Posted May 14, 2012

The Journey is worth it:
Cypress Grove tells the
Jeffrey Lee Pierce Project
Sessions story

Cypress Grove
Elizabeth Stone photo


Share When I call UK musician Cypress Grove on the day "The Journey is Long" was released, he excuses himself as he has 'a bit of a cold'. There follows the most astonishing cartoon-character honk across 12,000 miles. It's hardly what I expected, but then, that's appropriate because Cypress has been putting together something which is apparently so clever some people are confused.

Before chucking out a pile of old cassette tapes, Cypress, who worked with Jeffrey Lee Pierce, decided to rootle through them, just to make sure he wasn't throwing something good out... he found the demos for an LP he and Jeffrey had worked on together ... and circumstances had been such that they'd never been able to come back to it.

On hearing the tape, the years fell back and Cypress loved the songs, sketchy though they were. But, apart from the rough quality, the songs were unfinished, blurred ... unreleasable.

Had Jeffrey been Jimi or Lennon or Morrison, and Cypress not been Cypress, he would've just released them to make money. I have the set of LPs 'Jimi Hendrix at his Best', but I know Jimi would not have wanted them released, because they're certainly not 'Jimi at his best'. There's some good material there, and interesting, but ... hell, if you got hold of these tapes yourself, would you be justified in releasing them? No, because it doesn't respect the artist.

Cypress already knew all this, but you don't know Cypress knew this, so that's why I'm telling you he did. See?

Slowly an idea formed, and a ball started to roll.

The songs chosen were either new or unreleased Jeffrey Lee Pierce compositions.

Cypress' idea was for friends and musicians who had been influenced by Jeffrey to work on the songs, and release a cd. The artists found themselves in a unique position - they could interpret the song as best the sketch allowed.

You've copped a bit of stick for doing this ...

"I've heard the argument that 'you shouldn't mess with a dead man's music', well, no, this isn't a breach of trust; it would be a breach of trust to release the bloke lalala'ing in the shower.

"I mean here was a tape of some really good songs which no-one's ever heard, they're not in a condition to be released - what do you do, throw them in the bin?"

Jeffrey Lee Pierce playing live with Cypress.

The broader implications of the JLP project are what really interest me. I mean, no-one else has hit on the idea quite the way Cypress has and, whatever flaws we may imagine in the collections themselves, they have set a standard, and a blueprint, for generations to come.

For example, some have pointed out that there are two tracks which appear to be straight covers, one on each compilation, so what happened to the 'all new material' line?

"You must mean 'Lucky Jim' on 'We Are Only Riders', and 'The Breaking Hands' on 'The Journey is Long'. Well, with both these songs, we found an earlier demo version of the song which, in my opinion, was superior to the version which was eventually released. This sometimes happens with demo's, as any fan will attest.

"When I was working with Nick Cave in the studio on the demo version of 'The Breaking Hands', he starts working on his piano part, and it sounded so good the way he was doing it with just piano and vocal, that we decided to do a version like that as well. And in the end, everyone agreed that should be the version we should go with."

How did your track, LA County Jail Blues, come about?

"I decided to slow it down significantly from the original, and make it less thumpy and more ethereal. More of a lament and less of a boast. I did the guitar and vocal and sent it to Hugo Race.

"He had already sent me his version of 'I'm Going Upstairs', and I loved it. So I thought he might add some acoustic trills. But instead he did it on the electric through the Leslie speaker, which is very distinctive. The juxtaposition worked really well. So a few weeks later, Justin Greaves from Crippled Black Phoenix and me were going to see Wovenhand to pitch David Eugene Edwards on a few song ideas. So I said, 'While you are down here [ie, London from Oxford] see if you can add anything to this track'.

"So he brought his musical saw. I was a bit dubious as I had always regarded it as a kind of comedy instrument - for Looney Tunes and such. But it is incredibly plaintive, sounds like a theremin. So as soon as I heard it I asked him to put some on the Nick [Cave] and Debbie [Harry] track as well. Mick Cozens then added harmonica and dobro to LA County... I really love that mixture of sounds. I am going to do more stuff like that I think."

There's a lot more to this than meets the eye, then. It seems a much more respectful way to treat what's been left behind.

"Yes, well... I mean, if this project did in some way change the way people approached collections, or 'tribute' albums, or 'lost song' albums, that would be a very good thing."

The first collection, 'We Are Only Riders', featured several songs which were repeated as many as three times. On any other collection, this would be a negative. On 'We Are Only Riders', the interpretations were as interesting as the songs themselves. Both CDs are best approached as a pair of 12" eps, each side suiting a mood. As a cd, they're both crackers, and both have received repeated plays in our house. As in, over and over.

Some reviewers make the rather strange point that the Riders cd didn't sound like the Gun Club, and actually referred people to the first LP, 'Fire of Love' ...

