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Always Be Drunk 

Mellow Drunk's Leigh Gregory gets wasted on poetry and the apocalypse

Wednesday, Jan 22 2003
Leigh Gregory hands over a book about the Black Death. "I really like reading about the plague," he says with a chuckle. "I'm a big plague fan."

Actually, Gregory -- leader of S.F. group Mellow Drunk -- appears to be a voracious and wide-ranging reader. During several hours spent with him in his Inner Richmond apartment, he discusses his favorite poets, his recent William Blake-influenced solo album, his 100-page master's thesis on novelist Patrick White (the "Dostoevsky of Australia"), and his band, which is named after a Baudelaire couplet. And when asked about the genesis of a forthcoming Mellow Drunk CD, he forgoes the usual litany of ex-lovers and anecdotes; instead, he explains which books he's read led to which songs.

But Gregory isn't some pale-skinned, hide-in-the-library bookworm. Over the past 20 years, he's played in a slew of bands -- from punk and goth to folk and power-pop acts -- opening for such legendary cult figures as the Heartbreakers' Johnny Thunders and the Jazz Butcher. Mellow Drunk, which he formed as a solo project in 1998 and has since expanded into a quintet, is his best band yet, a psychedelic folk-rock outfit that's perfect for his literary inclinations. Luna's Dean Wareham liked the group so much that he specifically requested it open his December show at the Fillmore, and the Church's Marty Willson-Piper has effused about the ensemble on numerous occasions. Now, with Mellow Drunk's soon-to-be-released second full-length, Before & After Then, Gregory offers the latest chapter in his life's work -- one filled with literary references, apocalyptic visions, and ringing guitars.

Gregory loved rock almost from the day he was born. He says he fell for the Rolling Stones at age 7 and began writing songs soon after, often with his grandmother, an old blues singer. By his teens, he was devouring all the music he could, from British acts such as Syd Barrett, T. Rex, and David Bowie to the U.S. proto-punks, including the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers. In 1980, Gregory (under the name Lee Larson) formed his first serious band, the Products, in San Diego.

"We were very influenced by British punk -- the Jam, the Buzzcocks, the Clash, the Pistols," Gregory recalls. The group recorded one full-length album, Fast Music (recently reissued by Cabeza de Tornado Records), which included the usual slashing riffs and speedy tempos.

When the Products dissolved, Gregory quit music and returned to academia to pursue a degree in English at San Diego State. He moved to London in 1984 to take classes at a school called City Lit, and got caught up in the vibrant post-punk scene there. (He even tried out for Danielle Dax's band, after the witchcraft-loving siren wooed him over cocktails.) When he relocated to Hartford, Conn., the following year, he started a group like the ones he'd discovered overseas -- the Birthday Party, the Go-Betweens, the Only Ones, and Nikki Sudden's Jacobites. The result was the Dispossessed, a quartet that featured Gregory singing lead in a nasal, faux-British mode, while thrashing guitars, moody organ fills, and a martially minded drummer churned behind him. The group recorded one album, Sister Mary, and went kaput, leading Gregory to change tack again and pursue a solo folk direction. "I was listening to Bob Dylan ... Nick Drake, and Leonard Cohen," he explains. He recorded an album for C'est La Mort Records, but the label soon folded, and Gregory moved back to San Diego.

In 1991, he regenerated again, forming a power-pop punk outfit called Miles to Nowhere. That group lasted only until the next year, when, frustrated, Gregory opted to return, again, to school, this time to work on a master's degree in English at S.F. State. Little did he know that all the strands of his musical past were about to come together.

Although he was tired of playing with other musicians, Gregory continued recording on his own throughout the '90s. When he bought an ADAT digital recorder in 1998, he finally had the technology to lay down guitar, keyboard, and vocal parts at home and then add to the tapes in a regular studio -- he could have a full band, all by himself.

For this new batch of songs, Gregory distilled a lifetime's worth of influences into one lush and languid style. He mixed together the slow tempos and carefully told stories of his folk favorites, the organ swirl and guitar jangle of his '60s idols, the gentle brooding atmosphere of his '80s icons, and the anarchic crunch of his punk forebears for a sound that was vaguely familiar but, in fact, unique. And he chose a vocal manner -- hushed and rough, as if he were reading bedtime stories after a long night of beer and cigarettes -- that suited his new tunes.

