Grey Hairs release new album Serious Business today via Gringo Records so we sat down for a big chat with the Nottingham band. Paul Klotschkow interviews.
Even though it is something that I have done hundred of times, I always find it weird interviewing people. Conversation that was relaxed and free flowing beforehand, can all of sudden become stilted as soon as a recording device is introduced. This already un-natural situation is made even weirder when you are interviewing someone you are already good friends with; as was the case when I sat down with Chris (guitars) and James (vocals) from the Nottingham-based band Grey Hairs (the rest of the band who are absent this evening are Amy (bass) and Dave (drums)). Going to the pub with them on a Friday evening isn’t out of the ordinary, it’s something we do fairly regularly, but when after a couple of pints you suddenly shove a microphone in front of their faces, it changes the dynamics and is not something I’m particularly fond of doing. But they’ve got a new album out and I think as many people as possible need to know about it.
The band have released one album so far, 2015’s Colossal Downer, but have another, Serious Business, released today (13 January). They’ve also put out a couple of 7-inches, digital only EPs, played dates around the country with fellow noise-makers Hey Colossus, Obits and Mums, appeared at Supersonic and Dot To Dot Festivals, and recently supported Sleaford Mods at Rock City in their hometown.
Taking in various influences, from rock n’ roll, old surf records, to Sub Pop on the late 80s and early 90s, while turning their amps up to 11, they probably sound like different things to different people. They’re a bit punky, but definitely not a punk band. They’re a bit grungy, but certainly aren’t pretending they’re the next Tad or Nirvana. But as we all know, genres and pigeonholing is pointless anyway. And there is always YouTube or Spotify if you want to find out for yourself.
Grey Hairs aren’t prone to self-reflection. As Chris states at some point during our chat, “The only time we ever think about our band is when we do stuff like this. The last time we did something like this was when you interviewed us.” But fortunately, the cheap beer tastes good and we soon start to relax and the conversation starts to flow…
How would you say the new record, Serious Business, compares to your first, Colossal Downer?
James: I think we learnt from the mistakes of the last record. We demoed the songs this time so we could listen back and think about them structurally. I spent time properly writing words. We were very quick to demo the songs after they were written; it took ages from the point, but by then you have done groundwork ready for recording.
I always thought the first album was you guys focusing on what was directly in front of you, a reaction to the daily 9-5 grind, while also trying to have a life outside of that…
Chris: It’s quite minuscule, but then some of the lyrics aren’t even about that. They’re a little bit self-celebratory. I don’t want to talk about boozing even though we are in a pub, but Colossal Downer is the confident euphoria of being drunk – you are drunk on being in a band that you quite like, but you’ve never taken a step-back from it long enough to realise that you have got to try a little bit harder. Even though it took years to put that record together, we did pretty much just toss it off in a couple of weekends. Listening back to it I really like it, it has some interesting stuff on it but it is not that cohesive. It feels like a whole bunch of moments of being in the nightmare that was that band at that time.
James: It was different people trying to figure out who they are and how they work together.
Chris: There is way more variation on this new one, but you get the feeling that the most extreme points are still connected somehow. There are songs on the first album that sound like different bands, whereas now we sound like one band doing lots of different things, which was what the original idea was. We also recorded it properly and tried really hard.
The band are constantly moving forward in the sense that you are always working on new songs. You’ll play new songs at gigs and even after the release of Colossal Downer you weren’t playing many of those songs at the subsequent shows…
Chris: In fairness, by the time Amy joined we had recorded [Colossal Downer] over a year before. We were just so fucking sick of playing those songs. Nottingham seems to have a bit if of thing where when a band wants to act like they are serious they say, “We are still recording”, “We are just demoing stuff”, “We’ve just got to mix it”. Then five years go past and they come out with a five song CD EP. Nothing can be that good. Even if that band came out with Pet Sounds after that amount of time, we are in a different world now, no one pays attentions to that, all you’ve got to do is get on with it.
The different between the two records; the first one is an explosion of thought about being in the band. The EPs, the demos, 100 Breakfasts, they are us learning how to play. Then Colossal Downer is [excitedly] ’yeah, we are in a band’. And this one is [with a shrug of the shoulders] ‘yeah, we are in a band’. It is the first time we have gone in with all of the songs done. There were a couple of songs leftover at the end of it; they’re not leftover because we didn’t finish them, they’re leftover because they’re good but just don’t fit. I’ve never been in a band like that. We have always got stuff on the go. This isn’t a pun, but it is a more serious record.
