The Return
by Ron Wadlinger

Prisonshake have always done things the way they damn well please—with the ‘Shake, everything happens on its own terms and in its own due time. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that it has taken 15 years for the band, formerly of Cleveland and now based in St. Louis, to come through with the follow up to their classic LP, The Roaring Third. The resulting double-album, Dirty Moons, arrived in August with relatively little fanfare for a record of its stature.

Spanning a variety of genres and utilizing a number of recording techniques, Dirty Moons sounds like a record that’s taken 15 years to make, but it also works as a unified whole. Whether it’s the anthemic “I Will Comment,” the raucous “Fuck Your Self-Esteem,” or the totally serious (or so I’m told) piano-driven lounge ballad “Your Sad Friend,” the record delivers with a number of tracks that prove that, some 22 years into the band’s existence, Prisonshake is still as vital as ever. Few records that you hear this year will be this dense, this rewarding, and, frankly, this great.

After the band’s recent show in Columbus—Prisonshake’s first in nearly 18 months—I had the opportunity to sit down with guitarist and vocalist Robert Griffin. Also noted for his time in legendary Cleveland bands the Dark and Spike in Vain, Griffin is perhaps best known as the founder of Scat Records. Griffin and Prisonshake vocalist Doug Enkler’s mid-90s move to St. Louis effectively ushered in the “second era” of Prisonshake, an era that has come to recorded fruition with Dirty Moons.

It’s 1993 and Roaring Third is out. You’re on the Insects of Rock tour, and then, seemingly just after getting started and getting some attention, nothing. Why the sudden disappearance?

Robert Griffin: Well, it certainly wasn’t planned, but that Insects of Rock thing kinda bummed me out. As successful a tour that was, we had played a whole lot, and whatever small amount of ambition I had at the time, when I saw people fawning over Bob Pollard, I didn’t want that. And nothing against him; if I had been him, I would’ve sat there and eaten the whole thing up, too. I just realized that, not only did I not want a top 40 single like that, I didn’t want a packed house and a dressing room full of fans. I like the small scale.

And maybe it’s hormones too. In ‘93, I was 27 and starting to slow down a bit. There’s a lot less urgency about everything, and I wanted to do something very different with the next record, but I wasn’t quite sure yet what. And I’d been wanting to leave Cleveland for many, many years. We no longer had a regular rhythm section. So I said, “Yeah, let’s go.” Doug wanted to leave too, so I took him with me. And then we proceeded to crawl very far up our own asses.

I realized with touring that half our shows would be great, and that might even be generous, but there were generally enough positive experiences on the road that it felt like it was worth doing. But when you’re playing the dumb show to a small crowd of people who don’t really know who you are or don’t really care that you’re there, you go, “Why the fuck am I doing this?” Because I like playing, but only if I’m feeling it. It’s just too depressing to play for people who are disinterested.

Why the move to St. Louis?

RG: Oh, that’s another tough question. I’ve always moved around a lot. I went to I don’t know how many different schools. Mostly we moved around to different places in Cleveland. I’ve also lived in Upstate New York, Montana, Ft. Lauderdale. When I was 16, I kinda sorta ran away to Ireland, so I’ve always had some wanderlust.

Really, I think the answer is, it was possible. There was no reason to stay, and I had the means to go, to rent the truck and stuff, invite our singer to come along and keep the job at the label for a while. We could do it, and we did, and St. Louis was a really welcoming place. Cleveland is a very hard place. It was kind of weird too. The last year in Cleveland, the band was doing really well, and of course Guided by Voices, people started paying attention to them. And, you know, when I would go out or we were playing and I was just hanging out before the show, people were treating me differently. And people I knew when I first started the label who laughed, like, “Oh, yeah, that’s going to work,” were giving me their demo, so I was like, “Fuck you.” I would much rather that person continue making fun of me than start to grovel before me. But, that said, I love going to Cleveland now. I would never move back, but I love Cleveland.

What do you think the biggest difference is between Cleveland and St. Louis?

