January saw Grey Hairs, the Nottingham-based slingers of blindingly wondrous noise wallops, return with their truly excellent second album Serious Business. To mark this momentous occasion we chatted to Chris (guitar) and James (vocals) from the band to see how things have changed since their last Colossal Downer.
In our previous interview we discussed that you found making your debut Colossal Downer to be a bit of a painful and slow process, how was it putting Serious Business together?
Chris: A lot easier, with the word ‘lot’ emphasised. We didn’t really start recording Colossal Downer with the idea that it would end up being an album but it seemed, as we went along, that making it one was the path of least resistance. The band was quite fragmented at the time and it felt like a series of slow and sometimes impossible steps. I’m honestly surprised we didn’t just sack it off.
This time we wanted to avoid that so we went in better prepared. We had more songs than we needed and a clear plan of what we were going to do – which of course we then abandoned straight away: but you have to know when to stay on the road and when to turn off. When we made Colossal Downer it was like someone had stolen the keys to the car.
In the past you’ve jokingly described the band as an excuse to get to the pub and socialise. The lyrics to the song ‘Serious Business‘ (‘Sick of feeling shit, sick of talking it’) suggest a change in attitudes towards drinking. Is being in Grey Hairs now more of a serious business?
James: ‘Serious Business’ (song) is an attempt to understand what drinking means to me. I’m from a large, working-class Scottish family where drinking has always been an essential part of socialising. I have a lot of happy memories of drinking culture growing up but loads of grim memories of babysitting alcoholics as well. Lots of house fires, late night arrests, cirrhosis of the liver that sort of thing. Anyone who’s been through that will attest that it comes with a certain amount of psychic damage.
Despite that I’m still a keen drinker and I don’t really understand why. I think in this band we all find something useful in a serious talk in a public house without the shackles of inhibition for a few hours. It feels like its more meaningful now than ever in light of our increasing reliance on social media.
I’m always aware that the other side of that situation is being sat in a hospital gown with a yellow face telling the nurse that you definitely didn’t steal the hand gel off the wall because you thought the alcohol might get you pissed. Drinking is a serious business.
There’s a lot of stylistic variation on the new record, were there any new musical influences that helped shape the sound?
Chris: We are a weird band in that we don’t talk about what influences us much. It makes me laugh when I see us referred to as a ‘grunge’ band, like we decided our direction by committee – we can’t decide anything.
I think it’s obvious though that we have varied and sometimes conflicting tastes, I don’t think James and Amy share mine and Dave’s love of the absolute buttiest of butt-rock for example. It just seems easiest to not discuss influences or ‘direction’ and just get on with it and raise objections when something strays into uncomfortable territory (which it rarely does).
The one thing that changed this time in terms of non-musical influences was a decision to embrace accident and coincidence more and put value on it. Not wanting to sound mystical but we are all slightly superstitious and this time we allowed how we approach things to be dictated more by happy accidents which we are slowly learning to recognise and act on. I can’t describe it any better.
For example – we spent a long while watching John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett doing ‘Cheryl’s Going Home’ on the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’. Search it out if you haven’t seen it. We discussed it at length, over beers, on many occasions in disbelief and admiration and that gave it a sort of power and meaning as a group. One Saturday we were supposed to go into town for Record Store Day but it proved a depressing proposition so we detoured to our local pub instead.
As we left some time later, Otway was walking in the door as we walked out – doesn’t even live in Nottingham let alone Carrington, but he just happened to be there. We met him as randomly as we discovered that footage. That’s more than a coincidence – that’s a sign and you can choose to recognise it if you want to. Whatever your plans were, divert them (hence we ganged him into being in the video for ‘Serious Business’).
We might not talk about things much but we generate a lot of powerful ideas as a unit (even if we don’t know what they might mean) and those ideas take on a life of their own and come back to us – and it seems to happen more and more. Getting a bit Bill Drummond here, but that’s maybe no bad thing.
I was taken aback by the intensity of the vocals on some of the tracks, particularly the title track and ‘Sausage’. They sound more to the forefront in the mix than on Colossal Downer. Was this a particular engineering decision or is James just more loud and angry this time around?
