The last time Greg Ashley and Oscar Michel of The Gris Gris played at Plush, things didn't go so well. This was pre-Gris Gris; Ashley had just moved from Houston to Oakland, Calif., and was touring with bassist Michel under the name of his old band, The Mirrors.
"The other band played, and then we got on, and within the first song, the bar went from 30 people to three people," said Ashley. "I think the promoter was not all that thrilled about what happened."
Many things have changed since that fateful tour. After getting back to Oakland, Michel and Ashley were joined by Joe Haener on drums, and soon after, the psychedelic-oriented group was signed to Los Angeles-based Birdman Records.
"Things just kind of kept happening accidentally," said Ashley. "Everything fell together over time."
Even though the band formed through a series of happy accidents, the choice to create psychedelic music has always been an intentional one for Ashley.
"I got into music that was that style, and I just always liked that stuff, because it seemed like that had the most diversity," said Ashley. "The songs on the records and the sounds were more creative and experimental in terms of recording techniques and stuff like that, and that was what I wanted to do, to go all those places and do all those things. I feel like with that kind of music, there's no boundary with it."
Perhaps there's something inherent in reverb that gives even the most contemporary music a nostalgic air; The Gris Gris' music could easily have been created in 1966 as opposed to 2006. That retro sound, though, Ashley said, probably has more to do with the way he records.
"I use old amplifiers, old guitars, because they sound better than new ones, and then when I lived in Texas, I bought a reel-to-reel 8-track machine, which uses analog tape, and that's what I recorded all of the records on--so it's a combination of the equipment that I use," said Ashley. "I couldn't make the record sound modern even if I wanted to."
At times, For the Season, The Gris Gris' second full-length (Birdman, 2005), can sound more free jazz than rock-oriented, and, said Ashley, that's intentional as well.
"I can't play actual jazz, but I can make noise with anything," he explained. "I just like the aesthetic of that, of trying to make noise with different things, to make a new kind of noise rather than feedback all the time."
For the Season channels Dr. John (whose 1968 album, Gris-Gris, inspired the band's name, which also has roots in voodoo), Herbie Hancock and the 13th Floor Elevators. The first seven songs on the album blend together into one long composition, while the last five settle into pop-song slices. The seven-song-long suite begins with wailing horns and pulsing punk guitars on "Ecks Em Eye." "Peregrine Downstream" changes the mood to something more contemplative, and then "Cuerpos Haran Amor Extrano" sounds like a creepy Western ballad. "Down With Jesus" has happy handclaps; "Big Engine Nazi Kid Daydream" brings in Indian-influenced instrumentations; "Year Zero" slips back into the groove of "Ecks Em Eye," and the whole thing ends with screams reminiscent of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz on "Nonstop Tape." If this were vinyl, the needle would hit the middle of the record, and the hum of the turntable would be just the right intermission before side two; "Medication #4" kicks in on a completely different plane: It's a sweet little love song, with softly strummed guitars.
The density and complexity of For the Season, explained Ashley, was due to the time they had to work on it. "We all went and lived in this cabin that my parents own out in east Texas, between Austin and Dallas, kind of in that area," explained Ashley. "We lived there for three months. The closest town was seven miles away, and only about 500 people live there or something like that, so it was pretty much really isolated, and we could hang out there and play music night and day, because there were no neighbors."
Rural isolation helped the band to focus on creating a certain sound and headspace, and For the Season uses all varieties of means to that end--if you want to go on a psychedelic retreat, just put in For the Season, and let it take you away.
But don't go too far. Ashley's hoping that this time around at Plush, more than three people will stick around for their set.