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Get on the Bus 

Todd Costanza's songwriting steers Granfaloon Bus in unusual directions

Wednesday, Jan 24 2001
San Francisco singer/songwriter Todd Costanza, 37, sits with the other members of Granfaloon Bus in the back yard of his Glen Park home. Drinking Budweiser out of a can, he turns for a second to watch Goose, his border collie-Rottweiler mix, kick dirt toward the picnic table where his band sits.

It's a small moment that easily could be forgotten -- the kind Costanza has been twisting into evocative, twangy rock songs since he founded Granfaloon Bus in San Diego in 1990. Since then, the group has undergone several lineup changes, with Costanza remaining the only constant.

Now, his current Busmates Ajax Green (lead guitar), Jeff Palmer (drums, saw), and Jeff Stevenson (bass) are discussing how they joined the combo. They speak in reverential tones, as if God himself had handpicked them to jam.

"Can we all talk about how great it feels to get the call to be in the band?" says Stevenson, 31, a member since 1997. "I [thought], "I love this band. I go to all the shows anyway, [so] I might as well be in the band.'"

"I got in by playing an instrument I didn't know how to play," explains Palmer, 30, who joined Granfaloon Bus in 1995 after stints as bassist for popular S.F. outfits Sister Double Happiness and the Mommyheads.

And Green, 30, who came aboard in 1994, even sheds his amiably sarcastic persona when explaining why he's so committed to Costanza's musical vision. "I think we're all into [Granfaloon Bus] because the strength of Todd's songs is so intense," he says. "I've had deeply personal relationships to his songs. When he called me up to play in the band, I was just thrilled [because] I'd already formed an attachment to his songs."

To talk about those songs -- which range from cry-in-your-beer waltzes to rambling, epic stories -- it's necessary to talk a bit about Costanza. A physically slight man with a quiet demeanor, he seems an improbable catalyst for such unflinching loyalty, especially considering that he didn't begin his career as a songwriter.

With a self-deprecation that seems as natural as a bad habit, he says his first musical foray was as an "inept" rhythm guitarist in a pop band called the Ride in late-'80s San Diego, where he was studying art and sociology at San Diego State. Granfaloon Bus began when Costanza and the Ride's drummer, Sean Padillo, and bassist, Andy Matt, decided they didn't like the group's singer and guitarist; the trio split off to form another band -- with Costanza as unlikely leader.

"Everyone pretty much looked at me and said, "You sing. You write the songs,'" recalls Costanza, who has no idea why they suggested it. To this day he's still uncomfortable with being the artistic leader of the group. "I don't ever want to be caught on tape saying that I'm a creative person," he says, drawing laughter from his bandmates. "If [someone] thinks I'm creative, then fine."

If Costanza lacks creativity, more songwriters should be so artistically barren. In little more than 10 years Granfaloon Bus has put out two 7-inch singles and six full-length records, with another slated for release at the end of February.

The band debuted with It's All Just Parlor Tricks while it was still in San Diego in 1991, then moved to San Francisco the following year for the release of A Love Restrained on Discobolus Records. After some lineup juggling, the group switched to German label Trocadero Records for 1996's Rocket Noon, 1997's Sleeping Car, and 1999's Good Funeral Weather. (In the U.S., Palmer handled distribution for Good Funeral Weather through his own label, Boxkite Records.)

With help from Trocadero, Granfaloon Bus toured Germany and other parts of Europe four times. While the band remains relatively obscure locally and stateside, its reception overseas has been enthusiastic.

In a review of Good Funeral Weather, the British magazine New Music Express said the band's songs "exhume fragments of Americana that have escaped the vacuum of suburbia, giving voice and resonance to the geographical and emotional backroads of the rural fringe." Another review by the London Times said the Bus "offers a warm and friendly alternative to the scary rural art-rock of avant-hillbillies Will Oldham or Souled American." And the German edition of Rolling Stone gave Rocket Noon and Sleeping Car four stars each.

"I think every year we have five new fans," jokes Green about the Bus' low profile in America. "So we're doing pretty well -- we're up to 35 [fans]."

Last year Granfaloon Bus released Necks and Backs, a collection of outtakes, live songs, and one dub remix. Most likely, the record also would have been released on Trocadero if there hadn't been some concern among band members over mysteriously absent past royalties. While they have no regrets, the rift leaves Granfaloon Bus label-shopping for its next full-length, Exploded View, which was recently recorded with longtime producer Greg Freeman.

Nailing a record deal poses a particular problem for the band, which defies traditional categorization. "It's certainly not country," Costanza says of his music. "We have people who say, "Oh, you should try this [country] label, like Bloodshot or something, and [we do] and they say, "Well, you're not country enough.' And then we send it to other labels and they're like, "Well, we like it but it's too country.'"

