Lone Nut

Bob Green's Grassy Knoll

The Grassy Knoll's new lineup, performing in the San Francisco Jazz Festival's new music showcase at Bimbo's last Monday, sure looked like a real group -- guitar, bass, drums, trumpet. Offstage, however, the band is really nothing more than a figment of Bob Green's imagination.

A reserved, reflective sort, the 35-year-old Green mostly just wants to be left alone with his ideas, but his pursuit of music requires at least occasional collaborations with a rotating cast of sidemen. "One thing most artists don't lack is an ego," admits the native Texan in a lingering drawl. "I'd rather be by myself in my space than in the company of someone I don't want to be with."

After studying documentary photography at the San Francisco Art Institute, Green gave in to his musical urge, selling all his camera gear in exchange for the studio equipment he needed to turn the insistent sounds in his head into reality. To the artist, his compulsive leap from photography into an aural medium made perfect sense. "I look at myself as having an artistic career," he explains, seated on one of the two chairs in his austere wood-floor apartment. "Whether it's music or photography, it's the same. The challenge of making something out of nothing -- I love that process. Music just happens to be the thing that's working for me right now." Besides, he says, "I don't like to dabble too much, and I've never been one for casual photographs. I don't have any family pictures."

Piecing together demo tapes in his home studio with a Macintosh computer, a sampler, a keyboard, and his trusty bass guitar, Green was soon offered the opportunity to record his debut album. In 1993, the reluctant bandleader recruited a few local musicians to rerecord some of his instrumental parts, and the Grassy Knoll project began to take shape.

Wearing a brand-new baseball cap, a plain gray T-shirt, and round academic's glasses, Green looks more like a number cruncher on weekend furlough than the sort of holed-up manifesto ascriber or flighty recreational drug enthusiast you'd expect to be the creative force behind the Grassy Knoll. Blending together trip-hop beats, Miles Davis jazz-funk workouts, dark, murky melodies on trumpet or bass clarinet, and a relentless swirl of white noise, the Grassy Knoll's sound is one of the most exciting aspects of the contemporary Bay Area music scene. And it's by design of a guy who hasn't sworn off his Grand Funk and Doors records; who admits he has little technical prowess over the computer programs he uses; who still considers himself a mediocre bass player, well over a decade after he started thrashing around in pickup bands. "There is no right way to do anything," Green shrugs.

Together with some of the titles the musician has chosen for his wordless compositions -- "Culture of Complaint," "Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth," "Corrosion of the Masses" -- his appropriation of the conspiratorial term "grassy knoll" for the band's moniker suggests he's an obsessive neuropath who spends as much time listening to short-wave radio as to the latest Tricky release. Not so, says Green. "I don't care about any [conspiracy theories]. I'm just trying to get through the daily struggles of life." He does, however, admit to finding a certain absurdity in the alarmist tendencies of so many Americans. "A lot of the song titles came from driving across country to mix the record and listening to AM radio talk shows. 'Black Helicopters,' for instance, comes from people thinking Clinton's in charge of Communist helicopters flying over U.S. borders. It's just funny stuff."

The mannerly and soft-spoken Green does, however, intend for his music to sound guarded and circumspect. While he wants "to be an upbeat person, to believe in things and trust people, in our time and age it's just hard to let that happen." The title of the Grassy Knoll's second, and latest, record, Positive, recorded for Antilles/Verve in San Francisco and San Antonio, alludes to that thoroughly modern dilemma. "It's a play on the word," Green says. "In the '50s, if someone was positive, he was an upbeat personality. Now you don't know what the word means anymore, just like the way the word 'gay' in the '20s meant something different than it does now."

Positive features Grassy Knoll mainstays David Revelli on drums and Chris Grady on trumpet, as well as appearances by guitarist Ralph Patlan, clarinetist/saxophonist Jonathan Byerly, and cellist Matt Brubeck. Green says he chooses his colleagues for their willingness to restrain their musical proficiency in favor of his direction. "I never tell anybody how to play," he emphasizes. "It's where to play. A lot of musicians don't think conceptually, they think technically."

Longer than most on concept, Green is able to bring his own ideas to life with one innovative, oft-maligned piece of equipment: the sampler. "Just because there's this piece of machinery that's considered a computer," Green argues, "people start freaking out. It's just another tool, same thing as a tape machine. ... To me, it's no different than Frank Sinatra going in and laying down 15 vocal lines and then [having producers] snipping together the best takes from each phrasing."

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