Life on Planet GRiZ
Grant Kwiecinski is a lover of the turn up. For the uninitiated, “turning up” loosely means driving life forward at an 11 — grinding the pedal to the floor. To exist in a world of excess. It’s a lifestyle few can manage, but in the case of Kwiecinski and his alter ego GRiZ, he flourishes.
The Detroit-bred/Boulder-residing DJ and producer of the self-characterized future-funk and electro-soul genres is currently riding everything out at the top of a prosperous career. His new funk-inspired album “Say It Loud” is considered to be one of the few forward-thinking releases in the EDM atmosphere by critics, and tickets are quickly being scooped up for his headlining gig at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre this summer. Shit’s getting real.
The one constant I’ve come to realize with any interview like this one is all musicians are people, too. There’s a childhood, experimentation, fucking up, struggle — all things that make us human. Each story is in its own way unique, but all have qualities which make them the same.
Pulling up to the house, I see a crew sitting on the front patio awaiting everyone’s arrival. GRiZ offers a greeting hand as we walk up. Decked in his favorite striped shirt, a black “All Good Records” hat and low-ridden skinny jeans, he introduces himself through orange-tinted glasses and hurries to finish breakfast, or lunch, or whatever, depending on what time schedule everyone is on right now.
We follow one another inside and decide on the best possible area to shoot the cover. Texture and dope smoke is what we want. Naturally. Walking around, the whiffs of unburned weed ghosts around the downstairs living area and equipment is lovingly propped against most of the walls — as if everyone had been gone for an extended period of time.
“I just got back from New Orleans,” GRiZ says leading everyone into his studio. “It’s quickly becoming my favorite city. It got turnt.”
Where a single family would normally have an office or guest bedroom on the main floor, GRiZ has a recording area. It’s a room lit by a large window facing the front yard and the walls are covered in white boards peppered with a few show posters of conquests past.
In the back of the room is a square coffee table — settled amongst collected, unplugged keyboards — which houses an aluminum weed grinder and a stack of rolling papers. We all pull up seats to the edge of the surface and GRiZ throws up his feet and begins the careful process of rolling multiple joints for the cover’s photo.
In a few moments time he finishes the first of many and laughs over his ability to finally roll a functional joint. “We all used to suck at walking,” he says of the first time he tried using rolling papers. “But look at us now!”
Growing up outside of Detroit, Michigan, Grant Kwiecinski was a typical kid going through the motions of discovering his own identity. His fondness of music happened early on, with the genres of the times shaping his understanding of culture. He began producing his own music at 14 years old, but had played instruments with school bands well before that.
While it would be a few years before the economy’s collapse, Detroit’s rug had already been yanked out from under it with the depletion of the auto industry. Throughout his formative years, he would watch the city go from a bustling metropolis to a barren land of what once was. He never took too much notice, though, aside from watching the unused buildings destroyed because of their dilapidated state. He says he was too busy being immersed in the weird, electronic counter-culture to care what was really going on.
“Detroit, it honestly was such a good place to be,” says GRiZ. “There’s a lot of struggle and pain that gets put into a lot of the art out there. It’s really honest shit.”
All while immersing himself in the vibe of Detroit, GRiZ says he had his first experience with weed around middle school and the fascination of it snowballed from there. Like many others, selling the in-demand plant became a staple of his group to earn extra income. Between deep inhales and exhales of dancing, velvet-lined smoke, he recalls the time he and his brother began an episode of black market profits.
“My brother and I, we spent time between my mom’s and my dad’s house,” he says, tapping an almost finished joint on the table. ”We convinced my mom to give us some money when we were going to our dad’s house. She gave us fifty bucks a piece — we had a hundred bucks — and we were like, ‘Yo, this is not enough for the week, what do we do to make this money grow?’
“And so we each invested fifty bucks — we got the rest of it fronted to us — and bought an ounce. From then on I don’t think my brother has ever stopped selling weed. He’s been doing that shit for-ev-er!”
