Planet Rock, Rock Profiles, David Gray
TOM: Where you listening to music when you were growing up?
DAVID: Yeh I listened to, the bands that I was into first was Madness and The Specials, the first single I bought was 'I don't like Mondays'. Actually that's not quite true I think the first single I bought was 'Puff the Magic Dragon' so I was very hip in those days but Madness and The Specials was what did it for me. About the same time, I heard Bob Dylan in my Dads car, he put this tape on I think it was his 'Best of the Early Years' or whatever it had like 'Blowing in the Wind' and 'Like a Rolling Stone' and that kind of thing and that blew me away. That had a massive effect on me just that stark sort of quality of it, how much drama he could achieve with just the words and the guitar, in fact it was more powerful for the lack of something going on so that was a big moment as far as my own musical instincts were concerned. Yeah I was listening to all the bands around at the time, Duran Duran, all the 80's nonsense it was brilliant and then I got into more sort of alternative music I suppose like The Cramps, The Cocteau Twins and then I started listening back to the old punk records like The Buzzcocks, The Undertones stiff little fingers and then you get into all the classic things Led Zeppelin, The Doors and thought hey this good so I just listened to everything basically the same as everyone else.
TOM: Did you think about it as a possible career at that point or where you pursuing something a little more down to earth?
DAVID: I think I was into being a painter or whatever, I used to like writing poems so painting and writing that was my thing when I was in school. But as soon as I learnt a few chords on the guitar I wanted to write songs so I started putting words to music and then we formed a band and I'd always been in amateur dramatics and school plays and things like that, so I loved all that side of it, being on the stage showing off being stupid that wasn't a problem so having a guitar and doing that seemed like the most logical step. Once I was in a band and we'd played our first gig people tried to kill us because we were so bad, it was like a dance everyone wanted boogie woogie and we came on and did a load of Jimi Hendrix tunes, it was just ridiculous, but I was addicted to it, I thought it was the most fantastic thing to be hated by all the squares and wear stupid clothes and make-up. So that's when I thought yeah I like this and I think I still love painting I went to art school and stuff but while I was there I formed a band and it was the music I knew I was going to go into. Painting is a more solitary experience and better for it but music throws open al these doors to other people and I think that's what maybe had the edge for me. You get so much, well you go on a journey with people, people like Cluan I've been playing with him for 5 or 6 years and you literally, and spiritually go on this adventure together, playing in clubs it brings so much into it all, the audiences different places so that's sort of I made my decision, I don't know when but by the time I was in art school I knew I was going to go into music.
TOM: Where your parents encouraging you about that or did they think this is a bit mad?
DAVID: I've been blessed with very...my parents are positive about everything I got into there not particularly musical, artistic or academic, but everything I did they were positive about it, if I had said I wanted to be a professional footballer, I'm sure they'd have encouraged me in that. It was never get a real job son, I never had any of that stuff so I was very lucky, nice one Mum and Dad.
TOM: So when you were in university when did you start to attract a bit of interest?
DAVID: Our first demo tape was the turning point and as I remember rightly I think I'd just finished my degree and we went into the studio and we only had enough money to pay for x amount of time, we were like still playing and they were like right its all over and that was the demo. It was just ridiculous we had this sax player playing on stuff no overdubs, we couldn't do anything twice, it was just impossible. That tape we sent off to Manchester Evening News or something some rock critic somewhere, and true them they kind of turned a couple of A & R men onto it and then that it was sent to my manager who was an A& R man at the time at Polydor and he had just had a motorbike accident and he was out of his mind on some weird drug concoction. And someone handed him that tape and that was it he heard something that he liked, that was the start of the real thing and he came down and checked it out. We had A & R men coming down to shows in Liverpool and in Glasgow were we used to play a lot for some reason we knew people up there, they used to come down spout interesting A & R talk but that didn't amount to anything, my manager is what came out of the whole thing and through him he then went through his contacts and eventually that ended up with a record deal not a particularly big one but a chance to make a record.
TOM: In retrospect having gone through all that, what were your hopes going into that deal?
DAVID: I can't remember, I don't remember going in expecting to sell loads of records, I just wanted to make a record and put everything into it a chance to emulate the people I'd admired I suppose. The rest of it was a mystery to me, I didn't have an opinion on how the industry worked or what would be the best marketing ploy or how do you break the record at the time it was dance musicwas everything but since then there's been a wave of singer/songwriting, its come back into fashion whatever that is. At the time itstood out like a sore thumb, my first song was 'Birds without Wings' which was really going to rock the charts that one so I don't know what I felt back then it was along time ago, 1992.
