Big Think Interview with David Gray
David Gray is an English singer-songwriter. His most recent album is Draw the Line. Although he released his first studio album in 1993, he did not receive worldwide attention until the release of White Ladder six years later. It was the first of three UK chart-toppers in six years for Gray, the latter two of which also made the Top 20 in the U.S.
Question: How did your relatively late popular success affect your perspective on fame?
David Gray: Yeah, a good deal, because the formative period since putting my first record out—that seven or eight years before success really kicked in—some of it was quite a harrowing experience. And it stays with you; it gives you a perspective on things. It also stood me in good stead in a way. We all know that the world functions on nonsense and so it has sort of debunked a few sort of myths and or cleaned my eyes a little bit as to how things worked, and also allowed me to develop some relationships which proved to be very important. Whereas, if success had come very quickly—you just immediately turn into a parasite in everyone's eyes—it's more difficult to form some sort of— there's a degree of nurture that's necessary if longevity is what you're after. That’s really the way that I saw the world.
Occasionally people would put the question to me, “Do you ever pine for these days when you were free of all of this, press, or hassle, or people being on your case in this way—[when] you were this very credible, obscure artist?” But that's just a fantasy that people have. They just put those words together. I’d say, “If you knew what it was actually like, you'd never wish anyone back there.” It's the toilet tour, as it’s known, when you are playing the smallest and least pleasant venue in town on a regular basis. It's not for the fainthearted, and [for] anyone who had just watched the film repeatedly, it's like Spinal Tap in the back of the bus—[it] used to be quite a sort of painful experience [to] watch, as funny as it is, because it was that close to the bone. And they’d at least been successful and are now less so.
I was billed under spareribs famously at one club: “Spareribs sold out, David Gray, 9:00.” But I went through many permutations of the same sort of miserable story. It's not for the fainthearted. So that stuff stays with you, and negotiating success is equally complicated and riddled with illusion as well—a lot of it of your own creation. I think the world of success is a much more self-conscious place, it's essentially a hall of mirrors [that] shines you a distorted view of yourself back repeatedly from many different angles until you start to get a bit paranoid about what everybody thinks about you. Everybody has to go through that and I don't think it completely leaves you. You are essentially exposed and vulnerable [when] you are in the public eye, and you can be criticized or categorized or drawn in a sort of cartoon version of yourself freely by people however they see fit, and you just have to live with that. But there is no way of winning; you just look worse the more you struggle and resist, the more people try and enclose you in a little bubble. And you go, "No, that's not me. I'm deep and meaningful,” or whatever, whatever it is you're particularly trying to prove. But it's just quicksand the more you struggle, the quicker you sink. The only way to escape is through the grandeur of surrender—just not giving a fuck about the whole thing and getting a sense of perspective above and beyond. So I think having an audience is a wonderful thing and should never be taken for granted. Much as it also should be your job as an artist to challenge them as well as challenge yourself. You just give them what they want.
But playing music has got to be one of the best jobs in the world, so if you’re ever torturing yourself to the point that you can't see that, then you've lost your perspective. So, I think that unquestionably, just like a plant having a bit longer to get its roots down into this earth – yes, the early years were useful in a way, because when I started out, I was totally green as to what the music business even was, what was its modus operandi. I didn't know, I didn't care—making a record, someone was giving me money to make a record, that was just enormous. That was all I cared about. And beyond that I didn't have a clue what was going to happen. I didn't have world domination penciled in the diary. You know, it wasn't like that was on my radar; it was just get to make another record that was basically it. Try and find some people who want to listen to the music. And strangely it all sort of made its own sort of sense that the music got out there and even though I couldn't really tell, it did do something, the first record. It lit a few fires and those ended up being vital because some of them were in Ireland ,which became a stronghold for me, and then that was eventually the springboard to my success. So I guess coming upon the whole thing gradually, and I would say this about, it was obviously advantageous in some ways but just to give in to make it to the point where I became successful could be considered an achievement of sorts because it wasn't particularly easy. But when success comes, and everything that comes with it, it doesn't matter how long you've been in obscurity it doesn't make the transition any easier I think.
