Nathan Gray has flexed his musical prowess from hardcore to Americanist Neo-folk rock. All through his journey, you’ll find a great deal of political commentary and personal enlightenment. With his new album Rebel Songs, he takes you by storm as if a “Preacher without God” is proclaiming love to you. Yeah, kinda like that.
JH: Well Nathan, thank you for taking the time. Where are you right now?
NG: I am in Elkton Maryland where Delaware and Pennsylvania meet.
JH: So your publicist, he is my drug dealer. He gave me a couple of tracks several months ago and said “This one is releasing soon, what do you think” and I LOVED IT. He is like that guy in the back alley for junkies “Hey man, I got somethin for ya” with music. I didn’t get to hear the whole album til right before release. I did a deep dive into your music online. The whole concept of the record, “Rebel Songs”, is fantastic.
NG: Well, that’s great cause that is what I was hoping for, I started writing it in March 2020. But going back through my history I have this brand of angry hardcore music. And now, I don’t feel like it, I don’t feel like singing with anger, or yelling at people. And in the past two years, we’ve had enough of anger, and I thought how can I do something different, cause I still want to express my views, but I want to do it in a way that attracts people.
JH: But you have this voice that can express other anger in it, let’s face it, some of the old hardcore is being pissed off, and that’s all the voice can encapsulate. It’s not a bad thing, but this is a very wide experience. When I watched the video for “Fired Up” there was a lot of fun in that one. First of all, it’s a big tent revival. But you’re there building the pulpit, but not Mr. Christian “PARAIZE THE LARD”. But, that song took me right back to “Eddie and the Cruisers”, and The Hooters feel to it.
NG: I live close enough to Philly for you to say “The Hooters” and I’m thinking HELL YEAH. That movie “Eddie” changed my life as a young kid, it made me want to get into music so that works.
JH: I hear ya, the Eddie and the Cruisers vibe was so familiar, and I remember feeling so alive and awakening as much as a 14-year-old kid could, you brought me back to some good memories there of those feelings.
NG: Yeah, I got you man. Honestly, if you listen to this album, you’re gonna hear some references to the Hooters, some references to Rick Springfield, that was my time man, the 80s, and that style.
JH: So what took you into going hardcore then?
NG: When I ran into punk, I had to have been in 8th grade, it was something new. I was into what I was hearing on the radio, Rick Springfield, and Prince. I still love that, it wasn’t a rebellion against that music, but the first time I heard punk, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I heard the Sex Pistols, and I’ll tell you why the music was cool, the lyrics were so nihilistic and down, “Shit sucks and we don’t care” what am I going to do with that? But then another UK band I found that changed my perspective, was The Clash, Joe Strummer, who had that positive message, of those fight songs, and the joy in the music that they brought through with the reggae overtones they threw into it.
JH: Oh man, “Ghetto”, on Combat Rock, that whole album is a masterpiece.
NG: Right, my way into punk was from The Clash, and that is going to have a HUGE influence on what I do.
JH: Well, my brother was very into Billy Idol, and Generation X and that was my intro into punk, he called himself an “Idol Worshiper”. I moved to Salt Lake, and the hardcore scene here was fantastic, full of “Straight Edge” kids, and all this “clean” punk. That was how I grew up in it, and it never went away. I can hear all this in your music, and I can still “Feel” like I was there through a lot of your other stuff. But then surprise, there you are quoting Isaiah, some from Paul, and the Ephesians.
NG: Well, a little about me, and why I know that much about the Bible, my dad is a pastor, so, yeah I went to church a lot growing up. So I have a lot around that, I have a pretty “out there” belief system, but, to me, it’s well, there COULD BE… But I don’t know. But for me, if it is scripture or philosophy, it makes its way into what I am talking about. I would say global cohesion, so someone hears it and says “yeah I know that”. So, GRACE was one of the songs that I wasn’t sure if it was going to even fit. Grace is very unfamiliar with the album, though it does have the most of that “CLASH” feel to it.
JH: Well, I noticed it had a lot more intensity.
NG: I think that the lyrics speak on that, “Falling into anger” on these topics, but growing older and having that grace to step back and check my anger and that there are more positive ways to act against a system that I don’t agree with. But how do I find people on a personal level without getting pulled into politics? I feel that it has been used by those in politics to make us fight and give them money. So, if I am not able to reach people on that personal level, then I am just engaging in tribalism. That is just me saying “HEY ME TOO GUYS”, instead, I’m trying to say “Maybe I can show you where I’m coming from” and maybe we can create that dialogue and find some common ground.
JH: Well, like you were saying “Rise Up Like A River” was a call to action, but let’s face it, we are all at the bottom of the barrel right now.
