As a ‘long-time’ fan of Springfield, Missouri-born Hard Rock icons King’s X, my interest was initially piqued via their charismatic lead vocalist/bassist Doug Pinnick. Partially propelling the criminally-underrated group thr -ough an array of often eclectic releases (their 1989 effort Gretchen Goes To Nebraska remains a favorite) as well as a veritable wealth of side projects. Among the most intriguing of these projects is the oddly-underrated Grinder Blues. Fueled, in part, at least, by the sibling due of guitarist/voclaist Jabo Bihlman and drummer Scot ‘Little’ Bihlman, the Blues Rock ensemble unleashed their self-length debut Grinder Blues (2014) to world-wide praise. Now, nearly a decade (!) later, I once again find myself utterly intrigued with the release of their newest tour de force El Dos, a recording destined to leave them firmly atop both the Blues Rock and Hard Rock genres.
Todd: What can you tell us about El Dos? Am I correct in understanding it was completed nearly two years ago?
Doug: “It was done a good while ago. This is our second album and we finished it almost three years ago. You know how it is when the record companies don’t want to put anything out because they’ve already got too much or they don’t have enough or whatever their reasons are. We couldn’t get anybody to put it out. …Everything’s all about sales in this digital age. It’s weird trying to put music out in this day and age. It’s such a different animal, and it’s hard to wrap your brain around it unless you’re twenty years old. …The record company said that they wanted to use that song to make a video, so they sent it to me and I loved and we just went for it. (laughs) That was one time. I wanted to get more involved in all that kind of stuff sooner or later, but I’ve got so much going on right now, ya know? …Sometimes, I just stand back and let the brothers do their things because I trust them.”
Todd: Prior to the formation of the group, how did you become acquainted with (guitarist) Jabo Bihlman and (drummer) Scot Little Bihlman? They’re both amazing, but it is safe to assume most fans will still be unfamiliar.
Doug: “Scott was at a party that I was at with (drummer) Ray Luzier from (David Lee Roth, Korn, KXM). He was having a party for his son’s first birthday. It was about ten years ago now. When we first met each other, I had just moved to L.A. He told me that he and his brother had done some music for movies and television. I said ‘Hey, man, let me hook up with you and we can write some tunes and maybe we can get some revenue comin’ in’. It was pretty hard about ten years ago to make a living doing this. Everybody was trying to find a new way to make some money, so we got together and started writing these jingles and it started to become fun. And as we realized that all of us had a real deep blues influence in our lives, we thought ‘Well, let’s just put something together like a ZZ Top, have some fun and make a Blues record’. And so that was our first one. With the second one, we went in the same direction, but we went to Cleveland, Mississippi where the Blues was born and The Dockery (Plantation) is about ten miles away. The Dockery is a place where all those Blues people learned to play while they picked cotton. There was this place they all hung out at because they were so far away from home. They used to play guitar and try to outdo each other. Guys like BB King and Muddy Waters all went there before they all moved north to Chicago. I was born in 1950, so when that happened in Chicago, I was in between one and ten years old. I can remember my relatives buying those records back when they first come out. There was this guy would come down to the neighborhood and sell records out of the back of his car. These were like 78’s, so I remember listening to that stuff. And the brothers played with BB King and Ray Charles because they used to be back-up vintage Blues players. I was like ‘Wow, these guys know what’s up. They know more than I know when it comes to just the music’, so we put a thing together. We dropped our guitars two steps lower just to give it an extra edge and took a Jam band and tried to reel it in for a few records.”
Todd: Historically, you’ve been involved in a variety of different projects above and beyond King’s X (3rd Ear Experience and Rzr 13, among others). How do you find the time to create music with so many different artists?