Question: Have you made your peace with fame?
David Gray: I think it's just an ongoing project. For many reasons, I feel like things have taken on a certain perspective now. And I'm in a very good place with it all. I’m at ease as much as I could be with the whole thing. In a weird way, my Greatest Hits record was a very cathartic experience, because I don't think I completely acknowledged what had happened because some of it I wasn't very comfortable with. For example, the record I made directly after my very successful record, for all kinds of reasons, some of them to do with me, some of them do with other things, it didn't come together in the way that it should have. And it was kind of [an] anemic end product, it went on to sell loads of copies simply because the record before it had been so popular and this is the way it works. So it got a lot of attention and people liked the first one so much, White Ladder. So I'd never kind of really wanted to look, it's just like that happened, now I have to get back to what I do best which is reconnecting. But you've got to acknowledge everything that happened. You can't leave large portions of time unaccounted for. So putting the Greatest Hits together and then going out and playing all of these songs which I didn’t even want to touch for so long brought them all back to me, and it made me whole again.
White Ladder is the sound of me escaping from the demons of failure, or lack of success, or lack of attention—all this sort of doubt and negativity and accusatory glances [I was] throwing in the direction of the world and the media. All perfectly justified. But they don't get you anywhere, and essentially you have to ask yourself the question, “Have I got anything else to give? Can I do better?” Whether the record company did a bad job, or journalists or some sort of strangely disappointing breed of human that should be shot with a crossbow at every opportunity, whatever, you have to think: “Could I do more? Can I get more to my music? Could I have done more?” And I knew I could. So all right, let's go again. And that record is very openhearted—there is no fear. I put everything in there and that's one of the reasons it connects I think, in a big way. It's not defensive, there's no defensive stance to it, it's just very open, very melodic.
And this record I just made is like the sound of me escaping from the demons of success in a way—this sort of complicated bag of complexities that comes with the packaging you get with success and audience and millions of people suddenly getting involved. There is a strange vertigo that comes with that and it takes some adjusting to. But yeah, the Greatest Hits thing somehow is part of a coming to terms with the whole thing for me, which was very healthy.
Of course, I was changing a lot behind the scenes, a new band. I have made a lot of very empowering decisions. And suddenly music came back to me very, very strongly and my work was very, very alive for me—I've never been so connected to it. And as a writer, I mean obviously, lyrics are very big part of what I do. I've never enjoyed myself more than at this kind of time with the writing aspect. And there's a real vivacity in the work, and a joy of language, and expression that, well I think, it shines through. It's like I've started all over again in a weird way.
Also, life passes so quickly. As you get a bit older you think, “Wellm, hang on, I'm 41, I'd better get on with it; what's with this farting around?” You can't give fear 10 percent or 15 percent of you. It's like that's a wasted life, even that much. Got to the completely in unguardedly. And that's the only way you can defeat all this sort of cynicism that is out there is just by being openhearted I think as an artist.
Question: What unexpected ways did fame change your life?
David Gray: Well, yeah, you sort of know the shape of fame, but until it rests upon you, you don’t really know what it feels like—but that’s not really unexpected. One of the unexpected things that happened was a wonderful thing: I was offered the opportunity to play in a charity football match. So, my dreams of being a musician, they go back a long way, but playing a famous football game, that goes back even further.
So, I got the chance because of my fame, and no other reason to play – Robbie Williams had this massive UNICEF charity football [match] with many, many very famous footballers, old, retired footballer involved and celebrities. And England took on the rest of the world. It was staged at my team’s ground, and all the traffic in front of 75,000 people, live on national television with a week’s training with the England coach. The whole thing was ridiculous, ludicrous, a complete fantasy. And I got to play with people I had watched as a kid, and again some of the most famous – that was unpredictable. That was absolutely incredible. That was like – oh, what a thing. It’s in its own little time capsule in my head. It’s like I remember looking out the hotel window and seeing all of these famous footballers saying good-bye to each other the next day and I realized it was over. I could hardly walk because I just played 90 minutes of chasing the ball. So, that I’ll treasure forever, and that would never have happened. I’ve gone into a few restaurants and I’ve had a few whacky experiences that I wasn’t bargaining on all because of my newfound fame. But that was the most notable thing.
