Grieves: Opening the Mailbag and Unleashing the Melodies | Feature Interview

[Editor’s Note: Grieves plays The Bourbon tonight. Tickets are $15. Available here.]

“I love Bill Murray,” Grieves says. “I don’t wanna read about what got Bill Murray into acting or how passionate he is about acting, I wanna learn the stuff that makes Bill Murray Bill Murray.”

The Seattle rapper/singer, aka Benjamin Laub, was going crazy, disillusioned with constantly handling the cookie-cutter regurgitation of the same interview questions. Laub thirsted for better, more artistic interview questions, the ones he thought may actually interest fans. So he turned to a more creative avenue ahead of his recent two-night stint in Minneapolis: Ask Grieves.

City Pages, a local alt-weekly publication, was uninterested in conventionally covering the shows. So instead he and Matt Love, his manager, pitched their version of “Dear Abby,” in which Laub answer questions from fans (or any readers of the paper) on topics ranging from relationship issues to addiction to vehicle purchases. He says that it’s a way for him to answer questions from the fans themselves, rather than communicating through the reporting lens.

“You get to see that people look at you as more than just a dude on the stage and that they actually have some sort of connection with you,” Laub says. “That’s my favorite part about touring, so being able to take that and do it through a press outlet is cool.”

Originally slated for a two-part run, Ask Grieves has elicited hundreds of responses, and Laub says he will continue to answer mail as long as people write in. While the entries have run the gamut from the ridiculous to the downright disturbing  — think Eminem’s “Stan” — the Grieves team has received so many that they spend quite a bit of time choosing the ones that interest them the most.

He admits that he was surprised at how easy it has been to identify with the quandaries in these letters.

“These questions that people are asking are shit that [my team] all have dealt with in our lives, and when we sit down to actually talk about it between us, it’s us kinda learning more about each other too,” Laub says.

Laub hasn’t shied away from giving heartfelt, strikingly honest answers to these emails. Some are informed by his own experiences, like when he writes about leaving one’s comfort zone to follow a dream, or simply dictated by logic: advising one reader to pay off his student loans rather than blow money on a motorcycle. After interviewing Grieves or listening to his records, that doesn’t come as a surprise.

Laub would rather not talk to a writer about his new album. He doesn’t want to explain why he got into music or describe the new look of his full-band live show. In his thinking, anyone who might read the article is going to see the show or listen to the album, anyway.

He certainly would prefer not to receive email questions about it from reporters.

“I have a spreadsheet on my computer that’s got the answers to every question that anyone is gonna ask me. And they’re always the same questions,” Laub says.

“Personally, I think email interviews are the anti-journalism.”

His desire to forge interpersonal connections and flourish creatively drives everything from his pressers all the way up to the recorded music. Signing with Minneapolis record label Rhymesayers Entertainment in 2010 has been an integral part of that.

“We left a pretty abusive relationship at [our prior] label [Black Clover Records],” Laub says. “We didn’t have anything to compare it to so we didn’t know how bad it really was.”

He says that after ongoing conversations and guidance from Rhymesayers executives, he knew signing with them was a way out of the woods.

“They’ve never altered my creative process. They’ve never even hinted at it,” Laub says. “From the second I signed their contract to this very moment now, I’ve been able to make the music I want to make.”

One of his major gripes with contemporary hip-hop is that it lacks melody, something he addresses musically in earnest on Winter and the Wolves, released in March of this year. Nowhere is that more apparent on the album than the song “How’s It Gonna Go.” Clean up the lyrics, brutally honest in addressing a relationship lacking in communication or commonality, and it could be a Jason Mraz song.

“The progression of that song is the most famous four-chord [progression] in all of pop music,” Laub says. “It’s ‘Let It Be’. It’s ‘No Woman No Cry’. It’s ‘Red Wine.’ It’s pretty much every song ever written.”

“How’s It Gonna Go” is as sugary as it gets on Winter and the Wolves, but the album doesn’t lack for melodies. Laub sings all of the hooks. Piano and strings flow somberly and ominously, guitars wail over rock rhythms. Add in his biting lyrical wit, and the whole package helps to make the harsh subject matter more palatable. Throughout, Laub reflects on heartbreak, loss, addiction, and the internal struggle it takes to persevere through them all while dealing with everyday life. Without these soulful melodies, the message might be lost.

“I think people get uncomfortable with things that are a little too close to home sometimes,” Laub says. “The things that have always roped people in as a whole with music is melody and emotion that stems from the music. It doesn’t have to be a complicated thing.”

Andrew Stellmon is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Reach him with news tips and story ideas at news@hearnebraska.org.