It is early March when I meet with Trevor Kim Gray at the University of British Columbia’s old student union building. Although it might be cliche to note, having our conversation here seems significant. Anyone familiar with the university’s architectural timeline will know that “the old SUB” has been largely abandoned in favour of a newer, grander structure. When Gray discusses his (somewhat) eponymously titled solo project Kim Gray, he challenges the idea of ‘progress’. His upcoming full length album Perfume is a new direction for him, but he won’t necessarily argue for change with a capital C. We discuss the merits of constructing in new ways, and finding a bridge between what’s familiar and what isn’t.
Gray is perhaps best known for his work as the front-man of Vancouver band Skinny Kids, an indie rock three piece with a sound that sits somewhere in between The Doors and Allah-Las. Skinny Kids is still a local fixture, and Gray’s solo venture exists less as a rejection of that band, and more out of a need for a separate outlet. Gray speaks of his solo project as a sort of compartment — a new drawer to put new music. “I had material that I wanted to record and it’s hard to say why, but I didn’t think it was appropriate to release it under the Skinny Kids name. I wanted to write these lovey, poppy songs, and I knew they needed their own entity.”
Gray’s first solo release was Backseat Bingo, a four track EP recorded by Drew Wilkinson of Dead Ghosts. He cites “old ‘50s and ‘60s girl group music” as inspirations, and the comparison holds true: the album is washed out beach pop, the cover is a film photo of Gray outside a diner, and the whole thing drips with nostalgia. The record is decidedly good, but seems to act mainly as a stepping stone for what is to come. Perfume arrives at the end of April, but the single, “Perfume Ghost,” was released in early February. Upon listening to it one thing is abundantly clear — although Gray may not address it directly, this album represents a definite change in approach. Gone are the ‘50s vibes and Beach-Boys-esque “ooh babys.” In their place are synths, drum machines, and a striking vocal melody that lacks the innocence of past ventures. Gray seems to have exorcised his Brian Wilson demons, unearthing something different in the process.
In this respect, Gray acknowledges the contributions of friend and producer Malcolm Biddle. A musician himself, Biddle is constantly recording his friends’ albums in his shed, situated twenty feet from The Lido, a venue that has hosted many of these performers as well. Anyone who complains that Vancouver has a weak music community should look towards Biddle’s studio for inspiration. Gray recorded the entirety of Perfume there, and speaks highly of his experience: “I am a big fan of everything Malcolm has done — Capitol 6, Dada Plan, and his solo stuff. I had no idea what was going to happen with [Perfume], but the two of us bounced ideas off each other and I’m really pleased with what they became. Synths and drum machines were something different for me, and it made recording music feel new again.”
While discussing the release plan for Perfume (both vinyl and cassette), I take the opportunity to question the recent resurgence of the cassette. Despite harbouring a fondness for tactile mediums, three years of having a Stompin’ Tom Connors cassette irreversibly lodged in my car has led to a certain skepticism when it comes to tape. Gray is less conflicted: “I really like cassettes. Yes, they do sound worse and worse as you play them. And eventually, if you play the cassette enough it’s not going to be there. But maybe there’s something special about that. You don’t know how many more times you can listen to that song — you better enjoy it while you can.”
In saying this Gray points to an ideal that both he and many of his peers uphold. It’s a way of treating music with a constant, reverent urgency. It is what leads to new recording projects beginning before the last record is cut to vinyl. It is four song EP’s with quick turnaround times being favored over longer form records. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the use of tapes could in fact be a perfect representation of this notion: the impermanence of magnetic film and plastic spools elevate the listening experience. Like eating a sandwich or having gas in your car, you appreciate it all the more for knowing that it will inevitably run out.
Gray embodies this urgent productivity. With Perfume yet to be released he is well into recording another album. His live band has grown, now consisting of Joon Baek, Thomas Schmidt, and Geoff Thompson. When asked about any thematic shifts in his songwriting Gray is pragmatic: “Writing songs has always been therapy for myself, so I would hate to impose my shitty feelings on those who are listening. I write a lot of songs. A lot of them are shit. I choose some that are ok, and this is how I make a record. I’m not necessarily sure if any thematic shifts were intentional. Things change anyway.”
This may actually be the best way to think about Kim Gray’s music. Discussing ‘songwriting’ with Gray seems strange and forced precisely because it is something so natural. When Perfume arrives it will be exciting, but it is not an end goal. Just as an old Stompin’ Tom tape or an old building are placeholders for a specific time in history, so too will Perfume be a welcome addition to Kim Gray’s already unique body of work.
Perfume will be released digitally in late May, with a release show date yet to be determined. It will be on cassette through Lolipop Records, and 12″ vinyl through Resurrection Records. Visit kimgray.bandcamp.com for more info.