Ben Grey (Scarlet Grey)

The music scene is full of bands who claim to have a fire inside with their charismatic frontman, deep punk roots and catchy choruses. While the verdict is still out there, Los Angeles-based Scarlet Grey is determined to show the critics that they are different from the pack and their music comes from an honest place. Scarlet Grey frontman and guitarist Ben Grey spoke to Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about the new EP, Fancy Blood., why they are not an AFI cover band and their short-lived relationship with Jordan Knight.

How’s it going today?
I’m brewing my first cup of coffee in three weeks.

Holy shit.
I know, it was doctor’s orders. I was on tea for three weeks and it was a god-damn disaster.

Why the tea prescription?
My vocal cords were hemorrhaging so I was on this wild voice rest with no coffee, no whispering, nothing. There was a laundry list of things I could not do and it was not cool. So, I’m pretty psyched today to have this coffee.

(laughs) So your voice has recovered just in time for your new album, Fancy Blood, to come out. How are you feeling about the new album?
It’s the first record that I’m really proud of. For all of the little EPs and recordings that we’ve done, we’ve never really had the money or capability to make it really great. For the first two recordings that we did, we had this kid who interned at a recording studio and we’d sneak in after-hours and do these recordings before it opened back up the next morning -we were at the mercy of our limitations. This time, we still did the album ourselves, but we had some more opportunities. I’m thrilled man, it’s the first time it’s sounding the way I want it.

So are you looking for a label right now?
Yeah, we’re looking to assemble a team to whatever capacity that is. I mean, if we meet the right people and we fall in love then we’ll definitely go that way, but at the same time, we’ve been doing it on our own for so long that we are skeptical - like, we’ll be asking, "What can they really do that we can’t?"

That sounds really empowering…
Yeah, it is man. It’s totally scary, but totally empowering at the same time (laughs). Growing up listening to music and buying every album that a label would put out, like knowing that you liked that label and all its bands, that was such a cool thing too. I do feel empowered though, don’t get me wrong.

What’s the background behind the name Fancy Blood?
Fancy Blood was an expression that my parents always used. It was kind of strange, like when a kid was different or something, they always said, "That kid has fancy blood." I used to think it had a negative connotation, but when we were making this album, we never felt more different from the people in our scene - like, we didn’t wear neon and we didn’t use autotune in our songs. So that phrase came back and we started describing ourselves as having fancy blood.

It’s weird, when my dad used to say it, he used to slip into this southern accent, but he’s from Pittsburgh (laughs). I just thought about that as I was talking about it… But yeah, this album is kind of a love letter to the underground that we still care about and not the current trends and the way that’s going.

When you say, "the people in our scene," what scene are you referring to?
Well, that’s a good question - it’s pretty foggy. We’re from Los Angeles and the city is so spread out. The one thing that we’re so jealous of that a lot of bands have is exactly what you just asked me about - the scene. Who even knows what the Los Angeles music scene is. It’s just kind of crabs in a barrel with other bands hoping you fail and trying to make it. So the only thing you can do is try to define your own scene and try to make the best music you can. So what I mean by "scene" is actually the "lack of a scene."

Who writes most of the Scarlet Grey music?
Usually I will either start the song or end the song. So, meaning that I will come in with something and try to rip it and the band will finish it or we will all make something happen in practise and then I’ll leave and finish the melody. It’s definitely a communal experience with everyone throwing a lot into the mix. It’s never like, "These are my jams, don’t touch them." (laughs)

You’re never territorial…
Yeah, nobody’s territorial and everyone’s pretty cool.

And I understand you guys are from all over the United States?
Yeah (laughs). I’m actually from here (Los Angeles), Keith (Cooper), our drummer, is from Long Island, Pete (Emperador), our bass player, is from Sacramento, Cole (Martin), our guitarist, is from this little, little town called Aberdeen, Washington and then we just started jamming with a keyboard player (Alix Peters) from Germany and barely speaks English, which always freaks out sound guys during sound check (laughs). It’s really cool because everyone comes from some well-defined musical communities - like Long Island definitely had, don’t know if it still does, a crazy sound, Sacremento has the Deftones and Aberdeen has who-the-fuck-knows (laughs). But it’s very cool to see all of these different musical backgrounds coming together to create something very interesting.

