Interview: James Gray goes pop


In the Twin Cities, you’re allowed to admit you like all kinds of music—from blues to bebop to baroque and back. Except one thing: admit you like pop music and people will look at you like just farted. Which is too bad, because such snobbery will cause you to miss out on listening to a bunch of talented cats who make some pretty damned good music.

Room For Gray, they’re called, and they truly know what they are doing. Led by singer-songwriter James Gray, the band has solidly established itself in a relatively short span of time. They started in 2002, cut an album in 2004 and an EP last year and are in the studio now, cutting a new album. Along the way, they’ve worked with producers Jeff Harrington (Warner Brothers, Atlantic Records) and Andre Fischer (MCA). They’ve played throughout the Midwest, have opened for Starship, and performed on morning shows at KARE-11 and WCCO. Recently MTV asked for permission to air Room For Gray in rotation on The Real World and Road Rules. Somehow, it’s doubtful they’re worried about what nay-sayers may think of pop rock.

After Mitch Robbins, what happened with the band?
Mitch [was] replaced about two months ago by Dariel Almeida, who hails from the Dominican Republic and recently moved to the Twin Cities and found us on MySpace, looking for a guitarist. Mitch left the band because this business just started to drag him down too much with the [few] successes compared to the thousands of failures, and he wanted to give a stab at possibly practicing law. He moved this band to new heights all of the time and kept me pushing forward, and I am really going to miss his persistence and hard work in this band. We are still friends, so I am hoping to still keep him involved on a low-key basis.

How was the adjustment?
You know, over the course of the last six years, since I formed this band, we have had quite a few member changes, and typically they are a little rough—but with Dariel it really wasn’t any work at all. He came to practice knowing exactly what he needed to do and what role to fit in to. We just played two shows with him last weekend in Fargo and they went great. He is amazing.

How’d the band get put together in the first place?
I’m originally from Rochester, and I tried to form a band for years there. I could never get anything to happen, so I decided it was time to move to the Cities to find the people I needed, purely because there was a much larger music scene here. In October of 2001 I moved to Minneapolis and started placing ads. I tried working with quite a few people, but nothing ever jelled. Then, in June 2002, my girlfriend at the time was studying at Anoka Ramsey with this guy and she said he played guitar. They started studying in our apartment and I introduced myself to David Roo. He studied less and less over the next few weeks. He and I started working together on a daily basis and hit it off musically. We [played] shows over the next four years. David continued to suffer from severe performance anxiety, and that was not helping the band move forward. We both agreed that we enjoyed writing together, so we decided that would be the best relationship for the band—[for David] not to be a part of the live performances.

“We will continue to rock as many faces as we can.”

Has work on the second album begun yet?
We just finished pre-production on the album and start recording [soon], so I am really excited. World Record Productions is producing this album. They’ve done some great work in the past, so I can’t wait to see how this project will turn out.

The material on the self-titled album and Moving On were written by you and David Roo. What about the material on the new album?
I had a little time away from David as we were going through the transition from him playing to just being a writing partner, so I wrote a few songs on my own that I am really proud of. They’ll be a part of this. The remainder of the songs were written in collaboration between us.

Does the album have a title yet?
I was thinking most likely, The Next Step. As Moving On reflected some huge changes in all of our lives, I think this title reflects what we are trying to achieve.

What’s next for the band?
Most important is getting this record done and making it look and sound the best that an independent record can sound. With our previous recordings, we did all right with the budget but for the last year we have been saving every penny. I want to be able to play this for a record executive or any fan and not make excuses. I want people to know this is the best we could do. We decided to limit the album to only songs we feel everyone could grasp very easily and made the appropriate changes and cuts to the songs to make them as straightforward rock as we can so our audience [grows to] as large as it can be. With our first album we had quite a few five-minute songs—and some longer—but with this project the majority of the songs are 3:30 or less. After this we will continue to rock as many faces as we can and try to get this CD in as many hands as possible.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.