A year ago, at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival, Gris Gris frontman Greg Ashley passed on a great opportunity. The musician, a master of modern psych, squandered the chance to meet one of his heroes, fellow Texan Roky Erickson of Thirteenth Floor Elevators fame.
"It was at Threadgill's, at Roky's annual ice cream social," Ashley recalls in a soft drawl. "After we played, they gave us these passes to go on the tour bus and meet Roky. I thought he wouldn't know who I was, and I didn't want to bother him, so I never went onboard. A few months later, I saw someone who ate dinner with him, just a casual thing, and he mentioned that Roky was actually talking about the Gris Gris.
"This year," Ashley adds, "Roky's brother invited us to play the ice cream social again, but I didn't read his e-mail until the day after it happened."
The heir apparent to Texas' '60s psychedelic rock tradition, which was launched by godheads like Erickson, Mayo Thompson of the Red Krayola, and Doug Sahm of the Sir Douglas Quintet, Ashley is refreshingly unassuming.
He readily admits that he was heavily into Nirvana and Beck when he began taking guitar lessons as a teenager. He didn't stumble across the Thirteenth Floor Elevators' garage-meets-psych epic, "You're Gonna Miss Me," until he purchased a '60s compilation album from a record-store clerk in Houston a few years ago. His introduction to the Red Krayola came even later.
"I really like that stuff," he says, before candidly adding that "maybe me being from [Texas] makes it an easy selling point."
Whether or not the connection is deliberate, Ashley, bassist Oscar Michel, and drummer Joe Haener intuitively distill snippets of drone rock, nonsensical Syd Barrett-esque lyrics, galloping drumbeats, and acoustic guitar chords into a heady, musical frenzy. Think the sonic equivalent of a Terry Southern story -- say, "Red Dirt Marijuana" or "The Blood of a Wig" -- read while on psilocybin: The individual words might not make sense, but strung together in complete sentences, they tell a helluva yarn, cosmically speaking.
"Raygun," the opening track on the Gris Gris' eponymous debut album, released on Birdman Records in 2004, starts off so softly that you'll strain your ears trying to pick out the opening notes. Over a carefully structured layer of guitar, tom tom, and bass, Ashley's voice floats as if in an alternate reality, before (a la the Velvet Underground's dissonant masterpiece "Sister Ray") swirling feedback causes the dam to break and utter pandemonium sets in. It's barely controlled anarchy, fueled by twiddled amplifier knobs, tambourine shakes, and the lyrical question, "How is my skin?"
For the group's second album, For the Season, the Gris Gris, along with their new keyboard player, Lars Kullberg, convened at Ashley's family's ranch in Kosse, which is located a few hours northeast of Austin. After setting up a Tascam eight-track recorder in an empty cabin, Ashley put out note cards -- "So everybody would know what instrument to pick up when," he says -- and recorded the first three songs, "Ecks Em Eye," "Peregrine Downstream," and "Cuerpos Haran Amor Extrano," in a single take.
"I had all these half-ideas for songs, and I didn't know what to do with them, so we sat around for a few months before we realized we needed to get off our lazy asses," Ashley explains somewhat disingenuously. "Eventually, we had the idea to string them together in a big lump of shit, like we were trying to do Dark Side of the Moon.
"I was listening to some country records and a lot of free jazz, and I imagined the first side of the album as one continuous piece of music," he continues. "The B-side was more songs we'd been playing for a while, like 'Year Zero,' or things we'd already recorded, like 'Medication #4.'"
Released last October, For the Season is a study in darkness and light, like Altamont-era Rolling Stones intertwined with conjunto field recordings and copied, cut, and pasted until the songs' original intents are hopelessly blurred into a perfect, glorious mess.
Although they're not quite garage rock, and, as Ashley emphatically states, they're not part of the neo-folk movement, the Gris Gris has garnered attention from fans of both genres.
"I don't believe in horoscopes or any of that hippie bullshit," he claims, dismissing neo-folk.
"Hopefully," he says, his voice in earnest, "we don't fit in anywhere."