It’s been more than two years since Grand Buffet played a show in Pittsburgh. But Jackson O’Connell-Barlow is happy to give fans an idea of what to expect when the long-running hip-hop duo takes the stage this Friday as part of Spirit’s one-year anniversary party.
“Funky bloodshed,” he says, reclining into a chair in the corner of his tidy living room in Polish Hill. “Grotesque cybercrime. We’re going to have hacktivists onstage. … Like, picture a guitar tuned to, like … drop-fucking-D. JNCOs so big that the guitar is actually being played in one of the pant legs.”
“I’ll definitely say the fans can expect a couple of long-winded diatribes from a certain someone,” adds Jarrod Weeks, better known as Lord Grunge, tilting his head towards O’Connell-Barlow. “And some thought-provoking bullshit for sure.”
Most of those claims aren’t what you might call “reliable” or “substantiated” but Grand Buffet has never shied away from a little misinformation or stream-of-consciousness tall-tale telling.
But, like all great artists of mystery, the men of Grand Buffet, while sometimes polarizing or confusing, also have buckets of charm and heart. Despite its straight-faced absurdity, the duo has always tapped into something that felt real, giving a sharp edge to goofiness and avoiding the category of joke rap. They might not tell the truth, but Grand Buffet would never lie to you.
O’Connell-Barlow (whose aliases have included Mr. Pennsylvania, Grape-a-Don and, for this interview at least, Calvin Parker Pines) and Weeks met in middle school. They both happened to be New England natives in a Pittsburgh-area school, and further bonded over a mutual love of hip hop and the fact that, as O’Connell-Barlow recalls, “Damn near everyone else was a fucking idiot.” Around 1996 they started performing as Grand Buffet, and quickly developed immunity to caring what anyone else thought.
“For the first three or four years … we never played outside of Pittsburgh,” Weeks explains. “We were white dudes doing rap, and we were playing places like … Moondogs in Blawnox and the EconoLodge in fuckin’ Hampton.” And on not a few occasions, the audiences hated Grand Buffet to the point of wanting to beat them up. “Not because we had learned to push buttons, but because we were white dudes rapping. ... After a couple years of that, we were kind of carved out of wood.”
O’Connell-Barlow elaborates: “Playing battle of the bands where we’re [rapping to a] fucking CD player, and it’s 45-year-old metal dudes that … want to kill somebody because of the state of things in their [lives], and they watch us do our set: It’s like a zebra walking into a bar full of lions and smacking the shit out of the biggest lion there. To go from that kind of scene on the outskirts of Pittsburgh to, like, Roboto, it was like, ‘This is a fucking cakewalk.’”
The duo’s major releases, including 2005’s Five Years of Fireworks and 2008’s King Vision —and its many singles and EPs — hold up, especially in comparison to much of the outlandish neon-colored pop and indie hip hop that was so prevalent in the mid-2000s. Maybe that’s because Grand Buffet was rooted, spiritually at least, in the Golden Age of Hip Hop (O’Connell-Barlow references Public Enemy and Eric B. and Rakim as early influences). Or maybe it’s just because they were so adept at infusing goofy rhymes with real darkness —“I’ve got a shirt made by little girls’ hands in a little warehouse on a little island,” the two sing in unison on the satirical “Americus (Religious Right Rock)”; on “Oh My God You’re Weird,” O’Connell-Barlow scolds, “A lot of people right now are ragging on the president, you think you could do his job? Show some fucking respect.”
But ultimately, those records are static snapshots of unpredictable live performances, which is where Grand Buffet really shines. “People still tell me about [things I’ve] said at a show, and I have no recollection of it,” O’Connell-Barlow says, stressing that all banter was strictly off the cuff. “We didn’t have instruments to tune up, so that kind of engaging with what was going on in the moment was kind of another level of musicianship, I guess.” Since then, the internet has made absurdist, grotesque and cheerfully offensive humor mainstream and, Weeks says, “I wonder if a lot of the stuff we thought was funny and shocking would seem like another day at the fucking office now.” (For example, at my very first Grand Buffet show, 13 or more years ago, Weeks tauntingly and dramatically turned a crucifix upside down, probably in conjunction with some Satan-related lyrics. I was a little scandalized, but I wasn’t the only one. Today, no one would bat an eye.)
“Irony was a huge part of it,” Weeks says. “There were times when it was like, ‘Jesus Christ, am I kidding?’”
For roughly a decade, Weeks and O’Connell-Barlow enjoyed enough success to avoid day jobs. They toured with Sage Francis, Wesley Willis, Of Montreal, Girl Talk, Third Eye Blind and others. “We were doing 150 shows a year for a couple of years,” Weeks recalls. “I remember our booking agent giving us shit about how much we toured, but all these people [we were touring with] were getting so much more famous.”
But, while some might paint Grand Buffet as the band-that-never-quite-made-it, both members agree that that was mostly by design. “We were so DIY — to a fault, in the eyes of a lot of people,” O’Connell-Barlow says. “But that was very much in keeping with the spirit of the group.”
Weeks adds: “It was definitely a no-compromise kind of perspective. … We took no prisoners for a really long time. … We turned our noses up at a lot of fucking opportunities, not because we were trying to be pretentious, but because it didn’t interest us.” He adds, “It wasn’t something we verbalized like, ‘We can’t sell out,’ but it was like, ‘Naw, it doesn’t interest us.’ And I don’t regret any of it. If anything, it gets me kind of psyched.”
Touring eventually slowed down and, while Grand Buffet never actually broke up, each started to work on other projects. Over the last few years, O’Connell-Barlow has released music under the name Mrs. Paintbrush, and Weeks’ project Shark Tank, a pseudo-super group including Baltimore rapper Height, has a gold record in Canada (“What’s gold in Canada?” O’Connell-Barlow asks, incredulously. “A thousand downloads?”)
In many ways, Grand Buffet is a Pittsburgh band from a different Pittsburgh, one before fawning New York Times restaurant profiles and “micro-luxury condos.” And its placement on Spirit’s anniversary bill alongside bands like recent Sub Pop signees, The Gotobeds, feels like a move intended to cultivate the former Lawrenceville Moose’s image as a marriage of old and new Pittsburgh. (Or maybe it’s just a good business move, considering Grand Buffet is likely to pack the room.) But for the duo, which has never really undergone a style change or given much of a fuck about other people’s expectations, it doesn’t matter which Pittsburgh, if either, it represents.
“It’s been a really organic experience being in a band. … We kind of understood what we were going for in high school,” O’Connell-Barlow says. “Anything that doesn’t fit there doesn’t make the cut. Anything that doesn’t gel with that could be totally cool, but it wouldn’t be Grand Buffet.”