Hangzhou’s adopted UK songwriting aficionado William Gray is under the Q&A spotlight as we get down to the nitty-gritty of his latest musical project ‘Jump For Neon’. Gray’s debut release under the Jump For Neon moniker, released last November, has hit the blogosphere with a steamrolling sucker punch and proves no hint of an artist short of ideas. TSOFDs reviewed the Jump For Neon debut when it first hit the web and we were so enthralled with the record we thought we’d dig a tad deeper…
TSOFDs: Hi and thanks for taking the time. First of all, why ‘Jump For Neon’?
JFN: I’ve always enjoyed taking photos but I got more into it last year, particularly night photography. Not that I’m any good at it haha. I just find it fun. So I was going out a lot at night taking pictures and it inspired me to start something using photos as images to go with the music. Initially I considered ‘Grope For Lunar’ after the Pixies lyric but with the ‘lunar’ kind of signaling my urge to go out into the night fumbling around for photo opportunities. But that name was taken. So I thought, ‘Mmm…probably a good thing because it’s forcing me to be more original. What else has the same ring to it and contains a word sort of synonymous with the Chinese metropolis at night? Neon? Jump For Neon? Yeah that has an OK feel. That’ll do.’ The photo artwork included in the album is from one night’s stroll around the Yinzhou area of Ningbo starting from my in laws’ apartment. Each setting is supposed to represent where a different character is on this particular night, thinking particular thoughts forming the basis of each song. The debut music video for the project also taps into this with lots of timelapse/nightlapse photography in mostly Hangzhou, with a little bit of Ningbo.
TSOFDs: Can you give us an insight as to how, from your point of view, this project differs from your previous solo work?
JFN: I suppose musically it differs because there’s more of an overall rock feel to the album be it 60s/70s inspired or the alt rock of the late 80s/early 90s. The William Gray stuff is generally a bit more singer-songwriter, acoustic-based or toned down, though not always. Performing live as William Gray it would generally be very stripped down. Jump For Neon might more remind the few people who know of me of the band stuff I was doing with The Smokestacks when I lived in the UK, though I’d have to be honest and say Tom the drummer in that band had a lot more personality than the sampler we use for our beats haha. I miss those guys.
TSOFDs: From some of your recent online activity I see that you’re now working with other musicians. In the genesis of JFN was there always a motivation to start a band? Is this a settled lineup? Should we expect to see a live show strictly loyal to the album or something a bit different?
JFN: The idea was very much to write the music with specific people in mind to play the parts. The general desire is to stay true to the album but I don’t like to be a dictator. I still want people to have room to express themselves. Rehearsals have been about giving people license to throw their own ideas into the mix then mulling it all over and making a final call on what works and what doesn’t. I’d love the line up to have longevity but also understand it’s a big commitment to ask for. So we’ll see how it goes. Take it one step at a time.
TSOFDs: Who is in the band?
JFN: John Carroll contributed some guitar to the album and he’s rehearsing with us. I knew he had the urge to do something noisier than his usual live acoustic incarnation so it seemed a natural step. Ray Davies is playing bass. I’ve known Ray since early secondary school so it’s amazing to be playing music with him in China. And my wife Wu Luxia is helping us out with synth/sampler. And that’s amazing in a whole different way to share something new like this together. Well it is for me anyway, to her it’s probably just a massive chore haha.
TSOFDs: Compared to your previous albums, you seem to be very slowly releasing this new project one song at a time with a video of some description and quite vehemently promoting sales solely (that I know about) from your Bandcamp shop. In a world swarming with new music, various media platforms, why did you choose to release it in this way? Are you some kind of secret marketing strategist at heart?
JFN: Basically it had started to feel wrong working so hard at something and then suddenly it’s all online for free. Seeing John Carroll only allow limited streaming inspired me to do something similar. By letting stuff out slowly it means you can play a longer game with the promo side of things and it rekindles people’s interest or keeps giving them reminders. It’s simple really. If someone hears part of the album and likes it then they may well just buy it so they can hear the rest. If all the music is online then they’ll just stream it for free. Regarding going with Bandcamp, a while back I just grew sick of going through these big companies with questionable business practices. One place from which to sell my music is fine. If people want it they’ll find it.
TSOFDs: The production in terms of arrangement, and your approach to mixing sounds quite different from your solo work. Going into JFN with a band mentality, were there any red flags fluttering wildly as to how you might or might not approach your recordings? If so, how did you deal with them?
