Return of the Griveous Angels: Sid Griffin on The Long Ryders

Alt-country progenitors and Paisley pioneers the Long Ryders recently dropped their first new album in 33 years, Psychedelic Country Soul. It’s a triumphant return to form and their finest effort to date.

The Long Ryders (formed in 1981 in Los Angeles) are often cited as the missing link between Gram Parsons and punk rock. They were closely connected with the ’80s Paisley Underground scene (the Bangles, the Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade), and widely considered as one of the forerunners of the alt-country genre. With their full-length albums Native Sons (1984), State of Our Union (1985) and Two Fisted Tales (1987), the Ryders became critical darlings with a dedicated following — especially in Europe. The band decided to call it quits just as U2 asked them to open for them on the U.S. wing of their Joshua Tree tour. But now, more than 30 years later, The Long Ryders are finally back.

I spoke with frontman Sid Griffin about the album they always wanted to make, recording in Dr. Dre’s studio and the Paisley Underground scene. Plus, he graciously shares the story of the fabulous the Long Ryders — album by album.

***

How did you approach the songwriting and the recording process this time around?

Due to the Internet, we were able to demo all our song ideas and send them to each other. This proved crucial, as no one in the Long Ryders lives anywhere near another Long Ryder. Greg lives in Los Angeles, Tom lives east of Chicago, Stephen lives in Virginia on the East Coast and I live in Europe. So the Internet allowed us to learn the songs we decided to record long before we saw each other face to face.

We met in L.A. and had two days of rehearsals. Producer Ed Stasium wanted three rehearsals, but there simply was not time. In fact, Larry Chatman promised us seven free days in Dr. Dre’s studio and on the Wednesday I knew we were not going to finish in time, so I went to Larry’s office behind the band’s back and begged for an eighth free day. Which Larry graciously gave us.

The Long Ryders recorded as live as possible with everyone looking at everyone else in the big room at Dr. Dre’s studio. The Foo Fighters had been in there a few weeks earlier due to a malfunction at the studio at Dave Grohl’s house. It is a great sounding room and Dre’s engineer, Lola, was a big help, too.

There were some percussion overdubs at Ed’s home studio near San Diego by Greg Sowders, and Stephen overdubbed some keyboards in Virginia, but that was it. Ed mixed it at his home studio and BANG! The Long Ryders were back in the game.

Did you feel any kind of pressure making a comeback album like that?

No. Why would we feel pressure? I told the guys before we started recording, ‘If this album sucks, we do not put it out… simple as that.’  And the guys agreed with me. We also figured if we only cut half a good album we would put out an EP and if we only cut two or three good songs we would put out an Internet single or a Record Store Day single on vinyl and that would be that. So by knowing we were not going to release lousy or even mediocre product, we left with no real pressure on us at all.

You’ve said that this is the album ‘you’ve always wanted to make.’ What were you looking for in the first place?

The Long Ryders wanted Psychedelic Country Soul to reflect who we were, who we are now and how we got there. Hence Stephen McCarthy coming up with such a marvelously appropriate album title. What you read on the outside of the package is what you get inside the package with our music, dig?

And somehow this new album represents us, top to bottom, more accurately than any of our previous albums. One might think Native Sons is the definitive Long Ryders album, but this one is. It’s got it all: rough and ready rockers, two bittersweet ballads, some crazy, totally out-there psychedelia, country riffs, bluesy riffs, heartfelt vocals. It even has my dear friend Kerenza Peacock from the Coal Porters on violin sweetly sawing away and our old gal pals Debbi and Vicki Peterson from the Bangles adding the most ice-cool harmonies this side of the Beach Boys.

What more could a Long Ryder want?

Except being just a bit older and wiser, what has changed the most being in the music industry today?

The Long Ryders have seen the music industry change a great deal. We have noticed the consumer always, always, always goes for the ease of musical delivery and not the best sound quality. So Neil Young’s Pono and also WAV files are not that big a deal to the majority of listeners.