To me the new album sounds angrier, and a lot of that is down to James’ vocals. You’ve changed your singing style and it sounds more fierce…
James: I’ve basically changed my singing style, because I’ve actually learnt how to do it better. I’ve never really been a sort-of hardcore singer. You are not very good when you first start doing it, but then you just keep doing it. A bit like sharpening a knife…
Chris: Last time we maybe didn’t give you [looking at James] the time you deserved to do you vocals. And we recorded them in a practice room. You can record drums and guitar in a practice room and they have a certain quality to them that sounds good; but if you record vocals on a shit mic in a cupboard, maybe it is not fair on that vocalist.
James: I took it a bit more seriously this time and went do to our practice space for a week on my own and had a go at the songs before we went to the studio.
One of your standout vocals, and for me, one of the standout tracks on Serious Business, is the song Sausage…
Chris: It’s called Sausage because, one, sausages can sometimes be round, and two, it is the most sausage-y riff that there could ever be. It is the ultimate sausage-party riff, Korn could do that riff.
That’s perhaps why I like it so much, because it is a bit nu-metal-y…
Chris: No, you like it because, as you pointed out, it sounds like that Smashing Pumpkins song [The Everlasting Gaze, if you are interested], which I would never clock in a million years.
Going back to the song, can you explain how that came about lyrically…
James: It’s a sort of mantra to install yourself with a Buddhist sense of thought projection through life. The latter part of the song is realising that it’s all bullshit, everything is cyclical and there is no forward trajectory through things. There is no straight line, it is circles all of the time. It is a recognition of that. As an example, Chris is close friends with one of my friends…
Chris: I stayed in James’ house once when James wasn’t there and I had never met him at that point.
James: Amy had had sex in Chris’ house that he currently lives in way before Chris had bought the house. It is all these coincidences. Like fashion, I’m sat here in a plaid shirt and it is 2017. Just millions of meshing circles and that is the idea of that song, how to move through those circles.
Chris: Both albums have been called what they have been called because when the demos went in to Dropbox or on to a CD, whatever I wrote stuck. It was called Serious Business from day one. “Serious business” is often said as a joke for something that isn’t serious business, “The internet is serious business”. It is a serious title and in my mind it comes from when I went to a wedding and my friend’s band Cowtown played. Matthew Wright from The Wright Stuff was at this wedding. Afterwards we were drinking shots and Mathew Wright said to Nash from Cowtown, “So what’s you band about? Is it serious or are you just fucking about?” We spoke about it afterwards and it is like, you are asking me if it is serious, meaning am I trying to make money out of it? No, I’m never going to make money out of it, so it’s not serious like a business. But is it serious business? Of course if fucking is, it’s the most serious thing in my life, my job is less serious than this.
James: For me, records are like photos of a particular moment. Everything on this record is so intensely about this exact period in time. In about 30 years’ time it will be a reminder of our lives at this very moment.
Why have you decided to print the lyrics on the sleeve?
Chris: Because they are really good. Last time we didn’t even put our names on the sleeve. Our names are pseudonyms. [Colossal Downer] felt as if we were trying to escape our lives at the time. Our faces weren’t on it, the only photograph of us we are facing the wrong way, there is someone else on the cover. There is nothing on it that ties us to it. This time we are all over [the sleeve] and our names are on it. If Mudhoney can put their lyrics on a record then we can put our lyrics on a record.
James: When I first started buying records, seeing the lyrics and looking through the booklet and sleeve was really enjoyable, but that’s not really a thing anymore.
Chris: The photo montage – I wanted as much on there as there could be, like when you open up Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head.
James: I want there to be a much information as there can be. I want everything in there.
Chris: You want stimulus when you listen to it. I know hardly anyone is going to listen to it sitting down with headphones on smoking a joint, but that is how I want it to be and I’m going to stick by that. People say that you’ve got to have the good video for the single, keep your social media profile up. No, bollocks. I like music that you can sit down and escape and have an immersive experience with both sonically and with the visuals. I’m going to do that and if no one likes it, because no one will like it, who cares?
James: I can’t stand minimal coolness.
