Interview by Si Smith
Grayceon are the perfect blend of metal and classical – with a mixture of jazz, doom and prog thrown in. Proving suitably elusive to pin down, they nevertheless have managed to land a deal with Profound Lore records and a third album that has blown the critics out of the water. We spoke to front-woman and cellist Jackie Perez Gratz.
First of all, thanks for this interview – and welcome to Femme Metal.
When I first bought your album I was, to be frank, quite overwhelmed. The balance between the beautiful classical element and all the other influences thrown into the melting pot is what really impressed me. It would be so easy to get it wrong, to overdo one element at the expense of another. How on earth do you get that balance “just right”?
All three of us have large variety of musical influences that often overlap but it gives us a large collection of styles to choose from when writing songs. I don’t want it to sound contrived because we don’t sit around and decide which element we want to use just to mix things up or keep the balance right. The balance happens naturally because we are always trying to make the songs challenging and fun to play for ourselves. If all our songs had only one or two musical influences we would probably get bored and not want to write as much. If that were the case, we would be much more easy to label as [insert given genre here].
The cello sound is particularly deep and sonorous. Do you have to adjust the cello in any way to fit with the metal parts?
I have spent a lot of time getting my cello tone right to fit with Max and the type of music we play. It tends to be a bit more punchier and grittier than I would normally like the cello to sound if playing solo, but in the context of Grayceon it works well. I try to make it not overpower the guitar but still cut through and, of course, still sound like a cello and not like another guitar. I also put a lot of thought into what I should play during the very metal parts, I like to mix it up. Sometimes more chugs are needed to make the section over the top metal so I’ll join in with Max, but sometimes a smooth melodic or dissonant line over the top of pinch harmonics will be more interesting and unexpected for a metal section. It really just depends on how I’m feeling that day.
You have spent time in the past recording with other artists such as Agalloch, Om, Ludicra and Neurosis, really great artists who also have a progressive and “atypical” approach to their music. What have you learned from these experiences? How much of their influence do you bring to Grayceon?
Everything I do musically gets churned into my own approach of writing and performing. I might not see where the influence is directly coming from, but it would be hard for these experiences to not influence me in some way. That would be like saying ‘for the next 5 years don’t let any of your life experiences change you personality.’ It’s just not possible. When I was recording with Ludicra I remember playing through a wall of cabs that were completely deafening. I literally had to play in a separate room so that I could hear what I was doing and not make my eardrums bleed. It was so much fun and I’m sure that eventually influenced me to start using a bigger cab in my own rig.
Your first demo was released in 2006 and contained two tracks, one of which made it onto your first self-titled CD for Vendlus Records. How different was your sound then to what we hear on “All We Destroy”? Did you have any particular musical aspirations at that time?
Grayceon has been slowly evolving with each recording. I think we write a bit differently now and you will hear that on “All We Destroy”. That first demo is really complex, but not in a bad way. It’s just a lot to digest. I think we counted the riffs in the song “Love Is” once and we came up with an insane number, like 32 different riffs. The vocals have also changed a lot since then as well as how and when we write the vocals to songs. I think we are constantly growing and gathering new influences that effect our writing. Production for our releases have evolved a lot since then, too.
Being only a threesome must mean that the ties between you three are quite close. Have you ever considered adding to the group, maybe a bassist or keyboardist?
We seriously considered adding a bassist at one point last year and I was the one who totally chickened out and killed it. I was really worried that the special dynamic between the three of us would get messed up somehow. I am pretty protective over that because what we have is so near and dear to me. Adding another personality and instrument could take the Grayceon out of Grayceon. And that really scares me.
“The Grand Show” in 2008 was your second full-length. Already the great themes of life are there, such as beginnings, endings, sleep and eternity. Where do you find the inspiration for these philosophical musings? Have you any set of your own personal “rules” that you like to live your life by, and would like to communicate through music?
Most of the ideas behind my lyrics come from my real life experiences, mainly my personal relationships. It feels natural to me to write about life in this way. I have some rules for how I’d like to live my life but I don’t always follow them. The double meanings behind most of my lyrics is me just working things out for myself- wondering and observing. My hope is that someone listening will be able to relate to the things I am going through, but its not my motivation when writing.
Three years on from the debut and “All We Destroy” seems to have moved onto even more poignant topics. “Shellmounds” and “War’s End” in particular reference war as a major theme. What is the overriding message of this album would you say?
I’d say that the main message of the album is that new beginnings are possible. Sometimes we just have to let go, put down our sword, and stop fighting the fight. That doesn’t mean that the album is without moments of despair, pessimism, and anger. “We Can” and some of “Shellmounds” can fall into those categories.
Your serious lyrical concepts aside, I hear that as a group of people you guys have your own sense of humour. Have you any humorous incidents to share with us today?
