No One Can Handle a Soul: An Interview with J GRGRY

[Banner Photo by Mike Naglieri]

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last final exam, and since then, I’ve been holed up in my parents house in West Seattle hibernating, listening to Prosthetic Fittings, and eating absurd amounts of hummus. I think I’m experiencing that post-concert blues, but a post-final variation with mashed garbanzo beans? Regardless, it’s time to recoup, recover, and reinvigorate, and what better way to do that than by attending a New Year’s Eve show at Neumos featuring J GRGRY, Thunderpussy, and Porter Ray.

J GRGRY, the combined effort of Joe Gregory, Robert Cheek, Ryan Leyva, and Steven Barci, is a dark pop-indie dream. Imagine the hypothetical child of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins mixed with ambient synthesizer vocal cords, deep desperation, and eventual redemption. I don’t want to say too much more, as Joe Gregory kindly and eloquently answered some questions about this band’s formation, their new single “Cave Birds,” and the February 2017 release of their EP Gold Teeth + Glass Eyes.

EP: First of all, thank you so much for answering a few questions! I’m really looking forward to the NYE show; what a killer line-up.

JG: Thank you so much for doing this with me! I am so excited about this NYE show at Neumos. Thunderpussy and Porter Ray are both so amazing. We are going to pull out a few surprises and make it an extra special performance too, I can’t wait.

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EP: Previously you’ve performed under your name, Joe Gregory, but with this newer project, you’ve gone with J GRGRY. Is J GRGRY sort of an alternate version of yourself, or an extension that lets you be more vulnerable? Who is J GRGRY?

JG: You know, initially when I started working on these songs and the concept of what I wanted this music project to be I had every intention of it being a solo project. I could perform as a band and the band could rotate members. It would be pretty casual with the band but it would be my baby. I called up one of my absolute best friends, Robert Cheek to produce some songs with me and as we fleshed out the tracks and getting ready to take them to the stage, we called Ryan Leyva to play bass and Steven Barci to play drums. The four of us combined have probably some of the most riveting, heartbreaking, unbelievable stories of music industry disappointments and let downs and good old fashioned screwings. So, as we started playing and connecting as people, we (in a very short time, because of our shared experiences) became a true unit and family and so to call this collaboration my name didn’t feel right. This is a real working band where every member is just as important as the next for so many reasons.

EP: The hook for “Cave Birds” (Somehow it’s gonna work out, I know it’s gonna work out, somehow someway you’ll see) sounds both self-assuring and also a slight “screw you” to those who may not have appreciated or believed in your music. What was the inspiration for the song? Can you take us through the writing process?

JG: “Cave Birds” actually wasn’t written about the music industry, although now that you bring that up I could totally see that working! No, it was written during a time of trepidation because I was about to end a serious relationship and move out of Seattle. Those anxieties somehow made these lyrics come out and when I read them all back I saw I was really writing about being queer and growing up in a religious family. I think the most obvious line is “no one can handle a soul, like an animal on a rope.” It’s got a dark and twisted vibe to it, kind-of an undercurrent in the tones and the music but then this sad sounding yet optimistic chorus that is always at my core. I loved the message some local celebrities got behind supporting LGBTQ youth in recent years called “It Gets Better” and that was definitely on the periphery of my brain when I was writing that hook.

EP: The music video for the song is so intriguing. How involved were you with the overall vision of the project?

JG: I worked with my new hero, Cheryl Ediss (Electric Sheep Studios) and accidentally spilled my entire life story to her over coffee the first time we sat down and met. In this story, my queerness came up and what it was like growing up in Seattle in the ’90s, specifically as a queer kid in an ultra religious environment. Of course music was everything to me as a kid and I found such an intense sanctuary in all the records the bands from Seattle were putting out at that time, from Sunny Day Real Estate to Soundgarden. I mentioned how impactful it was for me as a kid to see Kurt Cobain in a dress and hear about Michael Stipe and other out musicians. I described how being a positive influence and a refuge for kids like music was for me as a kid, would mean the world to me.