James: With Colossal Downer the music was written and arranged really quickly by Chris and Dave (drummer) over a couple of weekends and then recorded as a band. Vocals were last on and a lot of them were still a bit half-baked and didn’t always feel right.
We’d gone too far by that point to look at tweaking the arrangements or re-recording stuff so I just shouted them out over what we had for a few hours in a practice room with Chris and four cans of Tyskie and hoped for the best. Like a lot of the tracking on that record we discovered months down the line that they were not the best which is why they got that treatment in the end. It was the only thing we could do with them really to make the whole thing work.
With Serious Business we did the exact opposite. We spent all the time at the beginning, writing and arranging and prepping for recording. We demoed all the songs beforehand and made sure we could properly play them before going to an actual recording studio. It gave us more freedom mixing. I’m probably a bit better at singing this sort of music now too.
There are some fantastic lyrics on the album. Can you tell us about some of the themes of the record?
James: Thanks. Loads of stuff really. Funny and serious. ‘On and Off’ is about getting a National Express to the Glastonbury Festival in the late 90s and eating all the drugs for the festival on the coach because you’re young and stupid and then the bus breaks down on the way and you have to spend hours on the side of the M5 with your mates, sharing a headphone so you can listen to an Underworld cassette and cheering at the oncoming traffic whilst reminding yourself that it is not acceptable to take your clothes off.
‘Misophonic’ is about being repulsed by the sound of another person eating. ‘Man is a Kitchen’ is a weird metaphor about feeling capable.
‘Sausage’ is a sort of self help mantra about how we’re moving through time in a linear way but our understanding of our world is formed by lots of weird retrospective associations. ‘The Chin (Pt 1)’ is a language experiment to see if I could write lyrics with two words per line and 50% of those words is the same word. They’re the laziest lyrics on the album but the hardest to remember.
Serious Business is an album that sounds as frustrated with modern life as it does angry at it. Do you collectively feel let down by recent world events?
James: Angry and frustrated doesn’t do it justice. We have a lot of dear friends from all over the world that we know through music and elsewhere. Seeing them demonised and anxious about losing their livelihoods is abhorrent. Every day feels like a constant reminder of just how fragile the good stuff is and how easily puppet mastered people are by their own fears and prejudice.
Chris: We’re living in a time that makes the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ 1980s we grew up in seem like a time of great compassion. The difference now is that every passing thought people have is recorded permanently for posterity on social media – so when their grandkids ask what they did to stand up for the oppressed in 2017 they can lie all they want but it’s there in black and white that they were a Grade-A shithead. As if that’s any consolation.
We all work in areas affected heavily by cuts and that are being stigmatised right now. I think, because we have such a closeness to what’s going on politically in our personal lives, that we steer clear of direct politicising in our music but that rage and frustration is hard to keep down and the band is there as an outlet for those feelings that might get us all sacked were we to vent them in the workplace.
The album artwork is again excellent. What is the story behind its image?
James: It’s a photo of my mum. She fell over a while back and broke her arm and she’d just had the plaster off the day before. She was outside my house vaping and showing me her arm when I took the shot. Chris suggested whacking it on the sleeve and I was a little apprehensive myself at first but my mum was really keen on it. She says she’s buying a new record player just for playing it. I’ve told her she won’t like it but she doesn’t care.
On the back cover of Colossal Downer you all adopted pseudonyms (Cup, Leg, Neck and Mum) whereas on Serious Business you have printed your first names, is there a reason for dropping the pseudonyms?
Chris: I’ve not really thought about it (to be honest, the only real thinking any of us do about the band is in situations like this) but it feels like Grey Hairs was a bit of a collective alter-ego for everyone when we started it. It was an escape from a lot of things occurring at the time and it felt right to assume a new identity, even if it was just in our own heads when we made the music. I can see how being Wolfchild instead of plain old Ian might have helped Ian Astbury sing She Sells Sanctuary for example.
This time it feels like what we made is more direct and more from us, no hiding necessary.
Serious Business has been released by the excellent Gringo Records, who have put out most of your music. What is it about the label that works for Grey Hairs?
