47 years after its original release and resounding commercial failure, the Hampton Grease Band’s Music To Eat stands as a crucial entry in the experimental American music canon. Roaring out of Atlanta in the late ’60s, HGB was led by quixotic vocalist Col. Bruce Hampton, alongside guitarists Glenn Phillips and Harold Kelling, and the rhythm section of bassist Mike Holbrook and drummer Jerry Fields. Though the poly-genre avant-garde sounds of Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa serve as apt comparisons, the Grease Band was its own thing, blending jazz, blues, rock, with inscrutable and demented cut-up poetry. Though the band never recorded a follow-up, Music To Eat would go on to cult status, inspiring nascent punks and the burgeoning jam band scene of the 1990s, of which Hampton was a figurehead with his Aquarium Rescue Unit outfit, which shared stages with Phish, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Widespread Panic.
Recently, Real Gone Music reissued the record on “Georgia Peach” colored vinyl, dedicating the release to Hampton, who passed away in 2017 after collapsing on stage. Guitarist Glenn Phillips, whose solo discography is vast and picks up the thread first tied by Hampton Grease Band, joined Aquarium Drunkard to discuss the record’s baffling genesis and legacy. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and cohesion.
Aquarium Drunkard: It’s taken some time for Music to Eat to get its due, but at this point, it’s a cult classic. The oft-repeated story is that it was at one point one of the worst selling records in the Columbia catalog. Were you ever able to verify that?
Glenn Phillips: There were a lot of complications when it came out. Business-wise, the way things were with the band and management. The way the deal was structured [was] through [record man] Phil Walden, who inserted himself into the middle of the deal and got a great deal of money and very little of it filtered down to the band. Columbia had put forth a lot of money to him to promote the record, which Phil wasn’t legally obligated to do. So Columbia felt kind of burned by the deal. They felt they had already put the money out to market it and they didn’t want to have to do it again. So the record didn’t get much marketing when it came out. The people at Columbia did not know what they were dealing with. The music was very eccentric, very in its own world, and they were literally marketing that record as a comedy album. They labeled it “comedy” and it was getting filed alongside Don Rickles and Bill Cosby, you know in the comedy [sections of record stores]. So what we were told at the time was, and this was just that time, we were told that it was the second worst-selling Columbia record, second only to a yoga record. And that may very well be true, that’s what we were told at the time. Now here we are in 2018, and that story has gotten repeated a lot. I don’t think that’s probably true at this point in time.
AD: But that must have been deflating nonetheless.
Glenn Phillips: Columbia was a big label and in general, they put out releases that sold very well. It was just a complete fluke that we got signed to the label in the first place. You know, you kind of have to put this in context. This was in the late ’60s. A lot of people at established labels, they weren’t really familiar with a lot of music that was happening [in] what we thought of as underground at the time. A band like the Doors, when they first came out, were underground music. They weren’t this huge, popular band. So when someone at Columbia would encounter a band and see that people liked them, they tended to wanna sign them whether they “got” the music or not, whether it made any sense. So we played the second Atlanta Pop Festival and we got a tremendous response. There was a guy from Columbia there that thought, “Well we need to sign these guys, I guess.” You know he had no idea what was going on with the band or the music. It’s obviously very eccentric music for better or worse. I like the fact that it’s eccentric, but that doesn’t make it the most marketable thing in the world.
AD: Kind of hard to pull a single from this one.
Glenn Phillips: That’s how it became a double album. They signed us to make the record, and we recorded one three-song album: “Halifax,” “Evans,” and “Hendon.” They were two 20-minute songs and another song that was 15-minutes. They got the tape and they went, “What are we going to do with this?” One of the guys said, “Well look, why don’t you just do a double album? I have to have something more commercial than this; [they can probably come up with] something that can be played on the radio…” That’s how it became a double album, just out of desperation on their part, to see if there was any way to get anything they could market. And the next half of the double album we sent them was probably less marketable than the first half. We weren’t concerned with marketability. We weren’t doing the music [with an] antagonistic stance; we were just living in our own little bubble and we just had no interest in trying to fit in or accommodate anything for anybody, we just did what we wanted to do. The intent was pure. It wasn’t like we were going to be anti-commercial, but we had no desire to change anything.
AD: What sort of lineage did you view yourselves as being part of? Did you hear the music as related to the blues, maybe an expansion of, or destruction of the blues?
