Robby Grant spent most of his 20s touring the country with popular Memphis band Big Ass Truck, singing and playing guitar in front of packed crowds at college bars and rock clubs.
But now that he's 33 years old and a father of two, music functions differently in Grant's life. Recording solo albums under the moniker Vending Machine, he makes his music at home and rarely plays outside the city.
"With Big Ass Truck, the last year we were touring, my son Five was born. So I wasn't around [much] his first year," Grant says. "He's 7 now and I've also got a 2-year-old daughter, and I can't imagine being gone for two or three weeks."
Grant builds websites by day, but records music by night -- or morning -- at the home studio he's fashioned in the attic of his Midtown bungalow.
"I get a lot of work done early, before the kids get up," Grant says. "Setting your own schedule is a big benefit [of not touring and recording at home]."
Grant's new album, King Cobras Do , his fifth solo album and fourth under the Vending Machine name, is the first he's recorded entirely in his current attic studio.
"I feel like I get good drum sounds with the angled ceilings," Grant says of his upstairs respite. "I tend to play, record, and write all at the same time. It's rare that I sit down and write a song on an acoustic guitar and then go record it. So the home studio gives me the luxury to play around and record whenever I feel like it."
King Cobras Do is not only home-recorded, but also homey. As indie-rock records go, it has an unusually cozy feel. The intimacy of the recording process and Grant's penchant for referencing his home life in his songs give the album a unity of tone and content. The result is an album that feels like a hymn to domesticity in both spirit and subject matter.
"It's definitely a family affair," Grant says of the record. His son, Five (Robert Grant the fifth), contributes free-associative lyrics to the album-opening "Rabies" and to "Saturn National Anthem. "He comes up with me in the mornings when I'm recording sometimes," Grant says. The rest of the family shows up as song subjects.
The second song, "Rae," is a hand-clap-fueled love song to Grant's wife. The memories here are charmingly lived-in: "When you developed photos there/And we hung out and I sat in the chair/Nervous and scared around you" and "Remember when our room was just a bed." The album-closing "Tell Me the Truth and I'll Stop Teasing You" is a delicate tribute to Grant's 2-year-old daughter, Sadie. "The animal noises that you make never sound all that fake/It feels like there's an elephant in the room," Grant testifies, before a great little moment where he catches her yawning. And the theme is completed with "Good Old Upstairs," which personifies the attic studio/guest room where King Cobras Do was created: "In my sleep, she nudges me/To come up and play around some more."
Vending Machine started as a side project during Grant's stint in Big Ass Truck. Though he fulfills his itch to play in a "band" alongside Alicja Trout in Mouse Rocket, and gets plenty of help from an extended family of former Big Ass Truck bandmates (ex-Truckers Steve Selvidge, Robert Barnett, and Grayson Grant -- Robby's younger brother -- appear on King Cobras Do ), this one-man-band is now his primary creative outlet. And it's one that allows him more freedom than ever before.
"With Big Ass Truck, everything was a collective effort, so the big difference is that Vending Machine is all me," Grant says. "I write all the songs and record everything. When we were recording albums that we knew we were going to be touring behind, we were always aware of how an audience might relate. You're not as open as a songwriter in that situation. It's hard to get intimate in a bar full of 600 college kids."
If Grant misses anything from the old days, it's less the travel and the packed clubs than the networking opportunities. He's releasing King Cobras Do via Shoulder Tap Records, a new label he's started with a New York-based Big Ass Truck fan he met on the road.
"I've been lucky enough to meet a lot of people, which is what I miss from touring," Grant says. "But things have also changed a lot with the Internet. You're able to get out there, make contacts, and let people hear your music without touring. I don't really care how many records I sell, but I do want my music to be heard."
Grant seems content with a situation that affords him the luxury of creating music on his own time and meeting his own specifications.
"Another great thing is there's no deadline," Grant says. "This album came out when it was ready. And that's how I want to make music. I feel that's what resonates the most. In Big Ass Truck, it was hard to be personal because I felt self-conscious a lot. With this, the more specific you get about your personal life, the more people can relate to it."