NG: We’ve all been there, myself included, I’ve had to catch myself several times, and just bring myself back and get a little perspective on how to approach people. Because of the pandemic, we have all been doing this, and we don’t have to interact with people or see them as “Humans” anymore.
JH: But there you are in the video with the big tent revival, those religious points were coming across there. I did notice that your guitarist is trans, and then it looks like a family and grabbed a family to have a good time.
NG: Yeah, that was me just with my friends, that wasn’t even my drummer. But yeah, my set comes across like a secular revival. I used to talk a lot between my songs on my sets, but I found a way instead of saying “This is what I think” to keep the energy up and love on people and get people to feel like they belong there, that is more of a political statement than just stating plain cold facts about things. So when I am up there, I am constantly telling the audience how loved they are, and how much we appreciate them for being a part of what we are doing.
JH: So your dad was a pastor, I see you have a lot of the charisma, you got the swagger up there.
NG: People asked me “Where was that move from?” I said “oh that was the worship pastor from…..
JH: Well, you aren’t dancing like Mick Jagger, but you do have the charisma on stage to make everybody feel like this is everyone having a great time, and you say, “You are valued, you are loved, let’s go make some noise”. That’s something everyone needs. In your song “Capitol Stairs” the title gives us everything about the song, but you have very early Alarm or Midnight Oil, … “Attack Mode” in that song, I was feeling The Alarm’s “Where were you hiding, when the storm broke when the rains began to fall”, and then Midnight Oil “Sometimes you’re beaten to the call”. But the attack of those two is in your song very powerful.
NG: Thank you, it was funny cause when I started writing that song, it came out a lot harsher than it ended up. On January 6, I was watching just to see what was going to happen, a lot of people tuned in wondering if Mike Pence was going to do it? Are we going to have a transfer of power, is it going to be a “shit show”, and of course it was. I was watching TV and all of a sudden things were happening, people were panicked, it was almost like the same feeling we had on 9/11 where we were asking “What’s happening?” “Where is it happening?” there was that initial fear, then for many of us, there was a lot of anger.
JH: Thus the line “That blood ain’t ever washing off your hands”.
NG: Exactly, I thought I needed to be cautious of what I said. It needs to be directed at the politicians who incited this, not so much those who were involved. I feel personally that a lot of people are “USED” to do these things, they are used because of the brokenness they have inside. We all have that in a lot of ways, and that is how bad people get people to do their bidding? They say “Do you see that hurt inside you? That’s THEIR FAULT”. So part of my mission is to reach those people as well, to say “I see it” let’s not worry about politics right now, let’s talk about what’s hurting you, and why you are lashing out. So in this song there is also a lot of “That didn’t work out the way you thought did it?” maybe you need to rethink where you are at. And to also give a wag of the finger to people who purposefully misguide people in these situations so that they obtain power, so they can keep power by creating a mob of people who aren’t necessarily bad people, some people are just hurt and some people do stupid shit because they are hurt. I have done stupid shit cause I was hurt. So how do we make that distinction, how do we call out the proper things, and how do we speak truth to power knowing that some people aren’t acting out power, they are acting out of hurt and brokenness because power is influencing their actions.
JH: So, I posted a meme a few days ago, I said “If you can’t look back on your younger self, and see that you were a complete idiot, then you ARE A COMPLETE IDIOT”. I get that I was angry, I was dumb, but that is completely UN-SEX PISTOLS of you to have said that.
NG: I KNOW!!!!! (Laughing) It’s so easy to create anger, anger, and division are the creation of politics. They have learned about our weaknesses and how to profit off our weaknesses. You can go see Trump and Ted Cruz, and then on the other side you had people like AOC who did photo ops in front of these places where they had immigrant children in cages crying, but where is she now? There are still immigrant kids in cages, it was a photo op, and they got us, they NAILED us, the only way we can combat that is to insist that they focus on real policies that help real people, it’s just showbiz now. It’s up to us to try to love each other more, so “They” can’t control us.
JH: So, you are PAN-sexual is that correct?
NG: Yes, that is correct.
JH: Then you have everyone on the spectrum in the band, you got any boring straight white guys in the band?
NG: Yeah, my drummer, he’s straight and white, not sure I’d call him boring.
JH: So can you explain the term “PAN-sexual”? I had a friend explain it to me, but please lay it out for us.
NH: I was delighted to find that term recently, I don’t think a lot of people know it. I always considered myself bisexual, with all the different terms and realms and words and meaning, but pan-sexual just really doesn’t matter at the end of the day. Bisexual gives you a goal post, Pansexual doesn’t at all, It doesn’t matter, whether woman, man, or “Other”, but with the public discovery of different genders, it has brought us to an understanding that for men or women, there is a lot of beyond that. Saying “PAN-sexual” means I can fall in love and have sexual attraction, if it happens it happens.
