Bryn Schurman: Bryn Schurman here from The Eleventh Hour and on the phone with me is Jackie Perez Gratz, the singer and cellist from Grayceon, Giant Squid, Amber Asylum, and six others is it?.
Jackie Perez Gratz: No (laughs). I do several guest appearances with friend’s bands like Asunder, but I’m not actually members with the bands.
BS: You play an electric cello. How did you get into that?
JPG: I do. I started as a very young person. Both of my parents are classical musicians, and I was playing an acoustic instrument, naturally. When I started playing in more club-type environments with Amber Asylum, my acoustic instrument just couldn’t handle the heat of the lights and the sort of wear and tear of being on the road and being handled in the way that I was handling it. So I decided to move over to electric and it’s so much better. I don’t have to tune as much and the instrument is more stable than an acoustic onstage.
BS: How did you first get involved with extreme music like this? Were you shredding Master of Puppets in the conservatory?
JPG: No, I actually never went to conservatory. When I graduated high school, I decided to go to art school and study photography, much to my parents’ dismay, because they had invested a lot of time and money into my music education growing up. I went to the Art Institute and Kris Force was working there, and I met her last semester that I was going to school there, Amber Asylum had just formed, and shortly after they recorded their first two records — they recorded their first two records at the same time, during the same year — she lost the cellist of the band.
So, we met and she had heard me practicing. I took my instrument to school often to practice in between classes or just if I had a late night in the studio, I would play. She had approached me towards the end of the semester and was like, “I have been looking for you because I have been hearing you play just sort of through the stairwells of the school, and people have been telling me who you were,” but she had just never had the opportunity to meet me. And then we started jamming, and the rest is history. That was in ’97.
BS: And then I think you get involved with Neurosis sometime after that.
JPG: Yeah, Kris had a relationship with Neurosis before I met her and she had played violin on a couple of their early records, and when I started playing with Amber Asylum, I met all of them and they had asked me to perform on a couple of their records. So Kris and I would come in and sort of tagteam. We’d be like their string ensemble, we’d usually record at the same time. But then when they started going to Chicago to record, I stopped playing on their records.
BS: Were you involved at all in the Tribes of Neurot side of the recording?
JPG: Yeah, you know Neurosis had recorded a lot of the material at the same time because it was the same people. So when I had recorded on a Neurosis record, I would just all of the sudden appear on a Tribes of Neurot record, so when we were in the studio recording, Kris and I didn’t necessarily know what pieces were actually going to be used for which project. I mean, obviously Tribes of Neurot is a little more ambient. The Tribes of Neurot records that I am on are the ones that were made at the same time as the Neurosis records.
BS: With Grayceon’s new album This Grand Show, I see there is a rerecording of a song that was on your demo: Love Is. Are the other four tracks all new?
JPG: They are all new. Love Is was the first song that we had ever wrote as a band, and that’s why it appears on the demo. We recorded it for our first album and we ended up not being happy with the tempo. We had decided on the take we were going to use and we had started tracking some of the other overdubs. When we started working on it more closely, we realized that weren’t happy with the tempo, so we decided to ditch it and not include it on the record.
So then we re-recorded it again than for the new record, but all the other material on the new record is new stuff, and we wrote all the songs on the order that they appear on the record. We kind of placed Love Is in there — narratively in the record — it appears as a dream or a flashback, and I think it was the fourth time that we ended up recording it (laughs), so we’re pretty tired of that song. I mean we like the song, it’s a good song, but we don’t ever want to record it again
BS: I just have to ask about Max [Doyle]’s headbanging. I’ve seen a couple of videos and it’s pretty intense.
JPG: Yeah, he likes to headbang.
BS: Sometimes independently of the song…
JPG: Yeah, I’ve noticed that. I haven’t really asked him about it. I tend to play, I’d say 99% of the time, with my eyes closed, I see Max in my peripheral, but I’ve never really asked him about his headbanging practice.
BS: Is there a different songwriting process with your Giant Squid material and your Grayceon stuff?
JPG: Definitely. Aaron of Giant Squid is an amazing songwriter, he has a very big vision of what his songs are about, and he always has this master plan. He’s very poetic and articulate in his songwriting. A lot of the underground references are analogies for other things and he uses a lot of scientific terminology. When I’m writing with Giant Squid, I step back a lot in the process because I don’t necessarily share that vision. I totally believe in him and I believe in the vision, but I’m not that super educated on fish and underwater creatures and the types of things he writes about, so it doesn’t come very naturally to me. I’ll bring in certain riffs that will turn into songs, but he’s the main songwriter in that band for sure.
With Grayceon, things happen a little more organically. There’s not a lot of concepts involved and we tend to just throw a lot of stuff in the pot. Max and I will bring in riffs and we’ll just kind of jam them out. Zach will come in and he’ll kind of rip stuff apart. We work more organically as a group, and we also practice a lot more, so I think that that helps a lot with the organic nature of the writing. So, it’s a very different process for me, in terms of how much I contribute. I think I contribute much more Grayceon.
BS: Coming back to the Giant Squid, have you seen much of The Ichthyologist graphic novel storyboards or anything like that?
JPG: I have. I’ve read some of the script and I talk with Aaron at length about it, and so I know pretty much the whole story arc and most of the ideas behind the story. What parts of the script I’ve read are totally genius and amazing. I really have been encouraging him to continue with it and work towards getting it published. It’s a really good story, so I can’t wait to see it in its entirety.
