We spoke with Darin Gray about the problems that can arise from trying to capture your live sound, adapting his unique style to each musician he’s supporting, why his background prohibits him from anything but total humility and why it’s crucial to take the leap with what you love.
If a friend asks me to do something, I will do it, musically or not. I want to be there for my friends, and if I can help in any way, I’m going to do it.
Before we get into your prolific history in the studio and stage, I’m interested in what clichés or mischaracterizations that some have of sound and of the recording process. For instance, people often say things like “Man, analog is just warmer!” but it’s obviously not as simple as that. Do you ever run into misunderstandings from others about the recording process that you’re tempted to correct?
I do know what you’re talking about. My experience is a bit of an anomaly. I have made a lot of records and I have my own code that I go by that sort of varies as time goes on. One of my things is, if a friend asks me to do something, I will do it. Musically or not, frankly. I want to be there for my friends, and if I can help in any way, I’m going to do it. However, I’m getting ready to go up and make a record in November, and for the first time, it’s with people that I don’t know. Every record I’ve made has been with people that I know and trust. But if I know that I’m going to grow from that experience and learn something new, I will usually say yes. And of course, if I love the music, that’s a yes as well!
But a misperception I think people have about studios, especially from young people, is in the sort of mystique of capturing the live performance. Capturing what you do live. When many people go into a professional studio, they go in thinking that they’re going to capture what they do live by playing live.
My personal opinion is, while that’s been done and it’s surely possible, I feel like you have to do some other things to that recording in order to capture a live feel, other than just playing live. If you’re thinking about a live performance or a live situation and then you go into a studio, you’re discounting sight, smell, the sound of the room, the feel of the air, the audience giving you verbal or energetic feedback, and the people around you having that collective, shared experience. From my experience, you’re not actually capturing something live by doing that.
And the solution can be as simple as a slight, tasteful overdub. Doing things with the mix, you know? I think that’s why a lot of bands leave a studio not really happy with what they just did, even though they played well and sounded good. They didn’t account for these other variables in some way. But as far as clichés of the process – if you look at a list of the people I work with and have worked with, they’re pretty cliché-free people. They’ve already kind of dealt with that before they got to the studio. In my world, that element’s been stripped away before anyone even mentions it.
From my experience, what you said about the live “feel” is 100% correct. A lot of players will be so wrapped up in the “energy of the room.” But when a stranger listen to the final thing over headphones or speakers, they weren’t there. The result is just sound coming from a speaker. They have no idea what these peoples’ experience was. What are your thoughts about that?
I can only speak for myself and not for what other people are doing, but that’s exactly what I’m saying. You think you’re capturing something that’s this live thing, and you may be feeling that, but the person on the other end of that speaker need some other things to grab ahold of in order to feel what the artist is feeling. I feel like they have to have a little more of something to chew on than that. But you’re right! You’re not in that person’s shoes. Because that person who’s playing the music in the studio, they do remember what it’s like to have that audience feedback. They have that shared experience, but as listeners, we don’t have that yet. So we want that, we crave it. That’s probably why we listen to records. Unless that is addressed, I think things can fall a little flat.
Although, there’s times where, obviously, it’s amazing. There are those anomaly records where it’s just, who can explain it? It’s magic. But those are anomalies I think.
As a bass player, it’s not your vision. It is a collective thing, and yeah, you’re all there doing something together, but it truly is the artist or songwriter’s vision.
From there, I’m interested in your philosophy of bass playing. I know “philosophy” might be a dumb way of putting it, but I’ve noticed some players are like, “The bass should be totally background and you should just do the root notes!” and others are like “No, you should color in the melody with the bass!” Where does your opinion lie with “bass thinking?”
I don’t think that’s a dumb way of putting it at all. That’s a very interesting question for me. I haven’t really talked about that, so I don’t have it super-formulated. At a young age, I worked very, very, very hard to develop a high level of technique. I still do. I practice every single day without fail. The thing that’s been most difficult for me is to simplify what I’m doing. What it really comes down to, the core and the essence, the root of it all is that you are there to serve the song. If you’re not serving the song and you’re not helping the artist, then you’re just in the way. Sometimes that means playing a lot of bass, sometimes that means something like last night in Chicago when I played with Daniel Johnston and I played a lot of root notes. That’s what the music needed and what made it happen.
