Strong and steady groover recounts the journey from Hanson to Zappa to Gryphon Labs, with some strong opinions about the music industry, too!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
April 4, 2011
Pete Griffin grew up outside New York and began playing music at an early age. He attended Chicago’s Northwestern University and, while in Chicago, studied privately with master bassist Steve Rodby. After graduation, Pete moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a teacher’s assistant at the Musician’s Institute while making a name for himself on the LA music scene.
In 2003, Griffin became the bass player for Hanson, with whom he toured the U.S. and Asia and appeared on several TV shows, including The Tonight Show, The Today Show and Good Morning, America. In a dramatic shifting of gears, Pete joined Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006, where he began playing alongside noted musicians Dweezil Zappa, Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio. Griffin received a GRAMMY award in 2009 for his work with ZPZ in the category of “Best Rock Instrumental.” In addition to the Zappa group, Pete plays in his own band, Gryphon Labs.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
PG: Before I ever touched an instrument, I was lucky enough to have a much older brother who was a big influence on what I was listening to. I was exposed to bands like Genesis, the Police, Pink Floyd and lots of other groups like that at an early age. I think that had a huge effect on how I view music. These bands, especially earlier Genesis, hardly ever conform to normal song structures, so I learned early that songs should tell a story, sometimes even without vocals. It also showed me that there’s so much music out there beyond what is being played on the radio. That’s what led to my current ravenous appetite for new music.
FBPO: How did you end up as a bass player? Didn’t you start out at the opposite end of the musical spectrum, on the trumpet?
PG: Yes, I started on trumpet in 4th grade. I was actually pretty good at it: first chair, made the All-County Band, etc. But practicing always seemed like homework. My Mom would sit there and help me go through the exercises, but I wasn’t very motivated to play the trumpet. Sometime in 7th grade, I decided I wanted to get a new instrument, either a guitar or a keyboard. I began saving my money, which was extremely difficult at that age, and I soon gave up. Luckily for me, my parents got me a bass that Christmas. When I opened the box and saw that red Guitar Research bass, I almost heard throngs of angels singing. Ever since then, it’s been the only thing I wanted to do. I think my parents decided on a bass because they knew some of my friends were getting guitars, so I’m actually a rare bassist in that I didn’t start on guitar first.
FBPO: How would you say growing up so close to New York influenced you, musically?
PG: Being able to get into NYC for concerts was always a big deal for me. My first three concerts, all of which my brother took me to, were Mike Oldfield at Carnegie Hall, Sting at the Meadowlands and Blues Traveler at Roseland. We covered a pretty wide range of venues and styles!
Throughout high school, I was constantly taking the train into the city to catch some concert. Being able to see so many big name bands come through town definitely influenced me as a musician. It always blows my mind when “professional” musicians don’t feel a need to go to see shows. There’s so much more to putting on a concert than just standing there and playing your instrument. There are ways of interacting with the crowd, both verbally and non-verbally, and that’s as important to the audience as any proficiency on your instrument. It’s so painful when a great musician manages to make everyone in the venue uncomfortable between songs. The only way to learn how not to do that is to be in the audience yourself.
FBPO: What made you realize your calling was to be a musician? I understand some tragic circumstances were involved.
PG: Though I had fallen in love with the bass pretty immediately, a big part of it was watching Dan Binggeli play bass. Dan was a senior in high school when I was a freshman. Not only was he the coolest guy in school, he could play bass like a serious badass! I still remember the first time I saw him slap, and I was like, “Okay, I have to learn to be just like this dude!” I took a few lessons from him, during which he tried to teach me important stuff like music theory, but I only wanted to learn how to hit the strings with my thumb like he did.
After his class graduated, I kind of lost touch with him. I did see him one more time at a house party where his band, Uncle Funkle, was playing. I had gotten a lot better at bass by then and was expecting to think I was better than Dan when I went to see him, but damn was I wrong! He was on such another level, even at the age of 19.
Not long after that party I received a call from one of my neighbors informing me that Dan had died suddenly of bacterial meningitis. I was utterly crushed and ultimately filled with anger that such a promising music career was cut so short. After a period of mourning, I realized that since he wasn’t able to complete his promising life in music, I had no choice but to go for it myself. I then completely immersed myself in playing bass. I even started playing with Uncle Funkle because their members realized that Dan had meant as much to me as he did to them. It’s been 15 years since he passed and I still listen to recordings of him playing with my jaw on the floor.
FBPO: Tell me about your experience studying with Steve Rodby.
PG: I took a few private lessons with Steve at his Chicago home while I was attending Northwestern. I met him after he gave a talk/master class at my school and I was blown away by his ideas. I’m a huge Pat Metheny Group fan, so being able to pick his brain about little details on the Imaginary Day record was really cool.
When I started taking lessons from him, though, I went in with the wrong approach. I was half expecting him to hear me play with my Victor Wooten-esque chops and go, “Wow, I’ll start calling people and get you gigs right now!” Instead, he looked at me and said, “What the hell are you doing?” Then he had me play whole notes with a metronome, while sitting there pointing out every time I was late or early in relation to the click. I went home with my tail between my legs after every lesson and really worked on locking with a click.
