An Interview with Nathan Gray of BOY SETS FIRE

Interview by Ray Van Horn, Jr. - August 2006

Since breaking into the punk scene with their seminal 1997 album, "The Day the Sun Went Out," Boy Sets Fire has come several miles, many of them bumpy. It’s sometimes hard to stick to your convictions when your record label is pumping your life’s blood like an intruding dialysis machine in search of the next hit of the month, but when your band hails from Delaware, a state where people automatically question your sexuality based on beaches reported to be havens for the gay community, you develop a stiff upper lip that propels you past such adversity. It also lends you a bonus sense of humor as you will discover in this highly entertaining interview with Boy Sets Fire vocalist, Nathan Gray. Spend some time with the man, and you’ll undoubtedly laugh as hard as I did through forty-five minutes in a one-on-one hashing out of topics ranging from politics to the state of rock'n'roll to detailed anecdotes revolving around the recording of the band’s latest album, "Misery Index: Notes From the Plague Years."

Rough Edge: The first thing I want to get on and off the table is how Boy Sets Fire completed "The Misery Index: Notes From the Plague Years" reportedly "under a state of duress." How so?

Nathan Gray: (laughs) That makes it sound more important than it is! Awesome! (laughs) "A state of duress!" How did we pull it off? It was more dumb luck, I think, than anything else. We’d had a lot of the album written for awhile and when we had problems with Wind Up, I actually wasn’t expecting when I asked them to let us go that they would! (laughs) Back even further than that, they wanted us to get a co-writer; they weren’t happy with the record ("Tomorrow Come Today"), they didn’t think there was a single, blah blah blah… We kept telling them that we didn’t really care; we’re not really a single {oriented} band. It’s just not our thing; we don’t care, you know? If it just so happens we luck into a single, that’s great, but we’re not going to work our asses off for it, or let someone else write a song so we have it, which is what they wanted us to do. Finally, I just said "Look, you guys are miserable, we’re miserable, we’ve been trying to do this two, three years, why don’t you just let us go?" And they were like, "Okay, cool." To their credit, it was awesome, because we owed them like a million dollars! (laughs) It was pretty cool they let us go, let us have all the songs. They weren’t dicks about it, so that’s cool. After that, it sort of worked out itself; it was just sort of dumb luck after that, because it was like, "Okay, what label next? Oh, Equal Vision, that’s easy enough!" We were like "Do you want to sign us up?" They were like "Of course we want to sign you up! Let’s do it!" Then after that, we went into the studio and we first sort of changed up some of the songs and made them exactly how we wanted them and all that kind of shit, but then we just went in the studio and did it.

Rough Edge: Obviously, the East coast is very tough for any kind of band to break in. I know you guys had Avail help you out a little bit…

Nathan Gray: Yeah, definitely.

Rough Edge: Reading over your band’s salad days, you guys have enough stories to make a book called “Young Bands and Their Humble Beginnings,” you know?

Nathan Gray: (laughs) Yeah!

Rough Edge: The song “(10) And Counting” alludes to that, so would you care to elaborate a little more?

Nathan Gray: Yeah, sure! The whole thing behind “(10) And Counting” is that it was sort of retrospective on what we’d gone through and looking back at that time fondly, because they were great times. Not only that, but they made us who we are today, and honestly, it’s also sort of a lash-out—to a side-handed extent—to bands that just immediately “make it,” you know, those bands who haven’t even played a live show and all of a sudden they’re signed and they’re fucking huge. Honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could possibly respect a band like that. You have to pay your dues! You have to get out there and you have to work for it. You don’t just have a buddy in another band that gets huge…you know, it just seems lame! It’s like with anything in life; you should have to work for what you get! Otherwise, what’s it worth? Freebies are not worth anything. Anyway, the point being, it’s sort of fondly looking back on breaking down, being poor… There were times where we went two weeks in a van with just a jar of peanut butter and some bread…sometimes. Frequently we had to eat the peanut butter out with a spoon! We’d be doing tours where we bought the van with our own money, we supported the tour on our own money, we didn’t have a label supporting us. We didn’t have anyone supporting us! We’d make maybe thirty dollars a night. I remember the first time we made a hundred bucks; we were ecstatic! It was like ‘Oh my God, a hundred dollars!’ (laughs) It was like being a 15-year-old kid, you know? (laughs) So yeah, that’s what it’s really about, just sort of looking back fondly and how it shaped the band, and at the same time being the advice I give bands actually, anytime: get out there and do it on your own first. Don’t let just anybody give it to you. Otherwise, you’re going to be a flash-in-the-pan and no one’s going to give a shit about you three years from now.

