Shades of Gray

February 7, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

 

In an era of well-marketed pop phenoms carefully targeted to specific demographics, David Gray has never been easily pigeonholed.

Born in Manchester, raised in Wales, and educated in Liverpool, the 34-year-old singer and songwriter appeals equally to fans of avant-garde art-rockers Radiohead (with whom heís toured) and feel-good hippie-popsters Dave Matthews (who released his breakthrough album, 1998ís ďWhite Ladder,Ē as well as his recent fifth release, ďA New Day at MidnightĒ).

After a decade spent slogging it out with independent labels and DIY tours, Gray is reaching the largest audience of his career. (He performs at the UIC Pavilion, 525 S. Racine, at 7:30 tonight; tickets are $35 and $45 through Ticketmaster, 312-559-1212.) We spoke before the fourth gig of his current tour in New York.

Q. It seems as if youíve been on the road nonstop for the last two years, David.

A. It goes back a bit longer than that. Apart from stopping to make the album, itís been a bit of a slog.

Q. Tell me about making ďA New Day at Midnight.Ē This is the first time you were going into making an album with a lot of anticipation, with the biggest audience of your career waiting for your new music. It must have been different than earlier releases.

A. Yeah. Those things do have an effect on the way you feel. I donít think it governed the kind of songs that I wrote or the way that we recorded them, but it was certainly there at the back of our minds. As much as we didnít like to admit it, there was a certain amount of pressure on us, partly to finish the record, because we had tours booked and everything. It was weird having a year and a half in the future booked; I prefer taking things on a sort of week by week basis. But the game changes, and there are other things to be negotiated at this level.

But I basically decided to stick to our guns and carry on the way that we made ďWhite Ladder.Ē Although we had an infinite range of possibilities as to where we could record and who and what it might involve, I felt that when we finished the sessions for ďWhite Ladder,Ē which had been a long time before, we were definitely starting to get somewhere, so I kept the same group of people and basically kept it simple. We built a little studio before the fame and glory kicked in, and we retired to that, which we hadnít had a chance to use, and thatís where we did the lionís share of what this record was made up of. In the end I think that the writing and recording gravitated around the sort of emotions that came pouring out of me.

Q. While youíve suddenly become a commercial property in the music world, this seems to be your most personal effort yet.

A. I tend to agree with that. My experience with life has deepened, and this record reflects it, I think. There was losing my dad and quite a few other ups and downs during the whole sort of ascent to the summit of Babylon. [Laughs] There was a lot of tumultuous, emotional stuff going on, and really I think Iím still coming to terms with it all.

Q. Is that how you seek catharsisóby writing about these things?

A. Yeah. Itís not like thinking; I just do it and use the input at that time of what Iím living. Itís only when you put it down that you realize what it means. Thereís a catharsis in there; it dredges up all kinds of imagery and memory. But at the same time thereís a slight objective quality to doing it that gives you a little distance from it. Some of these songs I found very emotional to write, but when I listened back to the playback and recordings they brought me back to it a little bit because I knew where it was all coming from.

Q. Are these songs difficult to perform live for that reason?

A. No, because performing live is like acting. On the odd night something will sparkle into life just briefly. I donít mean that the performance isnít any good, itís just that youíre thinking about different things. But occasionally the words will come to life and add another layer of meaning or another angle and youíll see them from a slightly different perspective and the whole thing will return to a more emotional state of being. Maybe that will happen tonight; you just never know. I know my dad would have liked to have been here. It happens on the odd night, but by and large I just concentrate on what Iím doing.

Q. The thing that strikes me most about ďWhite LadderĒ and the new record is the very organic way in which you incorporate electronics. With so many songwriters, itís almost artificial, but for you it just seems like one more tool thatís very much a natural part of what youíre doing.

A. Iím heartened by how natural it all feels. Thatís because Iím just enthusiastic about sound. Iím not nervous about it. The ďWhite LadderĒ sound, if I can call it that, happened by accident, thanks to the people I was working with. Iestyn Poison is sort of the engineering-production brains of the whole thing, but also something of a musician in his way, and heís responsible for the subtlety of electronica. I donít really understand how a synthesizer works; I just start twisting a knob and it sounds good.

Q. Brian Eno always said he strived to use the machines in a sort of intuitive way, to the point where when his synthesizers developed a glitch, he wouldnít get them repaired. He wanted to be surprised.

A. Yeah. The range of noise that you can get off these things is incredible, and Iím deeply captivated by it.

Q. So for you, an acoustic guitar or a piano, a rhythm machine or a synthesizer are all just different colors on the palette?

