When John "JJ" Grey and the other members of Mofro were getting started a few years ago in London, people would hear the band's name and say, "Oh, I get it ... 'More Afro.'" Not quite, says Grey.
"It just means nothing. It's just Southern. Something we say all the time, like, 'Who's that mofro?'"
As it is, Mofro is Afro-free. The band, headed by Grey, consists of four self-proclaimed "rednecks" or "crackers" (more on that later) from Jacksonville and one Frenchman. But don't let the band's pale pigmentation fool you. Although the music is undeniably rock, guitarist Daryl Hance's style is perhaps the most Curtis Mayfield-inspired playing since "Superfly" itself, while the down-home grit of Grey's vocals brings to mind Otis Redding.
Grey, who also plays harmonica in the band, professes a love for "gutbucket funk," nodding more toward James Brown than say, Bootsy Collins. "The 'gutbucket' is what they used to haul the booze in," he explains, referring to the reservoir used to collect the gin leakage in old honky-tonks. "It's nasty, it's dirty, it stinks," he says. "There's something raunchy about it, and that, to me, epitomizes 'funk' more than a certain bass line."
Years ago, Grey and Hance had a more "acid jazzy" band that he discusses so quietly under his breath, it's obvious he's none too proud of it. "It was terrible," he says. "Things didn't start clicking until we decided to just be us." The blues influence had always been there, but "now it's a little meaner, a little more stripped-down."
In 1998, the two went to London to record an album for a label that ended up folding. They soon met bassist Fabrice "Fabgrease" Quentin and keyboardist Nathan Shepherd, an Australian. The foreigners fit in well, and Mofro as a band was born.
A year later, Mofro returned to the United States, where they signed with the San Francisco indie label (Fog City) that, in 2001, released their full-length debut, "Blackwater," an album that honors both Florida and the glories of Southern living. In "Ho Cake," Grey sings of cornbread, ham hocks, turnip greens and grits. In "Florida," he laments land development with lyrics such as: "Autumn sunset mornin', skies ablaze/the oaks and the pines turn their palms up to the sun/the kind of beauty that hits down in the soul/and still we're hell bent to destroy it all."
Mofro's lineup changed slightly after "Blackwater's" release. Shepherd returned to Australia, and Florida locals Craig Barnett (drums) and Mike Shapiro (keys) joined. Now (after seven drummers), Grey happily says, "The lineup is the best it's ever been."
Among a mix of songs from "Blackwater" and other originals, a live Mofro set usually incorporates one or two covers, possibly something by John Lee Hooker or even Lynyrd Skynyrd. But "Freebird"-howlers can subdue their cries: "I wouldn't play it, because I love the song, and I love the group," Grey says. "People can yell out all they want and make fun of it. It's sorta become the mantra of the moron. I guess they do it to make fun of 'rednecks,' which I guess I am, and I guess my grandfather was."
"Redneck" and "cracker" are both negatively charged words, but Grey's definition is quite different. "Please don't try to tell me who I am and how I live," he says. "My wife is black. My father-in- law is black as coal Ã he's dark."
The word "cracker," he insists, "came from cracking corn," not from cracking whips on slaves, as many believe: "'Cracker' was used against white people by white people. Poor people seemed to be cracking corn all the time, so they would call them crackers. It's become this racial slur, but it ain't to me." (The whip aspect came from the "cracker cowboys, who cracked whips on cows, not slaves," he says, referring to books such as Al Burt's "The Tropic of Cracker," which better details the history.)
Grey lives on his grandmother's farm outside of Jacksonville. The trailer he shares with his wife and 14-year-old son is just 200 yards from hers. When Grey isn't working with the band, he helps her by picking up limbs shed from their 63 pecan trees, mowing ("that takes up a lot of time") and doing other chores. For extra money, he also works in a local lumberyard, and, for fun, partakes in the ultimate Florida sport: surfing. Somehow, this down-home demeanor translates into his lyrics.
"I don't really got any messages," he says. "I just rant, I don't care. I'm just bitchin' because things ain't the way they were when I liked it most. I don't really have a message to save Florida. I put up the 'Stop Land Rape' page on the website, but ... you can educate people till you're blue in the face, but if people keep having babies, you're gonna run out of room eventually."