On The Road With David Gray

David Gray talks to Pollstar about 25 years of touring, his upcoming album and working with Paradigm’s Marty Diamond.

We got the chance to chat with the multi-platinum English singer/songwriter in between gigs on his co-headline tour with Alison Krauss. Gray and Kraus play Pikes Peak Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., tonight and dates are booked through Oct. 19.   

Although Gray has been touring for a quarter of a century, he’s still enthralled with being on stage, calling it “the crowning moment of making music.” During our phone call with the affable artist, he let us in on a few tips for a successful touring career, from traveling with a smaller crew to his excellent relationship with his agent.

Gray is working on the follow-up album to 2014’s Mutineers. He calls the project “the most upbeat thing I’ve done.” Last year he released the compilation The Best of David Gray.

David Gray
Scott Legato / RockStarProPhotography.com
– David Gray
Meadow Brook Music Theater, Rochester, Mich., June 22, 2015

You played St. Augustine last night. How did the show go?

It was great, actually. Very lively crowd. Extremely hot. Not the crowd  the temperature. (laughs)

Does the temperature of the venues have an effect on the performance?

Yeah, they do. Every gig is different, so a couple of shows back we played in North Carolina and it was the quietest outdoor audience. They were really there to listen. But it was very beautiful place, surrounded by trees and a lake. It had a certain ambiance. It was a bit more sacred, you know, a bit more of a listening environment.

Whereas yesterday’s gig was at an amphitheatre, which was just sort of your classic shed, really [with] concrete seats going up, with a sort of fixed roof over it and it was quite noisy. The vibe seemed to be [fans were there to] kind of go out for a bit of a good time and have a few cocktails and let their hair down. 

Sounds like fun.

Yeah, it was contrasting and I loved both shows for different reasons. The North Carolina show I played a very different set because I could sense that it was more of a listening gig. But last night I just went out and gave the crowd what they wanted really, which was a greatest hits set.  The roof nearly came off at a couple of points. It was great. 

So you change your set list depending on the mood of the crowd?   

And the mood of me and my band, I mean, just how we feel. We’re changing it night by night  just to keep it interesting. We only have an hour and 15, 20 minutes to play each night, which seems like nothing when we used to play much longer. So we change the set quite dramatically sometimes, just to keep it interesting, keep it fresh. Because if it’s fresh for us, it’s better for the crowd too.

You’ve been touring for about 25 years now. Do you prefer being on stage or in the studio?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I think the crowning moment of making music is to give it away to the crowd and to feel the love of the crowd coming back. That’s not something you can feel in the studio. You can have a heady rush in the studio when things are going well; you feel like you’re floating on air, but you’re sort of self-propelled. It’s you and the muse, really, who are dancing. 

But when you take the show out in front of a crowd, anything can happen. The love, the affection and joy that they give you back is amazing, you know, because the music doesn’t stop, when I’m out on the road people are still listening to it. And then when you go and take it to them, they want to show you how much it means and it’s quite amazing that feeling. So there’s no contest there. The crowning moment is to be on stage.

Being on tour is a bit like an iceberg. The show is just a tiny tip. The rest is travel and hanging around hotel rooms. … So it’s a real mix and I guess I’ve just learned to sort of survive that process.

These days I’m trying to break the touring down into smaller amounts. So that I’m not, like for example, I release a record and I’m on the road for 18 months. That can become a bit soul destroying.

I find that when it’s in shorter bursts it’s much easier to conceive of a beginning and an end. And I think I keep myself really alive for the shows, and in other ways too, with all the people I’m sharing the experience with, my crew and my band.

So I guess It’s not an easy business to be in, you know, but it’s something that I’ve been doing, as you said, for 25 years. I’ve probably been around America 30 times, now I’d say at least. So it’s something I’m basically going around America. Besides bus drivers and such, there’s probably not many people who’ve seen more of it. (laughs)

It’s something I’ve done again and again. And that’s my life. Because the making of music and sharing of music is so important I’ll deal with the complications that touring brings.

David Gray
AP Photo / The Canadian Press Images Photo / Ottawa Bluesfest
– David Gray
RBC Bluesfest, Lebreton Flats Park, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 6, 2012

As far as the traveling for this tour, how are you getting from show to show?

This is very bus-heavy. Actually, it’s a very compact tour because I’m playing 22 dates with Alison but I’m also playing a few of my own shows. There’s not that many days off, we’re mostly traveling. So it’s every night we’re in the bus after the show. It’s band and crew on one bus. It’s old school this trip.

We’ve really skimped it down. So it’s a skeletal crew and there’s minimal band and we’re all on one bus. We basically just live on top of one another for the whole thing. In a way it sounds kind of unpleasant but it’s actually, I think, it’s sort of better that way. If you know where you are, everyone has to get on with it. Obviously you do need a hotel room every now and again so you can get away from everybody. But that’s how it is. So it’s basically show, load out, then drive, then wake up in the morning somewhere else. And that’s pretty much what it is every day.

How many people are in your band and crew that you’re traveling with?

We’ve got 11 people on the bus so that’s really not very many because there’s four in the band, we’ve got someone tour managing, we’ve got a wardrobe person, a guitar tech, keyboard tech, a lighting guy, a sound guy, and a monitor guy and that’s basically us. So it’s pretty minimal.

For example, on Mutineers, our last record back, there was about 16 or 17 of us, two buses, etc. 

So I think this was partially spawned out of the fact that I’ve been playing a lot of solo shows. And when I do those, it really is minimal, there’s about five of us on the road and you know, but it’s we’ve sort of taken a nod towards that.

