now. But it’s a process. It’s an adventure. Hopefully there’s a story through line going through it.
The music video for “Chimney Sweeper,” which dropped a little over a week ago, includes over 1,100 drawings being shot frame by frame into a film camera, as part of a much lengthier process. Tell us a bit about the inspiration and process for taking on something so ambitious.
Stupidity, for sure. And imitation. I don’t know. When I wrote that song, I was kind of exploring a lot of theatrical music, I was really into early David Bowie, Life on Mars, The Man Who Sold the World, Space Oddity, that kind of thing. So I really loved this idea of like… “Wooh…psh!” and then things happening. And also late seventies Beatles, when everything was just kind of getting creepy and I Am The Walrus-y. So I did that, and as I was thinking of that song, I was imagining that kind of Tim Burton-y world, and it just so happened around the time that I was writing the song, I saw this movie by the director Michel Gondry. Do you know him? He directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you’ve seen it probably. It’s a great film, it’s also the ultimate sadboy film. All of the tropes. He’s this super cool weird French guy who does amazing videos for The White Stripes, Radiohead, you know the videos.
And in the videos, he interviews Noam Chomsky and does animations, and as Noam Chomsky’s talking about the nature of neuroscience and language processes. And Noam Chomsky notoriously has a really hard to listen to voice. So Michel Gondry kind of illustrates what he’s talking about in a way that’s more lively and exciting. And I was like, “That’s cool, I wanna do that.”
So when I got to college, I enrolled myself in a 16mm film class, I was given this big camera, with reels of film, and had to make a final project. And I was like, “There’s no way I’m going to pass up having access to this camera, being able to process film, and not do animation.” And I think with a lot of artistic projects, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. Like you show up on the first day and you’re like, “Yeah!” and then six months later it’s exhausting. It was totally worth it. There are a few times in life you’re like, “This is going to be cool whether it’s good or not.” Just the process itself is unique, which is exciting. It was the perfect marriage of a quirky, theatrical song and this musical video which would, as my dad always says, “Take it to the next level,” or “Take it one step further.”
I finished the music video two years ago, but I kind of re-edited it and did some special effects stuff, and nowadays I can animate those simple line drawings in a much more simple way using a tablet. I just had a flashback now to when I was finishing the video and I essentially had to pull an all-nighter, because they were gonna send the film to get processed in the morning. And that’s a strict deadline. So I had to finish all the drawings and photograph it.
I was just there in my college dorm room, my fingers crippled, couldn’t even hold the pen anymore, listening to the same playlist over and over. I was listening to Weyes Blood, “Do You Need My Love.” It’s one of her hits or whatever. I had that song cycling in my head over and over and over again. I didn’t sleep, pulled an all nighter. At some point when my roommate woke up, I was like, “Can you please just draw one of these frames for me, I can’t do it anymore.” And he was like, “Yeah, sure.” He just had to trace it. So one of the frames was by Justin.
And then first thing in the morning I went to wait in line to get eggs, because you get eggs in the cafeteria, and I got an omelet. And I remember getting back to my dorm room, looking at this omelet, which just looked like the most fucking sinister gelatinous David Cronenberg monster thing. So I don’t recommend all-nighters followed with eggs.
While it’s clear you have a passion for animation, do you often carry visuals in your brain as you write music? In other words, how much would you say art and visuals are intwined with your writing process?
Hugely. Like what I or other musicians listen to as kids, for me a huge part of that was The Hives and The White Stripes, and a lot of these bands where visuals were so key to the sound. You remember discovering music videos, and even Evanescence, you remember when she’s standing on the edge of the building. It’s unforgettable. And when that’s your first introduction to music, to a certain degree, I don’t think there’s any way that you don’t try to recreate that without a similar mindset. So I think when I write songs, it’s a little harder when you’re writing songs that are trying to be more from the heart to a degree. It’s easier to think of visuals that are more adventurous. But for sure, I have this character, this poodle character, which unfortunately has now been dubbed as a furry character, which I did not mean. I know, it’s awful. For a song that I just wrote called, “I Made My Therapist Cry Today,” and as I was writing the song, or just finishing producing it, I knew where that character was going to be in the video. So fingers crossed that it actually turns out.
Your art frequently includes a certain white poodle, both in doodle and humanistic form. What’s the meaning behind this dog?