JH: So, part of me growing up in the hardcore punk world, we had the gay/bisexual kids, we want them to be welcome, but… where are they going to sit? A lot of the situation here was how do we include them? How was that for you?
NG: Well, I knew at a very young age, that there was a lot of confusion, especially being the son of a pastor, but learning that there wasn’t a place for it in the religious community. So once I figured out how I felt and where I was, now everyone is wanting me to pick one or the other. You run into a lot of it whether it’s in the church or society in general. You first face the discrimination that “Anything that’s queer is wrong” then it goes to “Pick a side dude”. Then it gets to “Why should I and why the fuck does it matter to you?” I also found that even in the enlightened hardcore scene, I ran into a lot of crap like that. In my old band we had a song called “Across Five Years”, it was about a relationship I had been in with a guy. And like most people you write a break-up song. It was a very touching song for a lot of people, and one time this guy comes up and talks to me about it “I loved that song “Across Five Years”, What was it about?”. So I said it was about my ex-boyfriend and how much I felt I missed out on walking away because I was terrified of my sexuality. IT was about not being able to be myself, and I couldn’t give him the love he needed cause I couldn’t figure it out what I was doing. Then his face dropped, and he was like “That sorta ruins it for me”. IT just dropped me, I almost started crying right in front of him, “WHAT THE FUCK DUDE, WHAT A DISMISSIVE SHITTY THING..” it would be one thing if he was like “Fuck you faggot” and walked off, but it was even worse how dismissive he was with it. As if MY experience ruined HIS life. You don’t have to see it that way, you ASKED.
JH: He had made the song mean something, and wanted his meaning to be validated.
NG: Right, for him it would have had to be with a girl. It’s one of those things like in society we have to be very cautious when we react to people like that. Why would that mean less to you because I was finding love differently? It’s still the same feeling, that should make it mean more to you. That everyone FEELS the same feelings you do, we all through that same things. It blows me away too, cause that song literally references coming out of the closet, and … well, you didn’t get that? DOH.
JH: So, Bob Mould said he felt being embraced in the punk world, being gay, and that they had a space for him there, even though it was to be quiet he still felt accepted, where in other places they weren’t. This is the early 80s, it was very visible when I was growing up, but “Where do the queer brothers and sisters sit?” we tried to make it, but it was still awkward? Do you still feel it that way?
NG: Now there are a lot of bands in punk and hardcore that are very queer based, that have queer members, and they are very outspoken about this, and that has shifted to where it’s not just there is a “scene” for everyone, now we’re everywhere in all of those spaces, and there are fortunately more straight white dudes in the “scene” who are getting up and talking on these things as well. Bands who normally don’t want to get political, well, you sorta have to. If you are not saying something, you’re not creating a space for this. Not that you have to be a political band, but still create an atmosphere of acceptance, a willingness for people to be themselves and be accepted in those spaces.
JH: Yeah, I’m an old “Against Me” fan, Laura Jane Grace was playing at LOVELOUD, and she was tearing it up, I met her later and got a picture, and she is an amazing person, I mean, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” what a great album.
NG: Her phrasing, and lyrics, she fits words in ways, Dylan-esque, how the work with the songs, it WORKS so well for her.
JH: So, final question. What would your message be to the young gay kid who is afraid, in the closet, and a vulnerable state?
NG: Well, what you want to say is just be yourself, it’s not that easy, many people are living in unsafe situations, sometimes in reality and in their own head they don’t feel safe yet to come out, to be who they are. It’s like you can picture individuals in your head, and all you want to do is go in there and hug them and save them. You want to say the perfect words, you want to say exactly what’s going to help them live a life of acceptance where they can be who they are. Honestly any time I think of that I think of more words to say to the people who are keeping them there. As someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife it’s hard for me to think that anyone would have to use this life, in misery, and that anyone would put them there in a life of misery. HOW FUCKING DARE ANYONE WASTE SOMEONE’S LIFE THAT WAY. I put it in my song working title, “Never alone” it’s about letting people know they are not alone in this. It’s hard to accept that, you can know it here, you can read statistics, you can say “I’m not the only gay kid in the world”, but in your heart, that’s a completely different world altogether. Not everyone is living in a world, and to say “This is who I am” and not be afraid of that. There are places like the Trevor Project, reach out to someone like that first. Go to someone who knows what they are talking about and can help you.
JH: Thank you, Nathan, this has been a heavy convo.
The full audio of this conversation can be heard here.