A. No, I think Iím first and foremost a guitar player. Second to that, Iíve only recently just bought a piano. I love the piano very much, and I sit down more to write on that than on the guitar at the moment. We stuck to the program basically making this record, whether itís deemed as commercial or notówe wrote and recorded a lot of songs and put the record out in what was really a pretty quick timeóbut the tantalizing element of what we did in the studio on ďWhite LadderĒ and to a certain extent on some of these tracks like ďKangarooĒ was to feel the electronic soundscape start to develop beyond where the song was. And we wanted to follow it, to go in a kind of Phillip Glass direction and see what happens, or be a bit more Jim OíRourke about it. To allow the music to take over and see where the song fits in in a different way.

I guess what Iím saying is experimentation. For that I think I need to break and rewrite the way that I make songs and consider music, to challenge it in the same way that Radiohead did with ďKid A.Ē I feel a strong pull toward that but just from whatís already there naturally within the music. But I think I go a lot farther in the studio without any enormous pressure to achieve a particular goal, just by writing songs. The task at hand, for me there was an urgency in the songs I was writing. I needed to write these songs and they came pouring out and we recorded them. We wanted to complete another record and put another chapter in the book. The longer the ďWhite LadderĒ phenomena went on, the more strangulation it would achieve, if that makes sense.

Q. Enormous success can become a millstone thatís difficult to escape from.

A. Exactly. And even if this record doesnít hit the heady heights that that one did, itís already done well. And it would still have put another chapter in the book and I think that whatever follows that will be rich breeding ground for new ideas and a new freshness that Iíve started to crave.

Q. Tell me about the relationship with Clune (drummer Craig McClune). It seems as if heís an integral part of what youíre doing.

A. Heís the musician that Iím closest to, really. He looks after the business on the whole sort of rhythm-based side, the side that Iím not so strong on. I listen more to the melody or the sound or the general atmosphere or the words and vocals. And he helps me articulate what I actually feel, but I donít know how to create the drum beat. But heís more than a drummer; he played most of the bass lines on the record, or if he didnít play them, he wrote them. And heís very unprecious about whether itís his drumming on the record or not; he doesnít mind if we find a loop or mess around a bit or regurgitate what he did. Heís a big swaggering character onstage, and he gets the audience in the spirit, but in the studio when heís calmed down heís a real gem actually, and heís generally up for things. If the music starts coming in a direction that perhaps heís not so sure about, heíll go with it. Thereís a sort of flexibility there, and he looks after a lot of the sort of basics that I realized about five years ago were really important but I wasnít very strong at them.

Q. One of the things that is a bit of disconnect for me is the Dave Matthews connection. It might play slightly differently in England, but here in the states, Matthews is such a monolithic figure. Iíve got to confess, Iíve seen him a half dozen times, and I just hate his musicóitís pure wankery. Thereís none of that indulgence in your music, and itís so odd that his crowd provided your entrťe to the U.S.

A. Like you say, it plays like such a big part of my story, and it comes up all the time. But what basically happened was that Dave the business man started his own label and coincidentally we bumped into his people in New York through some mutual friends. We had a finished album (ďWhite LadderĒ), and Dave had always been a big fan and a vocal supporter of mine. Two and two were put together, but I donít know whether weíve been working that audience. I suppose we have.

Q. To me the most encouraging thing about Matthews is the way he does business.

A. In a sense one common thread with Dave Matthews is that heís a square peg in a round holeóhe has no right to succeed, but that he has succeeded is mind-blowing; it doesnít really make any sense in the contemporary music landscape. And Iíve always been something of a misfit as well. When I heard the kind of no-nonsense strategy they wanted to employ in promoting my recordóand at that point my expectations were considerably loweróit was refreshing, because Iíd heard from so many big shots who didnít get it.

Itís weird over here, the perception of who your audience might be. Taken too far, Iím offended by it. Radio stations have a certain audience, quite specific, and everything is in a narrow box. When I started playing my music, it just appealed across the board. It was either your cup of tea or it wasnít. It was not specifically for the people between age 23 and 37.

Q. Thatís one of the things I find most encouraging about you: You have your purple-haired, multi-pierced, Radiohead-fan hipsters in a David Gray crowd, and you have people from the suburbs who could be their moms.

A. Or their grannies! [Laughs]

Q. But thatís how real people listen to music: You might have Marvin Gaye and Radiohead and David Gray and the Streets in your CD player, all at the same time.

A. Perfect! Thatís exactly how I listen to music. We were listening to Missy Elliott, the Cramps, Howliní Wolf, and the history of ska last night, and it all sounded fantastic. I think people have more catholic taste than theyíre given credit for in this day and age. Itís not all about marketing and research. So I donít know whether my audience coincides with the Matthews audience and the fallout from the Grateful Dead era or not. I donít really know; Iím not versed in American life sufficiently to tell.

Q. And youíre probably lucky in that regard.

A. [Laughs] Thanks!

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