PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: ON THE RECORD WITH BASSIST PAUL GRAY
For the first fifteen or so years of my career as a music journalist, my beat was new artists, mostly from the UK. I wrote tens of thousands of words documenting young guns waxing their first record, playing their first gigs in the Promised Land that is/was the United States and so forth. From several South by Southwest sojourns to backstage at Late Night with Conan, and The Late Show with David Letterman, among other venues of dubious distinction, I was (mostly) impressed with the musicianship, song-craft, and their reverence for the rock and roll bands that came before them. It was steady work, but there was something missing.
After a bit of research on life expectancy, and the collapse of the US economy, record industry, and a rock / pop musical landscape which, to my ears, rewards abject rubbish, I decided to spend whatever time I had left above ground writing stories about the artists who inspired me to pick up a bass and get in the game. One of those players I made a mental note of was Paul Gray. Not a household name, none of my heroes are, yet he anchored two essential ensembles - Eddie & The Hot Rods, and The Damned, two brilliant collectives which prompted thousands like me to join a band - regardless of the consequences!
So when I heard that Paul was available by way of a new slab he appears on by the group which works under the moniker of Professor and the Madman (PATM)- I jumped! Unfortunately I could not make the trip to Old Blighty to speak with Mr. Gray in the flesh, but I'll get there soon enough and I'll buy him a round for all those bass parts he taught me.
PATM are a quartet of veteran rockers - Alfie Agnew (Adolescents, D.I.) and Sean Elliott (D.I. Mind Over Four), with Paul's former Damned bandmate Rat Scabies in the drum chair. The new collection is aptly entitled Disintegrate Me.
Messrs. Gray and Scabies will not be touring with PATM given their other musical commitments – Paul has Damned dates and Rat has a new record coming out.
Disintegrate Me is PATM’s third long-player and the first to feature Gray. In this age of streaming and YouTube.Com pilfering, far be it from me to describe the music to you. The best I can relate to you, my dear rock and roll readers, is that these cats are the sonic sum of their parts and their storied history. The melodies, musicianship, and energy are boundless!
With all due respect to newer artists, PATM proves that old chickens make the best rock and roll soup!
Rather than my usual weaving of quotes into text, I hereby afford you Paul Gray’s opinions, observations, and prognostications unedited and unfiltered. He’s a bass player, he knows what he’s talking about!
Let's set the record straight about "punk" - which oft times is used as a rather dismissive tag. To my ears and recollection the best "punk" bands, some of which you worked in, were comprised of creative/innovative musicians and extraordinary writers - many of whom not only continue to influence generations, but are still on the bandstand and in the recording studio. Thoughts?
Punk is different things to different people. The UK punk scene really started when groups of kids who wanted to make their own style of music started to get together in different places simultaneously. They were fed up with the stuff that was around in the mid '70s — all of that overblown triple album prog stuff and bland disco music. I'd say Dr. Feelgood was the prototype punk band in sound and attitude. Others would say the Damned or Clash or Pistols. The last two were way too contrived for me. Once certain journalists got hold of it the boxes appeared — pub rock, new wave, punk, blah blah. It was the start of it being commercialized, which is always the kiss of death. It went from being an independent movement to everyone dressing the same. I had no time for any of that. That's why I always loved the Damned — they stayed true, original, and unique.
How do you define punk?
I prefer the original punk stuff as defined by those great '60s groups like The Seeds and 13th Floor Elevators. All those Nuggets bands. Great psychedelic pop songs played with spirit and attitude through shitty amps and recorded on a budget of 10 bucks with no expectations of world domination. That'll do for me!
My goddaughter and her friends love The Damned, Eddie & the Hotrods, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Joy Division, The Stranglers, New Order… she has all of my old records, and even wears the same clothes! Why does this era, wherein you started your career, speak to teenagers in the 21st Century?
I'd say because it's honest. It's music written and played from the heart. It connects with people who can relate to the lyrical content and musical honesty. There's no writing-by-numbers, no following of a fad, no overblown production or musical pretensions, or big marketing. The songs stand or fall on their own merit. That's why that music is effectively timeless.
What prompted you to join forces with P&TM? The songs? The players?
Both! Sean and Alf sent me a song to see if I'd like to put a bit of bass down on a coupla tracks. I was blown away for all the reasons above. They were continuing that legacy in a way that immediately spoke to me. It was absolutely honest music, the most exciting I'd heard in eons, and chock full of melodies. I'm a sucker for a good melody. I knew what I could add straight away. They may or may not agree but my first thoughts were Damned meets vintage Cheap Trick via The Kinks — that's a pretty heady mixture!