TOM: But it was your first album, which for a lot of people its like their first born...
DAVID: I gave it everything, I just went in there and gave it my best shot.
TOM: What did you think of the time, did you think it was going to change the world?
DAVID: No I didn't, I liked bits of it, I remember listening back to Gathering Dust and going we've really got something there. I thought I had a recording philosophy but it worked in certain places and I had so much to learn I don't remember thinking the record was going to go out there and knock'm dead I just hoped it would be given a chance.
TOM: And what happened to it?
DAVID: I think it did get given a chance, I think the first album was dealt with quite sensibly really, there wasn't big money behind it I don't think anyone at the record company thought it was going to break in any big way, it got some critical acclaim, it got me to tour around the world and started this whole ball rolling and I picked up some admirers, people like Donal Dineen who all had a profound effect on the story as now we all know kind of thing. So it got my sound and my voice out there to people and made some big connections really, it did more for me than the next two records in that way. It's a consistent record because it was recorded very quickly because we had a week in the studio and then we mixed it in a few days, it has a kind of feel to it and course we had the songs for awhile and I just went in and gave it everything so it has a sense of time and a spirit which I think is important for a record, and I think White Ladder has that as well, the two in between didn't have that, they were disparate elements of demos and bits all thrown together.
TOM: Looking at Flesh, you were saying it didn't have the same spirit as the first album, what was different, what was going on with it?
DAVID: Well, it's a complex thing making a record, recording, being in the studio, you need other peoples opinions, there's a lot of nurture involved. I think I had done really well on my first album but because it hasn't sold very many the tendencies was to look at the situation and say what do we need to do that we didn't do last time because actually I was heading in quite a good direction but you get a lot of opinions in but basically the guy that signed me left the record company, the usual story and then without a champion there, no-one really took the care to develop it or suggest the right producer, a couple were suggested but I could never get on with the idea of production it felt like someone dressing you in the wrong clothes. It sort of felt uncomfortable to me, putting a kind of sheen on it, this is my sound, it didn't feel right but then I didn't have a viable alternative, I wasn't, I'm not a producer so it ends up you get caught between excepting something that's not right but I didn't have anything to replace it with so we were sort of struggling to find a sound that had more a chance of radio. But again I can't really remember it was a long time ago, I can't remember exactly what I was thinking going into Flesh, I was all fired up, and into my music, I'd fallen in love and got married so a lot of the songs are about that so and some of it worked out well, Falling Free I'm still really fond of and The Mystery of Love but they were like demo sessions and then basically the record company said well you don't have much money left you better get your album finished and its like we haven't really started yet. It was all a bit of a mess, there was no great love on their part, they didn't put anything behind that record, I think they put up a few posters, I did an awful support tour and then they dropped me, there was no single, there was nothing. It was all a bit of a mess really, the album hasn't got a consistency to it except the acoustic sound and the more understated thing like The Falling Free track but then there's other bits and bods like Loves Old Song that haunts me to this day, I don't know what that was all about, things like that don't really work, well in my opinion. People come up to me and go I love Loves Old Song, its my favourite, and I go Jesus Christ I don't know what to say good, I'm glad somebody does.
TOM: Were you actually dropped because you went to EMI and EMI had taken over Virgin?
DAVID: That's what happened, that's why the guy who signed me left no sooner had I signed to Virgin that they were taken over and through the reshuffling he was moved on to somewhere else so yeah Virgin dropped me and I think EMI were waiting in the wings and I've always been told once you've lost your record deal that's it, what a complete lie that was because I mean just about everyone in the charts has been around 8 times. You see so many old foggies, that's the history of rock'n'roll that is. But the phone rang, I think it was January 2nd, the first day they could drop me, they dropped me and the next day EMI in America rang me 'cos I had a bit of a fan there, this Bryan Coppleman fellow, y'know I'm going to fly over in this private jet, Dave and offer you a record deal what you want, come and work for me, I think you can be big in America. So it was music to our ears really, like great so we went over and talked about what we wanted and what he was going to do y'know we're going to send you out on the road, you're going to bill your own shows and build up your fanbase, it made a lot of sense. It just evaporated unfortunately, the label went bankrupt and what was happening while I was there, they brought in some big players or whatever and shake it up and turn the company around. It was a shambles and there was very low morale we just fell into this awful casm of people not doing their jobs properly and you never got a straight answer, you spent two months planning a tour and you'd just be ready to go, the planes tickets would be there, oh we changed our minds the record hasn't gone to radio yet, we've put it all back and it was just like that. Nothing ever really happened until the record didn't even come out in England it just came out in the states, it was just a big mess and he proved to be a bit of a spineless character, Bryan Coppleman.