BS: Both bands have been doing vinyl splits and whatnot. Do you have anything planned for the analog challenged?
JPG: I don’t know, I mean we were sort of disappointed that The West, which is on our 7 inch split with Giant Squid, we were disappointed that that didn’t come out on CD, and so maybe down the road we’ll rerelease that somehow. We do have plans to do another vinyl split with Giant Squid, hopefully at the end of the summer. You’re just going to have to buy a record player.
Some songs sound better on vinyl, I believe.
BS: It just seems weird in the days where everything is going digital with MP3s and instant downloads, and you’re actually getting it pressed on vinyl.
JPG: Yeah, but if you’re a vinylphile like myself, there’s something really special about the packaging, taking it out of the packaging, brushing off the record and putting it on, and having to flip it over. It’s more of a, I don’t know, immediate experience or tactile experience that I think is lacking a lot in today’s download world.
BS: I suppose it’s ritualized in a way.
JPG: It’s definitely ritual, especially the 7 inches too, because you can’t just turn it on and listen to music for a half hour. You pretty much have to turn it over after a couple minutes.
I don’t know, maybe it will come out on CD eventually, but for right now we don’t have any plans for it. That’s the only song that we’ve released that’s been on vinyl only.
BS: Do you have much interest in other classically oriented metal bands like Winds, Haggard, Apocalyptica, Therion, stuff like that?
JPG: I do like Haggard, I love Apocalyptica. I’m always open to hearing what people are doing with classical instruments in heavy bands.
I think a lot of bands tend to use their classical instruments more in the peripheral, which… I’m not a believer of that. I don’t want string instruments to be on an album just because they kind of fill in [the sound], or because it makes the band seem more intelligent or something. It’s an instrument, use it as one of the voices in the band.
But yeah, I’m always interested in hearing what people are doing with classical instruments and new music.
BS: To me, it seems like there’s a lot of grandiose, film-score openings to a song, and then it has nothing to do with it. It’s like Danny Elfman popped in to do the intro.
JPG: Yeah, it’s like setting it up and then that’s pretty much it.
BS: I saw that you got to work with Jarboe in some live situations. What was that like?
JPG: That was really fun. I really enjoy how Jarboe is so organic with her live ensemble. She’ll pretty much have any band she’s touring with, or some variation of the band she’s touring with, be her backing band for that tour. I’ve seen her play several times when I wasn’t playing with her and she always sounds different because she always has different musicians backing her.
The tour you’re thinking of was… it must have been like 2005, 2004 maybe. Amber Asylum did an East Coast tour with her where we flew out and rented a van and just kind of toured up and down the East Coast with Jarboe, and Kris and I were a part of her band for those shows. I think it was Kris and I on strings, and she had a keyboard playing with her at the time.
She has a very loose way of performing with her songs. I mean, the songs were definitely written and planned out in advance, but because she has so many musicians just jumping in and filling in as her backing band, the songs kind of take on this more organic vibe, so you really have to pay attention and focus. You’re not necessarily counting and memorizing a song, you’re jamming almost, and you’re taking your cues off the vocals, which is a way I’m not used to performing at all. But it was a really fun experience, I think, for both Kris and I to do that.
BS: I imagine it would be. Did you do much symphony work before you got involved with all this stuff ?
JPG: I did. Like I said, both of my parents are classical musicians. My mom plays viola and my dad plays French horn, and they both play in professional orchestras. My dad is also a conductor. My sister and I started playing music when we were pretty young. I think I was in third grade when I started. Because they were classical musicians, they knew what kind of education we needed and in addition to doing private lessons every week and having to practice every day, we would perform in a lot of youth orchestras and ensembles growing up, and I remember having little chamber orchestras that would get gigs for weddings or play at church masses, or things like that. And then when I was a sophomore in high school, I started playing in the professional symphony. I only did that for a couple of years, and then when I graduated high school that’s when I kind of switched gears a little bit and stopped doing classical music
BS: Anything you’d like to tell us about the recording process of the latest Grayceon album?
JPG: I think that if you are familiar with the first album, This Grand Show is definitely in the same vein. It’s a little different, a little darker. We used a different recording technique with it. We decided to record live because, we toured after the first album and so many people in the audience would come up to us afterwards and say “Wow, you guys sound so much heavier than your album”, and they seemed to be really excited about it. And they said that they will really wished you could get that quality on your live recording.
So, the second time we went into the studio, we decided to record live with all of our live gear and just kind of get more of the heavy sound that we get when we play live. I think it was successful, so it has a different production quality for sure, and the lyrical content is a little darker than the first album.
We are are ready 20 minutes deep into writing new material. I’m not sure that any of these songs will be for the another full-length, they might be the songs that will appear on our split with Giant Squid. We are talking about doing a 12 inch, which will be more like an EP length. I don’t know, we might try different recording production for the new stuff. We haven’t decided yet, so we’ll keep you posted.
BS: Were you, or will you be going to all analog tape for the recording?
JPG: We would love to, and I just actually talked to Jack Shirley a couple nights ago. Jack Shirley is a producer and engineer at Atomic Garden, which is where Grayceon has done all of our recordings, and he says that he is looking at some tape machines to buy and he would be really excited to use it with us when we come in again, and I no Grayceon would be super excited to record on tape, so hopefully he’ll buy that gear before we go in next.