In every biography you read of the band Gray, it brings up the story that founding member Jean-Michel Basquiat named the band after Gray’s Anatomy, the 150-year old textbook that was an essential resource for his work. Considering those meticulous, systematic drawings of bones and muscles alongside Basquiat’s rough, violently emotional paintings, it’s difficult to discern what exactly he took away from the book.
Basquiat was a teenager when he first met Michael Holman–a onetime member of proto-punk band The Tubes–who had arrived in New York the previous year. Both were alert to the growing energy concentrated in downtown Manhattan, and were looking for ways to contribute to this creative community. The immediacy of sound compelled them to music, and in 1979 they formed the band Gray, soon adding members Nicholas Taylor, Justin Thyme, and Vincent Gallo to the band.
Gray played their first concert on October 29, 1979, at the opening night of A’s, a loft space on Bowery and Broome. A’s was (and is) the home of artist Arleen Schloss, who opened her loft to bands, performance artists, poets, and filmmakers every Wednesday night. One week might present the obliterating no wave of Glenn Branca, the next week a performance of radical electronic poetry by Bernard Heidsieck, the week after one of Kwok Mang Ho’s plastic bag events. The bunker-like mentality of these artists, the downtown landscape they traveled, and especially their scorched-earth work reflected New York at the turn of the decade: fear of a third World War; 1979’s anti-nukes demonstrations; the final curtain for 60’s idealism with the assassination of John Lennon in 1980; and the squalor of 1981’s garbage strike.
This was Gray’s context, and the machine-sound of their song “Drum Mode” clearly articulated the woozy, dystopic mania of their surroundings. The band’s willful misinterpretation of their instruments—Basquiat scraping his electric guitar with a woodfile, Holman peeling tape off the skin of his drums—channeled the petulance and anarchy of adolescence, and Gray embraced this position they often described as “ignorant.”
There were kindred spirits—in the years following the first crack of New York punk, the city gave birth to a handful of bands that dug into the rudiments of music, creating sounds that resisted historical trajectory. To many listeners, this music sounded alien, hellish, and animalistic—anything but human. Bands like DNA, Liquid Idiot (later known as Liquid Liquid), and The Lounge Lizards stood at the forefront of this non-idiomatic music, sharing ideas, aims, and stages with Gray. Venues like CBGB, The Mudd Club, and Rock Lounge provided what Michael Holman described as a “raw and distressed” realm for the likewise raw and distressed music.
But in many ways Gray stood apart from their contemporaries. Glenn O’Brien, who provided perhaps the earliest critical writing about the band,recently remarked that their “usual mode is ultra cool.” Where other bands opted for maximum impact by throttling guitars and knocking over amps, Gray tended towards the spaces in between: the subtle rhythm of the city instead of its traffic blast. The way the band addressed the sounds that surround them was not a process of refinement, or distillation, or even rejection—what Gray did was repaint these sounds in gestures that bypassed language and instead engaged emotions, a completely expressionistic music.
The resonance with Basquiat’s painting is clear. His crowned heroes, jagged lightning, and lurking skeletons didn’t resemble or symbolize their referents—they embodied them. And just as Basquiat consulted the detached precision of Gray’s Anatomy before rendering a claw-like ribcage or laughing skull, Gray digested the urban rumble before turning out a wordless, heartbreakingly perfect portrait of New York.
Michael Holman and Nicholas Taylor have fully re-formed Gray, issuing the band’s first-ever album, Shades of… in 2010, bringing together samples from their earliest recordings and performances with new compositions. On July 21st, they will take the stage for the first time since Jean-Michel Basquiat’s memorial service in 1988, performing at 7PM and 9PM in the New Museum theater. This ambitious performance inaugurates a new phase for the band, who were kind enough to answer a few questions about the past, present, and future of Gray.
Ethan Swan: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the Lower East Side’s art spaces to the early days of Gray?
Nicholas Taylor: I remember that Steve Mass (the owner at the Mudd Club) actually gave us a budget for a show, maybe $ 400, and even though we were pretty much real deal starving artists, we decided to invest the whole budget on our 13 minute set. We went up to the Bronx and rented a huge truckload of scaffolding equipment and once back at the Mudd Club, we built the “ignorant geodesic dome” that we performed inside. Most bands probably would have kept the money. It’s been said before that our generation of artists and musicians in downtown New York City could live on practically nothing (made it easier to disregard money). Our artistic and music projects came first.
ES: How do you describe the impetus for Gray’s sound? Your peers tended towards aggression where Gray is often meditative. Were you creating a reserve from the chaos of the city, or illuminating some hidden calm within this chaos?
Michael Holman: Mainly, we were expressing what we felt inside as artists, not musicians. And the idea of sounding like any other band, regardless of how out-there they might be, was strictly verboten. No way would we ever try to sound like any other band, or even any other movement or style of music, if we could help it. It was critical that we sounded unique, and anti-fashionable for the times. That would have been impossible for us, on so many levels. Anyway… We never wanted to come off as proper musicians, we always wanted to make music from a painterly, or more to the point, a sculptural perspective. Sonic space. The closest we come to conventional music is maybe film sound track music, or maybe John Cage or Stockhausen.
ES: Can you talk about the progress of assembling the CD “Shades of Gray”? What kind of emotions surfaced while reviewing the archival materials? Did these emotions seep into the creation of new material? Or was there something else at work there?
MH: Nick and I wanted to revisit our minimalist/ignorant roots, the way we played music when Jean was alive and in the band. Over the years we have gone through a lot of different musical investigations, but when planning “Shades Of…” we decided to go back to the rawness we first tried initially.
ES: What will be familiar about July 21st set for someone who saw Gray in the 1980s? What will be different?
NT: Relatively, we use the same techniques as we did back then to make a track but also we have adapted to new technology. As a deep starting point for each song we are the same as back in 1979. In our show on the 21st, we hope to take it to our next level. In strange ways, though, we are the same group from ‘79 with 21st century forces guiding us. One goal of mine is to open people’s eyes and ears so things won’t be so compartmentalized. What I mean is you go to iTunes and you see all these categories like Dance Music, Rock, Gospel, Oldies etc. One idea is a new category “Art Music” or some name like that where there are endless possibilities for the imagination that don’t fit into the norm.
ES: What does this performance signify for the future of Gray? What’s on your horizons?
MH: We are not musicians; we are sculptors, painters, of light and sound. Our work is consumed by important art collectors. We only perform in museums. We are collected and sponsored by major corporations, specifically, Hennessy. Our shows collude various, individual works of art, like a Robert Rauschenberg combine. We are not listened to, we are experienced, we are collected. We’re a 3 dimensional film without the glasses. WE are the future.
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