It was around two years ago, after almost half a decade in his own personal wilderness, that James Grundler finally discovered his Golden State.
“I woke up to what was going on in the world, unplugged if you will,” he says in an entirely un-hippy, non-New Age, un-Matrix-rocker sort of way. “I started paying attention to my surroundings as well as the media, watching how things were progressing and changing. Instead of singing about the traditional love stories of a guy and a girl it became the relationship between you and the powers that be. It became a lot clearer, this subconscious voice was coming through, screaming out and wanting to have a voice.”
It was, after all, time for James to crystalise. Having wandered the LA circuit playing sets as Golden State with a loose, revolving cast of backing players since the split of his previous band in 2004 – cult indie rock wonders Paloalto – by 2009 the world itself was starting to reflect James’ sense of confusion, disarray and upheaval. Oil wars, political corruption, apocalyptic scenes in Haiti, uncaring leaders: James’ focus switched from his own personal concerns to the wider picture. Suddenly he found himself writing rampant rock tunes of frustration and defiance like ‘Standing On The Edge Of It All’ and ‘World On Fire’, or filling ‘High Noon’ with visions from a cross between Sergio Leone and the Book Of Revelations.
“There is this subliminal cowboy image soaked in Revelations, with the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” James explains. “It’s very apocalyptic. The songs were talking about political issues, good versus evil and a relationship between two parties or three. It gets pretty wild. That was when everything really clicked for this band, the direction, the songwriting, everything. That’s why I say Golden State has been around for about a year. It felt like this is when it became my music.”
And such music. Combining the ambition of prime Muse, the crunch of classic US rock and the vibrancy of Queens Of The Stone Age or Screaming Trees, Golden State are a thrilling summation of the entire gamut of modern rock and the consolidation of James’ lifelong obsession with aspirational music. Even as a pre-teen he was writing songs and playing drums in a band called The Phoenix, named after the Phoenix, Arizona elementary school they formed in. “We wrote a couple of originals and played a couple of Clash songs, it was hilarious. We played at our talent show, that was my first taste of how powerful music really was”
As a teenage athlete – music was James’ spurring soundtrack; he’d train along to an eccelctic mix of R&B, Bill Withers, early Stevie Wonder and Rush. “All of a sudden life was like a movie,” he says, “you’ve got theme music going right along with it, bringing it to life. I’d go out and train a lot on my own and jog in the evening and run up these big mountains. It felt like you were in a Rocky movie, the music was so important to push you to the next plateau, the next hill.”
Add in his parents’ interest in Marvin Gaye and Smoky Robinson and his own burgeoning passion for British epic rock like U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen (and a secret love of The Beatles he had to hide from his Team Beach Boys dad) and the foundations for a major rock talent were laid. There were a couple of false starts: James’ first band after dropping out of college in San Luis Obispo, The Din Pedals, split after a brief period signed to Epic and Paloalto fell foul of the music industry playing the headless chicken in the middle of the 00s. “We were stuck in this moment in time when the music industry was really changing and nobody had any idea what was going to happen and people were panicking. We got the brunt of that and it fell apart. They kept making excuses, telling me to write what ever was popular at the time. I kept trying to write these songs but it just wasn’t me.”
It took four years for James to find himself, and his band. Playing sporadic gigs around LA as Golden State he picked up bassist Elias Reidy from Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, drummer Fern Sanchez from the LA rock scene and guitarist Marc Boggio from his party hard Paloalto days. “We were on tour with Supergrass and we played this club in Chicago called the Metro. He came to the backstage and he was pretty drunk and such a funny kid, he reminded us of Keanu Reeves, we were doing all these Keanu Reeves quotes all night long, it was hilarious. You pick a movie and he’d do the quote. ‘I’m a lawyer, that’s what I do!’ We stayed in contact after that and he told me ‘one day I’m gonna be in your band’.”
Sure enough, it was Marc who eventually brought the mania to the Golden State. “In Paloalto there was a guitar player who brought this element of chaos to the music where it felt like any second it was gonna fall apart,” James explains, “it pushed it further and further to the edge. So I went through guitar players and they were great but there was this one element missing, but as soon as Marc strapped on a guitar, it exploded and I knew this was it. It has that element of danger which is really exciting.”
Meanwhile, over the past year, James was writing prolifically, “refining and redefining” his own style and rediscovering his musical mojo. He stopped chasing record deals and put a business plan together to release his own work; he stopped trying to write songs other people wanted him to write and started writing songs for himself. “It’s that journey you have to take to redefine yourself, go back to your roots and find that place you were before you started making music that was so exciting and organic. I found myself going back to trusting my instinct. I lost my way and started believing what everyone else was telling me rather than just trusting what you do. I feel so much more confident in the music that I’m writing and the place that we’re at because I’m making my own timeline and making the process happen. I’m in charge of it, I’m in control of the rein. It didn’t feel like I was trying to do someone else’s songs, and believe me, I tried! This time it was all sparked by the inspiration. It led me to a Golden State.”
The songs that came together over 2010 and 2011 were fresh and startling takes on alternative rock, dazzled by the horrors of the world but secure in their human foundations. ‘Light Speed’ is a U2-huge love anthem full of galactic imagery; ‘The Outsiders’ is a bombastic rallying call for society’s misfits and alt.thinkers; and ‘World On Fire’ is, according to James, “almost Biblical… there’s a stained glass window that is part of the Fabian socialist society. It depicts two men with hammers over their heads ready to swing down at this globe, this round ball that just came out of the furnace, this world on fire and they’re going to shape it the way they want to shape it. When the world’s on fire, will we be able to believe in each other?”
The key track, though is the lush, stripped back ballad ‘All Roads Lead Home’, not just because it’s the album’s emotional bedrock and safety net (“It’s about remembering,” says James, “when you’re out in the world and things get shifted and scattered, just remember that you can find your way back to that place it all began”) but also because its inclusion in US reality show The Deadliest Catch helped Golden State sell 4000 records with no promotion and set the ball rolling for their US takeover bid. The song has already been picked up for the trailer for major motion picture Dolphin Tale and James can see his horizons widening.
“The sky’s the limit,” he enthuses, having also received news that b-side ‘Till The End’ is set to be used in the BBC’s coverage of the Royal Wedding to an audience of millions. “This time around I don’t think we’re biting off more than we can chew. We’ve seen how it works and how to put it together to be at that arena level"
But whether it’s via visions of Revelations, songs about Secret Societies power struggles or elegies to the redemptive force of love, Golden State’s ultimate mission is to make their listeners sit up and think. “The lyrics of ‘Rocket’ are 'I’ll put a rocket in your mind’,” James says. "Think about what’s going on"
Golden State: keep your mind open, and your heart unbound.