A seven year layoff saw members of Grayceon contributing to the world in a different way—providing more quality humans to reside on the surface of the earth. Since their last LP, 2011’s All We Destroy, Cellist Jackie Perez-Gratz (Giant Squid, Squalus, Amber Asylum, OM, Neurosis, Agalloch, Ludicra, Tribes of Neurot) has given birth to two future rockstars, and now she’s back in the saddle and ready to give birth to more beautiful, progressive music. With Grayceon, Jackie provides more than just cello, she provides soul-rending vocals, fierce howls, and her unique touch for somber melody.
Ahead of their fourth full length, simply titled IV, we sat down with Jackie to chat about the layoff, other projects, being a unique cellist and, and for no real reason beyond Manny’s curiously absurd mind, boats.
First off, you play the cello in a bunch of metal bands. That’s weird, right? Except, it works exceptionally well. At what point did you look at the cello and think it could work perfectly in a more progressive metal setting?
I wouldn’t call it weird, because it’s pretty much the norm for me. But you can call it weird if you want to! When I was playing with Amber Asylum in the late 90’s, we were doing a lot of metal shows in the local scene and performing at some metal festivals. But because we weren’t a metal band, we always had the challenge of proving to audiences that we could be heavy in a different way and that they might like us if they gave us a chance. We were also all women in a scene that pretty much had no women in it, so we’d get on stage and never really know how we would be received. I remember shows where I could hear the cash registers behind the bar clanging away while we played and the usual club chatter is especially exaggerated when the live music is subtle. There are only so many dagger eyes that Kris can give from stage to get people to stop talking. Anyways, I’ve always liked listening to heavy music, so at some point I thought, why not just play metal myself? I can do what those guys do. At the time I tried to pick up the electric bass again, after only having played it in a jazz band in 6th grade (a story for another time), but I couldn’t learn it fast enough. I would get frustrated because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do on bass, and I couldn’t do on the bass what I already knew I could do on the cello. I wasn’t specifically thinking cello could work in a metal setting, instead I was realizing I could play metal if I wanted to, being who I am. I was thinking, how easy and fun would that be?! Now, after having done it for awhile, I don’t know about it being easy, but it certainly is fun.
Although we’re talking about the latest Grayceon release—which is very good, I might add—I want to ask how much the cessation of Giant Squid led to having the time and energy to approach a new Grayceon release. Can you tell us how this long awaited LP came about? Was that related to the cessation of Giant Squid, or was this just a bit of a silver lining for the diehard fans?
Thank you, I’m glad you are enjoying it! I played in both bands for quite a few years, and we always managed to take turns recording and writing at different times. It takes a different amount of commitment depending on where you are in the cycle of a release, and we had it pretty balanced. It wasn’t until after I had my daughter Pearl in 2011 that the two bands’ schedules started to really conflict. I can’t forget to mention that both of my daughters are with the guitarist/vocalist of Giant Squid, Aaron John Gregory (who is now in Khôrada with the guys from Agalloch, whose debut album is hitting sometime this summer and is FANTASTIC!). After Pearl was born, being in Giant Squid became almost impossible without having to get sitters for every movement we made. If we wanted to rehearse, we had to get a sitter. If we wanted to play a show, we had to get an overnight sitter. If we wanted to go on tour, we had to get multiple overnight sitters. It was a mess. We were open to the idea of bringing Pearl with us on tour, but Giant Squid was never big enough to have funds to make that possible. This was half the reason why we stopped being a band. The other half is that I was trying to get pregnant again and having a lot of health issues for the last couple of years we were in Giant Squid. During this same period of time, I chose to also take a hiatus from Grayceon. I had just turned 40 and knew that if I wanted to have another baby, I would have to completely focus on my health and the pregnancy. At the time I went on hiatus from Grayceon, we had already written the album IV (well, mostly, with exception of the vocals). My timing was horrible, but Max and Zack are family to me, and they knew what I was going through and never gave me a hard time about it. They tracked the guitar and drums shortly after I “left,” which was 3 years ago, and I didn’t even know about it. Then they presented it to me and said, “we wrote these songs with you and these are Grayceon songs, so when you are ready we would love you to finish the album.” This was a beautiful gesture, and I knew the album would eventually come to be. I started to track stuff here and there, but then I got pregnant with our second daughter, Pepper, and she was born in 2016. When Pepper was around 9 months old, Max and Zack lovingly reminded me why I went on hiatus in the first place, and that’s when I went full force into finishing it. At that point, a couple of songs still needed cello overdubs, and the whole thing needed lyrics and vocals. We finished mixing in November 2017, so it was a busy time last year, especially with a young baby in the house. I don’t know why, but having to write lyrics and vocals for the whole album at once almost broke me. I’ve never done it that way before, and I will never do it that way again!
