Gathered together on a early Friday evening in the scant time between guitarist/ vocalist Chas McKeown’s nightshift and bassist Dan Grinder and drummer Jeff Dopko’s day jobs, Gray Young is enjoying itself. “This is really fun,” McKeown declares between arguing with Grinder the merits of Meg White’s drumming and prodding the reticent Dopko to dish about his metal days.
“Maybe we need more beer,” Grinder wonders, worrying if the trio’s discussion will interest readers. But while running through tracks from high school pals Annuals and major influences U2which Gray Young covered for its Raleigh Undercover set earlier in the monththe close-knit band reveals the impact that Explosions in the Sky hasn’t made on them, along with their fondness of brevity and creating big sound from a small lineup.
(from Mr. Beast, 2006)
Chas McKeown: Mogwai? From Mr. Beast.
Dan Grinder: [to McKeown] You really like this album.
CM: I like a lot of Mogwai albums. I don’t like the last album though. That’s my least favorite.
DG: Really? I thought that one was really good, actually. It’s got that one song on it…
CM: Yeah, one song. I like this song, though.
DG: We went to see Mogwai one time at the [Cat’s] Cradle. They put on such a killer show there. It was like two years back, I think, and they were playing with Growing. It’s weird because it was a really, really badass show, but I always forget that I was even at that show. It was kind of like an experience more than an actual show.
CM: Yeah, I don’t remember individual songs, I just remember loudness. Everybody used to say they were the loudest band they’d ever seen, but that wasn’t the only thing that was good about it. But it was loud as hell. I was in the back, and it felt like I was in the very front.
DG: I just liked how everything flowed together. It never really stopped, it was just one continuous experience throughout the entire set.
“Bullet the Blue Sky”
(from The Joshua Tree, 1987)
DG: You can’t really go wrong with this album. It’s pretty much good all the way through.
CM: You can’t go wrong with a lot of their old stuff, for me, and by old, I mean all the way up to even Zooropa. I like that. [to Grinder] I know you don’t, but I do. I think Achtung Baby is an amazing album.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: And what do you think about the newer stuff?
CM: I hate it. I’m gonna get in trouble for saying shit about U2, my favorite band, but they’ve just become…
DG: Parodies of themselves? Caricatures of themselves?
CM: Yeah, kinda. Just big rock stars, and there’s not any substance anymore, to me. But we’ll see, I haven’t heard the new record yet. I always have hope for that.
DG: You’ve heard the new single.
CM: Yeah, I don’t like that.
DG: It’s too bad. It’s sad that they once made such great, incredible music.
CM: This was one of the records that changed my life, really. The Unforgettable Fire is the biggest one. I hated this stuff when I first heard it, then it just started taking me over. I would play “Where The Streets Have No Name” in high school and just put it on repeat. That guitar thing at the end and the beginning… I’d never heard a guitar sound like that.
DG: [to McKeown] I never even really liked U2 until I joined this band and started listening to it because of how much you talked about them, to be honest with you. Then I started appreciating how great the guitar sounded. It’s really an interesting sound.
JD: I will say that Larry Mullen is a very underrated drummer. He’s freakin’ awesome and doesn’t get the justice he deserves, particularly on the old stuff.
CM: They’re definitely a band that’s greater than the sum of their parts, so I really relate to that.
DG: And they made a 3D movie, you can’t go wrong with that.
(from Be He Me, 2006)
DG: Oh, this is Annuals’ “Brother”. I had a really crappy pop-punk band back when I was 15, and we used to play with Timothy’s Weekend, who were much better than us. I remember playing little churches with them… Cary Church of Christ or something. Their band would open up, or we’d play and open up for them. They were always so good, the three of them, the core. I heard this song before it came out and I was pretty impressed. I was blown away, really. I haven’t really gotten to see them live, though. I think I’ve caught them once, at least, in their Annuals form. They either have like three guitarists or two drummers up there at a time, and I don’t know how they can coordinate that and still pull it off live. Seems like it would almost be too much.
CM: That’s the kind of sound they need. They have a lot of stuff going on.
Gray Young uses build-and-release techniques similar to those Annuals uses here. Obviously, in a trio, it’s a lot different, but what do you think about bands like Annuals or maybe even Polyphonic Spree that use extensive instrumentation for big crescendos?
DG: I love it. I always get caught up in all the instrumentation and the huge crescendos and the explosion and everything. It just excites me listening to it. I don’t think Chas is as into it as much as me.
CM: I like having the simplicity. I really love having just us three right now. It just depends on the band, but for us, I’m getting a kick out of how much sound we can get out of just us. That’s basically what shaped how my guitar sounds now. I think all of us subconsciously play parts that will complement each other and fill those voids, and I enjoy that.
(from In Rainbows, 2007)
CM: This is a band that kicked my ass back when they were on the verge of hugeness, when The Bends came out. That’s when I got into them.
The Bends might still be my favorite Radiohead album.
CM: Man, I’ve been into that album lately. I’ve been playing it at work a lot. God, like “Bulletproof”… I’m even liking “High and Dry” again.