Yeah, agreed. I also understand that some of the guys from AFI were involved with the new album. Can you tell me who they were and how they contributed to Fancy Blood?
Yeah, I met Davey Havok about two years ago through a mutual friend. We kind of hit it off and became friends really quickly. Last year, Dave asked me to sing backing vocals on Crash Love, so when we were making our record, I was like, "Hey man, remember how I sang on your record…" (laughs) I asked Davey to sing on the song "The Sky and I", I wrote a part for him, and he came in and did it and it was killer. Then Jade did some production on a song called "Fancy Blood," track two, that really needed to be taken to another place. So, he was in Japan and in three days he sent me back the track and it had this lavish arrangement and soundscape that I can’t imagine the song now without it.

But everything you’ve heard about them being the raddest guys and being all about making good music and being good friends - it’s all true. The fact that they would want to be part of our little record is very flattering and very cool so we’re honored for them to be on it.

Any wise words of advice from Davey at all?
Yeah, he’s always spitting some sort of knowledge as to what to do (laughs). No, it’s more of an empathy than wisdom because in a lot of ways, he’s baffled on how a band starts now. Because you know, his band was a part of what was going on in the East Bay in the early 90s. He always talks about that and says to us, "How do you do this now? Like, fucking Myspace? What do you do?" It more stresses me out (laughs). But as far as songs go and composing goes, him and Jade, the two of them, really know a lot about it and it’s very cool to talk to them about that - they’ve been doing it for 20 years.

Another big thing I learned from them is how to treat people. I don’t know how a lot of bands get off, at the beginning of their career, treating people like shit and acting tough and like they’ve done it all. If you act like a real person, that definitely goes a long way they’ve definitely done that.

Jumping to a different topic, what are some misconceptions that you’re beginning to see out there as the buzz around the band grows?
It’s a good thing when people feel one way or the other strongly. I think a lot of people feel like we came out of nowhere when we first did the AFI dates in March and a lot of people were like, "Who the fuck are these guys?" I think we’ve been toiling around at least four years before this. Like, we were so underground that the underground didn’t even know we existed (laughs). Especially in a time of music when all bands are guilty until proven innocent, the one thing I’d like to say is that we certainly don’t expect everyone to like our music. That’s fine, but in the end, we’re definitely on your side as far as music goes. We may disagree as to what is cool, what works, but we are definitely in it for the right reasons and we’re definitely not trying to be something we are not.

I did a thing on the last leg of the (AFI) tour where Davey asked me to come to sing "Love Like Winter" and when that Youtube clip hit, a lot of people were saying that I was trying to do Davey moves, which was totally not the case - I guess a rock and roll point is now considered Havok territory (laughs).

A rock and roll and point?
Yeah, it looked like a lot of people thought I was trying to be like Davey aside from the fact that I play guitar 95 per cent of the set, I look nothing like him and we dress nothing alike. But it’s fine because the fact that people are talking about it is cool with me. In the end, we are not the enemy - we listen to music made before 2006 and we are definitely not bad for you (laughs).

So, you are not an AFI cover band…
I think that aside from the fact that both of our bands like crowd vocals, there’s not a lot of similarity. I mean, people are going to make up their own minds either way. Our influences are so much wider than just AFI, even though we really love them and I don’t hide the fact that I went crazy when I discovered them when I was 17. When people hear the record in its entirety I don’t think they’ll hear an AFI cover band. It’s going to be a natural stigma that if you’re associated with an act, especially in the beginning of your career, they’re going to think that that is what you’re going for. When you hear the new record, you’ll hear a lot of influences like Elvis Costello and stuff that was happening in the Brit pop movement in the 60s and 70s. But, yeah, people will probably hear one of the songs and be like, "Yeah, this sounds like AFI." and I’ll disagree. That happens and we have a thick skin so it’s totally cool.