Question: Does White Ladder’s past success ever feel like a yoke?
David Gray: No. Well, as I say, I seem to be seeing everything slightly differently. It’s sort of totemic presence casts a long shadow right across everything I’ll do forever. It did the numbers. Do you know what I mean? People like numbers, you know, so it proves something apparently. So, it was a special record. I won’t get drawn into what’s best and what’s better. All you’re trying to do is get tapped into that magic again, but in a different way, in a different place. It had a magic to it. It was fearless in is own small way and it didn’t let you down as a record.
When we made it, we tried to make a record that would just flow from the very first note right to the end without you ever wanting to go like, “Ah, no, don’t like this one. Skip.” It was very much supposed to have that. Because I felt like I hadn’t accomplished that since my first record and that things have been too schizophrenic. Its like, “I want to be loud.” “I want to be quiet.” “I want to be rocky.” So, we had a very limited pallet, which helped in a way, so we set it in this new world that we had found with weird little samples and things. So, that record has magic to it and just because it became ubiquitous, doesn’t lessen the depths of some of the music; it’s got soul. So, it will always be there and something that people seem to have a real deep affection for in a kind of Tapestry by Carole King-type way. It’s like one of those. Everyone can listen to it. So, from the moment of its inception, when we started to play it, you could just see the breadth of the different types of people who were getting into it. It’s so small and the audience was younger and cooler because it was like a cult audience in Ireland and then it grew and it began to involve everybody.
Question: How does it feel to be an Englishman who first found a large audience in Ireland?
David Gray: Well great. God Bless the Irish. Certain kind of things can still happen there that are much harder to get off the ground in the UK. So, it’s a wonderful place, it’s a magic place. And the word accounts for a lot there. The passion for expression is like. The thing is, it’s changed a lot since I’ve been going there. It’s become much more European, that sort of homogenized, wealthy look has sort of seized some parts of it. But still, when you go West and you get out there, you’ll see a different world where people don’t have a great deal of money and life is very simple. But there are huge passions; sports and music and writing and ideas. So, it is so very different from England in so many ways. There is something that happens over there, that anyway, I’ve been the beneficiary of. So, there’s an Irish magic for sure, and– well what more can I say about it really? I mean, that was just an unbelievable chapter. The success that happened there and the lengths that it went to are difficult to comprehend really, even now.
Question: What is the main thing that motivates you to keep making music?
David Gray: It’s not a selfless act. It’s an obsession. It’s taken a huge part of me. It is a huge part of me. I’ve poured so much into it and it just wants more. It’s the beast that wants more. So, music, and the ideas, and writing songs, it has a huge chunk of me. And I’m always thinking of how can I get – it’s like A New Path to the Waterfall; it’s the title of a Raymond Carver book. How do I get there again? And will it be even better this time, that song. But you work away at it, work away at it. And the more you work the more likely it is that you’ll write a good one. But that really good one, you just don’t know where [it’s] going to turn up. You can’t make it happen, that really magic song, it happens once every few years if you’re lucky. Well, how do I get more of that stuff? And you make it right so that people can plug into it. It’s a connection – music’s a connection. It’s like, if you make a song that has all the nerve endings on the outside of it that people can sense it, how alive it is and how alive they are through the listening to it—that’s what you want. You want to connect. You’re not in a bubble, but you’re not making it for them—but in the making of it you’re thinking of other people encountering it.
Question: What is the impact of younger artists like Lily Allen finding fame via social networking sites?
David Gray: I'm clearly not of that generation. So I really wouldn’t know. I mean, it's just this is how people glue themselves together now. The world is ludicrously fast and this is one way of letting everybody know. So unsurprisingly, the next generation utilize it as a means [publicity] and then it's perceived by lots of older, middle-aged, middle class journalists as being cool and somehow exciting. Everyone is desperate for something new to write about so it gains attention, but really it's pretty unremarkable, isn't it? People just put words down or send a photo in for something, I don't even know how all of these things work. Just the idea of communicating more than I currently do is just not really on my radar. I'm looking for a world where there's less communication.
