Glenn Phillips and ‘The Dark Parade’

How the former Hampton Grease Band guitarist stopped having panic attacks

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Photo credit: Richard Perez
DRIVE ON: Glenn Phillips taking a breather after returning from a 1978 U.K. tour.

Looking back on a more than 50-year career in music Glenn Phillips has a fresh perspective on life. This new outlook began with a panic attack that prompted the guitarist and founding member of Atlanta’s ’60s art rock trailblazers the Hampton Grease Band to take a deep look at his relationship with his parents, bandmates, and with himself. Now, he’s penned a memoir, titled Echoes: The Hampton Grease Band, My Life, My Music and How I Stopped Having Panic Attacks. The book is accompanied by a full-length album of all new material, titled The Dark Parade, and a live DVD capturing a 2015 live show celebrating the 40th anniversary of his first solo album, Lost At Sea. These new releases offer a snapshot of three stations during Phillips’ life, bookending a musical legacy filled with emotional peaks and valleys, coming to terms with his own psychological makeup, and finding a way out of his self-made limitations. While preparing for a September 14 release show at the Red Clay Music Foundry, Phillips discussed his journey from spending his formative years with Bruce Hampton, coping with his life-long adrenaline addiction, to finally seeing the big picture in life.

Creative Loafing: When did your idea for the book start?

Glenn Phillips: When I did the Echoes CD booklet in 1990 I wrote a history of the band. That led me to doing a history on the Grease Band while everybody was still around. I interviewed everyone, which turned into the booklet that came out with the Music To Eat CD reissue. I started writing this book back then, but it has evolved over the years. It still contains the history of those bands, but it contains a lot about my personal story as well.

As I got older, I started having panic attacks whenever I went to see a doctor, which coalesced and connected everything in my mind about my long-term relationships with the people in the Grease Band, the people in my band, my relationship with my family, and how these panic attacks started. That led to me figuring out how to stop having panic attacks. When that happened everything started connecting in my mind. Most of which was already written, but now I had a different perspective on everything. There was a line going through all of my experiences I could see clearly, that I never saw before.

You weren’t aware of it until you wrote it down.

When you write stuff down you see things differently. It helped me step back and see the big picture that I couldn’t see before, and that’s what happened with the panic attacks. Lost At Sea was my way of dealing with my father’s suicide. These panic attacks didn’t start till after that happened. I didn’t understand the way panic attacks work. And the more they happen, the more intense they get. What started as an aversion to getting a shot, 40 years later turned into me passing out at an eye exam, having convulsions on the floor, calling the EMT’s, and them saying to my wife, Katie, ‘Your husband is having a heart attack.’ She thinks I’m dying. They put me on an ambulance and carted me off. While I’m in the ambulance, the nurse is calling the hospital, saying ‘We’re bringing in somebody for cardiac arrest.’ The EMT is looking at the results of the tests coming in and says, ‘Wait a minute, this guy’s heart is stronger than mine!’

I was doing this all to myself, and I didn’t understand how I got there or why it happened. When I heard Katie crying like she thought I was dying, a thought went through my head: I can never do this to her again. I started reading about panic attacks and it led me to figure out how this happened, which was growing up in a high-anxiety household with alcoholic parents. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my parents, but they had issues. My father’s alcoholism led to a suicide that led to my 40-year journey of panic attacks. When I made Lost At Sea was really when all this started to escalate.

This slow, gradual process of figuring it out is what I go into in the book. I found a way out and it became a driving motivator, besides wanting to tell my story and documenting this history of the Grease Band and my band. My hope is that maybe this could help someone else with the same problem.

That’s something that comes up often in the book, how telling your story could help somebody else.

I started the book in 1990. So I started interviewing the Grease Band around 1989 or 1990. It was simply to document the band’s history. Once it was documented I started seeing things that I didn’t fully understand or see before. With the Grease Band, I understand now that we had a common experience for lots of bands: You’re coming out of your family as a teenager. You’re leaving home, and there are issues that you bring with you. You create a new family and try to work these issues out, but you also project your issues without knowing it. It turns into a complicated relationship. But the overall impact is incredibly positive, despite any stumbling blocks you run into with each other. You’re taking each other on this journey and enabling each other for this process of self-discovery and to lead to this point that I was able to get to much later in life. So I look at all of these experiences now, even the difficult ones, in a more positive light.

You’re releasing the book with a new album and a live DVD. Do you see your experiences in putting this book together as manifesting in these other components?

