Liam Grant | Interview | “DIY culture and a ton of outsider music”

Uncategorized July 8, 2024

Liam Grant | Interview | “DIY culture and a ton of outsider music”

Liam Grant, a 24-year-old guitarist from New England (USA), has emerged as a leading figure in the revival of American primitive guitar music.

His music reflects restless fingerpicking explorations, modal keys, and driving uptempo rags, evoking the landscapes of his upbringing along the banks of the Merrimack River.

“DIY culture and a ton of outsider music”

Could you tell me a bit about yourself? How old are you and where are you from?

I’m 24 years old and originally from Maine but grew up later in southern New Hampshire. I think a lot of people still associate me with NC because between 2018 and 2022 I was living in Boone and Todd and that’s where I really cut my teeth. I live in Boston now.

When did you start playing guitar?

I’m the youngest of 3 boys in my family. Growing up my dad’s guitars were around the house including the 12 string that I play now. Some of the first music I remember hearing was “That’s the Way the World Goes Around” and other John Prine covers that my dad used to play for us. He’d fingerpick and play us Neil Young and Lowell George too. I guess when you’re young you just assume that’s everyone’s experience, but in hindsight those are real tender memories.

My brothers picked it up in their teenage years but everyone was cagey about teaching me too much. I think everyone wanted to maintain the peace as much as possible and I was already much louder and over the top then I needed to be at 10 years old without a guitar in my hands. So the answer is I don’t know. Little by little over time, never seriously until much later.

Why did you start playing guitar? Was it the instrument itself, or another guitarist, or a specific record?

I caught the bug for all kinds of weirdo music when I was in highschool. I ran with a crowd that was a lot older than I was because I was 15 or whatever and was out riding bmx. I was never very good but it was my outlet. Kept me out of trouble, introduced me to DIY culture and a ton of outsider music and taught me to look at the world through a different lens.

I got really obsessed with country blues not long after that. Hearing Elizabeth Cotten for the first time set me down that path. It’s how I learned to fingerpick and to play by ear.

Always too broke and moving around too much to get into collecting 78s or much of anything for that matter but that stuff really uprooted my life. It’s all I would listen to for like two years. It just felt like I’d found this whole world so late. Patton, McTell, Broonzy, Barbeque Bob, Roosevelt Graves, Henry Thomas, Jazz Gillum, Bayless Rose, Furry Lewis, Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band, the Sheiks and the Chatmon family, I had so much catching up to do. So I totally cut
 off everything on the outside and refused to listen to anything else.

My Grandparents actually have a wood carved poster of Papa Charlie Jackson hanging in their house. It took me years to realize who it was, like this music had been looking at me right in the
face all that time.

But that’s what it’s like diving into all this stuff. That bender provided me with a lot of context for everything else I was hearing and would get into later.

Why did you choose an acoustic guitar over an electric one?

Like most things in life, coincidence and circumstance. Stumbling into things. It’s never planned or never goes according to plan, and in the end these kinda things find their way to you as much as you do to them.

But it’s also true that this is the only music that seemed to be expressing exactly what I was feeling, seeing, still trying to understand.

It felt like I’d found a couple of generations of players that understood exactly where I was coming from musically, came from the same influences and were just trying to compose music for the steel string guitar.

In a concert announcement, your music was described as “fingerpicking with a punk attitude and experimental elements.” What’s the “punk” element in your music? And what are the “experimental” parts?

Haha well probably because I’m proud of the underground. And I’m interested in being loud about that as opposed to using it like some kind of stepping stone. There are a ton of good people in the underground who are doing important thankless work like organizing shows, putting people up, making posters, running labels, hosting radio shows.

You know there is this entire economy that runs off of doing each other favors and otherwise runs off of very very little money. We put each other up on tour, we feed each other, welcome
each other into our lives and homes, help book shows, help put out music, make album covers, write liners, make spaces for this kind of thing to exist. We do everything ourselves and
everything together.

