JJ Grey couldn’t help but be amused when a fan remarked recently that “Ol’ Glory” was the most produced album to date by the singer and his long-running Floridian rock and soul brigade Mofro.
Being the band’s ninth album over a 15 year run, one could perhaps understand the comment. After all, Grey and company has grown from an indie groove unit with a love of swampy funk into a stylistic broader unit that incorporates elements of traditional Southern soul and R&B. Together, with Grey’s continued maturity as a performer and especially a vocalist, one might assume a growing popularity translates into a slicker sound on record.
But listen to “Ol’ Glory” side-by-side with the 2002 debut Mofro album, “Blackwater,” and what you’re apt to discover is a band that was born with a sound that was remarkably complete. Sure, Grey has become an undeniably stronger singer. He’s the first to admit that. But Mofro’s approach to making records has been astonishingly — and, to a large degree, unavoidably — consistent through the years.
“Since ‘Blackwater,’ my voice matured,” said Grey, who returns to Lexington for a performance at Manchester Music Hall. “That comes from over 12 years of heavy touring. It sounds crazy, but my range, since I’ve gotten older, has gotten bigger. I filled out the high end, which I didn’t have for a long time. Then my voice deepened and I’ve got a lower thing that I’m happy with. But all that aside, it doesn’t matter if you sing high or low as long as you kind of sing from the gut. And I try to.
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“But when somebody told me how they felt ‘Ol’ Glory’ was way more produced than ‘Blackwater,’ I had to tell them, ‘Man, the reality is ‘Blackwater’ is the most produced record I’ve ever been a part of.’ ‘Blackwater’ was all multi-track, multi-track, multi-track and split across four or five different sessions in piecemeal fashion and then put together. With ‘Ol’ Glory,’ the band went into the studio, the engineers hit the record button and we played. And that was it.”
You just get better to where you don’t sound like a garage band anymore.
The consistencies don’t stop there. Both records were cut in the same Saint Augustine studio with the same equipment. “Same guitars,” said Grey. “Same guitar amplifiers. Same keyboards. Same tape machine. Same everything.
“It’s just so funny how they all turn out different. And I understand what people mean, because there is a sort of rawness to ‘Blackwater,’ but that has nothing to do with production. Some of that just had to do with the inability to play something. You get a little better over time. That deepens a few things. I don’t know how else to put it. You just get better to where you don’t sound like a garage band anymore.”
Even the broader shout out to a more steadfast sound on ‘Ol’ Glory’ — one that extends, vocally, to one of Grey’s most pronounced influences, Otis Redding — is entirely the product of simple maturity.
“Just a tempo difference can make things go from an upbeat funky number to more of midtempo burn. It can make a song go from a straight ahead rocker to more of a groove piece. Just a slight slowing or increase of a tempo will do that, and that happens between takes. It can happen live, too. By the end of a tour, you think you’re playing a song the same way it was on the record and you realize it sounds completely different than from where it started. That’s all dynamic feel and tempo. Just a little different feel and it’s crazy how much it can change.”
Perhaps the greatest consistency within Mofro music, though, has been the way it ignites live. There, the band’s jams and Grey’s singing become a kind of combustible testimony that’s as exciting for those onstage as it is for anyone in the audience.
“I love this thing,” Grey said. “I love being part of it. I love sharing it with an audience — you know, sharing an honest moment. That’s the whole sense, for me, of a show. The show is played by everybody in the building, not just the band. The band is part of it, and we’re doing our thing. The audience is part of it. That whole thing just leads us to a place where time stands still, or just disappears completely.”