Interview: David Gray
Thu, 17 Jul 2014 10:09:54
"The record has a crackle of excitement and freshness to it," David Gray says of Mutineers.
It's an apropos description of his most diverse, dynamic, and daring output yet. Of course Mutineers maintains the sweeping sound that fans have come to know, love, and expect from Gray, but he opens up the boundaries here and delivers a fascinating collection of songs that beg multiple listens in addition to touting endlessly powerful hooks, of course!
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, David Gray talks Mutineers and so much more.
Did you approach Mutineers with one overarching vision or vibe in mind?
As you get deep into making these records, you begin to catch a few key tracks and sounds. You start to see a theme that's going to pull the whole thing together. This one was a very cohesive project. It was myself working with Andy Barlow. The brief was to not make the same record I've made before. We were looking for something different and ways to break the music open pretty quickly after the palette of sounds started to emerge as well as a general approach. That's the way the record ended up sounding. We fleshed it out. Once we got the key tracks, we could see where we were going.
What made you excited about that new palette?
It was just new vistas of possibility in terms of the sound of things. I realized I needed a producer, in the truest sense of the word, at the helm to make this record. It had to be someone with the keys to the city of sound to get to where I hadn't been before. Once we began to really collaborate and have some big successes with a couple of songs, I liked to hear the end product was still very identifiably my music but also had a fresh feel to it. It made it easier. I was looking for something different. The first thing Andy and I did was sort of empty the songs out so there was room for the sounds. If there was a busy guitar part, we'd maybe lose it all together and structure it around simple piano chords or whatever. We wanted to create the room so we had some sonic space to play in. Space is a vital ingredient when you're trying to sonically create something. You need a bit of room. It's the space in between things that's so eloquent. That was basically a part of. I bagged up my vocals. It was a very different approach from the one I'd been using for quite a few records.
Was there a moment or a song when the vibe crystallized?
Andy wanted to take me out of my comfort zone, and he did. He made me completely uncomfortable. There were several key moments. "Last Summer" was the first song we completed together. That really came out very beautifully from a small inconsequential song I had that I didn't even think of being on the main record. We had this track, and it really expanded. I wanted to see where Andy was taking it. It was somewhere I hadn't been before. That was very exciting. That happened prior when we were getting the sound. Once we started recording properly, Andy was drawn to working on things that I had that were embryonic. I had this huge bag of songs. I slammed it down on the table and said, "Here's the record. Let's get busy". I felt like we needed to go somewhere else. A record should be an adventure and not a responsibility of getting through your archive of material.
Did starting with those nascent ideas fuel the process?
If something's embryonic, it's a much more level playing field. It's not quite made so there's more room to maneuver and I was more open to change. I thought it was madness when I had forty or fifty ideas that I didn't have lyrics for or hadn't finished the chords yet. Sometimes, he tore some of them apart so there was nothing left. "Mutineers" was one of those. "Beautiful Agony" was one as well. It was an embryonic thing that Andy sensed had something in it. The beauty of this method was, as frightening as it was to be suspended over the creative void in a pressure situation, there was excitement when the track began to come together. What you hear on tape is the moment of discovery. That's what was captured. It wasn't trying to emulate the demo or make a more sophisticated version of something that was already done. When we were about to catch something, the thrill of that moment was totally captured. The vocal parts are me singing the song for the first time.
What's the story behind "Gulls"?
That's one of my favorites. It was a key part of the writing process. I wanted to do something different this time around. I was really bored with myself, my ideas, and where the fuck I was. I got back off the road in 2011, and I sat down at the piano. I started to get into some somber, moody chords. They sounded interesting. I started sketching a lyric. I said, "I don't want to make this dingy middle age music that vaguely moans about being alive. I want to be saying, 'Hallelujah' in a different way!" I had to plug myself in. It wasn't about making music. It was about me as a person and what happened to me over the last 15 years grinding it out and going around the world. I needed to re-humanize myself and reconnect. The basic rule of thumb was to take paths I hadn't taken before and to take the unknown over the known. I had to choose the path less traveled. I began to work back from words into music. It's the wrong way around for me. Usually, I go from the melody and rhythm into lyrics. In doing so, I had some interesting success. Then, I began to use other people's words. That's what I did with "Gulls". I read this Belgian poem by Herman de Coninck called Just As This Island Belongs to the Gulls, and I said, "That is a song!" I took it downstairs, simplified it, and found a chord sequence that began to walk. I started to write. When I wrote the first line, it really got my attention. It was the shit I was after. I was finding something new, and it was a major shard of light coming through. At first, I thought it might be on an esoteric side record, but Andy was like, "This is it". That opened the door.
Do you tend to read a lot? Your lyrics possess a literary flare.
Yeah, I read more than I listen to music. The lyrics are profoundly important. It's the essence. The music is a means to an end to deliver the lyrics. That's the way I come up with music. On this record, I started to use other people's words. It was a really interesting exercise. Now, I'm hearing music everywhere on the written page. I see vistas of possibility where I was only seeing dead ends a few years ago.
Have you heard Mutineers?