Question: Are venues like MySpace and iTunes a positive step towards empowering independent artists?
David Gray: I’m just not sure how far the empowerment goes. It’s still about attracting attention albeit in a different way. And those people with the greatest influence will get the most attention. And the odd story will crop up– there’s the new thing, something new that no one’s heard of before that they pass around, like really fast. That’s what happened with White Ladder. It was something new and it got passed about. See, that will happen to the odd thing. But I don’t see [the Internet] as a radical new way of selling music that favors the smaller producer. People like iTunes are desperately are trying to keep their page free from just being bought out, period, by all of the interested parties. So I things take place in a slightly more sort of convoluted way. You give them loads of free stuff and hours and hours of your time and they’ll semi-guarantee that you’ll get some good coverage or something on their front page. That’s how it works. It’s gifting, rather than just naked financial ruthless power. Seizing their front page with – here’s loads of money; we want this artist on the front for a month just so everyone will know every time they click on. Bang! Oh, they’ve got a new record out. This stuff will eventually prevail, I dare say.
Question: Are you unhappy with the commercial record industry?
David Gray: To say I’m not a fan of the music industry, is like – I spent enough money with it, and enough time persevering with it. It’s obviously been born of [greed]; it’s basically a history of ripping people off, [which] is how it made so much money, and then they developed the CD and they went, “Hey, hey, this is good.” We can sell of the same music again. In a different format and they thought, this is the future. And at that point, they dropped the ball completely and utterly. They started to give things away on promotion—the gross of incompetence of the whole thing. It’s laughable really. This is a very cold-hearted digital world that doesn’t seem to care much for music, or sort of nurturing it because this infinitesimal reward for zillions of hits on U-Tube or whatever. So, it just doesn’t work as a formula. Music doesn’t come for free. Strangely enough, people spend hundreds of thousands of pounds and many years producing things. It’s like that’s why it sounds good.
Question: What led up to changing the makeup of your band?
David Gray: Changing the band was a huge decision but one that came to me gradually. But really, doing the making of Life in Slow Motion in 2004 and 2005, I already knew. I could sense that whatever had been there once wasn't there anymore. Things come and go, and people change. and obviously we had been through a lot together: we have been very compressed, making records, touring, TV studios, all rubbing against each other and everyone needs a bit of space.
But everyone makes sense of success in a different way and I think some people try to horde it as if it proves something. Whereas, for me I find that it's useless beyond the point of itself and it doesn't mean you're justified making another good record—just because you made a good one once doesn't justify the next one. It moves on, as you see, at an alarming rate. People make a great record and then you never hear from them again. What happened? Did something get trapped inside their heads that shouldn't be there? It's like that. So there's a degree of transparency – you have to surrender the past and go, “Okay, well that was all well and good. Here we go again.” Because you have no right, the next thing you do, etc., etc.
So I felt that certain people were looking at things differently and there was a degree of complacency, which isn't there for me when I write and do things. But basically it just wasn't as much fun, or it wasn't as sparky as it could've been, and I sensed the thing you fear the most, which is that we were going to repeat ourselves any time now. Also, I throw out certain sort of ideas, sort of templates of ideas in terms of the way it form the words for that kind of tempo of songs, or the mood of songs and the same people react in a similar way unless they have some rabid, ferocious appetite for reinvention. And unless they’re all the little individual Radioheads and want to sort of tear everything up just for the sake of it, you find that you start to make the same kind of songs, and that’s what was starting to happen.
So, its part of a sort of – it was a difficult thing to say good-bye, particularly to Clune because he – well they were all very talented people and we had a brilliant time, and they had done great things. But, Clune was the big one. He was there with me through all of the years of misery and hardship, or nearly all of them anyway, missing the first couple. And he's such a big-hearted guy and was such the heartbeat of my whole sound for a while. So, saying goodbye to Clune was really a big deal. So I went and saw him personally and there's no nice way of putting it; I just basically said I need a new challenge and I'm going to have to move on. I don't know what the future holds, we might work together again. So these things are awkward moments.
Question: How did he respond to you?
