It’s another scorcher in Los Angeles; sweat and clothes are flying off two hasty lovers in a ramshackle ghetto apartment. But the light’s too bright for passion, too white-hot for reason on an early summer day. Then it all makes sense: This is Tinsel Town, after all, and ringing the pair like street-fight rubberneckers are sun-fried sound boys, a squinting cinematographer and a small huddle of young execs watching their money burn. A camera rolls forward and down, toward the lovers. It’s two men.
The soundtrack to this scene is fast, loud, definitely hard; Johnny Cash backed by the Clash. The booming song slams through the soundstage -- this is the Spanish Kitchen Studio, womb of countless music videos -- until John Reiss, the video’s director, raises his hand: “Cut!”
Silence. From the blistering light emerges Pulp Fiction actor Alexis Arquette and Extra Fancy frontman Brian Grillo. The director starts talking, but it’s Grillo who clearly holds Arquette’s attention. And who can blame him? Brian Grillo is sexy. Pierced, tattooed, head-shaven, he is a rock idol for the ’90s, complete with HIV.
Being openly gay and HIV positive hasn’t stopped Grillo -- along with his straight, HIV negative band, Extra Fancy -- from landing at Atlantic Records and launching its debut CD, Sinnerman. Having HIV doesn’t seem to have slowed down Grillo at all, in fact. Reiss learns for the first time on the video set that the frontman is positive. “I feel like an idiot for not knowing all this time,” he says. “Maybe that’s the way it should be. Who cares? Other than I’m sorry he’s positive.”
Darren Higman, talent scout and vice president of Atlantic subsidiary TAG Recordings, said he had no problem selling the big guys on Extra Fancy: “Through the process, Grillo’s HIV status was not a big deal. It’s something that shouldn’t be used as a marketing tool, but if we can change people’s perceptions about HIV and make some money, we’ll be thrilled.” Marketing HIV status was one thing, but Atlantic was more than happy to sell Grillo as a gay man: The company used Extra Fancy to launch its new gay marketing division. “If 200 gay people a week end up buying this record, people would take notice,” says Peter Galvin, Atlantic’s vice president of product development/gay markets. “It won’t matter if the push comes from the gay market. This is the gay band that’ll break into the mainstream.”
Nice words, but did the company mean them? As POZ went to press, Atlantic announced it was dropping Extra Fancy -- just eight weeks after releasing Sinnerman.
EF: Do you think Atlantic dropped you because of your HIV status?
BG: Whether they dropped us because I’m positive doesn’t matter. They fucking lied to us. For nine months, Atlantic kept selling us a line that the HIV thing was breaking new ground, that Atlantic was proud of their part in raising awareness about AIDS and what people with HIV can do.
EF: Atlantic says it cut Extra Fancy for financial reasons, that the band wasn’t moving enough units.
BG: You can’t hope for any kind of success in eight weeks: There used to be a phrase called artist development, but now you’re given one single, maybe two, and if it doesn’t hit, you’re history. When you sign a band, you don’t sign them for that moment, you sign them for the future. I can still hear Atlantic telling me, “We know the great impact this band can have and the lives we can save and we back you.” They’re liars. That’s the one thing that makes me really sad -- there are still a lot of kids out there that we can give some kind of hope. And Atlantic led me to believe that they would give us the opportunity to do so.
EF: If Atlantic had released “Goddamn Beautiful World” as a single, would album sales have picked up? I know you have a huge cult following.
BG: Before we were dropped, Tim Sommers, the A&R guy who found Hootie & the Blowfish, gave me this line about how it took a year to break that band. Atlantic kept pushing them until the album sold. They didn’t hit until the fourth single. That means Atlantic lied about the whole gay and AIDS thing. They worked so hard to break Hootie because that’s a band for working-class white straight America.
For nine months of my life they told me how important what I’m doing for the gay community is. They put out press release after press release. But they’re not willing to fight for it. Then, after we were dropped, Tim Sommers called me and said that it was all just a matter of dollars and cents. He said 7 Year Bitch is selling 600 units a week and we’re only selling 200. But 7 Year Bitch has three albums out and they tour all the time. We were out eight weeks. Atlantic killed us.
EF: Are you OK?
BG: The way I feel is the same way I felt when I first found out I have HIV. I was scared -- I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. But I know that through all of this I’m going to go on a new journey and I’m going to make something better out of this.
EF: So what’s the next step?
