In conversation, Grant Kwiecinski is a lot like the music he creates as GRiZ: fun, funky and relentlessly positive.
GRiZ, who headlines Red Rocks on Saturday, October 1 — as well as a just-announced after-party DJ set at the Gothic Theatre — is typically grouped with the producers of EDM and dance music, and given his songs' big beats and seismic drops, that makes sense. But his recordings — including the just-released album Good Will Prevail — include organic grooves played on plenty of live instruments, Kwiecinski's trusty saxophone among them. And that's not to mention the sort of massive melodies and undeniable hooks that make his tunes work well beyond the dance floor.
Originally from Michigan, Kwiecinski now calls Denver home, and he's rapidly become a major player on the electronic scene locally and nationally. But that doesn't mean he's looking to cash in. Most of the music on his All Good label is available for free (visit MyNameIsGRiZ.com for details), and he has no plans to change that just because of his rising profile.
The following interview kicks off with Kwiecinski's early musical development, spurred in part by his love for a particularly Disney classic, before segueing into a defense of high-school marching bands, the joy of investigating the samples at the foundation of the hip-hop he loves, his glitchiest influences, live improvisation in a genre where going off-script is both rare and tricky, his reasons for putting down roots in Colorado, the role Donald Trump played in the creation of Good Will Prevail's upbeat theme, collaborating with Big Gigantic, the excitement of rocking a wild guitar, and making ends meet when he gives so much of his music away.
And then there's his enthusiastic response when asked about a possible sequel to GRiZ Kush, an award-winning cannabis strain named for him. It's a burning sensation he'd love to experience.
Westword: I think the new album is just great.
Grant Kwiecinski: Thanks, man. I worked my ass on it.
You can tell. To me, it seems like the most ambitious album you've made so far. Does it feel that way to you, too?
Yeah. After the one we did last time, it's like the gears have shifted. The amount of work that goes into each song is even greater now. There's a new appreciation for writing music that I've gained out of these last two records. It's also opened up the door to unlimited possibilities. I'm so excited.
Before we talk more about the new album, I want to flash back a little bit. There's a perception that people who get involved in making EDM or other electronic music do so because they can't play an instrument. But you're a multi-instrumentalist. Was piano your first one?
Piano was my first instrument, but it wasn't the instrument that I showed the most proficiency on.
Did you take lessons? And is that one of the reasons you didn't really connect with it?
I never really had the chance to play the kind of music I wanted to play. It was always just classical. It had its limits. I play piano now and again in the new forms of music that I actually want to play, but at the time, it was something that I just kind of moved past.
I understand that the Disney movie Fantasia helped inspire your move from piano to other things. What was it about that movie, and the "Peter and the Wolf" section in particular, that inspired you?
It was a movie I used to watch all the time as a kid, and with "Peter and the Wolf," I really just wanted to play that one melody. Then I decided to play the fuckin' oboe, and I really hated that instrument. It's a double-reeded instrument, and it was a difficult thing to play. My mom was like, "Listen, you can play something else." And there was a girl in a school who was playing saxophone, and she was really cool. It wasn't like I was in love with her; it was just harmless. But I tried the saxophone, and I fell in love with the saxophone a lot more than I did with trying to impress anybody. I practiced all the time, because I wanted to get good on it.
What was the kind of stuff you practiced on to get good?
It was a lot of stuff that I made up in my own head. It wasn't like I was playing something from sheet music. It was just, like, whatever.
So you were already composing in a way, even that early?
I guess. That's a good way to put it.
[Here's one of the highlights from Good Will Prevail: "Rather Be Free."]
You were also in your high-school band. Was it a marching band?
Yeah, it was definitely a marching band. That's what helped me learn how to read and play music, besides my five years of piano lessons.
What kind of songs do you remember playing with the marching band? Was there anything good, or was it all the Darth Vader theme?
One year we did the Doors' "Light My Fire." We also did some Blues Brothers stuff. It was fun. Being in the high-school band was some of the funnest years of my life.
Marching bands tend to get a bad rap from the cool kids in high school. But is playing in the band cooler than the cool kids know?
Yeah, man, band is the shit. It was awesome. But I was between all of it. I was selling weed to the whole school and I was in band.
Were there a lot of fellow weed smokers in band? Or were most of your customers outside the band?
It wasn't really a band thing to be a weed smoker. There were, like, three or four of them.
I heard you first got into funk when you were in high school, too. What was the band or song that first turned you on to that?
It was kind of backwards. It was like I found hip-hop first and found out what hip-hop was — and then, I figured out, "Oh, there are samples of music in it. And it's this other music, this soul and funk music." So I went out and found that. And then I heard Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago, and that was the shit.
