Eight-headed groove beast

How do they do it? Many rock quartets lose members like dryers lose socks — never mind keeping twice that many people together and happy over a two-year stretch. The eight-headed groove beast known as Gran Torino could almost be its own baseball team; their four-piece horn section, alone, sets them apart from other groups doing the funk/rock/jazz/R&B thing.

Then there’s the fact that the band cleverly (and somewhat spontaneously) formed itself. No single member intentionally assembled this unwieldy outfit, lead guitarist Stephen Decker revealed in a recent phone interview.

“When bands form, you usually don’t have eight people doing eight different things,” he observes. “It’s kind of a coincidence for all these people to meet; It just happened to work out. It’s always been a luck thing. … We have a chemistry that works.”

Live, they’re like a joyously advancing army; the stage literally shakes with their energy. The floor (or ceiling, if you’re having a smoke in Be Here Now’s nicotine dungeon) has also been known to move at a Gran Torino show — punished by the weight of hundreds of dancing feet. These Knoxville boys (and boys they are — Decker turns 22 the day of the New Year’s Eve show, and only two members are over 25) currently sell out nearly every market they play.

Already a fixture on the Southeastern club circuit, the band recently charted some chilly new waters, ranging as far north as Maine — with an emphasis on urban centers like Boston and Washington, D.C.

“It was a lot like when we first started in the South,” says Decker. “It was like starting over. But we’ve [found] that once we get up in front of people, it doesn’t matter.” Given a chance to play, he notes, “It always goes well.”

Decker, P.J. Alexander, Chris Ford, Dexter Murphy, Todd Overstreet, Scott Pederson, Whit Pfohl and Jason Thompson may be eight separate talents with eight separate musical appetites (their creative differences only enhance their music, the guitarist insists, pointing out that “all of the great musicians have appreciated other stuff, besides what they’re playing”), but when it comes to their growing army of fans, Gran Torino’s brave collective spirit has proved just as relentless a recruiter as their actual music.

A breathtaking optimism pervades their shows, and while lots of bands claim to send out good vibrations, a positive note this intense would be hard to fake.

“We put our heart and soul into what we’re doing, and people can see that,” Decker maintains. “You can tell when a [musician] is just settling into something because they want to be in a band, but we love what we do, and we wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

Gran Torino’s second CD, One (26.2 Records, 1997), is smoother and more textured than their first effort, a live disc released shortly after the band was launched. But Decker doesn’t worry about disappointing fans with a comparatively low-key studio album: It’s all in the way you approach it, he believes.

“A lot of bands that have a live reputation try to [channel] that in the studio, but a studio album is a totally different entity,” he explains. “It’s like a painting — you’re creating something.”

Gran Torino would love to become known across America — “or even all over the world, if we could,” says Decker with a sigh — if only to finance the repair of their latest RV, when it inevitably breaks down.

“We [don’t travel] all that far from home now,” he confides, “but if we were to go to California right now and something happened, we’d be in pretty big trouble.”

Chances are, though, that they’d find a way to work it out.

“We’re really comfortable with each other,” concludes Decker: “We’re like a family. Everyone has their own say, but we all make decisions together.”

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