BG: The cool thing about all this is that I was worried the other three guys in the band were going to get discouraged by the whole thing. But it’s been exactly the opposite. At first [Extra Fancy manager] Paul V. wanted to quit, but now he wants to work even harder. I told [guitarist] Mike Hateley that he’d have to be out of his mind to think I’m going to give this up. And this might sound kind of pretentious, but in talking to the others guys, I’ve realized that by being around me my philosophy has sort of rubbed off on them: They’re not about to be defeated, either.
And why should they be? Grillo says that one of the reasons Atlantic signed Extra Fancy was its built-in audience, a growing core of followers dubbed the “Tribe.” A week before the video shoot, on the eve of Sinnerman’s release, Extra Fancy packed the house for a benefit concert. The house lights were low and the band explosive. Arms extended like Jesus, Grillo fell into a sea of slamdancers -- men, women, straight, gay, whatever -- who paraded him above the crowd before tossing him to the stage.
EF: Why the name Extra Fancy?
BG: My old band, Lock Up, had 5,000 different names. One of them was Extra Fancy. I really liked it, but the other guys said, “That sounds too gay.” So when I started this band, I said, “I’ll show them. I’m naming my band Extra Fancy. I’m going to do and say whatever I want.”
EF: Who’s the leader?
BG: We signed a partnership agreement for legal reasons, but when it comes to creative decisions, I call the shots.
EF: Are you a pain in the ass?
BG: To a lot of people. But I get the results that I want to get.
BG: I wanted to start a band that was gonna open some flood gates so that gay people could be accepted in rock ’n’ roll.
EF: So you sort of cracked rock ’n’ roll?
BG: Either I was gonna crack it, or go into the closet -- ’til somebody outed me -- and tolerate fag jokes for the rest of my life.
EF: How did you form Extra Fancy?
BG: Foster [the bass guitarist] started it with me. He and I had been friends since Lock Up, which he’d wanted to be in. Derek [the drummer] had also tried to join Lock Up. He sent me a tape that I ended up using on my phone machine. When I started Extra Fancy, I was freaking out: “I gotta find a drummer -- we have a show in two weeks!” And I was listening to my phone messages at the same time. The messages ran out but Derek’s tape kept playing, and I was like, "Wow, this sounds really good! Derek...Derek O’...Derek O’Brien...drums." So I called him. He came down the next day and auditioned, and he was in.
EF: Did any of them know you were HIV positive?
BG: Right from the beginning. I said, “If you can deal with the fact that I’m gay and I’m HIV positive then we can work together.” Still, sometimes I think they don’t understand that HIV is fucking with me every day of my life.
EF: What do you mean?
BG: I can’t go out and party all night, because I need to maintain my health, if I want myself to last. I’ve never been into drugs, though. I’ve always been into working out and taking care of myself. In high school I did speed, but that was years ago.
EF: What about prescribed drugs, like antivirals to fight HIV?
BG: I don’t know anything about them.
EF: Do you care anything about them?
BG: Nope. I don’t believe in the AMA [American Medical Association]. I don’t want to have a bunch of pills in my cabinet; I have herbs in my cabinet.
EF: Do you think that’s partially a function of denial?
BG: No, I think it’s depressing to look in people’s cupboards and see that shit.
Look, not everybody will be able to go in my direction, but it’s keeping me alive. And I can’t say that everybody should start a rock ’n’ roll band because then you won’t die. But for me it works. I can go to the rehearsal and feel a flu coming on, and I get out of rehearsal and the flu’s gone. I use it as a way to expel every fucking poison from my system, then I go home and get a good night’s sleep, and I’m fine.
EF: But you’ve said that you want to be a role model for gay teens.
BG: That’s different. Being gay is something I’m very comfortable with. I’ve only known I was HIV positive for nine years. I’m a baby when it comes to HIV. I’m still going through all these fucking emotions every day about it. I’m not even comfortable with it in my own life yet, and I’m being thrown into this position of “You’re supposed to know the way.” I don’t know the way.
“Out yourself! Out, out, out!” screamed actress Susan Tyrrell, Grillo’s closest friend. An Academy Award nominee for her performance in John Huston’s Fat City (1972), Tyrrell’s brillo-pad voice seems more theatrical than cinematic as she recounts the crisis caused by last year’s Rolling Stone revelation of Grillo’s HIV status. Included in a round-up of the queer punk-rock scene, Grillo was described simply as an HIV positive singer. Rolling Stone culled the info from a 1993 Los Angeles Times article that included Grillo -- also a painter -- as one of 60 artists with HIV exhibiting in a show entitled “Transcending AIDS.”