"Jeffrey was sick to death of the 'Fire of Love' material - but even when he'd be doing an acoustic set there'd be some character calling for 'Sex Beat' or something off that lp. [mimics a German hollering for 'Sex Beat'] Songs which weren't written for acoustic, and which don't really work in that context.

"It's not the point for these recordings to sound like The Gun Club - there's no definitive version of these songs, maybe just a blurry chord structure and a mumbled vocal."

I've made this point before but I think it's worth making again. Some bands are able to go out on tour and everyone knows - and wants - the band to rehash the old stuff. The Rolling Stones have been making a career out of this for decades now, the occasional new song thrown in. When Suzi Quatro tours, or the Sweet, you don't really expect much new, and what little there is you don't expect to like very much.

Jeffrey Lee and Cypress in the studio.

But you don't throw the glass at them 'cause - they're doing the old stuff, which is what you really want. Like, you know, if you went to see Led Zeppelin now, would you expect an entirely new set? No, yet that's the only way Zep could really do it again, isn't it?

When the Buzzcocks tour, they do get bottled if most of their set is 'newer' (ie, not off the first three lps or first singles); they're not regarded by the public as a working rock'n'roll band. When I saw the New York Dolls, I saw a band having fun with their new songs, returning to the older songs only because they were more or less obliged to.

Some bands - the Bad Seeds are a case in point - do much the same thing and are respected for that. They're artists, and regarded as such. Jeffrey had what I think of as "The Buzzcocks Syndrome"' - people would always sniff if the new material wasn't the same as the first LP - no matter how old that first LP was.

Speaking of the Bad Seeds - there's a lot of Australians on these two CDs, isn't there?

"It is quite Australian-heavy. I guess that is down to the strong connection between the Gun Club and Australia. There is certainly a strong Bad Seeds presence - both past and present.

"I really like the fact that on both records there are permutations of the Bad Seeds that never existed in real life. Volume Three will be much more LA-centric, as Keith Morris is going to be recruiting his buddies."

Now I'm afraid I tease him gently. What, no Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds? No Spencer P Jones band? No Kim Salmon? Mark Arm? Beyonce? Madonna?

"Kid Congo is on Mark and Isobel's 'Breaking Hands', Spencer is on 'From Death to Texas' by Steve Wynn, Kim Salmon - long story! But yes, there should be the bands as well as just the cameos. I am working on it. Beyonce and Madonna are quite simply not returning my calls!"

I ask him how pleased he is with the records so far.

"I get an immense sense of satisfaction from the records, both from the extraordinarily high quality of the material, and the fact that people who were not previously familiar with Jeffrey are starting to check out his stuff as a result of the records.

"The fact that the proceeds are able to help fund causes that were very special to Jeffrey (like Amnesty International, provision of musical instruments to under-privileged kids in LA) is also deeply satisfying. Jeffrey's sister handles that."

Why are these records taking so long to come out? Each seems to take about three years!

"Logistics, dear boy, logistics! As you can imagine, I am asking high-profile busy musicians to work for nothing on a relatively low-profile project. So I have to work around their recording and touring commitments."

How did you first meet Jeffrey?

"There was a kind of musician's pub a lot of us used to hang out at. Siouxsie was often there, and the Cocteau Twins. Jeffrey was always there. He had a reputation for being difficult and I had never spoken to him till a mutual friend introduced us.

"One night there was the Labour Party Christmas party going on in the function room of the pub. I was playing there with a couple of friends - just covers and stuff. Jeffrey wanted to get into the party (not so much for the political ideology as the after-hours drinking).

"I said I could get him in if he was with the band. So I said, 'Do you know Van Morrision's 'Gloria'? He said he did, so I got him into the party. It turns out his knowledge of 'Gloria'  was in fact rather rudimentary! But he improvised and did a great performance. It was after that that he asked me to join him on the Blues project."

Why did you first pick guitar, Cypress?

"My Dad was a Jazz musician and started teaching me drums from an early age, and a bit of bass. But I broke my leg in a motocross accident when I was 15, so had nothing to do but lay on the sofa for six months. A friend came round and started showing me a few chords on a guitar that my Mum had lying around.

"I actually just wanted to learn how to play 'Jumping Jack Flash', as a party piece, but in the process of learning it, I started to get into it."

So when's your solo album coming out?

I" am hard at work on that. The trouble is that I am doing three albums at the same time. Volume Three of the JLP project, the Lydia Lunch album, and my solo stuff. Every time I think the Lydia album is nearing completion she will want to do more stuff.

"For the solo stuff my guitarist Mick Cozens comes over twice a week and we get stuff done. Then Willie Love will come down from Bristol every few weeks and he adds stuff. We actually have about 18 songs in various stages of completion, so we are going to hone it down to about 12 and finish those off.

"Volume Three of JLP project is coming along nicely, but as I've said, there are necessarily lulls in that, so it gives me a chance to work on other stuff."

"The Journey Is Long" - Volume 2 of the Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project - is out now on Fusemusic and is reviewed here.