MICHAEL HOLMAN & NICHOLAS TAYLOR ON GRAY AND JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT
Interview by Glenn O’Brien Photographs by Nicholas Taylor
April 29th, 1979, Michael Holman and Jean-Michel Basquiat created the revolutionary sound/music/noise group, Gray. Gray’s music can be heard on film soundtracks, such as Basquiat, The Radiant Child, Downtown 81, Blank City and Downtown Calling. Today, original Gray member Nick Taylor and Holman make up the band. Other members of Gray have included Vincent Gallo, ustin Thyme (aka Wayne Clifford), and Shannon Dawson.
Since reuniting in 2010, Gray has performed live at the New Museum (New York City, July, 2011), Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C., March, 2012), the Parrish Museum (Watermill, November, 2012), and the International Beethoven Festival (Chicago, September, 2013)
Glenn O’Brien: So let’s talk about how Gray started.
Michael Holman: In the beginning, we had all these other names…
GOB: I have a poster that says Test Pattern.
GOB: What were the other names?
MH: Bad Fools, Channel 9, because Jean loved the shows on that station, like Felix the Cat and Popeye. When Nick finally joined us as a musician, Jean said, “I know the name of the band… Gray.” Something about that one word, the connection to industrialism, Gray’s Anatomy, the vagueness of it, the black-and-whiteness of it.
NT: After the Mudd Club opened, I met Jean, and we were dancing together by the front of the stage and stealing people’s beers and stuff. We stayed up all night taking photos. Jean introduced me to Michael. Shortly after that, they started telling me about the band, and asked me to be their roadie for the Hurrah’s show.
GOB: Was that your first gig?
MH: No. But Hurrah’s was one of our first important gigs. Jean was doing his poetry. I remember him reading “Brains and hands,” this mantra about human evolution. On some songs he’d be playing clarinet or a “Wasp” synthesizer. I was on drums back then.
But to answer your question about how it started, I had just come to New York and was hanging out a lot at a friend of mine’s studio, Stan Peskett. We saw this something in the Voice about a graffiti crew called the Fab 5. I called them, and spoke to Fab 5 Freddy. We three started hanging out and talking ideas. We decided, “Let’s do a party,” the Canal Zone Party. It really was the first moment Hip Hop and the Downtown scene rubbed shoulders. Then Jean shows up. We all knew the SAMO tag, but we didn’t know who SAMO was. Jean was like, “I want to be down…” We gave him a big roll of photo paper and he spray- painted, “Which of the following are omnipresent. A: Lee Harvey Oswald; B: General Melonry; C: Coca-Cola; D: SAMO©.” Then we realized, “Oh my God, that’s SAMO.”
NT: You have a video of that.
MH: Yeah. Later on he said, “You want to start a band?” That was April 29, 1979.
GOB: Who was next?
MH: Shannon Dawson, and then Wayne Clifford. Jean and Wayne hung out a lot back then.
NT: I was the roadie the first time I heard you guys play. MH: What did you think?
NT: I was watching Jean tune up the wasp – he only did white noise. I was just blown away by the energy. The drumming, so incredible, kind of Billy Cobham-esque. You had a song called “Red Ants,” where Wayne would play just two notes and then the other guys would
join in. I was so inspired that night, like, “Wow, for not knowing much about music, these guys are right up there with Miles Davis and Bitches Brew.”
MH: What’s interesting about this time period was the evolution in our sound. We wanted to go somewhere more John Cage-ian, and Shannon’s blasting horn was kind of holding us back. Eventually, Jean had to ask Shannon to leave the band. When Nick joined us permanently, as a musician, I remember thinking, “What if I put a microphone directly on the snare head, put it on reverb, and then hit the drum?” In the process of taping down the microphone and pulling the tape
off, I found this sound. Nick found a certain sound by playing his electric guitar with a pick along the strings, instead of against them. We were all like, “We’re not going to play the instruments the way they were meant to be played; we’re going to look for a more deconstructivist approach.”
NT: My place was a squat on West 92nd. There were only two or three people in the building, and you could play really loud until four in the morning. No heat also.
MH: Oftentimes, a song would start with percussion. I’d be fiddling around with something, and we’d build on the foundation of that. But, like “Red Ants,” it might start with Wayne’s keys. We’d each find our place by throwing ideas out and playing with them, then tossing them to the other person, like a round-robin type thing, purely musical, without conversation. We would give each other critiques and judgments, just with our eyes, our expressions. And we could write a good song in five minutes. Jean would name all the songs: “Braille Teeth,” “Red Ants,” “The Rent,” “Six Months.” They really captured our sound.
