The Grays: Three singers who write, three songwriters who sing. Three gifted multi-instrumentalists and a great rock & roll drummer. Four musicians who all swore they´d never join another band... but just couldn´t help themselves, once they´d heard each other.
Ro Sham Bo: The Grays´ Epic debut album. Thirteen original songs, each one a fresh expression of certain timeless and immutable musical values: melody, harmony, rhythm, honesty. It´s the stuff of which rock & roll was made, back before it split into warring factions labeled "rock" and "pop." It´s music in the spirit of the Grays´ honored forebears like XTC, Elvis Costello, Big Star and, yes, the Beatles.
But heed the Grays´ Jason Falkner when he says: "I abhor that kind of conscious emulation, like where you say ´Yeah, now I´m gonna go for a string sound just like Brian got on Pet Sounds!´ There´s a huge pool of influences at work here."
Produced by Jack Joseph Puig (Jellyfish, John Hiatt, Dire Straits), Ro Sham Bo includes "Very Best Years," the album´s premier radio and video track. Then there´s "Everybody´s World," with its gently determined buildup and elastic McCartney bass lines; the swirling, raging "Not Long For This World," a monster riff drenched in psychedelic overtones and mysterious tape loops; and Ro Sham Bo´s plaintive closer, "No One Can Hurt Me," a sadly-beautiful love song in the tradition that runs from Billie Holiday to Alex Chilton and beyond.
"Everybody in this band is a lifelong song fanatic," says Jon Brion. "There wasn´t another way to do it. We weren´t going to be a ´groove band´ or a ´production band´ or the symbol of a particular scene. Maybe our music is old-fashioned--but there seems to be a resurgence of melody lately, so it´s not entirely out of place."
Dan McCarroll calls The Grays "just one of those things that´s right, no matter how you slice it. I couldn´t say no to The Grays because of the extremely high quality of the songwriting and the musicianship."
Ro Sham Bo is imbued with a sense of creative exhilaration all the more remarkable given the Grays´ individual track records. Here are four skilled, experienced musicians playing with the vitality and daring of newcomers.
Jon Brion was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, the son of a classical-conductor father and a nightclub-singer mother. By the age of ten, Jon was playing drums, flute and trumpet; as a New Haven high school student, he drummed with a semipro jazz band led by Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell (a/k/a The Mitchell/Ruff Duo). "But years before that I was banging on guitar, bass, synthesizers-- whatever was around. My dad knew some people who were clinicians for Moog, who were friends in turn of Philip Glass and Steve Reich."
The Sex Pistols´ "God Save The Queen," Jon recalls, "was the first rock music I´d heard since age four that really excited me, the first thing that had the same power as the Basie brass section!" Two or three enthusiastically thrashy punk bands later, Jon retired from music at the ripe old age of 20.
"I started listening to records that affected me more than what I was doing. Like Billie Holiday--that was everything I wanted out of music, great medicine, great fun. I worked a variety of jobs at recording studios--assistant engineer, keyboard programming--and eventually started using the studio where I was working. In the middle of the night, I´d be pacing, playing the piano...with nobody listening, I could scream my head off! I wrote an astronomical number of songs."
In 1987, Jon moved to Boston. He played solo gigs with an acoustic 12-string guitar, formed another short-lived band called World´s Fair, and later joined Aimee Mann and Buddy Judge in the last touring version of `Til Tuesday. (On Mann´s 1993 solo debut, Whatever, Jon is credited with assorted instruments, arrangements, and production.)
A native of Los Angeles, California, Buddy Judge´s earliest musical influences came courtesy of his three older brothers--then semipro rock & rollers, now all born-again Christians. Buddy studied drums and trumpet before taking up guitar at age 15. "My first band was a trashy garage punk band that had a bunch of names and played covers of Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello. The guys in that band weren´t even into it, they were into Yes!"
Buddy was "the worst student" at U.C.-Santa Cruz until he dropped out to go full-time with new-wave combo The Four Cats. This group wrote its own songs, played out a lot, and self-released two independent singles. A revised version of the band relocated to Boston in the early `80s and--as The Buddy System-- lasted for nearly seven years through assorted personnel shifts (one bass player left to join a Hindu monastery), a national tour with General Public, an album (Go Back To Hollywood) on Chameleon Records.
"...and in one of those later incarnations I met Dan McCarroll, and we formed The Bud & Dan Show," Buddy recalls. "It was basically just my guitar and his drums, and probably the most fun thing I´ve ever done in my life." Buddy and Dan opened for `Til Tuesday, and both musicians later played on Whatever; Buddy´s tunes on Ro Sham Bo include "Nothing," "Everybody´s World," "Is It Now Yet" ("Dan came up with that title"), and "All You Wanted."
Growing up in Los Angeles, Jason Falkner notes that "at a really young age, I started doing peculiar things that indicated that I should be studying music. I got a drum set when I was about four, and I started classical piano at about six.
"I took ten years of piano lessons. I led a double life, studying classical music and going to punk-rock shows. Every adult in my life was very excited about my classical playing, but I was listening to the Buzzcocks. I had to choose, and I did."
Jason´s high school bands "covered weird stuff like Swell Maps, the Monochrome Set, The Fall, Scritti Politti," and six months of living in the U.K. and Europe further broadened his musical horizons. Back in the U.S.A., he drifted through a year of college and odd jobs before landing in San Francisco and joining Jellyfish.
Jason has little to say about his first taste of big-time rock: "We had a lot in common musically, very little in common personally. We made an album, we toured...I was already ready to do what I´m doing with the Grays. I´ve been ready to do it for a long time." He left Jellyfish and "disappeared into my apartment with my four-track to write 20 or so songs that came out of those experiences. Some of them were ´Very Best Years,´ ´Spooky,´ ´Oh Well, Maybe´ and ´Both Belong´"--all of which now appear on Ro Sham Bo, with many of their arrangements transferred intact from Jason´s original demos.
"I´d sworn I´d never be in another band," says Jason. "But the guys invited me to their rehearsal space, and we jammed on some songs. Three weeks after that, we were showcasing for record companies!"
Dan McCarroll was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Albany. He started on drums in fifth grade ("from my older sister playing Beatles records") and in high school began gigging with a professional country band, Art Anderson & the Rawhides, "that actually made money! Art would tell people I was his son so I could get into these bars. Everybody else was going out and partying while I was making a hundred bucks every weekend."
In 1986, Dan got an offer to join The Buddy System for a national tour. The group broke up soon after, but was succeeded by The Bud & Dan Show. Dan: "Buddy sang, I told jokes, and we did all originals." He later toured and recorded with Lloyd Cole before moving west to join Buddy, Jon, and Jason. Dan takes justifiable pride in his role in the production of Ro Sham Bo.
"I was involved with Jack, especially with him showing me how to get the drum sounds. I went out and collected all this percussion before the sessions, including a 1939 Radio King set that belonged to Buddy Rich. A song like ´Nothing´ was nothing like it sounds now, the drum part especially. Jon Brion also plays drums, and Jason´s a good drummer, so there´s a lot of information and ideas being fed to me."
The Grays and Ro Sham Bo: The adventure starts here.