All of the music I’ve written, from the Hampton Grease Band through all of my albums, has been autobiographical. My solo albums have all been instrumental music, and that might not make sense to some people, but the songs are about me wrestling with these issues throughout my life. I look at all of my music as being a long musical memoir, and this new album is directly connected with all of these realizations we’re talking about.

The relationships I’ve had with people — the bass players, Bill Rea and Mike Holbrook — one or both of them have played on every record I’ve made under my own name, with the Supreme Court, and with the Hampton Grease Band. My relationships with these two guys goes back 50 years. Bill and Mike both played on Lost At Sea. John Boissiere has played drums on my last four albums, including The Dark Parade.

So this connection with people, bands, and making music is a family experience for me. I’ve never seen it through the realm of business or what’s the smartest thing to do businesswise. I’ve always been led by what feels right. My connection with these people. My whole goal when I made Lost At Sea was to make an emotionally honest record about this experience that I went through. I wanted to make records that transcended genre and styles of the time, and were about emotional honesty and living with the consequences, regardless of how popular or unpopular you are.

Your body of recorded music is largely instrumental — abstract and evocative. To juxtapose this with a book chronicling your experiences is quite a dichotomy.

When you put things into words it helps you see things more clearly. That’s what music has always been for me. Even though it’s not verbal communication it is an abstract language. I may write 100 songs for each album, and I’ll go back and listen to the demo tapes. Some of them connect with something in me and I don’t always know what it is. I just feel magnetically pulled towards it, the titles usually connect to it, and this process of making the song has been, for lack of a more imaginative word, therapy for me.

The title of the new album is The Dark Parade.

What I grew to understand about anxiety and panic attacks is that there is a huge chemical release. In the book I simplify things; I use adrenaline to cover a lot of things, but mainly you’re talking about a huge surge of adrenaline. Think of your fight or flight button, which everybody’s familiar with. The more that button gets pressed the more intense the response. So I started thinking, ‘This sounds like a chemical addiction. Can I deconstruct this process?’

Throughout my life, I have been addicted unwittingly to adrenaline. It drove lots of risk-taking behavior. I talk about things in the book, like being at Niagara Falls with the band and hopping over the fence and climbing down the falls. Without even thinking about it, I just do stuff like that. There’s a story in the book about Jeff Calder — back when Jeff was drinking, I wasn’t drinking. I didn’t have any excuse for getting in the car in the middle of the night and driving backwards over to Bill Rea’s house.

We drove the entire way backwards, crossed North Druid Hills Road backwards in the car. Bill’s not home and I say, ‘He takes walks on the golf course at night.’ So we take the car out on the golf course. Jeff and I are driving with no headlights so we don’t get caught. Jeff is speeding along and I say, ‘Slow down, you don’t know where you’re going.’ He says, ‘I know exactly where I’m going.’ At that point we hit a brick wall and my head goes through the windshield. This kind of behavior — this is the parade, this is the excitement of adrenaline.

The dark part is where it led. You’re just doing stuff because you’re getting the surge of adrenaline. So that song captures that excitement, but doesn’t necessarily lead to a good place.

Have you ever talked to a therapist?

No, and I don’t want this to sound negative toward anyone talking to a therapist. I have been lucky to be surrounded by close friends, and my wife Katie and I have been together since ’85. We have an incredible relationship and talk to each other about everything. So I don’t want to say I haven’t talked to a therapist because if I had to pay Katie as a therapist, I would owe her a lot of money. One of the things my mom told me after my dad killed himself was, ‘Your father didn’t know how to talk to people. If you ever feel bad, or you don’t know what’s going on, talk to someone.’ And I’ve followed that religiously.

My mom’s gone now, too, but on her deathbed she relayed to me, ‘Your father’s mother killed herself the same way he did. His sister killed herself the same way she did.’ You start seeing how these patterns of behavior are passed on from one generation to the next by not talking about them. I understand now that my parents’ alcoholism was anxiety self-medication. So these realizations are like buried information, and playing these songs opens up doors inside you that you don’t even know you have.

MUSIC TO EAT: Glenn Phillips with the Hampton Grease Band at Piedmont Park, 1969. Photo by Bill Fibben.
MUSIC TO EAT: Glenn Phillips with the Hampton Grease Band at Piedmont Park, 1969. Photo by Bill Fibben.

You have never touched a drop of alcohol in your life?

