Jack Firneno, the Wire
Kalob Griffin remembers playing what he thought would be his band’s last show, but instead was the path to his musical future. He also remembers his first album, which left him feeling directionless.
Now, a few years, hundreds of shows, and thousands of miles later, he’s got a better idea of where he’s going.
“There were hard awakenings, things I had not really thought about that much,” admitted Griffin. “I hadn’t considered what it would really take for me to call this wild dream a career.”
That wild dream — a career in music — is what led a guy who went to Penn State to play golf, but instead nearly became a mountain climbing instructor in Wyoming, to return to college his senior year and form the Kalob Griffin Band, KGB for short, some five years ago.
“Coming back was a really conscious decision,” Griffin recalled.
And, since their first tour — the band forwent the usual spring break shenanigans during Griffin’s senior year to instead rent a U-Haul and tour as far as West Virginia — KGB has spent most of its time on the road.
“Each show is like a little gem for us, a way to connect with people,” said Griffin. “The gauntlet of people we’ve met over the past five years as a band has been astonishing. It’s where we’ve seen the most rewarding experiences come from.”
Today, with an EP, full-length and stream of online releases out, KGB plays everything from residency engagement in Vermont to esteemed listening rooms in North Carolina and big homecoming shows at prestigious venues like Union Transfer in Philadelphia.
This week, they’re returning to Bucks County with a show at Triumph Brewing Company.
Ostensibly, KGB is an Americana band: An amalgam of twangy guitars, big organ parts, folky — if muscular — vocals and solid rock rhythms. But, a listen to the 2012 CD June Found a Gun, compared to Full Love Vol. 1, a three-song digital offering on SoundCloud from last year, shows the band evolving professionally as well as musically.
The truth is, June Got a Gun could have spelled the end for a band that, up until that point, had built its reputation on some good songs, some blind ambition, and, yes, a little bit of luck.
After turning down the idea of putting off his senior year of college, Griffin came back to Penn State on the strength of some songs he’d been writing and “probably a drunken conversation” with a drummer about starting a band.
That bandmate didn’t work out, but another did, and KGB quickly made a name for itself locally. Then, fate intervened for what they thought would be their last show before graduating and going their separate ways.
Bobby Long, a then-hopeful major label up-and-comer, had to reroute his tour last-minute, and ended up on the bill with KGB. Impressed with the locals, Long took them on the road with him for a year as his backing band.
When that engagement ended, Griffin and his group just kept on touring, playing their own music. Buoyed by their swelling fanbase, the group saved up to finance their album.
Ten grand later, however, they had a problem.
“We spent all our money on the record, and didn’t have anything for videos or promotions or anything,” he admitted.
The album did well with fans old and new, and kept the band on the road. But behind it all, Griffin was somewhat disillusioned.
“When you write a song, you feel like it could take over the world, no matter what,” he said. “After that record was released and things didn’t pan out as it could have, it was tough to see those things not take shape.”
Rather than call it quits, though, Griffin got smarter. Far from the college kid who formed a band on gut instinct, today he talks about the business side of things — products and revenue, marketing budgets, digital versus physical releases and so on — with the same kind of fervor a Deadhead may use to tell you about his favorite Jerry solo.
And, at first blush, it could sound cold or almost cynical, the language of a once-bright-eyed artist now more concerned with bottom lines than great songs. But, the more Griffin talks, the more it becomes obvious that’s not the case.
“It’s easy to get caught up in so much of the other stuff,” he admitted. “We are in the most competitive industry on the planet. You tell people you’re in the music industry, they look at you like you’re crazy.”
Really, what it all comes down to is hard work: “People can be talented as much as they want, but people who are really enthusiastic and passionate undoubtedly win in the long term.”
Today, Griffin practices the business end of things just like he does his guitar or his singing. For every “stupid guitar scale” he spends hours practicing, for all the vocal lessons he takes so his voice doesn’t fail after every show like it did in college, he pays attention to industry trends, works closely with his management teams and keeps his eyes open when he’s say, shaking hands with Jim James of My Morning Jacket backstage at a festival, to see how it’s all put together.
“The reality is that in any business, money’s tight and you don’t want to compromise your integrity,” he explained. Working to keep the business end of things up “gives us the freedom to honestly record whatever we’re driven and passionate about.”
It’s like the old saying about what happens when preparation meets opportunity: KGB got its start in arguably an old-fashioned way: getting seen and getting picked up — if only for one tour.
Today, however, “Everyone’s online, everyone’s plugged in. We’re competing against everything you see on the Internet,” he observed. But then again, having everybody watching their screens could work in the band’s favor in a way that’s come through once before.
Because, for all the calculating Griffin has to do, and all the challenges he’s faced, there’s still that bright-eyed optimism at the bottom of it all: “One video from one show could change everything.”
The Kalob Griffin Band will perform at Triumph Brewing Company, 400 Union Square in New Hope, on May 16 at 10 p.m. For information, visit www.kalobgriffinband.com.