Jeff Buckley and His Band, An Oral History
Jeff Buckley: Having Tim Buckley as my father gave me the parts needed to play music. Even if I went and became a lawyer and someone asked me to sing something, I’d have the parts to sing. But that’s it. It’s not really [Tim Buckley’s] voice that I have – because it wasn’t really his voice to begin with. It was passed down to us from every man in our family.[i]
This oral history is the story of Jeff Buckley and his band.
Jeff Buckley: I’ve always played in bands – always. I only go out and play solo to make money to pay the phone bill and the rent. [ii]
After releasing the Live at Sin-e EP, Jeff played a series of solo acoustic shows around New York City in early 1993, looking to attract musicians to form a band with through his live performances.
Mick Grondahl (bassist): …I was backstage hanging out and I noticed Jeff, and he was definitely someone who made me curious. Backstage, he was very focused on tuning his guitar and cleaning it, and preparing his set. During the show I noticed the interesting choice of cover songs he was playing and he played a lot of complex chords, and of course he had that great voice. I was quite impressed and we got to talk later at a party, and we talked about music. He left an impression.
He was playing the New Music Seminar at the Fez, and I went and stood in line – I didn’t even have any money to get in. Luckily I saw Jeff coming out from behind the curtain while we were waiting to pay, and he was singing “L.A. Woman” by the Doors and I sang the next part, and he remembered me. We exchanged numbers and I went in to see the show and he had evolved even more. He came out and did Nina Simone “Be Your Husband.” We got together at Nightingale’s, played pool, and then jammed back at his apartment.
Jeff Buckley: Micky and I sat down at my place. It was late in the evening so we had to play quietly …[iii]
Mick Grondahl: I sense that he wanted someone there to accompany him in the most simple and non-flashy way possible, just support him. He was already quite interesting on his own. About two weeks after he and I started playing together we auditioned Matt [Johnson – drummer]. He was the first guy we auditioned and we hit it off really well. Matt remembers Jeff looking at him and smiling and just feeling a connection between us. And that first night we played together, within an hour, we wrote “Dream Brother.”
Jeff Buckley: Every guitar idea I put out they would close in on as the music happened.[iv]
Gene Bowen (road manager): He toured overseas for a couple weeks to support Live at Sin-e and he was describing how it was great and he loved it, but the absence of a band was really apparent to him. He always wanted to have a band and then he finally got the band, but then he had to tour solo to support the Sin-e EP. He missed the band and couldn’t wait to get back. He was really about the band and the personal connection that he had with each of them.
Mick Grondahl: Michael [Tighe] joined when Grace was pretty much wrapped up. He had never played in a group. He knew some blues stuff and few riffs here and there. We auditioned people who played a lot longer in New York, people who had played very complex music, but it was more about enthusiasm and potential. We wanted to recruit people who were almost disciples to Jeff’s music. If people were too set in what they were doing then there wasn’t this chance to instill the new music that could come from the way that Jeff worked.
Michael Tighe (guitarist): He knew that I played guitar but we never got around to playing together until he asked me to audition for his band. It clicked. I felt honored, excited and a little afraid to be playing with these older musicians who had been living in a world of gigs, touring, jamming, writing, recording. A world I wanted to live in.
Gene Bowen: Jeff used to call Michael “Chico” and I used to envision Jeff as an old man at the end of his life, just sitting on his back porch with Michael, because they were just so close. There was just such a connection there.
Michael Tighe: First impression? A cartoon wolf. Playful and silly with eyes of pain and wildness.
Mick Grondahl: We were in many ways four parts of the group, and it felt like a band and Jeff accepted us as having equal say. It was very much a democracy – he was the leader but he also listened to us and thought about what we had to say. The relationships that band members have between each other are more important than ability.
Jeff Buckley: They’ve become my family.[v]
June 1, 1994, the band along with Road Manager Gene Bowen and a soundman set out in a 15-passenger Econoline Van on their first extended tour.
Mick Grondahl: We were very excited. They called it the Podunk Tour, to get us used to playing live. We had already written So Real together, we also covered Kangaroo. We felt excited about the music, so if no one really showed up to the shows, we were at least doing something that appealed to us. Jeff was just a great guy, and we all just loved spending time with him. He was really there for us as a leader.
Gene Bowen: The first tour we did with the full band was like a “Shitty City” tour. The band had been rehearsing for the tour, except they weren’t rehearsing the songs from the record. The guy from the studio where they were rehearsing told me that he hadn’t heard them play a single note off of Grace. They were in there just jamming, playing the same riff for hours.