Chris: I want to say that I am on this record. I am fat and I am on this record.
The album is released via Gringo Records who you have both been associated with for a long time. How does your relationship work with the label? Can you ask to be put out or do you have to wait for Matt (Newnham, Gringo boss) to ask you?
Chris: I’ve not checked but I reckon I am the person that has put the most stuff out on Gringo. Matt’s been one of my best friends since I first made music. He’s put music out by the first band that I was ever in (Reynolds); he’s the first person who ever drove a van for the first tour I went on; I lived with him for years. He didn’t want to do stuff with us to start with and then he asked us. It has been difficult for us to make this record as we have all got shit jobs and kids. And it’s difficult for Matt to put out as he has a job and a kid. Matt paid for the record. Gringo is at this point where it has got the best bands that it has ever had. That roster of bands, not including myself, are perfect. That Sweet Williams album that he put out last year is better than the Slint record. I don’t use that comparison because they sound like that, I use it because it is a perfect little record that will grow and grow and grow.
James: The last record he didn’t really agree to, but this time he offered to fund this record. I do think he really cares about it. I might be wrong…
How do you all feel about the band? I imagine the band means different things to each of the different members…
Chris: It annoys me to think that just because one of us is more active on the internet and makes a post about a grunge band that all of a sudden that means by committee we decided that we would be a grunge band. Dave has no interest in that whatsoever. Or when someone mentions Amphetamine Reptile, I’m the only person on the band who probably has any interest in that label. Or when someone says a song is a Jesus Lizard rip-off. For me and James it might be, but for Dave he’s never heard of that band in his life.
You have not sat down and gone ‘these are the ten records that we all agree on’…
James: I did buy Dave a Jesus Lizard record as a Christmas present one year and I have seen it still in its shrink wrap.
Chris: Dave doesn’t like things that have been over intellectualised and that’s great because it means that we are never going to get overly complicated with what we do, even though Dave is extremely complicated.
James: He’s also extremely thoughtful and intellectual about certain things.
Chris: Amy’s tastes are garage rock and rock n’ roll, they are what I wish my tastes were. Me and her have a lot of common ground in things that we didn’t have common ground in before as a band. That sort of 50s and 60s rock n’ roll and rockabilly type sound is now something that we can have in our band.
There are a couple of songs on the album that have that weird David Lynch 50s rock n’ roll thing..
Chris: It’s a rockabilly thing, because I like that. Amy likes that. Now that Amy is in the band I have an excuse to play that at practice. None of us are particularly stuck in the mud about what we like.
Have you found that the people that come to your shows has changed since you first started out? That people may have initially come to see you because they were fans of your other bands (Kogumaza, Lords, Fists, for example)?
Chris: There are now less of them. We did an album launch recently where we just managed to squeeze in 40 people through the door, it’s so depressing.
James: The demographic may have changed. I feel that there is a bigger, weirder group of people who now come to our gigs.
Chris: I also feel that we used to have some of that whatever-is-cool-now crowd and they have gone.
James: But you only get those crowds when you are a new band. We had that with Fists. Fists were a buzz band and then it’s gone. People don’t like longevity. People like the new…
Chris: Or the very old…
James: But the people who have grown beyond that are sticking with it.
Chris: I just look at the floor, so I don’t really know who is there.
James: I don’t even look at anyone’s face.
Chris: When we played the Black Iris Brewery [in Nottingham] I looked up once and people were dancing, and I thought that was really cool. We played in Oxford and I looked up once and someone was crowd surfing. I thought that was cool and I’m never going to look up again, I’m happy with that.
How do you go about writing songs?
Chris: A lot of the time I’ll play a riff that is meaningless then Dave plays a drum beat that’s really good, and that makes it – that is Serious Business, Sausage…The hardest ones to write are where the guitar and bass part can’t have anything other on the drums apart from what you can hear. But the ones where you aren’t even sure what it is, and then Dave, because he is also a bass player, he’ll sort of play a bass line on the drums, and it’ll be really good. That makes it really easy.
Has the band every given you some music that they like, but you have struggled to write some lyrics for it?