That last show we did at the Mudd Club (summer, 1981), I designed this “ignorant” Geodesic Dome, out of scaffolding, lumber and garbage, built by the whole band, minus Jean, who was not one to get his hands dirty, or take orders. Vincent Gallo was in Gray at this time. Jean finally arrived for sound check and saw what we’d built… an insane-looking jungle gym, built on top of the Mudd Club stage. I put my drums inside a cavity we created in the center of the stage, which was made up of 12 large building blocks. All you could see from the audience was my head. Nick was playing guitar so high up in the “Dome,” all you could see was Nick from his knees down. You couldn’t even see his guitar! Wayne and Vince were above my head and inside this wild contraption, strapped in at 45-degree angles with their keyboards, facing each other.
Jean was really blown away. He turns around, walks out, and comes back with something he found in the garbage. A 3’ cubed wooden crate… He squeezes into it, pulls his Wasp Synthesizer in with him, looks out at me and smiles. In five minutes, he found something that not only fit the design, but it made him the center of attention. It was like, “No, you can’t ever top me…” We made $5 each at that gig.
GOB: You mentioned Vincent Gallo. When did he come in?
MH: Wayne Clifford introduced Vince to all of us one afternoon, and I immediately liked him because he dug easy listening music. Few people understood easy listening music.
GOB: I used to play Henry Mancini all the time.
MH: Nelson Riddle, Mantovani…
GOB: Jackie Gleason Orchestra.
MH: Around that time I had moved in with Vince, uptown. I lobbied to bring Vince into the band. Vince was always a hardworking, super talented, stand-up guy. A genius, but we didn’t know it yet. He was so young.
NT: He knew a lot about the technical and recording side of things, a lot we didn’t know.
MH: Meanwhile, Jean’s reputation as an artist was blowing up. After the Mudd Club gig, he pulled me aside and said, “I’m leaving the band.” “I don’t want to be in a band and be a famous painter at the same time.” I remember being devastated. But I was like, “Ok, man. Go for it.”
NT: By the way, you (Glenn O’Brien)… were to us what Warhol was to the Velvet Underground. A lot of our first gigs happened because of you. The Rock Lounge birthday party gig for Leo Castelli; the first Mudd Club gig; CBGB’s gig with DNA and The Lounge Lizards… you wrote some amazing pieces about us in Interview that really captured who we were and what we were about.
GOB: I think we had a lot of the same musical sensibilities. I had also been really into Miles, and In A Silent Way and the first electric stuff that had a lot of space in it, and also the idea of approaching the instruments in a completely different way.
MH: I remember when you hired us to perform for Leo Castelli’s birthday party. Jean played this machine that this young artist made, Peter Artin, who had done an internship with Survival Research Labs in California. It was a huge, 15-horsepower electric motor, welded into a shopping cart that turned an axle that banged into the insides of the shopping cart itself.
NT: Noise robot or something. Plug it in and KHRRR… GOB: I’m having a flashback of this thing.
NT: It was off-balance, so it hit the stage, CRUNCH, CRUNCH…
MH: It was genius. Those were great times. I often read how people say, “It’s lame to look back, to hold on to the past.” But there’s something you wrote about us
in GQ: “Gray’s music, made 30 years ago, sounds like music, made 30 years from now.” I don’t think we’re stuck in the past. Are you kidding me? We’re stuck in the future! Everything we did back then, and are doing today, will be in vogue a hundred years from now!
GOB: I agree. I’ll watch movies from the late ‘60s, ‘70s, early ‘80s, and I’ll think, “Wow, you couldn’t make this movie today.”
GOB: I was looking at Jean-Paul Goude’s Jungle Fever book last night. He had this beautiful black model girlfriend, and he invented this plastic scarification.
MH: Oh, wow. Like African scarification.
GOB: He would be fucking taken out and shot today for even thinking about that.
GOB: So did you not do any music after that for a while?