And while vinyl is on the rise, it and CDs or indeed any hard copy format will never again see the huge sales of the past. Not when a consumer can tap a few buttons and hear the music in seconds. Therefore most people have long dismissed going to a store to buy physical product, and that is a shame as record shops were such temples of community and bohemianism and fun.

A number of bands from the 1980s L.A. scene, also known as the Paisley Underground scene, have recently reunited and released new material. How did you relate to the term Paisley Underground back in the days?

Michael Quercio [of the Three O’Clock] coined the phrase ‘Paisley Underground’ in an interview with The L.A. Weekly back in the day, no one in the press thought of it. The real Paisley Underground is and always was the Salvation Army who became the Three O’Clock and of course the Rain Parade, the Bangles and the Dream Syndicate. No one else. You will note these are the exact four bands who are included on the recent Yep Roc album of Paisley Underground bands doing other Paisley Underground bands’ material.

Then the Long Ryders and Green on Red were included, which was nice. After all, we were all friends, we all knew each other, we all attended the other band’s gigs, and played music that was at least vaguely related to the other acts’ music. As time went on, True West, way up in Davis, California, were added to the Paisley Underground and Naked Prey out in Arizona were added to the Paisley Underground and then half of the 1960s-oriented guitar bands in southern California were Paisley Underground bands! It was really out of hand.

The camaraderie of the original four P.U. bands was diluted and then diluted further. Bands were called members of the Paisley Underground and none of us in L.A. knew who on earth they were.

So, originally, it was just the four bands I mentioned above and no one else. And yes, it was a real, organic thing and not some baloney created by the media. To this day, to this second, I am fond of all the bands above, very happy to be friends with them, and very aware how lucky I was to not merely be in a popular band but part of a popular, groundbreaking scene. One almost, I say almost, as influential as Memphis in 1954, Liverpool in 1963 or New York City in 1977. It was a wonderful time.

The Long Ryders - Press Photo 2016-2-kopi

How would you describe the 2019 live version of the Long Ryders?

Technically, we are better than ever. I am as serious as a heart attack here when I say this. Stephen McCarthy on guitar is a genius player. I was there when Chris Hillman told Stephen he was the only guitarist he ever heard who played Clarence White’s riffs correctly! Tom Stevens is a brilliant bass player, the best bass player of my age group, the equal of Mike Mills. Greg Sowders on drums and me on whatever are audibly better players today than we were then.

Our playing and singing is better than ever, as is our songwriting, and you hear evidence of this on the new album, Psychedelic Country Soul. The Long Ryders remind me of a prizefighter making a very successful comeback. Oh, sure, the youthful dash and verve are long gone, true, but the technical know-how and cunning thinking that experience has blessed us with are present in great abundance.

I feel like we are only getting started!

And on that promising note, we will let Mr. Griffin guide you through their marvelous recording history, album by album.

10-5-60
(PVC 1983)

This five-song EP came out in late 1983 and brought the Long Ryders immediate notice. Its success at college radio made us a band to watch and one that was considered influential right from the start.

The stark front cover caused heads to turn at The Gavin Report and Billboard, as the Long Ryders looked so unlike the synth-pop acts of the era. And our music was updated 1960s guitar rock & roll, with ‘roll’ as important as ‘rock,’ all due to the sweet production of Brian Wilson’s 1970s engineer Earle Mankey.

The pounding title track, the psychedelically mesmerizing melody of ‘And She Rides,’ and the Lovin’ Spoonful styled whimsy of ‘Born to Believe in You’ set out the parameters for the Long Ryders straight away. Yet it was Stephen McCarthy’s ‘You Don’t Know What’s Right, You Don’t Know What’s Wrong’ that became a signature song and a signpost pointing to Americana and alt-country, two phrases that did not exist in 1983 and that were not yet a musical genre on radio or in print.

