Grant Williams has heard all your lame bassist jokes already. Sitting on a bench in the corner of Adezzo, a small coffee shop in his hometown of Scranton, with his derided instrument in hand, he recited a few immediately.
“How many bassists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the guitarist has to show him how to do it first. How many bassists does it take to change a light bulb? It doesn’t matter because no one will notice him doing it,” he listed in rapid-fire fashion. “I could go on, but I won’t.”
It’s easy for him to make these silly jabs because they simply don’t apply to what he’s doing these days.
“There’s two different things – there’s solo bass, what I do, and there’s bass solos, and bass solos are terrible and I hate them,” he clarified in a continually lighthearted tone.
“I hate them because when everybody else is doing their solo, the bass is underneath it – that’s when people are dancing. That’s when you’ve got that pulse and that rhythm. The second the bassist starts soloing, it goes away and people sigh. Even if it’s subconscious, you feel that drop.”
Much like Bill Murray, whose bearded face adorns the t-shirt he’s wearing from entertainment website theCHIVE, Williams slips in some naturally dry humor throughout this conversation with NEPA Scene. With sunglasses resting on top of his shaved head, he has arrived early to his gig as the featured performer at the Be Daring Open Mic to talk about his new album of original bass compositions, a unique project that sets him apart from the rest of the local music scene, yet remains tethered to his experiences in it since he reluctantly picked up the bass as a teenager.
Now, at 29, it’s difficult to picture him without his stringed companion, but it took a series of life-changing experiences to bring the Scranton musician to this point, a place he seems content with, but only for the moment. Even after you’ve stopped making jokes and started listening, getting lost in his ethereal instrumental tunes, he still may not be satisfied as he sets his sights on his next project… and the one after that.
A single step
As Williams speaks so passionately and confidently about the bass, it’s strange to imagine a time when he couldn’t care less about it or making music whatsoever. Growing up, his father was a guitarist, but passing the torch didn’t come easily.
“I couldn’t be bothered. I never learned a chord, nothing. When he died, I felt really, really guilty that I never did that, so I picked up his guitar and I remember trying to learn ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ and just hating it. I hated every second of music,” he recalled, losing his dad at age 13 and attempting to play at 16.
“I just mentioned casually to my friend in high school, ‘Yeah, I’m just trying to play guitar,’ and he lost his mind. ‘Dude, we’ve got to get electric guitars! We’re going to be the next Metallica! Meet me back here in a week!’
“We both went home to our parents and both of our mothers were like, ‘Sure,’ bought us electric guitars for whatever reason, and then we met up in his garage every week, two times a week, but we would both be playing the same thing on the same instrument poorly so, eventually, it was decided that one of us should play bass. OK, I’ll do that.”
Once the bass was in his hands, that’s when Williams discovered the enthusiasm he was searching for.
“Something about it was just instantly gripping,” he described with a snap of his fingers, “and it stopped being, ‘I’m doing this for my friend. I’m doing this for my father.’ I was doing it for me, and it has just kind of maintained that ever since. It’s that relationship where you don’t have to really try. You just wake up and it’s magic.”
So what is it about the bass that’s so damn special? The sound? The shape? The feel? Even he can’t quite articulate it, but it may involve bright sunlit fields and angelic harp chords.
“I couldn’t tell you. It was just that Disney princess magic. If I could run through a field at it…,” he paused, presumably to imagine this.
“It’s still the coolest instrument. There’s no effort that goes into it. There’s never been, ‘I have to learn something because it’s getting boring.’ There’s never been a rut where I even considered stopping. It’s just awesome. I have ukuleles and all that stuff. Even the stand-up bass – it’s cool, but it’s not the electric bass. I couldn’t tell you what it is, but there is just some Hallmark, lovey-dovey nonsense that happens between me and the instrument all the time.”
This imagery stands in contrast to the heavy metal music of Ozzfest that influenced his teenage years, particularly bass players like Ryan Martinie of Mudvayne, Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu of Korn, and Dirk Lance of Incubus. This led him to play in bands like Stran-dead, who never performed publicly with a name he can’t even pronounce without laughing, and Identity One, a band featuring members from Behind the Grey that opened for Motionless In White long before they were famous at a high school in Shickshinny in front of “five high school girls who could care less.”
“It’s actually interesting to go back and listen [to those metal bands] because, back then, I had no idea what music was. So to just see a song as a house and now to go back and see it as bricks, as pipe, like to know what goes into it, there are certain bands you go back to and you’re like, ‘Wow! I had no idea they were this good!’ And just the opposite. ‘Wow! I can’t believe someone didn’t punch me for listening to this out loud where other people could hear it!’”
Locally, he looked to bassists like Joe “Quincy” Terry of Eye on Attraction, Abby Vail of Just Blush, Tony Sulla of Peter KennA D, Matthew Van Fleet of Threatpoint, and particularly Brian McDonald of Falling From Eden, formerly of Behind the Grey, for inspiration.
