In Session: James Kwapisz, of Grampfather

KINGSTON – Released February 25th, Gramppappies, from Grampfather demonstrates – and demonstrates well – the importance of thematic concepts in records. While the sounds blistering out of the record never seem to stay in one place for too long (a veritable melting pot of genres, if you will), the cohesion of this body of work is not only heard in self-referential lyrics and titles – see “Large Garbage” and “The Grampening,” for example – but also in the way the songwriting and technical prowess is approached. An album that soars in sonic passages in some areas, and sits extremely chill-like in others, this makes for quite the interesting listen!

“Murder Hornets,” the album’s opener, serves as a great example of the band’s songwriting style; the vocal melodies are often matched or mimicked by the guitar, and in this case, harmonica. While the following track, “The Myspace Tom Continuum” (let’s take a brief moment to realize what a quirky title that is, eh?) features more of the same, by the third track, listeners start to really hear the multifaceted levels of creative influence the band holds.

In “Doom and Bloom,” track three, parts of this song sound so dreamy that it feels reminiscent of some psychedelic music of the late 60s. The tremolo arm on the guitar being used helps to add to this effect. That being said, the underlying cohesive vibe of the band’s sound still pervades. Other great examples of this particular vibe from Grampfather can also be found on “Poppies” and “Weeding,” tracks six and seven, respectively.

Though it’s true that Grampfather’s technical vocabulary on their instrument is on full-display throughout most of this record, “Thad B. Radd,” track five, and “Odd Times for Odd Times,” track eight, really bring that aspect of the band to light. In the former song, while the instrumental is fairly straightforward – musically speaking – the gang-vocal that sits on top of the music does so in a polyrhythmic way. It’s in this manner that listeners get the sense that Grampfather isn’t your standard rock and roll band, a fact even further exemplified by the latter tune. In “Odd Times for Odd Times,” the piece begins in 7/8. It’s only throughout the conclusion of their jam section – when the vocals enter – that the groove switches to a much more common 4/4. By the end of the track, the feel once again goes to 7/8; a really grooving piece of music!

Serving as the concluding bookend to their album, “The Grampening” calls back into listeners’ ears the musical motifs of the album’s intro track. While some may or may not be a fan of the music – a lot of it is very “in your face,” so-to-speak – it is the view of this author that very few could be able to say they make art without a vision. There’s a definite purpose, vibe, and construct to this record, and one that I really enjoyed. The art grew on me continuously as the record moved along!

Over the weekend I had the chance to sit down with James Kwapisz, the vocalist, guitarist, bassist, and keyboardist of Grampfather. What follows is our conversation. Continue reading to catch our discussion of the album, creative influences, plans for the band’s future, and more! To support the band, please follow the link at the end of the article.

Lucas Garrett: Thank you, James, for taking the time today to talk about the new album, Gramppappies.

James Kwapisz: Sure!

LG: How’s everything going?

JK: Everything’s going good. I’m just in Long Island watching my mom’s dogs for the week. I’m working on the new album; all the music’s written, I just have to write the lyrics and vocal parts.

LG: This album, Gramppappies… There’s a lot on there, musically. Tell us a bit about your creative influences.

JK: My favorite right now is King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, from Australia; psych-rock, genre-bending band. Which is kind of what we’re aiming for, as well. Starting out, I’d say Modest Mouse and Broken Social Scene. Indie-rock bands like that. The Strokes and whatnot.

LG: Mhm.

JK: I feel that’s all blended in there.

LG: There’s a punk-rock aesthetic, but there’s also a lot of progressive rock elements in there, as well. It’s a really unique sounding record. I had a hard time putting my finger on what I was listening to. Not because it was unusual, in a sense, but because it was all over the place; you went from easier parts to really technical parts. So, given the pandemic, how do you feel being on the other end of this? How do you feel the music world is adapting to our “new normal?”

JK: As far as playing shows after COVID and whatnot?

LG: Yeah.

JK: I don’t know… I feel comfortable with it now – it comes and goes in waves, like when Omicron was surging. Apparently, it’s coming back now… I hope not. As long as everyone’s safe and they’re not spewing particles all over each other and being smart about it, then I think it’d be fine.

I’m going to be like that guy from Florida who was yelling at kids for wearing masks. But, on the other end, I’m not going to guilt people for not wearing masks. There’s a good middle ground between there – you have to see both sides.

LG: It’s a new world out there, at least that’s how I feel.

JK: Yeah, for sure.

LG: It’s like there’s a certain – which I feel your album encapsulated well – level of uneasiness out there.

JK: Yeah, definitely. ‘Cause we put out an album in 2020, Magnum Grampus, that’s all about the multiple tragedies that came to define 2020: the pandemic; social justice issues. So, this album is coming from the hopelessness of the abyss to then trying to – with all that knowledge of what has happened – be like, how to be hopeful. The darkness isn’t a great way to conduct your life; you’re angry and frustrated all the time.

That’s why the record starts off very abrasive, coming out of the last album, because that ended with a song called “Sludgment Day,” which was like descending into the pit of hell. So, I figured with “Murder Hornets,” that it’d be kind of like coming out of that. We still have those thrashy songs, like “Thad B. Radd.” I would say this is our self-titled album, although it’s not called Grampfather. Gramppappies is drawing attention to the pluralization; the guys are contributing more than in past albums where it’s been me doing most of the writing and everything.