David Gray: Well I think he sensed it was coming so he just thought that maybe I was moving in a sort of direction that he didn't really want to go in and he sort of said that, or he seemed to be wanting to go back more to this almost kind of like a folkie type of sound. And he was more interested in more of the pop element. And that's how we've sort of worked it out for himself that I was going off on a different tangent slightly. So, you know, [it’s a] “Good luck” kind of thing.
It was difficult getting rid of everything when there was nothing yet to replace it. But as soon as you have the need, you find people and you find what you need. It's interesting how works. It's like; it makes you realize that you ‘never hear the melody until you're needing the song.’ It's a Tom Waite’s lyric. Applying that metaphor to many things in life, it's true of people and it's true of all kinds of things. It's like if you are incredibly wealthy and there's actually no reason for you to do what you do pretty much, you can tell yourself you're still doing it for the right reasons but it definitely changes the equation. Whereas, if you absolutely knew that you'd spent all of your money on some crazy sort of binge, or on the whatever, holidays, Ferraris, toy soldiers, it doesn’t really matter. But then you've got nothing suddenly and in different fire to that when you are powered by the fact that you actually do need material things and you’re going to have to get them quick. It puts you in a different headspace.
Question: Did that attitude carry over to the new record?
David Gray: That was basically the headspace I was in for this record because we chose not to sign all our deals; we chose to go it alone, because it was a changing world and a brave new world will be coming along any time soon. No one told us about the dead horse, look at him, staring at the world of diminishing returns was the only one that was actually coming around the corner. But, we felt it was better to be free within that than shackled to some dying beast. But as a consequence, the finances, every aspect of making the record was very much – there was a much more sober light cast on everything. Which I think is vital, and when financial stuff was going down, and my own finances got messed up, it was very real, and it was quite stressful actually. But I actually thought it was good. It was like; well at least we are in the real world. Fucked like everyone else. It’s like rather than reclining on some giant pillow of wealth and sort of sympathizing with people. It wasn’t like that and it didn’t feel like that. So, there was something positive about it. There’s an element of risk, not only creative risk in changing everything and in the way we recorded which was basically all or nothing. We had to get the take with the vocals, or we don’t get anything.
And likewise, in the broader sense of the business side of it, which always has a huge amount to play in the making of any creative project. What the thinking was around it and behind it. So, anyway, we were on sort of similar lines on not so different levels and that’s led to this sort of vitality of what this is which I think is very plugged in to just being alive now.
Question: Are you excited to tour with Draw the Line’s more energetic songs?
David Gray: Yeah, because sometimes you offer the music out as some sort of fragile bloom into a hostile space and you’re like, “Please like me. Don’t heckle in the middle of this one.” It’s like church music in an inappropriate setting. Sometimes it is very sensitive, or there’s a lot of sort of emotion to it, and a couple of my recent records have been very emotional and sort of inward. And so it’s harder to take those songs out to the crowd in a way. You need them to be on your side because obviously it’s often a bit more challenging then that live.
These [new] songs are very outward. They are very direct; they’ve got a bit more pace and a bit more attitude. And it’s fantastic to have that in the engine room. All this different gearing. But it’s also the way that I’m feeling. I am looking the world squarely in the eye and I just can’t way to sing out all this stuff. And I’ve already seen it have an effect; we’ve done a few shows already. I can see the music registering. It’s very direct. So, yeah, that’s very exciting.
I’ve had a break as well. You know, I was a bit toured out. So, I am full of beans in that sense. I’m longing to play the shows. So, yeah, its great having this record and what it’s got on it.
Question: Lyrically, does Draw the Line better represent your personality than other albums?
