"The van broke down and we've been stuck in Odessa, Texas, for three days," moans Kristin Gundred, vocalist and drummer for Grand Ole Party. "We found this scientist who knew how to fix cars. He fixed it for free."
Good shit happens to this San Diego band. Their very first public gig was a sold-out show at The Casbah, opening for friends UV Tigers. Months later, a well-known musician left a MySpace comment that eventually led to a record deal. Less than a year after their first gig, they played the South-by-Southwest music festival on bills with the likes of Badly Drawn Boy. On their way home, their Volkswagen van breaks down and a random scientist-mechanic dude fixes it for free.
Good shit happens to good bands. Especially one with a singer whose voice can alter the molecular structure of glass.
"People usually sit over there," says guitarist John Paul Labno, pointing to a bingo-hall metal chair in their practice space. The room would make a claustrophobic sweat-a four-piece band could kill each other here. On the wall, a white dry-erase calendar is marked with Xs denoting the gigs Grand Ole Party played in 2006.
"We haven't got one for 2007 yet," says bassist Mike Krechnyak. Not like they have time, having been assaulted in recent months by gig offers and managers and press and labels. Not to mention they've still got day jobs.Krechnyak and Labno pass a pipe and kill the main lights, leaving only a single red bulb in an arcane lamp. A half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels sits next to it, a Whole Foods bag on the floor. If it sounds cliché, that's fine-old vices and a touch of hippie ethos are what this band is made of.
Gundred, at her drum kit with a Britney Spears-model head mic, rattles her snare. Labno suggests a song and she wrinkles her brow and touches her throat. "Something a little less harsh," she suggests.
They start, then stop. Gundred fucked up a drum part-understandable, since she's been playing only for a year and a half. They restart and play the funk-based "Nasty Habits." Gundred's voice assaults the room. It's a piercing, shrill, lovely thing. It recalls old jazz vocalists like Bessie Smith and cabaret star Sally Bowles. But as for the volume and intensity, it's definitely rock 'n' roll, something The Gossip's Beth Ditto would recognize. The band appears relaxed and casual even though this practice seems to matter a bit more than others. The next morning they'll pack their VW and head to L.A. to record their debut album with Rilo Kiley's Blake Sennet.
The members of Grand Ole Party have known each other since their days at UC Santa Cruz-a liberal university that very intentionally named a mollusk its mascot.Krechnyak grew up in San Diego and graduated from San Pasqual High in Escondido, an area once known for agriculture and still known for meth. After graduating in 1998, he became a computer programmer-the prototypical pimple-faced teenager sucking big dollars out of the dot-com boom. At 19, he pondered buying a condo. Instead, he decided cubicle life was as bad as advertised and headed to Santa Cruz to get his degree in philosophy.
"I thought if I tried hard enough I could figure out the secret of life or something," he says. "But the most important thing I [learned] was I wanted to become an artist and fuck the rules. That, and realizing time doesn't exist and everything has actually already happened."
Yeah, what he said.
Gundred is the product of a small town in Castro Valley, up in Alameda County, the daughter of two public-school teachers. She played violin as a tyke, then switched to choir, studying classical and jazz singing-skills that ensured her adolescent tenure as a nerd. In college, she got her degree in modern literary studies and planned to get into writing and editing. Luckily, someone convinced her to stop that foolishness and put her booming voice to work.
That someone was Labno, who studied literature in Santa Cruz but dropped out to travel and play music. Labno was the lifer "band guy" and the formal nexus of what would become Grand Ole Party. Growing up around Half Moon Bay just south of San Francisco, his father played jazz, eventually making a career repairing woodwind instruments. Making a legacy of it, Labno joined the jazz band in high school.
Like a good, bored kid, he formed his first punk band when he was 13. In college, his band Staircase could really pack a house party. One punk label, however, felt they had bigger potential-even if the offer came too late.
"Epitaph contacted Staircase, saying they were interested in putting [our record] out," he recalls. "We said we were broken up and that was it. We never really expected or wanted anything different."