I think, especially when you’re a little younger, that it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing anything. But the truth is, you are doing something. You’re serving the song and communicating. Only a handful of people care about the rest of it. So, my philosophy is to always be there to serve the artist and their vision for whatever it is they’re there to do as best I can. If it means playing quiet in the background with root notes or playing with the fat part of my thumb to get huge tones, then that’s what I do. Technique is a tricky thing. To me, it means that I’m able to perform what’s needed from me in a given situation. It doesn’t necessarily mean playing a lot of bass.
Here’s a good example. When I started playing with Tweedy, I had never played with a pick before. I started as an upright bass and moved on to electric, so I’ve always just played with my fingers. Much of this music required playing with a pick. Jeff [Tweedy] plays with a pick most of the time. I learned how to play with a pick for this and was grateful to do it, because I’m like “Wow, I have this whole new thing that I can sort of do!” But it needed that. I could have not done that, but the songs needed the sound of me playing with a pick. Again, I’m there to serve the artist. Outside of that, whatever crazy mess I come up with on my own, I tend to save that for my own music because that kind of playing would just get in the way of someone else’s music.
It’s not your vision. It is a collective thing, and yeah, you’re all there doing something together, but it truly is the artist or songwriter’s vision.
Interesting, so it’s context by context. With Daniel Johnston, I’m sure it’s “You’ve got to ‘play Daniel!’” or with Jeff Tweedy, you’re “playing Jeff.”
Absolutely. Learning these Daniel Johnston songs for the Chicago dates we’re doing this week, I clued in that it would just be all down strokes with a pick. Also, there’s really no syncopation. I’d never done that before. That’s the kind of thing you get from playing with new people. If I think I’ll learn from it, I’ll say yes. I’m not saying I’ll be great at it, but now I can sort of do that! I can play downstrokes with a pick for an entire night of music!
I’ve had friends who went to the Berklee College of Music and learned elaborate jazz guitar transcriptions, and then they’d go home and just listen to the Stooges or something. It would seem like one might come from a wealth of bass-playing technique, but part of the point of learning all that stuff should be so you can get rid of it when you need to. I mean, am I understanding that correctly?
It isn’t so much that I can get rid of it. It’s actually more so I can forget it. If I’m not thinking and it’s just happening and I’m playing, that’s why I do that. That’s why I develop that level of technique. I don’t want to think when I’m playing. I don’t want to think about my hands doing something. I totally agree with you, I think that many students who go to college, myself included, spend a few years shedding skin and figuring out what is yours out of what you’ve learned. Because so much of it is not yours. So much of it is clutter, right? It’s like cleaning a room. You’re trying to get rid of the clutter in your room.
To go back to the idea of playing in context for a bit, the Beatles come to mind for me. Paul McCartney sounds amazing playing a whole lot of bass, partially because he’s got Ringo on drums. He’s all over the neck. So, I was wondering what the context is when you’re playing with Spencer Tweedy, who is a very singular drummer to my ears. What does having Spencer behind the kit demand from the bass?
I’m going to tell you that it demands very little from me. Spencer is unique, and when playing with him, I’m free. That’s the best word I can use to describe it. I feel like I have my own tonal space because of the way his drums are tuned and the way he hits them. I find playing with him very liberating. If I choose to play a lot of things, I can. If I choose to play simply, I can. I’m not imprisoned by his playing! It can feel like that with other musicians sometimes, like you can’t play anything. Sometimes you can feel like everything you play is wrong. But with him, I feel completely free. He’s incredibly sensitive and a great listener. In general, he plays very soft. His time is impeccable. Out of that entire band, he is the rock. He is the person who is always there for you. But you know what? That’s how he is as a person, too. If someone hears his playing and doesn’t know him as a person, you can know him by listening to him play.
If your happiness is reliant upon “success,” you’re in trouble. Because many people that you think are so successful are struggling just like you are.
Is that something you aspire to as well, by playing “you”?