RG: The people. The people and the way it looks, and the weather. I hate to say it, but the people are better looking. There are hotter chicks in St. Louis. Trees everywhere, very very hot weather. The people are softer. It’s not really a southern city, but compared to Cleveland it’s a southern city. After having lived in shitty neighborhoods and stuff for years, I didn’t have a car until I was 22 or something, I was carrying laundry on a bus. My first apartment was on 40th and Prospect, junkies and prostitutes on my doorstep when I came home at night. The last place I lived between St. Clair and Superior on 74th Street, the day before I moved in, somebody got shot at the convenience store down the block. I was like, “Aw, man.”

So when I moved to St. Louis and I got this totally amazing third floor of a mansion apartment for more than I paid in Cleveland but still totally affordable, I mean it was $500 or something, and the guys who own the place are this gay couple with their dog, Butler, and there are some Carmelite nuns across the street. I moved there in December, and by March 15, the trees were blooming. There were white blossoms on all the dogwood trees, and I just walked down the street and it was 75 degrees, and I was like, “I love this place.”

I think, like you just said, that Cleveland is a tough place to live.

RG: I was a hard person. I was the biggest fucking dick you could meet when I was 18, 19, 20-years-old. I had no patience for anyone, I would tell people to their face that I didn’t give a fuck what they were talking about, get the hell away from me. It took me a while to soften up and become socialized. My mother taught me excellent manners, but I was just kind of misanthropic, angry at the world, taking it out on people.

How much of that do you think was a function of coming up at a young age as a member of a couple critical Cleveland bands where you had Mike Hudson as a mentor. How does that effect your outlook on life and the way you saw the world at a young age?

RG: I’ve thought about that recently, and we didn’t spend a ton of time with Mike. There wasn?t that much to do. There were so few places to play. We got this show, it was my first one. I was 15. It was at a former S&M bar. They had these leather bucket seats hanging from the ceiling and a stripper’s stage that we played on. But then it’s, you know, we’re all little kids. Our rhythm section was 13, so we’re like, “Yeah, let’s play, let’s play!” Their voices hadn’t fucking changed yet.

But there wasn’t anything you could do, though, so we had a bunch of kids call him on the phone once and we were like, “Hey, can we get a gig, can we get a gig? There’s nothing going on; it’s dead.” So he eventually started booking us down in Akron and Kent with all the hardcore bands that were starting down there.

The thing I realized hanging out with Mike was you really could do what you wanted. And Terminal might not have been a record label in the sense that we think of record labels as today—very amateur by comparison—but he did it. Somebody bought those records. So I think somehow that might have planted the seed, of like, well this is something you can do. Then with Spike In Vain we had all these great songs, so it was, “Yeah, let’s put out a record.” And I bought a bunch of candy bars, and we sold them at school and got other kids to sell candy bars for us. And a friend of ours got an inheritance, and between the two of those things we had enough money to put out a record.

So I think it was a key experience in that sense, and also we saw Mike and his friends do such crazy shit and get away with it that it also gave us a sense of what was possible. The best example being driving us to a show in Kent and he and this other guy, to protect the innocent—Mike’s written a bunch of shit in his book, so it’s okay—were doing lines of coke off this piece of mirror tile, and we’re sitting on milk crates because there’s no back seat, and there’s holes in the floor. And they’re doing it on the drive. There’s like one head light—neither one of them has a driver’s license, they both lost it—and we’re totally lost because they’re too busy doing blow. And we get pulled over, and the policeman comes up to the window and says, “What are you guys doing out tonight? Are you alright?”

And he’s like, “Uh, we’ve got places to go?”

“Who are these kids?”

“They’re in a band. Punk rock band.”

And he let us go. “You’ve got to fix that headlight.” Jesus, you know? They did not give a fuck, and they were totally fearless, and survived.

Now that was maybe not a good example, and I didn’t necessarily follow in those footsteps. You want to be careful, but still, that was empowering, that these were people living outside of society’s mainstream, and they could make it work.

Smog Veil recently did the Pagans live CD from Madison, Wisconsin, and the last song is “Us and All Our Friends Are So Messed Up.” It’s really interesting listening to that and seeing this is the late ‘80s and, after having read the Mike Hudson autobiography and seeing what they’ve been through, it’s kind of poignant, you know?