But the thriving underground industry continues to be lit with beacons of legislative outlets — something his brother turned to for a profitable venture.
“He’s on some marijuana-delivery type of business right now and is killing it,” he says, concentrating deeply on another roll.
The kind of weed packed into the dozen-or-so sticks rolling around the table in front of us is special to GRiZ — and not just because of its legalized availability. It’s his weed: The “Original GRiZ Kush (OGK).” It’s a collective branding venture between his camp and Native Roots, a local recreation and medical dispensary.
For now he says the experimentation of labeling his own strain is just for fun. Given the industry’s track record, however, it’s likely something the world will see more of in the coming years. GRiZ is just ahead of the game. As always.
Another hour winds through with random small-talk popping up about everything from the shady nature of the economic collapse to what type of dog would best fit someone with a demanding schedule — and even how he once married two of his friends in Michigan, obtaining the proper certification from an obscure online church.
But it’s Boulder, and the outdoors summon us as it does everyone with a beating heart. We need sun, booze and some lunch. The business party decides to move out to a nearby patio. GRiZ is visibly stoned, and even wonders aloud why we’d let him navigate crowded walkways. “I’m way too stoned to do this,” he says laughing.
A few blocks later and we all pull chairs up to a secluded spot on Pearl Street, tucked neatly away from the roaring mall-walkers. GRiZ is excited to finally speak about the new album.
In the past, building songs for GRiZ was about taking someone else’s ideas and clipping short 3 to 4 second parts to Lego together a workable form. It was a “sonic collage,” like taking old magazine clippings that spoke to his own life, and reordering them to make songs he enjoyed.
“With those I would add my own synthetic sounds, or saxophone, or piano, or whatever; but it wasn’t creating my own songs from scratch,” says GRiZ. “I was using other bodies of work to help me paint the picture.”
Muffled through intermittent bites of his honey-glazed sriracha wings, GRiZ explains how the new record is wholly about the pure creative process to avoid sampling. “I don’t want to get sued,” he says bluntly. “Copyright infringement is very expensive. So what it’s turned into, it’s like creating an original body of work to create my own collage from. That was the mission.”
It’s a style that doesn’t necessitate sitting around the studio forming entire songs in one session, or even having a definitive plan for an end result. It’s about recording multiple snippets of inspiration and using those to build the finished soundscape — a massive harmonic puzzle taken from a brimming grab-bag full of possibilities.
The journey to create “Say It Loud” began back in Detroit after his Rebel Era Tour in 2013 came to an end. He was working on a set of promotional photos when he met a guy by the name of Joshua Hanford, a Detroit-based photographer, who introduced him to a local group named Will Sessions — a powerhouse in the funk, soul and experimental realm in Detroit. The lot of them bonded immediately during a successful, open-form jam session.
“(Then) in NY I did the same thing, but took more of a formulated approach,” says GRiZ. “I’ve never recorded with a band before so I didn’t know what to do, or what to expect. They’re gonna play shit their way, but you’re gonna want shit to happen your way. So you have to delegate this work, but then you don’t want to lose their unique style and their flavor — the stuff they’re going to magically bring out by pushing them to do one thing or another.”
The sessions were GRiZ’s first experience of being in a real band. He had sat in on others’ practices before, but never before worked this closely with musicians in a group atmosphere — aside from his school ensembles. But even then he was booted from the marching band, so he’s not sure that one really counted.
“For smoking weed?” I ask.
“No, no,” he says laughing, wiping his mouth of escaped chicken bits. “I wish the story was cooler. I was studying for exams and I missed a practice to study and got kicked out. My band director was a crazy guy. It was like (the movie) ‘Whiplash’ — if you’ve ever seen that?”
From each of his sessions thereafter, GRiZ says he amassed a ridiculous amount of recordings. Everything he had to work with boiled down to a “bunch of hectic funk breaks and little soul sample things — tons of it.” He relentlessly tried putting them together in a working fashion, but couldn’t do it. He admits the process was initially worthless, and something he struggled with to overcome.
