Sincerity-driven OKC rock band finds clarity in noise on new music singles
Grandpa Vern is getting heavier.
“I started out doing kind of indie rock stuff,” said Grandpa Vern’s vocalist and rhythm guitar player Brandon Ross, “but we’re going towards more, like, the hardcore punk thing right now.”
The OKC rock band began as an acoustic solo act with Ross, then in high school, “doing an Elliott Smith-type thing.”
“The first few years of Grandpa Vern was a lot of me going to open mics and bombing in front of people and just trying to figure out what it was and what my writing style was,” Ross said. “It’s a long process.”
Widely varied influences have complicated the search for a cohesive sound, but judging by the band’s 2021 singles, Grandpa Vern is definitely getting louder.
“I think the struggle for me for the longest time was that I really like a lot of different types of music,” Ross said. “When I was around 17 or 18, I just got more and more into punk rock and hardcore, and it just made me more interested in doing heavy stuff. … There’s something about the way it translates live that is just more exciting to me. It feels like there’s like an energy to it. … It took me trying stepping my toe into that territory of doing harder music to realize that it’s the most natural for me. It feels the most like myself … like I’m expressing things the way I want to.”
The increase in volume is also inspired by the band’s expanded lineup, featuring Preston Kerran on drums, Jack Love on bass and Griff Stafford (Death By Knowledge) on lead guitar. Collectively, Grandpa Vern draws inspiration from straight-edge hardcore, psychedelic rock, black metal, powerviolence, deathcore and more, Ross said, and the band has already developed far beyond anything they imagined in the beginning.
“It just started out as a recording project where I would just do little acoustic things,” Ross said. “I didn’t really ever believe that it would end up becoming a real project or that I would end up taking music seriously. Then it became such a cathartic output for me when I began doing it. I connected with it.”
Released in October, “Wake Up” is inspired by Ross’ love of ‘90s alternative music.
“My dad was really into ’80s hair bands and … Christian hair metal, like Stryper and stuff like that,” Ross said. “He was like, ‘Man, ’90s alternative music sucks.’ And so I was literally like a decade behind when I was in middle school. I was like, ‘This grunge stuff is so sick.’ I was so into it. I was really into just every ’90s alternative thing you could think of. I even had a really big Counting Crows phase, which is so funny.”
Ross also listened to Matchbox Twenty, Dave Matthews Band and other “not bad, just goofy” acts before getting into heavier bands, such as Nirvana, Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr. Like Dinosaur Jr., which struck an uneasy alliance between lo-fi aggression and poppier indie rock, Grandpa Vern often seems “trapped in between two musical worlds,” Ross said.
“I feel like some of our stuff is too soft for playing with other hardcore acts, but then I feel like our stuff is too heavy to get to play with indie acts,” Ross said. “We’ve been turned away from playing certain bars and stuff just because of how heavy we are, but then we’ll play with other heavy people and I’m like, ‘Damn they’re a lot heavier than us.’”
Atop a bed of era-appropriate guitar crunch, “Wake Up” offers the reassurance that “It’s going to be alright / You don’t have to have things figured out overnight.”
“Honestly, most of my songs are about anxiety,” Ross said. “It’s important to me that I have something constructive to say other than just being another voice that’s screaming out into the void when it comes to mental health stuff. … I do want to talk about when I’m struggling with things like depression and anxiety … [but] it’s important to me that I try to give other people answers and point people to resources and stuff. … Acknowledging that you have mental illness is good, but the next step is getting help and I think I want to normalize that instead of just talking about it. I want to actually try to get to the next step.”
Ross organized 2020’s Not Alone OK, a compilation featuring tracks from Grandpa Vern, Death By Knowledge, stepmom, Don’t Tell Dena and other Oklahoma artists. All proceeds from album sales go to the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit working to prevent suicide.
“Music has helped me come back from a lot of stuff,” Ross said.
Released in June, “Stomp Out” is an indignant blast of hardcore fury aimed at police brutality and facism.
“Where’s justice for the meek / When racist scum runs the street?” Ross growls on the track before entreating the listener to “Stomp out vitriol / Stomp out hate / Punch fascists in the face.”
Ross, whose writing style was developed in speech and debate, often structures songs like an essay or an argument.
“I want all my songs to have a theme or a cohesive thought,” Ross said. “I’m using every verse and chorus to drive home an idea. Everything is about building a theme.”
Ross’ progressive ideals sometimes led to disagreements with previous bandmates.
“When you first start playing music, you kind of just have to play with whoever, especially in Oklahoma, at least in my experience,” Ross said. “And then you start to realize that people might not have the same ideas of what they want the music to sound like. … As I got older and matured and became more of an adult, it was also important to me that people in my band upheld the same moral values as me. …
“I think being a musician, a lot of times is just constantly making moral decisions that people don’t publicly talk about. Especially now during the pandemic … I feel morally liable to keep fans safe when it comes to COVID restrictions. … As a young musician, that was something I had to learn. You’re going to have to make a lot of hard decisions … trying to figure out who you can and who you can’t work with.”
Scheduled for a December release, “Sleep Paralysis” packs “quite a left hook” for anyone who’s been paying attention to Grandpa Vern’s other 2021 singles, Ross said. The “very sludge-influenced track” features esoteric lyrics about “astral projection gone wrong” inspired by Ross’ childhood fascination with monsters and cryptids.
“The song’s kind of based on this memory I had when I was a kid,” Ross said. “I had this sleep paralysis dream of an old hag sitting on my chest. I couldn’t get up or move, and it was scary as shit, like a witch or something. … You know when you wake up yelling or whatever? It was weird as fuck.”
Listeners should probably brace themselves for more left hooks in the future.
“I just like stuff that’s weird,” Ross said. “I don’t know why. The weirder something is the more I’m likely to be into it, and everyone else in my band is the same way.”
Grandpa Vern’s current iteration is far removed from its origins as an acoustic solo project, and even farther removed from the southern gospel music made by the band’s namesake, Ross’ grandfather.
“He was like a third parent to me,” Ross said. “Me and him were really close when I was a kid, and he impacted my life a lot. He was both a really good person and also, in a lot of ways, a deeply flawed person. I think he was one of the most human people I’ve ever met. … My relationship with my grandpa was important to me, and he passed away when I was, like, 15 or 16. The experience of dealing with that and going through the process of losing someone … changed me a lot and changed the way that I saw the world.”
The band name is often mistaken for a joke, but Ross understands.
“A lot of people have told me that they can’t say the name without laughing, and I get that,” Ross said. “Definitely there’s a part of me every time I tell people the name of our band, I’m like, ‘Damn, this is a goofy name.’ I feel a little embarrassed sometimes. But I think it’s something … unapologetically different. I could have named my band something that sounded like a cool, edgy punk band or something like that, but that’s not who I am. I’m goofy.”
Whatever shape Grandpa Vern’s sound takes on subsequent releases, Ross said the one certainty is that they won’t be boxed in.
“In the future, we could make a a doom-sludge-black-metal album, and then like a week later … I could honestly, if I had in my heart that I need to make a country album, that’s what we’re doing,” Ross said. “I don’t want to ever feel like I can’t make something that I want to.”
Jeremy Martin writes about music and other stuff in OKC. He's also the less funny half of comedy duo The Martin Duprass and the proud father of two delightful baby turtles (pictured).