RG: Yeah, and at the time I think that some people thought, “Oh he’s doing some kind of Johnny Thunders pose, being so fucked up.” But yeah, they were, which is not necessarily a good thing. I love Mike though. He’s a great cat. He’s a sweet guy.

People have always associated your sound with Cleveland and viewed it as symbolic of the city. And it can be said that Dirty Moons is the best record from Cleveland in years. Do you still ascribe to Cleveland, or is there a St. Louis influence that we’re not hearing?

RG: There’s no St. Louis influence other than continued living of life, and it happens to be there. I don’t know that my day to day life would be that much different if I lived in Cleveland. I can just sit outside on my porch for a greater part of the year. It’s definitely a Cleveland record. There’s other stuff in there, too, I’m sure, but I learned to play along with some of those records, when I was a kid and I first heard the Electric Eels and first heard the Pagans.

I think music is a language and there are different dialects, and we definitely have a Cleveland accent. As my wife often says to me, “You can take the boy out of Cleveland, but you can’t take the Cleveland out of the boy.”

Is Dirty Moons autobiographical to the rise and fall and latest rise of the band? Are we to assume you are the narrator through most of this?

RG: I can’t speak for Enkler. He certainly did not attempt to create any kind of narrative between the songs, I don’t think, but they take place in his world, and there are repetitions and there are a lot of odd analogues to real life that happened. For me, writing music and putting it together is a very intuitive and it’s pure id. I’m channeling weird shit, and sometimes I write songs that may come true. So there’s certainly not any kind of chronological idea to the record, but yeah, there are parallels between it and real life, but they would always be previous to the events. Then sometimes it’s just made up shit. Sometimes it’s just these words sound good together—this is a great cadence, I like this phrase.

What’s your opinion these days of introducing the world to Guided By Voices?

RG: It’s 100 percent positive. 100 percent. The only time I second guessed it was when they started to get really successful. I knew a little bit about Bob’s life and I knew it was a big transition for everyone involved, and he didn’t really have a history of people in his family being supportive of him. So, I imagined him catching a lot of hell and it wasn’t at all a foregone conclusion that he would be able to make a living off of doing it. So I worried that time would be fickle, and he would quit his job, and then this other stuff and now he’s broke and doesn’t have a job and nothing to do. Luckily it didn’t work out that way, so it all turned out good.

Did working with GBV overshadow the effort you put toward your band and label?

RG: In the minds of certain people, I suppose. I know many of the hardcore Guided By Voices fans, and they have all kinds of other records. They love records the way anybody loves records loves them. But some of them are so deep in that they’re not really listening to much else, you know, whether it’s on my label or anybody else’s. And there are gradations between there, but if you take the people who listen to nothing but Bob all the time—and I sympathize with that and I can understand how a person would get in that place, I’ve been there—that’s just their particular world view.

In other people’s minds, it’s more about the reissues: the Electric Eels stuff or even the Mice or us. It just depends. I think it’s not something that concerns me because it seems that, at least the writers I like, when they write about us it’s our own thing. But Bob has been able to make lots more great records, and my part in that, that’s beautiful, that’s why you do a label.

What’s your major aim for Prisonshake and Scat Records going forward?

RG: Just enough for it to keep going. I would like to at least break even on the record. If we could do that, I’d gladly do some more. And I don’t mean everything, because although we were able to do a lot of the recording on the cheap, if you add it all up over the years, it’s definitely our biggest recording budget ever. But I don’t expect to make all that back because some of it was my folly.

I don’t expect everything to make money. I don’t expect everything to break even. If I have a bunch of records in a row that lose money, business will slow down. But I wouldn’t stop because even the stuff that people aren’t aware of on the label has its own little audience. There are only maybe two or three records I’ve put out that I don’t still sell in some quantity. There’s a little tiny group of people that think Brian DiPlacido of A Bullet for Fidel is an amazing guy, and why won’t he come out and make some more records? Bill Fox, the same way. These are talented people, so I would like to be able to keep doing that. I see no reason why it should stop.