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Vending Machine’s Robby Grant On Music, Family

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I’ve known Robby Grant since the sixth grade. (We also went to religious school and high school together.) We always ran in the same circles, but didn’t really get to know each other until about a year ago when I cornered him at the Children’s Museum and convinced him to help me get a Rock-n-Romp started. Now Robby and I often call on each other for favors—me more than him—and meet up for lunch downtown when we have the time. I recently sat down with him (tape recorder in hand) at the Majestic to talk about music, parenting, and the intertwining of the two. — Stacey Greenberg

When did you start playing music?

Robby: I was in 7th grade, so age 12, no 13. I had piano lessons when I was really young. I sucked at sports for the most part. Music was always a part of my life. My mom had a lot of great old 45s, a lot of great records. She was a fan of music. I got to choose what I wanted to play. I chose an electric guitar. I bought one with my cousin—we split it, but he never played it.

That was a good deal for you.

Robby: Yeah.

Why the electric guitar?

It looked cool. We went in the music store and it was the coolest thing in there. It was an Electra Phoenix with a whammy bar and it cost $100. My dad was a singer and my uncle played drums. My dad passed when I was really young (5). But I saw him sing when I was really little. Once I had the guitar, I immediately formed a band in seventh grade with my friend, Tom Martin. It was just the two of us for the first two albums. I like to learn by doing so I bought a guitar, formed a band, and started recording music.

How did you record?

With a jambox, and a tape recorder so I could multi-track. (This was all prior to being able to afford a 4-track.) It sounds a lot fancier than it was. We had skits and songs. We played at my Bar Mitzvah. We tried out for my high-school talent show every year. In 10th grade we did Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” In 11th grade we did “Pinball Wizard” by the Who, which probably wasn’t a smart choice since my high school had such a big hearing-impaired program. In 12th grade I played drums and we played “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

Did you ever win?

No.

So how did you go from not winning talent shows to being in the very successful band, Big Ass Truck?

It was a natural progression. We got a 4-track and did some recording with that. Then in college [The University of Memphis where Robby got a film degree] I got together with some friends [including Steve Selvidge] and started playing in a band called Thrill of Confusion. I spent a lot of time making videos too. TOC disintegrated and morphed into a band called Fester. Our drummer went away to UT, so we never practiced. We got together and just played noise for 45 minutes when we opened up for The Simple Ones and surprisingly Jared (the lead singer) liked it. However, I wasn’t interested in pursuing a noise band at that point. Steve got five friends together to open for the Simple Ones at the Antenna in 1991 and that was basically Big Ass Truck. We had a lot of friends and hung up a lot of flyers. We played frequently—once a month for four or five years. Then did more regional shows. Then we toured the U.S. for four years.

What was the band’s peak?

Our peak was the last record we made—we wrote it in the studio. It was the culmination of all the time we spent together. We were on some weird MTV show “Oddville.” We had a video—Robert Gordon shot it. It was on “120 Minutes” on VH-1. We had five CDs total.

Where in all this did you get married and start having kids?

Rachael and I dated as seniors in high school and have been together ever since. We got married when I was 24, so 1997. I was gone a lot during that time. I was on the road a lot. There was the whole “absence makes the heart grow fonder” thing going on. We had a lot of time to do our own things. I think that contributes to the fact that we are still married almost 10 years later. Five was born while I was still touring. I missed the whole first year of his life.

What was that like?

I missed being there—we were really busy—but having never been a father before I didn’t know what I was missing. We were the first ones of our friends to have kids.

Was Rachael like, “You suck?”

Not really. I’d be home for a few weeks at a time. I could never do it now. Five is seven now and he’d have like a million questions I couldn’t answer.

Did having Five contribute to the band’s break up?

Not really. We quit when we all still liked each other. We’d been doing it for 10 years and it had just run its course.

So what did you do when Big Ass Truck broke up?