It started out as a Halloween costume. Legitimately, I think I had seen one of those dog heads somewhere, and I just thought it was cool. I was gonna choose between that and another one, and I had this white turtleneck and this white jacket from my egg costume. I had been an egg the year before, I had a white helmet, an all-white suit, and a yellow sweater. I had the stuff lying around, so I was like “Cool, I’ll throw it on”. I went down to New York for Halloween, when they have that big parade. It was also my mom’s birthday that day, and she takes everything seriously. She said, “You have to be here at this time for us to see these people.” So, I showed up in this dog costume. I can hardly see out of it. I’m kind of a tall guy, and I think people are sort of not used to seeing a tall dog, a posh dog, walking down the street. People would just shout, “Hey poodle!”, like really New Yorker dudes, guys who would otherwise be sipping their coffee, smoking a cigarette on the subway, in that order. They’d be like “Hey poodle! Can I get a photo with you?”. I would pose with them and it would look very flamboyant and cool. I was astonished during that evening at how sensational that costume was, even if it was kind of unintentional. My mom said, “You gotta do something with that.” I was like “No, no, no, it’s too cheesy, I’m not gonna go there.” Eventually, I thought that if I was going to reproduce “I Hate Myself Now”, which is kind of like my iconic song of that period, I didn’t want to create a sort of faux dramatic music video. I don’t want to pretend to be emotional, since that song is so far away from me now. So, I thought we could bring humor into this and incorporate those two things together. And I think it worked.
What’s kind of funny is, when I was shooting the second half of the music video for the previous release, I was here in Berlin, and the reaction from Germans is so different than the reaction from Americans, New Yorkers. New Yorkers will be like “Oh that’s so cool! Can I get a photo?”, and it’s always fun to be around little kids in a costume, you’re just a clown then, they don’t care. But in Germany, people will be like, “Oh, interesting…”, they’re not gonna get up in your business. And if they try to take a photo, they’re gonna try to do it super inconspicuously. They’ll be like, “Very interesting costume, what does it mean?”.
In the description for the “Chimney Sweeper” video, you mention both animation by Michel Gondry and Hunky-Dory-era David Bowie as the inspiration for the song. What are some of your other influences, both musical and non-musical?
Now I’m feeling like I’m reliving my teenage years by putting out this music that is super Bowie/Beatles/Zombies/Harry Nilsen vibes. One of the biggest influences on me and so many other songwriters is Elliot Smith. I grew up on Elliot Smith, before I knew it was depressing music. I think it was calming to me. Elliot Smith and Harry Nilsen have a lot in common. So for sure [Elliot Smith] and his songwriting craft, it’s just something else. But otherwise, I love Grizzly Bear, I think they do cool stuff. Somehow, I missed out on a lot of their early records, so I went back and I’m just kind of mindblown. There’s a couple other artists that were influential to me in a time when I wasn’t really aware of it. There’s this Japanese guy, Shugo Tokumaru, who I think in recent years started working with more American artists. It’s just kind of silly, indie folk, really well-produced. I was actually lucky enough to see him in Tokyo when I was there. It just so happened that he was playing a concert that day. He’s taking the music beyond just the music, making it a performance. I think in the middle of his show he had a guy come on in a gorilla costume and destroy a watermelon with a huge hammer. It was just kind of this crazy thing. What I like about him is that the music doesn’t get sacrificed to that [performance].
Stereolab, I love. There’s just so many great bands. Broadcast. Nowadays, I really love Chad VanGaalen, because he also does a similar thing [to me]. He does all of his own animations, and it feels like everything that you watch is coming out of his neurotic, beautiful brain. He’s also just one of those super sweet guys. You can see that he’s been through the music industry, and it seems to me, he’s come out the other side as like a cool, regular human being, which I think is rare.
Here’s my other big secret, WarioWare, the Mario game. Nintendo, every now and then, puts out games of just [Wario], but it’s always the most absurdist, chaotic, hilarious, nonsensical shit. Every time I play that game, I’m always like, “That’s what I want to do.” It’s not very sophisticated, but I think if you took some cultural analysis you could probably break it down into something.
A common thread I’ve noticed throughout the songs you put out is this sentiment of detachment or separation from others. Would you say that music helps to articulate or process these experiences for you?
