Extra Fancy's Brian Grillo: Saint or Sinnerman?

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor
May 1996

Sitting in the president of Atlantic Records' Los Angeles office, during a day-long string of interviews, Extra Fancy lead singer Brian Grillo finally realizes how far he's come four years after the birth of his band.

"It is so incredible in here. It just hit me that I'm sitting in the president's office looking all the way as far as Santa Monica, and I have the whole office to myself," Grillo says. "It's almost as big as my whole house."

Gearing up for the May 7 re-release of his rock band's debut album "Sinnerman," previously available on an independent label, Grillo recently talked with Oasis about being gay, HIV-positive and poised to become nationally known for fronting a hard-rocking, in-your-face, no-holds-barred rock band. The band also has two new tracks on a compilation of Silverlake, CA bands called "Silverlake is a drag."

Grillo -- with his shaven head, gym bod and tattoos -- is the anti-Christ to Judy Garland fags. This bare-chested rock stud bangs away those stereotypes harder than he bangs his 50-gallon oil drum in concert; as if to say 'Sorry, honey, it the 90s, no more wallowing and victimization allowed. Get with the program.'

'I'm going to make people see it's not a death sentence'

Extra Fancy, whose other three cute members are straight, pull no punches that the 33-year-old Grillo is the voice behind the band. His lyrics go from the dark, menacing, but catchy-as-all-hell indie hit "You Look Like a Movie Star, Honey," to the fierce, throbbing song "William," whom Grillo urges to "come out now." The album's title track, "Sinnerman," will be the album's first single and video.

But between the funky, lick-infested rocking tracks are some emotional gems like "Seven Years Ago" where Grillo writes a brutally honest song about his friends, being gay and HIV-positive. The song's opening verse gives you an idea of Grillo's frank writing style:

You set me up, I fell for you, infected me 'bout seven years ago
Punch drunk, I fell in love, no warning
You should've have told me, you should have said something

The song then builds to a beautiful chorus. Grillo admits it's one of his favorite songs, as well as some of his most up front lyrics. "It's much more putting myself out a limb, because I was very open about my HIV status and also my gay status and everything in that song," he says. "I just laid it all out on the table. Some people wanted me to change the words on it, and I was like no way, I'm not changing the words. This is how I wrote it, and it's a beautiful song.

"That song, and this sounds really corny but I'm not lying, that's the only song on the record that I can't play, because it makes me start crying," he says. "It's about my friends, about me ... it's such an open book about where I was at that time three years ago when I wrote that. I get really choked up. The chords that it's written in and such. It's just really pretty. I like that song a lot."

Being open about his life is not new for Grillo, it's just being done on a larger scale now. He has known he is HIV-positive for 11 years.

"Everyone that's ever known me has always known that I'm gay. Everybody that has known me since I was HIV-positive that's close to me has known," he says. "And if I sleep with a guy, I'm going to tell them my status before we have sex. I opt for safe sex always, but I feel people have that right to know.

"I like having sex, and I had to tell a lot of guys and only one guy turned me down because of that. For that reason, I knew that sooner or later, the more guys I'm sleeping with, the more that someone is going to come out and tell," he says. "At the same time, I started getting nervous about that, but also at the same time, I started realizing what a positive effect my being open would have."

Grillo says fans of his band have responded incredibly to his honesty. Grillo says many have credited him with giving them the courage to come out to their parents, and he's had a similar effect on HIV-positive people.

"Now, people come to the show and say I've been HIV-positive for five years. I bought your record and it's made me want to start living again," he says. "So, everyone knows now, and I'm getting tired of talking about it, but I need to keep talking about it. There aren't that many people out there that are willing to.

"Not that I wanted to be Mr. Posterboy for all the causes, but I had those two things and I had to really grapple about it," he says, "but I come from really punk rock roots and that instinct was like 'Fuck you, if anyone has a problem with it, too bad.' I'm going to go out, and make people see it's not a death sentence and some horrible thing.

"I'm doing exactly what I did before I was tested. I'm still rocking out, jumping off the oil drum, hanging upside down from the rafters. It hasn't stopped me," he says. "So, if I can be example... if you test positive, your life ain't over. Don't let it be that."

'We rock out'

Considering the effect Grillo's life has on Extra Fancy's lyrics, it makes you wonder what they would sound like if he were closeted.

"The music would be good, but it would be boring with nothing to say," he says. "Why we're reaching a lot of people is that we have something really interesting to say and positive to say. It's something a lot of people are afraid to talk about, and we're doing it."

And doing it raging and hard-on, if rumors of their live shows are true. The night before this interview, Extra Fancy opened up for Iggy Pop. With a mini-tour this and next month, appearances at three major gay pride festivals, and hopes for a national tour after that, everyone will hopefully get a chance to see Grillo and the other band members rock. But until then, here's how he describes their live show:

"We are definitely not shoe-gazers. We rock out. It's sweaty, it's sexy, it's nasty," he says. "It makes you want to go home and fuck. It makes you want to dance and buy the record. It's very inclusive, if someone wants to jump up on the stage and dance, they're not going to get thrown off the stage. I encourage people to come up and join us. We're very into involving everybody, and taking over the club and making it into a big party."

But what's up with his buff bod and shaved head image?

"I knew I was going to be up against a lot of shit for what I'm singing about and the stance I've taken, and for me, it's more of a psychological way of looking a certain way to say 'You don't fuck with me, because I will look scary.' And it seems to work," he says. "Also, my dad once told me once that the Indians, before they would go into battle, used to shave their heads as a way of wiring themselves up. So, I always do it before the show. Just like swimmer's shave their bodies to move quicker. The shaving thing is kind of a ritual."