After Five was born, I started doing side work for Paul Ringger at Every CD and then later for Ringger Interactive. I took a laptop on the road and built Web sites while I was in the van. I didn’t have to wonder what I was going to do when we broke up. I just started going to work more. I had a desk at Paul’s house. I was always home every couple of weeks—it wasn’t like I was out of sight out mind for very long. Paul taught me a lot and gave me a lot of books to read. We built a lot of sites together and I just learned that way.

So Five is two, you have a day job, how do you express yourself musically at this point?

Three or four years before Big Ass Truck broke up, I was already doing my own thing—I released two solo records, one under the name Vending Machine. It actually gave me a chance to express myself without the constraints of being in the band When it’s just me it’s like, “I like the beat, let’s record it.” I also just wanted to play guitar and not necessarily write songs, so I started playing in Mouserocket with Robert Barnett (from Big Ass Truck).

Do you have like a whole in-house recording studio?

I’ve recorded all my records at home. I wouldn’t call it a recording studio, but I can go up at 5:30am and record what I want. I can’t schedule a whole session with other people—that’s hard to do. I like recording early morning, but no earlier than 5:30am.

When do you go to sleep?

Robby: I usually go to bed at 11pm or midnight. I’ve got bags under my eyes.

What about including Five in your music?

The record before this, he’d scream and I’d loop it. On the last one I hit a wall a couple of times when writing a song and I’d play it for Five and say, “What does this sound like to you?” On one of the faster ones, he was like, “It sounds like cobras.” It actually inspired me to name the album King Cobras Do. He even wrote the lyrics to the Saturn National Anthem. He was sort of free associating words. I rearranged them a bit, but they’re his words. We also do a lot of recording where he’ll come up and he’ll play drums or guitar or keyboards and just make some noise on the weekends. We’ll take turns being boss. He’s a hard boss. For the past three years we’ve done a holiday song as a family and sent it out to friends.

Is Sadie (Robby’s two-year-old) getting involved?

She’ll bang on the drums and do her thing. She inspired a new song called “Tell me the truth and I’ll stop Teasing You.”

How often do you play shows?

Once every other month. My other band, The Glitches, has a few gigs.

Ok, wait. You are in another band?

I saw Jared (from the Simple Ones) at a PTA meeting—our kids go to the same school—and the school and I said, “We need a band to play at the thing at the end of the year.” We hadn’t had a chance to play together so we formed the Glitches, which is a cover band, and now we’re good friends. We play a lot of the school functions and it’s fun. We’re currently looking to play private parties…you know if anyone is interested?

So what do you do when you have a late show? Does Rachael come?

Sadie is experiencing the terrible twos so it’s hard to find a babysitter. Rachael probably comes to every other show. But we practice at the house so she’s very aware of our set.

Do the kids ever get to see you play other than at Rock-n-Romp?

Yeah we did a show at the Shell and the Center for Southern Folklore. I got Sadie some big soundproof headphones so she could listen.

So is being in three bands now somehow easier than being in Big Ass Truck?

Big Ass Truck was a lifestyle commitment. We practiced two times a week, we had beers after practice, we toured, etc. Now I’m more focused on end goals, like finishing a record. I have a show next week and the band has practiced for the last month so we can do several shows now.

Do you go out and hear music very often?

I don’t go out near as much as I used to. But with the Internet I can keep up with music via Myspace, web sites, and various message boards. It’s a pretty good alternative to going out. I can get 10 firsthand accounts of any show sitting at my desk.

What are your musical ambitions at this point?

At this point, just to keep making music. Big Ass Truck did some shows with Ben Harper and he was touring with his family. They had a separate camper. I saw him kiss his daughter goodnight before going to a show. I could see us doing that in a few years (not quite at that scale). Rachael likes to travel. For now, music from my last two albums was featured on “The Real World” and I just released some new songs to “Pimp My Ride.” I’m interested in doing movies. I just scored Glenn Hopper’s movie—The Hanged Man.

Do you see yourself having a family band someday?

Five takes piano lessons. I see music as a way to express myself, and I hope Five has something like that. I want him to be happy and have something that he enjoys doing forever. I might get Sadie to take cello lessons. We need someone in the family to play a classical string instrument.

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