‘Nocturnal Days’ | Interview with Stuart Gray
Songs of death, imprisonment, mutation, and powerlessness are presented amongst lush finger picked melodies, lysergic mellotron swirls and haunted Teutonic synths.
What do you consider to be your first real exposure to music?
Stuart Gray: My parents were still listening to stuff like Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Cream, Rory Gallagher, Deep Purple when I was an infant in the 70s. One of my earliest recollections as a kid was listening to Meddle in a smoky room and the whale part in ‘Echoes’ giving me the creeps; I still find that bit slightly terrifying. But my parents were really young so from day one I’ve been exposed to this music, which I’m really grateful for. Haven’t moved on a bit really.
When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music?
It was a mixture of being a complete failure with the girls and my uncle teaching me a few chords at a young age. So when my school friend Tim asked if I wanted to join his metal band when I was around 15, I knew how to play. I didn’t get the girls because none of them were into Death Metal, but I instantly fell in love with playing. I think being a bit of a loser is all it takes really. Super popular smart people don’t make good music; they’re too good at fitting in, which is the last thing you want if you want to do anything interesting in life. Can’t imagine myself being the top of my job and playing an expensive PRS guitar at the weekends as a hobby.
‘Nocturnal Days’ is your self-released album. What’s the concept behind it?
Although I never set out to have a concept, my life at the time pretty much dictated what the album is about. I’m pleased with how direct and honest the album is really. It’s pretty much my psychedelic existential breakdown album. I just turned 40 and was working in a prison library which became very full-on and dangerous very quickly due to government cuts. I think it’s me just trying to come to terms with mortality and getting older, plus experiencing this other side of society that a lot of people would rather ignore. ‘Waiting for the Winter’ is based on a conversation I had with one of the prisoners. It was a beautiful June day and he just told me how much he preferred the winter as the days were shorter and he didn’t have to think about the outside as much. I think there’s a danger with this kind of music where it can become a bit to frilly or twee, and I just was in a head space where I wanted to make something a bit more heavy and dark.
What’s the songwriting process like?
Well, I think the freedom of writing this kind of music is that it’s not driven by riffs or any instrumentation; it’s purely melodically driven, so melodies would just come to me when I was out and about. Think that’s a good way of writing, melody first and chords, arrangement after so even if you just sang the words it would still sound like a complete song. Guess that’s truest to the folk tradition, that whole Anne Briggs, Watersons thing. But the songs came out really quickly. I was super inspired by what I was listening to, and all that was happening around me so it was pretty much effortless.
Can you share some further details how ‘Nocturnal Days’ was recorded?
Basically alone in my studio flat with Logic. I’m not much of an engineer so a lot of time recording this has been trial and error. I tried to make it sound as real as possible so I’d use lots of tube preamps and old gear. Also, I really tried to keep editing down to a minimum, there are a few mistakes here and there, but I think you need that to make it sound more human. If I’d made a big mistake I’d start all over again.
You said that you’re influenced by Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Comus, C.O.B… What else?
I love Morning Way by Trader Horne. The album cover alone is a complete head fuck. It’s so beautifully arranged, it kinda has this kitchen sink baroque vibe; coconut shells and harpsichords. I’d also put Mellow Candle’s Swaddling Songs way up there too, that was a big influence on the album. It’s just so pure and evocative and again the arrangement and production is top notch. A folk album without an acoustic guitar! Just beautiful keys and one of the best guitar tones I’ve ever heard. I just love the weird dark folk of that era, there’s so many great lost classics. Bread, Love and Dreams’ Amaryllis and Forest’s Full Circle are essential too. It’s a brief moment in time where folk music had the same attitude as the heaviest rock of that period. The dark flipside to the failed hippie dream.
You were able to capture the essence of ‘acid folk’. The haunting atmosphere, arrangements, melody…
Thanks, I’m really glad you think so as that’s definitely something I was aiming for. I think just obsessively listening to the music was all it took. Like I said I’m not much of an engineer so I couldn’t give away any tricks. I think not adding a ton of digital effects and just making everything sound real was important. Probably smoking a lot of weed helped too.
You also have a new video ‘Again As It Was’.
My good friend Lyndon Ives shot that for me in Greece. We were staying in Lemnos, which is a beautiful island with amazing dunes and old ruins. It just seemed to fit the feel of the song.
What are some future plans?
At the moment I’m recording an album with my band Black Helium, which is sounding super heavy and psychedelic. That should be out around August which I’m really excited about. Helium is pretty much my priority now, but I’ll definitely do another folk album when the songs come along. Also I’ve just recorded a weird, kosmische folk album with Dan Davies from Wolf People. It’s really turned out beautifully, the perfect headphone a bong album which we’ll be releasing under the name Transmissions from a Black Knight Satellite. Both albums should be out by the end of the summer.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
As far as my all-time favs go, definitely ‘Pet Sounds’, ‘Forever Changes’, Sabbath’s first 5 albums and ‘Would You Believe’ by Billy Nichols. But in terms of anything new I’m going through a bit of a dry patch at the moment. The last great discovery was the reissue of Ithaca’s ‘Game For All That Know’, which is a super eerie private press prog/acid folk LP from 1973. If you’re into acid folk and never heard it, you’re in for a treat, it’s really incredible! Can’t imagine humans recording it on earth! sounds like it was recorded in the space between consciousness and sleep by ghosts wearing corduroy.
Thank you. Last word is yours.
Thanks for the interview and your interest in my music. I’m always discovering great music through your site so I’m super excited to be included here too. Keep up the weirdness. Stuart Gray