It absolutely is. I personally don’t think I’m there. I really don’t. But maybe someday. I think that’s a rare quality, especially when playing other peoples’ music. It’s not like Spencer’s dad’s music is “other peoples’ music,” but it kind of is, right? He can retain himself and his essence in there without it being cumbersome or in the way of anybody else. He’s still himself. And it sounds like him. It’s amazing! And on a side note, it’s a very wonderful feeling to be in a rhythm section with someone you’ve known their entire life. I mean, I held Spencer when he was a baby. I’ll never have that ever again as long as I live, and probably neither will he. It’s a really unique feeling.
Just in general, tell me about the last moment of pure joy you had. What was it, and why?
I’ll just go with something super recent. I mean, we were talking about performing with Daniel. Last night, there were a few moments of playing his songs that were very emotional. I listened to those songs when I was a kid, and I know Jeff did too. Looking over at Jeff and playing “Walking the Cow,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and “Speeding Motorcycle,” I remember looking over and just being sort of enveloped by joy. Looking at him and thinking “Who would have ever thought when we were kids that we’d be standing here together on a stage in front of all these people, playing songs with this guy?” I mean, who would have ever thought that?
I come from a small town, live in a small town still and I’ve never moved from a small town. I live a fairly simple life there. I come from a working-class background. I don’t come from academia. My father worked in a refinery, my grandfather was a farmer, my other grandfather was a bricklayer. I come from people that work hard with their hands. So when I’m out in a moment like that, I never take it for granted. There’s always a moment in those times, just like last night, where I am consumed by joy. I just think “Oh my god, I can’t believe how lucky I am to do this.” My job is to play music! I’m onstage with people I love. I experience joy every time I do that. Of course, there’s struggles and moments of frustration, but the overall feeling is one of great joy.
It’s a privilege, you know? People don’t talk about that a lot. Sometimes you can get wrapped up in the burden of it all – it’s hard to make a living, it’s hard to pay your bills, there are emotional ups and downs for sure. Coming home from the highs of being on tour can be tough for a lot of people. But if you just think about it for a second, it’s a privilege to play music. It is maybe the greatest privilege to be an artist. I mean, come on.
I think to be gracious about music is a very, very rare thing. Because some people are like “I deserve a living from this!” or whatever.
Here’s what I’ve noticed over the years. Like I said, I come from a small town. I’m not even in St. Louis, I’m in a little college town near it. When you do something sort of unique, you’re doing your own thing, you’re writing your own music, and then you see someone else who sort of does what you’re doing, who’s in that world and you perceive that they have great success at it, people can get wigged out by that. People can get kind of weird about that. “Why not me?” or “Why am I not doing that?” In many cases, the answer is very simple – you didn’t make the leap. You have no idea what that person’s done. Maybe they sacrificed everything to get where they are. Everything. Literally everything. Family, friendships, stability. They probably didn’t play it safe. And let’s face it, in many cases they still live in New York or Chicago or L.A. Or countless cities in Europe. They’re from places where these things are happening. It’s easier to get noticed and seen.
The other part is, if your happiness is reliant upon “success” in quotation marks, you’re in trouble. Because many people that you think are so successful are struggling just like you are. You have no idea! Many of these people, after tours where people think they’re so successful, are going home and working at a coffee shop. They do whatever they have to do to survive. And I’m not saying that doesn’t make them successful. In fact, I think they are successful. I’m saying that if we define “success” in quotation marks, that’s dangerous, man. It really is. You’re only leaving yourself a place to be frustrated, “Why me?” “Why not me?” “Why them?” I don’t do that at all. I’m probably one of the few musicians who will never say a word about another musician. Whether I like their music or not, I just don’t care. I won’t speak ill of other musicians. Because I feel like they’re all struggling. I like to believe that at the core of it, they’re just trying to do their best. Whether I like it or not is irrelevant. It’s for me to decide for myself whether I want to listen to it or not.
It’s an interesting thing, how people perceive each other. I don’t come from a type of background that would make me anything other than humble. I’m amazed by it all. I marvel at it. I can’t believe that I get to come to Chicago and play music with Tweedy and Daniel Johnston! I can’t believe that I get to tour the world! I can’t believe that I get to make records with these people! I could never have dreamed of that as a child. I didn’t even know that I could dream that dream, because there was nobody around me doing that. I had no idea that was possible. The whole thing is magical to me. It really is. I can’t believe I get to do any of it.