Doug: “I have no idea (laughs). I’m going better now than I’ve ever gone before. For me, it seems like when you do things long enough, you finally start to get it and start honing in on creating art that you like. It encourages you to keep going to try to keep outdoing yourself. …I have written three or four hundred songs and for me, it’s always been something that I love to do. I love to make music and I love to sing. I like to create and I like to try and push the envelope. It’s something I’ve done all my life and it seems like now it easier than it was back in the day. Back in the day, there was so many things going on when it came to growing up and dealing with all the bullshit in life and everything else you go through when you’re young. I’ve finally gotten to a point where I don’t give a fuck about anything anymore. I just sit down and work on my music and I like it because there’s no filter anymore. Sometimes I’ll write a song because I was depressed because or because somebody hurt my feeling or whatever. The stuff I’m writing now is just me feeling like grandpa trying to hang out with the young kids and tell them stories (laughs). I’ve already proved whatever it is that I’ve done, okay? I already did it, so I’m not going to wow anybody anymore. I don’t have to keep looking for approval because I already have it. I just need to go with myself and do what I do because that’s what people want me to do. It was sort of an epiphany at seventy years old because I figured ‘I ain’t got that much long left in living. I don’t want to be miserable and just hate what I do and not want to go play music, I don’t want to be insecure when I walk out onstage’, ya know? It’s like ‘Come on. Get over all that shit’ so that’s where I’m at. I’m excited now because I look forward to tomorrow and I look forward to hopefully still living a long. I have an aunt who is a 103 and my family lives until their late 90’s at least. I feel like I just got out of college and am ready for the world. I’ve finally went through the whole hard knocks of Rock And Roll. Now, it’s all under my belt and in my back pocket, ya know?”
Todd: When in the songwriting and pre-Production phase for El Dos, was there a specific tonality you were hoping to capture? The Blues element is obvious, but the Rock element isn’t. What were your main inspirations?
Doug: “I learned a long time ago that I do not know how to write a hit song. The (King’s X) record Ear Candy (1996) was my last attempt at trying to write a hit song. Every song I wrote on that record was designed in my heart to be played on the radio. I stripped them down and put my heart into everything I could make them memorable without selling out because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and it still didn’t matter. I realized at that point I didn’t know what a hit song is or isn’t. As a fan, every song on a record that I hate is usually the hit song that sells millions. …I’ll be like ‘That’s the worst song on the record. It’s easily the single’. This was very true through the ’90s. So now I don’t have any confidence on how to write a hit song. With Grinder Blues, we all want these songs to be played on the radio and to be jingles, but since I don’t know how to write a hit song, I just kind of run along with the brothers to have some fun. They’ll place it if they can. They have all these connections, but for me, I was like ‘Let’s do this thing like ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres (1973) album. Real simple, stripped-down Blues. Let’s make it simple and take it back to ground zero. …Let’s go way back and go down home and then build it up from there. Let’s try to be as authentic with the Blues as we can and not go outside of it just ike ZZ Top did. They wrote some really simple traditional songs, but they changed things around ever so slightly to give you that Rock edge. And they also played a little bit heavier and I thought that’s what we we’re looking for. It’s another step in the Blues, but it’s also something to take it up one notch in sonics and in attitude. We’re not trying to change the world. We wanted to give it a different approach since we are kids of those guys.”
Todd: From a compositional and lyrical point of view, how do Grinder Blues and KXM ‘differ’ from each other?
Doug: “It’s literally almost the same because with both of those bands, when we get together, we’ll just throw a song together because we’ve got all these ideas in our heads. One person will throw an idea up and the other person just grabs it and we’ve got a new song in a few minutes. …We’re all so full of these risks and melodies. They’re all so fun, so there’s never a moment where you sit there and go ‘I don’t know, man. I am not feeling it’ or ‘I’ve never done that’. I love playing with these guys because what makes both bands so good to me or so much fun is that we know that whatever one person comes up with, no matter what it is, we can add something to it to make it work. Some will say ‘Oh, that’s the stupidest beat in the world’, but then you think about (the Nirvana classic) “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and you realize that it has a rudimentary drumbeat that no drummer would ever play because they’d get laughed at and (former Nirvana drummer and Foot Fighters frontman) Dave Grohl came up with it and owned it. …It’s all about what you put into it. That’s always the way I’ve looked at it.”
Todd: Once you officially began working together, was the chemistry immediate or did it need time to develop?