Grillo listened, undecided, as Tyrrell continued her tirade. Not that he kept his serostatus a secret, but there’s being out and there’s being out. "My first time in Rolling Stone,“ said Grillo, ”and they’re talking about my HIV status.“ ”Your HIV is a goddamn selling point,“ countered Tyrrell. ”You’re strong, you’re sexy and you’re healthy. And after 15 years of this epidemic, people are ready to deal with it."
EF: What happened when Rolling Stone -
BG: Outed me? It was a big scene. Our manager wanted to sue them, and everybody was up in arms.
EF: Were you?
BG: It was bound to come out sooner or later. I have sex with guys, and I always tell them that I’m HIV positive. It didn’t effect me until my parents’ friends heard about it -- Rolling Stone gets around. My family couldn’t deal with it. They don’t mind that I’m gay, but being in the public’s eye about it is different. "And now you’re open about your HIV positive status? Later!"
EF: Your manager told me that a bunch of companies had been interested in you, but pulled away when they found out you were HIV positive.
BG: I’m not gonna mention any names, but one idiot said, “I would never sign somebody that’s sick.” I really lost it, because I felt I’d worked my whole life for this, and now nobody’s gonna give me a chance because they think that I’m gonna die.
EF: Do you think you’re gonna die?
BG: I know I’m gonna die sooner or later, but not for awhile.
EF: Do your fans know you’re HIV positive?
BG: Most do, and some don’t. I don’t get onstage and say, “If you all have a problem with me being HIV positive, take 10 steps back.”
EF: I get it. You don’t want people to think “He’s gay,” or “He’s HIV positive.” You want them to think about your music. Like Burt Bacharach.
BG: Yeah, but you don’t just think of Burt Bacharach’s music. You remember that he’s married to Carole Bayer Sager or that he used to be Marlene Dietrich’s piano player. Every song that I listen to, I’m like, “That’s Kim who used to be in the Pandoras and punched out that girl in the parking lot!” So I don’t expect people to forget that I’m HIV positive or gay. It’s part of what I sing about, and I don’t expect it to go away.
EF: Would you want it to?
BG: I hate to say it, but half the attention that we’ve gotten about our music is because I’m writing the kinds of words that I’m writing and it’s saying something from someone who actually lives with HIV. I mean, it’s part of the whole package. I just write about my life, but I don’t do it to make a shitload off exploiting my deepest secrets.
EF: If you were making a shitload, you wouldn’t still be cleaning houses.
BG: Not in the nude. Anymore.
EF: But you used to.
BG: Yeah. I used to do house cleaning in New York, but the only house-cleaning job I could get when I came back to Los Angeles was with this place that made me take my clothes off when I went for the interview. They said, “Oh, you’ll do fine.” I went to one job to do a nude house cleaning job and freaked out. I couldn’t be naked on some floor, scrubbing it. A lot of guys that did nude house cleaning did more than clean. I don’t know if they had to fuck the people.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show has nothing on Willy Mrasek’s house. “It’s like a bordello,” says Grillo, referring to its decor, not its inhabitants. Steeped in gilded kitsch and cigarette smoke, one room is early opium den, another is retro beauty parlor where Willy, the host-cum-beautician, creates hip hair. Grillo and a few friends crowd into the breakfast nook where Sean D’Lear, lead singer of Glue, another emerging LA band, is speaking about the role Grillo’s HIV status should play onstage.
“Brian’s fans don’t care. They’re informed about AIDS.”
I ask about his fans who aren’t.
“Who? They’re all pierced and tattooed, so they’re all informed.”
Would you encourage Brian to take a political stance?
“I do politics all the time when we play: ’Don’t forget to vote!’”
Are you saying he should shy away from letting people know about his HIV status, or bring it to the forefront?
“I think the music’s more important than the people. HIV is just another thing...like Foster’s toe.”
The bass guitarist?
“Uh-huh. He’s missing a toe. In a lawnmower.”
EF: When did you first pick up the guitar?
BG: I’ve played since eighth grade. My mom showed me chords.
EF: Did she play guitar, too?
