Words: Miljan Milekić
It’s hard to put Nathan Gray in a box and stick a label to it, probably because he doesn’t want to be boxed or labeled. Known for his work as a frontman of punk rock cult heroes Boysetsfire, he was also an integral part of bands such as The Casting Out or I Am Heresy. During the last few years, Gray has put his focus into his solo music, exploring different styles and influences. Late last year, he released his brand new album ‘Rebel Songs,’ which was a perfect reason for us to get in touch, and have him for an interview. Check it below.
I would like to start with ‘Rebel Songs.’ It’s been almost two months since the record is out, so how happy are you with the feedback so far?
Nathan: I’ve had a good amount of time to go through the album, get my feelings about it, and get what other people are feeling about it. And for the most part, it’s been very positive. It’s been great. I’m very proud of what I accomplished with this album, especially in the realm of adding new influences in music that I’ve never really delved into before.
Going back and really looking into that, the reggae and hip hop aspects of some of these songs really lifted this album out of what I’ve normally done in the past. Even in other solo things that I’ve done, I have that sort of straightforward, melodic punk type of thing going on. And with this album, I changed it up a lot, in that aspect. So, I’m very proud of that, and I’m proud that it was well-received. I’m proud that I took the time to actually do it, and trust my gut on that. And I look forward to seeing how that goes into the future recordings.
‘Rebel Songs’ is your third solo record in less than four years, which is quite an accomplishment. How did you find the energy and the motivation to deliver so much music, in such a short time, without compromising on anything?
Nathan: It’s funny because it’s less finding the time and more a thing that I just have to do. I’m constantly writing, I’m constantly doing music, and there’s really no choice for me in that matter. It’s something that helps me move forward in life. I think we all have those things that we need to be doing, not to fall into whatever issues we might have in life, whether it’s depression or anxiety or anything like that. Doing music is what saves me from those things, and helps me to be a complete person. So I’m just constantly going with it.
This will also be your second record since the pandemic started and the world shut down. How hard was it to make it happen?
Nathan: Fairly difficult, because ‘Working Title’ came out, and we did a European tour. I then started a US tour in March of 2020, and in the middle of it, the whole tour got canceled, and I had to come home. And I knew at that point that I needed to start writing because if I didn’t, I would just be miserable and upset about what had happened and what was going on. So it was very important for me to focus on music in some way, and we found ways around it while writing. We did a lot of the writing of ‘Rebel Songs’ online. So, whether it was Jed or Jean, or even Phil that I was working with, I was sending things back and forth online. And that’s how we got through that and made it work when we couldn’t really meet up in person.
On the other hand, how frustrating was it to sit on so much good music and not be able to play it live, and how does it feel to finally have the opportunity to get on the road and tour again?
Nathan: It’s been incredibly frustrating to not be able to get out and play these songs. But it has given me the opportunity to look back at ‘Working Title’ though, and pick which songs really need to be out there. It gives you some perspective instead of just playing the whole album and hoping it works. (laughs) You know, which songs work and which songs maybe you don’t play live. So that helped a little bit. And now, being able to get out, and play some shows, at least here in the US for the moment, has been cathartic.
It’s been incredible because playing live is, sort of, the process of proving yourself. You do this album, and then you go out and prove why people should think it’s important. That’s really how I’m looking at this and how the whole band is looking at it. It’s time to get out there and prove the worth of this album. To spread the joy that this album is about. That was something very intentional and very purposeful because we’ve gone through so much shit in the past two years. There’s been a lot of anger. A lot of depression and frustration. And I’m not sure that a message, though politically and socially-minded, needs to be frustrated and aggressive right now. It needs to be joyful. It needs to be accepting. It needs to be loving.
It needs to be something that draws people in, as opposed to just – “Hey, I’m angry!” Yeah?! We all are, so what do you want!? (laughs) People need answers. They need direction. People need to see that others are still motivated and inspired to be joyful and happy. At the end of the day, that joy is the antithesis to the hatred that we see out there. Those who are spreading bigotry and hatred – they’re miserable. And that’s why they want other people to be miserable with them and why they only spread anger and frustration. So we need to be joyful. We need to be happy. We need to be loving. We need to be accepting. And that is what is going to show that we really mean what we say when we speak on political and social issues.
And speaking of those messages, on ‘Rebel Songs,’ your music is once again socially and politically charged, and to be honest, I’d be surprised if it was any different. Do you ever get tired or frustrated of speaking out for years and years, still seeing some of the same issues and problems that were there decades ago?
Nathan: Constantly. I get frustrated. I get worn out. And I think people need to know that because we need to know that those who are speaking out are not superhuman. We get tired, we get frustrated, we get angry. Sometimes we feel like just giving up. But I feel like the example set is when you get to that point, you keep pushing, you get back up, You keep moving because, at the end of the day, there’s going to be, even if it’s just one person out there, someone who you change their life. You make them think a little bit differently.
