August Wells singer and songwriter Ken Griffin often gets compared with greats like Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, and even Frank Sinatra, which sounds slightly hysterical until you hear his impossibly rich baritone.
The Dubliner moved to New York in the 90s after the break-up of Rollerskate Skinny – whose dense, melancholy noise-pop and glinting psychedelia gets them recalled any time there’s a list of the great underground Irish bands.
After fronting Kid Silver and Favourite sons in the last decade, Griffin formed August Wells with New York pianist John Rauchenberger in 2012. The duo craft ornate, soulful songs that hit the sweet spot between Scott Walker’s Scott 1-4 albums, Nixon-era Lambchop and Nick Cave at his most tender – see their 2014 debut album A Living and a Dying Game.
Their follow-up Madness is the Mercy is due in September, but in the meantime, they’ve quite a few Irish dates to get through – with a bonus ‘full band show’ tomorrow in the Workman’s Club in Dublin.
Ken Griffin caught up with us to muse on August Wells’ writing process, New York as a “companion” and the soul of small venues and “low stages”.
It’s been an extensive tour, returning from New York, what’s it been like on this visit?
All the shows have been very moving. Many new connections forged with good and interesting people. Simple minimal no fuss shows , a genuine joy all round.
Your show at the Workman’s Club is a ‘full band show’, what can we expect over a regular show?
Mostly we play as a two piece. We don’t consider it stripped back, the songs are all completed as a two piece, and then when we record we often add to the arrangement with other instruments. But, the initial idea is finished as a two piece. On this tour we played 16 shows with just the two of us, and three we will play with bass, violin and trumpet added.
Madness Is the Mercy is out in September – can you let us know is it much of a departure from A Living and Dying Game?
I never see anything as a departure, rather, a progression closer to that mysterious idea of perfection. We did do half of this album live. All of the four singles we did completely live, each one in one take. So in that way it’s different, but it will be entirely recognizable as an August Wells album.
You’ve said you isolated yourself from the rest of the band towards the end of Rollerskate Skinny, how more comfortable are you as part of a duo?
I don’t know how much more comfortable I am. I am just willing to walk through and into difficult places alone, or with others. I know it all does and doesn’t matter at the same time.
Could you give us an idea of your writing process – how much of the writing between you and John Rauchenberger is improvised?
Almost no improvisation. I write songs to varying degrees of completion. I play them with John several times, he arrives at his piano arrangement. I settle on guitar and vocal arrangement. So version one of the two piece song is complete. Then for recording, I usually write very simple horn, string and backing vocal pieces. Then we also have musicians interpret and expand on those ideas. Then we record as quickly and painlessly as possible. Lyrics decide when they want to show up.
You’re constantly being compared with legends like Julian Cope, Scott Walker, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen – even Frank Sinatra, yet you said in an interview two years ago ‘overlooked’ will be on your gravestone. Does it matter when critical acclaim doesn’t transfer to commercial success, or at least larger venues?
I said that about “overlooked” in response to a journalist describing me as such. I find it distasteful, all things considered, when artists express bitterness at their lack of commercial success. Its great to be compared with all these household names, but they have all been famous and wealthy since they were young boys.
I know nothing about that life, i have made music for 27 years, but i have also had to work jobs like everyone else, so that’s the perspective I write from, a working person’s perspective. Smaller venues is where my heart lies, where my music lives, where my audience comes to see me. My soul is alive in those venues and I have had the greatest moments of my life in those places.
I will gladly continue to create and perform on the low stages, I have been invited up to the high stages on occasion, and it’s fun, but it never feels natural. And I fight every day to be true to what I want to create.
You recently contributed to the Rising Against Homelessness album. I’m sure it’s been impossible to avoid seeing the the actual rise in homeless in Dublin in your most recent returns. Do you think it’s important that artists get involved in human rights, community issues and political issues?
I think all people should get involved in all human issues. The system allows individuals to become incredibly wealthy, and for individuals to be left destitute . It is my simple feeling that the ceiling should be lowered and the ground lifted.
No system should be set up where as people who for whatever reason can’t excel in that system are condemned to a life of constant hardship and struggle. For the good of the collective human soul we should endeavour to give everyone the dignity of at the very least food and a home. Or i fear we will be consumed by our savage blind greed.
New York is probably the most iconic cities for music in the world — how much does living in NYC inform your songwriting?
Well it’s where i have spent the last 20 years, so everything I write is written there, and influenced by the people, the smells, the weather, the daily struggle. Ireland will always be home, but New York is my big wonderful difficult companion.
Speaking of iconic, Suicide’s Alan Vega is a big loss to the history of music in NYC — are there any other NYC icons that have inspired you? You’ve said the Velvet Underground was the initial spur…
New York is a collective of icons, i can’t pick out any one that inspires me more than another. Often it’s an icon of one block, an icon of one bar, a character who is the king or queen of nothing at all , the ruler of a corner. New York is there to read every day.
You’ve said that your current rich singing voice is more like the original voice you had when you were 16, before you joined Rollerskate Skinny. Is this return to a more intuitive or natural way of singing?
Rollerskate Skinny was all about creating an escape hatch, a skylight , a new landscape to stare at, fiction, a big huge reach of a story. August Wells is the music from the blood of my life, so my voice has to come out from somewhere inside my real reaction to the world about me. So yes it’s from the natural truth of an actual life.
- Originally published in Buzz.ie