Great Grandpa Aren’t The Band You (Or They) Think They Are
It’s hard to believe Great Grandpa’s newest album is by, well, Great Grandpa. It’s a drastic musical shift, the kind that has you questioning if you accidentally put on a different band’s record or missed a transitional EP along the way. Four Of Arrows, the Seattle band’s sophomore full-length — due out this October via Double Double Whammy — takes a hard left from the grunge-indebted indie rock of their 2017 debut, Plastic Cough, into an emotional world of tender orchestration and folk-bent anthems. On first listen, it sounds like emo songs dipped in country, like a mashup of Hop Along’s yearning guitars with Big Thief’s whisper-sung vocals.
Perhaps this evolution was to be expected, given the behind-the-scenes changes Great Grandpa went through over the last two years. The five-piece broke into the national consciousness in 2017 with familiar ’90s alt-rock hooks on Plastic Cough. But in 2018, after years of proximity to one another — all five members lived together in a Seattle apartment, worked together on the same music, and toured together across the country — they were suddenly separated by outside forces.
The domino effect began in the spring of last year. After getting into graduate school, vocalist-bassist Carrie Goodwin moved to Milwaukee to continue studying nursing. Naturally, vocalist-guitarist Pat Goodwin followed suit, as the two are married. Guitarist Dylan Hanwright and drummer Cam LaFlam decided to stay in Seattle for jobs, the former as a local music producer and the latter as a K-12 English and History teacher. That leaves lead singer Alex Menne, who’s currently in flux, but will likely relocate to Milwaukee soon. With distance comes loneliness, and a change of habits isn’t too far behind. Before they knew it, Great Grandpa had, however unintentionally, been put on hold.
When we meet in downtown Bloomington, Illinois in late July, they look different than they did back in 2017, too. Great Grandpa are on tour opening for the Get Up Kids, but they squeezed a few headlining sets on days off, like tonight’s at Nightshop, into the schedule. Compared to their last few tours, the group looks peaceful, wide-eyed, and, above all else, less tired. Menne shaved their bright blue hair (and, later, Hayley Williams-colored orange bob) down to a no-fuss buzzcut. Pat Goodwin looks less worried, standing tall in an oversized yellow T-shirt with big felt googly eyes. Hanwright and LaFlam seem to radiate happiness and optimism, all smiles and relaxed auras. Carrie Goodwin is nowhere to be found — she stayed back in Milwaukee to continue her studies. Had she been there with us, she later explains over the phone, she would be dressed in scrubs, as she’s currently juggling an OB rotation bringing babies into the world and a job helping economically disadvantaged patients in Milwaukee’s low-income community hospital.
Great Grandpa were eager to change, both as a group and as individuals, so much so that a discussion about their new musical direction wasn’t needed. As Menne sings on Four Of Arrows’ track “Bloom,” they all felt a stirring sensation from within to outdo themselves: “I get anxious on the weekends when I feel I’m wasting time/ I think about Tom Petty and how he wrote his best songs when he was 39/ Say I’m young enough to change/ Please say I’m young enough.”
We walk around downtown Bloomington as a group, peering into restaurants and small businesses, before deciding to eat at the venue because of their vegetarian options. The band chooses a large picnic table in the back, right beneath criss-crossed strings of light, and look as comfortable here as they would in their own kitchen. Maybe this is a trend with them: creating a sense of relaxed familiarity in places that aren’t. So I start there, asking if they planned to make this musical pivot all along, or if it, too, came as an unexpected but fitting surprise.
“The stripped-back slacker thing was an intentional choice because it was easier to introduce ourselves as that and tour as that,” explains Hanwright. “This is something we wanted to do, these compositions and softer sounds, but were scared to do because it’s hard to pull off. It’s less of an evolution than it was a real representation of our interests.”
“Back then, Pat literally messaged me and said, ‘I want to sound like this band,’ and sent a Speedy Ortiz song,” says Menne, laughing.
“But this time, we didn’t have that,” says LaFlam. “There were no big influences. We just needed a stepping off point to see what our band was before we could push ourselves to be what we wanted to be.”
Great Grandpa went through a growth spurt, but Four Of Arrows makes it seem like they did so without any of the traditional pains. Launching yourself into a new genre should sound awkward. Fumbling is expected. Instead, Great Grandpa sound polished and professional, as if this is their third record in this style. Pat Goodwin spent a year writing and compiling voice memos. Later, with Carrie by his side, the two retreated to the attic to workshop his demos, restructuring them into an invigorating batch of songs.
