When our call is put through to grandson it’s just a few days before the release of his second EP - ‘A Modern Tragedy Vol. 2’ - and he’s on ebullient form. Stood in his kitchen, words race down the line, and it’s almost possible to envision him stomping across the room, hands gesticulating wildly to get his point across.
Fuelled By Ramen released the Canadian-American artist’s debut EP last year, a potent, unmistakably original brew of trap beats, crunching rock riffs, and vocals that spoke directly to those on the sidelines, to disenfranchised youth. Remarkably for something so distinct, so highly personal, it became an astonishing success, smashing through the 50 million stream mark on Spotify in a matter of weeks.
When Clash starts to reel off these figures there’s an audible gasp on the line. “It’s definitely a little disorienting, but in a good way,” he admits. “It’s what you hope for, what you work for, but I think I wasn’t really sure what to expect. So to watch people gravitate to was really exciting, and at first I was a little unsure at how it would be received, but I think if you make something real and honest then good things seem to happen. That’s where we’re at right now.”
“I think this next one is going to surprise some people, but still stay true to the kind of themes that were prevalent in the first one,” he says. “It’s hopefully going to piss a lot of people off because that’s what you hope for in my line of work.”
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The new EP is a progression from, and a reaction to, his debut. ‘Vol. 2’ is darker than its predecessor, but no less invigorating; several songs are already clear anthems with fans, penetrating deeper and wider than grandson might have otherwise anticipated. “I think my music got a little bit darker because those were just the songs that connected with people the most,” he tells us. “And once I started making it about the people on the other side, the people that are coming to see the show, the people that are sharing it on social media with their friends, then I started to want to make it the best experience for them. That’s definitely helped make my writing lean one way instead of another.”
While some songs are utterly fresh, others extend back right to the beginning of the project, when grandson was a disillusioned student in Montreal, a city he was trying desperately to turn into his home. “It depends,” he muses. “There are definitely some songs that get right the first time, but that’s definitely the exception to the rule. ‘Apologise’ was version 43, the version that came out. It nearly broke me, I’m not kidding. We tried to crack it but we just couldn’t seem to. It was one sub-genre of music versus another, it was just a matter of following it through to the end. That’s an exciting thing for me, though.”
“There absolutely hits a point where, with all apologies, I just can’t keep working on that fucking song any more or I’m going to lose my mind. That’s where you call something done. I think with any kind of creative project finding a sense of completion, a sense of peace with it… I used to think I would hear this one version of the song and it would all come together. Whereas instead songs like ‘Apologise’ they’re done because if I continue to work on them then I’m going to have to be sectioned or something.”
Pushing himself to the limit, grandson wants to test the boundaries while remaining true to the emotional core of the song. “I think it’s a combination of that equilibrium I’m trying to find of how good I can make it sound relative to my own tastes, and how honest I can connect with what feeling it inspired me to first write it,” he tells Clash at one point in our conversation.
“So I want to keep a very direct relationship with that creative impulse I have with the very onset of writing something. I think that the songs that I was able to very much convey a specific feeling I had are the ones that people seem to resonate with or gravitate to. But also I think that there’s infinite possibilities of how you can go about conveying that message. I want it to feel big, and uplifting, and badass, but I also don’t want to lose sight of how it started, which is often just me and an acoustic guitar.”
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The song ‘Dark Side’ has already opened a bold conversation, documenting in unsparing, highly realistic terms the descent of a frustrated, alienated adolescent, until he becomes a school shooter. Touching on a tragically prescient side of American life, it offers no side, no judgement, aiming to become a psychological cross section.
“I’ve always had an obsession with bad guys,” he admits. “I think the way that was vilify people in society and pick and choose what to be outraged by has always fascinated me. So I wanted to almost as a thought experiment try to paint a narrative where you simultaneously find this character repulsive but also understand their motivations.”
In some ways a follow on from ‘Stick Up’ on ‘Vol. 1’, grandson also admits the inspiration of Pearl Jam’s classic track ‘Jeremy’. “I’m portraying somebody who is pushed into a corner, who isn’t understood, who isn’t being listened to and that has too much access to ways of getting their point across, so to speak. So in this song his father has this semi-automatic rifle for hunting, and it’s sitting in a case, and one day because no one has been listening to the kid he brings it to school. I wanted with that song to make it both a theme song for an x-man and also this repulsive, dark song about a school shooter.”
“I think our lack of holistic resources for somebody like that, who is getting bullied and going through the inevitable trials and tribulations of adolescence. I think the way we make those people feel that there’s no place for them, it makes people to drastic things to get people’s attention. And that’s certainly not right – I’m not trying to glorify it in any way shape or form, but I want to use this music to talk about some real shit. What is the fucking point otherwise?”
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Alienation from academia is certainly something grandson can relate to. Travelling across Canada to study at McGill, his initial hopes of becoming a teacher dissolved, while a switch to the cross-town liberal arts faculty of Concordia left him withdrawn. “I don’t necessarily advocate for leaving school and running away but the main function of that point in your life should be to figure out who you are and what you want to do and take active steps towards doing it. And I certainly had no grasp on that at the time. I felt very much lost, I was getting high everyday, trying to avoid confronting these very real issues of… who am I? What do I want to do?”
I can’t speak for everyone, but here in North America people tell you it’s natural, that it’s what you do after high school. It’s a seemingly linear trajectory that everyone is expected to go on. I think a lot of people I know felt cheated by that, as there was an expectation that the system would look out for them, when really the whole time they should have been looking out for themselves, figuring out what they want to do, trying to get some practical experience. For me, I was going through the motions.”
Writing music through a desperate desire to crack this prison open, grandson was picked up by his label Fuelled By Ramen after a chance online posting found its way to their Inbox. It’s a project that matches frustration to hope, a sense of alienation to an unending desire to communicate.
“I’m definitely one of the lucky ones,” he admits. “So when I meet young people who don’t know what to do with their time, I remind them that: It’s OK. They’re right on time. I had no idea either until the beginning of my 20s. I lot of people never figure it out. But the important thing is to keep asking the questions, and to have the imagination and self-love to grab the best possible life you can for yourself.”
With two EPs under his belt and tours on both sides of the Atlantic lined up, grandson is set for a big 2019. But will he complete that trilogy of EPs, or focus on an album?
“There’s a pretty good chance,” he muses. “I know that I would love for it to be a trilogy, but if the people are demanding a full length project after Volume Two then we might have to switch up the game plan.”
“I just feel lucky to have this platform, to have people give a fuck. I remember very, very clearly when nobody did and I feel like the best work is in front of me. What I’m really, really looking forward to in 2019 is getting music out, meeting these kids, figuring out who they are, what they need. And starting to build up this as a platform to give back, to make a difference in these communities, and to stand alongside people that are fighting for the same things that I believe in. That’s what I’m focussed on.”
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‘A Modern Tragedy Vol. 2’ EP is out now.
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