James: I was in a band that did very traditional song structures, so when I first started making music with Chris it was really weird because the structure of his music is odd. He will often say “this is the chorus”, “this is the verse”, and I often think the opposite of that. They are quite off-kilter, it is going through a filter of all this weird hardcore and rockabilly. It can be quite hard to get your head around; it hasn’t been an easy run for me. When I approach it, is has to have hooks, it has to be quite poppy in a way, but it has to have a fluid freedom. Chris has got these structural ticks that to me sound alien, and I’m looking for this fluidity, it’s an odd thing. I feel that it is getting a little bit easier to get better results.
You are doing everything yourself this time around – apart from Gringo putting out the album – including sorting your own press, while also working full-time jobs. That balance must be difficult?
Chris: Recently we have been in bands that couldn’t tour because of other members living outside of Nottingham or other stuff. You end up in this thing where you love making music but you can’t just drop everything because you are not young anymore. For a while Gringo had press agents so that you could get the record out to as many people as possible. They were really cool press agents, really good people. This time around it felt like we aren’t going to sell that many records and the economics of it were daft. We would end up paying someone more to tell people about it than we would to record it – that just seems stupid. The morals of it don’t make any sense for a band of our level. We know a lot of people who like music, why don’t we just tell them about our record? It is not working that well but it feels like a better way of doing it. I just want to sell 500 LPs so that Gringo want to put another one out.
You fit the band in and around your full-time jobs. If one of your work colleagues asks you about Grey Hairs how would you describe it to them?
Chris: I’m going to quote a mutual friend of ours: “When people at work find out I am in a band and they say that they might come and see us. I tell them ‘fucking don’t, you won’t like it’.” That’s brilliant and he’s right. I won’t tell colleagues the name of my band. I just tell them to imagine the best version of a rock band that they can think of, and leave it at that. The reality of it is not like that. Again, that is why it is ‘Serious Business’ – you wouldn’t pack out your spare time with something if you didn’t take it seriously. No one at work knows that I am in a band, except my manager who is a Crass fan, went to see Seaford Mods, and there we were.
James: About ten or fifteen years ago if someone at work asked me what I did and I said that I was in a band, that would have had high social currency. Now fifteen years later, and being in your thirties, explaining that you are in a band, the social currency is dwindling to nothing in a work environment. They don’t have any records and have just watched fifteen consecutive series of X-Factor.
Chris: It’s the saddest thing to say when someone asks you what you do and you say, “I’m in a band”. Is there a sadder fucking statement than that? “Oh, my son is in a band. He plays acoustic Oasis covers on a Saturday night.” It’s easier just to say that you like box sets.
James: It is better not to tell the truth because your cultural capital is self-Saxondale-ing itself. “So what do you do?” “I’m in a band. I played Rock City last week with Sleaford Mods.” Then there is a glazed look and you feel a little bit more like Saxondale.
Chris: The best one is the desire to have an anecdote about all of the bands your friends at work like, because you do actually know them. For example, at work, “My favourite band is Fouls, you might not have heard of them.” “I fucking know Yannis from Foals.” “Yeah, alright mate…” I’ve just Saxondale’d myself. You have to go, “I’m friends with him on Facebook, I sold him a guitar.” “Yeah, right…” We live in a time now where everything has to have a financial aspect to it. I never had that when I first started making music. “Do you make money out of it?” Of course I don’t, I’m in a punk band.
James: “Oh, you are in a band, you might be famous some day.” There is that mentality pressured on.
Chris: When someone says, “You could be good at this”, what they mean is they could make some money out of you before this thing ends. You might end up playing the Rescue Rooms and it’s exciting. That is done for us and we can’t do that, and if we did, it would be the saddest fucking thing ever. I’m admiring of Sleaford Mods because they have managed to find a way round that by coming at it from an angle of ‘we couldn’t do this when we were younger’, but we don’t have that. But the theory that we should have been better at this when we were younger, but we are not, we are better at it now.
James: We’ve had some good tour opportunities…
Chris: But we have all got jobs so we can’t do it.
James: I don’t expect us to make loads of money, but I do feel if the profile is raised, then life is easier. It opens up opportunities.
Chris: Our problem is that we can’t be bothered to play shit gigs. That is the one thing we have definitely sat down with each other and discussed. I don’t want to be driving to Margate on a Monday night. I’ve done it in other bands, but not this band. Time is finite, I can’t be bothered. I would rather write a song then go to Aberdeen on a Tuesday night and then drive to London the day after, which I have previously done. Both gigs were fantastic.