"What I think Todd is trying to say is that if we try to pass ourselves off as a country band, any country music band or any country music bar or any country music record label would tell us to get the fuck out," says Palmer bluntly.

Whether Granfaloon Bus likes it or not, though, there are some similarities between its music and what most people call country -- or at least altcountry, a label Green insists he can live with (despite cries of protest from his bandmates).

For one thing, Costanza sings with a heavy twang, pronouncing "or" as "er" so "corn" sounds like "kern." And though Costanza's lyrics paint dark and diverse landscapes unlike those by, say, Hank Williams or Buck Owens, many songs include the obligatory references to beer, sadness, and lost love -- the stuff of which traditional country songs are made. Meanwhile, the band's acoustic/electric guitar mix and occasional waltz tempos walk a decidedly dusty trail.

That said, some of Granfaloon Bus' elements could drive a gulf as wide as the Tonkin between the band and other roots-rockers. For instance, Costanza's lyrics tackle traditional fare in unusual ways: On "Believers," he sings, "Both in the ground before plastic could improve their lives," to evoke the time period when his characters lived. Other lyrics, as in the song "Say Cheese," tread between obscure and unsettling: "Like crying and moaning from pain and dying, without ever trying, she buried us/ ... And there's candy bar and Tecate remains."

On the whole, Costanza's lyrics focus more on characters than choruses, while the band crafts complex song structures with idiosyncratic chord progressions and Palmer's loose and lazy indie-rock drumming. Granfaloon Bus albums also feature the eerie warble of Palmer's saw and a host of guest musicians playing not only a variety of horns and strings, but also more exotic instruments such as the sousaphone and the oscillator.

Perhaps the most essential disparity between the outfit and traditional country groups is the sheer audacity of Green's lead guitar riffs. Take a song like "Seeded Clouds," the first track on Good Funeral Weather. Opening with acoustic guitar and muffled drums, the tune glides through several stream-of-consciousness verses, building toward a trumpet-laced crescendo where Green's electric guitar shatters the atmosphere like a thunderclap. Picture the shock of waking from a pleasant dream to discover that your house is being broken into. Green's guitar is that disruptive.

As they do about most things, the bandmates joke about Green's incongruous guitar outbursts. "He's been in the band the second-longest, so he feels like he can step on our toes if he wants by playing those big, loud solos," Costanza says. He adds that Green rarely plays the same riff twice in the studio, making for some mighty experimental sessions. "Occasionally he creates a hook that we force him to memorize after it's recorded," Costanza says of Green's tendency to noodle between verses.

"Other stuff that he does we listen to in the studio [and say], "My God, he kind of fucked that thing up,'" Stevenson adds. "Then we listen to it a little more and we say, "Hey, that's kind of cool, let's leave it.'"

Granfaloon Bus will showcase its unconventional formula at the Make-Out Room on Jan. 28 -- first with songs from the upcoming album and then with older material. In between the band will screen a collection of its videos, each filmed by a local artist (including Jim Barton, who directed the infamous "Got Milk?" commercial with the peanut butter-licking dog).

If the clips prove anything, it's Costanza's assertion that his impressionistic lyrics are open to interpretation. For instance, the video for "1/2 a Beer, 1/2 a Song" shows a man riding his bike around the city while collecting various objects off the street; meanwhile, Costanza sings a very different tale of misery and family woes.

"I don't want someone to come away from a song with a story in mind," says Costanza. "I want them to have ... images etched in their brains [that] make them come up with their own stories. I hear people say what they think songs are about, and that's more interesting than if you know exactly what they're about."

"I have the benefit of hearing Todd's songs early on, and still it takes me sometimes a year to draw my conclusion as to what it means for me, or to even think that I understand what the lyrics are," says Palmer. "That's how [Costanza's songs] are -- they're complex."

"There's also the fact that there's so many more words in his songs than in most people's, and the lines all work out perfectly," Stevenson says. "It rhymes when it needs to rhyme and if it doesn't need to rhyme, it doesn't. But everything fits in there and it's all perfectly phrased."

Costanza has been listening quietly to his bandmates' praise. When he does finally speak, it's true to form, giving credit to them for contributing as much -- if not more -- to the success of the Bus' songs.

"The formula has always been the same," Costanza says. "I've never written any of the parts except my own, and I've always played with people who are the creative ones [in terms of] fleshing everything out and coming up with their own ideas -- people who know what they're doing and have good ideas."

About The Author

Elizabeth Montalbano


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