David Gray: I think it shines a light on more facets of my writing and my head than previous records, which were pitched in a certain place. I’ve been in quite an inward zone while I was post-fame and post a few deaths, and the strain in my private life and the strain of just being away all the time and having young children and all this stuff going on and trying to work out how best to deal with it all. I’ve suddenly freed [myself] and it reminds me a bit of my first record. This record, it’s very divergent. There’s not one song that typifies it, there’s lots of different types of stuff. But in terms of the ideas that it presents and the wit of some of it, I think its far more reflective of me as a whole, because people talk to me sometimes and they—I don’t know what they’re expecting—can’t believe I’ve got ideas or I give a fuck, or I might punch someone in the face. It’s like, well of course, I’m a human. Are you offended? It’s like; life is hard to swallow, isn’t it most of the time? It’s like; you can’t move an inch without salesman pitching you on some fucking bullshit they’ve dreamt up. It’s like, it’s a constant struggle just to stand still and not be overcome by a sense of loathing. And yet it’s completely wonderful as well. I don’t know. So, I guess, yeah, I’m delighted with this record in that respect. I feel that it’s a work of greater maturity in terms of the writing and I do think there are songs on there that are very like things that I have written before. Like Jackdaw: ballads that people can probably latch onto immediately.
And all of the songs on there, I’ve written some things sort of similar-ish too, but it’s just better constructed. And then there are things like Nemesis on there, which I thinks sort of transcend anything I’ve managed to do so far. I think they are much more elegant constructs than what I’ve tried to say—[which is] the same thing, but I’ve not said it as well. That’s all we’re up to: saying the same thing in different ways.
Question: What are the plusses and minuses of working with a producer?
David Gray: Well, I’ve had a few records with producers and various entanglements with them. Working with Marius on Slow Motion was a very successful project and at that point, I just bought this big studio and I really needed a little help in learning how to use it or to think within the scope that it offered me because I had just basically been making records in a very sort of bedroom way. And that’s how I found my sound finally. Or learn to relax in the studio. A producer gives you objectivity. He’s not actually playing the music, he’s sitting their listening and obviously whenever you get someone like that, it can be very, very helpful in all things.
[Marius] supposedly helps people to express themselves or relax within the whole thing, or try something they wouldn’t have tried or has ideas. I mean, some artists are pretty clueless and they need somebody to do everything to do everything for them. And then you get – well I think pretty much all of the interesting artists will have very strong ideas about how it should be, but some people aren’t very practical or they’ve not got very good people skills, is a polite way of saying they’re rude fucking twats. And they need somebody who can sort of get everybody working together. So, they think that they are some sort of divine presence that’s going to come in and sort of create magic. So, it’s like, anyway, sometimes it feels like you need some external influence, some objectivity and a little bit of magic from somewhere, a little bit of guidance.
I’d heard that Marius had made lots of interesting records and quite grand. He was obviously quite baroque in his sort of soundscapes, and that was completely running contrary to the way that I would normally do things. So it made for an interesting combination. But this time around, I think if the magic is happening in the band then that's what you're looking for the producer to create, and that I knew exactly what to do with this and it was right up my alley. Fun, you know. My music. But I mean, it was, you didn't have to do much with it because we were getting a live tape, which has a certain sort of thing to it. Everything glues together in a certain way when you record like that. And you don't need to [add] loads of stuff on it to make it sound convincing. It is convincing; it's the real thing. It sounds good just as the naked truth of what is. So [with] overdubs and all that, it was obvious when the big gestures needed to be made production-wise.
But I guess I gained a lot of confidence slowly over the years about my own opinion and being able to express it. I think the big problems I had in the studio when I was younger was I couldn’t really articulate what I wanted. I couldn’t speak drummer language, or engineer language; I didn’t know what all the knobs did on the desk, or whatever. But slowly I’ve gleaned little bits of important information and terminology down the years, and I can just about express myself without pissing everybody off. So, it’s often people would get pissed of when you’re not trying to piss them off, you’re just trying to explain what it is you want. All they know is you don’t like what they’re doing right now. It might be that they’re only seven inches away from the thing you actually do want. And you can’t quite get them there.
Question: Are you thinking about ideas for future work at this point?