I will say that on another note, I think it all comes from hard work. Just working. I practice every single day. I work every single day. I study every single day. I’m a firm believer in that if you do that and focus your efforts on what it is you think you’re here to do, I do think the rest will come. I really, really do. However, I think you’d better not believe in “success”, because that will never come for you. You will never have that. It doesn’t exist. Because you’re always going to be redefining it. You’ll be like “Yeah, I’m paying my bills now, but now I really need this guitar or whatever!” It’s never enough. There’s never enough money, there’s never enough work. You can’t define it like that. But I do believe that if you put the work in, “it” will come for you. It really will. Joy will come if you put the work in.
If I had any true words of encouragement for somebody, it would be to take the leap. I really don’t think you’ll ever regret taking it, but I know for a fact you’ll regret not taking it.
That’s an amazing perspective. Partly because I come from a very working-class background too, in California. I had no clue I’d ever co-found this website and sit here in New York, talking to you. I never thought I’d go to New York. Things happen! I’ve even gotten to write music and have it put out on vinyl. But my lot in life was as a furniture sales representative, and I would totally go do that if I wasn’t doing this. I’m wondering what your lot in life would be if you never got into music. What path was laid out for you by your upbringing?
This is a really interesting question because this is all I’ve ever done. There were moments in my childhood where I wanted to be anything from a garbage man to a puppeteer. However, I’ve playing music since I was very, very, very young. Probably since I was 3 or 4 years old. I rarely talk about family in what I do because I respect their privacy and I feel like it’s their choice if they want to be in this sort of public forum. I’d like for them to choose for themselves. But I will say this. To answer your question, I don’t know. And the reason I don’t know is because I was always encouraged from a very, very young age to do whatever I wanted to do with my life. And my parents meant that. They didn’t mean “You can do whatever you want with your life, but…” They didn’t mean it that way. They meant I could be literally whatever I chose to be.
Where I’m from in my part of the world is farming, refineries, steel mills, the train industry, these types of things. I would probably have been a worker in one of those industries had I not done music. Avenues to work in the arts where I live, to this day, are just not there. Very, very, very few people are paying bills in the arts of any kind where I live, if any. And if there are, they’re struggling for sure. I will also mention the river industry, I could have been in that. I’ve always lived pretty much right near the Mississippi River. I would call us “river people,” mainly. The river industry is huge, and to this day, many people work on the river. My father worked on the barges and things. Whether or not I would have been capable of that, I don’t know.
I will also tell you that I had a part-time job until I was 44 years old. I did all of this music, touring and records and raised a family of my own while working a full-time retail job. I was completely miserable every day! I needed to play it a little bit safe and have a steady check, I thought, because I had children and I was being a good father and supporting them by doing that. But ultimately, I think the greatest gift I’ve ever given my children is the encouragement to take the leap, and for them to see me taking it so they can do that for themselves.
If I had any true words of encouragement for somebody, and I know you didn’t ask me, but they would be: take the leap. Do it. Take the leap. I really don’t think you’ll ever regret taking the leap, but I know for a fact you’ll regret not taking it. I’m a firm believer now, at this age, that the only way you can do it is jump off. You also have to be willing to accept that you are going to struggle. You are. It’s just part of the thing. You’ve got to figure out a way you’re going to be okay with that. Jump into the abyss, try to be as fearless as you can and push forward from there.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: October 27, 2017
Total questions: 10
Word count: 3718
Reading time: Thirteen minutes
analog, audience, awe, bass, Berklee College of Music, Chicago, clutter, Daniel Johnston, Darin Gray, Dazzling Killmen, dream, economy, encouragement, energy, feedback, frustration, garbage man, gratitude, headphones, history, humility, Jeff Tweedy, joy, lineage, miserable, Mississippi River, Missouri, music, overdub, Paul McCartney, puppeteer, Ringo Starr, speakers, Spencer Tweedy, St. Louis, success, The Stooges, Tweedy, warmth, work, working-class
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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