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Austin Chronicle Before They Get Stupid

Grand Champeen

By Christopher Hess

JULY 3, 2000:  A knowing, slightly embarrassed smirk spreading from one ear to the other, Ron Byrd takes a hasty slug from his beer and leans in to shout in my ear. "I'd heard they did this,"he says above the din.

I hadn't. Yet for me, the experience is plenty enjoyable. For Byrd, it's flat-out surreal. Either way, it's a first.

On the Continental Club stage Grand Champeen, in the opening slot of the Orange Mothers' CD release show, are tearing through a revved-up rendition "Baldachino," one of Byrd's own tunes. His band, Prescott Curlywolf, perhaps the most underappreciated rock band in Austin, isn't used to such attention, let alone spontaneous tribute. It's therefore with no small amount of pleasure that Byrd, co-guitarist/ singer/songwriter for P-Wolf, hears himself sung. And sung well.

"Yeaaaahhh, we fucked it up. That song rules."

Channing Lewis, singer and co-guitarist for Grand Champeen, doesn't hedge when it comes to his own band or any other. Talking over beer and cigarettes in the band's North Austin practice space, the superlatives flow in a stream of charmed obscenities when the subject turns to his favorite local rock outfit.

"Prescott Curlywolf, they're our fucking heroes," grins Lewis.

Watching Grand Champeen play, that's readily apparent. The practice session that precedes our interview goes much like the Continental show, wherein songs and playing both are built from familiar sounds -- the ragged beauty and graceful recklessness that make great rock bands great. Not that Grand Champeen are a great rock band -- not yet, anyway. Considering that they're all at or under the quarter-century mark, however, they've got nothing but time.

The band that has become Grand Champeen met at Woodbury Forest, a private boarding school in Harrisburg, Virginia. Though it might not seem the ideal setting for young men to bond over the punk rock ethos, it was. Lewis, guitarist Michael Crow, and drummer Ned Stewart found in each other a means of escaping the rigorous boredom of high school through strong friendships and music. In their freshman year, along with bassist and fellow student Will Minor, the Frosted Megawheats were a gigging rock band.

"We'd have dances," Lewis explains. "It was an all-boys school, so girls from other schools would come. They'd hire a shitty high-school dance band, and they'd let us open for them." "Yeah," laughs Stewart, "we were really punk back then."

The band survived high school intact, but then came college and separate directions. Crow and Lewis went west to Colorado State in Boulder, and Stewart stayed in Virginia to attend James Madison. The plan was to go to school full time and then hook up during the summers to hang out and play. For the first year, at least, it went pretty well. Summer after their freshman year found the four in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they played one gig and made an album. But, oh, what an album.

"We got our childhood idol Ed Crawford from fIREHOSE to sing a song on that record," exclaims Stewart. "That was the coolest thing ever. Al was there."

Al is Alex Livingstone, new bass player and old friend. He and Lewis met in the eighth grade and stayed in touch through mutual friends (namely the band's first bassist) and visits throughout the formative years.

"I got off work on a Friday and hauled ass to Chapel Hill," recalls Livingstone. "I get there and these guys are sitting on the front porch cooking burgers and drinking beer with Ed Crawford -- just hanging out!"

"We were 19," adds Lewis. "We were shittin' bricks."

"We ran into him at a Superchunk show," explains Crow. "We gave him a tape and he came to see us play and then we asked him if he'd do it. And he did."

A few years and as many gigs later, graduation brought with it the requisite life decisions. The one thing they knew was that they wanted to be a band full time, even though they hadn't lived in the same place long enough to give it an honest try. With pretty much the whole country to choose from, the choice narrowed down to Minneapolis and Austin.

If history and artistic influence had decided, the four wouldn't be deep in the heart of Texas. In an insightful and flawlessly worded record review that appeared in this paper some months ago, the writer compared Grand Champeen's local debut, Out Front by the Van, to early Replacements, Uncle Tupelo, and "Soul Asylum -- before they got stupid."

"You were dead-on," congratulates Lewis.

Well, I, um ...

"[The Chronicle] pegged the shit out of us in that review," he reiterates. "Those were bands we grew up loving. If I can say one band was our greatest influence, it would definitely be Soul Asylum -- 'before they got stupid.'"

"We probably would have punched anyone in the face who said Soul Asylum might not be the best band ever," laughs Crow.

Replacements, Soul Asylum, Jayhawks, Hüsker Dü -- all are claimed by the band as integral to their style and love of music. Not coincidentally, all hail from Minneapolis. Why Austin, then? The weather, of course. In the summer of 1997, shortly after graduation, they moved to a town that would hopefully provide a launching pad for their career as a rock band.

"It's surprising, but I don't see a lot of support for what we do," says Stewart. "Like we said, Prescott is so fucking good, but no one goes to see them, and that's disappointing. Yet Fox 7 does constant news reports on Bob Schneider, or live music on Sixth Street at Fat Tuesday -- fuck that. So much of what people hear about is not, to me, what is good about Austin."

What's missing, in other words, is that loud, gritty, drunken camaraderie of bandness. After all, these are four young guys just out of college with a dream to live and thrive making music in a band, screaming from a stage together until they die. There's less of a public around here for that these days, fewer opportunities for straight-up, stripped-down rock music as Austin plunges headlong into its shiny new cosmopolitan self. Damn shame.

That same tension eventually led to the band's falling out with original bassist Will Minor. Living in Colorado, land of Big Head Todd, the Samples, and the all-pervasive Phish subculture, took its toll on Minor, who crossed over to the other side, leaving his high-school friends and rock & roll behind.

"Shrooms, rainbow gatherings, Phish tour, the whole shebang," chuckles Lewis. "He wanted all our songs to be 17 minutes long and shit."

"Back in high school Will had so much energy," sighs Livingstone. "He got us into the band thing. He was always the one yelling about us not being punk enough."

"Then he did a 180, and he'd call us up for reggae jams," says Lewis.

After Minor's departure, Lewis and Livingstone, who was in Charlotte, N.C., had frequent and lengthy phone conversations about the day they'd all live in the same place and be in a band together. Eventually, Crow and Lewis moved to Texas as part of Munly de Dar He, a musical endeavor Lewis describes as "a tuba-accordion kind of a deal; a Pogues-y, Waits-y, Eastern European folksy kind of crapola." But Munly was merely a pretense for moving to Texas; the two promptly quit, and were joined soon after by Stewart and another lifelong friend, Rob Hargrove. Hargrove didn't really play bass, so they "showed him which buttons to press," and he joined them until Livingstone could get down here, which he did just in time for SXSW 2000.

"We feel like just now things are starting to click," nods Crow. "Al injected a new energy and life into it for sure. Rob was incredible, for not being a musician or a bass player. He's really fun to drink beer with. Now, with Al, we feel like we can do whatever we want."

Since the release of Out Front by the Van in January, Grand Champeen have been playing mostly at the Hole in the Wall or Stubb's. The four are filled with the enthusiasm, optimism, and ideals you'd expect from friends who've known each other half their lives and are about to make a go at being rock stars. Fortunately, they have the talent for playing and instincts for songs that will make their effort a serious one. Grand Champeen has one album on the shelves and another one on the way, a new booking agent, and a minitour opening for local rock heroes Slobberbone this August. And this is only the beginning.

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