Get on the Bus

Todd Costanza's songwriting steers Granfaloon Bus in unusual directions

San Francisco singer/songwriter Todd Costanza, 37, sits with the other members of Granfaloon Bus in the back yard of his Glen Park home. Drinking Budweiser out of a can, he turns for a second to watch Goose, his border collie-Rottweiler mix, kick dirt toward the picnic table where his band sits.

It's a small moment that easily could be forgotten -- the kind Costanza has been twisting into evocative, twangy rock songs since he founded Granfaloon Bus in San Diego in 1990. Since then, the group has undergone several lineup changes, with Costanza remaining the only constant.

Now, his current Busmates Ajax Green (lead guitar), Jeff Palmer (drums, saw), and Jeff Stevenson (bass) are discussing how they joined the combo. They speak in reverential tones, as if God himself had handpicked them to jam.

Carol Irvine


Sunday, Jan. 28, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $6; call 647-2888. Todd Costanza performs with Sonny Smith and Carrie Bradley on Monday, Feb. 5, at 8 p.m. at Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market (at Sanchez), S.F. Tickets are $5; call 861-5016.

Sample of Granfaloon Bus' "Believers," from the CD Good Funeral Weather. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

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"Can we all talk about how great it feels to get the call to be in the band?" says Stevenson, 31, a member since 1997. "I [thought], "I love this band. I go to all the shows anyway, [so] I might as well be in the band.'"

"I got in by playing an instrument I didn't know how to play," explains Palmer, 30, who joined Granfaloon Bus in 1995 after stints as bassist for popular S.F. outfits Sister Double Happiness and the Mommyheads.

And Green, 30, who came aboard in 1994, even sheds his amiably sarcastic persona when explaining why he's so committed to Costanza's musical vision. "I think we're all into [Granfaloon Bus] because the strength of Todd's songs is so intense," he says. "I've had deeply personal relationships to his songs. When he called me up to play in the band, I was just thrilled [because] I'd already formed an attachment to his songs."

To talk about those songs -- which range from cry-in-your-beer waltzes to rambling, epic stories -- it's necessary to talk a bit about Costanza. A physically slight man with a quiet demeanor, he seems an improbable catalyst for such unflinching loyalty, especially considering that he didn't begin his career as a songwriter.

With a self-deprecation that seems as natural as a bad habit, he says his first musical foray was as an "inept" rhythm guitarist in a pop band called the Ride in late-'80s San Diego, where he was studying art and sociology at San Diego State. Granfaloon Bus began when Costanza and the Ride's drummer, Sean Padillo, and bassist, Andy Matt, decided they didn't like the group's singer and guitarist; the trio split off to form another band -- with Costanza as unlikely leader.

"Everyone pretty much looked at me and said, "You sing. You write the songs,'" recalls Costanza, who has no idea why they suggested it. To this day he's still uncomfortable with being the artistic leader of the group. "I don't ever want to be caught on tape saying that I'm a creative person," he says, drawing laughter from his bandmates. "If [someone] thinks I'm creative, then fine."

If Costanza lacks creativity, more songwriters should be so artistically barren. In little more than 10 years Granfaloon Bus has put out two 7-inch singles and six full-length records, with another slated for release at the end of February.

The band debuted with It's All Just Parlor Tricks while it was still in San Diego in 1991, then moved to San Francisco the following year for the release of A Love Restrained on Discobolus Records. After some lineup juggling, the group switched to German label Trocadero Records for 1996's Rocket Noon, 1997's Sleeping Car, and 1999's Good Funeral Weather. (In the U.S., Palmer handled distribution for Good Funeral Weather through his own label, Boxkite Records.)

With help from Trocadero, Granfaloon Bus toured Germany and other parts of Europe four times. While the band remains relatively obscure locally and stateside, its reception overseas has been enthusiastic.

In a review of Good Funeral Weather, the British magazine New Music Express said the band's songs "exhume fragments of Americana that have escaped the vacuum of suburbia, giving voice and resonance to the geographical and emotional backroads of the rural fringe." Another review by the London Times said the Bus "offers a warm and friendly alternative to the scary rural art-rock of avant-hillbillies Will Oldham or Souled American." And the German edition of Rolling Stone gave Rocket Noon and Sleeping Car four stars each.

"I think every year we have five new fans," jokes Green about the Bus' low profile in America. "So we're doing pretty well -- we're up to 35 [fans]."

Last year Granfaloon Bus released Necks and Backs, a collection of outtakes, live songs, and one dub remix. Most likely, the record also would have been released on Trocadero if there hadn't been some concern among band members over mysteriously absent past royalties. While they have no regrets, the rift leaves Granfaloon Bus label-shopping for its next full-length, Exploded View, which was recently recorded with longtime producer Greg Freeman.

Nailing a record deal poses a particular problem for the band, which defies traditional categorization. "It's certainly not country," Costanza says of his music. "We have people who say, "Oh, you should try this [country] label, like Bloodshot or something, and [we do] and they say, "Well, you're not country enough.' And then we send it to other labels and they're like, "Well, we like it but it's too country.'"

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