Who are your other influences?
There’s a lot. I grew up playing blues guitar so that was the first thing I got into and then it was The Beatles, which I’m still into. When I was 12, like most kids in 1994 and 1995, Green Day was the gateway drug. Then I got into The Misfits, TheDead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and then I got into stuff like Mission Of Burma and Stiff Little Fingersbands. Over the years I got into some crazy shit like New Order, Squeeze and Television. Now, I really like Metric and Two Door Cinema Club and some harder stuff like Fucked Up.

Yeah, great band…
Yeah, they’re really good. For me, it’s really case specific and it’s about the song. I’m a very big advocate of big melody and I don’t think that pop has to be a guilty pleasure. I don’t know where along the lines a band would use autotune and all of a sudden it’s pop music. Pop music used to be dangerous and used to be really rad - like, Elvis Costello and some band on Myspace are totally different.

Yeah I absolutely agree that "pop music" shouldn’t necessarily be synonymous with "shitty."
Yeah, totally.

So, where did the band name come from?
The name of band is the name of the main character of a children's book I wrote a few years. I’m hoping it’s coming out soon because it’s kind of inherently part of what the band does, but it was never meant to be this weird, gimmicky thing. We used to have the worst band name on the planet. When we started, we were incredibly fast and loud and not put together at all…

What were you called?
(laughs) We were called the Manatee Band…

Yeah, so fucking dumb. But when we started, we didn’t expect this to be a viable career option - we just wanted to play fast, we wanted to play loud and we wanted to play living-room shows where our friends could lose their minds. So when people started to take us seriously, we wanted to change names and we didn’t want to go onto - we wanted something that was part of what we were doing. The last song The Manatee Band ever wrote was called "Scarlet Grey" and the theme of that song was an idea of trying to make something of value - we thought that was a cool moniker to have. That was what were trying to do conceptually and thematically so we just made the transfer and nobody seemed to notice (laughs).

So you started off more so as a hardcore, punk band?
Yeah, it was more just confusion (laughs). Most of the songs were really fast and we had a friend who would growl in the songs, but not like a hardcore growl and we included him just because we wanted him in the band (laughs). If you listen to the first Scarlet Grey EP, those are mostly the confusing Manatee Band songs. We just wanted to play.

It sounds like you were trying to find your bearings at that point…

Is your last name really Grey?
It is, but I actually changed it. I think that if you ranked last names, my real last name would be one of the worst ever - a mix of German and Jewish. The band affectionately calls its fan base the Grey Family and I decided that I would be the first one to change their name.

Ok, another awkward question, is it true you really opened up for Jordan Knight from New Kids on the Block?
Yeah man, that’s completely true - I love talking about this (fake laughs). We had a friend who was booking us at The Roxy and he said, "I have this really crazy opportunity for you. Do you remember New Kids on the Block?" and I said, "Fuck yeah I do." - I have this disturbing memory of my first time on stage, lip syncing to a New Kids on the Block song when I was eight. Don’t print that please. So anyway, we told our friend that we wanted to do it and we rewrote our set to make it the heaviest possible set. The show was sold-out, with mostly late-30s to early-40s women wearing Jordan Knight t-shirts and so we knew it would go off in a bad way. When we met him backstage he was a total prick. I went up to him and gave him the benefit of the doubt and was like, "Excuse me Mr. Knight, it’s a privilege to be playing with you." I was going to tell him about my first time on stage singing the New Kids song when he totally frosted me and gave me a dead-fish handshake. So we played the heaviest, craziest set (we were direct support) and we had some friends start this insane pit. It was so ridiculous and almost like performance art at that point. But yeah, that was our big break - he doesn’t call us anymore.