Can’t forget “Just”…
DG: Yeah, that’s a great song. It made me sad, I heard Mark Ronson or somebody like that doing a cover of it. It kind of made me want to cry.
Any thoughts about In Rainbows?
CM: This is a great album. [to Grinder] Didn’t I buy you this vinyl for Christmas or something?
DG: I don’t know. It showed up one day at the apartment. But it’s great, and the whole fact that they released it for whatever you wanted to pay, that just… it was, that’s all I can say. It was nice of them to do. [to McKeown] But you wouldn’t even download it or anything, you waited until it came out in CD form before you even listened to it, right? See, I was right there downloading it.
CM: Yeah. I like having the packaging. I’m one of those people.
DG: I just wanted to hear it. I feel like it’s more of a return to the rock album. I wasn’t really that big of a fan of Hail to the Thief, personally.
One of the reasons I picked this song in particular is because of the melodic bass. In Gray Young, Dan’s bass playing tends to carry a lot of the melody in the absence of vocal parts.
DG: I wish I could play bass like [Colin Greenwood]! He always has great, really creative stuff. Like in “Airbag” off of OK Computer, that bass line always gets me. He obviously has some type of pattern, I just can’t ever pick it up. He does a great job.
CM: Yeah, I was just noticing that recently, that Dan does do a lot of the melody.
DG: I mean, I’m more responsible for making sure we keep our structure.
CM: But you’re not just filling in, you’re actually playing lines.
DG: That’s from having a three piece and not any defined chord structure. That’s kinda forcing us to do it. But I like how it works. It makes it so no one member has to do everything.
(from Red Album, 2007)
This is a band called Baroness, from Savannah, Georgia.
JD: This is cool. I like the singer. I like the drummer. I like that groove. Fuckin’ badass.
DG: Harmonizing guitars? Why don’t we do more of that? It sounds like a band where you’d want to be in a club really close to them, listening to them and being really drunk.
Is there any metal influence in your background? Any metal listening going on?
JD: Megadeth. I used to listen to that shit all the time when Megadeth first came out.
DG: No. I played in a hardcore band once, but that wasn’t metal, and it sucked. I’m not even going to count that.
CM: [to Dopko] What were you saying? You listened to Megadeth and what else?
JD: All that old stuff, which is probably old now.
DG: Like Ratt? Poison?
JD: No. Screw that shit. Give me a break.
DG: Dokken? Mötley Crüe?
CM: Hey man, “Dr. Feelgood”…
DG: White Lion?
CM: That’s me. That doesn’t count as metal though.
DG: I know, none of that is metal. That’s like saying Bon Jovi is metal.
CM: Yeah but whatever man, Vito Bratta could play guitar like crazy, I don’t care what anybody says. He could! He was ripping off Eddie Van Halen so bad though.
JD: I definitely dig the Deftones, big time. Not that they’re really metal, but they’re heavier.
EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY
(from Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, 2001)
DG: It’s funny, we don’t really listen to [Explosions] much. I like themI’ve seen them livebut I’d never actually heard of them before…
JD: Yeah, I had never heard of them before.
DG: …until a few months into playing [with Gray Young] and I went to a show, on accident, and I thought it was pretty cool.
CM: I took you to that show. But it is really weird that they’re not really a big influence on us. That’s the weird thing.
I wasn’t expecting that, honestly.
DG: They’re really great. Don’t get me wrong.
JD: I couldn’t even tell you if this was them or not. I’ve never really listened to them that much.
DG: That’s probably the best live show I’ve ever seen, seeing them play at the 506.
CM: I think, for some reason, a lot of bands that are instrumental get compared to Explosions in the Sky now. People just like that name. I don’t know why, but there are still many other instrumental bands. I mean, Mogwai is a bigger influence on me, personally, than Explosions were, and they’ve been out for a while. Even before I heard Mogwai, I still kinda played in the same way. Sometimes it’s coincidences, and sometimes it’s subconscious. If I had to name bands that were a huge influence on me, [Explosions] wouldn’t be in it. It’s not that I don’t like them, though.
DG: Probably common influences, though. I mean, I don’t really understand the comparison. I don’t dislike the comparison or anything, I’ve just never heard it.
CM: It doesn’t bother me to be compared to a band that’s great. That’s not a bad thing. I just don’t know why, I don’t hear it. I think in maybe one song we have, I can hear it, in “Firmament,” when it kinda gets big at the end.
DG: Maybe it’s the build-and-release. I think they are the masters of that, personally. It’s really intense. … Our songs are shorter.
CM: I will say that. I remember when we were writing a few years ago, we’d write some long stuff. We just would trail off more, and we’d be like, ‘I think we need to reign it in,’ and that’s when we started writing differently, when we realized it wasn’t what we were feeling exactly. If we had started going down that path, I think it would have been a lot different.
Gray Young plays with Goner at Slim’s Friday, Feb. 20, at 10 p.m. This is the CD release party for the excellent Firmament.