Rough Edge: Extending that thought, I think Boy Sets Fire is one of the few truly progressive punk bands out there, while certain others, who I’m going to leave unnamed…

Nathan Gray: (laughs) Always better that way!

Rough Edge: (laughs) They pose as alt rock or alt punk or progressive punk and it’s still nothing but a glam game minus the real edge of glam. There’s a lot to be said about your band’s honesty and integrity; you stuck to your convictions through your previous labels and a dedication to craft that allows The Misery Index to breathe in the context it was conceived. Would you agree?

Nathan Gray: Oh yeah, absolutely! I’m actually excited that we can still be relevant to people, because we weren’t really sure when we put this album out—we were just putting out an album that we love—and it was sort of one of those things where if everybody loves it, that’s awesome, if nobody loves it, that’s awesome too, because we think we did the best we could with this album and we’re very proud of it. I’m really stoked that people are actually getting into it and that it seems like there’s some kind of hope in the music industry with that, because we don’t wear makeup, you know? (laughs) We don’t do the dumb, flashy bullshit, you know what I mean? I guess that’s cool, but sometimes it seems like ‘Oh, your music wasn’t good enough, dude? Sorry!’ (laughs) 

Rough Edge: (laughs) I’m really intrigued by your statement that “pain creates good art.” Referring to Boy Sets Fire’s salad days again, do you feel that taking the harder road has allowed your band to create good art?

Nathan Gray: Absolutely. Without a doubt. I think that’s why the last album we put out wasn’t, in my opinion, as good as anything else we’ve done. We worked in that position of real pain; I think the label was throwing money at the time, trying to make us think that they were going to back us and everything, you know? (laughs) Actually, when we did "Tomorrow Come Today," we were in a pretty good spot, financially and otherwise, so I think the album came out a little less pissed and a little more mainstream and like, nyeh… That’s just my opinion, though. I think there are good songs on that album, but out of all the albums that we’ve put out, that one was probably the one where I’m like, ‘Nyeh, not as good.’ It may be because I know what we went through with the other albums. I look at the other albums where we were suffering, including this new one, and there were those times seriously where I thought it was honestly just going to be just me and Josh (Latshaw, guitarist) trying to reform a band, because at some point, Chad (Istvan, guitarist), Robert (Ehranbrand, bassist) and Matt (Krupanski, drummer) all threatened to quit at some point! (laughs) It was fucking disastrous! Everybody was fighting each other, no one could get along, and it was basically just me and Josh sort of holding the thing together. Not musically, but as far as friendship-wise and the emotional state of the band, it was basically us going ‘No, you’re not allowed to quit! Fuck you, I’ll punch you in the face if you quit!’ (laughs) ‘We’ve got to at least do this album!’ That was sort of the mantra, ‘We’ve got to at least do this album,’ and the funny thing was, once we released it, there was no talk about it anymore. It was almost like our healing period once we put it out and went ‘Wow, we did something really cool here!’ and we didn’t have to listen to all the bullshit and we didn’t have to fight about all this crap. This is great. It’s cool how this album went from being the most divisive, depressing thing ever to being a sort of sticking point and a healing point for all of us. 

Rough Edge: Sometimes you need to dig extra harder internally to reach the objective…

Nathan Gray: The most intense moment actually, I remember, was when we did “With Cold Eyes.” That song is actually about my experience as a kid and everything within the church and stuff like that, and a lot of abuse and crazy shit that happened, and while doing that song, there were a couple of times where I had to stop. They’re like ‘All right, dude,’ and I’m tearing up, this is ridiculous. It was very intense, especially doing the lyrics and having the other guys in the band help me with the lyrics, and then going in there and having them sort of pep me up; not only that, but Chad was a hardass on me, which was awesome, because I asked him to. He would be like ‘Dude, you sound like a pussy! Do it again!’ or like ‘Come on, dude, that’s a way more intense song than you’re letting it be right now! Just fucking kick it out and stop being an asshole!’ (laughs) I’d do the same thing to him with the backups; I’d say ‘Yeah, you sound like an ass!’ We’d actually get each other pissed off to where it was like ‘Fuck! Fuck you! AHHHHHHHHHHHH!’ (laughs) It worked out really well!