“I’m sitting there trying to put together these songs and I hated it,” he says. “It just sucked. I was trying to do one thing and it didn’t sound like GRiZ — it was trying to be something else.”
Taking a step back and reevaluating the process was the only thing to snap him back into a proper, creative frame of mind.
“My approach was wrong,” he acknowledges, biting into another wing. “So what I ended up doing was completely rethinking and re-conceptualizing the approach. I decided to make these electro, funky, soulful, banging, hip-hop things, instead of trying to make it one-hundred percent organic sounding. I just wanted it to sound badass; it wasn’t sounding badass.”
And for the first time in his life he was writing vocals for his own songs. Creating those took him all over the map, from targeting Mike Avery in Chicago, to a children’s choir in Los Angeles, and even tapping Ivan Neville of Dumpstaphunk (and son of the iconic Aaron Neville) in New Orleans.
“The Neville’s are a mad prolific funk family,” he says with his glossy eyes widening, “they’re a dynasty.”
The result is a squelching 11-track banger that leads listeners through sax-heavy sonic environments with little breathing room for tea. Every soulful event is its own party, with notable collaborations ranging from locals Sunsquabi to All Good label mates The Floozies. Even hip-hop legend Talib Kweli lays out addictive vocals on “For The Love.”
He doesn’t care about sought after genre distinctions, either; at least he never mentions it. Because when we talk about the direction of the sound he was after, he never relies on specific terms, or claiming to target one demographic instead of the other. He says he simply went out to search for whatever moved him and to grab things that felt genuine. Constraints of labels were broken through the process.
So goes the world of electronic-based musicians and the open-ended world they’ve created. Few are tied to the rules, traditions and leeching contracts of major labels. DJs often rely solely on the buzz created online through free distribution and social media accounts. Electronic dance music has torn away at old-school techniques, and GRiZ feels he’s able to keep up with the quickly evolving game because he throws himself into every facet of the persona he’s created.
“Everything is a part of the creative process at this point,” he says. “Planning, delegating work … everything. I helped design merchandise and did a lot of the graphic work too. I always want to stay involved and on top of everything. I like to keep my hands dirty.”
He’ll have plenty to do while staying involved this summer in anticipation of his headlining gig at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Sept 4. A two-month long tour to support the new album is currently under way through April and May, which will have him crisscrossing the states with nearly a show every night — many of them sold out already. With that he says he’s always in “GRiZ mode,” writing, recording and planning.
What he and his team have in store for the big night at The Rocks is still under lock and key, but they hardly plan on throwing away the opportunity to do some “crazy shit.”
“The idea is to create an environment to the show,” says GRiZ. “Not just something to look at, but something to experience and be a part of. We’re trying to do something there that’s never been done before.
“It’s a great responsibility to do something up to par with people who have been doing such crazy and awesome things (at Red Rocks). I just want to do something that honors the place and the spirit of it. Everyone cares about that place. You get an opportunity to do a big show, you’re not gonna not seize the fucking moment.”
Sitting beside an artist about to take his own stage at the world-renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre in front of over 9,000 fans chanting, dancing and singing along to toiled over creations always carries intrigue. Here he is, a man on the short list of artists given a gift of rare opportunities; and here he is, laughing and carrying on with friends, stoned, enjoying a comfortable afternoon just like everyone else.
At the end of the day, it’s his dive into the ethos of GRiZ that keeps him moving to the sound of his own beats. Maybe he’s aware of the impact naming his own strain will be on the future of cannabis, or how the headlining experience will alter his existence — maybe he isn’t. Either way, it doesn’t appear to stifle an otherwise humble demeanor who still holds a purist’s attitude of living life the way he sees fit. He’s sometimes Grant, he’s sometimes GRiZ, but at all times he’s a creator — one who hopes to share a relentless blend of funky electro-soul to the rest of the world for good.