Even if that one person is you – by speaking these words, you start to think differently, and you start to be different. This brings me back to a story and a quote by a man named A. J. Muste, that I’ve posted several times because it’s something that I concentrate on a lot for inspiration. He would stand out in front of The White House with a candle. And a reporter once asked him – “What do you think you’re changing by this? How do you think you’ll change the world by holding a candle out here?” And his response was – “Oh, I’m not trying to change the world. I’m trying to make sure that the world doesn’t change me.”
That’s a very important way of looking at this – you can’t look out and expect the world to change on your word, you know, but you can change yourself. And by changing yourself, you spread out little by little from there. Your community. Your neighborhood. And that spreads. So, in order to not get worn out, a lot of times, we need to take a step inward a little bit and realize that this begins with us and how we act to other people. The things that we can control right here that spread out as opposed to seeing all this out here and going – “I need to fix all that.” You’re not going to. At the end of the day, you’re not. And, and that’s okay.
And that’s one of the beauties of the punk rock and hardcore scene, or whatever we are going to call it. Spreading it, even for a little bit, even if it’s like one person at a time, and creating a better educated next generation. Which is great.
Nathan: Even if all you’re doing is basically being a cheerleader for the right team, you know? (laughs) That’s important. To cheer people on, make them happy. To make people feel loved. As I was saying, a lot of the hatred, bigotry, and horrible viewpoints out there come from broken hearts. It comes from people who are hurting, and they don’t know where to put that hurt. They are used by this minority of fascist assholes who see that brokenness and go – “I can use that. I can take their anger and make it work for me. I can make that fill my pockets with money.” So we have to be the antithesis to that. We need to go out and see that brokenness and not use it for political gain, not use it for social gain, but to see the human being for who they are, see that hurt inside, and speak to it.
On your solo music, you always had the “everything goes” mentality, exploring all sorts of punk and rock music but touching on stuff like folk music, electronics, or even hip hop as well. How challenging was it to blend all those different influences into a cohesive record?
Nathan: So difficult. And it takes a lot of friends to help. I’ve tried to give them as much credit as I can where I can. Jean and Jed helped me with the writing. I play power chords when I write, you know, and they were like – “Here’s how you do a real chord. Here’s how you do this.” Because, especially when you’re working with reggae, power chords don’t really work. I mean, you can, but, you know, if you really wanna get that feel, there are certain chords, there are certain ways of writing that don’t just work with punk rock power chords. Although I’m sure The Clash would argue with me on that. (laughs) But, being able to broaden my horizons, not just in musical style, but also in my own working towards doing things differently with the way I write, was very important.
Not only that but, whereas I would say reggae was, sort of, something that I was a little more confident about – with the hip hop stuff, I wasn’t confident at all. I’ve loved hip hip hop for a long time, but I was like – “is this really something I can do?” So I sent songs that I was working on to my friends like Phil, Eugenius, and a couple of others who do hip hop, who know hip hop, and I was like – “Look, don’t let me sound like an idiot. If this sucks, tell me, I will take it, and I’ll leave it.” (laughs) And I got a lot of really good input from it. It was a little tweaking here and there, but at the same time, the feedback that I got was – “You are doing this in your own way, and that’s why it works. If you were just trying to rip off a certain style or just copying, then I’d probably tell you not to do it. But it seems like you are taking your own style and doing what you do with it. So it works completely.” And I was really inspired by that. It was scary, but at the same time, it’s nice to learn new things at 49 years old. To keep learning and expressing and doing things, as opposed to just setting into a comfort zone.
Also, how important was it for you to have a platform where you can do whatever you want, without any restraints or pressure of expectations, which might be there with a long-standing and established band like Boysetsfire? And how hard is it to balance all that?
Nathan: It’s difficult, but it’s worth it, and I love it. As I was saying earlier with proving myself, not everybody’s gonna like what I’m doing. Boysetsfire fans aren’t gonna just naturally like this too. They might not, and that’s okay. It’s difficult at times because you want people to love what you do. You want them to follow into your next step, and sometimes people are like – “Eh, I’d rather hear a new Boysetsfire album.” (laughs) It hurts a little bit, I’m a human being, it wears you out a little, but at the same time, you have to realize that that’s just what it is.
Some people are gonna like some things, some people are gonna like some other things. But as long as you are secure with what you are doing, it shouldn’t matter. I try to look at it as either a challenge or as a – “Well, that’s not for them. That’s fine. It’s for me.” So, moving to it is very exciting. I’d say growing new fans is what’s really exciting too. I went out on this tour with Frank Turner and had people seriously come up to me like – “I hear I’m supposed to know who you are, but I have no idea who you are.” And that was great because they loved what I was doing now, you know? So that’s important to me.
