Interview with Grant-Lee Phillips—Talkin’ Exile Follies

At first glance, there might seem to be little in common between the bands X, Grant Lee Buffalo, and Throwing Muses, beyond their shared status as much-loved acts. X formed in 1977 in Los Angeles and went on to become one of the most influential and admired punk bands of all time. Grant Lee Buffalo also emerged out of L.A., but their four albums (all released in the nineties) took them down a very different musical path, establishing them as leaders in the blossoming Americana scene. And indie rock darlings Throwing Muses came out of Rhode Island in the early eighties, releasing 10 highly-acclaimed and eclectic studio albums. But as it turns out, key members from each of those bands—John Doe (X vocalist/bassist), Grant-Lee Phillips (ex-Grant Lee Buffalo vocalist/guitarist), and Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses vocalist/guitarist)—will prove that they do have much common ground when they hit the road together this February with a show they call “The Exile Follies.” 

Calling from his home in Nashville, where he moved seven years ago, Phillips explains this tour is actually their second such stint together. “This is a reunion of this whole concept. We took the Exile Follies out about 20 years ago, so we’re revisiting that dynamic of John, Kristin, and myself.” Phillips knows that it seems like an unusual lineup, given their diverse backgrounds. “We’re pretty different,” he admits. “It’s an interesting challenge to find those places where we overlap, but I think there are such things. Kristin, for instance, has a way of invoking a certain state when it comes to the mood of the song, the intensity of it. She really loses herself in the performance. I can relate with that feeling, and I’m sure John can, as well. There are those places where I feel like we meet in the middle.”

Another commonality, Phillips says, is their shared sense of spontaneity. “I think any one of us are the kind of people that would step on stage and a moment before ask, ‘What am I going to play? I guess I’ll figure it out.’ The sets can go anywhere.” The fact that they all use an acoustic performance style also helps emphasize their similarities, he says. “Something about that tends to underscore the through-line, how it connects. If we brought along bands, the differences would be even more pronounced, I would guess.”

Phillips says he’s excited to show audiences what happens when they come together onstage. “In the course of our show, we offer up three individual sets, [and] we’ll find a place to team up and do some songs together, as well, with some interplay between John and I, between Kristin and I, between John and Kristin, between the three of us—every permutation you can come up with. So I think it’s a nice sampling of each of us as songwriters.”

Each of them certainly has a deep well to draw from. Beyond their achievements with their respective bands, they all have longstanding and successful solo careers. Hersh has released 11 studio albums (her most recent one, Possible Dust Clouds, came out in 2018), as well as seven books. Doe has released 12 studio albums as a solo artist or collaborator, and also is an author and has appeared in more than 40 films. And Phillips has released nine solo albums, composed for film and television, and did a notable turn in a recurring acting role, playing a troubadour on the hit series Gilmore Girls.

Over the years, although their former bands have reunited to various degrees (X and Grant Lee Buffalo tour periodically, and Throwing Muses is actually scheduled to release a new album this year), it’s clear that Phillips, Doe, and Hersh are adamant that their solo work is just as important to them. It is this independent self-identification that made them recognize kindred spirits in each other, Phillips says, leading to that initial Exile Follies tour. “We had all found ourselves out on the road individually, staking our claims with our solo careers,” Phillips says. “Each of us had moved away from our individual bands at that time. So it was sort of a self-imposed exile. Going it alone but finding others who are willing to go out alone together.”

They have also had occasion to work with each other on other occasions—such as a tour Phillips and Hersh did last year. That was actually what sparked this second round of the Exile Follies, when their reminiscing about their first time doing it led to serious discussions about “friends and peers getting together and finding an excuse to get out on the road again,” as Phillips puts it.

Phillips says it is a particular joy to work with people whose work he admired long before he knew them well. He and Doe first met in the early eighties, when Phillips moved to Los Angeles from his native Stockton, California, but he says they didn’t really get to know each other until a decade later, after Phillips had established himself as the front man for Grant Lee Buffalo. As for Hersh, Phillips met her after becoming a fan of her work. “But I came late to the Throwing Muses party,” he says. “I found Kristin as a solo artist and worked backwards.” As a fan, he says he’s looking forward to seeing what Doe and Hersh will do on this tour.

He also hopes that watching them play will lead to creative inspiration, as it did the last time they did the Exile Follies. “It’s a cool thing to stand close enough to a couple of these looming figures in my life. I have such admiration for the both of them. If I stand close enough, then I’m hoping some of that brilliance rubs off a little bit. Maybe I’ll wind up with a few songs after this!” Phillips says with a laugh.

That exact scenario did actually happen after the last Exile Follies. “When I came off that tour with those two years ago, I began recording a new album soon after. And one of the songs, “Josephine of the Swamps,” is a real dark, swampy song, I felt like I wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t been on the road a whole bunch that summer with Kristin.” Phillips says. He recorded it for his 2004 solo album, Virginia Creeper. He then brightens with an idea: “Maybe that’s one we can do together [for Exile Follies]!”

For his own solo section of this show, Phillips says he’ll choose “whatever feels most alive. Sometimes, that is a song that I wrote for a Grant Lee Buffalo record, or sometimes it’s something I wrote that afternoon. I try to mix it up, a good balance of new and old and familiar. But the emphasis is always on being in the moment, seeing where it wants to go. And it’s a chance to introduce new songs and share where I’m going.”

After these Exile Follies dates, Phillips plans to embark on several more tours throughout the rest of this year, and he also just finished recording a new album (though he says he can’t reveal its title or release date just yet). “That’s an exciting feeling, to have new music just waiting, and the only way I can share it at this time is by playing it live,” he says. “So I would encourage those who are curious to make it out to the shows.”

Even though he’s enjoying playing with Doe and Hersh, and he is proud of his success with Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips says he has no plans to change his solo artist status. “Even though I have worked with a band and I still record and work with other musicians, I spend a fair amount of my time out on the road by myself, just me and the guitar, writing and traveling alone,” he says. “So maybe it’s a temperament kind of thing.” Still, he adds, playing for an audience provides him with “a sense of connection that I long for when I play, and I think we are connecting in a way that maybe transcends the mundane level of discourse, especially in this day when we rely on social media to feel connected. I think that can leave us feeling detached and lonely. I like to feel like music can maybe become the antithesis of that feeling.”

But for now, Phillips is happy to share a van and a stage with Hersh and Doe. “I’m excited about what Kristin and John and I are going to do together,” he says. “It’s nice to be in such fascinating company.”

Be sure to catch The Exile Follies in Philadelphia on February 5 at City Winery, and in New York City on February 6 at the Cutting Room!