I think, yeah, of course. I think when I was in high school writing these songs, especially “Chimney Sweeper” and “I Hate Myself Now”, it was still in that period where the predominant focus was either love songs or songs about drugs, because people had discovered marijuana and parties and stuff. I came to this performance class that I was in with “I Hate Myself Now”, and then later “Chimney Sweeper”, and I think it was just sort of a bombshell of forthright honesty. I wasn’t part of the Midwest emo scene, so I wasn’t familiar with self-deprecation. I think saying [what’s written in these songs] and getting that out there was very cathartic, even if I wasn’t really sure what I meant by it. I think now I know a little bit better. I think, above all, when I’m composing these songs, there’s just comfort. Surely, there’s an ego boost that comes with writing a nice song, but I think when things fall into place–I’m a very structured person–it’s just very calming. I don’t know if that’s like an ADHD thing, or if it’s nice when things just flow. That’s my therapy, which is a very cliché thing to say.
Chimney Sweeper and I Hate Myself Now were written when you were still in high school. Was there a reason you held on to these songs until now? Why does it feel right to you to release them in 2021?
I have a narrative that I’ve constructed in my head about why I’m doing this. Of course, through the pandemic I sort of re-questioned everything in my life. There hve been many sleepless nights where I’ve been like, “Why the hell am I working on the songs that I wrote in high school?”. Maybe I’m working through whatever I was experiencing then. But I think, above all, I think they’re just good songs. Because they’ve been out for a while in their old form, I was able to see what songs I’ve written that people related to or that they took a liking to. I guess just to one-up myself I’m like, “I can do better”. I’m a better singer now, better performer now. Everything can just be a little bit cleaner.
Most of all, when I moved to Berlin, I [wrote] so much music, I have so many songs that all had to go on the backburner since I was finishing school. Then when I finished school and moved to Berlin, I thought I could immediately come out with my newer stuff. But I want to have a kind of back catalogue that still represents me and have a narrative through-line, which is why the music videos are so vital to the music itself. I want people to be able to see where I started and where I’m going.
Like I said before, I think when I wrote [“I Hate Myself Now”] I don’t think I was really sure what I meant. Then only years later I was like, “Oh yeah, I was depressed.” For some reason that didn’t connect in the moment. Coming back to those songs as an adult, I was like, “Damn, why am I writing such sad music?”, because at the time [of writing them], it didn’t feel like that. It was cool to have that sort of reflection. But also, not to forget that we’ve been through almost two years of a pandemic, I think there’s a lot of legitimacy in also me just experiencing those feelings. It’s not like “teenage crush” vibes, it’s just kind of ubiquitous, experiential things that doesn’t matter where you are in life.
Like you said, because you didn’t really know what you meant at the time that you wrote it, I think that reflects a lot of honesty because you’re not trying to put on this faux image of yourself and you’re not trying to pretend to be this sort of person, or emulate this sort of feeling. That’s just honestly how you were feeling, and you can’t make that shit up.
No, no, no, you totally can, and I think that’s sort of what’s cool about [writing music]. It’s kind of just bottled now, and I can put whatever decorations I want on it to make it mature. But the reality is, I’m not gonna fool anybody. That’s why I like to say upfront that I wrote these songs a long time ago. It’s cool that it doesn’t have to mean something to me right now.
There’s so many bands that write great depressing music. The only shame is that when you grow out of it and you have more self-awareness, sometimes it’s embarrassing to return to that level of honesty where you’re not aware in the same way you are now. I was listening to Linkin Park yesterday, which was so funny. I went back and listened to that album “Minutes to Midnight”, which I had on my iPod. I didn’t buy it for myself, I bought the CD for my brother who I think had shown me some stuff. They were the big band on YouTube at the time. I went back and listened to it, I remembered liking this song but not this song. But what I realized is there’s just no bullshit in that music. I’m sure they’re smarter people now–rest in peace–but I’m sure they know more now than they did then. But they weren’t trying to out-clever anybody. They were just doing what they did with total seriousness. In our indie band, post-irony culture now, I kind of miss that. Even if you were marketing something, you were just marketing it as that, as opposed to “it’s this, but we both know it’s actually this.” I blame James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem for that.
What can we expect from Grimson in the near future?
As of today, this thing right next to me is supposed to be a wearable costume of the Grimson character. I’m hoping to make that and have somebody wear it onstage. Hopefully it will feature in a music video. Out of the songs that I’m now releasing, I recorded six in total at this Impressions studio in Berlin last fall. The good news is that they’re gonna come out, the bad news is that I’m a workaholic and I want to make music videos for every song, which is a bad idea but also a good idea. I’m hoping to just release more. Now that I have the band in Berlin, which took about two years to put together, we started playing shows and it feels like I can relax and actually do things as opposed to sitting in my room writing sad songs. A lot more is coming and I’m really happy about that.