Grant Miller, one-half of S.F. experimental act Mandible Chatter and a Hartford resident at the same time as Gregory, was impressed with the new material. "What I liked immediately about his songs was his ability to mine cool influences -- artists like the Kaleidoscope, early Kinks, T. Rex, Steeleye Span -- yet place it all squarely in his own domain," Miller said in an e-mail interview. "He's a great interpreter in that way."

Mellow Drunk's name has an artistic inspiration, too -- a Baudelaire line: "Be perpetually drunk!/ With wine, with poetry, with virtue as you please."

"Baudelaire was saying, 'Ignore all the shit in life -- be glad you can hear the birds singing,'" Gregory says.

Mellow Drunk numbers never quite ignore the shit; rather, they embrace it with poetic flair. Characters may fall from grace or stare at beer bottles like they are friends, but there's always something romantic in the pathos, as in a sad Victorian novel. "Independence Day," one of several tracks with lyrics written from a woman's perspective, shows a terrific sense of pacing, each line building the fragile emotional landscape of the protagonist.

When asked about the tunes, Gregory says, "Most of the time the songs I write aren't terribly personal -- I want it to be more universal. ... I hate to say it, but you probably don't learn anything about me by the songs."

Such distance doesn't make his music any less affecting. When Marty Willson-Piper of the Church heard Mellow Drunk's first album, Always Be Drunk (released by Gregory's own Green Fuse label in January 2001), he enjoyed it so much he tapped Gregory to open for and back him at an S.F. show. Nick Leese, owner of a U.K. clearinghouse for psychedelic treasures old and new called Heyday Mailorder, was also immediately smitten with the CD. "First play, and I was hooked -- it's not often that happens these days," Leese says via e-mail. "There was a gentleness/sensitivity to the songs Leigh writes."

Guitarist Ricky Maymi -- who'd played with everyone from Sonic Boom to the Rain Parade's Steven Roback to Twink of the Pretty Things -- saw the S.F. concert and asked for a copy of the album. "I loved it!" Maymi recalls. "It struck me as very sincere, unpretentious music."

Maymi signed on as lead guitarist for Mellow Drunk, and keyboardist Steven Cavorretto and drummer Sean DeGaetano (both of Dora Flood) and bassist Daniel Dietrick soon followed. (DeGaetano was recently replaced by Patrick Harte.) All of a sudden, Gregory had a real band again, his first in a decade -- just in time for some fresh material.

"Most of these songs were upbeat; I'd gone back to listening to the Clash, the Jam, the Only Ones," Gregory says. "It's sort of like the first CD was more laid-back or melancholy, so this one's more peppy."

Recorded over the last year, Before & After Then indeed shows a more uptempo Mellow Drunk. Maymi's guitar arrangements supply the songs with sinew and muscle, especially on the feedback freakout of "A Different Color on My Door," and Cavorretto's organ fills and trumpet add depth throughout. "Never Sleep at Night," a fuzzy rocker with an irresistible keyboard riff, sounds like it could be a radio hit, if current radio formats weren't so unadventurous.

Lyrically, Gregory is more literary than ever. "Very Strange Times" takes its apocalyptic vision from Martin Amis' darkly comic London Fields and Dermot Healy's hallucinatory Sudden Times. The Bowie-ish "Queen of the Night" modernizes the tale of doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, while "Dead Sea Fruit" recalls one of Edgar Allan Poe's characters lost at sea. Even the songs that don't have direct scholastic ties sound like short stories, their narratives unfurled in just a few stanzas.

Presently, Mellow Drunk is putting the finishing touches on Before & After Then. Several British labels are clamoring to put it out, and Gregory hopes to tour in some form. Meanwhile, he'll keep on haunting the local bookstores. "I was talking with the drummer for the Dispossessed [Charles Dubé], and we were agreeing that when you're not reading, you kind of lose your creative focus," Gregory says. "You just need to grab ideas."

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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