Guitarist Myke Gray is known for forming Jagged Edge, who released a great album called 'Fuel For Your Soul' in 1990. He would go on to greater success with his next band Skin, who released a self titled debut in 1993 and enjoyed some chart action. After a further two studio albums in 1996 and 1997 Skin disbanded, only to return to the scene with 2010's 'Breaking The Silence'. Gray would then form Red White & Blues in 2011, releasing an excellent album called 'Shine' before disappearing from music altogether. Now he's back, with his first ever solo album – an almost fully instrumental record called 'Shades Of Gray'. James Gaden called Myke up to hear more about it.

Myke Gray Interview 1

So I've been reading on Facebook the comments you have been getting, it seems the album has been really well received.

Yes, I've been a bit overwhelmed, I'll be the first to admit I was a bit nervous as I didn't know how people would respond to it. It's been amazing, some of the messages are so nice... it's a huge relief really. The big thing was not to let anyone down, some of these people have been with me for twenty years, so I didn't want to make something that disappointed anyone.

It must have been difficult to find a balance, as you wanted to make something primarily for yourself, but to still appeal to your fans.

With this record I had such a clear vision in my head of what I wanted to do, because I had come from a pretty rough period which wasn't really getting any better. I remember watching a movie, it was 'Indecent Proposal' and Woody Harrelson's character dealt with the situation by going back to teaching, which is what he did at the beginning. The catalyst of how to get myself out of the negative state of mind was back when I was eleven or twelve, I just sat and played guitar. I didn't listen to music for the songs, I was just listening to the guitar playing, particularly things like Van Halen's 'Eruption'. So I made a very conscious decision to go back to the beginning and just start playing some solos. I basically had to learn to play again because I had deteriorated massively. That was how the whole album came about, I thought I should write material to thank the musicians who had given me so much. If you listen to the album there are particular tracks where I've deliberately put a heavy slant on an influence, 'Kill The Masters!' for instance is heavily slanted towards Randy Rhoads. If you know guitar players, you'll spot 'Grab Life By The Balls' has a lot of Nuno Bettencourt and Jeff Beck. Each song has an influence.

You've made quite a few records and I've always considered you a really good songwriter. Was it liberating to let the guitar do the talking this time around, or did you have to have to reign yourself in an stop yourself from writing lyrics to these tracks?

That's a really good question. When you're writing for a singer, you write very different melodies than you do for a guitar. On the track 'V' for example, I could easily turn that into a song for a singer, the same for 'The Shattered Illusion Of Love'. I wouldn't use those melodies on the record, they would probably be more background embellishments, because when you get a singer to sing a guitar melody it tends to not sound very good. Vocally you have to work in a much smaller frame of notes. On a guitar you can transcend the fretboard and go to lots of different places. That's really tough for a singer to do, so you have a much smaller range of notes to pick from for a vocalist. I'm not saying I wouldn't turn some of these into vocal songs at a later date. The last track, 'Take Me Home', which has Lorraine Crosby singing, that originally wasn't going to be a vocal track either, because I didn't intend to have any singing on the record at all. I wrote a guitar melody but I didn't think it was very good. When I wrote the melody for a vocal, it was so easy compared to doing it as an instrumental, I think I wrote the whole song in about thirty or forty minutes. Lyrics, everything, done. But to construct the other tracks, which were instrumentals, took much, much longer. It was a relief to write a vocal song at the end! (laughs)

Lorraine sounds amazing, how did you get her on board?

When I write a song, there have been times in the past when I've given it to a singer and it hasn't connected with them, whether they don't have the range to sing it, they don't sound believable or they just don't emotionally feel it. Then you give it to someone else and it just works instantly. I didn't have that desire to get emotionally involved with a vocalist and find all that stuff out, so I concentrated on instrumentals. However, when I realised 'Take Me Home' needed a voice, I'd always been a big fan of Stevie Lange. She'd been in bands and had sung on a lot of adverts like the ones for Limara and Bodyform. In my head, that's what a great British female Rock singer should sound like. The only person I'd ever encountered who was up there with that was Lorraine Crosby. I worked with her in the 90s, I helped her get a record deal and she did some backing vocals on Skin's 'Lucky' album. She sang on 'Pray and 'One Nation'... and a couple of other tracks, so I'd known her a long time. We'd lost touch and I saw her appear on 'The Voice'. It reminded me what an incredible singer she was. When I was writing, I had a female in mind so I figured it had to be for Lorraine. So I got in touch via Facebook, which has been the source of so many connections for this record, and she said she'd love to do it. It was the last thing we recorded, I got on the train to Newcastle, she has her own studio and her husband Stuart is an amazing producer in his own right. She just smashed the song out and it was done, nailed, in about forty five minutes.
To be honest, I was just stood there and watched – I sang the melody to her, she nailed it, Stuart put it all together and put it on a disc and a few hours later I was on my way back home! It was one of the fastest vocal sessions I've ever done. She was hammering out entire verses and choruses in one take. I'll hopefully work with her again.