Chris: It might not surprise anyone reading but we don’t have tons of labels beating down our door – we are unpredictable and clearly amateurish in our approach to the band and our desires for it. We’re proud of that. Gringo have put out a lot of our bands over the years (Lords, Fists, Reynolds, Wolves Of Greece) and are a rare label that understands this path we’ve chosen, though we all appreciate it can test even Matt Gringo’s patience sometimes.
Plus, he lives in Nottingham and we’re all part of the same community – there are so many bands we love on that label and who we class as friends.
Chris: Jason from God Unknown is an old friend and asked if we’d like to be part of the singles club so we’d have done it no matter what but the fact it was with Chimp just iced that particular cake. I’ve known the Chimp folks for years and years and some of my happiest musical memories involve them, even when Tim fell backwards at a gig in Nottingham after an appointment with Doctor Booze and knocked all my amps off the back of a four-foot stage.
There’s a few gigs lined up but do you have anything more in the pipeline, possibly the chance of a wider tour?
Chris: Can’t speak for everyone but I veer between wanting to play more and more and then also never wanting to be in a transit van ever again. That might be a treacherous statement but I’m not thick-skinned and I have to choose my battles carefully.
Time is short and the priority for me is constantly generating new music as fast as possible. If tours come up that we can easily do then we won’t write it off but we live in a time when people are absolutely wild about a band but don’t feel the urge to actually go and see them play live. Otherwise-sensible people tweet stuff like “Such-and-such played a gig in London? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
No one wants to find out about anything themselves and when you’re not even on the lowest rung of the ladder that doesn’t lend itself well to getting an audience and that can be very depressing. I’m not complaining or saying we deserve better by the way.
And that’s before we get into looking out at a bunch of people on their mobile phones. James and I went to see Teenage Fanclub in Nottingham and they played a Grant McLennan cover in the encore and the guy next to me spent its duration looking at the Go Betweens Wikipedia page. James thought the whole thing pretty hilarious though so I accept I might be turning into a grumpy old man.
One of your earlier EPs featured two covers of Harry Nilsson and the digital versions of Serious Business comes with a cover of Roky Erikson’s ‘I Think Of Demons’. What draws you to the cover version and how do you pick the songs you cover?
Chris: We tend to pick things that resonate with us somehow. We don’t share a lot of common tastes but we occasionally agree on something that tends to then influence how we approach our own music and become an obsession for a while. The Nilsson Schmilsson LP really resonated when we made the last record because it’s such a hotch-potch of ideas that hits and misses but ultimately it’s heroic and I guess we aspired to that.
Roky’s music is pretty cracking across the board but that late 70s output is something else – it is so passionately sung and sincere and meaningful to Roky and he’s able to communicate that very directly. I really believe he thinks of demons, you know? It was one of the few reference points we had when making the album so covering songs from it was like comfort food when we were in the studio.
We used to have a policy of ‘one new cover at every gig’ which quickly got shelved but I think we’ve done songs by: Pere Ubu, Status Quo, Harry Nilsson, Fang, Black Flag, The Dicks, Roky Erickson, Nirvana, Hot Chocolate, Dr Feelgood, The Nerves, PiL, Jonathan Richman, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Creedence, Easy Action… more I’ve forgotten…
We also did a set of chosen covers for our friend Pawl’s birthday with Theresa from Fists/Rattle on drums. He picked a few Smashing Pumpkins songs. It shows how much we love the guy that we did them but it was like being tortured. Fuck that terrible, terrible band. We got to do a banging version of the Country Teasers’ cover of Blue Monday though. Swings and roundabouts.
What are the future plans for Grey Hairs?
Chris: I have no idea, genuinely. We just keep churning out new songs, we have seven or eight things knocking around and when that gets to 10 or 12 we’ll book some time in and record them again if anyone wants to put it out.
It’s small scale, we’re a cottage industry and it’s just us working on every aspect of the band. We all have pretty testing jobs and you add kids and mortgages into that (not to mention recurrent bad luck and personal injuries) and it becomes impossible to predict the future. That’s OK though, we don’t mind.
Serious Business is out now, do yourself a favour and grab a copy from Gringo Records. Listen to it loud.
Photos: Simon Parfrement