BG: Yeah, beautifully. Sang beautifully, too. Still does. It’s a great voice. My grandfather on my mom’s side, the Irish side, he played guitar. He taught her. Sort of like passed it down. So music has been in the family from day one.
EF: How did you take up the oil drum?
BG: I found it on the street one night on the way home from practice, carried it home, started playing it and have been ever since.
EF: Are you close to your mom?
BG: As much as we can be. My mom is an alcoholic so she’ll disappear for weeks.
EF: Did you tell her you were HIV positive, or did she read about it in Rolling Stone?
BG: I told her.
EF: What did she say?
BG: “Oh my God!” She dropped the phone and ran out on the street, started screaming.
EF: How does she handle it nine years later?
BG: Okay. Sometimes she gets drunk and says, “I’ll be the one to change your diapers.” I don’t think that’s who I’ll be choosing.
EF: When did you tell your father you were HIV positive?
BG: I didn’t tell him. My mom was drunk and called him up. She told him.
EF: Your parents are divorced?
BG: Since I was seven.
EF: What does your father do?
BG: Paints houses. Like I used to. It’s the only thing we have in common -- the tricks of the trade.
EF: We’ve done parents. What about boyfriends?
BG: Right now, I’m a loner. My whole life is focused around the band.
EF: Are you into anonymous sex?
BG: No. I’m afraid I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy: I like having a date and then fucking them.
EF: You’re not gonna tell me you don’t have sex.
BG: I do, here and there. It’s nice to touch another human being once in a while. Now it’s getting weird because the only guys I meet already know who I am: “Brian Grillo, the gay rock singer that plays the oil drum.” Well, I don’t have the oil drum in my bed and I’m not pumped full of adrenaline 24 hours a day.
EF: You’re saying that there’s a real person somewhere?
BG: A real boring person. I try to explain to people that I don’t just go up on stage and rock out. There’s a lot of preparation to get to that point.
EF: Do you explain that you’re HIV positive?
BG: Of course. Nobody freaks out. And I have safe sex. It’s not like, “Yeah-h-h, I have HIV. Let’s burn the rubbers!”
Three weeks later, in New York City, a couple heads up Eighth Avenue, hand-in-hand and wearing Extra Fancy T-shirts. Not bad for a boy from Torrance, California, which is close to the Los Angeles Airport but far away from the LA music scene. And prior to the success of Extra Fancy and Sinnerman, Grillo’s only exposure in New York was a mid-’80s stint leading the band Brian’s Brain -- while dancing at the Gaiety, an all-male strip club in Times Square.
EF: Did you have a problem growing up gay?
BG: Yeah. You’re born into a world where automatically -- as you’re growing up and you’re starting to have these feelings -- you’re told that your feelings are wrong. Kids are cracking jokes with each other about those weirdoes while you’re having feelings of being connected to those weirdoes.
EF: How has HIV impacted your self-esteem?
BG: Mmmmm, it’s made me do a lot of things that I wouldn’t do. It’s made me put my ass on the line. Seeing as there’s no guarantee how much longer I’m gonna be around, I feel I have a responsibility to do as much shit as I can before I go. The way our country is so media-oriented now, if you’re in a position to be somebody who has something to say that might make people think, then you have to say it. After the Rolling Stone article, I could have said, “Nobody really knows about it. It’s not going to come up anymore,” and shut my mouth. But an editor at Details told me, “Why don’t you come out about it now, when you’re not famous, when you’re not rich? That’s what being tough is. It makes much more of a statement to do it now.”
EF: What do you think about that?
BG: I didn’t agree at first, but the more I thought about it, he was absolutely right. It’s just really scary. It’s easy for someone to tell you do that, but when you’re actually the one that has to do it, it’s not an easy thing to do.
When I was growing up, I always would ask God -- I’m not a Christian but I believe there is some form of being out there -- “Why do I want to do music so bad? Give me a purpose.” There’s always that kind of feeling with whatever I do, it’s got to be more than just getting on a stage and rockin’ out. In the grand scheme of my life, I gotta learn something from all this. I always try to turn to something that seems like a dead-end around.
BG: Like being gay. Or overcoming the HIV positive thing. What am I going to do? Let it ruin my life? Or use it as a tool for growth? That’s the only way that I know how to deal with it. So when people say, “It’s too bad that you’re HIV positive,” I say, "I wouldn’t be doing a lot of this stuff that I’m doing right now if I wasn’t HIV positive. I wouldn’t have the balls to go out and say the things I say."