David Gray: Yeah, but I’m wary of these phantom thoughts because really I know I’m not going to get a chance to do anything for a while. So, you think, wouldn’t it be good if, or I’ve got all that stuff going on all the time. I sort of take notes and usually I stop writing completely when I’m on the road but for some reason I haven’t this time—the writing, the words part of my brain hasn’t turned off, so I’ve got a couple of songs I’m sort of finishing. So I guess there’s quite a lot of stuff left over from this mammoth recording session we did over the last few years. And a few unresolved things too. And I’m trying to resolve some of those. So, it’s always ongoing and I think that seems to be the way that it is. It just keeps coming.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
David Gray: Keeps me up at night. Well what keeps me up at night is generally, mainly music related. So, I’ll be stressing about stuff to do about a song or a recording, something that’s not right, or trying to find words that I don’t have yet for a song. And when I’m in real writing mode, that stuff will keep me up all night. I mean, I’ll drive myself mad. And I sort of go into a state of agitation. So, I’m not a great sleeper, so I think it seems to be getting worse as well. It’s just generally ideas. Yeah, so I’m obsessive at things a little bit. I have to make lists all the time to calm myself down. So, unfinished songs and potential albums, potential album titles, it goes on and on. So, it’s generally that stuff.
Question: Who are your heroes?
David Gray: Yeah, I won’t bother with all the footballers. Well, Bob Dylan’s got to be there sort of head and shoulders above anyone else. The way that hearing him has influenced me. And then there’s a whole battalion of people. Everyone from Nina Simone to Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell. It’s just there’s a whole [group]. And then other people at the Specials and The Cure. God, I was obsessed with The Cure for ages. I loved them. I saw them live a couple of time in the mid-80’s. They were great.
Question: Was there a specific concert that inspired you to play?
David Gray: Yeah. There was a couple actually. One was the Waterboys, This is the Sea, at Cardiff University, 1985. They just went straight through the curfew and played for like three hours. That was such a brilliant record and he was at the peak of his powers. Mike Scott at that point. And he had already written songs like Fisherman’s Blues, and things that appeared later. And he played them at the show and I remember instantly liking that. I’ve never heard it before. And he played a couple of things; he played a couple of covers. And he just went on and on and on. But the way the all changed instruments, I loved that show. And the same year, I went to Glastonbury for the first time and the Cure headlined Saturday Night, that was the Head on the Door album, which was a brilliant record. They just did a brilliant set. And Glastonbury as it used to me, not quite as clean and neat and tidy as it is now. But the Pyramid stage, they had a laser, there used to be a laser and you thought, “Wow, the laser.” Only the headline act could use it. So the Cure got to use the laser and I was there and I out me brains with my little friend from school. And this thunderstorm came in, so the moon was coming up and the sun was going down and then just this huge storm came in. And there was thunder and lightning and all the dry ice was being dragged across the stage. It just looked fantastic. And they just played through all this stuff. Yeah, that was amazing. I was blown away by Glastonbury, the whole thing of it. I’m so obsessed by music, I must have seen about 40 bands. But The Cure, that was the best bit.
Question: What was the worst career advice you were ever given?
David Gray: God, I don’t know. I can’t look back and see it all as good and bad advice because it all has just led to me getting here. So, it’s like, well what if I had turned left there? Well then something else would have happened. Maybe I wouldn’t have made it. So, it’s like, sign with EMI in America–there wasn’t no one who gave me that advice, but I bloody did it. I had some options too. I could have signed with other people. That was the worst part of my early musical career. That was the wilderness years. It was a complete fiasco and the company was obviously was completely screwed and just sort of descending into chaos and there was no chance of the record even giving the slightest whiff of any airplay. It was just miserable, the whole thing was miserable.
I think recording in America as well on that record was a mistake with the guy, Grant Lee Buffalo, the bass player. I really like Grant Lee Buffalo’s records back then, Fuzzy, and the one that came after it. So, I thought they were just right and sort of produced just enough, so I got this guy, but he was essentially just a bit of a chancer and I think just sort of looked at the big record company, big budget, wow, loads of money for me. I think that was pretty much the size of it. And yet we want to record, I said, “I want to record in America,” you know, and he said yeah, and he had a mate. Anyway, we recorded that in Ithaca in New York at some guy’s studio. That was a disastrous episode. So that and signing EMI in the first place was probably a regrettable act, but I don’t really see them in that light anymore. They’re just things that happened. Character building.
Recorded on: September 21, 2009
A conversation with the "Draw the Line" musician
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- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.