Once they booked studio time at the Way Out in Washington, a “magical converted barn,” the album and its new stylistic turn began to take shape. Great Grandpa chose that studio in particular to work with Mike Vernon Davis, the producer behind To Infinity by Special Explosion. “The possible downside was that [Special Explosion’s] album took him three years to make. I didn’t want us to be stuck in that time or space,” recalls Pat Goodwin. “Instead, we did it so fast, pushing ourselves to max out possibilities, and that brought it to a whole new world.”
With a week of production in January and 16 days of recording in March, Great Grandpa found themselves throwing every idea at the wall to see what stuck. Davis encouraged a creative onslaught of sorts, suggesting the band re-attempt takes with alternate deliveries and try every instrument at their disposal: piano, synths, acoustic guitar, Mellotron, six-string bass. “He really did the magic alchemy of figuring out the best way to combine our ideas and instrumentation,” says Hanwright. It was a musical free-for-all to exhaust their ideas, with the goal of mixing and matching takes later. Eventually, a paper sign Davis taped up inside the studio — “Go slow, big choices” — became their songwriting mantra.
With ample time to record, Great Grandpa decided to try adding orchestral strings to the songs. They tapped session musician Abby Gunderson (Noah Gundersen, William Fitzsimmons, Courtney Marie Andrews) to perform various violin and cello parts. The decision to bring her onboard would help define the luscious-yet-intimate sound of the album, especially alongside hushed numbers like piano interlude “Endling,” which recalls Jonny Greenwood’s minimalist scores.
Those strings helped bring one of the album’s best and most impromptu songs, “English Garden,” to life. The day before Great Grandpa entered the studio, Pat Goodwin wrote a brand new song with a fingerpicked opening, wandering banjo notes, and a subtly math-rock bridge. Though Carrie suggested it was too last-minute to bring into the studio, he impulsively decided to present it — and the band immediately saw how to flesh it out. It’s easy to see why, because it’s a song that just feels right. Their voices intertwine with heartfelt urgency, and behind them is Gunderson, her violin singing sweetly like a bird. After hearing it a mere two times, I found myself singing its chorus whenever I stepped outside, as if my brain subconsciously associated such a blissful hook with the feeling of sunlight on skin.
“You said the aliens had sent it down and you wrote it,” says Menne. “I remember that because I felt that way too, where you started playing it and somehow, even though I hadn’t heard it before, I knew exactly where and how to join in singing.”
It’s fitting that “English Garden” is followed by “Mono no Aware” — another one of the album’s defining tracks, and one that Stereogum is premiering above — given it, too, was strengthened by an unexpected suggestion. “Mike [Davis] said he showed the song to Chris Walla, and we froze up,” recalls Pat Goodwin. “He goes, ‘Chris Walla said he really likes it, but he thinks it needs another chorus.’ And we all go, ‘Fuck, if Chris Walla says it needs another chorus, then we better add one.’ So Mike and I spent eight hours rearranging the end, adding that weird bridge, and segueing into this big chorus solely because he suggested that — and it made a massive difference. In a way, that kinda led to us using the piano from Transatlanticism for ‘Endling’ too.”
After listening through the album, it’s a bit surreal to realize the lyrics — which center around forgiveness, vulnerability, partnership, and mental illnesses — weren’t written by one person. Great Grandpa share the lyric-writing process relatively evenly, both in writing and editing. It’s an exercise so personal that most musicians can’t in good faith open themselves to such constructive criticism, especially from fellow bandmates. It’s one of a dozen testaments to the singular songwriting prowess of Great Grandpa. While Dylan Hanwright and Alex Menne may team up to write the lyrics to the anthemic “Treat Jar,” Pat Goodwin might tackle brooding opener “Dark Green Water” by himself while allowing Carrie Goodwin to suggest word-choice alternatives. It’s a collaborative ebb and flow.
Two of the album’s most vivid songs come straight from Carrie Goodwin’s journals, a source she’d never tapped into prior. Over the phone, she tells me about the songs’ backstories. Inspired by the honest storytelling structure of country songs like Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” and Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” she decided to confront tough subjects that haunted her. In “Rosalie,” she recounts the life of a barely 80-year-old patient named Rosalie she served as a nursing assistant. Over their time together, she unintentionally taught Goodwin “how people can die before they’re actually dead.”