You come out of Detroit, which has a legendary DJ and dance scene, too. At what point did you start getting into that music?
When I was in college — and when I started doing drugs.
Drugs beyond weed?
Yeah. Weed and ecstasy and all the shit. You fuckin' name it. Acid.
[Another highlight from Good Will Prevail is "Gotta Push On."]
Who were your first heroes in the dance music and DJ world?
Bassnectar was the man. He was the guy who was making all this awesome bass music. And Glitch Mob was so cool. But even before that, when I was, like, fourteen and just started producing music, it was, like, Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and Wagon Christ. My roots in electronic music go from weird glitch music to now what's seen as pop music. Electronic music is pop music now.
Did you conceive the idea of merging electronic music and live instrumentation? Or did it just happen organically?
It just felt right. I had the saxophone, and I thought, "I want to play this fuckin' thing. It's fun." I wanted to do more live with my shit.
One of the challenges for DJs is turning what they do into a real show. Is that something you discovered when adding in the live instruments — that a performance became more of a show with them, rather than it just being a guy pushing buttons on a deck?
I'm still discovering it. It really doesn't stop evolving and becoming more of a thing. Now Dan [Hacker], who was playing guitar with me, is singing with me, too. We're writing songs for him to sing, and we're having featured singers coming on to play with me. I didn't even have a guitar player at a point, but he started getting more and more incorporated into it. And now that I have him there, we can be a lot more flexible, on the move, so we can create these magic moments out of nowhere. The guitar can become an extended part of the song. And it's like, "Cool. Bam!" We can manipulate it and do whatever we want.
So in a live setting, you're improvising, stretching out your songs — going out there without a playbook?
We like to try and make it as fluid as we possibly can. But at the same time, we have to make sure we're communicating with the team that's creating our lights and sound so we can put out not just an auditory performance, but a visual performance, as well.
That's a tough balance to strike.
We're still figuring it out, man. It's definitely difficult. But it's fun, and it makes for a challenge. That's one of the biggest challenges.
Does your light crew have to be totally on point, so if you switch directions, they're able to switch with you?
Oh, yeah. And the thing is, we've done it so much and we work together so closely that when we switch things up, they can kind of find the way it's going to go. I know that I had a good show when I can trick them.
What led to your decision to move to Colorado?
It just seemed like a really good place to go next, to put it simply. One of my managers at the time was there, and I wanted to travel outside of Michigan, kind of spread my wings and grow a little bit. And this was a highly conducive place to the kind of lifestyle that I wanted to live. I'm very outdoorsy, I really love the music scene out here, I really love the people. I feel like it's a great extension of what I feel is a Midwest vibe. The mountains are amazing, I love dancing, I love being outside, the active life, yoga and all this hippie shit.
You didn't mention weed. Was it a factor?
No, it wasn't like, "I'm going to move there because of the weed." You can get weed and smoke weed anywhere the fuck you want. But it's definitely a plus.
You're living in Denver now, right?
Yeah, I just got a place in Denver, so I'm here now.
I heard that when you were living in Boulder, you were right across the street from a dispensary. Is it something like that in Denver, too?
I don't know who lives in Denver where it isn't something like that.
Good point. And now, let's get to the new album. It's called Good Will Prevail, and your label is called All Good Records. Is that connection purposeful? Is it a way of saying, "Not only do I have a new album, but I've got a lot of other artists on this label that have great music you should check out, too"?
Honestly, that association is coincidental, but I like that association. I've never thought of it in that way — like, the big-up thing for the other All Good Records artists. But I guess it was more selfish. The Good Will Prevail idea is about not giving up on the idea that people are inherently good, not evil. I can't tell you how many times in the past year that I felt so upset and sad that shit was going on. Even on personal relationship stuff, it's just been a really tough year. It's been tough politically, culturally, socially, personally. And it's just kind of a reminder that, yo, even if this asshole Donald Trump gets elected, in the end, we're not going to watch the world burn. We have to be the ones to say that good will prevail in our world. We'll overcome and triumph over any evil or any bad thing. It's just a reminder to those of us who are fighting to keep fighting. And for those who don't want to fight, it's to encourage them in a positive direction — remind them that you should never give up on the things you hold closest to you.
Is the title in some ways a pep talk to yourself, too?
Absolutely. As much as people see me as a positive person, it takes a certain amount of willpower to remain positive. Because I find myself being kind of deep-thinking and cynical a lot, and I have to remind myself sometimes, "It's all good. Good will prevail."
One of the highlights of the album for me is your collaboration with Big Gigantic on "Good Times Roll." How did you meet those guys?
