Two years ago, when I was writing a (now-defunct) local music column for the Union-Tribune, I swooned over a new trio I saw opening for the UV Tigers (also now-defunct) at The Casbah. Grand Ole Party, I declared, “might just be the best unsigned band in San Diego.” I was particularly impressed with singer/drummer Kristen Gundred, then a 23-year-old wisp of a girl, who wailed with soulful range and punk fortitude. “If Meg White could sing like Gundred,” I added, “Jack wouldn't have to work so hard.”
Now, I hate to say I told you so. But I'm perfectly fine with Gundred doing it.
“You wrote the first press we ever had in San Diego,” she recalls on a recent afternoon as we sit with guitarist John Paul Labno and bassist Michael Krechnyak in the dusty backyard of their Bankers Hill practice space. “We were so excited. We cut out the strip. I still have it somewhere.”
At the time, the band had three songs on its MySpace page, including the signature “Look Out Young Son.” The track was rough around the edges, but it still generated serious heat with its nervous, lurching guitar lines and vocal swagger that evoked a sweaty, hip-shaking hipster Hades when performed live.
After a much-publicized touring stint with Rilo Kiley, GOP officially unveiled their debut full-length Humanimals earlier this year, with Rilo Kiley's Blake Sennett producing and local artist Kelsey Brookes illustrating the album's cover.
Of course, you probably already know all this. GOP has been earning heavy local media buzz (CityBeat being among the guiltiest parties) for more than a year. But it's only been in the last few months that the band has earned national press (including SPIN, Nylon, Fader, Filter and Interview) and exposure with slots at South by Southwest, Coachella and Bonnaroo.
The band's hectic touring schedule has kept them away from the all-but-inevitable backlash that has sprouted in some corners of the local music community. In fact, they've been conscious about tapering off their local shows in recent months in order to avoid inducing GOP fatigue in their adopted hometown.
Still, the trio returns to San Diego in style this weekend with a two-night stand at The Casbah, an almost unheard of distinction for an active local band. But the most telling sign that GOP has arrived at some indie strata of success is their lack of day jobs after devoting themselves to playing full-time last August.
“We're still poor musicians,” Labno notes, “but it's great not to have to work. Besides, we're always gone, so we couldn't really have jobs.”
Not that there aren't a few perks. Labno is wearing designer jeans and sleek black kicks, both picked up as backstage swag. Gundred shows off her gratis Ray-Ban Wayfarers, and Krechnyak admits that he, too, has scored some freebies. But don't get too jealous. They still tour in a van and spend a lot of tedious downtime waiting for shows to start at random small bars in random small cities.
“That part's not glamorous,” Gundred says.
Neither is the reality of playing a festival like South by Southwest, where GOP played six shows and literally had to sprint, rented gear in hand, from one to another. And then there was the promotional event sponsored by Camel cigarettes, which eventually led to their first on-stage scuffle.
“It was a fake show,” Krechnyak explains. “It was just so they could get pictures of us playing with a Camel ad behind us. The photographer actually came on stage....”
“He came on top of my bass drum and got right in my face,” Gundred interjects.
“I was kicking at him,” Labno chimes in, “and Mike just pushed him off the stage. It worked out really well, though. Because there was an altercation, someone from our label [DH Records] came up and said, ‘Hey, I don't want to see my band upset. You need to erase those [photos] right now.' And he did!”
The band momentarily beams with collective pride at the thought of being in a position where their record label sticks up for them.
“That was a learning experience,” Gundred continues. “They paid us enough to buy our plane tickets, but never again. It was a nightmare.”
“But pretty funny, too,” Labno adds with a laugh.
I ask if they have any scandalous stories or gossip to share from all their touring and high-profile festival appearances. Like, say, any late-night coke-snorting sessions with Jack Johnson at Coachella?
“We're really a get-down-to-business kind of band,” Labno says. “We get in, we get it done.”
C'mon, nothing juicy? Nothing at all?
“Well,” Krechnyak quips, “there was that one night with Madonna and Winston Churchill....”
OK, so it's not quite your conventional tale of rock-star excess. In fact, they once played a party at the very house—semi-infamous for its status as the one-time host of SD House Parties—where they now practice. It's also where they filmed their first video (for “Look Out Young Son”), which made its MTV Subterranean debut earlier this month.
Sitting outside that same fun-worn house on a questionable outdoor couch, I survey the scene before me as a jet screeches low and loud overhead, forcing a pause in conversation. These three 20-somethings are good kids, I think. They're modest and appreciative, and they worked hard to get where they are. Of course, hard work is not all it takes. Lots of bands work hard, but very few succeed on a larger scale.
When I wrote that U-T column, I mentioned a handful of worthy local bands that never went anywhere, for whatever reason. But here's a band that's making it and, moreover, deserves to do so. I have to say, it feels good to be right. Grand Ole Party plays at 10 p.m. Friday, July 18, with Battlehooch and Mr. Tube & The Flying Objects and at 10 p.m. Saturday, July 19, with Kill Me Tomorrow and Christmas Island at The Casbah. myspace.com/grandoleparty.