Once in a great while, I get the chance to talk to and write about a rising young musical star like the one in this month's interview. He has stunned and thrilled the music industry with his revolutionary approach to making hit records. His five triple-Platinum CDs have dominated the HippityHop and Alternative Geek Dance charts on Bullbored magazine for the past year, and his award-winning videos have been in heavy rotation on all of the major cable music channels including Groove24/7, Moshvision and GaKk-TV. He has been profiled on public television's extremely serious Great Pretensions. And he's been nominated for 14 Grammy®©™ Awards, most recently Best Classical Producer, for his brilliant, “original” composition Beethoven Bytes.
I have known this young man since he was merely a glint in his father's eye (which was immediately followed by a look of disgust in his mother's). His father is none other than my old friend, and sometime nemesis, P.T. Grumpmeier, audio engineer, producer, raconteur and world-class cheapskate, a gentleman whose rantings are well-known to loyal readers of this column. Both of you.
P.T. Grumpmeier Jr., whom his father affectionately refers to as “Hey you,” is only 19, yet erudite beyond his years. He started out in the business very young, when his crib was used by his father as a bass-drum weight in his father's studio, when his (the son's) mother wasn't watching. This early exposure to extreme SPLs of low-frequency sound no doubt helped mold his (the son's) later passion for extremely loud, beat-oriented music, with not much going on above 3k.
The young man's big break as a solo artiste came at his best friend's Bar Mitzvah, when the hired DJ fell (or perhaps was pushed) into the champagne fountain. Young Grumpmeier immediately took over the turntables, and brought the entire crowd to its feet with a breathtaking journey through time, space and the animal kingdom, starting with the “Bunny Hop” and “The Alley Cat,” then “Muskrat Love” and “Rocky Raccoon,” followed by “A Horse With No Name,” “Piggies” and finally roaring into “Who Let the Dogs Out,” all the while rapping spontaneously about the 12- and 13-year-old “ho's” and “bitches” on the dance floor. The father of one of those girls, a VP of A&R for mega-label Dreque Records (a subsidiary of Getouttamaway Communications, owner of more than 5,000 radio stations and several small former Soviet Republics), signed him on the spot to an eight-figure multi-album contract.
With the label's backing, the young man saw his albums, released on vinyl and 8-track tape only (“I consider the sound of the tape mechanism going ‘clunk’ every few minutes to be an integral part of my art,” he told Rolling Boulder at the time), rocket to the top of the charts within minutes of their release, and sometimes before. But the artist was unhappy about the label's treatment of him (“They tried to pay me in XFL stock,” he later told Money or Your Life magazine), and so he hired famed litigator, and family friend, Johnnie Cochrane to get him out of his contract.
Free of his obligations to the corporate empire, the teenaged superstar formed his own totally independent record label, ReGurge Records, which is distributed by AOL Time Warner Reprise Atlantic Nonesuch CNN Headline News. He dropped the DJ moniker (“That's so, like, last year,” he told Behind the Music last year) and — following the example of celebrated artists like Bush, Bjork, Beck, Jewel, Joe, Moby, moe., Charo, Cher, Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, Pink and Floyd — adopted the single-word nom d'artiste “Grump.”
Let's talk about Beethoven Bytes. How did you come up with the inspiration for this incredible record?
M'ol' man had this, like, pile of 78 plattahs down in the cella', ya seen 'em, right? Really heavy mutha*****s? So, like this one day I was flipping them in the street, like a frisbee, numsayin'? And ma homey goes, “Yo, there's a ittle-bitty pitcher of a dog on this one.” So I'm like, “Whassup widdat?” And ma homey goes, “Hey, y'all down with animals, let's hear what this sucka sounds like!”
You grew up in Scarsdale. Why do you talk like that?
Oh, I'm sorry. There was a guy here from MTV News this morning, and they really like it when you sound “city,” especially if you're white. Guess I got into it.
So you played the 78s. Did you have trouble finding something to play them on?
