On a recent evening at R Bar on the Lower East Side, folk rocker Kris Gruen serenaded a crowd full of old school punks as well as some fresh young things, who were gathered to celebrate his father, Bob Gruen’s birthday.
In the red glow of the bar, Debbie Harry met Green Day’s Billie Joe for the first time—an introduction Kris’ father Bob was pleased to make. The rock and roll photographer’s prints of famous faces draped the walls; guests were invited to take an image home with them at the end of the evening.
Kris grew up partly immersed in the frenetic, fantastic downtown New York rock scene his father inhabited. He often tagged along as his dad shot iconic images of rock legends (including John Lennon, The Rolling Stones, Debbie Harry), or partied at punk shows on the Lower East Side when the neighborhood was still a seedy, steamy stomping grounds for young artistic and musical genius.
Yet, Kris also grew up in Connecticut with his mother and now lives in Vermont with his partner and their young daughter. His sound is wistful, whimsical, soulful, inspired by acoustic folk as much as the throbbing, explosive beats of the punk rock he grew up listening to. So despite the happy rural life and the soothing energy reflected in his tunes, there is a grittiness, a well traveled, worldliness that also comes through.
I visited Kris the day after his performance in his father’s airy, well lit studio overlooking the Hudson. “The view used to be even better,” says Bob, pointing disdainfully at an unsightly high-rise condo with a 30 million dollar penthouse, which has remained unoccupied for the past five years.
We sat down amidst portraits of John Lennon laughing in front of the Statue of Liberty and Debbie Harry posing at Coney Island to chat about his own musical path.
ROYAL YOUNG: As a native New Yorker myself, I’d love to start with talking about the city itself and how it has inspired or informed your music.
KRIS GRUEN: I left the city when I was four, as far as living here full time, to go to Connecticut. My parents split and my mother’s second husband was a world renowned jazz guitarist, Joe Beck. Being more family oriented, the two of them decided to hike us up outside the city. But my father has lived in this building for forty plus years, so I would come down to the city to visit with my dad all the time. The city has always definitely been part of my ethos. Now I live up in this hinterland in Vermont. But the city is deep, everything is inspired by those early years.
Even in Connecticut, I’d be walking through the woods and thinking “Oh, it looks just like the dioramas at the Natural Museum.” The city has that effect on kids, you project on the falsified environment. But as a young kid trying to keep up with my dad, it kind of gave me a negative impression of the city: just too hard, late nights. I would go out with him to do a big band play t a stadium, then CBGB’s or Max’s for the after party. Intense environment, screaming loud music and all these people super attracted to this little kid. I remember faces and being passed around a lot. My dad loves getting dressed up and he would dress me up: clear plastic overalls, I had these goggles. It was an event, but it was hard to hang!
YOUNG: [laughs] I’m sure. And I bet the juxtaposition of that with quiet nature or even suburban environment must have been really insane.
GRUEN: Yeah. The suburban environment was a little bit suffocating. We made our way out of suburban Connecticut to a farm and that was the beginning of real living. That definitely inspired me. But no matter how far away from the city I got, whatever I was making had to be tied to that kind of edginess. What finally inspired me to start making music was trip hop and studying African music, but even that had to have an edge inspired by the punk rock I was seeing and totally getting.
Even though the scene was intense for a little kid, the music was undeniable. You were hit here [points to heart], more than your ears. Now living in Vermont, the circle of singers and songwriters up there are very attracted to what I’m doing because they all project a deeper importance on these bands that inspired me.
YOUNG: Do you feel like they’re also attracted to that city edge, where you’re more attracted to the folksiness, and the naturalness and the Vermontness?
GRUEN: [laughs] I just love that we have a lot of contrasts set up in our life right now. My partner is an organic farmer and I’m doing this. So we have this real grounded home life and then this wonderful traveling artist piece that will draw her out. Nothing is healthier than that, I think, having a real home to go back to but also a [way] to leave it for awhile. But punk rock music could arguably really be informed by folk and even itinerant worker folk and Vermont is a very socialist place. The arts coming out of there aspire to that activism.
YOUNG: Look, I think punk rock is impossible in New York City right now, because of all these 20 and 30 million dollar condo shits being put up. So in a way, punk may be more available in a place like Vermont than it is here.
GRUEN: [laughs] Totally or like, Nova Scotia.
YOUNG: I don’t even know where you would go to find the kind of music you heard growing up.
GRUEN: Absolutely. Folks who know who my father is decided I am kind of connected to that as a musician, that I have some sort of magic wand. It almost makes me want to gravitate towards something very different and rebellion is very punk rock.
YOUNG: How did that play out for you? Your dad’s super big persona. My dad is a crazy, funky artist and I chose writing. Sometimes I think with an artistic parent, they can influence us, but we pick a different art form and make that our own.
GRUEN: Yup, definitely. Especially if you are inspired by that parent and see the work they’re doing is important, you want to do something new, but in a different medium and figure out how you can add to that story. My father loves music, but he’s not musical. Through the majority of my youth, he wasn’t that well known publicly. So it was wonderful to sort of travel in the circles that he was in, but never have to deal with the public. I remember going to a couple of Sean Lennon’s birthday parties and we’d have to be ushered through throngs of people in front of the Dakota. As a kid, it didn’t feel great. As a child, it was a sensory experience and there was just a feeling of groping that was weird. But with Bob, he is a photographer, very much an artist’s artist.
YOUNG: Right, behind the lens, not in front of it.
GRUEN: Yes. So occasionally, walking down the street people will ask to take a picture with him, they’ll know who he is, but it’s never crazy.
YOUNG: But you are a performer, so you are interested in some aspect of being seen, or heard.
GRUEN: Yeah, but the goal of the song is about providing something meaningful to be heard. So that people find it valuable personally and you’re singing it out to many people. So it is a desire to be heard. But it’s not a meglomania. I wouldn’t die if I couldn’t get on stage, it wouldn’t end me. I love engaging with people, I love being part of a community. I can say that sometimes I end up trying to own the stage a little bit.
YOUNG: And there’s a huge difference between performing to perfect your craft and performing to become a mega pop star.
GRUEN: Absolutely. I was talking to someone the other day about honing your craft to the point where you can get it out of your way, the search for consciousness. Artists should always be trying to reflect the human story or modern myths in a fresh way. The art becomes about expanding as a person.
Kris Gruen released his new album, New Comics From The Wooded World, this past summer. He recently played a solo show at The American Folk Art Museum. Visit his website here.
Royal Young is a New York-based writer who contributes literary coverage to Interview Magazine and the new web site Holy Diver. Young recently completed “Fame Shark,” his memoir. After six years living in exile (in Brooklyn), this Lower East Side native is back in his natural habitat, rediscovering the old neighborhood.