Disintegrate Me runs like a greatest hits album: strong melodies, big hooks, supportive playing, hot mixes, bravura musicianship — no filler whatsoever. How much did the band work in pre-production? Did you sit down and plan the record or did it just come about organically?
Well there ya go! No pre-production, no planning. They sent me the backing tracks, which were pretty basic with guitar, vocals and drums, and I did two or three different passes on the bass so that they could pick and choose what they liked best as I have never played the same thing, the same way, twice. One track has two basses panned left and right as they couldn't decide which they preferred. My kinda band! Seriously, I was blown away, and having heard the final mixes, they've achieved something that is at once accessible and fresh and exciting but very individual sounding. Those guys are genius writers. In fact, I enjoyed playing every track so much that I probably did a dozen different takes as I came up with different melodies each time. I really didn't want to stop playing!
P&TM's group members were not in the same room when the tracks were cut, yet the songs exude the energy of a live performance. How did you pull that off?
I really have no idea except to say that it's pretty rare for it to happen in my experience. Everything just sparked from the first moment, so I guess it's that excitement of playing songs that just work for our particular individual styles shining through collectively. Very similar to The Damned, in fact. I'm a lucky sod, ain't I!
Do you miss having your mates in the studio, cutting a track, and then knocking back a pint or two, then doing it all over again? Of course, you all reside far from each other, and digital technology allows us to tour with holograms - but is there something missing when you sweat, curse, laugh, argue, and make a record together?
They both have their merits, I guess. Studios can get pretty tedious once you've done your bit. This is the first time I've done an entire album remotely and I have to say it suited me very well. I worked when I wanted to, got my own mix and bass sound as I liked in my own time, and monitored without damaging my hearing any more, without all the unnecessary hanging around. And at my age that suited me very well! Haha!
I've had the good fortune to interview and converse with a few of my rock and roll heroes - Ian Hunter, Lou Reed, Garland Jeffreys, Dave Davies, Graham Parker. They tell me that they love making records, their fans love records - so they're going to keep making them until they depart this mortal coil. Is Paul Gray in that mindset?
When I first developed tinnitus and Hyperacusis I never thought I'd play or record again. It was that bad. I ducked out of music for a few years, had to, and it wasn't a good place for me to be. It was my life, not just my career, so I had to slowly figure out how to dip my feet back into it again. That was 20 years ago. I seriously would never have thought that 20 years later I'd be back working with two such fantastic bands. Never say never, right? So yeah, gimme the opportunities and I'll carry on till I drop — recording at least. I'm about to head out on tour with The Damned again so we'll have to see how that goes. I'm pretty apprehensive about how I'll manage with all the noise but life's too short not to give it another go at least. In the immortal words of Janis Joplin, "Get it while ya can ..."
There was a time when you sat down and listened to a record, whether it was punk, jazz, or blues. Now we live in a streaming world where folks "consume" music. Is the album relevant anymore? Is it a niche artform?
Vinyl's coming back, right? People are excited about actually buying a record again and all that goes with it — the artwork, lyrics, running order, turntable ritual. How fantastic is that? I never liked MP3s and streaming; it offends my ears more than most because of the damage I've done. We all live in such a disposable, quick-fix society these days. I'm afraid I''m pretty old fashioned. I'm so pleased Disintegrate Me is coming out on vinyl — it's gonna sound HUGE!
Given the fact that most people nowadays listen to a single track rather than an entire album, does that affect the way you write or produce a song?
Not in the slightest. Everything I've ever done has been done for myself, first and foremost. My initial idea, whether it's for my own song or someone else's song, is usually the one that ends up being used on the record. It's from the heart — always has been, always will be.
On the topic of videos, you came to prominence in the pre-MTV era. Do you think the art-form helped or hindered rock and roll? On the upside it was a great promotional tool, on the downside it pigeonholed many an artist and genre.
Well, I guess the artists with the biggest promo budgets and best pluggers got pole positions, right? It kinda became visuals first, music second throughout the '80s. I was never really an MTV person. You could smell the stink of the corporate hand everywhere. Not for me, thank you very much!
The bass sounds amazing in the mix - crisp, I can hear every note, every rattle of those Rotosound roundwounds!
Glad ya like the bass sound — toaster pickup on a 77 Rickenbacker, good old Roto's as always, a Vox AC30 cranked way up, and shedloads of compression. Works for me!
Looking back over your career, which record are you most proud of?
Oh man ... so many for different reasons! I still love the Hot Rods' Life on the Line, which was recorded in two days. And The Black Album. But I have to say that on Disintegrate Me, and the new Damned album, I'm most proud of my playing. And that's a pretty bloody fine state of affairs 42 years after I first joined the Hot Rods as a spotty 15 year old!