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Finding the Home Where Grant Lee Buffalo Roams : Pop Beat: Though still at cult-level, the band's discovered its niche: 'Mockingbirds' is getting air play and the group will open for R.E.M.

November 19, 1994|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Grant Lee Phillips headed south from Stockton a decade ago to study film at CalArts, his goal was to make a movie that was somewhere in between "The Wizard of Oz" and "In Cold Blood."

"They're both road pictures," notes Phillips, who still harbors cinematic ambitions but for now channels his vision into the music of Grant Lee Buffalo, the trio he fronts as singer, guitarist and songwriter.

Phillips, drummer Joey Peters and bassist Paul Kimble, who wrap up a two-night stand at the Roxy tonight, are still at cult-band level, but in just a few months their new album, "Mighty Joe Moon," has already outsold their 1993 debut, "Fuzzy."

"Mockingbirds"--an apocalyptic scenario delivered in the form of a tender, Lennon-like ballad--is being played extensively on a variety of radio formats, as well as on MTV and VH1, and the group is set to embark soon for Australia as the opening act on R.E.M.'s overseas tour.

"I'm pretty stunned, actually," Phillips, 31, says of the band's advances. "I didn't know that radio and television could do all that. Now we are at that point where we can play in new towns and see an audience, and that's kind of thrilling."

Not that he's become a student of record marketing and radio programming.

"I'm not real preoccupied with that kind of stuff. It kind of makes my stomach turn a little bit. We just do what we do and those folks who like it will play it.

"But yeah, I've thought about that. Some of the stations that play 'Mockingbirds,' I wonder if they will play a song like 'Lone Star,' which is a big black cloud, a big mess comin' down the road. . . . We can't be harnessed that easily."

True enough. On "Mighty Joe Moon," the group blends roots-rock, folk-rock and classic-pop currents into a dreamlike canvas whose scale ranges from the intimate to the panoramic, the personal to the historical. Ambiguous and haunting, it sometimes evokes the nostalgic, sepia-tinted perspective of the Band.

"Yeah, I've heard that comparison before," Phillips says. "In some cases I feel like Robbie Robertson was probably trying to be truer to history. . . . Our songs are more like a tornado sort of came and rolled through history and picked it up and scattered it around in different places.

"I think a lot of these songs are kind of searching . . . digging for some kind of meaning. I don't know that we necessarily find it, but a lot of them draw questions: 'What do you believe in and what can we believe in?' "

That concern might stem in part from the influence of the several Pentecostal preachers in the Phillips family tree. His forebears moved to California from Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas during the Great Depression, and his introduction to music came on visits to church with his grandparents. "It was Pentecostal," he says, "but musically if you walked in you'd think it was the Church of Jerry Lee Lewis."

During high school in Stockton, Phillips played in a band and, after relocating to L.A., he was seduced away from his film-school plans by the Hollywood rock scene. Working as a house roofer by day, he played in the group Shiva Burlesque for seven years before forming Grant Lee Buffalo with Kimble and Peters.

It's taken a while, but he finally feels at home in his adopted basin.

"The more time that I spend away from Los Angeles, the more I realize how Los Angeles our music all really is. . . . You know, there's moments where it's very serene and it's very still, and then there's other times when it's more jagged and unpredictable, and that sounds like Los Angeles to me. I think we're a fine reflection of that."

* Grant Lee Buffalo and Giant Sand play tonight at the Roxy, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $15. (310) 276-2222.

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