My father never throws anything away, you know? And my mother hates that, because we got a whole basement and two garages full of old electronic junk, but my dad says it'll all come back some day as “vintage” shit and we can sell it for big bucks on Digibid. But me and my friends used to play in it, climbing all around gettin' wires in our ears and stuff. And I remembered there was this Howdy Doody & Clarabelle record player in there, down on the bottom, and I dug it out, and it still worked, sort of. I mean, it sent off a few sparks, but the turntable moved. Anyway, it turns out that record we were flipping was a symphony by this guy Beethoven, conducted by this wild dude named Toscavetskakowski. Or something like that. And I just really dug it.
So, of course, you sampled it. Were there any legal issues involved?
Nah, Johnnie says that all of the people on it are dead, and the composer's dead, and the producer's dead, and if there are any companies left that still owned any of the rights, they've been bought up by AOL, so no problem.
What else did you use for sources?
My dad also had these old Morse Code records, you know, lots of beeps? And I thought that was cool, 'cause I could use them to set up a kind of rhythm I could rap off of. 'Course, I had to chop them up into four-bar loops. The amazing thing about those records is that you can play them backward and forward, and they sound exactly the same!
Besides your own voice, there's a weird voice in the background that's just numbers, over and over again, but you can barely make it out. What's that voice doing?
My engineer hooked up an old harmonica contact mic to a telephone, and I punched in numbers on the phone at random, and we'd record the voice that says, “This number is not in service” and the number we'd dialed. I figured out how to get non-working numbers all over the world, so we got samples in a bunch of different languages.
But the samples we got just weren't enough in-your-face. So we called the phone company, and found the dude who could tell us who was the model for that voice. Turns out it was this housewife somewhere in Nebraska, so we flew her to Minneapolis to Prince's studio, stuck a pair of U47s in front of her, and got a 192kHz stereo digital satellite line hooked up to here.
Then how did you process it?
Well, we wanted it to be really grungy, like it was coming through a cheap phone in a thunderstorm. So, we needed an old analog filter. I read somewhere that to get the true sound of an analog filter cutting off at 3 kHz, you have to use a sampling frequency of 3 MegaHertz. So I hired this guy who had been laid off from Intel, and he hot-clocked my SoundSmasher card to run at 3 megs, and then he wrote some software to do the filtering, and added all sorts of other crap. It took him a month, but when he was finished, it sounded just like the real thing.
Why didn't you just buy a capacitor and a choke at an electronics store and do it analog?
Are you nuts, man? That would mean going through at least two A-to-D converters. Do you know what those things do to the sound? They'd ruin it! No way, José. I don't compromise my integrity like that. But I gotta tell ya, it was the most expensive part of producing the record.
Because you needed so much storage space, or because the guy you hired was so expensive?
Oh, no — it turned out that the lady from Nebraska was union, and she was supposed to get a residual on every copy of the record we made. Well, Johnnie made her an offer she couldn't refuse, and she was cool, but it was a shitload of money just for a few samples. It really sucks that some people would take advantage of a creative artist like that.
Speaking of vocal sound, what do you use to get yours?
There was one of those Wollensak tape recorders in the garage with the mic that looks like a big silver bullet, you know? I'd been playing with that since I was about three, and I love the way the mic makes my voice sound, all thin and crackly. So, I had my tech build a balancing transformer for it, and I bought one of those really expensive Camelot tube preamps. I turned the input on the preamp way down, and cranked the output, so I could pick up all that hum and tube noise. I'm down with how it sounds now, but I think it will be even better once the tube burns in for a while, or especially if it cracks.
I understand your studio was designed by Bau:wau:haus, and it's also pretty unusual.
Yeah, it was actually my folks' bomb shelter, which they dug back in the '60s. My dad was thinking of using it as a family mausoleum, but I got my lawyers on it and they found out that the county health department wouldn't let him. So, he gave it to me. It was already soundproofed, 'cause the ceiling is 12 feet underground, and it was air-conditioned too, although most of the Freon leaked out a long time ago, and you can't get that stuff any more, so it doesn't work all that good. It can get pretty warm.
What's your main gear?