Steve is as much a producer as he is a bassist and the main thing I learned from him is that if you’re not perfectly in time with a steady, even attack and tone, you’re fired. He really saved me from a life of thinking I had to show off every time I touched the instrument and put me on the path of realizing that the bassist’s job is to make everyone else in the band sound good.
FBPO: What was it like playing with Hanson?
PG: A lot of fun, actually! Some people like to mock me for playing with them, but it was my first big tour. It took me all over the world and taught me how to be a “touring musician,” which is a skill in itself. After moving to LA, I realized just how right Steve Rodby was. Nobody wanted to hear a blazing slap solo; they wanted to hear someone who can lock with a drummer and make their pop tunes sound good. So, playing with Hanson really taught me how to play for the song instead of worrying about how impressive my bass part was. All three of the guys are great musicians too. Zac is still one of my favorite drummers, simply because he gets a great tone and sounds perfect playing a rock groove.
FBPO: How did you get the gig with Zappa Plays Zappa?
PG: I knew Joe Travers, who has been Dweezil’s drummer for many years and is also the “Vaultmeister,” which means he’s in charge of the vault of Frank Zappa’s recordings, a massive job! Dweezil had put together the band in 2005 with the amazing Bryan Beller on bass, but the tour got postponed and Bryan moved to Nashville. So, Joe knew I was a huge fan and asked if I wanted to audition. I never thought I’d get the gig, but the opportunity to go up to Frank’s studio and play through some of his tunes with his son was not something I was going to pass up.
The audition wound up being really difficult because it was just me playing with Joe, without hearing any of the other instruments. Luckily, I had been listening to Zappa music almost as long as I had been playing bass, so I knew the songs inside and out. Dweezil called me while I was driving home to ask if I wanted the gig. I almost crashed my car!
FBPO: Though Dweezil Zappa is a formidable musical force in his own right, how much of Frank Zappa’s influence can you spot, both musically and personally?
PG: Well, Dweezil reinvented his playing technique in order to be able to play Frank’s difficult music. He’s also given himself parts that were never meant to be played on guitar, which is a huge challenge. In many ways, Dweezil is technically a much better guitarist than his dad, but he’s learned how to combine his own Eddie Van Halen-like chops with Frank’s compositional approach to soloing.
As far as personally, I can’t really say because I only know Frank through his recordings. Dweezil is a pretty private person, but there’s definitely a shared sense of humor there.
FBPO: What do you think about the state of the music industry today?
PG: Oh, it’s in such a state of disarray! Everyone’s trying to figure out their own way to get their stuff out there and still make a living. It blows my mind when I meet musicians who think that they’re the only ones making music and that everyone else should serve them. Almost every musician I know writes their own material and to stifle that creativity is criminal. I personally make it a point to let the other guys in Gryphon Labs bring in tunes for us to play. That not only builds loyalty among us, but it also increases the feeling of a community of musicians helping each other out.
FBPO: Do you think too many musicians have become self-absorbed these days?
PG: Absolutely! It amazes me when musicians don’t actively listen to music. I personally have a ravenous appetite for new music, and I spend thousands every year on CDs and downloads — legally, of course. Not only do I feel a need to keep up on whatever new trends might be happening, whether it’s a new sub-genre of electronica or metal or some new recording technology, but it all directly feeds my own creativity in some way or another.
By purchasing music made by your friends and peers, you’re investing in your own industry. If you don’t think recorded music is worth your hard earned money, who else will? I think this is more important than ever these days. Even though fewer albums are being sold and the prices have gone down, the artist actually makes a much larger percentage of each sale than they did in the days of the big record labels.
I equate it to buying somebody a drink. I always hear from concertgoers how they’d love to buy me – or whoever they just saw onstage – a beer as a token of appreciation. As much as I like free beer, the same person might not spend the same amount of money on buying my album, even though that does a whole lot more for me than one beer will.
FBPO: Tell me a little about what equipment you’re using.
PG: I use Lakland basses, Ashdown amplification and EBS and Source Audio pedals. All great stuff!
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
PG: Gryphon Labs! After our first Zappa tour, I realized that the rhythm section of Joe Travers, guitarist Jamie Kime and me really had a great vibe. I had been writing music on my own for years, but never really felt like I knew the right musicians to play it live. I had Jamie come over to my apartment to record a solo on one tune and as soon was we started I realized I had found the sound I was looking for! What he played that day wound up being the solo on “Oslo” on our record Modern Mythology.
Not long after that, I had Joe come and play on the record too. Through the producer, Roger Cole, we were also able to have Paul Barrere, Fred Tackett, and the late Richie Hayward, all members of the influential classic rock band Little Feat, play on the album. Each time we added a new musician to the mix, the whole project changed. It was really exhilarating to watch the development of my songs from demos in my computer to fully orchestrated arrangements played by some of my favorite musicians of all time!
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
PG: That’s a tough question! I definitely wouldn’t be the happy person I am. I really feel like music saved my life in a lot of ways, so it’s nearly impossible to imagine my life without that feeling of playing in front of people. I think I’d make a pretty good producer, and recently I’ve been involved in music consulting for a new bar in Hollywood, but without actually getting on stage and performing for people, I’d probably be pretty miserable.