Doug: “It was instant because the two brothers had been playing together all their lives. Ever since they’ve been able to play guitar and bass, they’ve been playing in a band together, so there was such a strong connection with those two. I felt like I was on the outside a lot of the times. …When we’re playing live with Kings X, since I’m the singer and the bass player, the band follows me in an emotional way. They look to me to direct because it’s just that natural way we morphed. But with Grinder Blues, the two brothers are pretty dominant and they clamp the ending of a song the way they need to do it. You could immediately tell that they’re used to doing it together, so I had to learn some of their nuances and their ways. Once I figured out a lot of it, then we started getting tighter. I was the new guy in the band because there was already two guys who are a band. (King’s X drummer) Jerry (Gaskill) and I have been together a long time. Someone else can hiccup and the other will know about it.”
Todd: You’ve been performing a very long time. Vocally, wow are you able to keep your voice at this high level?
Doug: “I’m not.”
Todd: What? Seriously?
Doug: “I’m not. And I’m so disgusted with myself. When I go into a studio, you have to give me a second to belt it all out because I’m seventy now, so it takes me more effort and more time. If you don’t, my voice will dry out a lot quicker. But the other problem is I smoke weed all the time, and that just doesn’t help. And like a dumb ass, I know I should quit, but I don’t. If I quit smoking, I could have it all back and I could do that what you hear on the records every single night. I’ve been home for the past two years and it’s kind of scary thinking I can still do this for two hours. But I’m going to build myself back up to do it like I should and I’ll be okay. …It just takes me a little bit more effort to get that. When I was younger, I used to just open my mouth up and it all came out. I would walk away and never give it a second thought. Now, I really have to think about where my notes are. And I have to think about pitch a lot because the older I get, the more I find that my pitch can waver. I know that when I hit and hear an ‘A’ note, I can’t tell an ‘A’ from an ‘A-Flat’, which is a sign of hearing loss, so it just takes a little bit more for me to get everything done, ya know? I’m always thinking about playing live and how much energy and thought that’s going to take, but in the studio, I can go in there, take my time, belt that stuff out and walk away going ‘Yeah’ (laughs). …Of course I normally can’t talk the entire next day, but it’s still a good thing.”
Todd: How do you prepare yourself to go onstage? I would imagine there must be a specific ritual. Are you doing a lot of warm-ups and/or warm-downs or, as other veterans have told me ‘I don’t warm up, I just show up’.
Doug: “I just show up. …I’ve never done an exercise and that’s probably why I have such a problem now. I wish I had listened to people back in the day or had a music teacher that would teach me because I’ve always found when I open my mouth, people drop their jaws. None of my music teachers ever sat down to teach me anything correctly. They were just always just happy I was singing. I didn’t know that all this yelling would take its toll after a while. When I listen to (former Journey frontman) Steve Perry or (Pop starlet) Mariah Carey, I can hear it. Even (R&B legend) Aretha Franklin, you can hear how they abused their voices and you get that rasp and that roughness. Mariah can’t even hit the whistle range anymore and that’s because we’ve all abused our voices. I saw Mariah Carey live once one and she sang all of her parts and all of the harmonies, too and she never stopped, ya know? I’m there thinking ‘How does she do this?’, but then I realized that’s what I did in the early ’90s. We would do these three hour shows where I would yell and screamed every night for months because we just didn’t know any better. Well, I didn’t know any better. I don’t know about her; I don’t know her (laughs). But I just didn’t know. Even (late Soundgarden vocalist Chris) Cornell had a hard time before he died. He’d lost his voice for a while and had to take lessons to get it back on track when he was with Audioslave. I remember being around him and he would have to go out a half-hour before a show and do vocal exercises. He would put his earbuds in, go into a room and close the door. He never used to do that and I could tell by listening to his voice that he was having troubles, too. We all just Rock And Roll. You give it your all and then you lose yourself (laughs). That’s just the way we do it. …Now, in the last couple of years whenever I do anything, I usually do vocal exercises or at least I try the best I can, especially when I did the (Jimi) Hendrix (tribute) tour. That was something I really didn’t want to screw up, so I would take a half-hour off and go to the bathroom with my bass and sing and play those songs at the same time at least once before I would go onstage. …With King’s X, five minutes before we go on, we’re all sitting there and we look like we’re getting ready to go to a funeral. …It’s so funny (laughs). It’s so funny because when we get on stage, all of a sudden it’s like ‘Bam’ and everything’s alive, ya know? But half an hour before that, we sink into a quietness. We make everybody else leave. …It’s so funny.”
