BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM profiles the ‘chiaroscuro’ sound of the Willard Grant Conspiracy by way of its band leader and founding member, Robert Fisher.

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THE SPACIOUS, chiaroscuro music of the Willard Grant Conspiracy has the same haunting quality of the Californian desert where band leader Robert Fisher lives. Fisher and his band’s (which was formed with Paul Austin) focus on textures, colours and moods makes for intense listening. The band’s live performances have anything solo to fourteen performers to capture the songs’ strengths. The music has managed to convince musical luminaries such as Kristin Hersh, Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and Chris Eckman (the Walkabouts) to join the conspiracy, but the band’s songs are good enough to garner international acclaim and a strong cult-following simply by themselves.

Despite having five albums, and a band-life of thirteen years, the band was originally formed by accident. The first record “came about out of an invitation to test a home studio out before it was opened up to more public projects.” Fisher was in a band with Paul Austin, Dana Hollowell, James Apt, Malcolm Travis and George Hall called the Flower Tamers, a band that had risen from the ashes of a band called Laughing Academy. “We found ourselves doing living room sessions with friends on a weekly basis. Some of the same people showed up each time and then some different people too. It was never quite the same thing from week to week and that suited us just fine because we had no goals for it beyond trying out new songs.”

This ad hoc arrangement proved fruitful. “Paul and I started to really enjoy the sound of people playing songs they didn’t yet really “know”. It had a great loose quality to it. One that suited the material in a way that felt completely natural and in the moment.” The late drummer Mikey Dee suggested a more formal band be created. “I thought that if we did, we’d have to make sure it maintained the same feel we had in the living room. Right from the beginning it was ‘whoever showed up, played’.” A studio owned by Dana Hollowell was offered. “At the time, it was a fun way to spend an early fall weekend in the country.”

The swelling roster must make it particularly difficult to figure who would play with the band and the musicians’ temperamental schedules must be hard to co-ordinate. “The music has magnetic properties. It seems like musicians find the music and offer up their services. When we play, I try to figure out what band fits the situation and who is available. There are a lot of variables that can go into figuring that out.” Despite this, Fisher doesn’t adapt his song-writing to whatever is available (his music makes use of a number of different timbres). “With the exception of [brand new album] Pilgrim Road, none of the songs have been written with a specific instrumentation in mind. I like the idea that a song can be done in a lot of different ways and can take on a number of different arrangements. It keeps things in a constant state of change.”

“I like the idea of applying “less is more” to what we do. I try to make sure there aren’t any elements that don’t have a reason for being there and then try to make sure that there is the room sound in between them. It all gets back to the original sound from the living room sessions; I like to hear the space between the instruments. It leaves room for the imagination.”


Pilgrim Road was approached differently, where Fisher and Malcolm Lindsay aimed to write simple songs that would eventually be arranged with orchestral instruments. “The songs are still simple and can all be played on piano or guitar. But, we were engaged in writing with the idea of using orchestral instruments as major elements of the arrangements and not just using them as pads.” The textures add a lot of tautness and tension to the sound.

The Willard Grant Conspiracy uses space extremely well, and there’s plenty of room for the band to improvise. Fisher finds their sound dictated by the band’s living room origins. “I like the idea of applying “less is more” to what we do. I try to make sure there aren’t any elements that don’t have a reason for being there and then try to make sure that there is the room sound in between them. It all gets back to the original sound from the living room sessions; I like to hear the space between the instruments. It leaves room for the imagination.”

Fisher has had a considerable output with the band, and he states “each record is a snapshot of what we are doing and what I am interested in exploring at the time when we do it. It is my job to pay attention to honoring the source of the songs by getting better at finding ways to express them.” The music has a both epic and intimate quality, reflecting perhaps Fisher’s desert setting, and the feel of the music. “I grew up here. So the west goes with me wherever I go. Thank you for the compliment. Intimate and epic are very kind words to use.”

The music has a chiaroscuro feel to it, with light surrounded by shadows. However, the darkness is what is usually used to describe the band, a little reductive, and a little pigeon-holing. Fisher simply replies “making music that isn’t easily defined by genre or label has its challenges.”

The band’s not afraid to take on particular challenges, and that includes re-imagining particular notable songs. One re-working was of Bob Dylan and his brilliant ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. “Uncut magazine asked us to participate in a tribute to Highway 61. They asked us while we were on tour and in the middle of recording the album “Let It Roll”. It became part of that tour and part of the record since the record was about trying to capture the live energy of that band and was recorded during a six day break in a five week tour.” Fisher admits that “it is always difficult to approach any song written by a master let alone trying to do an iconic song like that one. We tried to find way into the song that added a little bit of what we do.” Other notable covers on Pilgrim Road include American Music Club’s “Miracle on 8th Street” and Lal Waterson’s “Phoebe” which pop up on the band’s newest album. “When it came to doing the record, it seemed to fit.”

The band have been particularly successful in Europe, especially in England where magazines such as Uncut have lauded the band. “We have always been able to tour in Europe. This is the sort of music that gains what audience it has from word of mouth, and touring is the best way to put yourself in front of people who might like what you do. America has always been a bit more of a puzzle. In America, I often feel like we don’t belong to the right club.” The band has built a very good live reputation, and The Willard Grant Conspiracy are heading down to New Zealand for three shows. The aforementioned epicness and intimacy of the music comes through regardless of how many people are on-stage with the band, and has contributed to the plaudits the band receives. “I trust the songs even when I don’t always trust myself.”