Photo credit: Kiki Vassilakis

LG: When I looked at the album and saw “Murder Hornets,” I was like, “OK, what am I getting into here?” It was an interesting title and definitely an interesting intro track. What I really like about your writing is that you’re very self-referential, either in the music or the words themselves.

JK: What are you thinking of?

LG: I liked how “The Grampening” was a bookend to the intro. On track four, you referenced “Doom and Bloom,” and I thought that was a really neat call-back.

JK: Yeah, I think it’s cool to do that – either with lyrics or motifs, to kind of make an album seem more cohesive.

LG: It seemed really cohesive when I listened to your record.

JK: Thank you. I think I got the idea from Dr. John. Some of the choruses of his songs you’d think would be called one song, but then you’d look back and it was referencing another song on the album. As far as motifs go, I tried to bring it full circle with “The Grampening,” to a similar vibe of “Murder Hornets.” It literally has the same riff but played differently.

LG: I think for those that are really into that will really appreciate that when they hear it. As a musician myself, it stood out to me and made me go, “OK.” It made sense. Even though I hadn’t heard the album ‘til yesterday, it made it feel familiar, you know?

JK: Mhm. I’m glad it’s working out. I think that having been in the Upstate New York music scene for a while and hanging out with musicians all the time, I feel like writing for other musicians. Being a band’s band is always a plus. It gives you those Easter eggs to dig up; it makes it more interesting.

But, yeah, I went to school for writing and I feel like when you’re writing for writers, you have that kind of input-output perspective that makes it more weighted and interesting. Rather than just writing for someone who’s reading for pleasure. Whenever I’m reading something or listening to music, I think, “What are they doing there; why are they putting it right there?”

LG: There’s a lot of that in your record. It’s really interesting to listen to.

JK: Yeah, it’s kind of two-fold. You don’t always want to be analyzing things…

LG: Right.

JK: … I wouldn’t have done that there or something like that. But, you gotta step back and enjoy it. Some songs, like “Poppies,” are catchy. “Poppies” and “Doom and Bloom” have memorable melodies to them.

LG: I like how you tied the vocal to whatever the riff was, and vice versa. I feel that really stuck out and is a big part of your writing style.

JK: Yeah, I’m always amazed by people that write lyrics first and then the music. It’s always been the opposite for me. I feel the music conjures the vibe, or mood, or whatever. That, in turn, kind of inspires the word to come about.

LG: How long does it take you to write a song?

JK: Hard to say.

LG: All over the place?

JK: Yeah. Some songs will take a day to a week, and then “Doom and Bloom…” I’ve been playing that main riff for years, now. I never knew what to do with it. We were just like, “Let’s a verse here, and then…” That way it wasn’t the same thing over and over. That’s a big aspect of writing: not overdoing something and bringing aspects back to make it seem like a cohesive whole.

You were saying before that it’s sometimes super proggy.

Photo credit: Kiki Vassilakis

LG: Mhm.

JK: I feel the way to use odd time signatures, for example…

LG: “Odd Times for Odd Times” is really interesting…

JK: Yeah, when it’s the palm muted “chiller part,” it’s 6/8 then 7/8. When it drops it’s just 7/8. It has a very interesting feel to it. It’s not that difficult of a riff to play, or anything. When you add or subtract a beat, it’ll just change the vibe.

LG: It grabbed the ear; little ear candy here and there.

JK: I feel if a whole song is in 19/8 it’s going to be kind of tedious. When you break it up like that, it makes it more interesting to listen to. I realized after the fact the song title had a double or triple entendre as far as the structure of the song goes.

LG: As a songwriter – I often have a time when I’m making a new record, or whatever, to know when the song is done. Do you have that problem? It’s hard for me to know when a piece is done being what it is, you know?

JK: Yeah. Definitely. I think it’s more so that I struggle with that in the mixing process because you obsess over the bass or… You got to walk away from it and come back because when you come back it’ll sound completely different. As far as writing, for better or worse, Spotify has urged musicians to make shorter songs…

LG: I don’t know how I feel about that…

JK: This’ll be our most accessible album (Gramppappies). We have plans to make a new album called 666G because it’s our sixth album and to satirize the overly paranoid. It’ll be a little post-rock-y, psych-rock… I’m going to kind of abandon that three- or four-minute constraint – some songs will be there but others I think I’m going to go in the ten-minute range to go on an adventure that’s not so constrained by that pop structure. It’s great to use but I think it’s more interesting when you start from that structure and then take some detours.

LG: Besides the new album you’re working on right now, what else can we expect from the band?

JK: We’re playing a bunch up in Albany. We’re doing the WCDB festival because the album, Gramppappies, got nominated for “Best Album of the Year.”

LG: Congratulations.

JK: Thank you! Then, we’re playing at No Fun in Troy on June 23rd. We have all our shows listed on our website. We’re just playing around New York and this area; we’re trying to book out-of-state shows, as well. It’s always good to have a good radius from your hometown. Start there and then span out.

LG: Thanks again for your time!

JK: It was great talking to you.

LG: You too, dude.

JK: Hope to see you at a show and meet you in person.

LG: Have a great week.

JK: You too. Bye.

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