Toronto’s Greys try not to take themselves too seriously, but their new record Outer Heaven, out Friday, is seriously good punk rock. Each song seems to reach a few decades back to the days before punk had a clear roadmap. Each track is different from the next—some songs have wiry basslines and frenetic pace changes, others hinge on catchy pop riffs—it’s as if Greys have plucked each track from a multi-decade career that hasn’t happened yet. The foursome, which includes lead vocalist and guitarist Shehzaad Jiwani, guitarist Cam Graham, bassist Colin Gillespie and drummer Braeden Craig, have emerged from the Toronto noise rock scene to capture international attention and imagination. We caught up with these self-described nerds before they played a string of shows at SXSW last month.
Who are you excited to see here in Austin?
Shehzaad Jiwani: I’m really excited to see Weaves and Guerilla Toss. Oh, also Big Ups, we’re playing with them and they are always fun to see. I just found out the Deftones are playing. That was my first concert, Deftones and Incubus.
Braeden Craig: My first concert was Slipknot.
Colin Gillespie: Locust.
Cam Graham: Audioslave.
SJ: That’s not more or less embarrassing than the Deftones.
BC: Slipknot is not embarrassing. They are a great band.
SJ: I guess the first concert I ever saw was the Rolling Stones, with my parents when I was eight or so. On the Voodoo Lounge tour. Literally the worst album title of all time. It means nothing. It’s a word that he just thought of. [In a terrible British accent] “It’s a lounge but there’s some weird shit going on in it. Skulls and whatnot. One of them dolls where you poke it and you feel it in ya arm, them. It’s a Voodoo Lounge, innit?” I would open a bar called the Voodoo Lounge. There’s also Bridges to Babylon. It’s like, I’m sorry, what does that mean? That album is kinda sick though.
BC: I think they just pick these words out of a hat. Goat’s Head Soup?
SJ: They had great titles and then everything after Some Girls is just okay. I think the tour they are on right now is called the Passport tour or something. They just ran out of ideas.
BC: [In an even worse British accent] “Oh right, got this passport here. Let’s get on with it then.” My accents are great.
SJ: But no, Their Satanic Majesties Request, that’s a great title.
What’s on the cover of Outer Heaven?
SJ: It’s a shot of the North Korean Arirang Festival. I saw an image from this festival, which is essentially an homage to the Supreme Leader, and it tells the story of how North Korea came into being. It’s this really ultra-patriotic thing where they get kids and teenagers to perform this extremely elaborate and ornate dance. They have extremely striking and colorful set design. I hate explaining it this way, because it sounds so pretentious, but the reason we chose it for the cover is because it represents creating this really beautiful thing, even though you’re being forced to do it. In, like, a shitty time, you’re still creating something beautiful. A lot of the imagery is war-related, and a recurring theme on the record is that it’s on the razor’s edge, end-of-the-world kinda thing, and within that you’re still creating something beautiful. This thing that is peaceful, a sort of calm before the storm. This particular crop of the image really spoke to me. You can kind of see it in their faces. They aren’t too thrilled about doing the thing that they are doing, but they are doing it anyway. It really resonated with a lot of the messages we are trying to put forth on the album.
Do you feel like this is the end times?
SJ: Yeah, definitely. I don’t think that the record is particularly dire, but a lot of the lyrics have to do with doing something in the face of something that’s not so great.
Does that relate to the song “Complaint Rock?”
SJ: No, not really. That title came about when I heard the term used to describe Pavement. First of all, Pavement aren’t even a complain-y band. Second, isn’t all rock music complain-y? Isn’t that what it is? That’s why it was created: to complain about stuff. The whole song was an exercise in the very idea that being over something is passé, and even commenting on that is sort of lame. Everyone keeps compounding that. It just goes back and forth. I just think everyone should shut up and chill out. So the middle of the song is finally some peace and quiet, and then it goes back to it. It’s kind of a big joke. Our music is a big joke and doesn’t mean anything.
Do you ever read the negative comments about your band?
SJ: Yes, definitely. Some guy, for no reason, apropos of basically nothing, recently tweeted “I hear Greys have a new song out, I will never listen to it and I hope I never have to hear it.”
BC: Someone on Brooklyn Vegan once wished we would crash our van and kill ourselves.
CG (bassist): Another person wished that we’d spend the rest of our existence dragging our carcasses around playing to no one. Which isn’t wrong. It’s foreshadowing.
How does that make you feel?
SJ: I’m not sure. I have a pretty thick skin. If somebody is that dedicated to letting someone know how bad they think we are, then good for them. I hope something nice happens to them. I just find it really funny and I always try to retweet it. Someone posted a screenshot of a comment from some website about some other band, and the comment said, “This band sounds like a bunch of jocks, which makes sense because they are friends with Greys, and the singer of that band bullied me in high school.” I was shocked because I looked like this in high school [pointing to self].
CG (guitarist): I knew you in high school, you weren’t bullying anyone.
SJ: I was really curious about who it was. I tried to find out to extend some sort of apology. I probably didn’t mean it. We have a real specific sense of humor. I did stuff myself into a locker one time. But we didn’t really have bullies in high school. We’re Canadian, we’re nice.
Do you think the music industry doesn’t have enough of a sense of humor?
SJ: I think the joke’s on us, if anything.
How long have you been working on Outer Heaven?
SJ: I think it came together in about six weeks. There’s the Repulsion EP. We finished touring at the end of 2014 and collectively felt like we wanted to move away from being a ’90s noise rock band. When we started the band, that wasn’t a thing, and now it is, so let’s not do that. We wanted to push ourselves a little bit. Repulsion came out as sort of an experiment to see what we could do. So we wrote a Krautrock song and that seemed to work. Then we tried playing the slowest song we could play, and that worked. Those songs kind of broke down the door for us. Immediately after that, we went on tour and spent the summer just writing. That EP helped push in that direction.
And all the songs are so different.
SJ: Are they too different? We just love a lot of music, and all of us are really big nerds and wanted to express that. We just didn’t want to be in that one noise rock vein any more. I hope it’s all cohesive. With the way people listen to music now, they’ll have a playlist that’s for a certain color or mood. With so many of my favorite bands, the songs are so different. “Machine Gun” and “Nylon Smile” by Portishead don’t sound anything alike, but it’s clearly the same band, and that’s the kind of band we want to be. Or Swell Maps, they have super poppy songs and super noisy songs. They can do it all, and that’s where we wanted to take this. This was the record we always wanted to make, but we didn’t know how to do it. All the ideas kind of converged and it came together. How was that? Was that okay? Not too rambling? It took me too long, sorry.
BC: No, that was a good one, not like the last one. That was succinct.
CG (bassist): Sometimes he’s not so horrible.
What is one weird object that you bring on tour with you?
SJ: Braeden. Braeden is a weird object.
BC: Well, my stepmom…
SJ: We don’t bring a stepmom.
BC: She’s a big believer in those bullshit crystal snake-oil things. On our first tour I ever went on, she gave me this good luck crystal. I should get rid of it, it’s not working.