JFN: The initial impulse was just to have fun. I wanted to let rip vocally and on my guitar. And I wanted to go deeper into psych territory. I had intended to make all the tracks quite riffy and droney in the same style as the first three but it’s never long before I start writing pop songs. I can’t really help it. Mixing wise it’s always the same really, you’re just trying to get the songs to sound as good as you can if that doesn’t sound too obvious. With the recording and mixing I guess there was a determination to make it quite in your face and trippy. John Carroll contributed some guitar at the end which helped add depth to the sound as well as adding some awesome lead to ‘To Tokyo’ and ‘So Far’.
TSOFDs. Do you have any further plans either gig-wise, or new material currently in the pipes once this album is fully released, or is this a onetime shave and a haircut kinda thing? Also, any plans to take this on the road?
JFN: Gig wise I want to get out there and see what happens. I’d love to take it to different cities. We’ll just have to see how it goes, what the reaction is and what’s on offer. Material wise I’m working slowly on more acoustic based stuff but put through the Jump For Neon filter. I actually performed a few of these tracks live last year solo and live versions can be found online. In fact I also did acoustic versions for The Sound Of Fighting Dogs (he did and we’re holding some of it back till that material is officially released – Ed’). I’m dying to get those songs done and dusted because actually I want to get back into the electric stuff again. Perhaps this time more groove based, adding some more gadgets to the mix and creating music more organically as in jamming with other musicians as a starting point. Lots of ideas and not enough time to get to everything as fast as I would like to basically.
TSOFDs: Some of the lyrics on JFN have raised eyebrows, and tilted the ears slightly as I was scrolling through, in particular there’s a tune called ‘To Tokyo’ that painted some bizarre imagery. Can you tell us something about the overall theme (if there is one) of your lyrics, or regale us with some whimsical anecdotal fancy that brought about these curious parables in your writing?
JFN: With ‘To Tokyo’ John Carroll challenged me to write a song from the point of view of a sleazebag kind of character so that was the starting point. But it has a double meaning too – Tokyo is a popular VPN gateway for people in China trying to jump the Great Firewall. Not that I’d condone that obviously. Ahem. More generally speaking, there’s me poking fun at my urge to be psychedelic in the title track and explaining how I came to be Jump For Neon, in a completely nonsensical way. There’s punk politics in ‘Trigger’ and ‘Taken In’ where I’m despairing at the state of what’s going on in the US and UK. ‘So Far’ is just my spin on a holiday pop song I guess. ‘Go’ is an attempt to turn the blues on its head by being positive. ‘Stop’ is rooted in that feeling of how do I square this thing I love doing with getting older and having family responsibilities? But could really apply to lots of different situations. ‘Fester’ is about not bottling things up and just letting go of whatever baggage you’re carrying around. I’m trying to write from imaginary characters’ perspectives more these days but of course there’s always bits of me in there somewhere.
TSOFDs: While still being in its musical infancy, Hangzhou has evolved a lot over the past few years. As a part of the growing local scene in Hangzhou, are there any local bands or artists who you’ve seen and been inspired by recently? Who or what are you listening to of late?
JFN: Life is bittersweet. The thing that makes me most happy, my family, also hampers my ability to participate as much as I’d like, which is frustrating. In my twenties I would have been out there as much as possible, socializing, going to music events. It’s probably best for my liver and my wallet I can’t do that these days but I would like to get out more. Recently I’ve really enjoyed David (AKA Ectoplazm) from Junks‘ DJ night ‘Totally Rad’. It does you good to let off steam dancing the night away once in a while. I also saw Junks play a great set at Mao Livehouse where they really killed it. There was a great Chinese band on that night called AV大久保. Another great artist I’ve seen live is 祁紫檀. A truly spellbinding vocalist. Most encouraging has been the arrival of the venue Loopy on the scene. They’ve proven able to support grass roots music and host big touring acts such as DIIV.
TSOFDs: When I listen to this record, I hear two very clear hemispheres. There’s quite a psychedelic blues vibe thing going on in the first half, while later on it shifts to being a lot more alt rock infused with ‘So Far’, ‘To Tokyo’ and ‘Fester’ being clear examples. Was there an intended purpose to contrast these particular styles so closely in the playlist, or did this parallel expose itself more organically during the writing process?
JFN: A lot of music has become about collage. It’s hard to do something completely new so we’re all mining these different eras of music either consciously or subconsciously. And that’s true of this project not just because of the eras of rock music I tap into but because live I’m marrying looped beats with guitar music. People of my age group will probably be a bit “WHERE THE HELL’S THE DRUMS?!!” seeing it live, like it’s sacrilege or something, whilst people in their teens and twenties maybe won’t bat an eyelid. Particularly as we’re in karaoke obsessed China where everyone is a singer once you hand them a microphone and put on a backing track.
TSOFDs: Haha thanks a lot for answering our questions.
JFN: You’re most welcome.