Her most sobering track is “Split Up The Kids,” where she opts for a taboo family subject: the intense, permanent separation of her father’s parents. After her grandmother cheated on her grandfather, the two divorced and split ownership of their children by gender. The only time she saw them together was at her grandfather’s funeral. In the song’s second verse, she recounts family gatherings where visiting time was split evenly — her grandfather came for the first half, her grandmother came for the second — only to have her grandfather storm out and drive away if her grandmother arrived earlier than expected.
“I haven’t taken this big of a personal risk in the band before, and I put off showing it to my family for a long time,” says Goodwin. “My mom called and left a voicemail. She said she played it for my dad, and they both were so moved by it that they cried. Just hearing that it touched them that much, and that it felt true to his experience, meant the world. Before writing the song, I didn’t think that much about how traumatic it must’ve been for him. Music is a great way for me to share how I’m feeling, especially since as a family we don’t acknowledge our emotions often.”
So it’s amazing, really, that for all of these personalized stories, there’s only one lead singer. Menne’s ability to internalize each member’s lyrics and convey their unique emotion is staggering. During recording sessions, they would occasionally find themself in a dark booth, crying, after singing a particularly intense take. Carrying emotional burdens on behalf of close friends isn’t easy. Instead of using the scratchy shrieks they did on Plastic Cough, Menne reverts to their origins as a soft-spoken singer-songwriter here, which makes each confession sound authentic. Compare them to Adrienne Lenker with the devastating emotion of Frances Quinlan and you wouldn’t be wrong.
Right before Great Grandpa must peel away to take the stage, we finally arrive at the album’s title, Four Of Arrows. The story begins with Pat Goodwin burying his nose in the work of British-Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro. The majority of Ishiguro’s books conclude with the concept of “mono no aware,” or the feeling of unresolved beauty and impermanence. Eventually, everything beautiful will crumble. “Sometimes I look back and feel like my past has slipped away in a similar way,” says Goodwin. “It scares me.”
In an attempt to work through it, Goodwin wrote “Digger,” but struggled to find the words to articulate the feeling himself. That’s when he reached for the Wildwood Tarot deck, a wedding gift from a friend, to dislodge his brain. “That’s the whole point of tarot: to help you make meaning of things, not to tell you your future,” he says. “I pulled out the ‘Four Of Arrows’ card, which symbolizes rest and recovery. The symbolism felt like an obvious metaphor for where all of us were at, but I hadn’t thought of it in that way, of it being rest. It unlocked something in me, because after that I wrote all of my lyrical contributions for this album.”
By the time he finishes explaining, the rest of the band has quietly, inoffensively stepped away to set up their gear. Of course they know when and how to take the personal space they need without disrupting their friendship or the flow of their work. Onstage, there’s a similar air of calm and earnestness. The crowd reacts enthusiastically to Great Grandpa’s old material and a few joking half-attempted covers of Slayer and Tool. When it’s time to test out Four Of Arrows tracks, the crowd goes silent. There’s a feeling of naïve intimacy, as if we’re witnessing something special without the knowledge of what exactly it is. In a way, we are. The applause following the tracks was more preemptive gratitude than obligatory motion.
At the end of “English Garden,” a stranger in the crowd taps me on the shoulder and nods to my phone, which I was holding up to film the song. “I was blown away, too,” she says with a wobbly smile. It was only then that I noticed she was crying. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother. It’s just … their singing! Their harmonizing is so special. You can feel it. And I don’t say that about anybody; I’m a vocal snob. But I work here, so I come in early, do my job, and stick around at night because of the music. I’ve seen a lot of bands here. This is the only time I can remember being brought to tears — and I don’t even know who they are!”
All I can think to do is point at my arm, where a patch of goosebumps linger. “Don’t worry; I know exactly what you mean.”
01 “Dark Green Water”
03 “English Garden”
04 “Mono no Aware”
08 “Treat Jar”
09 “Human Condition”
10 “Split Up The Kids”
11 “Mostly Here”
10/4 Los Angeles, CA @ The Regent *
10/5 Santa Ana, CA @ The Observatory *
10/6 San Diego, CA @ Observatory North Park *
10/25 San Francisco, CA @ The Chapel*
10/26 San Francisco, CA @ The Chapel *
11/3 Washington, DC @ Songbyrd &%
11/4 Philadelphia, PA @ Everybody Hits &%
11/5 Brooklyn, NY @ Zone One &^
11/6 Boston, MA @ Once &+
11/16 Seattle, WA @ Chop Suey (Album Release)
* w/ Vivian Girls
& w/ Dump Him
^ w/ Trace Mountains
% w/ Merce Lemon
+ w/ Really From
Four Of Arrows is out 10/25 via Double Double Whammy. Pre-order it here.