Management had them play the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. They rented out the club so they could get the feeling of playing on stage – but the club was empty. Since they weren’t rehearsing the album, the thought was that getting them on a stage and rehearsing would help them get ready for the tour.
After the Stone Pony, we played the Red Creek Inn in Rochester and the tickets were $5 each and 32 tickets were sold. That’s the first show the band ever played together. So we went from playing an empty club to a 32-paid club.
Michael Tighe: When I first came up to the Econoline van [to start the tour] I felt like I was joining the circus.
Gene Bowen: They were all very excited at the beginning of the tour. It was all of us and the equipment in the van About halfway through the tour, they figured out a way to suspend hammocks from the ceiling of the van over the bench seats. So one person could lay on the bench seat and another person could lay in the hammock, because there was no room in the van at all.
Mick Grondahl: We loved the van! It was difficult to have six people in there with all the gear, but we were together and we shared the time very intimately. A little too intimately sometimes. We listened to music during the long stretches of driving. At the time, we all thought it would be great to have a tour bus, but then when we did have a tour bus it just lacked the same intimacy and coziness that we had before.
We liked being on the road and partying – we didn’t have a lot of groupies or anything like that. We really enjoyed just hanging out with each other and playing music.
We were all learning a lot about what music each person liked and we would play it all on the CD player. Jeff didn’t grow up in New York or in an alternative music environment, so a lot of the music that Michael and I knew about he was just getting clued into. So he was excited to hear the stuff we were playing. Like, the MC5, Sonic Youth, The Grifters, Shudder to Think, the art punk stuff. And Big Star “Kangaroo.”
Jeff could listen to a song a couple times and then he would be playing it onstage the next night. He could remember the lyrics, the chord changes, the arrangement and then sometimes come up with a new arrangement.
And he would do that with is own songs, just do a new arrangement and I would walk the wire with him and follow along, not knowing exactly how we were going to play chorus now that we just did the verse in a whole different way. It was exciting and most of the time we would land on our feet. It built great confidence between us. We never played the songs the same. Each night was different.
Gene Bowen: If you hear Dream Brother at the beginning of the tour as opposed to the end, it’s completely different and that’s because of the band. As a band, they evolved the music as the tour went on.
Michael Tighe: The first night we played, I was so nervous and made some mistakes. I felt like I was giving birth or being born or something like that.
Mick Grondahl: I remember thinking that for people seeing us for the first time, it might be a bit off-putting. It was so different; Jeff’s voice, the style, the way the shows were organized… because we didn’t have a set list, we worked on the spot. We were asking something of the audience, which was patience because we wanted to make each show unique. They were intrigued of course by Jeff’s humor and the mystique that he could project, but mainly his voice and guitar were so stunning.
It took time for the set to get up to speed, but we wanted it start slow and build from nothing. Not just bowl people over and play the catchiest song at the very beginning.
We felt excited about the music, so if no one really showed up to the shows, we were at least doing something that appealed to us.
Gene Bowen: Jack Bookbinder [part of Jeff’s management team] had a band called “Lobster of Hate” and they were out on the road playing weekends and we would go into a market where they just played and there would still be posters and flyers everywhere. I’d always ask the club owner, “Hey, how did Lobster of Hate do?” and the response would be, “Oh, they did 300 people.” So, that was the running joke – I’d get in the van after a show and be like, Lobster of Hate: 350 people, Jeff Buckley: 22.”
Gene Bowen: What Columbia Records did with Jeff will never happen again. Just the economics behind supporting an artist like that. There is no way now that an artist would play the same market four times. Now they want to get you into the mainstream as quickly as possible Back then it was servicing college radio and fanzines, and that era is over. Jeff’s fanbase was built from the ground up.
After the U.S. tour, the band went to Europe.
Gene Bowen: There was a real momentum after that U.S. tour. When we got to Europe we were in an actual tour bus. And we figured out that we could do a tour bus for the US when we got back. From that point on, it was a bus and it made the grind that much easier.
Mick Grondahl: It was trade off – when we had the van we could stay in hotels, but when got the bus we just stayed on that the whole time. It was the moving hotel. And we didn’t have the same intimacy we did before.
Jack Bookbinder: There were far more promotional opportunities in Europe for Jeff, just because of the way that Live at Sin-e was promoted from the beginning. In France, Jeff was one of the top pop artists in the country and you couldn’t say that in America. He just had something that people there connected to.
Mick Grondahl: Traditionally, I think European audiences are more forgiving and more open. It doesn’t need to be the buzz of the week to give it a chance. I personally felt like there was more acceptance and more of a feeling of security. By that point, we had started to come together more as a band so we had more to offer the audience. They were much more keen on us being on TV in Europe than in America. They wanted to capture it even through there wasn’t a lot of hype behind it – they recognized it as something important.
