On the off chance that you haven’t heard yet, Bay Area progressive post-rock/doom trio Grayceon is back.
Journalistic integrity prevents me from squeeing like a tween at a…actually, I have no clue what tweens squee about these days. Is Justin Bieber still a thing? Hmm…do otakus squee when they a new waifu body pillow? I’m getting off track here…
Since it’s been a minute since Grayceon’s last release, 2013’s Pearl and the End of Days EP, it might be worth taking a minute to reintroduce the players. Since their 2005 inception, Grayceon has been cellist/vocalist Jackie Perez Gratz (formerly of Amber Asylum, also of currently on hiatus Giant Squid), guitarist/vocalist Max Doyle (also of Walken), and drummer Zack Farwell (also of Squalus, Giant Squid, and Walken). When Gratz and husband Aaron John Gregory put Giant Squid on hiatus in part to spend more time with their growing family, the pause button got hit on Grayceon as well.
Fast forward several years, and Grayceon’s fourth full-length, the aptly titled IV, is scheduled for release on May 18 from Translation Loss Records (and trust me on this – you want to go preorder it here rightfuckingnow. This interview will still be here when you get back). For longtime Grayceon fans like me, IV is exactly what I was hoping it would be – another virtual masterpiece of complex arrangements and impeccable musicianship, topped off by Gratz’s impeccable cello. What’s a bit surprising this time around, though, is how compact and accessible the songs are compared to the band’s previous outings. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still knotty and proggy AF, but there’s also a kind of catchiness to IV that makes it the perfect jumping on point for new listeners.
I had the distinct thrill and absolute honor of being able to talk with Jackie Perez Gratz (full disclosure: who I’ve been a huge fanboy of for quite a while) via email about IV, what she’s been up to the past few years while her Squid-mates were making the Squalus album, and some of the challenges of playing a bowed instrument in a metal band.
Indy Metal Vault: So for starters – and I realize full well how gauche a way this may be to start an interview – can I say how thrilled I am that Grayceon is back? I can’t even explain how much I’ve been missed the sound of your cello since Giant Squid went on hiatus. And while your band mates have been busy with other projects since the hiatus, most notably Squalus, you’ve been relatively quiet musically aside from a guest spot on Cormorant’s Diaspora last year. So what have you been up to the last few years while everyone else was writing songs about Jaws?
Jackie Perez Gratz: Thank you so much – that is very nice to hear! Well, I’ve mainly been working a lot and raising my two daughters. I wanted to spend a few years focusing on my family, and that is what led to Giant Squid ending and Grayceon going on a hiatus. I have always struggled to find the balance between my music and the ‘real world,’ you know- the one that pays the bills. And motherhood consumes so much more time and mental energy than everything else. I was ok with it because I love being a mom and I would do anything for my daughters. But I needed that time off to realize [again] that music is a part of my ‘real world,’ too. I can’t be who I am without it. And I can’t be the mom I want to be without it. So, I’m back.
IMV: It’s been five years since Grayceon’s last release, the Pearl and the End of Days EP, and seven since your last full-length All We Destroy. Did that several-year hiatus have any influence on the way the band approached IV? I ask because in some ways, this is a pretty different album than anything else in your discography. For starters, you’re kind of known for writing lengthy songs, but none of the tracks on IV break the eight-minute mark. The album also has more songs that clock in at less than five minutes (four) than all of your other releases combined (three), and has the shortest overall run time of any of your full-lengths. Did you start the writing process with the intention of producing something a bit more succinct (for lack of a better word) this time around? Even though the songwriting and arrangements sound no less progressive than in the past, their relative compactness does make IV feel a bit more accessible as a whole.
JPG: Well, the album was essentially written before we went on hiatus, with exception of the lyrics and vocals, but I agree that IV feels more accessible than past albums. I hate to say it, but it’s probably just a happy accident that the songs are shorter and the album is more succinct, as you say. Me, Max [Doyle, guitars/vocals], and Zack [Farwell, drums] have a pact with each other that when it stops being fun, we will stop being a band. So we tend to subconsciously do things we haven’t done before because that’s always more fun than not! I remember we wanted to write, or thought we wrote, a ‘pop’ song. We even had a song called ‘pop,’ which I think was the working title for “Point of Me.” Of course, in looking back, I’m laughing that that now because I’m not sure there is anything pop about it except the length. If I didn’t take a hiatus when I did, we might have made the album length longer, so that one you can blame on me. And I think I can speak for all of us when I say this is not the end of Grayceon writing long songs. I’ve always wanted to do a whole album that was one song. And I love the idea of not having to choose which songs to play in a live set. We could just walk on stage, play the album, and be done with it. We’ve never done that before, so that would be fun. Zack and I also talk and plot about doing a covers album, but we’ve got a long way to convince Max. He’s always writing riffs for the next album.