That would be great – for me personally, I'm not a big fan of Rock instrumental albums as a rule. I love Paul Gilbert, but I much prefer his vocal albums to his instrumental ones. However, while I've played yours through four or five times without finding it tedious, the key song for me is 'Take Me Home' with Lorraine on.

I understand that and I'm the same – there's a few instrumentals albums I can listen to in their entirety but others I find self indulgent. It was a challenge to put together almost an hour of music that holds interest, not only for the audience but for me too! I've been writing songs since I was fourteen, and I'm used to constructing vocal songs rather than instrumentals, I'd never written an instrumental in my life. In a normal year I'd have written between fifty to a hundred vocal songs of varying quality so that's familiar to me, vocal Rock is what I've listened to all my life. My next album will have vocals on.

Myke Gray Interview 3

Well that was my next question – you'd had downtime from music for a while, reformed Skin, then Red White & Blues. Then you had another period away and came back with a solo album. Is this a long term plan or are you just going to see what happens?

It's a very daunting prospect to put my own name on something, it's not something I ever saw myself doing. I always saw my role in music as somebody who writes songs but stands to the side and there would be a singer, a salesmen if you will, selling it to the audience. For me to be in the centre of the stage doing that, I don't know if I'm comfortable with it. I've never tried. So to put an album out under my name and not a band, I was worried. But I've been really overwhelmed by the response and the messages. It's very humbling. I'm most comfortable on the side of the stage, so I suspect in the future I will put together music for a singer, more in common with what people know me for. I was just nowhere near ready to make that kind of commitment to people at this point. I've been burned a couple of times, as you know, the music industry has changed a lot from the 90s and there's a lot of self funding. I was funding the projects I was involved in by myself, so you're putting in £15,000 into one album, £20,000 into another and you're financially responsible for a lot. You're also at the mercy of other musicians who can just decide to walk away, say "Fuck you" and leave you with a huge financial burden. That wasn't something I wanted to expose myself to again, which is why I did an instrumental album, it was a way to make music again without being exposed like on previous projects. Just a desire to make music without anyone fucking it up.

Are Skin and Red White & Blues consigned to the past now, for those reasons, is it a totally fresh start for you now?

I try to only bring positive energy and historically, when you listen to histories of bands you know Alex Van Halen hated David Lee Roth, Ritchie Blackmore hated Ian Gillan, there are countless examples and when you get creative people with egos working together there is always friction. A lot of evidence suggests that is what creates such good music but bands are always volatile as a result. I've always been "the songwriter" and for me the music is about the songs, that's the foundation for everything. You present the song to the audience, they respond and you have a connection. For instance, if you go and see Foreigner, there are shows when there are no original members on stage, sometimes Mick Jones isn't there. But it's still brilliant, because the songs and the emotional investment fans have put into them results in happiness. That's the beauty of music. If you see Queen you don't see Freddie Mercury anymore but the songs still carry that magic. I saw AC/DC with Axl Rose on vocals and it was one of the best concerts I've seen in my life. Interchanging personal in music is something I take for granted, it's the songs that are the foundation for it all. So if I'm involved in a project, the songs must be the priority. Everyone has the right to walk away and concentrate on their own music, so for me, the songs I've written for bands like Skin and Jagged Edge, those are my songs and I will play them when I go out on tour. That's what people will want to hear and I will find other musicians who can present them.

When you said about doing another album in the future as a vocal album, you could follow Slash's example – when he released his first solo album he had a variety of singers on there, rather than relying on just one.