Gene Bowen: In every nook and cranny of the world, Jeff did promotion. He really understood the business and he knew what it took and what he needed to do. And he loved to talk and share things with people and I used to love hearing him talk. I would have a line of people standing there waiting to interview him and I would just cycle them through. And with him, he would always give them way more than they needed – he would just give so much and I would have to come in to let them know time was up.
I started to listen to what was going on, because I thought “Who in their right mind could talk about the same shit, let alone themselves and this record, over and over and over.?” You either go on autopilot and say the same stuff or you just make stuff up, just for your own sanity. And what I started to realize was that he would answer their questions, but then he would go off on something else entirely. I think for his own piece of mind he would try to give them something more. I would always want to cue in just to hear what he was saying – he would be talking about food or something else entirely. There would be a point behind it, but he would weave all this other stuff into it.
Michael Tighe: I don’t remember anything about the television tapings except that I would always think about Hendrix on the BBC to get me fired up.
Mick Grondahl: Chris Cornell came to see us quite early, in 1994 the whole Soundgarden crew. It was great, since it validated our own feelings of excitement and often when you’re doing something of your own making, you’re naturally excited about it, but you don’t know how everyone else is going to feel. But in this case, our excitement was validated by people like Chris Cornell and Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney and John Cale. It was encouraging. We were getting recognition from people that we all looked up to. Certainly for Jeff, it was very exciting. That to me meant more than record sales and how many tour buses we had.
The band would continue to tour the U.S., Europe, Japan and Australia until September 1995.
Gene Bowen: I think the tour went on much too long. And they didn’t really write on the road. That’s not how Jeff worked. And they toured the Grace for two years and that whole time they really didn’t have the opportunity to explore other things. Everyone, the band and the crew, were like, “Enough.”
Mick Grondahl: The irritation and feeling of stagnation didn’t start until late 95, after we toured twice on both continents, and then they wanted us to do a third and I felt that was really pushing it. Things started to wear a bit. Personally, I felt quite self-conscious that we were touring a city for the third time for the same record.
Gene Bowen: I remember he talked about trying to come up with a name for the band, so that it wouldn’t just be Jeff Buckley.
Mick Grondahl: I proposed the name Two Ninas and Jeff liked it a lot, and we all liked it. But the record company was against using another name because the Jeff Buckley name was so well known. Jeff liked the idea of a band name and that was the closest we ever came to doing it.
The band played its last show with drummer Matt Johnson on March 15th 1995 in Sydney, Australia.
Mick Grondahl: I look for something different in musicians now than I would have before I had met Jeff. Before I would concentrate on someone’s technical ability and that certainly has a value, but the person’s creative ability and enthusiasm lends itself to what I feel is a greater contribution to the music. He was and still is like a mentor in that way. I’ll never be able to forget what he taught me when I work with other people, just because what he was able to bring out of people was a lot more than what I had ever experienced before. Having that trust only encourages more creativity and risk taking. I’m truly grateful for that experience.
Jeff Buckley: Artists just need to shut the fuck up and listen to what exactly is coming from inside. You just have to find exactly what you should be doing, and if you didn’t have that thing, you would die. Perish, slowly or quickly, violently or like a chump. And every choice is made from that. I have to do this, I’m made to do this. I can’t do anything else. I tried. I don’t really feel fulfilled any other way. Maybe when I get older, it will change. I’m sure it will. [vi]
Jeff Buckley died in a tragic drowning accident in 1997. An autopsy showed no drugs in his system.
Gene Bowen: Founded Road Recovery, dedicated to helping young people battle addiction by harnessing the influence of entertainment industry professionals who have confronted similar crises and now wish to share their experience and knowledge.
Mick Grondahl: Lives in Copenhagen, Denmark with his wife and daughter and continues to play music.
Matt Johnson: Plays music both as a solo artist and with other artists such as Rufus Wainwright.
Parker Kindred: Continues to play music working with numerous artists, including Antony and the Johnsons.
Michael Tieghe: Lives in New York City and is currently working with a New York band, “The Tiggers.”
[i] Unpublished interview material, February 24, 1994, Amy Yates Wuelfing
[iii] Now Magazine
[v] Sky Magazine
[vi] Unpublished interview material, February 24, 1994, Amy Yates Wuelfing
Painting of Jeff Buckley special for The Rumpus by Mikayla Butchart.
Jeff Buckley, “Grace”