IMV: To follow up on that last question, I am curious as to how the songwriting process works for Grayceon, specifically in terms of the cello. I’ve given IV several close listens on headphones—where the production and mix both sound absolutely fantastic, by the way—and the cello seems to have a couple of different functions in Grayceon’s overall sound. I was half-expecting it to fill in at least part of the low end to compensate for the lack of a bass player, but I really hear very little (if any) of that. For the most part, it sounds like it either acts like a rhythm guitar and closely follows the main guitar line (like through most of “Scorpion” and “Slow Burn”) or as a second main guitar that adds a complementary melody line (as it does on “The Point of Me”). It also handles basically all the lead guitar duties. How central is the cello in the songwriting process? How closely do you and guitarist Max work to develop your parts? Do both of you contribute riffs?
JPG: Max and I both write riffs, but it’s absurdly uneven because I can’t even begin to compete with the prolific nature of Max Doyle. He never stops writing riffs on a daily basis, and here I am trying to squeeze in one night a week so we can practice together. We used to make each other riff tapes, which was a pretty awesome writing process – we’ve gotta get that going again but my cassette player just bit the dust.
The way we work off each other’s riffs is very different and has gone through different phases over the years. Max likes to learn the riffs I write (transcribing the cello riff into a guitar riff) then I write another cello part to go along with it. I like to write contrasting cello parts that go along with his riffs, but that also stand out as a lead. When we are each writing riffs separately, we are not thinking about what the other person will do with it, we just trust that the other person will do something awesome and uniquely Grayceon. But when we bring the riffs together and arrange a song, we are definitely thinking about each other’s parts and how we want the two instruments, both of which are often times doing leads, to intermingle and play off each other. Also during the writing process, if we are really stoked on a riff that the other person wrote, we’ll arrange the song to highlight it. In our new song “Scorpion,” that amazing guitar riff Max plays originally only repeated a couple of times, but I loved it so much I insisted on elongating that section as much as I could get Max to agree to. In our song “End of Days” [from our last vinyl EP, Pearl and the End of Days], Max liked my chord-like chorus riff so much he changed his original part to play very open chords that give the cello space and focus. So there is a bit of everything coming from all directions. I think this is what makes the music so proggy.
As far as cello functionality, I frequently hear that people are surprised I don’t ‘fill in’ the bass function as much as they expect. Max does this himself quite well by using his weird (and very secretive) tuning, which keeps his two bottom strings very low in pitch and open to play repetitively through most of his riffs. He doesn’t use a pick, he only uses his fingers, so as long as we write the songs in this tuning [I also have to tune special to match his guitar] he can use the two bottom strings as a bass, or at least as low end ‘filler.’ I’m always enamored by Max’s technique. He can make his instrument sound like three guitars are playing at once, and then when people notice he is only using his fingers to produce those layers their heads promptly explode.
IMV: I’d like to pull back a bit from talking about IV and ask a question or two about your own musical background. I’ve done a bit of research online and know you’ve been asked some of these questions before, but it looks like it’s been a few years – so I hope you’ll indulge me here since some of our readers may be encountering you and your music for the first time. You were immersed in the world of classical music long before you discovered metal, correct? If I remember correctly, you started playing cello at around age seven – how long after that did you discover metal? I’ve read that Appetite for Destruction played a fairly big role in that turn towards the metal side.
JPG: Yep, I started playing cello when I was seven and my sister Cat, who was two years older, started playing oboe at age nine. Having been raised by two professional classical musicians (my dad is a French horn player/teacher/conductor and my mom is a viola player/teacher/conductor), we never questioned whether we would want to play an instrument; it was more a question of which instrument we would want to play. We grew up running around backstage during rehearsals and attending our parent’s performances from a very early age. So we just thought that everyone played an instrument. I chose cello and Cat chose oboe and that was that. Really, I have a lot to be grateful for because my parents set us up to succeed. They paid for us to have private lessons and made us practice daily, that sort of thing. I doubt I would still be playing music if it weren’t for their encouragement.