There's a customized DAW — I forget what it's called, I think it was named after a city. Everything's 32-bit, 192kHz. I mean, the more data, the more accurate and pristine the sound, right? And I think what I'm doing is really, like, bleeding-edge, so I want to make sure my system captures everything. I want 20 years from now, people to listen to my stuff and they say, “Yeah, he knew what he was doing.”
On the analog side, I have a Knave board, which was rebuilt by Humbert Knave himself, on account of he owed my dad a favor, and it sounds just incredible. I got a Strudel 2-inch 8-track, which I run at 60 ips with Dolby SR. And my Dad's Wollensak, which I use a lot 'cause the studio's only wired for 10 amps, and when I turn the Knave and the Strudel on, the lights go out. Which is a bummer when you're 12 feet underground.
How do you monitor?
Hamanahaha SN-100s, of course. I own 40 pairs, 'cause they're not making them any more, and I blow them up a lot. Most people put tissue paper in front of the tweeter, but I found out they sound better with Saran Wrap. 'Course, it changes the balance, so I also tape a couple of layers of bubble-pak over the woofer. They rule.
What do you use to make your beats and loops? Are you Mac or Windows?
Neither. I don't like composing with software. I think using a mouse is very restrictive and dehumanizing, and it keeps you from getting those expressive things that make a song musically meaningful.
I have a Valiant drum machine from 1974, and that's my main rig. It's got a great vibe, and the sounds are awesome — analog, of course. I also get all the new groove machines that Kong and Be-muse and those other companies put out 'cause I'm a beta-tester and endorser for them. So whatever I've got lying around when I'm working, that's what I use.
Did you build a MIDI interface for that drum machine, so you could sync everything to that?
Oh, no, man! MIDI sucks! Everybody knows that. You get timing problems and all kinds of slop, and it just destroys the groove. I do really tight beats, and the rhythms and the tempos have to be right on. So I just make sure I push all the start buttons at the same time, and that works great.
How about mastering? Do you use SACD or HDCD?
No, I just take the output from the DAW and run it through a couple of those real heavy FuzzyFaces from the '60s, and then into a MiniDisc recorder. If you turn the distortion knob on the FuzzyFace up to about 5 o'clock, it sounds really awesome. But finding two that matched for stereo was a pain.
You mean in terms of signal quality and distortion characteristics?
No, I mean the color. 'Cause people would paint them all psychedelic, and I never liked that. I wanted to make sure the two I had were absolutely identical, that original dark brown, or I just wouldn't feel right mastering with them. I was thinking of sending my tech off to Russia to get them custom-manufactured, but then a guy in New York called me, and said he was cleaning out a back room at that famous studio in Greenwich Village, the one with the river in the basement? And he found all these FuzzyFaces that had been used to hold down the sandbags when it floods. So, I bought all of 'em. They even had the original batteries.
How do you like your new distributor, AOL?
I'm down with them. They're putting one of my cuts on those CDs that they send out in the mail to get people to sign up, ya know? That's 14 million units right there, and the RIAA says they all count. So I'm getting the first Uranium record that's ever been awarded. That should go pretty good with the decor in my studio. They're also taking off that little “N” with the comets flying around on the Netscape Navigator 7 and putting my picture there instead.
How do you feel about Napster and downloading services like that?
Oh, man, that shit's going to kill the music industry. If everyone gets their music for free, how are artists going to be motivated to create? There's going to be no one doing anything original any more. Everything's just going to be a ripoff. And that's going to be really sad.
What's next for Grump?
Well, I've got a new record I'm doing of duets with Elvis. My lawyers are working with Col. Sanders to get all the permissions.
You mean Col. Parker. But he's dead.
Whatever, dude! That's why I got lawyers, to take care of those kind of shit details! But what I really want to do is more classical. You know, what Billy Joel did, but instead of writing like some dead guy, I'll just sample the stuff, like I did with Beethoven Bytes. That way, instead of imitating the dude, I'm actually using his actual music. You know, I studied piano, too, when I was a kid, and my mom has been bugging me to start taking lessons again.
Do you think you will?
Naah, I'm much too busy making records to spend any time learning anything about music.
Paul Lehrman is not feeling well.