Native Memphian and longtime local musician Robby Grant spent most of the 1990s touring with what is still probably his most widely known project, the funky alt-rock band Big Ass Truck. The band toured extensively throughout the U.S. (both as a headliner and an opening act for national acts like 311 and Ben Harper), released five studio albums, and made a brief appearance on MTV (back when that actually meant something) with the video for the song "Theem From."
By the late '90s, however, and despite Big Ass Truck's rigorous work ethic, Grant began to feel the need to stretch and experiment musically on his own.
"In between dates on the road, I started doing a lot of home recordings," Grant says. "Big Ass Truck was very much a democracy, and the music reflected that, which can make for some high and low points. At the time, I was really interested in four-track recording, which we didn't do a lot of in the band."
So Grant began producing what were essentially solo recordings under the name Vending Machine and released his debut album, Chamber From Here to There, using the new pseudonym in 2000. Still, it was originally intended only as a side project — until Big Ass Truck called it quits in 2001.
"We had a great time doing it, but when it ended, it felt like the right time for everyone," Grant says.
With Vending Machine now his main project, Grant cranked out three more full-length, home-recorded albums during the next decade: 2002's 5 Piece Kit, 2004's Kicked and Scratched, and the excellent King Cobras Do from 2007. Along the way, Grant, never short of creative energy, also joined Alicja Trout's noise-pop outfit Mouserocket, contributing his own songs and blistering guitar to both of that group's fine albums.
"I met Robby way back when he and Robert Barnett [Mouserocket drummer] were in Big Ass Truck together," Trout says. "I had asked Robert to play drums on some songs, and then I added Robby and Ron Franklin for the first version of a band ensemble of Mouserocket. The first thing I noticed was that his style contrasted with mine, which complimented the band, and everyone always commented on his solos. They were completely un-indigenous to the Memphis environment, just from outer space, and very jolting and fun too."
This week, Grant unveils his latest Vending Machine creation, a dark and engaging record called Let the People Sing. The album is Grant's second for the emerging Shoulder Tap Records label, which is based out of both Memphis and New York City.
Let the People Sing, as per the Vending Machine norm, was created almost entirely at home over the course of three years by Grant, with a handful of guest artists, including Trout, Barnett, Shelby Bryant, and John Argroves, contributing to a few tracks here and there.
"Bigger studios are great if you go in prepared," Grant says. "In the past, I've preferred to be by myself, because I write songs while I'm recording and that can take awhile. I don't think of myself as a perfectionist when it comes to stuff like that, but maybe I am. At home, getting it right sonically just takes a lot longer. I spend a lot of time listening to the Vending Machine stuff over and over, thinking things like, 'Could the bass be louder?,' followed the next day by 'Is the bass too loud?'"
Grant's children, Five and Sadie, also make appearances on Let the People Sing, and their contributions provide two of its most endearing moments (and welcome counterpoints to the album's otherwise dark tone): Sadie's sweet backing vocals on the playful Bryant/Grant composition "Naked as a Jaybird" and Five's original instrumental song "The Computer Thing," which is tacked onto the album's new-wave-ish title track.
"Playing music with my kids is incredibly meaningful," Grant says. "I want them to have a creative outlet, whether it's drawing, painting, screaming, or yelling. My wife is an artist as well, and we're hoping to give them the basics to get started on their own journey for whatever they want to do."
For this Friday's CD-release show at the Hi-Tone, Grant has assembled a dynamite backing band of local music scene veterans, including drummers Barnett and Argroves, guitar/keyboardist Mark Stuart (of the Pawtuckets and One Four Fives), and his brother, Grayson Grant, on bass.
"I have high hopes to do the next Vending Machine record with the full band," Grant says. "When I have shows coming up and I've got a band together practicing, it feels more like a group. We've been practicing once a week for a while and just started making fun of each other again — that's the first sign of a good live band."
Vending Machine CD-release show
With Rock and Roll Recovery
Hi-Tone Café, Friday, November 26th, 10 p.m.