I didn’t start listening to heavier music until I was in high school, and even then it wasn’t metal. Guns and Roses was a favorite (and still is) and grunge bands like Alice In Chains and Nirvana stood out to me as extra good stuff. But I was also listening to a lot of ‘alt’ music like Jane’s Addiction and Smashing Pumpkins. When I started playing in Amber Asylum in 1997 (for which I still record on albums, but have not been an active member in since 2007) we were playing a lot of metal shows in SF and I was only 23. My mind was opened up to all different kinds of metal in the heart of the San Francisco/Bay Area metal scene- and what a fantastic place for it to happen! I remember going to Lucifer’s Hammer, a local metal night on Tuesdays in the city, and seeing all kinds of amazing metal bands that just blew my mind. Sadly, it wasn’t until then that I also discovered older heavy metal and 60’s/70’s metal that I *should* have been listening to in my youth, but wasn’t exposed to it until later.
IMV: So back in 2006-7 when Grayceon first got together and then you subsequently joined Giant Squid, how prevalent were strings in metal? Martin Powell left My Dying Bride in ’98 – he’s pretty much the only person I can think of who played a bowed instrument in a metal band until Grayceon/Giant Squid, though there are quite a few more now: Daxma, Isenordal, Ninhursag, Exulansis, Subrosa, Megaton Leviathan, and Ne Obiliviscaris all immediately come to mind. How much resistance did you encounter from audiences when you first started playing metal back in the day? There’s an interview you did with Invisible Oranges in 2011 that mentions a review that calls Grayceon the “cellopocalypse.” Was that a common reaction at the time? Do you feel like you’ve been any kind of influence in terms of both normalizing bowed instruments in metal and to this more recent wave of cello/violin/viola players in metal bands?
JPG: Yeah, I don’t know about that – you would be way more qualified to answer this question than I! I don’t follow any bands that have stringed instruments in them. At the time Grayceon started up, Apocalyptica was the only band I knew about doing anything heavy with cellos, and they weren’t doing original music back then, only covering heavy metal songs. They were technically very good, but the whole idea of them was so shticky. I knew Grayceon was doing something very different, but at the same time I remember not wanting anyone to associate us with them because to me they felt like a gimmick. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed like sooo many bands had strings. I hardly think happened because of Grayceon – we were nobody, we are nobody, haha! This is just my perception, and I don’t claim to have invented strings in metal, so the increase of strings in metal doesn’t bother me one bit. But I don’t think it has affected Grayceon’s audience or appeal, either. We just go about our business writing and playing the way we do – we don’t take credit and we don’t rip anyone off. No one has yet accused us of our cello being shticky and we’d very much like to keep it that way.
IMV: So getting back to talking about IV– according to the PR notes for the album, Pearl and Pepper Gregory provide additional piano, percussion, and voice on “By-The-Wind Sailors.” If I’m not mistaken, those are your children, right? Once of the reasons given for Giant Squid’s hiatus was a desire on the part of you and Aaron Gregory to not be “dedicating so much time together doing something that doesn’t involve” your children. In that respect, what does it mean to you to be able to include them on a track on IV?
JPG: Yes, my oldest daughter Pearl is 6, and my youngest Pepper is 1. It means a lot to be able to include them on this album. It means I can finally merge the two parts of my life that until now have seemed so separated. I happily make sacrifices to create music, but one of which is spending less time with my family and it really takes a toll on me. To be able to do something fun with them that bridges the two worlds was very special. Max and Zack are uncles to them, so for the girls it probably seems very natural to be a part of it. And that song in particular was a bit of an homage to Pepper and the time following her birth. Pearl would insist I sing the intro of that song over and over again before bedtime. So it’s a bit of hit in our house. Pearl also has me sing her song at bedtime, which is the cello melody of Giant Squid’s “Pearl and the Parthenon,” but with the lyrics ‘Pearl, Pearl, Pearl’ over and over again.
Our babies are funny. Aaron and I always joke that Giant Squid will get back together when Pearl and Pepper are old enough to be in the band. We can be a Partridge Family kind of a thing. So far from what I can tell, I think both of them want to be singers, so we’ll have to get instruments in their hands soon unless we want to turn Giant Squid into a choir.
IMV: If there’s one constant I’ve heard from people who play bowed instruments in metal bands, it would be that it’s difficult to find a way to effectively amplify themselves in both a studio and live setting. For example, I’ve heard from a couple of other musicians that you likely use Mesa Dual Rectifiers live, but what do you use in the studio: do you use similar amplification as the guitars, or do you direct input/mic the cello? Also, what sort of effects (if any) you use on your cello, both in the studio and live?