Native Sons
(Frontier 1984)

In summer 1984, Los Angeles hosted the Olympics. The public was warned frequently about traffic gridlock. The Long Ryders found out A&M Studios was available at a rock-bottom rate, as there was concern no act would want to record during the tourist invasion of the summer Olympics.

Choosing the legendary Henry Lewy as producer (Joni Mitchell, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen), we moved into A&M Studios before Herb Alpert had time to deposit our check and started work. Psychedelia was toned down save the atmospheric ‘Close to the Light’ and country, bluegrass and Sun Records rock & roll was emphasized. ‘I Had a Dream’ made a great, great single in Europe and Elvis Costello signed us to his Demon label in London.

We were becoming an American answer to Rockpile, and soon Native Sons was the #4 album on the College Radio/Indie charts. Back then, this meant radio airplay, record sales and positive reviews in every newspaper in the country.

State of Our Union
(Island 1985)

Our March/April 1985 tour of Europe saw us greeted like Caesars returning to Rome after foreign conquest. We holed up in London’s Columbia Hotel as label after label visited us, each anxious to sign us and put us at the top of the charts. We went with Island Records’ London office as the great Nick Stewart, the man who signed U2, had the best rap.

We recorded in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, with Will Birch at the controls and Neill King engineering, both experienced music industry veterans. A cook was on hand to feed us our culinary requests and a large keg of beer was placed at our disposal. The recording went well, but mixing proved a chore with the first mix having hit technical difficulties. The album was remixed at R.G. Jones in south London by Neill King, Will Birch and I, the band having flown home as scheduled. Yet from this worrisome hassle emerged ‘Looking for Lewis and Clark,’ our pulsating signature song.

Two Fisted Tales
(Island 1987)

Back to A&M Studios in Hollywood, which was Charlie Chaplin’s old studio in the 1930s. Our producer was Ed Stasium (the Ramones, the Smithereens, Jeff Healey Band) and he crafted a radio-friendly record that did not sacrifice our Americana/alt-country principles one iota. Ed drilled us and rehearsed us like the U.S. Marine Corps, even down to deciding kick drum patterns. It was terribly exciting. I thought we were going to be the next R.E.M. by Christmas.

We were now with Island Records USA and those Noo Yawkers were thrilled when they heard what we had cut. NRBQ’s ‘I Want You Bad’ was the lead-off single with ‘Gunslinger Man’ a powerful follow-up release. Two Fisted Tales contains more Long Ryders songs that were covered by other acts than any other record we made. We were indie rock stars and Hollywood heroes in our L.A. neighborhoods. Life was sweet.

Psychedelic Country Soul
(Cherry Red 2019)

After thirty-three and 1/3 years (!) the Long Ryders returned with a brand new studio album, an album most fans are calling our very best one. On our last tour in 1987, we befriended Larry Chatman, a dear pal, and Larry never forgot it. Flash forward 30 years and Larry is now Dr. Dre’s main man. Larry offers us a week’s free studio time at Dre’s in L.A. as repayment for our helping him 30 years earlier. We immediately accept this extraordinarily kind offer.

Exchanging demos via the Internet, we decide which songs to record. Ed Stasium is back in the producer’s chair and the sound, the feel, the vibe of the record is largely down to him. We worked 16-hour days and accepted no visitors to the studio. It was time to live up to whatever legend had grown up around us in three decades, the Founding Fathers Of Alt-Country and so forth.

Vicki and Debbi Peterson from the Bangles sang on several songs. My dear friend Kerenza Peacock played violin like the world class virtuoso she is indeed. Featuring our best songs, each specifically written for this project, everyone brought their ‘A’ game. Psychedelic Country Soul is our best written album, our best sung album, our most thought-out album, and I think our best sounding album in pure sonic terms. It hit #1 in the UK’s Official Alt-Country/Americana chart shortly after its release.

I am very proud of it and very proud of the guys in this band.

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