It’s a part of a long living diy legacy in a world that convinces people that they have to be a trained expert with a degree to take part in something meaningful. It’s not an accident that some of the first independent labels were based around acoustic music. Black Patti and later Fahey’s Takoma. Where do you think Dischord Records got it from?

And as much as it is about the music, it’s about people and community. It’s about doing it and making it possible for others to do. It’s about preserving something that deeply matters in a world of just easily digestible, easy to consume, watered down bullshit.

There’s nothing stopping anyone from just going out and doing it. There’s no barrier between artist and audience. There’s no bar for entry. If you want to be a part of it you just show up and contribute. That’s it. And no one will ask you for anything more than that. There’s nothing else like it.

And sure the underground certainly isn’t the promised land. But it is ours. Something truly by people, for people. And that matters a whole fucking lot to me.

Does that answer your question?

How does your environment influence you? Where exactly do you live, and is it where you grew up?

It’s everything. I’ll reiterate a bit of what I’ve written elsewhere in that I’m trying to make a soundscape of personal memoirs. The music is about places that I grew up around, formative memories, stories and people that aren’t around anymore and my life that’s continuing on. It’s a way of connecting the past with the present.

Both sides of my family have lived in two different parts of Maine for over 10 generations: Penobscot and Franklin county. My great grandmother Leona lived and died on the Dodlin Road and she was very proud of where she was from. A fiddle player, contradance caller, she kept a world map on her kitchen wall and an unabridged dictionary in her living room, consulting each as family members traveled around the world, as world events occurred or as family debates regarding correct grammar or word usage erupted.

Both my mom’s parents just passed away. 5 decades of antique and folk art collecting. Everything from the chairs they sat on to the rugs they walked on. Wood carvings, geese decoys, regional and local ephemera and old store signs from downtown hanging from their ceilings. They have a collection of early dry plate photographs, hand colored prints, that are some of my favorite pieces of visual art. Memories, little keepsakes, mementoes from friendships with those long past – living on through the things they kept and lived with. What a trove of information that’s gone now. What great storytellers whose stories I cannot hear anymore. Time passes, things change, people come and go. But I think in a lot of ways they were doing what I’m trying to do now. Except I’m not a very good storyteller, so this is the way I’ve chosen to go about it.

Have you ever sung while playing guitar? Have you played in bands? Have you ever tried a 12-string guitar?

I’ve actually been focused on 12 string for the last year, almost exclusively so the last few months. A lot of tracks for “Amoskeag” were originally slated for 12 string back in ‘22 but the guitar I had, the same guitar my dad played for us as kids, had some issues with it at the time so it was nearly impossible to keep in tune and the action was crazy high. “Stratton-Eustis” was
the only song that ended up being usable from a stash of 12 string material in that era. In spring of 2023 I had a more stable income and was really interested in getting that guitar set up right so that I could make it more of a central focus. That was a year ago now and it took about that long for both the instrument to really settle and for me to learn how to play it.

It’s a totally different animal from 6 string. Even the calluses you develop are completely different. The way you swing on it doesn’t translate the same. You have to be really precise and it never really wants to be in tune. It took me about a year to get to a place where I feel like I’m playing it right. Which in part was why it was the only guitar I brought to the EU this year, just to force that limitation of having no fall backs and no excuse but to make it my main priority for a while.

Never really been interested in singing. Feel like what I have to say is best said in this way. On this new EP that just came out with Devon Flaherty and Grayson McGuire – mostly hot old time tunes – those two sang on a couple of tracks and that’s cool. Not opposed to that at all but singing just isn’t my lane and outside of playing traditional music I’m not really interested in adding lyrics on my own compositions. Best saved for those who are in that vein of things. Micah Blue Smaldone or Kyle Hamlett are great people to check in with for folks who have that end of things covered.

Joeri Bruyninckx

Liam Grant Official Website / Instagram

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