Chill, Sugary, and Abrasive: a conversation with Greys

There are big things going on with Greys. When we called Shehzaad Jiwani, vocalist and guitarist for the abrasive Toronto band, he was picking T-shirts to bring on tour. Granted, T-shirts aren’t actually a big thing, but the tour is pretty big. So is the release of Repulsion, their new EP. But there’s something bigger than all that: Greys is in the middle of carving out a space for themselves. Repulsion is a stepping stone from their defining debut album If Anything to something new. It preserves the best parts of their style and takes them to a different place, somewhere experimental, challenging, and loud as hell, but also melodious and sweetly complex. Repulsion moves away from the Nirvana-and-Fugazi comparison cycle that dictated their style up until this point, and it promises something new. Greys is changing, and we interrupted some T-shirt folding to hear about it.

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First off, can I get you to introduce yourself?

My name is Shehzaad, and I play guitar and sing in a band called Greys.

What are Greys doing right now?

Other than packing, we’re about to leave on the second part of our North American tour. We’ve basically been gone for the last two months or so, in September we did the East Coast and the Midwest with Viet Cong, then we immediately went into the studio to record our second record. We’ve been home for a little bit, and now we’re leaving again for the West Coast. We’re just doing North America in small bursts.

That sounds tiring as hell.

It is.

There’s so much aggression and loudness and energy involved with your music. How do you keep it up every single night on tour?

We keep it up because we’re really mellow guys. I think a lot of people expect us to be really intense, but we’re actually a bunch of dorks. We’re not really big party guys or anything. We do our fair share of that as well, as much as any other band does, but we just like to laugh. Tour can get really monotonous and boring, so we’re really good at finding ways to entertain ourselves. We’re all best friends, so we get along well.

Aw.

Yeah! Over time, it’s become a really brotherly bond between all of us, which is really wonderful and helpful. If you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, it could be really terrible if you’re with a bunch of people you don’t like. We did a few dates with a band called Fake Palms, who are also from Toronto, and Mike from the band pointed this out, he’s like “it’s funny, watching you guys is really intense when you’re playing, and then between songs you’re joking around and laughing with the audience and stuff.” I don’t know if this is an intentional thing, but if you’re a loud band and you play really abrasive music, you don’t want to put yourself in situations like that outside of the stage. It seems kind of detrimental to your health to be serious all the time. We try to combat the aggression and seriousness of our music by being cool, funny, handsome, approachable guys.

You just released Repulsion, right?

Yup, it just came out about a week ago.

A week after its release, how do you feel about it?

I gotta be honest: because we’ve been super busy, we kinda forgot that it was a thing. We recorded it back in May. We’re super stoked on it though, it’s a pretty cool stepping stone between the first album and what’s going to be on the second record, because we’re doing a bunch of stuff that we wouldn’t otherwise do. It’s really fun. It was super fun to experiment in the studio and then go to another city [Montreal] and do things that we’ve never done before musically. But immediately after that we started writing and recording the next record, so we kinda forgot that it was coming out up until a couple weeks ago when we got the copies of the 7”. I’m really stoked on it, I think it’s probably our best stuff. Up to that point, “I’d Hate to Be an Actor” was my favourite song that we’d ever written, and it helped to take us in a different direction. I’m personally really excited about that: it’s interesting to balance the melody of the song with all that guitar feedback. I think that’s something we’ve always wanted to do. I feel great about it, I’m really excited that it’s out, and people seem to really like it, which is cool.

If it’s a stepping stone from your last album to the next one, what’s changed between If Anything and Repulsion?

It depends on who you ask. I’m sure someone would listen to it and say that it sounds like the first record, but I also feel as though if you pay attention to what’s going on within the band, it’s pretty different. The major thing is that I’m not really yelling as much, which is something I like a lot. I’m happy to explore more melodious territory rather than just percussive yelling. It’s more fun for me, it’s more interesting, it’s more challenging from a writing perspective. That’s the main thing.

As a guitar player, I forced myself to unlearn all the habits, good or bad, that I’d fallen into on If Anything. I wanted to approach playing guitar differently, and do some things that we hadn’t done before, and try to accomplish similar things but with different methods. The other major thing that changed is that everybody in the band has way more of a hand in writing the songs at this point. It’s a major part of why [the record] sounds the way it does. I’m really excited about having everybody pitch their ideas, it makes it more interesting rather than having everything come from one place. I’d say it’s the beginning of a whole new direction for the band. It’s breathed life into what we do. When we finished the first record, even though I still feel confidently about it, it felt like we’d accomplished everything we wanted to do as a noisy rock band. [Repulsion] opened a lot of doors for us: we can go in several different directions. We could make a krautrock song, we could make a really slow, sludgy song, just as easily as we could make a really fast punk song. I think a lot has changed. It’s not a brand new band or anything, but it’s signalling a lot of changes to come.

You mentioned sludge and krautrock, and the band has a lot of influences from post-hardcore, grunge, and a lot of aggressive genres. What’s appealing to you about that kind of music?

To be honest, I don’t really listen to a lot of that stuff at all. I certainly did, but the idea of post-hardcore? I couldn’t tell you what that is or what that means. I know that we get it a lot in reviews, but I could never identify for you what that is. I don’t listen to a lot of music that sounds like that, other than Fugazi, who we grew up listening to. I don’t think we sound like them, aside from having a song named after the guy.