And what about this huge oil-drum he bangs on with steel rods?

"I used to play a piece of sheet metal. I just liked the way it sounded, but it kept cutting up my hands, and it was just a nightmare," he says. "It hurt. My hands would always be sore after pounding my fist into a piece of sheet metal. I found this drum on my way home from practice one night, and I picked it up and carried it up the hill. I brought it into the rehearsal the next day, and they were like 'Now, what are you bringing in?' Before that, I had a VW car door that I had found, and before that, the guts of a piano.

"Once, I started playing it, all of the sudden, it just fit in really good. It was loud and powerful and just what we needed," he says. "It was the final icing on the cake. In a club, where you can't see, it's annoying when you can't see the lead singer, so I can jump on top of that and be on top of the whole crowd. It's your handy-dandy oil can, good for many purposes."

'I am queer. What do they want me to do?'

Extra Fancy isn't without its critics, though. Some people think Grillo is only out because it's trendy now. He says he's always been out. Other see him as an outsider capitalizing on the established queercore community built up by queer indie punks Pansy Division, Team Dresch and Tribe 8.

"I've heard it before. Capitalizing on the queercore community, what's that supposed to mean? I am queer. What do they want me to do?" Grillo asks. "I'll go start singing songs about girls and they can hate me for that, too. Whenever people start ripping me apart, they're just jealous. That's the way I look at it. People dissatisfied with themselves have to belittle other people so it makes their opinion more valid.

"I've chosen to be in a profession where you put your ass and your soul out on the line," he says. "I'm telling stories about my life and my secrets. But, I'm gauged by our audience. If people were throwing tomatoes at us, I might reconsider. But those are the people who are paying to see us, and those are the ones who are buying our records.

"We had a talk with Pansy Division about it, and a lot of people want to see us at each other's throats," he says. "We should all bond together, regardless of the differences in our music. Isn't that what's cool about the world? It doesn't all have to be one thing."

Grillo says his punk roots have been firmly in place since the 70s, when his short-cropped hair would be pink or green. "And that was before you could just buy it. You had to ditch school, hitchhike up to Hollywood and go to one store called Poser," he says. "It was in the late 70s, there weren't any punk rock stores or MTV. You had to make up your own style and figure things out."

So, how does classify Extra Fancy's music? Homocore? Queercore? Queer punk?

"We're Extra Fancy-core. We're pretty much in our own category, I think. I support the homocore scene, I think it's great," he says. "I like Pansy Division, Team Dresch, Tribe 8 and I know these bands and see how hard they work to put out their own records and tour around the country.

"So, if people want to lump us in that category, I'm more than happy to say 'Fine, I don't have a problem.' But I don't really like ghettoizations of anything. I don't want to be ghettoized in my own life," he says. "I don't want to be known as homocore or queercore. I just want to be known on our own merits as Extra Fancy, not the one with the gay, positive singer, just like a really good rock and roll band. But down the line, our music will either prove it or it won't."

'I always knew what I was'

Grillo says accepting his sexuality was never a big deal for him growing up in Torrance, California. "The strange thing with me is I know that I have always been attracted to men, since I was three or four. I didn't know what sex was at that point, so I can't say 'Yeah, I got a hard-on' .. but I became attracted to guys at a very early age.

"So, I always knew what I was. It was hard growing up through grade school, because that's when people started going 'fag, fag' and you start to question yourself. 'Wow, what am I? I'm this thing that everyone's says is bad all of the sudden. This thing I know inside me is natural everybody's telling me is a bad thing.'

"And then you go to high school, and it's like 'You fucking faggot, you look like a faggot, you dress like a faggot, you are a faggot. We're going to meet you after school and beat the shit out of you.' But, at that point, I came out in high school and then to my mom, and basically got thrown out of the house for it."

Grillo says things are fine between he and his family now as far as his sexuality goes.

"I don't go into graphic detail with them about my sex life. But I can go 'Mom, I met this guy and we broke up. I'm never going to be able to have a boyfriend.' I can be honest," he says. "My dad is a little weird. He was in the Marines and Navy and stuff, so he's still a little freaked out, because my brother's gay, too. So, it's like, 'Guess who's not getting any grandchildren. (laughs) We have a sister, and she doesn't want any kids either."

Grillo says one of the most important thing gay youth across the country can do is reach out, and if things are really bad, plan to get out.

"There are places, hotlines and numbers around the country. Get on the phone and talk to somebody who's going to let you know that you're not alone and you're not out there all by yourself. You've got to just believe in yourself," he says. "And it is lonely, because that's how Torrance was. It was nowhere. There was nobody. I had to really believe in myself as a person and keep telling myself over and over again that I'm a good person and there's nothing wrong with me.

"If it's really miserable for kids, I'd say go to school and try to learn something that can get you out of there and get you somewhere where you can fit in and meet more people. You're not alone. There are a lot of places where there are people just like them."

Just another trick

Grillo was now in the middle of his day, with four hours of interviews under his belt for the day, and five more people waiting for him to call. So, it was now time hang up with Grillo, and for him to talk about himself to another stranger.

"I feel like a whore in a whorehouse," he says, laughing. "I'm just like 'Next.'

The author, Jeff Walsh, may be contacted at jeff@oasismag.com.
General information: Jeff Walsh
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