JPG: Yes, it is so hard getting the sound right, both on stage and otherwise. In Amber Asylum, I quickly discovered that playing an acoustic for live sets was a bad idea. The feedback was uncontrollable, especially when we needed more volume, and my tuning would just melt under the stage lights and I’d have to re-tune in between every song. Not fun.
Now I play a custom Violectra electric cello, which I love. Then I go through a vintage SVT tube bass amp and an 8×10 Ampeg cab. I have tried a lot of other things, but dang my cello sounds amazing through this rig. I drool every time I see Al Cisneros play because he’s basically playing through five of these same rigs at once. Live with Grayceon I use a volume pedal and a ZVex Super Hard On pedal to get some extra gain/grit that allows me to cut through Max’s guitar layers, but I don’t use much in terms of pedals. The amp really does most of the tone work. With Giant Squid, in addition to the above, I use reverb and delay pedals, which make the cello more spacious amongst all the other melodic instruments: keys, bass, guitar.
In the studio I like to use my live rig, but without the pedals, and we usually track with a mic and direct at the same time so we can have a mix or re-amp if necessary. IV is unique in that there is actually no electric cello on it at all. I recorded the whole thing acoustic with the intention of using it as a baseline and then re-amping it from there, but the acoustic sounded so good we kept it as is. The acoustic cello created this new dimension between Max’s guitars and myself that we never got on previous albums.
IMV: I’ve gotten in the habit recently of asking questions about the cover art for albums, since the relationship (or lack thereof) between the art and the music tends to lead to some fascinating responses. Referring once again to the PR materials, they mention that the cover art is “A View of the Satellites as Seen from the Outskirts of The Venus of Mass Consumption” by Pelham Houchin III. Since the painting is from 2015, I’m guessing you likely saw it somewhere rather than working directly with him on the concept for the art. Where did you first encounter his work? What was it about that particular painting, which is lovely and thought provoking in equal measure, which made you want to use it for the cover of IV?
JPG: I’m so glad you asked. Pelham is a friend of mine and he is a very talented and prolific painter. Another odd connection is that he grew up in the same town as Zack and was friends with Zack’s sister all through high school. Anyway, I don’t know when or how I saw this painting, but I remember when I saw it for the first time I told him, ‘this painting HAS to be the cover of Grayceon’s new album.’ On the spot Pelham said yes, of course, use it whenever your album is done. Then over the past few years that it took us to complete the album, Pelham was always asking me about our progress and reminding me that we could still use the painting if it still made sense conceptually. I think that whatever struck me as relevant in his painting when I saw it is the same source of inspiration for the lyrics of IV, which is this complex mixture of human nature and the discombobulating agitation I have with today’s technology and politics. The painting also has a very 70s sci-fi kind of feel to it, which I love. It wasn’t until well after the album and packaging was already to press that I asked Pelham about the meaning behind the painting. Serendipitously or not, the painting has similar points of departure to the lyrical content of IV.
Pelham told me that the painting is about nature reclaiming itself from the establishments of humans, which is a recurring theme in his work. The satellites are orbiting the moon and create a profile similar to that of a Venus flytrap, which is a sign that the reclaiming has begun. He explains it much better than I can, but I dig it and I relate to it. For myself, I am constantly buried by the barrage of stuff I think I should be doing (checking Facebook, face in a screen, competing for the acceptance of a digital presentation of my life) when all I really want to do is the things I know I am designed for (being creative, being a mother, spending time in nature – walking the land, breathing the air, and soaking in the water). I can hope that this painting is a sign the reclamation back to nature has begun for myself as well.
IMV: What’s the plan for Grayceon after IV comes out? Are you looking to do much touring behind it? Any chance that fans outside California/the Pacific Northwest will have a chance to hear these songs live?
JPG: In June we will have a local record release show in San Francisco, and we don’t have much planned beyond that. I know we would love to do a Pacific Northwest run and an East Coast run if everybody’s schedules allow. Max is a nurse now and has to schedule his time off a year in advance. Last year we didn’t know when the album was going to be released, so there wasn’t a lot of pre-planning happenng. He might have to call in sick to swing a few short tours. Aaron’s new band, Khôrada (Aaron + 75% of Agalloch), is also releasing their debut album this year, so we’ll have to figure out how we can both support new albums in the same year without abandoning our children. I’ve heard it and it is fantastic, by the way, so check in out when it is released!
IMV: Thanks again for taking the time to answer some questions. I always like to leave the last word to the artists – anything else you want to add?
JPG: Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions, and I want everybody who is reading this to know that Grayceon is thrilled for IV to finally be in the hands of our fans. SOON! So please listen to it very loudly, and we hope you all enjoy it as much as we do!