Well, this [tour] is partially that. I start each show on my own for about half an hour and then the band comes out. So we sort of stuck to that concept a little bit of keeping things as paired back as we dare. And it just works. The simplicity of it is its power.

When we were touring back in the day, during White Ladder, we’d just have a bus the whole time, year after year. We were all stuffed together and it’s definitely a different vibe. People just have to get on with it. 

We did some shows with Dave Matthews years ago and each member of their band had their own tour bus. Obviously they’re hugely successful but I think in the end it doesn’t work because in the end you stop functioning as a unit.

You need to be geared together otherwise people’s heads just rush off in whatever direction, [they become] sort of preoccupied. It’s a delicate balance but I think mucking in together really helps.

But maybe ask me that in a few weeks. I might have gone off it by then. (laughs)

How has touring with Alison been going and how did the co-bill come about?

Well, it’s a bit of a mystery how it came about but it basically presented itself three or four months ago. I was in the studio putting the finishing touches on my record … and I got some offers to do some solo shows and then this came in and I thought maybe this actually could be really interesting.

It’s contrasting. Usually these co-headlines the artist is usually very sort of similar, supposedly, to what you are. The Ray LaMontagne [co-headline tour] was a very successful tour, that sort of thing. But this is something, although we are obviously we’re kin in that we’re from a sort of rootsy side of music, she’s very, very different. I mean, she comes from a very different background but she’s an amazing singer and her band is absolutely incredible.

So I don’t exactly know where [the co-bill] originated. That remains something of a mystery.

Anyway, the shows have been going really, really well. And I think it’s two very different things. My set and her set are very, very different. I just think it’s great quality, really if you’re a music lover.

So that’s what I find exciting about it. You just don’t know with the public. If some people might be Alison fans and just might not be sure about “Who is this English guy?” you know. (laughs) And vice versa, my fans might go this is a bit more traditional for me. I’m not so sure about it, when they’re listening to her stuff.

I’ll listen to anything. From my point of view I think it’s a really interesting bill. I think we’re far too homogenized and this is something a little bit different. It’s been great. … I haven’t really had a huge amount of chance to get to know her. Because every time the show ends we basically leave. I’m hoping there will be some days off where we can all hang out a bit.

David Gray
Greg Allen / GregAllenPhotos.com
– David Gray
CBS Early Show, New York City, Aug. 19, 2010

You’re represented in North America by Marty Diamond and Larry Webman at Paradigm.   

I think I’ve been on Marty’s roster since 1992 or 1993. I think I’m the first act to be officially with Marty.

What’s it like working with Marty?

I believe in loyalty. I believe in a relationship being built up in an old school way. Marty would take a bullet for me. He’s a very busy guy these days. He’s very, very powerful; he’s achieved an awful lot. But I think if ever there was a problem or there was something he needed to help me with, he’d be there in a heartbeat.

We’ve done well by each other. He has some acts that make fortunes year in and year out, but I just sort of keep going. But we do all right.

So yeah, those relationships mean a lot to me because I can be candid. Well, I think reading between the lines, it’s a lost art. You meet so many people in the business and if they’ve read some sort of book about how it’s supposed to work  I’m not interested in theory. I like the human side. So I’m not wanting some perfect business equation. I just want someone who actually listens to what I’m doing, who cares. 

It was really interesting, at the New York show, at Radio City Hall … [I’ve played] that room in the past, it’s a strange room, it’s an incredible room, obviously. It’s a spectacle for the audience and the performers, alike. But there’s something about it that that sort of sucks the vibe out. It’s hard to feel the room.

I decided I was going to out and I was I was going to play a set for me and my fans. For the band and for the fans. I didn’t play the obvious things; I did at the end. But we basically went through a few and when Marty came out he was so excited because I played a couple songs he hadn’t heard me play in years. So that’s what means something to me.

I don’t give a damn about a few extra dollars here and there. Marty is a great businessman but I think he’s passionate about music. He actually does care. So that’s what actually makes a difference.

The few times I’ve spoken to Marty on the phone, he’s been great. He obviously knows his stuff, being in the business so long.

Lastly, can you tell me something about the new album you’ve been working on?

Yeah, I’m very, very excited about that. It feels quite a long way away because I’m out on the road. But I’ve almost finished it, with about a month’s work once I get home. It will be done before Christmas.

It’s just been a very joyous and fruitful [process], very, very creative. It’s much more electronic [sound]  me in the studio, it’s not really a band record. It’s a record I’ve made with my producer, a young producer [named] Ben de Vries I’ve worked with his dad, Marius, on Life In Slow Motion. 

So we sort of got together to see what working together was going to be like. And he’s very much a computer programming … different generation sound merchant than his dad, but there’s a lot of similarities there, his musicality. Anyway, we basically just hit it off.

Once we gathered a bit of momentum and developed a bit of trust, I just threw caution to the wind and we just began to work on ideas from the ground up, new things I didn’t even know what they were, not songs that I’d already prewritten but a new [batch] of material. And that’s pretty much what the new record is. I think it’s the most upbeat thing I’ve done and it has a lightness to it. I can’t really describe it any better than that. It’s just waiting to be finished and it should be emerging next year.

As far as what you said about the new music having a lightness to it, that sounds wonderful, like something we could all use right now.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s just the way it’s come out. It’s the joy of making, I think, is one aspect of it that gives it uplift.

There’s something that’s happened to me as a person. I’ve come through some kind of portal and I’ve come out the other side and I’m a bit sort of lighter for it. I don’t know if you could call it wisdom, but something’s fallen upon me that’s taken some of the weight off my shoulders somehow.

I’m still struggling with life, like everybody else, but in terms of my music and what it all means, something seems to have happened and things click. It’s taken long enough. (laughs)