“Brian McDonald was a huge inspiration and reason to play bass because he was the first local guy who I bumped into who did all that slap pop stuff who I could actually watch in person. I would just follow him around. ‘Hey, man, let’s talk bass.’ Just being around someone in a different world, on a different level, helped me get up there so much faster, so I wanted to spend as much time around him as I possibly could.”
Some of his earliest Ozzfest dreams would come true when he joined Graces Downfall, one of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s most popular and successful rock bands, in 2012, getting hired before they even saw him play because of his determined, gung-ho attitude.
Watching Korn play “Good God” at Montage Mountain in Scranton back in 2003, Williams swore he would one day perform on that same stage. With Graces, he was able to do so twice in 2013 and 2014 for Fuzz Fest, opening for the Dirty Heads, Cage the Elephant, and other national acts.
“Even if not a single person in that audience actually came to see us, which I know a few of them did, but even if none of them did, just to be standing where I said that I would, twice, that was definitely really cool,” he said.
Amongst the hundreds of shows they played together, another memorable gig was at the now defunct Brews Brothers West in Pittston opening for platinum-selling rock band Trapt.
“I still get told about the Trapt show. I don’t know what we ate that morning that put us in such a good mood with that high energy.”
While he feels lucky to have been a part of Graces Downfall, being particularly proud of their 2014 album “Change. Adjust. Continue.,” by mid-2015, he knew it was time to leave.
“Different goals,” he cited simply. “Priorities change, what you value changes, and you’d much rather make a clean cut than just pretend. It’s easier to get a divorce at 22 than it is to wake up at 41 and realize you’ve hated this woman for 10 years. Not that we hated each other. You could tell if we just pretended we were on the same page, it would become that, and I didn’t want it to become that.”
He wasn’t sure exactly where he was going musically, but it had to be something new.
“I liked to idea of jumping in a van and not knowing where we’re going to wake up. Where are we? ‘Connecticut.’ Awesome. Where’s the venue? Let’s go! Bathing in sinks? Do it! There’s no negative when someone tries to tell me, ‘OK, bro, but you’re not going to have a bed. You’re not going to have…’ Shut up! So what? That actually makes it somewhat better. That’s awesome,” he emphasized, stopping himself because he’s worried he’s going on a tangent.
“As long as it was music-oriented and it kept going forward – I don’t ever want to get comfy and just stay there. Press. As long as I was pressing in any avenue, that’s what I was going to do.”
To move forward, though, it turns out that Williams would have to look back a bit. Before Graces, he played in a trio called Cathedra in 2011-2012. When preparing for a three-hour gig, they needed to fill time, so he started tapping around on the bass and soon he had “The Red Queen,” a song that would later end up on his solo album all these years later. While he planned to write more soon after, the position in Graces opened up and he jumped at the chance.
Once he quit, he wasn’t about to lose another moment, booking the studio time later that month rather than joining another band.
“What if that’s another three years? What’s if that’s another two or even one? I only have so many years. I just decided I would do [the solo album], and it has really taken off for me, emotionally at least. I’m really proud of it. I really like what it’s doing and just the way it’s turning out. I didn’t think I ever have 11 solo songs. It’s ridiculous,” he enthused.
“It’s also nice because some of those were written back when I was 19 and just starting and they never had anywhere to go, so then you go back to them and you approach them differently; you listen to a song that you didn’t listen to for five years and now and say, ‘That’s why I couldn’t write that part because that note doesn’t belong there.’ Boom, done.”
In fact, the name of the finished record, “Suspended Animation,” and all the songs on it refer to all the time we’ll never get back.
“The whole theme of every song is wasted time – time I’ve wasted or time someone else has wasted and the efforts to not do that anymore or stop doing it, whether or not they succeed or fail. ‘The Red Queen’ is based on the Lewis Carroll book ‘Through the Looking-Glass.’ There’s a character called the Red Queen who has to run to stay in the exact same place. That’s one of the things I mentioned earlier – if you’re not going forward, then why bother to do it? Especially now that I’m pushing 30, the older I get, the more people stop working towards happiness and start working towards comfort. I can’t take that risk. ‘I can’t leave my girlfriend because we’re comfortable.’ ‘I can’t get a divorce because of my kids.’ ‘I can’t move to a city I’d be happier in because I have a lease here for 10 years,’” he explained.
“It’s never getting comfortable so that you can keep trying to be happy. There’s so many stupid clichés, and they’re clichés for a reason. You find anybody successful and they’ll never say, ‘Well, I took the easy way and I never took chances and there were never any really hairy situations, and that’s how I’m a millionaire.”
The third track, “Alpha Centauri,” is a different take on that same personal theme.
“Alpha Centauri is the closest star to us outside of the sun. When I left Graces, I started getting notoriety. People started knowing who I was, and to just lose that all at once and be nobody. And then I started building this up, I started getting proud of it, so I wrote ‘Alpha Centauri’ because the whole point is, if you lose your light, your energy, all that cosmically, you can find another one right next door. You can make another one. The point of that is trying not to lose time,” he related.