Todd: At this point, how close is the group to completing the new recording? There have been a lot of rumors that things have been ‘close to completion’ for quite some time. When can everyone expect the finished product?
Doug: “It’s done. We finally got it to the record company and they’re getting ready to start the campaign. It’s not going to come out until 2022, so it’s going to be a little bit longer. Having been together over forty years, we didn’t want to put a record out that was just going to be another record. We have stuff that we put out because we need to put a record out, but after fifteen years of not putting one out, we said ‘Let’s put our whole heart into this record like we did when we were making Gretchen Goes To Nebraska and Faith Hope Love. We wanted to really dig into it and have fun, but we needed to do it in a studio with a Producer so we could do it right. We did it and we took our time. It’s been two years almost and it’s our best stuff ever. The people that have heard it tell me that it’s our best record ever. We’re like ‘We’re glad that you did this because we don’t know if we’ll make another record at this point in history’, so we’re really excited about it. But we’re really scared at the same time because we’re hoping that people really embrace it. It’s a different world. We haven’t put a record out in this digital age. It’s been fifteen years, so when the last King’s X record came out, YouTube had just been launched.”
Todd: Without sounding disrespectful, why has there been such a significant length of time between the release of the group’s most recent recordings (i.e., XV, 2008)? For those following their career, its been such a long wait.
Doug: “It was because (vocalist/guitarist) Ty (Tabor) and (drummer) Jerry (Gaskill) did not want to make a new record. They literally didn’t feel like we had anything good enough to offer anybody. I would push and push and give up, and then I’d push and give up again. …I’d even get us to a place where we were all going ‘Okay, let’s go make this record’ and then everybody would back out again. To this day, I have no clue why, but one day I did convince them to make a record. I felt like this was the right time, so I said ‘Let’s go do this’. And we ended up finding a record company offered to pay us a good amount of money to do it, which is a great incentive because King’s X has never really made any money. We live from month to month just like everybody else does, even though people think that we’re rich rock stars. …We never had that hit song that could give us that, so we’ve got this cult following and we survive via our fans, basically. We didn’t want to go make another record and spend a small amount, or go to somebody’s house an do it and like everybody else and shit out a King’s X record like the last three or four of them were. There was a period of time when we just went into the house and did the Please Come Home…Mr. Bulbous and Manic Moonlight and did them ourselves, so we did them very inexpensively. But we knew that we wanted if we’re going to make a good record, we got to pay for it and so they did. The company stepped up to the plate and we made a real record. It’s all analog and does not feature and Pro Tools. It’s not even squashed digitally. The compression is all tape saturation from the Mastering at (Los Angeles-based) Grumman (Mastering). They actually have a EQ system where every frequency has a tube or a set of frequencies and when you turn the tube, you turn the volume up. It compresses and bringing things closer. This record sounds so good. It will kind of throw you off. You’ll go ‘It doesn’t sound right.’ When we first started hearing things digitally, we said ‘Why does it sound like weird?’ because it sounds like a real analog record where everything is big and it isn’t even loud. You can still hear it, ya know? You feel like you can reach your hand into it. (Producer) Michael Parnin (Limp Bizkit, Rage Against The Machine) did a really wonderful job, so we’re going to put it down on forty-five speed. …It will be a double album that you will get the best sonic from.”
Todd: At this point, what are your touring plans? I imagine you would like to tour as much as humanly possible.
Doug: “Grinder Blues will tour and play anytime anybody wants us to. Hopefully, putting this record out and then putting the word out, maybe we’ll be able to go out and do some stuff. We’re all ready. We’re always ready. That’s one thing I love about this band. They can call me every day and we can go do a week’s worth of shows. We haven’t played together in a couple of years, but the songs are fun and really, really simple. They’re all pretty much in my vocal range too, where I don’t have to scream and yell. That’s the other thing. Over the last few years, I’ve been writing songs in a different key so I can ensure that I can go out and do these things without losing my voice after singing “Over My Head” a single time. Then again, that “Over My Head” vocal is pretty crazy now. We were just listening to that the other day and it’s like ‘How does he get that little scream thing down at the end? Damn’. (laughs) I can do half of the stuff still, but like Ty said, I have finally reached puberty.”