Prinz Grizzley and his Beargaroos – Chris Comper Interview
My first encounter with Chris Comper was at Kilkenny Roots in 2017, when he and his band – Prinz Grizzley and his Beargaroos - played no fewer than six shows on the Smethwick’s Free Trail over the weekend. The appearances made quite an impression on the festival organisers and punters alike, to the extent that they were invited back this year. On this occasion they were booked as a premier act, performing two showcase gigs together with being invited to play the festival ‘wind down’ party on the final day of the festival. It is no coincidence that 2018 has also found them playing at The Static Roots Festival in Germany and being invited to play shows at Americana Fest in Nashville in September. However, what might appear as overnight success is far from the case, Comper has been working tirelessly over the past number of years to establish himself and his band in a sometimes-overheated European market, competing with the countless number of visiting American and Canadian acts together with artists closer to home. While reviewing the Austrian’s 2017 Come On Inalbum in Lonesome Highway it was summed up as "a joy from start to finish, nothing new or ground breaking, simply good lived in music that hits the spot from an unexpected source." We caught up with Comper, while at home drawing breath between tours to get the low down.
Austria is well acclaimed musically, with Vienna considered the European Capital of classical music. However, not many roots bands have emerged from Austria. Where did your enthusiasm for country music originate from and what artists and albums pointed you in that direction career wise?
Apart from all the mix tapes (CCR, Bruce Springsteen, Status Quo) my father passed on to me, he gave me a Bellamy Brothers Best of Cassette as a gift. I loved the melodies and the harmonies of them, have to admit I still do. I guess from then on countryesque music had a place in my heart. Later on, I was really into Oasis at that time, but also lent my ears to Ryan Adams, a friend gave me a copy of John Hiatt´s Crossing Muddy Waters. The honesty and power of that record really blew my mind, from then on, I knew one day I would try that kind of music myself. And then when I made demos for the first songs of what would become my debut album, I still wasn´t sure in what kind of environment I would place them, until Daniel Romano´s "Come Cry With Me" hit my horizon. I knew then that pedal steel was the way to go. Not to forget the Album Harvest by Neil Young, I bought that CD 3 times because of the heavy use of it!
I get the impression you’re a particularly structured individual. Well-rehearsed sets, top quality instruments, well packaged album with great artwork and one of the few bands that always have their setlists printed! Is it important for you that every box is ticked correctly?
To tick every box is my way of working, structure keeps my wheel turning, otherwise I couldn´t handle everything alone. There´s my family, my full time job, booking shows, writing songs etc... Sometimes I should have a 25 hours day or a manager.
Tell me about the song writing for your current album Come On In. What was the starting point and over what period were the songs written?
The oldest song on the album is Personal Hell, I wrote it about 8 years back for a friend of mine. I Can See Darkness and Fiery EyesI shortly wrote after the release of the last Golden Reef album in 2012, I guess. They have been around for a while. All the other songs on the album I wrote shortly before I recorded them, I would say none was older than 6 months. Most came pretty easy after I knew in which direction I wanna go.
Which came first, the words or the music?
That depends, if I have a kind of topic in my mind or some kind of feeling is hunting me. When it’s a topic thing its words first, when it’s a feeling always music. And I try to stick to one rule, chorus first.
There are a lot of heartache and pleas for forgiveness and redemption on the album’s lyrics, often camouflaged by the upbeat music that accompanies them. Did you write of personal experiences or entirely fictional?
In every song is a bit of me, that´s why I am writing songs.
Is opening track Wide Open Country particularly confessional?
The track Walls, is a particular favourite of mine, recalling Ryan Adams' Jacksonville City Lights period. It’s not a song that you perform in your shows?
Walls is a very personal song, I wrote it after I visited my Grandpa in the nursing home for the first time. It was his lifetime nightmare to spend his last days in such an environment, but there was no other option. After his third stroke he lost control over his body and wasn´t able to talk or walk anymore. When I looked in his eyes I saw the strong man that I knew was gone, his eyes were empty and that broke my heart. I had real troubles to do the vocals for this song, until I really reconnected with that very day of my visit. Then I did it in one take and after that I was in tears. I guess to do this song live, I need to separate myself from the emotion of it, but I haven´t found a way of doing this yet. That´s why it’s not on the setlist.
The artwork and packaging on the album are impressive but very dark. Was that a reflection of your state of mind at that time or purely to create an ambience?
Never thought of this, maybe it was both. All I know, the artwork fits the songs perfectly!! In my opinion.
Recalling your early band Golden Reef, do you feel they would have made a breakthrough in the indie rock genre given the breaks and what did you learn from the experiences in that band?
I would say in those days indie rock was a battlefield, so many good bands especially from the UK. If you hadn't the luck to get signed or have at least a good manager you were lost in the thick of this forest. What I learned is, if there is no one helping you then help yourself, don’t wait, just do it yourself. When one door closes another one opens up.
How have you changed as a writer and musician since your early days with that band?
Can´t say, still hunting those songs and try to make that guitar work. But I would say I am more focused on finishing a song than I was 10 years ago. I think this came with my kids, if you have ten minutes until the baby cries for food you take the idea and try to make it work.
Things have really come together for you and your band in a relatively short period of time with appearances at Kilkenny Roots Festival in Ireland, Static Roots in Germany and upcoming showcases at Americana Fest in Nashville. What triggered this and have you medium to long term plans going forward?
Kilkenny was really good to me and the band. John Cleere gave me the opportunity. I took it, we went there and played our hearts out, did six 90 minutes sets in four days and luckily the people liked what they heard. It opened a lot of doors for me. But I still have to work hard for everything, every gig, every opportunity. No time to put the feet up.
Pedal steel gets pride of place both on the album and at your shows bringing much of your material to another level. How important is that sound to you?
Like you said, the Pedal steel takes my songs to another level and also gives a sweet touch to my sometimes growling voice.
Is it feasible for you to survive concentrating on the European market or do you need to look further afield?
I think the European scene is really good, especially the UK, there are a lot of places to play and every place is easy to reach. I mean, there´s a good reason why so many American and Canadian bands coming over to play one tour after the other. As a European artist to tackle the American market, you need at least some kind of a hit or an album that can keep up with the big guns. One step after another!
Are you working on a follow up album to Come On In and if so will it travel a similar musical path?
In fact, I will be in the studio later this year. But I have written so many songs over the last two years that I could make more than just one album. The songs go from blues to folk to country and even a bossa nova, we will see which ones make the cut. So, there should be an album coming next year.
Interview by Declan Culliton