No, and I don’t want this to sound judgmental on people who drink. I consider myself an alcoholic who’s never touched a drop of alcohol. I feel like the greatest gift your parents have to give you is their mistakes, if you learn from them.

I have no doubt that I would be the world’s worst alcoholic if I drank. I just knew this intuitively from a young age. Both sides of my family are filled with alcoholism. This gave me an alarm bell when I was younger. I’ve never smoked pot! I grew up in the ’60s! I was playing all of these pop festivals, playing with the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers. I felt very much a part of what was going on. But I knew not to cross that line because it wouldn’t lead to a good place for me.

Having these realizations about your yourself and your mental makeup, does it change the way you perceive your relationships with people in the Grease Band? With Colonel Bruce?

Yes, there were lots of issues going on. Bruce was always a very funny and imaginative guy, and I am not saying this in a negative way, but he made up a lot of stuff. Harold and I weren’t particularly wild about some of the things he made up, like saying he was a songwriter when Harold and I were the songwriters. Galadrielle Allman wrote a book (Please Be with Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman), and she talked to Bruce. According to the book, Bruce was the guitar player in the Hampton Grease Band — except Bruce didn’t play guitar in the Hampton Grease Band. But the connection we had growing up — my relationship with Bruce started in 1963 and the Grease Band broke up in ’73. The only two people that were in the band the entire six years were myself and Bruce. So we had this really close relationship for 10 of our most formative years, from ages 13 to 23. You encountered bumps in the road, but none of that takes the place of clearing the path for each other for self-discovery. I acknowledge things in the book that happened, but those things do not diminish the importance and the value of what we gave each other.

The band was started with Bruce, myself, and Harold, but everybody else was also incredibly important. Mike Holbrook became the bass player. Jerry Fields, the drummer. There’s no way we could have made the music we made without that entire band and the connection between all five of us. It was very connected to the relationships that we had and that we carried with us until this day. I was incredibly close with Bruce, and with Harold till he died. There were times when it was a rocky road, but nothing diminishes that. There’s something you give each other that you can’t get from somebody else at any other age. When you form your first band, you’re all leaving home. The world’s a big scary place. Nobody’s got your back anymore. That band that you form when you first leave home, this one-time experience, you all have each other’s back. That’s invaluable.

It’s how people describe going off to combat together.

Yes, so reading and writing all of this stuff, seeing the big picture, helped me process all of this. When the band split up with Harold, we went on for a couple of years and had success. That’s when we went and played the Fillmore. That’s when we signed to Frank Zappa’s label. But for me, in reality, the band ended when the relationship between Bruce, Harold, and myself ended — when Harold left. There’s no way you can replace that. When Bruce left the band I was disappointed. In retrospect, we were about to make another album, and I am glad we didn’t. It wouldn’t have been right. It would have diminished what Music To Eat was and is. Not that there wasn’t anything of value there, but we were struggling to keep what we had when a major piece of it was gone.

I could go off and make Lost At Sea, start over again, and form something new. That was easier to do than trying to recapture what we had.

There’s a song on Dark Parade titled “If Only,” which feels like a Rosetta Stone for everything we’ve been talking about.

“If Only” is a reflection on my life, going through this process, writing this book, realizations, regrets. I call it “If Only” because so much of my life was driven by guilt, not being able to save my parents from their alcoholism, not being able to save my father from killing himself. My dad came and visited me literally hours before he killed himself. I had dreams about him dying. I had no idea what was going on, but I remember asking, ‘Are you okay?’ I had a dream where something happened. He said, ‘I’m fine.’ Growing up, he was very disapproving about me doing music. But he came to visit me and said, ‘You’ve really got it made. You’re doing exactly what you want to do. Don’t ever give this up.’

My dad knew he was gonna kill himself. But I didn’t know that. So lots of these ‘If Only’ moments, and I look back at my life now and I realize how looking at life from that perspective contributed and led to me having these panic attacks. It’s up to me as an adult to turn these negative experiences into positive experiences. My only way to deal with this now is accepting the reality that they were alcoholics. He did kill himself. This had to become something positive in my life. I had to find a way to turn this into a gift of love rather than a disappointment. -CL-

Glenn Phillips’ Book, CD, DVD release party. $18-$20 (adv). $22-$25 (day of). 6:30 p.m. (doors). Sat., Sept. 14. Red Clay Music Foundry, 3116 Main Street, Duluth.

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