How Philly psych band Grubby Little Hands found destiny in the wake of tragedy

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Grubby Little Hands (photo by Claire Abribat)
Grubby Little Hands | photo by Claire Abribat | courtesy of the artist

There’s a striking image present on “Dial Tone,” the first track off Grubby Little Hands’ forthcoming record Garden Party. Amidst lush swirls of psychedelics, songwriters Donnie Felton and Brian Hall paint a picture of the perfect garden party—at a pristine spot with “elegant shadows.” There’s only one thing missing:  the people. Instead, the party is seemingly automated: “The garden party starts right after we’re gone,” goes the chorus. “The automatic lights will turn themselves on.”

Read one way, it’s a metaphor for things not always being as they seem—a theme that recurs throughout Garden Party, which is built on the marriage of pop euphoria with dark subject matter. Read another way, it’s about the interplay between apathy and unease—about feeling disconnected, and going through the motions (another theme). But when you actually talk to the band—which I did, for this story—you start to realize there’s a third meaning too. It’s about time, and growth, and learning to take charge of your destiny. Garden Party is not only Grubby Little Hands’ best record yet—it’s them controlling their destiny.

The past 6 months have been a whirlwind of activity for the band—perhaps the most whirlwind-y of their near decade-long career (two decades if you count the times Donnie and Brian stayed up writing songs together freshman year in college). Last November, the band—that’s Felton, Hall, guitarist Joey Primavera, and drummer Chad Brown, with (sometimes) keyboardist Mark Saddlemire and percussionist/sample master Michael Rothstein—signed with Portland label Lefse Records, who will release Garden Party; earlier this spring, their single “No Such Thing” received premiere treatment from Stereogum. The band, who also run their own label, Good Behavior (Mock Suns, TJ Kong & The Atomic Bomb, Garden Gate) tells me they initially planned to release Garden Party on Good Behavior, but were urged to seek bigger label support from friends, who told them they had something special on their hands. They were right. Garden Party is full of bright psych gems and dreamy, introspective dirges, that raise you up exuberantly and let you down gently.

Now, with Lefse’s support, they’re gearing up for their record release (April 30 at Johnny Brenda’s), followed by a tour, where they’ll be exposed to fans up and down the East coast. It all comes at a time when the band is in peak form, both professionally and creatively. The garden party might have started without them, but Grubby Little Hands are not complaining. They’re hosting their own, better party already.

But let’s start back at the beginning. In the beginning it was Donnie and Brian, working on music theory classwork together at Wake Forest University. The pair became easy friends—“both of us had a slacker streak, so we both ended up having to stay up all night to work on projects,” says Felton. “So we were kind of in a co-dependent relationship before we even wrote a song together.” He laughs.

Felton and Hall (photo by Claire Abribat)
Felton and Hall | photo by Claire Abribat | photo courtesy of the artist

The first version of what would eventually become Grubby Little Hands was called “The Gregs” (named after Brian’s then pet lizard); later when that project dissolved they formed The What Monsters, a loose network of friends making fuzzy basement rock. Shortly thereafter, Primavera came on board—Felton and Hall had relocated to Philly by then, and all three shared a huge house in Roxborough, where they could write and jam without interruption.

Eventually The What Monsters parted ways, and at this point—circa 2008—Grubby Little Hands was born. Both Felton and Hall were going through rough times: Felton had been dumped by a girlfriend, and was sleeping on Hall’s couch in West Philly—and without specifically setting out to do so, they soon began writing again.

Hall describes this period as “children playing with toys.” “It was recession times,” he continues. “We were employed but making very little money; we were grappling with adulthood while grasping at childhood nostalgia.”

Not surprisingly, early compositions were more experimental and less focused, as the band was finding its voice.

Then something happened that would forever change their perspective.

It was an autumn night in 2008 when Hall was walking home from a happy hour with some friends in Center City. A stranger approached his group, made crazy threats, then “spun around and stabbed” Hall in the abdomen with a 12″ hunting knife. He was gravely injured and rushed to the hospital. “I was very, very lucky I survived,” he tells me, explaining that he would be in and out of hospitals for the next three months as he slowly recovered, and the band was put on hold.

Luckily, his assailant was caught (“my friend literally chased him down” he says), but the experience led the band to question their own mortality—questions that permeate the lush layers of Garden Party.

Ultimately, the attack left both Hall and Grubby Little Hands stronger. The band continued to hone its sound, adding Chad Brown in 2010; his expert drumming (he also plays with West Philadelphia Orchestra) helped them be both more elastic and more methodical. Primavera honed his production skills, completing the mastering for the group’s 2012 LP The Green Grass Grew All Around; his knowledge and vision later helped give Garden Party its sun-drenched sheen. The final addition of Saddlemire and Rothstein to the fold means Grubby Little Hands is now fully capable of taking over a room with their complex and sprawling concoctions.

Which is exactly what they plan to do. The band is currently gearing up for their record release and subsequent tour; Felton and Hall (who both work day jobs) tell me they’ve saved up their vacation days for this very purpose.

One thing is clear: the band is all in. “We’d love to do this full-time if viable,” says Hall, adding that now is go-time, and they’re already immersed in writing the next record, with full support from Lefse. “We’re going to do it and we’ll see whether it sticks.”

We’re betting on these guys to make it.

Grubby Little Hands will celebrate Garden Party’s release Saturday, April 30 at Johnny Brenda’s. The 21+ show begins at 9 PM and tickets are $10; more information can be found at the venue’s website.

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