Grieves and Budo not afraid to get personal

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The Seattle-based MC calling himself Grieves and the producer known as Budo have spent plenty of time in each other’s company over the past few years, most recently working on a new album titled Together/Apart and signing on this past summer for the gruelathon known as the Warped Tour. Even as they prepare to hit the road for their latest endeavour—a full-blown North American fall swing—it’s obvious that familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt.

Grieves (known to his landlord as Benjamin Laub) answers the phone when the Straight calls the Emerald City, immediately launching in on an amusing analysis of how the girls in his hometown stack up to those in Lotusland. (For the curious, the five-minute breakdown can be boiled down to this: “We’ve got the fucking bridge trolls compared to you guys.”)

Once that inarguably important business is out of the way and talk turns to Together/Apart, the outgoing MC asks for a second so he can bring in Budo (aka Josh Karp), the two of them subsequently displaying the kind of easygoing camaraderie you expect from lifelong friends.

“You’re talking hot chicks?” asks Budo with a laugh. “Well, conference me in, bro. Here’s what I think—Vancouver is the California of Canada, whereas Seattle is like the fucking Nova Scotia.”

Lest all this make Grieves and Budo sound like they’ve just stumbled out of a circa-’01 booty-and-boobs rap video, rest assured that Together/Apart isn’t exactly the fourth coming of 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Instead, the MC comes off like a laid-back dude working through some serious shit, but in a way that suggests he’d rather see the glass as half-full, even when it’s empty. Consider the laconic “Sunny Side of Hell”, which finds him reflecting “It took a lot of faith to fight my battles and tackle a couple of habits I’d never thought that I’d have to.” Or the smokey, 5 a.m. soul jam “Heartbreak Hotel” (sample lyric: “Heard you were doing fine on the outside, smelling like a fresh-picked rose/Me I’m still mothballs and lost smiles, down on the pavement praying trying to make some sense of it.”)

It’s no accident that Grieves doesn’t completely seem up for a party on Together/Apart. The album was recorded while he was living in New York at the same time as Budo. Looking back on that period, Grieves suggests that he wasn’t exactly living the dream.

“It was an interesting time for me—a moody time,” he reveals. “I was going through some personal stuff in my life that had kind of left me stranded in New York, broke. And so a lot of the record was dealing with that feeling. And I was also drinking a lot.”

If his alcohol consumption helped numb the MC to day-to-day life, the songwriting process served as an emotional exorcism—although only to a certain point, because, as anyone who’s ever been through therapy knows full well, spilling your guts doesn’t necessarily make your problems go away.

“In a lot of reviews people will be like ‘It’s all this personal shit!’ ” Grieves notes. “It’s like ‘Um, well, yeah—that’s the music I make. That’s my writing process.’ Making impersonal music is not something that I’m interested in, and it’s not the music that I listen to. So writing helps me address a lot of personal things in my life, but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily put those things to bed with those songs. It just helps me understand it a lot of more. That can be enough to calm the storm down.”

Musically, Together/Apart works a low-key DIY vibe that’s going to be familiar with anyone dialled into the roster of Rhymesayers Entertainment, the Minnesota-based label that—in addition to Grieves—is home to P.O.S., Brother Ali, and Atmosphere. The chilled-out tone of the album—think round-midnight trumpet, pornosonic organs, and jazz-comedown guitars—has everything to do with the circumstances under which it was recorded.

“If there’s a calmness to the record, it’s because we recorded it in this sort of oasis in the middle of Times Square,” the producer says. “From that perspective, even though New York is an incredibly frantic place, we found a quiet spot where we were able to really focus and execute the album.”

Both suggest that crate digging left its mark on Together/Apart, but not in a way that we’ve been conditioned to expect from hip-hop records.

“There was a point where I said ‘We need to go and buy a bunch of records and then do some sampling, listen to them, and replay what we’ve heard from these records,’ ” Grieves says.

Budo adds: “But there are no samples. No samples at all. We did things like bring saxophone players in, then play a little guitar, a little organ.”

Things worked out well enough, suggests the producer, that he and Grieves will be spending plenty of time together in the future once they are off tour; ideas for their next record are already percolating.

“I’m definitely interested in exploring more of the neo-soul stuff that we touched on this time out,” Budo notes. “More direct songwriting, a lot of singing, and slowing things down a little bit into, I dunno know, a different pocket.”

If one thing’s going to be different next time out, it’s that Grieves and Budo will hit the studio knowing that they made some serious headway with Together/Apart. Take, for example, their Warped Tour stint. Fittingly, they tell their favourite Warped story as a team, starting out with Grieves going “Josh, want you to hold this one’s hand and walk it to school, baby”, to which Budo retorts: “Don’t worry, I’m going to pick this one up and treat it, not like a creepy uncle, but an uncle who’s taking care of it.”

The producer then continues with: “It was an opportunity for us to get in front of an audience that we would never get in front of in any other way. It was a gamble in the sense that we didn’t know how people would react, but it ended up being unbelievable in that it worked. We see crowds that would start out as 50 to 100 people in front of us grow as people would walk past, scratch their heads, and then stop. By the end of our sets we’d have 300 or so people who’d genuinely never heard of us before, a lot of them kids who, the day before, probably would have sat down and said ‘I hate hip hop.’ Now they are on the team.”

He pauses, and then cracks a joke. Fittingly, it’s hard to tell who is laughing harder—him or Grieves.

“And now, next year,” Budo says with a cackle, “those kids are all going to be hanging out with the Insane Clown Posse at the Gathering of the Juggalos.”

Grieves and Budo play the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (September 16).

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