ABOVE: BENJAMIN LAUB, AKA GRIEVES. IMAGE COURTESY OF JENAVIEVE BELAIR
From his emotionally raw lyrics and soulful vocals to the instrumentation he employs in his songs, Benjamin Laub, who performs as rapper Grieves, is meticulous with the production of his sound, offering an intellectual and melodic acuity that sets him apart as something new and harder to define.
Shortly after releasing his first album, Irreversible, Grieves was signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment, a label that represents some of the most talented names in the underground hip-hop circuit. Since then, he has released an EP, The Confessions of Mr. Modest, and two albums, 88 Keys and Counting and 2011’s Together/Apart. The latter is a candid rumination of a man bringing his life into kaleidoscopic focus, if only to reflect on the broken fragments of love lost and time passed.
The last year has been a challenging one for Grieves. In the midst of promoting Together/Apart and working on material for his next album, a fire at his newly built Seattle studio proved to be difficult to recover from, both financially and creatively. Grieves has since regained his momentum and is currently on tour with the reggae band Pepper, which will be followed up by his headlining “Back On My Grizzly” tour and a new album out early next year.
LEA WEATHERBY: How long have you lived in Seattle, and what keeps you there with music?
GRIEVES: I have lived in Seattle off and on for the last nine years. It’s a special little place. I never intended to end up there. I grew up in Colorado, and after I graduated, I decided that I couldn’t be there anymore. Eventually I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll just go to college.” I went to college in Olympia to be a teacher, and I ended up meeting a bunch of rap kids and linking up with this label called Seven Hills in Seattle, and I was driving up there twice a week. By the end of that year, I transferred schools and went to Seattle, and I’ve been there ever since.
WEATHERBY: With rap, it’s obvious that rhythmically and lyrically you know how to make things work, but in terms of melody and vocals you’re also very talented. How and when did you decide to start exploring singing?
GRIEVES: Hip-hop wasn’t actually the genre that made me want to make sound, and I couldn’t actually really pinpoint what genre it was. Growing up, my favorite music was my parents’ music, and eventually I started to develop some taste of my own. Even so, all that soul and blues I was first introduced to really stuck with me and transferred over to the music that I ended up liking. Eventually, I got into punk rock, and there were bands like NOFX that I really liked because even though it was still the younger, edgier music, they would always put forward that melody, which really resonated with me.
WEATHERBY: Did Rhymesayers play a big role in that?
GRIEVES: Yeah, I discovered the whole Rhymesayers thing and also East Coast hip-hop, where they were using a lot of old classical loops that had a really beautiful sound, but then they’d also have aggression put over it, which was a very interesting concept to me. I’d listen to Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang and I’d think, “Whoa! Here are my dad’s old records and then there’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard yelling over one of these things.” For me that just felt like, “Holy shit, here it is.”
WEATHERBY: Is there anything you’re curious about or that you find a little scary that you might want to experiment with in the future?
GRIEVES: Lately, one thing I’ve been doing is a lot of vocal training for two reasons: To keep the voice healthy because no one ever taught me how to use my voice, so it was just another instrument that I wasn’t good at, but I could make sound out of. If I tried long and hard enough, I could eventually memorize and dial in a certain line and train my voice to do what I wanted, but I wasn’t doing it the right way. I was really tearing myself up, so hopefully the vocal training will first and foremost allow me to keep my voice and continue to tour and not sound like a 90-year-old man with a tracheotomy. And then of course just learning to sing better and learning why things are the way they are and how the vocal cords really work. When I get back, I’d like to incorporate musical theory as well. I dropped out of music school a little too early for that, because I started touring.
WEATHERBY: How do you handle touring; what’s that experience like for you?
GRIEVES: The reward that you get from it, the feeling that you get from it and the people that you meet, is something you can’t really match. I’m traveling around the world playing music. At the end of the day, it’s a crazy thing and yes, it is hard, on one’s body and mind, hard on personal relationships and family, but there’s no other way to do it.
WEATHERBY: What has the production and marketing side of the music business been like?
GRIEVES: Realistically, with the way the Internet has affected the music industry, there’s not a lot of ways for people like me to make money, and by that I don’t mean buy a fuckin’ house on the hill and get a Bugatti and shit like that. What I mean is that it takes a lot of money to make music and get it to people. It takes a lot of time to make a record sound good in a way that will set the Rhymesayers records apart from people that throw around that “independent” word. What it comes down to is, we are an independent label, with independent artists who have all mastered and learned our craft. And I could mix my own record, but I want you to get a product that when you put it in your CD player, people are like, “Oh shit!” That’s not cheap to achieve.
WEATHERBY: You’ve had kind of a difficult year as well.
GRIEVES: Yeah, I had a rough year. If I were a weaker man, I would have quit. Something is testing me, I’m not a religious man, so I’m not going to throw the God word around but something seems like a test right now. We just had to cancel a show last night because the damn van broke down. My van has broken down twice on tour, and I pretty much got booed offstage in Orlando!
WEATHERBY: Booed offstage?
GRIEVES: I mean, I didn’t actually get booed offstage, because I didn’t leave the stage, I just kept going, but they were chanting “Pepper!” It probably doesn’t hurt to give the ego a chop down once in a while, so I guess you could say Orlando humbled me [laughs].
WEATHERBY: I was just going to ask you how you think your music is translating with the reggae fan base that Pepper has.
GRIEVES: [laughs] It is a hit or a miss, it really is! The night before in St. Pete, we tore the fucking house down.
WEATHERBY: Your songs are pretty personal, you write about emotional topics often. How do you maintain a balance when it comes to sharing those parts of who you are with other people?
GRIEVES: Totally. On this tour, I’m not playing a very intimate set at all. I’m not taking it down to a track like “Falling From You,” or songs where it’s pretty much me and a guitar. We’re not getting too intimate, just because they don’t know me yet. I can do that with my fans, I can do that at my shows, but I can’t do that opening up for a group where we’re already, as far as genres are concerned, a long shot.
WEATHERBY: What’s coming up for you? What can we look forward to with your next album?
GRIEVES: I recorded it and I am in the process of mixing right now. But if all goes as planned, I think February we should drop the record. I can’t say much about the title yet, I know what I want to run with, but I’ve been advised to keep my mouth shut.
WEATHERBY: You’ve had some ups and downs this year, I was really sorry to hear the fire at your studio, but along with that you are experiencing quite a lot of success, how has that affected your music and your overall perspective on things?
GRIEVES: Good and bad, and I’ll take the good with the bad. It’s kind of a push-and-pull thing, because it definitely fuels the fire for you to want to create and talk about things, but it becomes very consuming when something like that happens. The fire really took over for quite a while; everything in my life was starting to revolve around that, and I couldn’t really escape it. It’s hard sometimes, in that kind of situation, not to write the same song over and over. It’s also hard to want to continue—I had nowhere to make music at that point. I didn’t even know if I could salvage the music I had made, luckily I was able to. Even so, it was hard to go to bed and wake up and feel like making music or being ultra-creative. It’s an emotional process, and in a way I feel that it’s good to have some tension in your life that no matter what, somehow you know you’re going to bounce back from.
GRIEVES PERFORMS WITH PEPPER AT WEBSTER HALL TOMORROW, SEPTEMBER 21. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.