When Grant-Lee Phillips talks about growing up in Northern California, he remembers the simple things: weekends at the ice cream parlor, old movies, live banjo music. And one odd job in particular.
"I spent much of my teenage years in a vaudeville melodrama revival house, doing magic acts and comedy sketches," Phillips says. "There was also a ghost town where they performed gunfights and stuntman work. It was kind of my boot camp for all of those years."
It's hard to think of a more appropriate training ground for someone who's made a career pulling off the unexpected, and somewhat bizarre. Phillips has remained a relative unknown despite earning Rolling Stone Male Vocalist of the Year honors in 1995. Hes been an alt-rock stalwart for 15 years, and recurring character on The Gilmore Girls for almost half as long.
And he's transformed himself from the leader of a brooding ’90s band into a bouncy, solo singer-songwriter. As Phillips prepares for a club tour this spring, behind new release Strangelet, he chuckles remembering the shows he played with Grant Lee Buffalo, which featured the heavy sounds of critically lauded albums Fuzzy and Mighty Joe Moon.
"I went through seven years or so in Grant Lee Buffalo where I probably didn't say a word, or very few words," he says. "It was like we had one or two albums to pull from, and then all of the grind and sweat and feedback, and then it'd be off to the dressing room, where we'd complain about something. It was very intense, almost comically so.
"When I got done with that, I thought, 'Wait a minute, this is supposed to be the life Ive conjured here. I should have fun with it.'"
So now, after the Buffalo's dissolution, we have five solo albums, running from the spare Ladies Love Oracle (1999) through last years nineteeneighties cover album to Strangelet. Released just last month, Strangelet has scored the usual high marks from critics, but has still received only limited popular buzz.
Phillips calls it a strange album for strange times, but it fits nicely into his mold, tying lush melodies ("Fountain of Youth," "So Much") and heavier bass lines ("Hidden Hand," "Johnny Guitar") together with sneakily evocative, yet comforting, storytelling.
Recorded largely in his Los Angeles home studio, Strangelet received a boost from some guest musicians, including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Ministry's Bill Rieflin. Phillips himself played piano, bass, guitars, organ, baritone and ukelele, in addition to writing, producing and engineering the album.
"It's a very personal album, one that was created over a period of time in spontaneous outbursts, largely on my own in the middle of the night," he says. "So you wind up with an assortment of songs juxtaposed against one another — songs that explode, and songs that are more intimate."
Surprisingly, he credits substantial work in film and television with helping him become subtler in his songwriting. But the driving forces in his work are largely unchanging, Phillips says. They still include fascinations with the surreal and the dreamy, dark corners of history.
"Northern California was home of the gold rush, and maybe that's part of it," he says, offering a reason for his rhymes. "Up until just recently, you could still find quite a few theme restaurants, like my favorite, the Ye Olde Hoosier Inn. It had a horse and buggy on the roof and all kinds of crap spread around the restaurant. It was covered in the ages.
"And," he says, "they had a nice open-faced turkey sandwich."
Grant-Lee Phillips with Angie Stevens
The Soiled Dove Underground, 7401 E. First Ave., Denver
Wednesday, May 2, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $16.50, 21-plus; visit livenation.com.