In the 1980s, Sid Griffin lead a band of merry country-rock gentlemen, known as The Long Ryders, Blending rock and country with a little bit of punk sensibility and a dash of rockabilly, they concocted a sound that was strikingly different, ahead of its time, and surprisingly prescient of what would come in the decades since their split, the alt.coutnry boom that gave us such great bands as Wilco, Whiskeytown, and the Old 97s. Earlier this year, Cherry Red reissued their entire catalogue in a delightful and essential four disk box set entitled Final Wild Songs. It is a delight, with plenty of unreleased material, a ton of wonderful but lesser-heard released material, and a killer live show from their heyday. We sat down with Sid Griffin to talk to him about his box set, his band, and what it all means.
What was it like for Long Ryders starting out? A few years ago I did a career retrospective interview with Kim Shattuck of the Muffs, and one of the things she said was that the scene was very homogenous, but if you scratched the surface you could find people doing all sorts of things and mixing and mingling with styles and genres in a way you might not find elsewhere, and the underground was supportive of creativity.
Man, I miss those days—I really miss those days! (Laughs) That’s how it was, that was my youth, and those days are gone. I live in London now, and I try to go out and see bands and musicians as often as I can, but it’s really not as fun. It’s because in the UK, the music scene is so competitive, and it seems like if you’re a fan of one band, it’s sinful to support another band. Like Blur and Oasis—that’s a real good example there. Viv Albertine of The Slits lives right up the road, and she wrote something in her autobiography that really struck me. In the punk days, she was dating Mick Jones of The Clash, and she said he wouldn’t allow her to go see the Sex Pistols. Even though she was really good friends with the Sex Pistols through Ari Up, it would have been seen as traitorous if your girlfriend is seen at a concert by your “competition” or to support another band.
That’s the opposite of how it was in LA. Back in 1985, I was visiting England, and I was hanging out at a BBC DJ’s friend’s flat, having a few beers, and Robyn Hitchcock came in. He looked at me and perked up when he heard I was from Los Angeles. He came up to me and asked, “Hey, do you know the guys in Los Lobos?” And I said yeah. “Do you know the girls in The Bangles?” and I told him I did. He asked me about three or four other bands, all of whom I knew. Then he looked at me with this rather wistful look and sadly said, “I only know Captain Sensible.” That’s the only guy in the British music scene that he knew—and that’s because everyone knew Captain Sensible, because he’s that kind of guy—and you know, I felt really bad for Robyn. It was really shocking for me to hear that, because where we were at was nothing like that.
For all the negatives that get tossed around in any music scene, I have to say, I didn’t see a lot of back-stabbing or sniping at each other. What I saw was a scene that was really diverse, as you say, and supportive. You were never gonna mistake the music of The Minutemen with the music of The Long Ryders, obviously; we were on two completely different wavelengths when it came to the music we made. But we knew all those guys, D. Boon, Mike Watt—we’d go to their shows when we could, and we’d see them at our gigs, too.
Tell me about the box set.
Man, I worked on that for about two years. Steve Hammons from Cherry Red sat me down in September 2013 and said he wanted to do a box set. I was like, “Hallelujah!” because I wish we’d had one out fifteen years ago. We spent two years working on it, and I was the project overseer. I compiled it with our bassist, Tom Stevens. He did most of the work compiling and finding the extra tracks and demos, because he was the band’s archivist, but I worked closely with him, and I oversaw the artwork with Phil Smee, and I picked Andy Pearce to oversee the mastering and remastering the tunes.
We spent some time cleaning the songs up, but we also had financial restrictions, so we decided to make it the best possible set with what we had. If I’d had the ability, I’d have completely remaster and remix the first disk of old material, yet at the same time, the people who are going to buy this set, I don’t really think—why spend a fortune on something that the people who are going to be listening aren’t going to be terribly concerned about? They’re happy to have the music and we’re happy to put it out, and besides, warts and all is a bit more honest, isn’t it? I think so. Sometimes you have to choose between being an audiophile and being a fan. Naturally, some people might complain about this or that, but it’s nothing to worry about, really. I think there’s a ton of great stuff to be found, and as most people haven’t heard our original output anyway, so I don’t think it makes a difference.
That live show that you’ve included is a real scorcher.
It is! We were a live band, and we would play every chance we had, because back then, you had to. No label was giving us advances, and our records, while well-liked, weren’t a steady source of income. So we’d load up the van and hit the road. We’d play a hundred to a hundred and fifty shows a year, and then we’d stop to make a record. We did two major national tours a year, and then we’d head off to Europe. We’d have to be a touring band—that’s how you survived.
Like Mike Watt once said, “If you ain’t playin’, you’re payin’.”
Exactly! The worst thing you could do is be out on the road and not working, because times were tight, and living from gig to gig was real, ya know? Tell you a story I heard about Dr. Feelgood. Lee Brilleaux was a friend of mine, and he told me that whenever they’d have an off night, they wouldn’t accept that. He’d pick up the phone and call local hotels in the area. He’d say, “Hey, we’ll stay at your hotel if you let us stay for free, and we’ll play a show in your bar,” because they’d rather work than lose money while they were out on the road. So they’d go to the bar and play a stripped-down set to a hundred or so people. They’d play a couple of their hits, a lot of their favorite covers, and just have fun. He told me it was a lot better for morale than taking a hit out of pocket, because while touring is work, gigs like that would be fun, and would help to keep them grounded in that aspect.
Speaking of performing live, you’re enhancing this box set with a bit of a reunion tour.
Yeah! It’s not our first reunion, though; we played some shows in 2004, and that was fun. We sort of realized that this box set was going to be a definitive statement from us about who we were, and that Cherry Red was putting in time and resources to making it happen, so live shows just made sense to us. Whether or not it turns into something more, that remains to be seen. Right now, I’ll say no, that for me the Long Ryders is a chapter in my life. However, that said, it’s kind of foolish to make a definitive statement like that, because you don’t know what will happen. Case in point: the first pressing of the box set, it sold out much, much faster than we’d expected. It sold much better than Cherry Red expected, too! We’ve gotten excellent reviews from it; MOJO loved it, and that was a real honor. In that sense, we’ve had to adjust our plans a little bit; if a record is selling well, you have to go with it, and so as a result, what had only been planned as one or two shows in England and in America has turned into something more, which goes back to what I was saying about not making definitive statements. But you know what, Joseph? That’s okay. Having to add more shows to play because of unexpected demand is a good problem to have! (Laughs)
How, then, do you ultimately view Final Wild Songs?
When we broke up, it was a real frustration for us. There were lots of things going on behind the scene that I don’t care to think about, arguments and disagreements and such. But really, we had seemingly “run our course,” as they say in the industry. We didn’t necessarily see it that way at the time, but the people in charge did, and once they made up their minds—at least in the Eighties—there was nothing you could do about it. This box set, this reevaluation, this revival—it’s been nice. It’s been really, really nice. It’s helped to really put to rest some of those nagging feelings about it all, and it’s been really reaffirming. We thought we were a great band—but what we think about how good we are really doesn’t matter,—it’s what the audience thinks that matters, and thirty years later, people are saying that we’re a great band. No matter what happens next, it doesn’t matter. If we get out there and feel like we want to keep doing it, that’ll be great! If after the tour we put the Long Ryders back in the box and close that chapter, that’s okay, too—because we had the opportunity to close it on our terms and nobody else’s. That it’s being closed while we’re still alive and with a box set that’s really being appreciated is rather satisfying. Going out while on top, as it were!
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