“Every song can be brought back to losing time, living in some suspended animation.”
With no lyrics or singer to express those thoughts and feelings, it’s left up to the music to relate these stories to listeners, which he is confident it does, even if the audience is imaging their own narratives.
“It’s pretty easy as long as you’re genuine about it, as long as you know that’s where the song is coming from. You don’t just write something and go, ‘This is a love song now.’ As long as you don’t do that, you’re not just churning out something because you heard that this is what makes a good hit, this is what makes a good song, and then you write it and assign a meaning to it. As long as it comes from somewhere genuine, I don’t think it’s hard to get people feel a genuine emotion you felt.”
Playing across Northeastern Pennsylvania and qualifying as a finalist in three seasons of NEPA Scene’s Got Talent, he says the typical live reaction he gets from people is, “I wasn’t expecting that.” Always willing (and certainly able) to win over an audience, he finds that too many indie artists “audience blame” when a show doesn’t turn out like they hoped, getting angry at the crowd or the area instead of working harder on their craft.
“If the audience is negative, you can persuade them to be positive. If the artist is negative, then what do you expect the audience to be?” Williams asked, noting that he practices at least three hours a day and doesn’t watch movies or TV at all.
“I don’t want to half-ass any songs. I have backing tracks. I have the drums, there’s going to be programming on some stuff, but I want them to see the effort. I want them to see how much time it took to do that. I don’t want to just play one thing 14 times, even if it sounds great. I’m just going to hit these two chords back and forth. That’s why I think it’s a fun challenge that I don’t ever sing because you could just go G, A, D, G, A, D and then sing lyrics over it – boom, song. I can’t do that. I have to take them on some journey without any words. I can explain what the song is about, but it has to speak for itself.”
And it does with the help of some drumming by Chris Langan of LondonForce, Dani-elle, and too many other bands to name, along with producer Tom Godin II, who recorded and mixed the songs at Side B Studios in Wapwallopen.
“I don’t think I’d go anywhere else. That’s my go-to spot. He’s got damn near perfect pitch, so he can tell if anything is even slightly off, something you might not hear,” Williams said of Godin and the year he spent in the studio.
“He didn’t do a whole lot of producing on this, but he added drums on three songs, which helped shape the way that they went. He had great ideas for ‘Silver Quarters,’ which is another song on there. It wouldn’t have turned into what it did without him.”
While he would consider joining another band and possibly gaining some touring experience, even playing occasional shows with Scranton-based acoustic indie soul band Umbriel, he isn’t quite at the point of turning his solo act into a full group.
“I thought about it, but my ego will not allow me to call three people my name or ‘Grant and the whatevers.’ There’s some emotional hurdle where I can’t say, ‘Hey, we’re me,’” he cracked.
While we just spent an hour talking about him, Williams always finds a way to redirect the conversation away from himself and back to the music.
“Suspended Animation” will officially be released next Tuesday, Oct. 18, but fans and curious newcomers who want to hear something new can get their copy four days before at the early release party at Thirst T’s Bar & Grill in Olyphant this Friday, Oct. 14 at 9 p.m., part of the venue’s ongoing free “No Cover Friday” series.
Langan will be drumming live with Williams, and The Onyx Oak (a.k.a. his Umbriel bandmate Katie Kelly) and Behind the Grey will be opening, marking the metal band’s first-ever stripped acoustic set.
“I think it’s a refreshing show that’s different,” Williams said of the CD release concert. “I have to stand on just my music. I’m not going to be yelling lyrics at you. I’m not going to be asking you to sing along. You’ve got the visual element of what we’re doing and you’ve got the audio element of it.”
When asked to sum his feelings on the album, the bassist who has spent the better part of a year writing and recording songs, performing on stages across NEPA, making corresponding music videos to pair with his compositions, and getting CDs printed for this weekend despite delays, he again lets his baby do the talking.
“I don’t know. It just seems right,” he said of recording his solo album.
“I’m not good with words. I’m an instrumental artist for a reason.”
Photos by Rich Howells/Robb Malloy/Alex Seeley/NEPA Scene
with The Onyx Oak and Behind the Grey (acoustic)
Location: Thirst T’s Bar & Grill (120 Lincoln St., Olyphant)
Date: Friday, Oct. 14
Time: 9 p.m.
SOLOween Halloween party
with Steve Werner, Katie Evans, and Adam Bailey
Location: The Keys (244 Penn Ave., Scranton)
Date: Friday, Oct. 28
Time: 8 p.m.
Anthracite Open Mic featuring Grant Williams
Location: The Wonderstone Gallery (100 N. Blakely St., Dunmore)
Date: Saturday, Oct. 29
Time: Sign-ups at 5:30 p.m., show at 6 p.m.
Cost: Free, $2 suggested donation
The Russello Project
with Skip Monday
Location: O’Leary’s Pub (514 Ash St., Scranton)
Date: Friday, Nov. 11
Time: 10 p.m.
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.