February 17, 2020 Interview – Nathan Gray of boysetsfire
There are songwriters who craft epic fantasies the likes of which your mind could barely fathom, and then there are those who tackle the tangible. With heartfelt sincerity, raw emotion, and a need to speak their truth, these singer-songwriters put their stories out into the world in hopes of connecting with others, sharing empathy, and inspiring their listeners to continue their personal evolutions.
This is what Nathan Gray, frontman of the seminal Post-Hardcore outfit boysetsfire, is doing with his solo work. Searching for personal catharsis while sharing his journey with his friends, the musician is fully willing to admit that he is a work in progress, and as we learned in January, a Working Title. Recently he was willing to open up about the ongoing support of his fans (friends, really), mental health and knowing you’re not alone, as well as the healing power of music.
Cryptic Rock – A veteran of sorts, you have been making music for the past 26 years with boysetsfire, as well as your other projects I Am Heresy and The Casting Out. What has all this time taught you about yourself and music?
Nathan Gray – That’s a tough question actually. Certainly I have learned several things about myself and music in that time. Sometimes, those things even had to be learned the hard way.
Cryptic Rock – That’s life in general, right? So, last year, boysetsfire celebrated 25 years of making music. How does that feel for you and the band, to have outlasted so many trends and to still be creating all these years later?
Nathan Gray – It is wild to think about a group of kids from a relatively small-town atmosphere, playing our hearts out in tiny venues to 10-20 of our friends, somehow finding success in a way that 25 years later we can book and headline our own festival in another country and sell it out with 4,000 of our friends. I guess we just tried to make it a point to stick to what is us – honest and true. In the times we were asked to be something else by a label or something of the sort, we learned to put our foot town and fight tooth and nail to stay who we were and create in the way we wanted, no matter what.
Certainly there is a natural evolution as you grown and age with something that long, but at the core, boysetsfire has always been about speaking up for what is right, providing a platform for those who feel they don’t have a voice to be empowered, and driving our message in a way that takes your breath away. Sometimes that has been delivered more Punk leaning, sometimes more Hardcore styled, sometimes more Rock scented… but the heart of what we do has never changed.
Cryptic Rock – That definitely plays into the band’s longevity: your sincerity in everything you do. That obviously carries over into your solo material, although the sound is clearly different. Clearly you have a built-in fan base to some degree – how has their reaction been to Feral Hymns and Working Title?
Nathan Gray – I am incredibly lucky to have a core group of fans who I would consider friends at this point of life. They have followed along with me every step of the way, and given energy to each project of mine. I am grateful for the times they loved what I was doing, and grateful for the times they spoke up to tell me they didn’t. That said, I never take them for granted and assume that they will be on board with something I’ve done, no matter what.
Thankfully, they have received both Feral Hymns and Working Title well, and I can say without a doubt that the response to Working Title has been way bigger than I could have dreamt for. I’ve been noticing that there are more and more unfamiliar faces in the crowd, and new names following along on social media, and a huge part of that has been because that core group has taken on the passion for this new album enough to help bring Working Title out to others.
Cryptic Rock – That’s wonderful! You know that they truly believe in the music when they are introducing it to others. Released on January 31st, Working Title is truly a soul-baring record, one that sees you sharing a lot with your listeners and trying to provide an exchange of empathy for their struggles, as well. When you sat down to write these songs, was that your intention from the start or did Working Title morph and become something more over time?
Nathan Gray – Working Title was very much a documentary of a time period in my life where I was struggling very hard, and fighting to bring myself out of a very dark place. A lot of these songs started out as rally cries for myself or songs that helped soothe me in some way. When I first wrote them, the collection was honestly quite dreary and heavy; the mood was morose, and very similar to Feral Hymns.
As I started to do the emotional work – in part due to this album, and in part from the work of writing the new book – the mood began to lift and I was seeing these songs as opportunities to take back my power. It became an album of celebration for all that I have overcome. A celebration of resilience and ownership over who I am and where I’ve been, and ultimately, where I am going. A work in progress.
Cryptic Rock – That definitely comes out in the lyrics, which, despite having turmoil, show more growth and positivity than depression and defeat. Is this ability to project so much hope a good indication of where you are at right now, personally speaking?
