In an era of well-marketed pop phenoms carefully
targeted to specific demographics, David Gray has never been easily
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A. [Laughs] Thanks!