Glenn Phillips: The two guys who wrote the music were me and Harold Kelling, the two guitar players. We were influenced by lots of things. We were certainly influenced and drawn to blues; we were certainly influenced by jazz artists like John Coltrane or Charles Mingus; influenced by rock bands we loved of the era, [like] Captain Beefheart, we certainly listened to all that music and loved it, and I am sure it all sank in. But when we wrote songs, we weren’t thinking about doing anything to make it fit into any genre or another. All this music — Indian music, country music, jazz, blues, rock music — it just got all mixed up in our heads without us consciously thinking about it, and it just came out how it came.
AD: Early on, you played at a club in Georgia owned by the great bluesman Abner Jay. What was it like?
Glenn: That was one of the first places we played. We couldn’t find a place to play. We were looking for a place to play and we found an average club called the Stables Bar Lounge, and there was a room in the back called the “Poison Apple Room.” Jay wanted to see if he could draw white kids down there, and we just loved the idea of playing at this club on the African American side of town, because this was music that we just loved. We thought “People are going to love us here because we are blues based.” What we didn’t realize was, white kids like us were discovering the blues at that time, and this was all new and exciting to us, but in black culture. It was music from the past. It was a past they didn’t necessarily want to revisit, because for obvious reasons. Going backward for African Americans was not someplace they wanted to go; that did not represent a really great memory. It was a collision of cultures. I remember us playing one time, and this guy in our audience came up and gave us a musical education. He pulled the gun out of his coat and he pointed it at us and said, “You play some James Brown or I am going to blow your fucking head off.” We had never played any James Brown, but it is amazing how fast you can learn to do something when there is a gun pointed at you.
We played a terrible version of a James Brown song and every night after that when we would come into the club, Abner Jay would greet us at the door. We would be carrying in our equipment, and he would say “You boys need to sell those goddamn guitars and amplifiers, and buy you some pussy.” He was just a riot. He was a great guy, we loved playing down there. I know that he has a following…my son is a tattoo artist in California, and in his tattoo shop he said they would play Abner Jay all the time. Then I said, “Abner Jay?” and I started talking to him and I said, “We use to play with him! We played at his club! We used to know him really well.” He was shocked. So, yes we were all very close with him and then it went on and spun off to play in other places. We started doing free shows at Piedmont Park, and that started a whole thing. It was the hippie culture of the era that ended up embracing the band.
AD: The band went on to share stages with Alice Cooper, BB King, Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix, and NRBQ, the Dead, Frank Zappa and the Mothers. What crowds seem to most understand what you were doing?
Glenn Phillips: When [we played with a band] like the Mothers, the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, or the Allman Brothers — we did countless shows with the Allman Brothers — when it was a band of that sort of sensibility, the audience got us. Occasionally, we would do shows with bands that had hit songs on AM radio. We once opened for Three Dog Night and the audience booed us and threw stuff. We [played] with Alice Cooper was right after they had that big hit, “I’m Eighteen.” When you got a big AM radio hit back then, what would happen is you would draw in a whole different audience. It wouldn’t just be the underground audience. And at that particular show, when we finished, half the audience was yelling for an encore and half the audience was booing us. They started turning on each other. They had to turn the house lights on to break the crowd up, and I remember Alice Cooper ran out to us and he said, “How did you guys do that? I have been trying to get that reaction every time we play and I can never do it.”
AD: The band ended a few years after the label dropped you guys, and you guys all went your separate ways. But your record went on to influence a lot of people. Peter Buck of R.E.M. is a devoted fan and has really gotten the word out about you guys. Did you and Bruce ever get to discuss the legacy of the band?
Glenn Phillips: You know Bruce didn’t like talking about it much. I recorded my first album right after the Grease Band broke up was called Lost at Sea, and it was one of the first do it yourself records, it pre-dated the DIY movement. I recorded at home, put it out myself, it became popular in England. Richard Branson flew over, signed me to Virgin Records, and I just started doing my own records, and Bruce went off and his direction in what he did. We all had a real fondness for the Grease Band music, and I always stayed in very close touch with Harold up until he died. There was a real acknowledgment of how lucky we were. I did do shows with Harold, I had him come and play with us and do shows with him. When he passed away [in 2005] we did a tribute for him and played the whole record. Bruce didn’t participate [but] because we did that he wanted to get together and do something. So we did a reunion show in 2006. I am still in touch with Mike Holbrook and Jerry, who are the other two surviving guys from the band. So there was a real fondness, but you know, you just have to keep moving forward. So it’s hard to describe, but I am a fan of the band and I feel incredibly lucky and I always have, to be a part of it. words/j woodbury