Rough Edge: (laughs) Good stuff! By the end of the tirade of "The Misery Index" there comes a message of hope and unity instead of just bitching for bitching’s sake. It’s almost reflective of society. If we’re going to see a radical change in our society that sets it on a more righteous course, using your album as an example and showing a message of hope at the end…as applies to society, how would you see something like that coming about?

Nathan Gray: What I usually state for this question is that I think it all starts—and this is what I try to tell people, actually—all the aloof political ideals, this Noam Chomsky bullshit, and all the left wing rhetoric, what-not…it’s sort of self-righteous back-patting. For the most part, I think it gets a little boring and it gets a little old. I think that a lot of that stuff has to start from a more real level. The twenty-five cent words and bullshit sort of gets old after awhile and I think it actually has to start with how we relate to people in general. Like with people who consider themselves revolutionaries or leftists, whatever you want to call people, one of the biggest problems I see with the left and with revolutionaries and stuff like that is they’re so aloof and they’re so up their own asses with the twenty-five cent words and the Noam Chomsky books and looking down on people without ever realizing that they’re really doing it. I think it takes a lot of revolutionary need to shut the fuck up one second, have a beer, hang out and be a normal person! That’s why the right wins, you know? (laughs) 

Rough Edge: (laughs) Sad, isn’t it?

Nathan Gray: They’re very well-organized, they’re very down-to-earth, they give the illusion of the people’s people, like ‘We’re just regular, good ‘ol downtown boys,’ that type of bullshit and meanwhile, the left is like ‘We’re so much better! We live in Soho, blah blah blah…’ You know what I mean? That fucking Berkeley nonsense. Then there’s the fact that the left has been just ravaged with this p.c. nonsense that gets in the way every five seconds! Honestly, if you consider yourself a revolutionary, and you can’t sit in a bar with a bunch of working class dudes and the second you hear "nigger" or "faggot," you freak out and jump up and say ‘Fuck you!’ and leave, you’re not a real revolutionary, and you’re not going to make a difference in the world around you. You have to be able to be a little more thick-skinned and a little bit less of a pussy. I’m not saying those things are right to say; what I’m saying is that when you hear words like that, and when you hear people talk like that, if you get up and say ‘Fuck you, you racist, homophobic dickheads!’ and walk out, those people aren’t going to change. That’s just going to fuel what they believe! If you can sit there and have a conversation and sort of turn it around, even maybe turn it into a joke and just have fun with these people, after awhile, they might be like ‘Hey, this guy maybe has a point!’ That’s what revolution is based on, I feel. It’s how we treat people around us, and if we don’t treat everyone with respect—whether they deserve it or not—then we have no hope of creating change.

Rough Edge: In a way, that leads us into the song “Nostalgic for Guillotines.” I’m wondering if, on our present course, if we’re not one day setting ourselves up for another French Revolution of sorts…

Nathan Gray: It’s gotten to that point where people don’t even realize how government should work. With that song, I read about these time periods where the government was afraid to step out-of-line. They were fucking terrified! They tried their best, like ‘Okay, we’ve got to be cool, got to be cool…they’ll kill us if we’re not cool!’ (laughs) Now it’s the other way around. Now the populace is like ‘Okay, we’ve got to stay in line, got to stay in line, because you never know what they can do to you!’ You know what I mean? It shouldn’t be that way! (laughs) It should be the other way around! 

Rough Edge: That ties into the theme of freedom that runs throughout "The Misery Index." I think one’s definition of freedom depends on the individual’s personality, ranging from nihilism to pacifism to the attitudes in-between. What do you think defines constitutional freedom as relates to what you’ve just said?

Rough Edge: As far as I’m concerned, the government as we have it—and I don’t care if we’re talking Bush or the Clinton era, it’s a lot the same to me with the exception of a couple of environmental rules… The reason I say that is the Patriot Act we have now, Clinton tried to pass after the Oklahoma bombing. It’s been in effect for awhile, whether it’s Democrat or Republican. The point being, the system as we have it now does not work. Capitalism is the problem in a lot of ways, shapes and forms. I say that, not as saying that communism works, socialism works, whatever; I say that in the realm of it’s the only economic system that doesn’t work from the get-go. That, I don’t understand, arguing with people about it. Look at it! There’s no way for it to work! Like honestly work, equally and fairly for everyone. It’s the only system that doesn’t work! It’s the only one where someone has to be the CEO and someone has to be the fry cook. There are other systems that sure, fucked up miserably. There are plenty of situations where communism and socialism messed up miserably but not because the economic system itself was at fault! It is because the people who were in power were assholes! (laughs) So it’s just weird trying to argue that point, and as far as personal freedom is involved, I think that people have to, number one, realize there’s a problem, which is very hard for some people, because if they’re comfortable—and I fall into the same thing a lot; I’m comfortable and I’ve got my entertainment—a lot of times it’s hard to see the bullshit going on. I think it’s definitely within people’s rights and freedoms to, once they do realize it, to take it back and to make something of it. 