Nathan Gray – Absolutely. As I just mentioned, there was a real power shift that happened for me. Do I still have bad days where it’s hard to get out of bed? 100% yes. But this album has allowed me to accept that life is about the ups and downs, and as long as I am pushing forward in some small way, that is what matters most. It allowed me to stop apologizing for who I am or for trying to pretend to be strong, and just find comfort in being me.
Cryptic Rock – That’s a journey that so many of us are also on, which is what makes the album so relatable. Did you find the catharsis that you needed in the writing and recording of the album?
Nathan Gray – I definitely did. I couldn’t ask for any better measure of success.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. Now, this album is immensely strong, lyrically speaking, and “I’m a work in progress, indefinitely,” from “In My Defense,” is a clear stand-out. That’s something that literally everyone can relate to, but so few people are willing to admit. It really sounds like you are having fun with this confession, so is there a freedom in singing those words?
Nathan Gray – Yes. It’s really taking a playful look at the reality that I am, and we are all, works in progress. That complacency is the real threat here. We can own and accept ourselves, flaws and all, but simply saying “Okay, this is who I am and I’m not going to find a way to work with that” is the worst disservice we can do ourselves and those we love.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. Acceptance of your true self, flaws and all, is necessary to finding happiness. It’s not easily done, but it’s important. On a different note, how did Hot Water Music’s Chuck Ragan get involved on the titular “Working Title”?
Nathan Gray – I called him up and asked. It was as simple as that! (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Hey, simple is great! Now, one of the songs on the record that really drives home the idea of community and picking each other up is “Never Alone.” In this day and age where there’s a mental health crisis, was it important to you to put a message of unity out there?
Nathan Gray – It was important for me, for my family, and for my friends; for everyone in this world who feels they have to hide their darkness. So many of us are hugely affected by mental health challenges or feeling outcast because of who and/or what we are, and I needed to be someone who could help bring that conversation out into the open. I needed to know that I was not alone, and needed others to know the same.
Cryptic Rock – That’s a very vital message for those that are struggling, and a simple one. Similarly, in the press materials for the album, there’s a quote that really stands out about how the “suck it up attitude” toward mental health is toxic – and it really and truly is. Do you think music can help to change that attitude and pave the way for a healthier future?
Nathan Gray – I think music is one of the most powerful forms of communication we have with people across the globe. It heals. It connects us. It gives us purpose and allows us to let go of what hurts and take hold of what empowers. I think it’s already happening – I am seeing a wave of more positive influences in social media even, and people are becoming more comfortable about speaking their truths and normalizing mental health. Do we have a long way to go still? Absolutely, yes. But the conversation has begun.
Cryptic Rock – It really is one of the most important conversations to have, because it can save lives. Obviously, as we’ve already noted, Working Title is an album that is full of so many wonderfully heartfelt and open lyrics. Do you have a lyric on the collection that really stands out for you at the moment?
Nathan Gray – Hmm. I think maybe one line that sort of puts a bow on this whole journey and theme might be “I’m a lot, but I’m less than I was in all the right ways.”
Cryptic Rock – That is another wonderful and fully relatable line. Alright, so beyond the album you have some festival dates coming up in June with boysetsfire, as well as sporadic festival dates in August and September. Before that you’re touring in Europe and the UK for the album, and then you have a North American tour. When will you sleep? (Laughs) And on a more serious note, what should fans expect when they come out to see you performing the songs off Working Title?
Nathan Gray – I think the last time I slept was in 1978! (Laughs) I am really excited about these upcoming tours. Playing with a backing band has opened up this experience to become so much bigger, and I love that fans who have been following along are being treated to a gradual progression in the show each time they come out. These songs are meant to be felt in full, they are meant to be experienced together in frenzy. I could not be more stoked to get on the plane next week.
Cryptic Rock – Well, your European and UK friends are in for an emotional treat. Last question. At Cryptic Rock, we cover music, as well as films – particularly Horror and Sci-Fi. Are you a fan of either (or both) of these genres and, if so, do you have any favorite Horror and/or Sci-Fi films?
Nathan Gray – I’ve never been one to be into gore Horror or anything of the sort. I have always liked the more traditional Horror films, like those with the Universal monsters: Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), even The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).