Labno's short on words. He has the musicianship-capable on guitar, piano and sax-but isn't thrilled about opening his mouth. "I never felt comfortable singing, really. But I had to sing in order to sing the songs I wrote," he says.
When he met Gundred, however, his problem was solved: "I loved Kristin's voice the first time I heard it." Although she'd been training most of her life to sing, Gundred had stalled. "John Paul got me started," she says. "I was terribly shy and I didn't know how to start doing something for real."
Labno asked Gundred to sing a song or two with his band at the time, The Virgin Suite. Krechnyak was their friend and biggest fan, at one point even fashioning himself the band's quasi manager.
"We made a press kit and I would take it to local venues, send it to labels, whoever," he says. "I quit being their manager when things were going pretty bad.... Their drummer quit and there was a little tension. After they broke up, we were listening to a lot of soul and reggae, and that's when we started jamming."
It was those jam sessions, in an apartment in San Francisco, where they moved after college, that they became a trio. It wasn't yet called Grand Ole Party-just more of what Krechnyak calls "a music night thing" among friends.
In the summer of 2005, Krechnyak moved home to San Diego. Not thrilled with San Francisco's music scene, Labno and Gundred gave chase in September. Through friends, they met up with Aaron Swanton, former guitarist for San Diego band Scarlet Symphony. He recorded the trio's first demo, then asked Grand Ole Party (by this time officially named) to play at The Casbah for the debut of his new band, UV Tigers.
It wasn't months before Grand Ole Party was at the tip of everyone's lips in San Diego-a basic, old-school rock band with a female drummer whose nuanced, huge voice was unparalleled in the local scene. They gigged relentlessly while Gundred worked at used-clothing store Buffalo Exchange, Labno at Cream coffeehouse in University Heights and Krechnyak at plumbing company Seaside Rooter. Then, just as it has more famously done for Lily Allen, MySpace came through. Sennet, frontman for Rilo Kiley and The Elected, posted a comment to say he dug their sound.
"We met through MySpace and then he came to a show at The Casbah," Gundred recalls. "I saw him watching in the front. He had a grin on his face and he danced. [He seemed like a] great spirit, really interested in us and our sound."
"We had met with various people before about recording an album who we felt might have wanted to change our sound a bit more than we were comfortable," Krechnyak adds. "I remember Blake saying, "I just wanna hit record, dude,' and I felt that was a good place to start."
Sennet introduced them to his bands' management company, 3D, which also manages Interpol and Coldplay. 3D signed Grand Ole Party and Sennet volunteered to produce their debut album in. For five days this March, they recorded at Kingsize Studios during business hours, then recorded more and slept at Sennet's house down the road. The resulting records-an EP this spring and later a full-length-will be the first releases on 3D's as-yet-unnamed record label.
"It was the dream life-working noon to midnight, coffee, food and drinks provided, amazing rooms and gear!" Gundred beams, noting they recorded 13 songs and three "one-take" tracks that won't go on the albums.
After recording, they drove to Austin for South-by-Southwest, playing multiple showcases-one hosted by FILTER magazine and Dog Bites Man star Zach Galifianakis. They spotted British singer Amy Winehouse in their posh hotel and Slash at one of their shows. They watched poker on television in their rooms until they passed out-y'know, the usual things buzz bands do at overblown buzz-band festivals.
Now they're home, but getting here wasn't easy. Overheated in the middle of nowhere, they were marooned for three days in Odessa because the only mechanic in town didn't know shit about VW vans. Finally, a saint of a man stopped the coolant from gushing and sent them on their way-away from Dairy Queens and one-motel towns, away from the hype of South-by-Southwest and away from big L.A. studios and the pay-by-the-hour creation of their first creation.
Here, they'll regroup, work their day jobs, prepare for the release of their album and a national tour. They'll wait for the college-radio playlists and the occasional press clipping that tells the world they're pretty damn good (or, equally as likely, that they're overrated). Maybe they'll even send that dude who fixed their car a copy of their album.
Grand Ole Party will play CityBeat's "All Local Music Issue Party" (along with Swim Party and The Airlines) at Beauty Bar on Thursday, March 29. Doors open at 8 p.m. Donations suggested. 619-516-4746.