Rough Edge: Right.

Nathan Gray: It’s funny, because when I talk about overthrowing the government or blah blah blah, people now are like ‘Ooh! Oh, my God! That’s so edgy and crazy!’ No, it’s not! It should be just a normal thing that you can say anywhere you want! You shouldn’t be afraid to say ‘Fuck the government!’ You shouldn’t be afraid to say ‘Fuck George Bush!’ You shouldn’t be afraid to say ‘Tear down the government! We should violently overthrow the government!’ Why not? Why shouldn’t you be allowed to say that? Why should you be afraid to say that? It’s what our founding fathers wanted, you know what I mean? (laughs) If we’re going to talk about all of this freedom bullshit, about ‘We are the freest country ever, and we can do this…’ then why can’t I say shit like that? 

Rough Edge: Agreed! You told me a funny story earlier about a certain nameless rock star and how his toadie knocked Matt out of the way for coffee at Lollapalooza, and how this star was only five feet away from getting it himself. That was sad to hear how this particular person, someone I respected greatly, has such an inflated ego. What a mood spoiler, huh? You guys are playing a high profile summer gig and that shit happens… 

Nathan Gray: That’s something we try to combat in our band. If any of us gets too big-headed or something like that, you can guarantee somebody else is going to be like ‘Dude, you’re a chump. Come on, man, bring it down a notch; you’re being a fucking dick!’ (laughs) That’s the cool thing about having a close-knit group of friends that sort of watch each other for that shit.

Rough Edge: Before you turn into primadonnas…

Nathan Gray: Watching people with their shirts off and feather boas and tight pants…come on! What fucking planet do you live on? Back in the day, MC5 and shit like that; yeah, they wore the tight pants and they were fucking ridiculous and shit, but there was a sense of danger about them, you know what I mean? There was something about them that was like ‘Holy fuck! What are they doing?’ They’re hanging out with the Black Panthers and shit, you know what I mean? There was something fucking credible there! They were a rock'n'roll band! What the fuck happened to rock'n'roll?!? Even if it’s not political, what happened to the fucking danger? What happened to the crazy shit? Now people are sort of afraid to go near the band, you know? 

Rough Edge: All part of our saccharine society…

Nathan Gray: Absolutely! Absolutely! And all of this dumbed-down fucking radio rock bullshit. (laughs) I remember there was an interview with Creed or one of those types of bands and one the dudes actually said (laughs) ‘You know, it got so bad that I couldn’t even get onstage without doing a shot of Jager.’ Ooooooohhhh! Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve had shows where I got off the stage with the help of about 50 shots of Jager! I landed on my fucking face and kept going, you little pussy! You gotta be kidding me, man! God! Drives me up the fucking wall. That’s another funny thing (laughs) because we always get shit because we’re a political band and stuff, but we like to have fun too! I think that’s important, you know what I mean? You just can’t be serious and dogmatic and sit around playing Name That Anarchist all the time! (laughs) Or Noam Chomsky Trivia! That gets boring! I remember back in the day, the scene was a lot more p.c. than it is now and people would give us the tags of being the rednecks of emo and shit like that! (laughs) We’d roll in smoking, drinking, telling jokes and just being ridiculous and people would go ‘Who are these fucking rednecks? Who fucking let them in here?’ (laughs) I remember so many interviews where people would ask ‘If you’re so political, why do you smoke?’ Yeah, we know, we have a bad addiction, sorry! (laughs) Come on, people! You do what you can! And please don’t question me about drinking and the companies I’m supporting when you’re wearing Nikes, alright, buddy? Come on! 

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Copyright © 2006 by R. Scott Bolton. All rights reserved.
Revised: 31 Jul 2018 23:38:09 -0400