TOM: That struck me as a very coesive album because I interviewed you at the time, I was getting the EMI speel y'know the biggest thing we have for the next year, and talking to you I thought there was something going on because the album just didn't appear anywhere, that must have rattled you?
DAVID: Yeah, it did it was bad some of the stuff in and around Sell, Sell, Sell you have to get on stage and being a musician is not the hardest job in the world y'know and I'd be a fool to complain about it but you'd be on the stage giving all you got and it would be painful, it'd be wrong, there would be nobody there. It was just like weird you do interviews, someone would have just read your biog. they'd just been given it. You can see the whole thing not working, y'know am I going insane, I've putting my heart out here and its been spurned, painful, there was so much of that some of the tours, we did this one tour they eventually allowed us to go out on the road and we're going to take the mid-west and send you out there, and if you can crack the mid-west, mid-west for gods sake, then we'll take it to the whole country. Why the mid-west we had no following there whatsoever, in New York maybe we had a following there, a fanbase and they send us out to these miserable shit holes in the mid-west, and one fantastic one was we turned up in Rock Island the hub of the nation, and there was this sign outside that said Tonight BBQ spare-ribs sold out, and underneath it David Gray 9 O'clock. Then we played in Toledo the following night and the support act played to about 250 people then somebody opened a door at the back and there was a club they were all waiting to go into so we played to about 6 people and that was the support act watching us. And we all started to go insane, the bass players eyes were bulging out of his head, locked in his room, chain smoking, things aren't going right and it did get depressing and I talked to Clune, this just isn't right, the bastards in the record company bastards you get very cynical and it becomes us and then which is bullshit because at the end of the day its just their job in a dysfunctional environment and you start looking at yourself and think you're doing something wrong and you look at everyone else and think they're doing something wrong, you start analysing everything, I had to get rid of everyone my manager, my agent, I couldn't listened to anyone else's wisdom of what we should do next or I'd get completely confused, I was unsure of why I was doing it in the first place so that sort of, that lasted a little while, you can only last so long with cynicism, it's a killer, it's not a life so first thing was to get off EMI, and we were signed for two records there, two was already to go there was money there for us but I thought we can't do this, we have to get off. So we got a legal thing going and we were off the company, we were free, I was in no mood to try and get another record deal, I didn't know what I wanted to do, the only person I kept working with was Clune, we felt the music was still moving along in an interesting direction, and we kept making recordings so eventually the shadow passed or whatever, we decided to move back towards the positive. I'd felt I'd given out so much, like I say its painful when you're putting your heart out and being ignored and almost ridiculed at times, I got slated in a few papers and you just think am I still on the uptake here, maybe I shouldn't be doing this, maybe this isn't working out but eventually I calmed down but I still feel good about the music, I still have something to offer, and I had to open myself and give more away, and the minute I opened my heart up to the whole thing again and the moment I did that was the moment it all went right. I had a look at myself and I was kind of uptight through the early years cos you feel someone should be doing something that isn't, you feel a bit defensive basically. You know you're not selling any records, so I decided to let all that go and open myself up to other people and ideas, Clunes ideas and my manager came back into the picture and we'd do stuff and just have a good time doing it, and then play it to other people straight away to see what they think and then try and take on board some of the things that got said. Criticism is a vital component in making a good record or being a good performer or whatever, if you listen to what other people say it's a painful process sometimes but I open myself up to all that and I became richer for it and working with other people very closely it was great you were sharing everything, I used to be just me and my guitar, I took everything very personally but now it was just fun and from that those feelings White Ladder came out of that.
TOM: Did you have prior to that because there must have been a moment where you thought about walking away from it, the rest of your life is going on you're married, you didn't sit down with your wife and have a talk?
DAVID: Yeah, I contemplated stopping but what else am I supposed to be doing apart form painting which isn't the most lucrative thing. I couldn't think of anything else I could do , I think I'm unemployable, I've never had a job and don't want one, it might be novel for like a week, to go off at a certain time and comeback at a certain time and not have to think about anything in your weekends or whatever but I can't really get my head around that. So I thought am I slow on the uptake here maybe this just isn't working out and maybe I should just pack it all in but it didn't really sit right, even when I thought it or said it, it didn't sound right I knew it wasn't true. I needed to go back and start again kind of thing.