That is something that has crossed my mind. In my own head, first of all, I wasn't even sure if people were wanting new music from me, I wasn't coming from a position of strength. I just wanted to play music again to get my head together to come back from a couple of emotionally distraught situations. I wanted a balance back in my life and music was a way to get that. As a result, all this new music started to come out and I had a couple of musicians contact me, and they were hugely responsible for giving me my confidence back. Matthew Blakout from Tigertailz was one example, these guys would come to my house, they were usually drummers. I have a studio at my house so they'd get behind the kit and play and I'd just play some riffs and things. They brought so much energy and enthusiasm and were enjoying what was coming out, which is what made me think other people might enjoy it too. If they hadn't contacted me, this album would probably not have been made. My musical confidence was very low and playing with those guys was very cathartic and made me believe I could do it. Once the door opened I went back to my usual obsessive mode of creating it.
I started writing and I have another pile of material which is much more centred around singers. I've been blessed to have worked with some brilliant singers and when you are used to having those people sing your songs, it's a very high benchmark for future projects! Lorraine is one of those singers, I'd love to work with her again. If I could get her to sing a whole album that would be amazing, but I have no idea if she'd agree to that. My favourite female rock singers are Pink, Ann Wilson, Stevie Lange, people like that and Lorraine is in that group. Singing like she does, it's so effortless for her, I'd sing her a line and she'd deliver it back, it was just incredible and then she'd look at you as if to ask "That sort of thing, is that okay?" (laughs)

You put the album out independently, using pretty much the same method to sell it as you did with the Red White & Blues album. Did you learn anything from that experience?

The thing that inspired me to do it myself was when Skin reformed in 2007, I approached Parlophone because we were playing Download, which was a big deal. I asked them if they'd be interested in doing a re-release of our albums. They just said no, flat out. So I said "Okay, if you're not interested, can I do it then?" and they said "No, we own the rights to them." I realised they were telling me all of that music I had written, I now had no way of controlling. I'd effectively handed over all of my work for nothing. They own it, forever. I'm a control freak anyway when it comes to my life and that was not acceptable to me, so it was clearly something I couldn't do again. I have a successful day job so I'm not relying on the music for my income. To me, music has always been a non-profit endeavour, I play music because I love music, that's my life, I wake up thinking about music and I go to bed thinking about music. I never associated financial gain to it, but the whole idea I am denied access to my own work is something I can't accept. I'd rather sell just 1,000 copies I have complete control of than 100,000 copies of something I have no control over. It's tough doing it yourself, but not as hard as you may think. Once you have a studio and can finish a product, in terms of getting the albums manufactured and printed, that isn't that difficult. The hard part is raising awareness and letting the world know it's out there. It was hard with Skin, very hard with Red White & Blues and it's very hard with this. With a lot of media outlets, if you're not buying advertising and putting money into the machine, then they don't really pay you any attention. So any media exposure you do get, like this interview, you are incredibly grateful for. As it stands, I'm close to selling two thirds of the albums and that's all been done via Facebook. That's the one real outlet I've been able to use, I don't know what I'd do if that didn't exist, it was the blood of this project.

With you having knowledge of how the industry works, the various pitfalls that come with it and are now experienced in putting albums out yourself, would you consider working with other artists to put albums out or perhaps form your own label?

I haven't thought that far ahead. I'll be honest, I think I'm quite a difficult person to work with, not because I'm nasty or anything but I'm obsessive about how I want things. I tend to apologise to people in advance that my attention to detail can drive people insane. So I don't know if many people would want to work with me. (laughs) It would be a big commitment and they would have to be very understanding of my nature!

Well I enjoyed working with you on the album artwork and I'm delighted you're back making music, I've enjoyed every album you've released.

Thank you James, you were a big part of this one. I had the cover idea right from the start but the way the theme has gone on through the whole booklet is amazing. It always makes me happy to hear people like my music. It's what I look for, to make pieces of music that bring happiness to people. When I listen to 'Flying High Again' by Ozzy Osbourne, I've been listening to that my entire life and every time it gets to the solo it's like I'm hearing it for the first time. It brings me such immense joy, I listen to every note and I can't imagine what my life would be like if that solo never existed. I always thought "If only I could write something like that, so when somebody puts it on they get so much pleasure", that's always been the catalyst for my involvement with music. That's why playing live is a thrill, when you hear people singing a chorus back to you, nothing comes close to that feeling. If people ask about my favourite gigs, I always have trouble remembering certain things, I tend to concentrate on the ones where I remember the audience really connecting. Hopefully people will connect with this album, I've got some videos in the works for 'Staring At The Ocean' and I'm hoping I'll have another two done by the end of the year. Then I can put them out via Social Media and hopefully a few magazines might pick up on them too!

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Myke Gray - Shades Of Grey

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