Zack and Max are so fun to be around and they can both make me put my serious nature aside, especially when we are all together. We had an in-person interview once wherein the interviewer asked us what we were reading and to talk about the book. Zack went off on a very intelligent rant on a book about pooping that he keeps near the toilet. Max and I were literally busting our guts listening to him and the interviewer didn’t flinch. I’m not sure he knew if we were being serious or not. Stuff like that happens now and again but in general we try to be light hearted and not take ourselves too seriously. Nobody likes a band that is full of themselves and nobody likes to be in a band that doesn’t have fun doing what they do. We genuinely have a good time playing with each other and when the fun ends, well… hopefully it won’t!
“Sleep” off the last album and “We Can” off this one both approach or cross 20-minutes in length. Do you always aim to have one of these long tracks on each album? Or is that just the way things worked out?
Yeah, sometimes a song doesn’t want to end while we are writing it. Songs like these always have another place they want to go and we just follow it there and make sure it gets there safely. Because we don’t like to set rules for ourselves when song writing, we let the songs be as long as they want.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto is certainly one of my favourite classical pieces, and I would love to hear Grayceon do it! If you could metal up one classical piece, which one would it be?
Aha that’s one of my favorites, too! Rutter Requiem is also another favorite of mine. It’s not a cello concerto, but it starts out with this amazing solo cello line that I have been obsessed with for years. If I were to ‘metal up’ a classical piece I might have to choose one of Holst’s The Planets movements, or Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, or Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I don’t think I would choose a straight up cello concerto, it would definitely have to be an orchestral work. More melodies to choose from and it would be fun trying to capture all the pertinent parts between just me and Max.
You recently played the Profound Lore showcase with other avant-garde bands such as Castevet and Slough Feg. How did the crowd receive your brand of music? What was your set list?
We were very well received. Some people told me Grayceon was one of the few bands they were definitely not going to miss, others told me they had heard of us and were curious but weren’t sure what to expect. We tend to catch quite a few people off guard when we play a big bill like that, but I never see people leaving the room, so that’s always a good sign! I believe our set list was: “Dreamer Deceived”, “A Road Less Traveled”, “We Can”, “Shellmounds”, “This Grand Show is Eternal”.
Your work with Amber Asylum was quite brooding and introspective. Do you find your work with Grayceon heading down this path as well sometimes, or are there simply too many influences involved?
I’m not sure our influences have anything to do with it, but I don’t think Grayceon shares a path with Amber Asylum even when we are playing our more mellow sections. Amber Asylum was always much more abstract and loose with its writing and performing style. Grayceon writes in an organic way, but after we write a song we never jam on it or use queues to dictate changes. Once a song is written, it’s written and we are very consistent with performing it. Also, Max likes to play very busily which is not a bad thing, he is covering a lot of ground with the way he plays. But because of this I don’t foresee him playing a long drone or repeating a single riff for 10 minutes any time in the near future.
I suppose to some Grayceon may seem like another Giant Squid, yet both are unique. How do you switch between the different personas needed for each band? How do you ensure that Grayceon produces a unique sound all its own?
Each band has a very different dynamic between it’s members. Both bands use its individual members to each of their strengths. The combination of these things inherently make the two band sound different. I actually enjoy taking a bit more of a backseat on writing for Giant Squid. Aaron has such a talent for narrative and he always has a master plan for the lyrics, so I just let him roll with it. He also prefers my higher falsetto vocal range, so we tend to write vocals for me that are very different from how I sing for Grayceon. Also, with Giant Squid, there is another instrument in the mix, bass, so I tend to leave much more room for other instruments than I have to with Grayceon. The cello has a very different role. And the bands have different tunings, the drummers and guitarists all have very different styles of playing. Basically, what I’m trying to say is I don’t think we could sound like each other if we tried!
Last year you completed your first European tour alongside Jucifer. How did the audiences change from one country to another? Was there any particular show or city that stood out for you particularly?
WE LOVE EUROPE!!! And we’ll jump on any chance to be able to perform there again. The audiences were amazing in every country we went to. The promoters treated us like royalty. The drives were beautiful, the food was delicious, everything is better when you are in Europe! We had a ball and don’t have anything to complain about really. Personally, Portugal, Spain and Italy stand out as the countries I would most like to return to. We played the SWR Metal Fest in a small village in Portugal and it was probably one of the most exciting shows Grayceon has ever played. And one day in Italy we had espresso and pizza for breakfast, lunch AND dinner. It was amazing!
This album has certainly been well received critically from what I can see. Are there any plans to tour this year on the strength of this new album? Any countries you’d like to visit on tour?
We will most likely not be able to leave the US this year. We are still trying to recover financially from our European tour. But, that said, we have played several shows at SXSW Music Festival in Texas, we’re going on a small mini tour with our friends, Lesbian, in the Pacific Northwest, and we may have some more things up our sleeve for later in the year. We are actually working on writing some new material this summer which will keep us out of trouble for awhile.
Finally, thanks so much for talking to us. Any last comments for fans or potential fans out there?
Thank you so much for the wonderful interview! And for the fans, we thank you for listening and hope you continue to enjoy the music!
Photos by Dary Darko
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