*At this point of the interview James receives a text from Gringo boss Matt to tell him that Grey Hairs have just been played on 6Music by Tom Ravenscroft*
Chris: Tom Ravenscroft, son of Peel. Years ago when John Peel was alive and he used to ring bands up. My first band I was in, he rang up our bass player and asked why we hadn’t made an album. Our bass player explained that we didn’t have any money. John Peel said that he would sort it out. He played us on the World Service, which gets played all over. He played a six minute song and we got about £900 for it. We basically then recorded an album with it. Unfortunately we don’t have that any more, no one seems particularly interested in doing that.
You recently played at Rock City supporting Sleaford Mods. How was it and how did that come about?
Chris: We have played with them tons previously and that has come about because Jason is from Sherwood and the same age as we are, so we are always going to play the same gigs.
James: I’ve known Ferny for year. When I first started promoting, around 2005-2006, it was one of Ferny’s bands I put on. We would go to all of their gigs before it became a thing.
Chris: Genuinely, Mods and Kagoule are the only two bands knocking around Nottingham, and watching them for the first time, if I had a record label, I would have signed those bands. I’m sure we aren’t what Seaford Mods want to listen to, and that is fine, and I don’t mind that in any way. I think the reason why everyone takes what they do seriously is because of their commitment to staying with Steve Underwood; he is someone I’ve known since moving to Nottingham and he is a total hero. That desire to keep everyone in that network and to bring them along with them is a dream. Playing at 6:30pm at Rock City is pointless, but it’s totally not and I wouldn’t get the chance to do that with anyone else. Then afterwards I get the chance to drink some beers and watch the best band that has probably existed in Nottingham in our lifetime. Anyway, Ferny saying that he doesn’t like guitar music is bullshit; I went to see Pissed Jeans with him and he crowd-surfed.
Talking of Kagoule, you have Cai and Lucy from the band singing on the album…
Chris: That band have already sold more records than I ever will in a lifetime.
James: We have been friends with that band for years. We would watch them when they first started out as teenagers. Our friend Pete Fletcher recorded them. When Fists released their album in 2013, they played at the launch show. Now they’re adults and they are great songwriters. They rehearse in JT soar, which is where we recorded the record. They were just there on that day and so we asked them.
It is going back to what we discussed earlier with Sausage, it is one of those strange coincidences that you have to follow…
James: Yeah, it’s not a straight line, it’s load of little circles. When you think your life is a straight line and you have to go from A to B and it is really stressful because you think you have to get to the next stage. Fuck that, because there are all these little circle that you bounce off and you can go different ways. That’s what music is, that’s what culture is, that’s what life is. You might think “Oh, I hate that person”, but three years down the line that person is different and you are friends.
Chris: I watched an interview Notts TV did with Kagoule and I could see their awkwardness and pain because they are human beings. I hated it and struggled to get through it. When they said how influential we had all been on them, I genuinely almost sobbed. There’s a whole load of bands in Nottingham at the moment of that age group and I like them and going to see them, but I’m not interested that much in the music. I think a band like Crosa Rosa will do something good down the line. But Kagoule are doing something on the level right now. They would have been a Damn You! [Notts-based promoter collective] band fifteen years ago, but thank fuck for them that they are not, they are better than that, but they would have been a successful band in our world. The way that Cai writes music, I feel like I want to write music like that. Out of nowhere that is a young person with the same aesthetic taste as me, who is better at it than I am. I just love that that is happening right now in the same city that I am in and I can go and chat awkwardly about music with him. I always try and lend them stuff, help them out. Cai’s got a Jesus Lizard tattoo. James and I were in the crowd in 1994 watching the Jesus Lizard at Reading Festival miles apart from each other but both having our lives changed; and here were are 22 years later, longer than Cai has been alive, and that man is on our record and has that tattoo on his leg. You’ve got to do that, I have to do it.
The new album from Grey Hairs, Serious Business, is released via Gringo Records on Friday 13 January 2017. Order online or buy from you local good record store. The band also have a split 7” with Part Chimp out on God Unknown early February 2017.
See Grey Hairs:
- 4 February – Portland Arms, Cambridge (with Hey Colossus and Newts)
- 11 May – The Maze, Nottingham (Hey Colossus)
Interview by Paul Klotschkow. Paul is music editor of Leftlion and this is his first piece for Louder Than War.