So we came up with this dark set concept with the help of our amazing Light Designer/Director Tim Semakula that would highlight the stage show we put on at our concerts.  We incorporate beautiful live statues made up by our wonderful make up artist Jon Barber on Burleseque – Boylesque and transgender live statue performers.  I wear a make up design by Jon as well and the band tends to look a little like the war boys from the newest Mad Max. The idea was to show that you can be a songwriter, performing music you wrote, that you love and are passionate about, to big audiences all over the world, even if you’re sober, even if you’re queer, even if you’re a person of color (as represented by the brilliant and amazing miss Lavinia darling).  So the video is basically a call of love and support to any communities that need love and support.

EP: After listening to the Prosthetic Fittings teaser religiously over the past few weeks, I’m really looking forward to your new EP Gold Teeth + Glass Eyes. What can we expect from this upcoming release?

JG: I’m so excited to hear you’ve been listening to Prosthetic Fittings, that makes me so happy!  I can’t wait to release the new EP early next year. It will be an 8 songs that we recorded with Robert in Stinson Beach, and finished up at Ex Ex Studios in Fremont, WA and then at Crystal Ballroom Studios in Los Angeles with Mark Needham.  A lot of the songs deal with my alcoholism and ongoing sobriety, the mental health disorders behind all that, Seattle, and change in general.

Photo by Mike Naglieri

EP: Robert Cheek and Mark Needham have worked with some impressive artists and on fantastic albums. What was it like working with them on the EP?

JG: Mark Needham is one of my favorite people in the entire world and working with him is utterly inspiring. Every time I’ve ever worked with him I want to race home after each session and write ten more songs just so he can mix them! He is so good at what he does and has such a wonderful ear and mind for music. He really keeps the soul in the song where as I’ve worked with other top end producers who just make it sound “current” and “modern.” Mark really knows how to keep the feel. I honestly hope that I can work with him in some capacity on every record I make.

As far as Robert goes, he is as close to a brother as I’ll ever have. If you were a fly on the wall when he and I are working in the studio, its pretty hilarious. We might say about 4 words to each other the entire 10 hrs while we are actually tracking because as soon as someone looks up to make a note the other one is already doing it. It’s a dream come true to have such a great engineer, who is also a true friend that understands me to the core, and be able to capture what I write in song. The fact that we then get to go play those songs live together to people who are singing the words back and dancing and appearing entranced just like we were when we were writing and recording these songs, is just an unbelievable feeling!

EP: You’ve been making music for a long time now, with Dolour and solo projects. From what I’ve gathered, you’ve been royally screwed over by the industry at virtually every turn. If it’s not too much to ask, how did you deal with all the hard work not panning out?

JG: To be completely honest I took my alcoholism and raised it one. I loved drinking from an early age and always drank heavily but after the subsequent back lashings from the music industry and every time a manager or agent or musician or whoever I thought was a close friend left me in the dust, the cut grew deeper and I just tried to turn the volume off with alcohol. Obviously this exacerbated the problems I was having and prolonged that time in musical purgatory and mental hell. Now I am in a great place and I couldn’t be happier about the music we are making as a band and the people I work with across the board so I can’t complain. Oh and I have the best dog in the world!

EP: Do you have any advice for artists trying to make in an industry that can be so unforgiving at times?

JG: You know, I think it’s like anything with life. Life is unforgiving for most of us. I believe in working hard for what you love and I believe if you treat your community with love and respect, that peace and joy can flourish. Set realistic expectations and be surprised if it’s even better. It sounds campy but it’s true. As soon as I set realistic expectations for my music career and started focusing on being a healthy and happy person things started falling in to place and taking off faster than I could have imagined. I work on music every single day for hours and hours, and although a lot of it is hard and frustrating and there are challenges I cannot handle alone, at the end of the day, I love music so much. If I can write songs and play music for a living its worth every ounce of blood, every ounce of tears and all the sweat I can produce to be able to do that.

You don’t want to miss J GRGRY on New Years Eve at Neumos alongside Thunderpussy and Porter Ray. Get your tickets here before they’re gone! This is a 21+ event.

Keep up with J GRGRY: Facebook | Twitter | Website | Soundcloud

EMMA PIERCE | just another fish in the sea | KXSU Music Reporter

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