Lots of music lovers would declare soul dead, or at least convalescing. (Unless you count artists like Bruno Mars who meld soul with funk, pop, and hip-hop.) Lots of artists wouldn’t even know where to begin with the genre, but if they had to take a stab in the dark, they’d probably begin with the Stax catalog learning from the greats. Oakland, California, five-piece Idiot Grins are not only dedicated disciples of Stax legends, but actually walked the walk by checking into Ardent Studios and using actual mastering equipment from the infamous tracking sessions for their latest release, Big Man.
We had a chance to pose a few burning questions to Idiot Grins’ guitarist Randy Strauss, who told us about the band’s roots, blending country and soul to create a unique sound, and playing Gram Parsons’ guitar on the album
You cite great Stax artists like Sam and Dave, Booker T & the MGs, and Otis Redding as influences. How did you first fall in love with their music?
We’ve always liked the music of those artists. How can you not? Growing up, I felt a little disconnected by the music that was currently popular. So my friends and I dug a little deeper into music from the past. It slowly dawned on me that Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson, Jr. — the MG’s — were at the heart of everything at Stax. They played on all the records coming from the label for a period of time when Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, among many others, were creating some of the best sounding records I ever heard. And we started to hear the MG’s influence on artists like the Beatles and the Stones. Paul McCartney is playing Duck Dunn’s bass line from “Respect” on “Drive My Car.” Listen to Keith Richards on Satisfaction when he turns the fuzz pedal off. The guitar lines he plays on the verses are straight out of Steve Cropper. And so we wanted to try to tap into that feel. Obviously, we can’t do what they did, but it was almost like a way of getting closer to them by trying our best to capture the feel. The whole band flew to Memphis to master the album, and it really felt great — like bringing the album home.
How did you take soul, a timeless genre, and make it your own?
We really just tried to make an album that we would like to listen to. We know we’re not from Memphis, we know it’s not 1967, and obviously we have other influences. To try to make a record that’s “current” just wouldn’t work for us. Wouldn’t know where to start. Our secret weapon, though, and I can’t thank them enough, was having Johnny Bamont on sax and the late, great Mic Gillette on trumpet and trombone. We got to record with these legends — they came into my studio, set up, and just played the shit out of the tunes. And they were such great guys. Had drinks with us after. All the time, I’m thinking [the] mic there played the famous trumpet opening on “You’re Still a Young Man” when he was in Tower of Power, and here he is playing on my little tunes. Unbelievable. It was so sad when he passed last month. A real loss to the Bay Area music community. He did a lot of great things for music education for kids. A special man. Johnny and Mic were the MVPs of the record. You can’t make a soul album without the horns, and we somehow lucked into getting the best to play with us.
Big Man also contains a vein of country rock reminiscent of Gram Parsons. How did you decide to combine these very different sounds into such a cohesive record?
Love country rock. Gram Parsons is in my top five favorite artists. Really didn’t plan ahead of time as to how country and soul would combine; it just felt right. When John [Hansen, lead vocals] and I started writing the songs, of course some country influences came out, but that was true at Stax as well. Listen to “You Don’t Miss Your Water” by William Bell. That’s a country song dressed up with soul. Country and soul are two sides of the same coin. When Gram recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo with the Byrds, they covered “You Don’t Miss Your Water” as a country rock song — and it’s seamless. I like to think our song “All Alone” on Big Man is like that. It’s really a country song, but we played it like a Stax song and added those horns. Soul and country! And of course the last song, “Sour Man,” was written and sung by our bass player, Evan Eustis. I think if he had his way, every song would feature him strumming his mandolin. It’s his rural Colorado upbringing. So he is always pulling us in a country direction.
Is it true that you played Gram Parsons’ guitar on the record? (So cool, by the way.)
It is absolutely true. The acoustic guitar on “Paso Robles” is the guitar that Gram Parsons bought from Westwood Music in 1972. It was handmade by a luthier named David Russell Young. He played it on his last Fallen Angels tour and on the Grievous Angel album. My wife saw it advertised in an auction and said I should buy it. She didn’t have to ask me twice, although it turns out she was kidding! Someday, I’ll pay it off.
What was making the record like? I’m sure it was an extra treat to have it mastered on genuine Stax equipment.
Man, that was a treat. We had the run of Ardent Studios in Memphis for the day. Worked with Kevin Nix, whose dad Larry was the Stax mastering engineer. Kevin told us some incredible stories from the Stax days. And when he turned it on — there was that sound! Just incredible.
What’s next for Idiot Grins?
We’re writing and rehearsing the next album now. We just got a Clavinet, so we’re leaning in a more funk direction. It’s that Stevie Wonder, “Superstitious” sound. You know it as soon as you hear it. If you think of the last album as centered around 1965-1967, the new stuff seems to be in a style that the music took a few years later. The songs we’re writing seem to have an early-’70s vibe. But we just started the process. Who knows where it will end up. I’m sure there will be some country in there somewhere. And being at Ardent Studios in Memphis and meeting Jody Stephens [drummer of Big Star drummer], the guys all went off on a Big Star kick. Everybody played Big Star for about three weeks straight after that trip. So, some power pop might sneak its way in.
Find out more about Idiot Grins and Big Man on their Facebook page.