As for aggressive music, we also love pop punk—no, I mean pop music and Britpop. We don’t love pop punk at all. Anyways, I feel like our songs have always had a melodic tinge to them, we just really love loud guitars and noise and feedback and distortion. Merging that with melody is always an interesting thing. We listen to a lot of Sonic Youth, Wire, and the Birthday Party, that sort of thing resonates with us. It’s weird, atonal, strange, challenging music, but they have hooks embedded in them. I don’t consider it to be very aggressive, personally. If you look at a band like the Jesus Lizard, they’re super weird and arty, they just happen to be kind of muscular and heavy. That doesn’t make them any less innovative or interesting. They’re exploratory and strange and appealing in the same way as the Jesus and Mary Chain. They’ve got strange textures and do interesting things with noise but they still understand groove and rhythm and melody. There’s still hooks in those songs, even though they’re challenging to listen to. I think that’s what appeals to me way more than just volume or riffs. It’s more interesting to be texturally and tonally heavy than to just bludgeon the listener with guitar riffs. A band like Swans is way more interesting than some punk band I would have liked when I was a kid.

You have so many different influences, how do you go about finding what’s worth borrowing from each of them?

It’s not as surgical as that, we’re just a bunch of really avid music fans. I’ve worked at record stores since I was a kid; Colin buys records every single day. We’re big nerds, we listen to a lot of stuff. We’ll play some stuff in the van and Colin and I will be sitting up front, and we’ll say “it would be interesting if we did something like this.” The song “Nothing Means Anything” was totally us trying to write a krautrock song. The vocals are somewhere between “Parklife” by Blur and this Spiritualized song called “I Think I’m In Love.” They’re two of my favourite songs. I think that we executed that in our own way, because it’s us playing it, it doesn’t sound like Blur. It just sounds like us. We still have really loud guitars and we play really fast because we love doing that sort of stuff.

We don’t specifically say that we want to do this or that, but there’s definitely things that we hear. Like the idea of repeating a note over and over again, holding tension, that’s been interesting to us. That’s something we wanted to pull from bands like the Birthday Party, Hot Snakes, or even the Constantines. You’re creating tension, but at the same time you’re writing a pop song. I think it’s interesting to put melody into something that’s supposed to be challenging. Like the sludgy song, “I’d Hate to Be an Actor,” was originally written as a Kinks-like song. We wanted to write something that was upbeat and catchy, then we slowed it down by half-time and it was way more interesting.

We hear something, it resonates with us, and we try and incorporate that into our band. We try to take stuff that’s completely outside the context of our band, we’re not sitting around listening to Nirvana or Hot Snakes. I love those bands, and I grew up listening to that stuff, but we’re actively trying to do something different. I can’t imagine us writing the same record another time, it doesn’t seem interesting to me.

So what part of the music do you think is specifically Greys?

I don’t know! It’s just a rock band, I don’t know what nobody else would have. I guess the thing that distinguishes us is that we incorporate all of those things into one rather than doing one thing over and over again. If you were to look at Greys from the beginning of the band to now, the thing that’s been consistent is that we’ve always had equal parts noisy, abrasive textures with hooks. I think that’s the definitive thing. Obviously there are other rock bands doing noisy things with melody, but that’s our calling card. We can be noisy, we can be fast, we can be aggressive, but we can also be kind of sweet sometimes. We can be sugary. We like harmonies just as much as we like guitar feedback. That becomes more apparent as we move along, I think.

On the EP, you guys are getting pretty nihilistic for a bunch of chill, sugary dudes. Where did that come from?

Doesn’t everybody feel that way? It seems difficult to read the news and see all these things going on. Being in the middle of two federal elections at the time, seeing the way the world is moving, seeing the ways that people interact with each other, it’s kind of hard not to feel like nothing really matters. It’s a constant struggle within the band, and personally, to go back and forth between not really caring about anything and caring about things really intensely. It’s easy to feel like nothing you do matters when you see a bunch of kids being killed by gun violence in schools. Drones are blowing up villages half way across the world, people are still fighting about whether this person can get married to that person. Doesn’t it feel meaningless to you? If this is what the world is concerned with, and these things are still happening, why does anything that I do matter? The world’s going to run out of drinking water in a few years. Why does it matter that I’m in a rock band? What do I have to believe in?

At the same time, it feels like because all those things are happening, you should carve out your place in the world. Care about the community you’re in, care about the people who do think the same as you. Look out for them and try to get more people on your side. It’s a constant struggle between caring about that and not really being able to care at all because nothing you do is of any consequence to anyone else. I don’t know if that’s specifically nihilistic, or entirely nihilistic. The first record is a lot more focused on what was going on in my head, and what I was going through personally, and this one is a lot more outwardly focussed. Interacting with people, seeing the way that people relate or don’t relate to each other has a profound impact on my world view. I feel as though if you exist in the world right now and you’re not pissed off at a few things, something’s probably wrong with you.

Alright, last question before I let you get back to the bliss of packing T-shirts. What’s next for you guys?

The record! We’re done this tour in three weeks, then we come home and play at Lee’s Palace, which should be a lot of fun. The record should be done before the end of the year and hopefully it’ll be out in the springtime. We’ll have a month or two off then we’ll get right back on the road to promote the record. I’m stoked about the full length. I’m stoked about the EP too, people seem to really like it, which is great. We played a couple of songs before it came out and people already knew the words. It’s wonderful. I’m excited for people to hear the full-length, because if you like the EP, you’ll like what we do next.

We’ll see you at the Wise Hall, then! Good luck packing, and thanks for taking the time to talk, Shehzaad.

Thank you!

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Greys play the Wise Hall in Vancouver on November 20th. Tickets are available through Timbre Concerts here.

Featured photo by Mathew Morand.

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