NT: Michael was my roommate from about ‘81 until ‘83. What was great was Michael’s connection with the Bronx, Zulu Nation, bringing them downtown. I got my first gig as DJ High Priest at Negril, opening up for Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay. I put on a Sheryl Lynn “Got To Be Real” tape loop. I remember Jazzy Jay bumping elbows with Kool Herc and going, like, “What the fuck is that, man?” I said, “It’s actually a loop, man.” They were like, “Fuckin’ white boys downtown, man.” I turned into a 100% Hip Hop DJ, scratching vinyl and quick cutting and stuff. We put Gray in mothballs during those days.
MH: You were always producing amazing music, though. Romantic music.
NT: True! One thing that Michael and I have been talking about recently is the second floor of the Mudd Club, and how you would meet all kinds of interesting people… I met Timothy Leary. It was a great place to meet the last of the Beat Poets. That’s one thing we’re talking about, a little more spoken word on our second album.
MH: In our first comeback at the New Museum (2011), we created a song with Glenn, reading his boom poetry. When we release our second album that song, “Boom For Real,” is going to be on it. Glenn, you helped create one of our most seminal tracks. You were executive producer on “Drum Mode,” which was recorded for your film Downtown 81, which was not called that at the time, you had a different title…
NT: New York Beat.
MH: Before we did that recording, I bought a wooden xylophone for anyone to play, and Wayne picked it up and rocked it. It was genius what he did with it. It shows his genius.
NT: Yeah, it does.
MH: He made this horn sound that is so haunting. That’s the real lead instrument of Drum Mode… Wayne, with sweaty fingers, rubbing this wooden, African xylophone.
NT: “Drum Mode” was a song we did in live shows.
GOB: Yeah, I’d heard it. I was freaked out by the sound Michael got… pulling adhesive tape off the snare. I just thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.
MH: Wow, thanks. I remember playing a tape of the song for a record label. We were trying to get signed. It was a serious meeting. White dudes in suits. I said, “Jean, I need a tape recording of “Drum Mode.” Did you finish mixing it?” Jean: “Yeah, I got it, I got it…” He gives me the tape… It took a while to get it from him. I went to the meeting without listening to it, and I played it, and it was chaos.
NT: All the tracks were up all the way!
MH: I was really embarrassed. This was one time Jean’s genius didn’t pay off… They were like, “What is this?!” I went straight back to you and said, “Glenn, I really want to do another mix on this.” I didn’t want Jean to have anything to do with it. It was just Nick and I. We did a second mix of “Drum Mode,” which is the mix we have now, which I think is really good.
GOB: It’s great.
MH: Thank you. That’s kind of an interesting history to “Drum Mode.”
NT: Jean only played the triangle, I think. We put massive echo on it. It goes on for ten seconds, just one single hit of the triangle. We really hooked up the mix on that… totally.
GOB: What’s the story behind the Ashley Bickerton song?
NT: Late ‘90s. These two English cats, they called themselves The Ambassadors, put together a book called We Love You, of images – as well as a CD – of collaborations between interesting recording artists and fine artists. Like, Boy George and Tracy Emin created a song together, and artwork. So they paired Gray with Ashley Bickerton.
MH: Nick and I worked six months on “The Mysterious, Mr. Bickerton.” The composition was really beautiful. Ashley’s input was lyrics, and talking over the telephone with this woman from Paris who is “interviewing” him, in Bali. Then Nick does a quick rap, and I did a bit of singing. It was really interesting.
GOB: Yeah. That’s why I asked about it. I didn’t know where that came from. I knew Ashley when he lived in New York, and he’s a great artist.
MH: Around that time, we re-grouped, to play ourselves in Basquiat. As we were sitting on stage, kind of jamming, I was thinking, “This sounds pretty good.
I’d love to get us back together again!” We actually jammed a number of times with Jeffrey Wright, all of us (Nick, Michael, Wayne and Jeffery) as Gray. He went into the studio with us. We went to B.C. Studios and recorded.
NT: Wasn’t it after Jeffrey jammed with us that you and I and Wayne went to London for two weeks?
MH: Yeah. We sat down together and made a lot of great tunes. The culmination of that was, the three of us performing at the ICA in London, and James Birch’s gallery (1997). Then Nick and I continued on without Wayne, and made a lot of really cool music, as well. Then that kind of died out when I got a job teaching at Howard University in D.C.
NT: That lasted ten years.
MH: Ten years, we didn’t do anything. Then, in 2008, I said, “Let’s finish this,” and we did, and we’ve been working together ever since.
GOB: Survival, man. It’s a great strategy.