Lou Poster is a man who’s got his head on straight. He’s the smart, charismatic vocalist/guitarist for the Columbus, Ohio trio Grafton. His voice sounds like a good beer tastes. Together with bandmates Jason McKiernan, cofounder and helluva great drummer, and Donovan Roth, hard as a hammer bassist, he’s created a glorious racket over two albums and several tours.
“Jason was in another band (Preston Furman) in 1996 and I saw them in a basement bar,” says Lou. “He’s the best drummer I’ve ever seen, just amazing. Blew me away. A few months later I moved into an apartment with him and two other guys from local bands, and we started playing as a two-piece in the basement in our spare time. Ample spare time. I think I was living on $200 a month in those days and rent was $175. SO I was about 120 pounds and ate a lot of ramen, rice, and cheese slices, but I had plenty of time for music.”
Grafton’s sound can best be described as punk steeped in alt.country and classic rock. Something like Waylon Jennings playing the blues in a blender, strapped to a rocket. No frills; just bass, drums, guitar and voccals. And Grafton proves you can do a lot with little.
A lot of the band’s influences come from early to mid-‘90s indie rock. Lou looks back at that time bitter-sweetly. “After Nirvana blew out the main seals, kids either went back to Top 40 or started digging in the bins that supplied them with Bleach in the first place,” Lou says. “Archers of Loaf, the Pixies, SST’s back catalog, the Mono Men, some real good shit… The trendies, though. There was a certain pretentiousness about it, (they) hadn’t fully sunk their teeth into the new thing, and it was still honest, real. Then you get Modest Mouse and the Elephant 6 having success (some of which is musically great but appealed to the basest kind of soulless sycophantic white-kid art student set) and it started getting gross and that was just the beginning. Once it became obvious that every bad haircut, fad-hopping, white-belted indie rock douchebag (who we initially became a fucked up folk-punk two-piece to spite) was gonna start a two-piece blues band, we got Donovan to join and started writing more amped up songs. That was ’99.”
Grafton is a blues band, in the sense that Black Flag was a blues band or that Steve Earle is a punk. The songs wail and shout and moan and bare their teeth, in the best blues tradition, but what one would first associate with the sound of the blues is lost in tempo and distortion. It’s the atmosphere around the songs. It’s easy to imagine Muddy Waters slowing down “Oxblood” or “The Day They Ran Us Out of Town.” These songs could have easily have been recorded with acoustic guitar and pedal steel.
I first became aware of Grafton when I received my first batch of CDs to review for SPONIC back in 2002. It was Grafton’s self-titled full length debut (on Derailleur Records) waiting at the bottom of that stack that just blew me away. For months afterward I drove my wife crazy playing it over and over again. And yes, I gave them a glowing review and they made my top ten of the year.
From the guns-blazin’ opener “Last Night at the Brite & Clean” to the ode to Ohio, “A Toast to Gravity,” to the funky Minutmen-esque closer “Wake Up Brass,” theirs is a “rough and raw sound with enough classic rock chasing punk in a pool of whiskey to make any dance floor unsafe,” (as I said in my original review.) 2003 brought Grafton’s second album, Blind Horse Campaign, on Dead Canary Records, which Lou operates with Scott Stroemer. It sounded better, the songs were tighter, and just like the first album, you’re left hungry for more. “I’ve Been Lookin’” comes on like an unexpected fist in a crowded bar. “Sumbitch” is one every married man can relate to. “The Day They Ran Us Out of Town” is a hard rocking view of “man’s evil nature.” “The Captain and Big Muskie” is a country-fied instrumental. “Slowpoke” is mid-tempo stomper with nervous energy, like the song is trying to go faster, but is being weighed down. “Fine, Good, Go” has a great bass intro and a chorus containing those three little words almost guaranteed to put the breaks on a relationship” “FINE…GOOD…GO!” The album closes with “Lord Baltimore,” which was the name of the Indian tracker in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a song about complacency and self preservation and once again the fear of death.”
Did Blind Horse Campaign make my top ten for 2003? At #2 right behind the Beatles’ Let It Be…Naked and right before the White Stripes’ Elephant. Almost as good as the Beatles and better than the White Stripes; if only I worked at Rolling Stone…
What adds weight to the songs of Grafton is the fact that these are not 18-year-old kids whining about some girl that doesn’t like them the same way they like her. These are three men playing hard-rocking, working class punk that people over the age of 25 can listen to and feel included. While Jason and Donovan are “what you’d call ‘eligible bachelors,’ if you ate a lot of acid,” Lou has been married to his wife Paula for four years and is the father of a three-year-old daughter. When he’s not rocking the shit out of America he works as a screen printer. So it would be safe to say that when there’s a shit show out on tour, and there’s little or no money being made, it fucking sucks and it sucks hard.
“It definitely makes the shows that don’t turn out so well seem that much harder for me, personally. It’s one thing to drive 20 hours and play to seven people. Yeah, that sucks, but early on it seems worth it to put your back into the thing and grind it out, make a name for yourself. It’s not like we’ve got money or a publicist or even an established label backing us. So that felt like honest work and dues-paying.”
And honest work and dues-paying doesn’t scare Grafton one bit. Lou was raised by a third generation coal miner. Donovan is a bartender and Jason is a social worker. I can tell you firsthand that being an artist and having a family can be a soul-crushing, stressful life.
“…to know that you’re leaving your family for a month or longer at a time makes those shit shows a lot more depressing. Like, ‘I’m causing my wife and daughter and band mates all this stress for THIS?’” But those that press on will always be rewarded. Eventually. “The last two big tours have actually been very positive. People are starting to catch on it seems. That makes the time away from home a lot more bearable. And my wife’s great, she really makes it work out.”
As far as shooting for fame and fortune in the current state of rock ‘n roll, the members of Grafton are realists. “Fuck, it almost seem pointless aiming for anything these days. Paying the bills is about as lofty a goal as I’ve come to.” They’ll keep going forward with albums and tours for as long possible, chasing the next great show. “I think there’s a reaction coming from rock ‘n roll that no one’s prepared for,” Lou says. “There’s been success from the underground, the White Stripes are the exponent of that, and that’s opened a few people’s eyes to the possibility of music coming from under, not over, their heads.” But where are all the It bands of the last couple of years? The industry laid to waste the newest rock resurgence without a shot being fired. And you’d never know that older established bands had even released new albums.
In the last couple years, great albums by Alice Cooper, the Buzzcocks, the Rollins Band and Danzig have gone almost completely unnoticed and ignored by radio. This is what country music did to their established artists. Marginalizing Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Johnny Cash in favor watered-down pop ripoffs. What has to happen now? There needs to be a new entry point for new fans, the way No Depression functioned for alt.country (whatever that is), to discover all the great rock that’s continually coming from the underground. Because FM radio ain’t gonna play Grafton.
“We have a chance right now to stand on a platform that’s been elevated by the changing tide of public opinion and show them what REAL rock ‘n roll is. Do you think the public at large could digest the Cheater Slicks?” Lou asks. “Or Federation X? Or We March? Or The Fireballs of Freedom? Or the Means? Do you think they could look at their horrible selves in all their compromised glory and sing at the top of their lungs “EVERYTHING MOVES SO FAST / EVERYTHING’S IN THE PAST / EXCEPT THIS, RIGHT NOW!”? Probably not and it’s a shame. But it’s time we found out.”
-- Tim Murr, SPONIC