I met them even before I moved out here. We did a four-show run with them, supporting them in Colorado.... That was really great, and we did a song called "Power" a ways back. And this one, I was out in New Orleans and I had the bass groove and the drop stuff. I wrote and recorded the hook, but there were a few things I needed help with, so I showed it to Dom [Big Gigantic's Dominic Lalli], and he helped me tighten it up.
Do you feel that the Colorado electronics scene is starting to have a sound? Or do you feel like artists come here because they can go in whatever direction they want?
I don't know, man. I feel like there was a time where STS9 maybe defined the Colorado sound. Those dudes invented an entire genre of music that's within Big Gigantic's sound, that's within GRiZ's sound. But we are going our own direction as things have developed. Like the new Big Gigantic album is awesome. Dom is writing hip-hop beats and stuff that he really loves — like chill, rad tunes. It's like future hip-hop. I don't know what the fuck to call it; I just call it dope. So that was the Colorado sound, and maybe the marijuana culture helped influence that a bit, the scene culture, the mountain culture, the outdoor ideology, the laid-back pace of it. Maybe that has something to do with it. But it seems like Colorado really has this vibe.
Another really memorable song on the new album is "Can't Hold Me Down," which has a major rock influence, with all that wild guitar. What inspired that song?
I love playing guitar, and I love rock-and-roll music, but I never really went there with it. So I was like, yo, let's just do a slammin' rock track. So I played that guitar before the vocals were even on it, played it at Red Rocks last year to open up the show, and it was like this epic thing. I made a specific intro to the Red Rocks show this year, as well, and it's different. But it was this awesome thing, and I had this loop and I was like, well, I should probably turn this into a song. So I sent it to Tash Neal of the London Souls, and he redid the guitar and turned in that wild solo shit. And then I was in Detroit on a rainy day and wanted to write some, like, really self-empowerment shit. The whole Good Will Prevail album is very much an empowerment album, from "Can't Hold Me Down," which is like, you've got to give it a try, give it a shot, to songs like "Gotta Push On," or "Rather Be Free," which is a song about moving on from negativity, even if the negativity is coming from you — like, being free from your own negative attitudes.
Do you feel you've gotten to the point with your songs that you could include any musical style and make it fit?
As long as I'm the one making it, it's always going to sound like my music.
Your work is very song-based, as opposed to having long, unstructured pieces. Do you see what you do as pop music — part of the pop tradition — even though it's forward-looking music at the same time?
I think that's more decided by the people who market it. I don't think of it as pop music in any way. I think it's like some derivation of weird electronic funk: funk-something, rock-something, soul-something, blues-something — a conglomeration of all those things. But I don't know if just because a song has a rap on it, then it's a hip-hop song, and if it has a drop on it, it's a dubstep song. It becomes pop music when it enters the pop-music realm. But I don't think it's pop music.
You give away a lot of your music for free. Is that something you're going to continue to do? And how do you make that work economically?
I don't make my money off of selling music. I make my money off touring and shows, and I seldom make money at that. I'm just savvy. I save my money, and I don't spend a lot on myself. I wear the same pair of shoes for a year and then trash them and get a new pair. I'm not, like, ballin'. I don't do shit like that. I've never owned a car. I try and be frugal and spend my money on my live show or touring. Spending money on having a nicer tour bus. I like to have a good crew, things like that. So I give my music away for free. This album will be for free as well, if you want it. If you want to support it, you can do that as well. As far as selling shit, it'll be available if you want to cough up the $7.99 or $8.99 or whatever we're selling it for. If you want that, go for it. But when I was downloading music, I never really paid for it. I never really had a credit card on iTunes, either. I'd look for some leak or whatever, some weird download of it, and then get a virus on my computer and shit. But people aren't going to get a virus from our stuff. It's like have it, take it. It's free. It's for all of us. Music is sound, it's feelings, and I don't want to sell you emotions. If you feel like supporting it, cool. Or if you don't know another way to do it — you don't know how to digitally download it for free — then that's fine, because it's on iTunes and shit. I just want to empower people.
So this isn't so much a financial plan as it is a philosophy — that music is for everybody and it should be enjoyed by everybody.
Fuck, yeah. Absolutely.
Before we go, I've got to ask you about GRiZ Kush, which won an award at last year's Cannabis Cup. How involved were you in developing that?
It was kind of like a taste test. They gave me a few different strains a week to kind of interact with — smell and smoke and live with it for a few weeks. And I picked my favorite one, and that's the one we put the name GRiZ Kush on.
Would you like to have a sequel?
I would love to! Of course! Is it not every person's dream as a stoner to make your own brand of weed, and then make a second one? 2.0? I'd be so excited. That would be so amazing.
GRiZ headlines Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Saturday, October 1, 2016. The show is sold out.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.