Living in Oblivion

Neither meeting Sonic Youth nor covering seminal '80s songs fazes Grant-Lee Phillips.

First as the leader of Grant Lee Buffalo and later as a solo artist, Grant-Lee Phillips has built a two-decade career around his inventive songwriting; he even won Rolling Stone's award for best male vocalist in 1995. His original material has been successful enough to have earned him a chance to play what amounts to his guitar-wielding self on TV, as a recurring character on Gilmore Girls.

Phillips isn't the type you'd figure to have entertained fantasies of being "the guy who plays the clubs just doing covers." But in fact, it's a long-cherished desire of his.

"I just never had the opportunity to do it," Phillips says. "Until now."

Grant-Lee Phillips: He often dreams of trains, when he's with you.
copy;Denise Siegel
Grant-Lee Phillips: He often dreams of trains, when he's with you.

That opportunity has come via nineteeneighties, a mostly acoustic take on eleven standards from the Reagan-era underground. In Phillips' hands, songs from the Cure, R.E.M. and Psychedelic Furs stay true enough to the originals to encourage nostalgia, while still sounding fresh.

Yet if it's a musical mash note to the '80s, the disc also serves as a welcome reminder of a truly different bygone era — when "alternative" really described music out of the mainstream, when you didn't buy goth or punk gear at the mall, and when kids sought out the subculture at small record stores with their surly, well-informed clerks, instead of in the empty expanse of online.

"The search for music that's all your own — it becomes fused with your identity at some point. It was all about finding your own tribe of weirdos," recalls Phillips, now 42. "Suffice to say, when you put this record on, you're gonna smell clove cigarettes."

In the early '80s, Phillips moved to Los Angeles from Stockton and discovered the thriving Paisley Underground, a scene that included both the uncompromising Dream Syndicate and the pre-fame Bangles. "I was a bit on the fence when I came to LA. Part of me wanted to make films, and part of me wanted to play music," Phillips says. "And the latter won out almost immediately."

That victory meant the birth of the band Shiva Burlesque and later Grant Lee Buffalo, which recorded four albums that tried to "carry the shimmery, jangly sound of the '80s into the '90s," Phillips says. The group disbanded in 1999, and a trio of acclaimed solo releases from Phillips — including the Jon Brion-produced debut, Ladies' Love Oracle — would follow.

But for the past few years, he's been dropping old tunes into his acoustic sets — and in some cases, he's been playing these tracks since he was a teenager. "I learned to play guitar by working out some of these songs," he says. And slowly, an album began to take shape.

As the inclusion of over-the-top numbers like Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" and the Smiths' "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" proves, Phillips certainly didn't shy away from challenges. He confesses that reinterpreting the work of vocalists as distinctive as Ian McCulloch and Morrissey "was a little daunting at times. Some of these artists are so idiosyncratic that it kind of forces you down a certain road, stylistically. Some of the songs were more resistant to tampering, let's say — they were more childproof."

Somewhat paradoxically, Phillips found stripping down the majestic orchestration of "The Killing Moon" far easier than tackling the somber psychedelia of Robyn Hitchcock's "I Often Dream of Trains," the title track of the former Soft Boy's 1984 acoustic album.

"That was one of the hardest songs to do, because Robyn is someone I have so much regard for, as an artist and as a friend. And the fact is, his original is much darker than anything on this album. So where do you go?" asks Phillips. "I finally took a different approach and made it a little more sprightly. When I played it for him, he said, 'It seems you had a much more cheerful ride than I did on that particular train.'"

Phillips has gotten feedback from a few other artists whose work he reinterpreted: Church guitarist Marty Willson-Piper gave the thumbs-up to the version of "Under the Milky Way," his band's big 1988 hit, while Pixies drummer David Lovering "has always loved" Phillips' take on "Wave of Mutilation," which removes the original's squealing feedback to reveal a sedate waltz with surprising Hawaiian accents.

"Hopefully, this album won't gain me any new enemies," Phillips says with a laugh.

But he did have the chance to meet some other musical idols when Sonic Youth showed up on the star-studded season finale of Gilmore Girls earlier this year. The show, about single mother Lorelai Gilmore and her fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, was bidding farewell to creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Phillips had a central role in the episode.

In the story, Phillips, who's been Grant, the "town troubadour," since the show's inception, has won a slot opening for Neil Young. That brings a series of fellow members of the "troubadour circuit" — played by real-life musicians Joe Pernice, Yo La Tengo, Sam Phillips and Sparks — to Stars Hollow, hoping to be discovered.

"It seemed like a major coup that Amy got all these people involved. And when she said Sonic Youth was gonna come down, I nearly fell out of my chair," says Phillips. "I've been such a fan for so long, it was hard to keep my concentration and not fall into nerdy fan mode."

The attempt wasn't altogether successful. "You automatically become Chris Farley, asking Thurston Moore, 'Remember the time you had your guitar, and you had those cool tunings, and you were feeding back? Remember? Remember?'" laughs Phillips, who did manage to write down Moore's tunings and string gauges.

"And then," he adds with a chuckle, "I was very nicely ushered back to my spot."

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