TOM: You kind of changed the way you worked a bit with technology, you started to bring computers in?
DAVID: It was exciting, I was restless ever since we started to get sound involved but couldn't really find the right away to do it but from working with Clune we'd set up a groove first and because we couldn't drum in the house, we'd use a drum machine and he'd program in a beat, and I'd put some ideas on top of it and he'd put in a bass line so things already had a different feel and we got the sampler involved and it was all pretty basic really. It was something we'd been moving towards slowly since before Sell, Sell, Sell we'd been experimenting with things it just gelled on White Ladder we didn't try get old songs and clamp technology onto them, we came up with new stuff which was born the two things at the same time at the beat or the sample or whatever. It was an organic process, I was just dead excited about it to have a new sound and go into an area which perhaps my hero's hadn't been into, it's very difficult to get away from the Bob Dylan or Van Morrison sound when you have an acoustic guitar and a piano or drum kit or whatever. They've done so much with that but this was wow a funny noise or an odd beat, it just sounded like us and we were very excited by that. I mean the recording as well was very low-fi because we didn't have that much equipment so again that sounded characterful when you go into a studio it kind of neutralises you because everything sounds posh in a studio and you've got to know what you're doing to the character into the sound, you've got to know what you're doing, there's a lot of knobs in there.
TOM: You said it.
DAVID: But basically I could never get my head around it but when we recorded at home it just sounded dead relaxed, a low-fi kind of character to it, so many of the records I like are very basic like Nebraska by Springsteen which I think he recorded on a four-track or something. It doesn't matter sound quality doesn't matter, it's the performance and the spirit behind it, you're drawn into a fascinating world you're not going to go hey hang on nobody's dusted in here its like you enter into a space for the music you don't question it inside but if you hold our record up and play it next to Shania Twain its going to sound a bit puny, a million pounds more was spent on her record than ours but it just sounded good to us we didn't question that.
TOM: It seemed to help your writing the whole process would you say that?
DAVID: Well I think the two most important things in music are your instinct and freshness, understatement, a natural relaxed feel, I'm so confrontational, my voice is full-on most of my early recordings, its not easy to take, I'm quite relentless and on this record I'm more relaxed and finally learnt to just simmer down a bit and I let go occasionally but basically underplay is so much easier to digest, its easier on the ears, I learnt to let the songs do the work, you don't have to force out down everyone's throat so working at home that way is an easier environment. You're not watching the clock tick by at a thousand pounds a day or whatever, you're just sitting there on a chair doing a vocal take, with the cat next to you and the window is open and the telly is on in the next room. It's a completely different vibe, like for Babylon people would just come around and hang about coughing and farting, just chaos. But that felt good, it felt more interesting, richer than the classic sort of alone in the studio with the headphones on kinda vibe. And it allowed us to, we had the time to do what we want, we'd be working on a track and Oh that sounds good and then that would turn into a song of its own right, the one idea that you were using in a different song, no this is good and then you'd pick up a guitar and its Yeah, Yeah and I'd start to sing it and things happen so quickly just being born you can capture it on tape. So there's a real freshness to things like We're not Right, Babylon, White Ladder, it was done so quickly the song was born and the vocals were done next morning or as soon as I had the words so I was singing without knowing what I was doing, I wasn't this is important this is the single or I've song this song a hundred times, I'm going to sing it this way today. I didn't know what, I was reaching for it, feeling for it and that's what you get at a gig, 'cos you can't go back and do it again because you're going forward and you get into a moment with live music and you got to do that in a studio, so there was a real freshness to things, I could just do a vocal there and then without knowing what I was doing, things like Please Forgive Me are exactly that, one of the first times I had song the song properly and that's what happened. That was always my hunch when recording to try do everything live because I thought this was the best way to capture it but this was even better. We had a backing track which was completely synched up so you could change it afterwards, you had your performance there and that was it you had what you needed and you could tamper what was going on in the background at your leisure 'cos its capturing those performance moments is the most difficult thing, it allowed me to be the most raw and spontaneous I wanted on top. So I could perform songs live which is what the ear is drawn to first and then all the stuff behind it can be produced subtly but after the event.
TOM: It seemed the most important thing in the success of the album was Ireland, it seemed to just take to you for a start, and also give you some self-believe, how did it come to unfold?