I want to ask you about the Bay Area in general. Going way back, there are rich roots of thrash and skate punk. Even back then, the idea of progression and artistic expression seemed to be alive and well. How has the tech revolution affected all of that for you natives?
Big cities change all the time, and San Francisco is no exception. I moved here in 1992 (so, not officially a native, but it’s been a while), and I watched empty lots built up, restaurants open and close, and “.com” eras come and go. And there was so much that happened before I got here, too. What’s happening now isn’t that different from all the other changes that have happened here, we’re just older and more worried about it. More and more artists and musicians are moving to Oakland, so the scene is thriving and vibrant in the East Bay, which wasn’t always the case, but it’s really great. This is the first time, though, that I’ve noticed the people in the city are different. There has been an actual population shift on a very large scale. By higher income folks displacing lower income folks in such high volumes, it’s not about “oh a new restaurant went up,” it’s now “whoa, where did all my people go?” I sometimes don’t recognize the city, and then I sometimes think some things never change. It’s hard to describe, but I think we’ll all be fine.
What’s your take on the secondary vinyl market? Some albums that you’ve played on, particularly Asunder’s A Clarion Call sell for a whole boatload of cash. Does that make you feel successful? Are your parents proud?
I’m actually not the cellist on that record- doh! I played with Asunder on Works Will Come Undone. It’s also hard to find a copy of that one, but they do pop up every once in awhile. The albums becoming rare doesn’t make me feel successful, but I do feel honored to be a part of so many projects that I truly believe/believed in over the years. I get a little sad when projects end, but I am happy to have collaborated with so many musicians and bands that are still relevant today, despite being non-extant. I do really wish I had been on more of Asunder’s recordings, though. They were one of my favorite local bands. I had performed live with them several times, and toward the end I had started going to Asunder practices. We were working on writing a new song which was mapped out in a diagram on a whiteboard in their studio. It was all very esoteric and magical. To my knowledge, it was never finished or recorded. But I did get to see John Gossard perform with Dispirit the other day, and they are awesome! As for my parents—I think they are proud. Professionally, they are both classical musicians and I blew away any visions of following their footsteps a long time ago. But, I know they’re happy I am still playing music, which really is a gift they gave me. I wouldn’t have practiced and studied and performed so much in my youth if they hadn’t been breathing down my neck all those years. My Dad said he was bragging about me to his orchestra kids the other day, using me as an example that there are a lot of different paths you could take in music, and my Mom (who I don’t even think has ever heard a single metal song) did an interview about me with a metal magazine a couple of nights ago, so, yeah, they’re proud of me. I didn’t really answer your question.
One theme that pops up across IV is wind and sailing. How much experience do you have sailing? What advice do you have for newcomers to the world of boating? How can they attain the level of success that you have at the America’s Cup level? What’s your favorite boat? Say you’re on a windward course, about to enter a tacking duel with your opponent, how would you make sure that you’re blanketing your opponent properly? How do you anticipate your opponent and keep them squarely in your lee?
Sailing, huh? No, none of the songs on IV are about sailing. But I can see how you might have been confused by the title of the second track, “By-The-Wind Sailors.” These are actually little blue jellyfish that get stranded on shore under extreme weather conditions. I really liked the way they look, so I started learning about them. Each apparent individual is actually a colony, which made me think about how I feel about my daughters. They are a part of me and I am a part of them, but we are our own selves. So, why not write a song about it? I did. I actually get very seasick on boats, so I have never been sailing and probably won’t any time soon!
I am curious what it’s like to be a cellist in a metal band and how you make yourself stand out.
I don’t really have anything to compare it to, since I’ve never been in a band playing a different instrument. During my youth, I played in orchestras, and the whole point of having 8 cellos in the section was to NOT stand out! But, by virtue of playing an atypical instrument in a scene that is typical (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), I stand out. Throw in my female gender, which is also pretty atypical in metal, and I tend to not just stand out, but JUMP out. Aside from these two things, something else that makes us stand out is that Max solely finger picks his guitar, which is practically unheard of in metal.
Before I close, I must ask, do you have any advice for people who have stage fright?
The more you perform, the easier it gets. So, keep performing as frequently as possible! Eventually, performing will become your second skin. Or, you can take a beta-blocker.
Our thanks to Jackie Perez Gratz for setting aside some time talk with us. Grayceon‘s IV will be released on May 18th through Translation Loss Records. Preorder choices for >>LP<< and >>CD<< are available now. GO BUY!