And it’s difficult sometimes to talk about it because I realize the importance that Boysetsfire had on people’s lives. So you never wanna be dismissive or shitty about it. I don’t ever wanna be like – “Well, this is what I’m doing now, so screw you!” (laughs) That’s not where I’m going with this. But at the same time, I have to be very assertive that this is now, and this is my future. And that Boysetsfire really won’t be doing much from here. This is what I am doing, and this is what’s important to me. And I came to this because I was thinking – “I’m older. I’m not 80, but I’m older. So if I were to die today, would I be happy with what I’ve done?”
And when I think about Boysetsfire, absolutely. I’m at peace with what we’ve done as a band, and I’m proud of what we’ve done as a band. But if I were to look at my solo stuff, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what I want to do. So if I were to listen to those folks and just do Boysetsfire and give up or not fully focus on what I’m doing now, that would be a detriment to me. And it would be unfair to what I need to do in my life. Um, so, so that’s, that’s where I came to this conclusion that I love what I’ve done. I love where I’ve come from, and I’m very proud of that stuff, but I do need to set it aside to do what’s next.
So, tell me more about The Iron Roses. From what I could see so far, you guys look like a very interesting and unique bunch, and I can’t wait to catch you live here in Europe when it finally happens.
Nathan: I hope so as well. It has been so much fun getting this band together, and trying to, I guess, show outwardly what I’m speaking about. I think that if I were to get a band together, and it was just a bunch of white guys that look like me, it doesn’t really project what I’m talking about. And I need that to be a thing. Now, one of the issues is that when I come over to Europe, I can’t yet afford to bring everybody over with me, so a lot of times, I just have to pick whoever I can get. But at the moment, what I’m trying to build for the future is this very diverse team that I’ll be bringing out on the road. And I don’t just think it’s important for the message that I put out, but it’s also important for my audience to see themselves in what I do. As you probably know, and many people know, I’ve made great strides over the years with Boysetsfire and this band, and everything I’ve done, that I connect with people. After we play, I get down off the stage and speak with people. I show people that I mean, what I say.
And I came to the realization that maybe there are folks in the audience that don’t necessarily see their story in me. But maybe they will in Phil, or maybe in Jaylen, or Becky, or someone else that’s on this stage with me. Maybe they’ll feel more comfortable to go up and talk to them and feel that acceptance within that diversity. So that’s really what I’m working for. And I think that there may be times where I have to pick and choose differently because coming over to Europe, I can’t afford everybody’s flights. But I feel, within the next coming years, I’ll be able to get this team together worldwide. And that’s really special to me, to be able to show people that, I mean, what I say. That’s always been a thing for me, that importance of really living what you preach. Otherwise, it’s not much other than patting yourself on the back and moving on. So that’s why I’ve made a big effort to involve people from very diverse backgrounds and cultures when I’m looking for folks to play music with me.
So, we did an interview back in 2015, and in one of the answers, you said something in the line of Donald Trump being a clown rather than a realistic presidential candidate, which I have even quoted in the title. So now, I would like you to say that this pandemic will never be over, and every tour ever is going to be canceled. (laughs)
Nathan: ‘Cause, obviously, I’m not a good judge of what’s gonna happen. Right! (laughs) Oh yeah! This is never gonna end. It’s gonna last a million years! Put that in a quote, so it won’t happen. (laughs)
So, a bit more serious one to end this interview – what’s next for you? Obviously, the US tour, but is there anything else we should be on the lookout for?
Nathan: So, after this tour, and now, this doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen tomorrow, but we will get together, and we’ll begin the writing process for the next album that’ll come out on Iodine Records. That probably won’t be until 2023, but we’ll start that writing process. Then there are a couple of festivals that I’m supposed to do in the summer, both solo, and with Boysetsfire. And then in October, Boysetsfire and Hot Water Music are supposed to do a tour in Europe with Samiam. Then in November, December, I’ll hopefully be coming back again, solo.
This year, I would say, will be the end of what you’ll hear from Boysetsfire. This is, sort of, the Hurrah! to go out, as I try to move forward with this. And right after that Boysetsfire tour in October, I think I’ll be doing some more solo shows in the US. So it’ll be busy. It’ll be a lot going on, but all working towards 2023, moving forward with Nathan Gray and The Iron Roses and Iodine Records. And that’s what I’m really looking forward to planting my feet with this label and this band, pushing forward with ‘Rebel Songs’ and the next album.
So, fingers crossed that it all happens, and it all comes together.
Nathan: Yes. I am hopeful because I have to be. We all have to be. (laughs) It’s something that we should all grasp onto, to not let it make us bitter.