DAVID: The question of Ireland comes up again, the reason why and I can only speculate but I mean I have from the moment I first played here, the audience, I got a fantastic reaction at Whelans that was new to me, I was playing my own show and it sold out and the crowd went wild so I just gave it my everything. And Kept coming back for more, and basically the audience here are very generous they really make an effort to get into the music and make the night as special as it can be and that doesn't happen everywhere well certainly not in my experience so I reacted to that. I've always loved playing live, I'm very comfortable playing live so I give it everything and I suppose people know when its real and they feel a big part of it especially because no-one else seemed to want it, I think it adds a particular spice to the whole thing so that went on for years and we got a big following and we were playing decent size venues and they were selling them out before White Ladder came out. When White Ladder came out we did a tour were we went further afield to places like Sligo and Killarney, places you just don't go and play and I think that touched people because normally when bands come to Ireland they just come to Dublin and maybe Belfast. So people know that you're loving it yourself anyway it's a big love circle, so I was giving it everything and the audiences were giving everything it built a very strong relationship. But then with the White Ladder record I don't know what happened it just seemed to take off into another realm and I suppose people here are very proud of the fact that they got their first and discovered it. I don't why or how its got onto the scale it has, we didn't have a marketing budget or an advert scheme or anything, we just had word of mouth in our favour and basically everyone liking the record and then we started to get radio play and then you get big gigs like Slane and all the publicity that brings. But everyone that was working the record seemed to be really enjoying it and I think that's infectious as well, they all felt a part of something that was going on so it becomes, people are used to being served things through the media, devouring them but this was something I think they felt a part of, something they discovered and everyone was quick to point out the specialness of Ireland in the whole equation so I don't know what happened. It just mushroomed into this giant phenomenon, I don't know who is buying the record, I'd like to meet them maybe I should go into a record shop and see who's buying it because people are still buying it in reasonable numbers, its still in the top ten. In as far as the Irish phenomenon I've always given everything, I've given a large chunk of my performing career to this country which I suppose is unusual and I've got a damn sight more back than most people would get, I don't know how everything is proportionate but there's something special going on anyway.
TOM: How did that affect you just in terms of self-believe, in your own abilities?
DAVID: Well, it's a very naked thing to go out and sing your songs on stage and hope the audience likes you. I have a certain amount of insecurities but I was a ferocious performer when I started. I had a loud voice and I was going to use it so that's an insecurity there in evidence 'cos it feels too vulnerable to be subtle all the time, I was just like a mad man I suppose. But you get the audience the applause and the adulation, and your confidence builds you start to, well you can afford to become more understated or its all about believe and confidence. When you walk up there and you don't see someone who's worried about what you think, you just see someone enjoying what they do and that's the most immediate thing and that's what there out for a good time, so all this success and all this different marvellous nights around the country allow me to go yeah, this does work and I'm doing something right here, so I should just do it so it has fuelled my believe in what I do. I was going out, it's a different story to say Sheffield on a Tuesday night to forty people who don't seem to be bothered to even clap and we do the same in the Olympia theatre and three days later we'd be playing a club in Northern England and the reaction would be so different and you think well we're not doing anything different we still put the effort in live whether theres fifty people. So its you the punters and that's only cos we have the confidence to think that and not even get involved to try and stir them up like C'mon you just do your thing and that's all you can do. I've digressed off the point completely here, having had all the success and the big crowds and everything, its allowed us to relax a little in what we do and I think that serves you well when you're up on the stage in other countries now, like America we're superconfident in what were doing we've covered a lot of ground, we've ended up at The Point Depot and that's a big gig is it going to work, its too big and it was great, it felt really small and cosy in there. And when you've been through things like that, you can't teach someone that you have to do it but when you've worked it all out from big places to tiny places you've seen it work and you know you've done something right and you got to stick to it and if the audience don't go for it hey it hasn't worked out. There's no point getting all angsty about it.
TOM: I think it's fair to say its led to other record companies in England have seen that it can work here it can work anywhere, and now you've got East West and the albums flying?
DAVID: We used to try and get record company people over here to see it, 'You've got to come over to Dublin and see it' and they'd come over and it'd be a fantastic gig packed out. And they'd say to you after well, its different over here, you think people are profoundly different and English people are incapable of enjoying this music and that was obviously complete rubbish but the guy we signed the deal with saw what had happened here and noticed all the people he had given the record to like it and just thought this can happen all it needs is to get on the radio, get in the press and be given the time of day and we'll get something going and blow me he's right. And the next chapter is unravelling as we speak.